My Very Late #10BooksofSummer Wrap-Up

I promise I’m not ignoring the book blogging world on purpose, guys.  It’s just that life has been really hectic lately.  I hope things start to calm down soon!

I wanted to wrap up my experience participating in Cathy’s #20BooksofSummer Challenge.  Exercising my self-knowledge, I chose the #10Books path rather than 20.  I know that too much pressure to read results in me NOT reading, just as too much pressure to drop desserts results in my bingeing on chocolate chip cookies.  (Readers and eaters, know thyself!)10booksfinal

So here are my results:

  1. Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye – Five stars – Loved it!
  2. Lab Girl by Hope Jahren – Had book from library and didn’t finish it in time.  It still has a waiting list on it, and I’m back on the list, so hopefully I’ll get to finish it in the next two months!  What I’ve read was very good.
  3. Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor.  My first Nnedi book, and I enjoyed it very much.
  4. Open City by Teju Cole.  DNF, sadly.  I really enjoyed his Every Day is For the Thief, but this one was too slow and ponderous for my tastes/mood.
  5. Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia.  So good!
  6. Means of Evil and Other Stories by Ruth Rendell.  Inspector Wexford doesn’t let me down, y’all.
  7. The Vegetarian by Han Kang.  One of the most memorable books I’ve ever read.  Note I didn’t say I loved it.  But I didn’t hate it either.  It remains an enigma.
  8. High Rising by Angela Thirkell.  Light, cheery, British, fun read.
  9. Writing My Wrongs by Shaka Senghor.  So GOOD.  Highly recommend for those interested in social justice issues.
  10. The Book of Night Women by Marlon James.  ALL THE STARS.  Marlon James is now on my Top Ten Favorite Authors list.

I think 8/10 is a very respectable showing, and I am so glad I took the chance and participated!  Thanks to Cathy at 746 Books for hosting this.  I came away with two five-star reads that will go on my year end Top Ten for sure.

In other news, I’ve once again returned to reading more than one book at a time.  I have decided that I’m cool with alternating between a few things, as long as they’re in different formats (audio, fiction, nonfiction.)  Currently I’m listening to Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton.  So far it’s not knocking my socks off, but I’m still interested.  I’m also reading Sister, Outsider by Audre Lorde, which is TOTALLY knocking my socks off, but it’s so good that I don’t want to rush it.  I just finished Glennon Doyle Melton’s Love Warrior and it hit me right in the gut.  It’s just a beautiful, raw look at how messy being a human being who loves other human beings is.  And it’s about honoring your inner voice and strength, and following your heart.  I loved it.

That’s all from me for now.  I hope you’ve had a very good weekend and that you’re enjoying some good books!

 

High Rising by Angela Thirkell

This book has such a beautiful cover, no?  It’s not what drew me to the book, but I admit that it helped me decide to actually purchase a copy for myself. Virago Modern Classics has published new editions of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire series, of which this was the first, published in 1933, with these gorgeous cover illustrations.  Well done, Virago!  (And I’ve read in some reviews that previous editions were filled with typos.)51BT-VW7WRL

I’d never heard of Thirkell until I read Jenny’s review of the fifth book, Pomfret Towers.   As an admitted Anglophile, it sounded like this was a series I very much needed to look into.  I can report that I was indeed charmed and entertained by the first book.  It’s a delightfully witty, fun read, sort of in the same vein as the works of Barbara Pym.  Only I find Pym to have more substance, and a bit darker lining to her literary clouds.

The Amazon.com description sums up the plot nicely:

Successful lady novelist Laura Morland and her boisterous young son Tony set off to spend Christmas at her country home in the sleepy surrounds of High Rising. But Laura’s wealthy friend and neighbour George Knox has taken on a scheming secretary whose designs on marriage to her employer threaten the delicate social fabric of the village. Can clever, practical Laura rescue George from Miss Grey’s clutches and, what’s more, help his daughter Miss Sibyl Knox to secure her longed-for engagement?

What I liked about the main character, Laura, is the self-deprecating way she views her own novels.  Laura recounts her first lunch with her now agent, Adrian Coates, and the following is how she describes her writing style:

“You mightn’t like it,” said Laura, in her deep voice.  “It’s not highbrow.  I’ve just got to work, that’s all.  You see my husband was nothing but an expense to me while he was alive, and naturally he’s no help to me now he’s dead, though of course, less expensive, so I thought if I could write some rather good bad books, it would help with the boys’ education.”

“Good bad books?”

“Yes.  Not very good books, you know, but good of a second-rate kind.  That’s all I could do,” she said gravely.

