Book Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas (Balzer + Bray, 2017)

While Angie Thomas’ first novel is being marketed as a young adult novel. I would greatly encourage all readers interested in modern America, racial issues, or violence among youth to read it. The book is probably most appropriate for older teen readers (15+) due to violence and some language. It’s a fairly easy read but has a lot of content.

Starr Carter is sixteen years old, lives with her family in the ghetto of Garden Heights. Her dad, a former gang-banger who spent time in prison, has since turned his life around and owns the local grocery store. After witnessing the death of a friend in a drive-by shooting, Starr and her brothers are sent across town to a prestigious, predominantly white school.

Starr is no stranger to violence and drugs but her family life is stable and the Garden is home. She feels pulled between the two worlds she inhabits – her black neighbourhood and her white school – and knows she no longer quite fits into either one. Attending a party one night in the Garden, she’s uncomfortable and out of place and happy to live early with an old friend, Khalil, after a fight breaks out.

Driving home, Khalil is pulled over by a police officer and Starr becomes the only witness when the cop shoots and kills Khalil. If you’ve been watching the news at all in the past two years, you might be familiar with how this story plays out.

We follow Starr over the following weeks as tensions and violence rise in her neighbourhood. As her friends at school make disparaging remarks about Khalil being a drug dealer or a member of a gang. And as Starr struggles with finding her voice and deciding whether to come forward publicly to defend Khalil, or to protect herself first.

While I grew up in a very ethnically diverse neighbourhood, I’m not that familiar with African-American culture so I can’t speak to the accuracy of Thomas’ depiction of the ghetto. Parts of the novel felt like they dipped into the cliche – Starr’s father’s backstory, for example, or even a side story about her family helping a young man escape from the local gang – but I have to defer to Thomas’ knowledge and overall the book felt very authentic. It’s filled with pop culture references and language that is up-to-date and, I think, would appeal to a youthful audience.

Thomas does an excellent job of depicting Starr’s split between her two worlds, using language and dialogue to show how she adapts to her surroundings. Starr realizes the need to be tightly controlled around her white friends at school, that she can never slip or risk being stereotyped as the “ghetto girl” or the “angry black girl”. There is a decent progression of her finding a better balance between these worlds and learning to trust more people on both sides.

Overall, I think this book makes a great introduction for anyone interested in the Black Lives Matters movement. It could offer many starting places for discussion with young readers, or anyone who might want to know more.

Book Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara (Doubleday, 2015)

I’ve been sitting on this review for a while, pondering how I feel about A Little Life. Turns out, the longer I wait, the less I feel as though I really liked this novel.

I heard several rave reviews of it before I started (including the cashier at Powells when I picked up a used copy in Portland) and so was happy to tackle the huge hardcover. And it wasn’t hard to get into. The characters are interesting and diverse and the book moves forward quickly and with a rate of revelation that makes you want to keep reading.

The novel’s description will tell you that it’s about four friends: Willem, Jude, JB, and Malcolm, and that it follows them from their early twenties, shortly after they’ve been roommates in university, and through the next forty or so years of life. That isn’t false but it’s really more the story of Jude and Willem. At some point, JB and Malcolm drop to secondary characters and while the book checks in on them occasionally, we don’t get much detail of their lives and we stop seeing anything from their perspective.

Even more so, the book is about Jude. It is Jude’s mysterious background and childhood that compel the reader to keep reading, as it is slowly revealed, and it is Jude’s development (or lack thereof) that we’re following. And while this is what kept me interested while I read, it’s also what makes me look back on the novel with a little less affection.

Jude arrives at university two years younger than his new roommates (who quickly become his first friends) and with his past shrouded with secrecy. He doesn’t talk about his home or family and others soon learn not to ask. At one point, it’s mentioned that they don’t even know Jude’s ethnicity, which I found slightly hard to believe and an unnecessary mystery.

