mini-review · stuff I read

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

untitledSummary from Goodreads:
Called the work of “a mesmerizing storyteller with deep compassion and memorable prose” (Publishers Weekly) and the book that, “anyone interested in natural history, botany, protecting nature, or Native American culture will love,” by Library Journal, Braiding Sweetgrass is poised to be a classic of nature writing. As a botanist, Robin Wall Kimmerer asks questions of nature with the tools of science. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she embraces indigenous teachings that consider plants and animals to be our oldest teachers. Kimmerer brings these two lenses of knowledge together to take “us on a journey that is every bit as mythic as it is scientific, as sacred as it is historical, as clever as it is wise” (Elizabeth Gilbert). Drawing on her life as an indigenous scientist, a mother, and a woman, Kimmerer shows how other living beings offer us gifts and lessons, even if we’ve forgotten how to hear their voices.

Braiding Sweetgrass is one of the most profound, moving books I have ever read. I read it twice through cover-to-cover. Kimmerer seamlessly twines together the scientific rigor of botany and ecology and the spiritual beliefs and practices of the Potawatomi to make the case that humanity should work in concert with the natural world to be good caretakers of the earth and work to reverse some of the scars we’ve left behind us. Some essays are more fluidly narrative, telling of creation stories or of memories from when her daughters were small (the maple syrup story is a favorite). Others take a more businesslike tone, with Kimmerer as teacher.

If you’ve read Terry Tempest Williams or Annie Dillard, or even Rachel Carson though Kimmerer doesn’t go in for the shock value, then Braiding Sweetgrass is a step along the same path, but with a different way of walking.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

Advertisements
Reading Diversely · stuff I read

All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir by Nicole Chung

untitledSummary from Goodreads:
What does it mean to lose your roots—within your culture, within your family—and what happens when you find them?

Nicole Chung was born severely premature, placed for adoption by her Korean parents, and raised by a white family in a sheltered Oregon town. From early childhood, she heard the story of her adoption as a comforting, prepackaged myth. She believed that her biological parents had made the ultimate sacrifice in the hopes of giving her a better life; that forever feeling slightly out of place was simply her fate as a transracial adoptee. But as she grew up—facing prejudice her adoptive family couldn’t see, finding her identity as an Asian American and a writer, becoming ever more curious about where she came from—she wondered if the story she’d been told was the whole truth.

With warmth, candor, and startling insight, Chung tells of her search for the people who gave her up, which coincided with the birth of her own child. All You Can Ever Know is a profound, moving chronicle of surprising connections and the repercussions of unearthing painful family secrets—vital reading for anyone who has ever struggled to figure out where they belong.

I’ve been following Nicole Chung’s work at The Toast (ah, The Toast, loved it) and other places for some time now. When her memoir deal was announced, I (rather) impatiently kept an eyeball on Catapult’s catalogs. When All You Can Ever Know was announced as a BN Discover Fall 2018 selection, I did a little wriggle. And I really savored the galley

Chung opens her memoir about life as an transracial adoptee by juxtaposing “the story of her adoption” with a meeting to talk to a couple in the process of adopting a child. Was she happy? (Well, yes, on the whole, but also it was incredibly lonely.) Was she OK as a Korean child adopted by white parents? (Again, yes, but there was no one else in her town who even looked like her and people can be cruel.) As the book moves forward, she writes about her birth family, her adoptive parents, her birth, and growing up in a small town in Oregon. She experiences overt and covert racism from both children and adults. Her decision to begin searching for her birth family was not an easy one and, to my surprise, weirdly very hard to accomplish (there was an intermediary, which kind of blows my mind). The “story of her adoption” develops layers upon layers as Chung meets each member of her biological family.

This is a beautiful memoir. What I found most poignant was Chung’s writing about learning to be a Korean-American as an adult. What makes one Korean? Knowing the language? The food? The traditions? One’s family? These sections reminded me very much of Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There, which delves into questions of what connects a person to their Native roots. The questions become more complicated as Chung begins to raise her biracial children.

All You Can Ever Know is definitely one of my “best books” of the year. I loved every sentence. I highly recommend picking this up for basically everyone on the planet.

Incidentally, I started listening to Lisa Ko’s The Leavers on audiobook while reading Chung’s memoir. Sometimes the universe serves up unexpected connections. The two books had an amazing juxtaposition of adoption stories in their similarities and differences, one real story and one imagined.

All You Can Ever Know will be out October 2.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon

untitledSummary from Goodreads:
A powerful, darkly glittering novel of violence, love, faith, and loss, as a young woman at an elite American university is drawn into acts of domestic terrorism by a cult tied to North Korea.

Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall meet their first month at prestigious Edwards University. Phoebe is a glamorous girl who doesn’t tell anyone she blames herself for her mother’s recent death. Will is a misfit scholarship boy who transfers to Edwards from Bible college, waiting tables to get by. What he knows for sure is that he loves Phoebe.