Another thing I liked about Laura was the way she related to her young son, Tony.  Her older three boys are grown and out of the house, so it’s just she and Tony together when he’s not at boarding school.  Tony never stops talking – he’s just a very busy, precocious little boy.  One night as her son is going to bed, Laura counts the weeks of Christmas vacation in her head, wondering how she’ll survive it.

Oh, the exhaustingness of the healthy young!  Laura had once offered to edit a book called Why I Hate My Children, but though Adrian Coates had offered her every encouragement, and every mother of her acquaintance had offered to contribute, it had never taken shape.  Perhaps, she thought, as she stood by Tony’s bed an hour later, they wouldn’t be so nice if they weren’t so hateful.

One thing I decidedly did NOT like about this book, however, were the handful of casually thrown out anti-Semitic remarks, usually spoke or thought by Laura.  I realize that this was written in 1933, but surely even then there were those who found racist remarks unpalatable and unnecessary.  There were two or three instances that stuck out to me, and not enough to mar my enjoyment of the book entirely.  But I docked this a half-star on my Goodreads review, simply to note that this was problematic for me and might be to others as well.  In researching the others in the series, I’ve read that they do not include remarks of this tone.

All in all, a fun, light read for those who enjoy British novels from the period between the World Wars.  It was more sarcastic and biting than I’d anticipated, which gave it a sort of modern flair.  I will read a few more and see how I like them.

For another take and lovely review of High Rising, check out Resh Susan’s post at The Book Satchel.

(Book 7 of 10 for my #10BooksofSummer, from Cathy’s #20BooksofSummer challenge.)

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

I haven’t read a lot of sci-fi in my life.  It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve really started exploring that genre.  So I don’t know if that makes me a good person to write a review of Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon or not.  I was drawn to this book because I’m interested in Nigeria, and this is set in Lagos.  I’d heard positive things about Ms. Okorafor’s other books like Binti and Who Fears Death.  I was also interested in the book’s premise:  shapeshifting aliens land in the waters off of Lagos – what do they want?  How are people going to react?

18753656A famous Ghanaian rapper, a female marine biologist, and a soldier are all on the beach when the massive BOOM rattles their ears and makes them drop to the ground.  Within minutes a massive wave rolls in from the sea and takes them into the water.  We never find out exactly what happens to them in the water, but they emerge with a mysterious woman.

There was something both attractive and repellent about the woman, and it addled Adaora’s senses.  Her hair was long – her many braids perfect and shiny, yet clearly her own hair.  She had piercing brown eyes that gave Adaora the same creepy feeling as when she looked at a large black spider.  Her mannerisms were too calm, fluid, and… alien.

Not surprisingly, once strange things start happening and word gets out, all hell breaks loose.  Some people want to get to this mysterious woman/creature.  Some people want to get the hell out of Lagos.  Others just want to exploit the chaos for their own gain.  What makes this novel interesting is the way in which Okorafor weaves Nigerian mythology and elements of magical realism into what could have been just another first contact story.  I admit that some of this went over my head but I still enjoyed it.  She also weaves in elements of feminism, environmentalism, and gay rights advocacy into the narrative.  She vividly depicts all different kinds of Lagosians, from the fundamentalist Christian priest who is mainly concerned with lining his pockets to the mute orphan boy who picks pockets until he witnesses the events unfolding on the beach.  There are even passages narrated by a swordfish and a spider.

9781481440875_custom-83c869fee28f9137f21e4e8c5eae3529468e813a-s300-c85I admit that the action in the first half of the book developed a little more slowly than I would have liked, and there are a TON of characters’ viewpoints, some of which aren’t explored very much and seem a little extraneous.  But these are tiny quibbles.  I liked Lagoon.  It was weird and intense and a heck of a lot of fun.  I am hungry for more from Nnedi Okorafor.

(Book 6 of 10 for my #10BooksofSummer, from Cathy’s #20BooksofSummer challenge.)

Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison by Shaka Senghor

It’s hard to be a person right now.  Things feel really uncertain and scary and sad.  I almost want to quit looking at Facebook and Twitter and disengage completely from the news. Almost.  I can and will take breaks from social media and the news (self-care!), but I can’t hide under a blanket all the time.  I will NOT give up hope for a better future, and I will NOT stop trying to do my part (my small part) to make the future better.  I am convinced that one way to make the world better is to read and talk about books by people whose life experiences are totally different from one’s own.  Reading has always put me into the shoes of another person, be it a nineteenth-century governess in England or a twenty-first century black man serving time in a prison in Michigan.  I am really glad that I spent time in the shoes of Shaka Senghor.  His memoir, Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison captivated me and made me question my views of American justice.