Jude’s past is horrific. This is clear from early on and as the story progresses, more is steadily revealed until we learn the final, terrible event that left Jude physically disabled. There’s no one event in Jude’s life that is unbelievable – unfortunately, the world is full of terrible people and events and things like this do happen to children. It wasn’t even the sheer amount of horror that occurs to Jude in his life that felt unrealistic, it was that it is never balanced by a single moment of kindness. Everyone Jude meets from birth to about age sixteen is terrible and abusive. And then everyone after that (with one notable exception) loves and cares for and protects Jude. It seems that there is no middle ground with Jude; either people respect and care for him or they hate him and physically abuse him. This is a world without people who are ambivalent to or ignore others, it seems.

It’s a pity because Jude is an interesting character and the book uniquely looks at his life and the aftermath of his abusive childhood. The trauma of it follows and affects him for the rest of his life and it makes for a fascinating and heartbreaking portrayal of a person struggling to recover from something so terrible.

The friendship of Willem and Jude is central to the novel and we get a decent look at Willem’s background and his own childhood and how that has affected him. However, he remains a somewhat one-dimensional character, more a foil for Jude than someone who would be interesting to read about in his own right. Partway through the book, the relationship between Willem and Jude changes drastically and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. I don’t want to reveal too much but it felt like an unnecessary alteration. The friendship that the two men have up until that point is powerful and unique and the change seems to be done more to create tension than anything else. It didn’t feel like a natural progression of their relationship.

While I’ve been rather negative here, I did enjoy A Little Life while I read it. It’s a big book but I finished it quickly because I wanted to keep reading it and to find out what happened to the characters. Yanagihara is clearly a skilled writer and I would be happy to read more of her work.

Book Review: The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway

The Garden of Eden – Ernest Hemingway (Scribners, 1986)

I’m a big fan of Ernest Hemingway (the writing more than the man himself but that’s a topic for another time) and I’ve read most of his writing. While in Washington recently, I spotted a Hemingway book I’d never read in a secondhand bookshop and so brought it home. It turns out that The Garden of Eden was published posthumously in 1986. I’m always wary of books published years after an author’s death. Would the author really have wanted this book made public? Is the story complete? Will it be as good as the rest of the author’s work? (The answer is often no.)

While The Garden of Eden is not Hemingway’s finest novel, it is a fascinating read and the style and setting will be very familiar to his readers. Set between France and Spain it follows David and Catherine Bourne on their honeymoon. Which is, in typical Hemingway style, a months-long holiday through Europe, spent fishing, swimming, and drinking a lot.

David and Catherine are utterly content when we first meet. They seem to have met and married in Paris after a short courtship. They’ve settled into a routine in a small town in the south of France where Catherine causes a small scandal by wearing shorts but they are otherwise accepted. David is a writer whose second novel has recently been published and he is beginning to receive very good reviews. Catherine encourages him to write but hates the sight of his news clippings and seems reluctant to discuss his book.

As the book – and the marriage – progress, Catherine begins to reveal to David her hidden desires. While Hemingway never goes into detail about these desires and the intimate moments between David and Catherine, it isn’t difficult to figure out what he’s alluding to. And, indeed, the book is more explicit than many others in its time and by Hemingway.

Then Catherine begins to involve another woman into their relationship and David and Catherine form attachments to her, both as a couple and individually. Predictably, this creates a lot of complications. David is writing more than ever but instead of writing the story Catherine wants him to, he’s begun to write a series of stories about his father in Africa. Hemingway’s descriptions of writing, his portrayal of David’s struggles and desires over his stories, feels terrifically accurate. Sometimes painfully so. The subtle comparison of David’s focus on his work and his growing focus on another woman, and Catherine’s reaction to both, is well done and fascinating to watch.

The book is sad, as most of Hemingway is, especially when it comes to marriage and romance. Catherine is much more fully developed than many of the women Hemingway wrote, though there are still many blank spots in her character. Some aspects of her past are alluded to but we’re told very little. In the end, I was left to feel that David was supposed to be a victim of her instability when, to my view, he was just as guilty for the destruction of their marriage. Yet, like Hemingway himself, it feels clear that David will never be satisfied in one relationship for long.

Book Review: What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours

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What is not Yours is not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi (Hamish Hamilton, 2016)

I’d previous read one novel by Helen Oyeyemi (Boy, Snow, Bird) so I had some idea of what to expect from her writing. Oyeyemi’s stories exist in a slightly alternate universe of magic, discomfort, and romance. There is something delightfully disorienting about her world. It’s almost like ours but some of the details are just a little bit off.