Grieving and guilt-ridden, Phoebe is increasingly drawn into a religious group—a secretive extremist cult—founded by a charismatic former student, John Leal. He has an enigmatic past that involves North Korea and Phoebe’s Korean American family. Meanwhile, Will struggles to confront the fundamentalism he’s tried to escape, and the obsession consuming the one he loves. When the group bombs several buildings in the name of faith, killing five people, Phoebe disappears. Will devotes himself to finding her, tilting into obsession himself, seeking answers to what happened to Phoebe and if she could have been responsible for this violent act.

The Incendiaries is a fractured love story and a brilliant examination of the minds of extremist terrorists, and of what can happen to people who lose what they love most. who lose what they love most.

When I downloaded the galley for The Incendiaries I wasn’t quite sure if I was ready for an intense literary novel about religious faith and cults. (I mean, look around at the garbage fire of the news.) But I was intrigued after reading a bit of Kwon’s interviews where she talked about growing up with an intense religious faith, then losing that faith, so I decided to go for it.

The Incendiaries is a hallucinatory, violent debut that grapples with the line between faith and fanaticism. I have never been a particularly religious person, especially as an adult (although I was raised Lutheran and I am the child of a church organist, which is just one-off from being the pastor’s kid), and the way Kwon constructed the circuitous religious logic displayed by Phoebe and John Leal was particularly fascinating. I’m not sure I’m completely on board with the structure of the novel as the narrative jumped between Will, Phoebe (reconstructed by Will), and John Leal but I couldn’t put it down. I do wonder what the Phoebe sections would have looked like had they actually been in her voice, but Kwon’s choice does give a very illusory, unsettled feel to the character.

TW: rape. It does occur on the page later in the book. The scene does not feel gratuitous, but it could definitely be triggering.

The Incendiaries is out now.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

Romantic Reads · stuff I read

A Duke by Default by Alyssa Cole (Reluctant Royals #2)

35564582Summary from Goodreads:
Award-winning author Alyssa Cole’s Reluctant Royals series continues with a woman on a quest to be the heroine of her own story and the duke in shining armor she rescues along the way

New York City socialite and perpetual hot mess Portia Hobbs is tired of disappointing her family, friends, and—most importantly—herself. An apprenticeship with a struggling swordmaker in Scotland is a chance to use her expertise and discover what she’s capable of. Turns out she excels at aggravating her gruff silver fox boss…when she’s not having inappropriate fantasies about his sexy Scottish burr.

Tavish McKenzie doesn’t need a rich, spoiled American telling him how to run his armory…even if she is infuriatingly good at it. Tav tries to rebuff his apprentice, and his attraction to her, but when Portia accidentally discovers that he’s the secret son of a duke, rough-around-the-edges Tav becomes her newest makeover project.

Forging metal into weapons and armor is one thing, but when desire burns out of control and the media spotlight gets too hot to bear, can a commoner turned duke and his posh apprentice find lasting love?

I downloaded the galley for A Duke by Default about the second it was available to reviewers and TORE through it.

I’ll be honest. Portia wasn’t exactly my favorite secondary character coming out of A Princess in Theory. She had a major blow-up with Ledi regarding being a bad friend so this book is a chance for Portia to redeem herself.  And Portia herself has plans – she’s going to work hard at this swordmaking internship in Scotland, swear off both alcohol and men, and figure out how to be an adult with a plan and a career.  Easy, right? Wrong. Especially when she arrives at the Armory, thinks she sees a woman being assaulted, and sprays the attacker with pepper spray – which means she just sprayed her boss who was sparring with his sister-in-law. And she was downwind when she pushed the button and, therefore, sprayed herself.

Oops.

Tavish really wasn’t into the idea of getting an intern, let alone one who appears to rich, brainless, and attractive as all get out. But on the plus side she rushed to a strangers’ aid, even if she bungled it. HOWEVER, Tav has no time for all this nonsense because the Armory business is doing poorly and he really wants to just focus on making good swords and helping kids in the neighborhood. Right? When Portia goes digging into the Armory history she changes Tav’s life forever.

Alyssa Cole is an evil, evil genius, y’all. I loved this second installment in her Reluctant Royals series. Like any good rom-com, the minute Portia swears off dudes for the foreseeable future, the hottest half-Chilean silver-fox with a delicious Scottish accent swordsmith turns out to be her boss (even if he is pretty pissed at her for a bit because she maced him) and it makes for really, really good tension and banter in the story. Portia herself goes on a journey of personal discovery in this book, working out some things about herself and reconciling with her sister. Fair warning, it does take a little bit to get to the “but he’s secretly a duke!” reveal but there’s a lot of #swordbae in the interim and a super-good villain to wrap up at the end. Only two things bugged me: 1) the novel concluded super fast without a lot of Tav and Portia together, maybe we could have had a wee Epilogue? (idk, I read a galley, so maybe it’s just not included here? I live in hope) and 2) Tav’s secret duchy is the duchy of EDINBURGH, which is currently Prince Philip’s title (yes, that Prince Philip, the old geezer married to Her Maj, QEII) and it dragged me out of the book every, damn, time it was mentioned (someone at Avon should have caught that; if an entire country could be created for Thabiso in A Princess in Theory, just pick a totally random Scottish city for Tav’s duchy).