51SX3bAWW0L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ I became interested in this book after reading Whitney’s great review of it on her site. (That recommendation from Oprah didn’t hurt either!)  It had a waiting list at my library but it finally came around a couple of weeks ago.  I wanted to write about this book because I think it should be widely read, not only for Senghor’s powerful story of personal redemption, but also for the hard look into the modern prison system.

Senghor was an honor-roll student in Detroit and had dreams of becoming a doctor when his parents’ marriage began unraveling.  As they separated and reconciled more than once, the stability of life at home became uncertain.  When his father moved out for good,Shaka remained with his mother most of the time.  Their relationship was volatile and his mother’s beatings began to get worse.  Rather than take the abuse, a fourteen year-old Senghor started living on the streets.  Hungry and dirty, he soon started selling drugs.

He said Miko was looking for someone to “roll” for him, which was code for selling drugs.  He said Miko was paying up to $350 a week, plus $10 a day for food, for anyone willing to sit in one of his drug spots.  the only catch was that you had to be willing to sit in the spot twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week… It was the lowest job on the drug-dealing totem pole, but it sounded like a good deal to me.  All I could think about was having somewhere to lay my head and a way to feed and clothe myself.  Without further discussion, I told Tommie that I would do it.

As more people he knew were shot and murdered, and as he got deeper into the crack trade, Senghor wondered when it would be his turn to experience violence.  He hardened his heart, because “if you were cold, at least it meant that you weren’t weak.”

I no longer cared if I lived or died.  In fact, I started looking forward to the day of my demise.  It was as twisted thought, but it gave me a sense of control.  If I embraced death, then I wouldn’t have to live in fear of dying – at least that’s what I told myself.  The reality was that my true fear was of living, because living had become too painful.  Around each corner, I saw a bullet with my name on it.  In every car that sped by, I saw  death machine chauffeured by the grim reaper himself.

I knew that it was only a matter of time before I would have to kill or be killed…How can a child expect to exist like this and not go insane?

At the age of nineteen, Senghor shot and killed man and was arrested.  He was sentenced to two years for felony firearm possession, and fifteen to forty years for murder in the second degree.  As he was transferred from prison to prison over the years, Senghor drew refuge and strength in reading books from the prison libraries.  When he discovered the writing of Malcolm X he was inspired to explore Islam, and became a disciple of the Melanic Islamic Palace of the Rising Son.  His readings in African history ignited a pride in his heritage that he had never felt before.  His spirituality and his reading was slowly inspiring him to become a better person.

But he continued to struggle with anger during the course of his sentence, culminating in a violent incident with an abusive officer that led to a four year stint in solitary confinement.  It is amazing that Senghor survived with his sanity intact, as many around him seemed to descend into madness.  The descriptions of solitary are chilling, and made me wonder what good this sort of punishment actually does.  It was in solitary that Senghor started journaling, finally examining the damage done to his psyche in childhood and the layers of shame and guilt underneath the anger and bravado.  He even started writing fiction as a way to “escape” the confines of his cell and fellow inmates.

I really liked the back and forth structure of the book, alternating from Senghor’s childhood and teenage years to his prison sentence.  I really came to understand how an insecure, vulnerable young man could fall into a hard, violent world and not be able to get himself out before the damage was done.  I felt sorry for the boy who was shaken by his parents’ divorce and hurt by his mother’s emotional and physical abuse.  I could see how he carried the shame of murdering another man all throughout his prison sentence, and I could also feel how badly he wanted to atone, be there for his children, and help other young black men not follow in his footsteps.  I feel like this book has opened my eyes to how we treat criminals in America.  Do we truly believe in second chances in this country, or do we shrug and say, “Well, you had your chance, and you blew it, so screw the rest of your life.”  I don’t know how I would react if the man Senghor killed had been someone I love.  I hope that I would learn how to show the grace and forgiveness that the godmother of his victim (who raised him) showed in her letter to Senghor that ignited a lengthy correspondence between them.  She wrote that she loved him, and forgave him, because God loved him, and because she followed his guidance. What a gift.  This book made me wonder what levels of redemption and rehabilitation we could achieve if we put an army of psychologists and counselors in prisons, and encouraged people in jail to examine themselves and their pasts on paper.  I don’t know if every person who commits murder can be redeemed, but Senghor’s memoir certainly made me open my mind to the possibility.  This was a compelling page-turner, and I highly recommend it.

(Book 5 of my 10 Books of Summer – from Cathy’s challenge at 746 Books.)