This is a collection of linked short stories. I normally don’t love linked short stories because the link can end up feeling forced. And while there’s a tinge of that here, I thought the collection overall was very good. The initial link between the stories is that they all involve keys. There are locks and doors and rooms and places better left shut in each story. More interesting though is that as the stories progress we begin to see the connections between place and character. Some characters pop up again, years later. We get to see what happens to the little girl obsessed with an abusive pop star. We catch a glimpse of a teenage puppeteer’s future. The connections aren’t hammered home and Oyeyemi doesn’t go out of our way to draw attention to them – they’re more like glimpses of someone familiar on a bus going the opposite direction to ours – and they left me feeling delighted and clever  for spotting them.

The stories themselves are strange but compulsive. Each one had me eagerly reading to the end because I couldn’t imagine where Oyeyemi was going. Like Boy Snow Bird there is a strong element of fairy tale throughout. That blend of magic and darkness that you find when you read the original versions of stories like “The Little Mermaid” or “Cinderella”. While Oyeyemi’s style certainly isn’t for everyone, if you’re able to disengage from reality and accept a world of talking puppets and doors that open by themselves then you’ll find a lot of enjoy in this story collection.

Book Review: Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer

Here I Am - Jonathan Safran Foer

Here I Am – Jonathan Safran Foer

Here I Am is 500+ pages and it took me about half of that to begin enjoying the novel. Having read Foer’s work before, I was sure my commitment would pay off. At the same time, my expectations of Foer’s work led to some initial disappointment with Here I Am.

Foer’s two previous novels, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Everything is Illuminated both featured strong, unique, and often hilarious narrators. Here I Am has a far more subdued narration, a more withdrawn, third person perspective. It was harder to feel engaged in the story, added to the fact that this isn’t exactly an action-filled novel.

The book focuses on four generations of the Bloch family in Washington, D.C. Isaac is a Holocaust survivor, about to move into a Jewish retirement home. Irving is a hard-nosed, controversial political commentator. Jacob – the primary focus of the novel – is mid-forties, nominally-religious, on the cusp of trying to make his marriage work or giving up entirely. Sam is thirteen, preparing for his bar mitzvah, which is in danger of being permanently cancelled. These four men bounce off each other, argue, are affectionate and hateful in equal measure. Then, tossed into the mix of regular life and conflict, a massive earthquake hits the Middle East and Israel is thrown into conflict as war and disease break out.

This is where the novel became more interesting to me. The diversion into alternate history is fascinating – how such an event might play out, particularly the international implications. When the earthquake hits, the Bloch’s Israeli cousins are visiting in Washington and Foer does a good job of portraying the two perspectives. The American Jewish family who care about Israel but don’t think of it as home, and the Israeli Jewish family. Showing this split within one extended family powerfully demonstrates the divisions and changes that have grown and developed among the Jewish people since the end of World War Two.

One of the interesting ideas that Foer brings forth as a result of this fictional upheaval in Israel is that the Israeli government calls for the Jewish people to return home. While this causes Jacob to make some big decisions in his life, it also mirrors the question of loyalty and commitment that is growing in his own household as his marriage with Julia founders.

In the end, there is a lot to admire in Here I Am. I certainly do feel that it could have been shorter, primarily because none of the characters really grabbed me in the way that Foer’s previous creations had. It was hard to sympathize with any of them, especially Jacob, as they worried over their privileged lives and had endless conversations that skirted around the real topics. (And I live a pretty privileged life myself.) The character who potentially interested me the most was Isaac but he didn’t get a lot of time on the page (which reflected how much time his family really spent with him). Foer continues to be a strong writer and I applaud him for reaching out into a different kind of story than his previous novels but I’ll be hoping for something a little more engaging next time.