But anyway, I’m looking forward to the next book in the series, which appears to have the scandalous Prince Johan and Nedi’s cousin as the couple, yes please. (Still waiting on Likotsi’s novella, kthanx.)

A Duke by Default is out on Tuesday, July 31.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

So Many Islands: Stories from the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and Pacific edited by Nicholas Laughlin

40609543Summary from Goodreads:
Collecting new fiction, essays, and poems from seventeen countries around the world, So Many Islands brings us stories about love and protest, about childhood innocence and the traumas of history, about leaving home and trying to return. These writers’s island homes may seem remote on the map, but there is nothing isolated about their compelling, fresh voices.

Featuring contributions by authors from Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Bermuda, Cyprus, Grenada, Jamaica, Kiribati, Malta, Mauritius, Niue, Rotuma (Fiji), Samoa, Singapore, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Tonga, and Trinidad and Tobago. So Many Islands is the fourth publication of Peekash Press, an imprint of Akashic Books and Peepal Tree Press, committed to supporting the emergence of new Caribbean writing, and as part of the CaribLit project.

From the introduction by Marlon James:

“I wonder if it is because we island people are surrounded by sea, hemmed in and branching out at once, that we are always in a state of flux. The sea and even the sky are definers and confiners, they have spent millions of years carving space, while at the same time giving us clear openings to map the voyage out. And, today, to be an islander is to live in one place and a thousand, to be part of a family that is way too close by for your business ever to be your own, or way too far but only a remittance cheque away. Or, put another way, to be island people means to be both coming and going. Passing and running, running and passing, as the song goes. Living there, but not always present, travelling or migrating, but never leaving. Or what has never been a new thing, but might turn into a new movement: more and more authors staying put, all the better to let their words wander.”

Marlon says it better than I can.

A bookseller friend pointed me toward this book when I mentioned that I was going to put together a display of books set on islands (outside the US) for the summer. Such a great find.

So Many Islands is a wonderfully multi-layered collection of essays, poems, and stories from authors hailing from island nations around the globe, particularly the Caribbean and the Pacific. Many, if not all, of these authors will be unfamiliar to US audiences due to the small percentage of non-US literature imported to our shores. Literature can be a window and door into the world and this collection does that – look through it into those worlds and cultures you have not yet met.

So Many Islands is out today!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read · YA all the way

A Thousand Beginnings and Endings edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman

36301029Summary from Goodreads:
Star-crossed lovers, meddling immortals, feigned identities, battles of wits, and dire warnings: these are the stuff of fairy tale, myth, and folklore that have drawn us in for centuries.

Fifteen bestselling and acclaimed authors reimagine the folklore and mythology of East and South Asia in short stories that are by turns enchanting, heartbreaking, romantic, and passionate.

Compiled by We Need Diverse Books’s Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman, the authors included in this exquisite collection are: Renée Ahdieh, Sona Charaipotra, Preeti Chhibber, Roshani Chokshi, Aliette de Bodard, Melissa de la Cruz, Julie Kagawa, Rahul Kanakia, Lori M. Lee, E. C. Myers, Cindy Pon, Aisha Saeed, Shveta Thakrar, and Alyssa Wong.

A mountain loses her heart. Two sisters transform into birds to escape captivity. A young man learns the true meaning of sacrifice. A young woman takes up her mother’s mantle and leads the dead to their final resting place.

From fantasy to science fiction to contemporary, from romance to tales of revenge, these stories will beguile readers from start to finish. For fans of Neil Gaiman’s Unnatural Creatures and Ameriie’s New York Times–bestselling Because You Love to Hate Me.

Do you like fantasy, mythology, and retellings? Do you like strong characters in your YA stories? You need A Thousand Beginnings and Endings! Such a great collection of Asian-mythology-inspired short stories from all different cultures written by YA fantasy writers at the top of their game. Out today! So much fun!

(Full disclosure: my friend Preeti has a story set at garba during Navratri, “Girls Who Twirl and Other Dangers,” in this collection and ngl, it’s my favorite ❤️)

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston, edited by Deborah G. Plant

35959199Summary from Goodreads:
A major literary event: a newly published work from the author of the American classic Their Eyes Were Watching God, with a foreword from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, brilliantly illuminates the horror and injustices of slavery as it tells the true story of one of the last-known survivors of the Atlantic slave trade—abducted from Africa on the last “Black Cargo” ship to arrive in the United States.