 

 

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James

I came to read Marlon James in January 2015, as many people at Book Riot were talking about how amazing his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings was.  I thought, Hmm.  A novel about as assassination attempt on Bob Marley in Jamaica and Jamaican crime lords – sounds interesting.  It took me a week or so to settle into the heavy Jamaican patois of many of the characters, but once I did, I was HOOKED.  It was a novel with an energy and vitality I had rarely come across before, and I came to care even about the characters who were VERY BAD people.  It ended up being one of my favorite novels of 2015, and I wrote glowingly about it here.  I knew I had to read Marlon James again.  It only took me another 18 months!

But having finished The Book of Night Women this week, I can now safely say that Marlon James has vaulted onto my Favorite Authors list, and I will now read his other novel, John Crow’s Devil, and will seek out everything he writes in the future.

IMG_3587The Book of Night Women is set in Jamaica in the early 1800s on a sugarcane plantation called Montpelier.  The heroine of the novel, to whom we are introduced on the first page, at her birth, is named Lilith.  Her very young mother dies giving birth to her.  She has the most striking green eyes, with an energy that makes most of the slaves want to “leave her in the bush and make the land take her back.”  But the overseer, Jack Wilkins, gets two of the slaves, Circe and Tantalus, to take her in and raise her.  This is a story of Lilith coming of age, harnessing the “uppity” spirit she had from birth, and making connections with the other strong women on the plantation, namely Homer, the venerable head house slave.  But it is also a story of the violence and degradation of slavery in general.  This is probably the bloodiest book I’ve ever read.  However, it is not gratuitous violence – it simply reflects the truth, the awful inhumanity of not only the whites in power, but the “Johnny Jumpers,” black slaves who helped the overseer keep everyone in line, and the “Maroons,” free black mercenaries who live in the bush and capture runaways for profit.

I don’t want to talk much about the plot of the novel for fear of revealing too much, but through Homer, Lilith comes to meet other women with similar green eyes and fearless souls, and among them there is a rebellion plot afoot.  We also meet the young Master of the plantation, Humphrey, and his best friend/right hand man, an Irishman named Robert Quinn.  There is an interesting dynamic about how negatively the English planters viewed the Irish, and Quinn is always cognizant of his second-class whiteness.  He figures prominently in Lilith’s life later in the novel.

There is a pulsating energy to James’s writing, propelling the reader further into the darkness of the narrative.  It was a world that was almost too cruel to believe, yet I know that these things actually happened.  The slaves spoke in the Jamaican patois yet this was not problematic for me; I think it lends an authenticity to the narrative.  Maybe I was more primed for it having read A Brief History.  This novel enthralled me totally, even if the subject matter was hard reading.  It was simply brilliant, and I think everyone should read it.  I’m going to end with some quotations so that you can get a feel for the language and James’s talent.

Lilith, while watching a slave auction in Kingston:

Lilith wonder what running through bush with no chain on you foot or dog coming after you feel like.  And what it feel like to know all of that, then lose it.  Do losing feel different from never having?  Do a captured nigger be a different nigger?  Lilith gone from perplex to melancholy.  She surprise that she never talk to a Africa man or woman before.  Except Homer.  And even Homer, who talk more Africa tongue than most, still don’t talk ’bout the Africa land much.

Homer, speaking to Lilith when she begins secretly teaching her to read:

Me not nobody nigger.  Learn this, when you can make out word, nothing the massa can do will surprise you.  A nigger, he no got nothing.  He got nothing.  But when you can make out a word, that is something indeed.  You know how long me know that Mass Humphrey was coming?  You think ’bout that.  When a bigger can read, she can plan, if is even for just a minute.  Make me tell you something else ’bout reading.  You see this?  Every time you open this you get free.  Freeness up in here and nobody even have to know you get free but you.

(Book number four of my #10 Books of Summer.)

Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia: A Mini-Review

In his earliest memories he was sitting on the floor in the family room, in front of the giant stereo his parents had bought themselves as a wedding present, his face pressed into the padded fabric of one speaker.  The fabric was prickly against his forehead but his nose fit perfectly into a little groove, and he could feel music spilling like molten gold through his entire body.  He’d sit back on his heels when the song was over and his father, an accountant and amateur drummer whose (still-unrealized) dream was to open a jazz club and coffee house, would say, “Order up!” and put another record on the turntable.  His favorite albums were by Earth, Wind, & Fire (syncopation made his brain feel like it was laughing) and Also sprach Zarathustra, its opening rumbling like an earthquake…For six month in 1984, he had asked his parents to play “Stairway to Heaven” instead of a bedtime story.