Book Review: Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Fates and Furies - Lauren Groff (Riverhead Books, 2015)

Fates and Furies – Lauren Groff (Riverhead Books, 2015)

Lotto and Mathilde meet at the very end of their final year of university and marry two weeks later. They’re young, broke, and both shocked by the fact of falling in love. Fates and Furies follows them through the next twenty or so years of their marriage, detailing the ups and downs, the secrets that they share and the secrets they keep. The early years are shown through the parties they throw – at first raucous and wild, then mellowing with age. Then, following a surprise career change for Lotto, the action slows and the story becomes more complicated.

The first half of the novel focuses on Lotto, following him from birth (and even before, giving details about his parents and their histories), his childhood and particularly his relationship with his mother, something that is an important factor throughout his life and his marriage. (A man with a mixed-up relationship with his mother seems a little heavy-handed and Freudian even but for the most part Groff keeps Lotto’s mother from being too heavy-handed.) In the second half of the story we learn of Mathilde’ childhood and all the things about her that Lotto never knew.

The key point of the novel is ostensibly that Lotto and Mathilde’s marriage is happy though unconventional and yet there is so much they have hidden from one another. The second half of the novel is primarily comprised of all the ways Mathilde is not who Lotto thought she was but she made him very happy, so does it matter? My problem here is that we never truly see the substance of Lotto and Mathilde’s marriage. We never see them do anything together except host parties (which are often being thrown by one of them rather than both) and have sex. There doesn’t seem to be much basis for their relationships or for the reader to believe that they are so happy and in love. Where are their private jokes, their shared memories, the unique and mundane and sacred rituals of people who wake up together every day?

While both Lotto and Mathilde are fascinating characters, they aren’t people I’d want to spend time with in real life, despite being constantly told how charming Lotto is or how intriguing everyone finds Mathilde. The novel generally suffers from a bit too much telling rather than showing, which is especially disappointing because when Groff does show instead of tell, she does it very well. Groff never really makes her readers fall in love and so I’m not sure how much we’re supposed to believe the descriptions that are given to the main characters.

Overall, Fates and Furies has a lot of strong writing, characters with great potential, and some interesting revelations. Yet it falls short of feeling like a complete story and I was left to wonder what comes next.

 

Book Review: Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson

Perfect Little World - Kevin Wilson (Harper Collins, 2017)

Perfect Little World – Kevin Wilson (Harper Collins, 2017)

Izzy has just graduated from high school when she finds herself pregnant, the result of an ongoing affair with her art teacher. Without support or finances to raise her child, she opts to join an experimental unit run by the young genius Dr. Grind. For ten years, ten families will live together as one family, raising their children together, without the children knowing who their true parents are. Dr Grind stresses that this is for science, not a cult, and the Infinite Family Project (as it’s called) is a regimented organism.

The idea is that these ten children will have an unprecedented amount of support and access to opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have. Rather than a traditional family unit, a larger family simply means more love, right?

The concept is so obviously flawed that the reader can’t help wondering how Dr. Grind found ten couples so hopelessly naive as to join. While Izzy’s reasons are fairly well-established, she’s also the only single parent in the group. The others are adults in their twenties and thirties who are in committed relationships. So why on earth are they willing to completely give up control over how they live their lives or raise their child? The idea of my child viewing me as only one of many parents, or of not being able to go to her when she cries in the night because it’s not my turn on the roster is really upsetting and feels fundamentally wrong. I spent a lot of the book feeling profoundly uncomfortable.

Izzy is portrayed as a smart, capable young woman, perhaps unrealistically so. She seems to be good at anything she puts her mind to, be it slow-roasting a pig, joining a communal family, or making art out of wood scraps. Wilson doesn’t touch on the fact that she’s recently been in an abusive relationship or how this affects her decisions and so she feels a little too flawless. Her time in the Infinite Family Project – and the reader follows Izzy for the next ten years – is portrayed as mostly positive. Of course there are issues and the experiment has an unexpected conclusion but Izzy never truly questions her choice, something I didn’t find realistic.

Perfect Little World is an easy read with an interesting concept. It’s hard to tell if Wilson himself is in favour of the Infinite Family Project or not but he does come across as unaware of how unappealing such an idea might to many (most?) readers. More realistic internal conflict for these fictional parents would have made for a deeper and more moving novel. As it is, Perfect Little World works as a quick and easy distraction.