In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston went to Plateau, Alabama, just outside Mobile, to interview eighty-six-year-old Cudjo Lewis. Of the millions of men, women, and children transported from Africa to America as slaves, Cudjo was then the only person alive to tell the story of this integral part of the nation’s history. Hurston was there to record Cudjo’s firsthand account of the raid that led to his capture and bondage fifty years after the Atlantic slave trade was outlawed in the United States.

In 1931, Hurston returned to Plateau, the African-centric community three miles from Mobile founded by Cudjo and other former slaves from his ship. Spending more than three months there, she talked in depth with Cudjo about the details of his life. During those weeks, the young writer and the elderly formerly enslaved man ate peaches and watermelon that grew in the backyard and talked about Cudjo’s past—memories from his childhood in Africa, the horrors of being captured and held in a barracoon for selection by American slavers, the harrowing experience of the Middle Passage packed with more than 100 other souls aboard the Clotilda, and the years he spent in slavery until the end of the Civil War.

Based on those interviews, featuring Cudjo’s unique vernacular, and written from Hurston’s perspective with the compassion and singular style that have made her one of the preeminent American authors of the twentieth-century, Barracoon masterfully illustrates the tragedy of slavery and of one life forever defined by it. Offering insight into the pernicious legacy that continues to haunt us all, black and white, this poignant and powerful work is an invaluable contribution to our shared history and culture.

Barracoon is an outstanding small book that finally, deservedly, is available to the wider world. Zora Neale Hurston was a gifted storyteller in her own right, but as an enthnographer possessed the ability to record a subject’s words and manner to let their story come to the front. This is Kossola’s story, preserved in Hurston’s manuscript and kept in good hands at the library at Howard University. Not only is Kossola’s story of being captured and sold into slavery, watching his whole village be obliterated, heartbreaking but so many of his thoughts and experiences as a free Black man could easily be brought into the headlines of the twenty-first century with only an update of grammar and vocabulary.

It’s not an easy book to read – it takes a bit of a head shift to get used to Hurston’s way of writing out Kossola’s speech. But the net result is so worth the effort.

*Note: I have referred to the man interviewed as Kossola, since that was the name given to him as a child in his village. He was renamed Cudjo when he was sold into slavery in America. He refers to himself using both names.

Barracoon published in May.

Dear FTC: I received a paper galley of this book from the publisher.

stuff I read

There There by Tommy Orange

36692478Summary from Goodreads:
Fierce, angry, funny, heartbreaking—Tommy Orange’s first novel is a wondrous and shattering portrait of an America few of us have ever seen, and it introduces a brilliant new author at the start of a major career.

There There is a relentlessly paced multigenerational story about violence and recovery, memory and identity, and the beauty and despair woven into the history of a nation and its people. It tells the story of twelve characters, each of whom have private reasons for traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow. Jacquie Red Feather is newly sober and trying to make it back to the family she left behind in shame. Dene Oxendene is pulling his life back together after his uncle’s death and has come to work at the powwow to honor his uncle’s memory. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield has come to watch her nephew Orvil, who has taught himself traditional Indian dance through YouTube videos and has come to the powwow to dance in public for the very first time. There will be glorious communion, and a spectacle of sacred tradition and pageantry. And there will be sacrifice, and heroism, and unspeakable loss.

Here is a voice we have never heard—a voice full of poetry and rage, exploding onto the page with stunning urgency and force. Tommy Orange writes of the urban Native American, the Native American in the city, in a stunning novel that grapples with a complex and painful history, with an inheritance of beauty and profound spirituality, and with a plague of addiction, abuse, and suicide. An unforgettable debut, destined to become required reading in schools and universities across the country.

There There leapt out of the computer screen at me when I pulled up the new list of Barnes and Noble Discover picks for Summer 2018. The cover is striking and is a good play with Orange’s last name. But it was the above blurb that had me looking for a galley of this novel immediately.

There There is an amazing debut novel. Orange’s writing very quietly devastated me over the course of 300 pages; relentless, yes, but quiet. I don’t want to say his style is plain, because it’s not, but it doesn’t beat around the bush. It reminds me a lot of Toni Morrison at times. Orange has created a beautiful non-linear novel told through a cast of characters struggling with identity, what it means to “be” Indian, what it means to be an urban Indian, family, legacy, faith, and substance abuse. How does “community” work when everyone else like you is spread out around a city like Oakland, California? How are traditions kept alive, particularly in the face of apathy or active suppression? The book culminates in an act of violence foreshadowed over the course of the narrative.

An instant, necessary classic of 21st century literature.

There There is available today, wherever books are sold.

Dear FTC: I almost tackled the manager when we got a galley in the mail at the store.