Kate Racculia’s Bellweather Rhapsody is a quirky little gem of a novel.  I had put this on my TBR when it came out in 2014, but it soon got buried under an avalanche of other titles and I kind of forgot about it.  Then Gin Jenny of Reading the End wrote a post about it a few weeks ago, and likened it to my favorite childhood novel, Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game. That was all it took – I instantly perked up and ordered it from another library branch.18263667

I say this is a quirky novel because it’s kind of hard to categorize.  It’s part mystery, part meditation on the power of music, part moving story about loneliness and finding connection, between siblings and between strangers.  The main action takes place over a long weekend at a high school music festival at the Shining-esque Bellweather Hotel in Upstate New York.  It’s told from multiple perspectives, including Harold Hastings, the long-time concierge of the hotel, who’s emotionally and physically stuck in place and time, and Minnie Graves, who is returning to the Bellweather to face a horrible past incident she witnessed there when she was a little girl.  We also meet twins Bert (Rabbit) and Alice Hatmaker, who are participants in the music festival and who are about to graduate high school and face college, perhaps apart for the first time in their lives.  The storylines of these and other characters converge in really satisfying and intricate ways, and everyone is sort of connected to one another even if they don’t realize it.  There’s a creepy mystery that kept me turning the pages involving Alice’s roommate for the weekend turning up missing (and perhaps dead?) and some really sweet stories of characters searching for meaning and fulfillment after years of self-sabotage.  Racculia’s lovely writing about the beauty and power of music also touched me.  I love stories like this, that are all kinds of different things at once.  And it did really feel Westing Game-esque (good job, Jenny!)  This was just a really nice surprise – a fun, endearing novel.

So what are some of your favorite hard-to-categorize, quirky books?  Tell me your picks in the comments.

 

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

I wasn’t at all sure that I was going to read Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.  Even when it popped up in review after review on blogs I follow, I still wasn’t sure.  Once I began reading it, I still wasn’t sure that I’d even finish it.  And now that I’ve read it, I’m still not sure what I think about it.  Despite all of that uncertainty, I’m genuinely glad that I read it, and find it one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve ever read.

I worried that it might be too disturbing for me to handle.  It certainly wasn’t a pleasurable reading experience for me, but it was too strange, too different from the things I normally read, to put down.  If I’m honest, the short length (188 pages) helped .  As did the fact that I’m almost certain it will be a Tournament of Books pick next year.  But the spare elegance of Kang’s writing kept me turning pages.56abcc1b1f00007f00216f6a

It’s told in three sections, which were apparently published in South Korea as three novellas.  Yeong-hye, a young, married woman is the center of this story, but she does not really get to tell her own tale.  There are italicized passages here and there that are probably told from her point of view, but they are infrequent.  The first section is told from the point of view of her husband, Mr. Cheong.  He’s a real… well, I’m thinking of a crass word to describe him.  There is nothing whatsoever appealing about him.  He basically married Yeong-hye because she was so unremarkable and demanded so little from him.  When she has a terrible dream and decides to becomes a vegetarian, she is rocking his orderly, boring, controlled life.  She shocks and angers her family as well, and there is a violent scene at a family dinner that is really hard to read.

The second section is told from her brother-in-law’s point of view, and it’s disturbing in a totally different way.  He is sexually obsessed with her, and wants to use her as a model in his video art installation.  This section is interesting in that Yeong-hye seems to subvert her brother-in-law’s desires and claim her own power in the midst of his objectification.  However, her gradual descent into madness, which has been building throughout the whole novel, is unchecked.

The third section was the strongest for me, the one that finally awakened me emotions and locked me into the flow of the narrative.  It’s told from the point of view of her sister, In-hye, and it’s some time later after the events of the second part.  Yeong-hye has deteriorated drastically, both mentally and physically, and she is in a mental hospital.  We learn more about In-hye and how their family life may have informed each of the sister’s life paths.  There is some gorgeous writing in this section, like this passage:

She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of.  She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner.  And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.

I was deeply moved by the final section, so much so that it made me reconsider the novel as a whole.  I was finally able to push against my discomfort and appreciate what I think this novel is trying to explore.  For me, it is about family, and expectations, both familial and societal, especially for women.  It’s about choice and desire, how free one person can truly ever be to create the life they want to live, for themselves without hurting or angering or disappointing the people around them.  At least that’s what I emerged with from my reading of this bizarre, haunting, remarkable book.

The Vegetarian would make a killer book for your book group – one could talk about it for hours.  I’m really glad I read it, even though it was not an easy read.I haven’t yet rated this novel on Goodreads with a star rating.  I usually find it pretty easy to assign stars: three for “I liked it,” two for “it was okay,” four for “REALLY good.”  I don’t think this is the kind of novel that is suited for that system.  It really is something totally of its own, and to give it a star rating would almost diminish its odd terror and beauty.