Book Review: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child - Eowyn Ivey (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books, 2012)

The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books, 2012)

She had watched other women with infants and eventually understood what she craved: boundless permission – no, the absolute necessity to hold and kiss and stroke this tiny person…Where else in life, Mabel wondered, could a woman love so openly and with such abandon?

Eowyn Ivey brings a powerful edge to this re-telling of a Russian fairy tale. This is a story of motherhood in its many forms, a story of longing. Ivey captures these feelings so well that it made for an often painful read. Yet, a good pain. A pain that says, Yes, you are not alone.

Jack and Mabel are entering the second winter on their Alaskan homestead and are not sure they will survive, either physically or mentally. Early on in the novel, Mabel ventures purposefully out onto the not quite frozen river, daring the ice to break beneath her feet. They are struggling against the land, against the long and dark winters, against the rift that has grown between them in the years since their baby died at birth.

One night, the first snow of the season, they make a girl out of snow. The next day the snow sculpture is gone but a strange little girl begins to appear in the woods nearby. Mabel and Jack start to wonder if she has been borne out of their own longing or a delusion of isolation. Or is there something more sinister at play?

Ivey does a brilliant job of unfolding the novel along the line between fact and fairytale. There are hints at the possibilities on both sides and the reader is left to make their own decisions. Faina – the little girl – is otherworldly. Magical and yet with that dark edge that comes in to so many fairytales.

The story seems to expand as it progresses; more is learned about Faina, more characters are introduced as the lives of Jack and Mabel expand. The story takes a surprising turn but the conclusion feels honest to both the characterization of Faina and to the fairy tale element.

The setting of Alaska in the 1920s works well. There is, of course, the similarity to Russia in the long, dark winters, as well as the isolation and difficulty of every day existence. Ivey demonstrates both the beauty and the terror of the place. The paradox of falling in love with a place that can kill you but, if you know how, can also keep you alive. Perhaps even a little girl, alone in the forest.

It was beautiful, Mabel knew, but it was a beauty that ripped you open and scoured you clean so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all.

 

Book Review: The Sellout by Paul Beatty (Picador, 2015)

The Sellout - Paul Beatty (Picador, 2015)

The Sellout – Paul Beatty (Picador, 2015)

I wasn’t familiar with Paul Beatty’s work before this past year when he became the first American to win the Man Booker Prize. Once I heard a little more about his style, I was eager to read The Sellout and it happily did not disappoint. The Sellout is satirical, uncomfortable, entertaining, eye-opening, and sometimes confusing. I want to say it’s timely, given the recent and ongoing racial tensions in the USA, but unfortunately those tensions are not exactly new. As Beatty demonstrates.

Our narrator, known by his neighbourhood nickname of Bonbon, of called The Sellout by others, or his last name Me (as in Me vs. The United States of America) is a lifelong resident of Dickens, an agrarian ghetto of Los Angeles with a largely minority population. So crime-ridden an embarrassment is Dickens that the powers that be decide to literally remove it from the map and pretend it no longer exists. In his efforts to bring Dickens back, our narrator gets his own slave and decides to reintroduce segregation. This has both its supporters and detractors.

The Sellout is deeply rooted in a particular black community and culture and is full of references to such. Some I’m familiar with and many were new to me. As I read, I found myself feeling very far from the target audience, as if Beatty’s narrator was speaking to a black reader and I happened to be listening in. And maybe that’s part of the point. This book isn’t for me and it doesn’t need to be. Which isn’t to say that I couldn’t enjoy it or even that I shouldn’t read it. It’s important to read literature that is entirely outside of our personal experience.

Beatty’s is one view and he offers this glimpse through both satire and truth so ridiculous it feels like it should be satire. The characters are larger than life, both hilarious and tragic. Beatty uses the n-word a lot, something I definitely found jarring though believable and effective within the context of Dickens and its residents. The last book I read that used the n-word frequently was William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun and although Beatty uses the word more frequently his usage felt more honest and less hateful.

The Sellout is the perfect first American pick for the Man Booker prize as a book that shines an uncomfortable but necessary spotlight on one of the major issues in North America right now.