A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (#20BooksofSummer book 4)

Another week has passed and I’m just now writing a post.  This summer my son has been staying up a little later at night, and by the time he’s asleep I’m just TIRED, y’all.  I just want to read a bit or watch The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt for a minute and then GO TO BED.  I know that when we get back in our routine and he’s going to sleep by 8:30 I’ll have more time to myself at night, and hopefully more energy for blogging!  Tomorrow’s his birthday!  He’s been bouncing off the walls and I’ve been consumed with party plans.

tb-cover-993x1500But I did read another book for #20BooksofSummer, and it’s also my book group’s pick for June.  (We meet to discuss in about a week.) Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being was one of those books that I had avoided reading until now, despite near universal acclaim and one very persistent library patron telling me that I MUST READ IT.  I know, I know, I’d say – it’s on my list! Only for some reason I wasn’t all that excited to read it.  If it hadn’t been our book group pick, I probably never would have.

And that would have been a real shame!  I am quite glad that I was forced to read it.  It was strange, occasionally beautiful, sad, mind-bending, and startlingly original.  I didn’t wholeheartedly love it, but I very much enjoyed it.

It was a slow start for me, however.  The first 150 pages or so were not really landing. Here’s the Goodreads description, because it’s a super tough book to try and summarize:

In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there’s only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates’ bullying, but before she ends it all, Nao plans to document the life of her great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. A diary is Nao’s only solace—and will touch lives in a ways she can scarcely imagine.

Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future.

I usually enjoy dueling narratives, flashes forward and backward in time, all of that.  I enjoyed the playfulness of the contemporary character, Ruth, being a novelist named Ruth, living in Canada with a husband named Oliver.  (All things true of Ms. Ozeki.)  But the novel didn’t take off for me until Nao goes to stay for a while with her amazing great-grandmother, Jiko, a Buddhist nun, at her monastery.  That’s the point where I became fully invested in the book, and remained so for the next 250 pages.  While I empathized with Ruth and was interested in her search to find out of Nao ever really existed or was still alive, it was Nao’s narration that I was more eager to return to.  Nao’s life was really hard – her struggle for identity, feeling more American than Japanese, having grown up in America; her father’s depression and suicide attempts; the insane cruelty of her classmates’ bullying.  Ozeki doesn’t shy away from dark topics, yet there are flashes of humor throughout.  Ruth and Oliver have a cat named Pesto, who they call “Pest” for short (cute.)  And there’s this line from early on in Nao’s diary:

My dad wants me to apply to an international high school.  He wants me to go to Canada.  He’s got this thing about Canada.  He says it’s like America only with health care and no guns, and you can live up to your potential there and not have to worry about what society thinks or about getting sick or getting shot. 

The book takes a turn towards the magical realism/speculative genre towards the end, and I don’t want to give away too much.  I’ll say that for a brief time I was left wondering whether or not I was a character in a book that someone was reading, and I’ve never felt that particular feeling before because of a book.  I felt a bit dizzy when I finished reading this, and I took that as a good sign.  I think it’s going to be a very good book for discussion at my book group meeting.  There’s an experimental vibe to the book that was interesting, unique, and trippy, but somehow it didn’t add up to a book that I could say that I loved.  I’m glad I read it, however, and sometimes that’s enough.

20-booksHave you read this?  What’s the determining factor for you in rating something either a 3 or a 4 on Goodreads?  Have you ever been so flummoxed that you couldn’t give a book a star rating?  I’d love to read your thoughts.

 

 

#AnneReadalong2017: Anne of Avonlea (Book 3 of #20BooksofSummer)

Note: Jane at Greenish Bookshelf and Jackie at Death By Tsundoku are co-hosting an Anne of Green Gables series readalong for the remainder of the year.  Check out their blogs for more info on how to join the fun!

“Having adventures comes natural to some people,” said Anne serenely.  “You just have a gift for them or you haven’t.”

My reading of the second book in L.M. Montgomery’s classic series was a bit more of a chore than my experience of the first one, I have to admit.  I did enjoy it, but I found it all too easy to set the book aside when I’d finished a chapter.  It consisted of vignettes about people in Anne’s life and Anne herself, just like the first.  But I felt that there was less forward momentum in the narrative, almost as if each chapter was a short story rather than part of a novel.

9780770420208-us-300Anne is 16 now and a teacher of some of the very children who were recently her schoolmates.  She still lives with Marilla, who is still experiencing poor eyesight and can’t do any close up sewing or crafting or reading.  However, they are soon joined by twins Davy and Dora, six years old, distant relations who are orphaned and need a temporary place to stay. Davy is a deliberately mischievous “handful” and Dora is… well… boring. Dora might as well not exist, in my opinion.  She’s only referenced in contrast to Davy’s behavior, and Anne and Marilla both admit to liking Davy more.  Poor Dora!  I wondered why Montgomery even introduced her in the first place.  Why not just have little Davy come to stay at Green Gables?  But I’ve not read the rest of the series – perhaps Dora has a meatier role to play in the future?

In any case, Anne is busy with teaching and with the newly formed Avonlea Village Improvement Society, in addition to her adventures with the twins and assorted neighbors and friends.  My favorite part of the book came towards the end, when we meet the “old maid” (“forty-five and quite gray”) Miss Lavendar Lewis.  Miss Lavendar is as romantic and imaginative as Anne is, and they become fast friends.

“But what is the use of being an independent old maid if you can’t be silly when you want to, and when it doesn’t hurt anybody?”

I very much enjoyed the whimsical Miss Lavendar, and was quite moved by her affection for Anne’s favorite pupil, sweet, sensitive Paul Irving.  The plotline involving Lavendar and Paul’s father, Stephen, felt romantic and satisfying.  Anne herself has just a taste of romance, her first conscious thought of what may lie ahead with Gilbert, in the book’s last pages.

Favorite line:  “… Mrs. Lynde says that when a man has to eat sour bread two weeks out of three his theology is bound to get a kink in it somewhere.”

Rating:  Three stars.  We got to meet some fun characters, but overall it felt lacking compared to the richness of the first.  Davy was a big drag for me, quite frankly. However, the book had a sweet spirit and Anne still exhibited her trademark appreciation for nature and creative daydreaming, which I enjoyed.  I do look forward to reading more about Anne’s adventures as she heads to Redmond College.  I’m hoping the change of scenery will add more momentum to the story!

20-books(This was book 3 of my #20BooksofSummer list.  Combining reading challenges!  Yes!) 

 

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins (#20BooksofSummer Book #2)

I had low expectations going into Paula Hawkins’s second novel, Into the Water.  I liked The Girl on the Train – liked, didn’t love.  I certainly turned the pages fast enough, reading it in less than two days.  But I didn’t think it was worth all the tremendous, overwhelming hype that it got, and I certainly didn’t think it was the best mystery published in 2015.  But I knew that her next book would be one of the most popular of the year, and I was curious enough to give it a go.  I’m very glad that I did, because it was a compelling, layered, twisty mystery with an almost Gothic feel that kept me wanting to return to its pages.

Basic premise:  Single mom Nel Abbott is dead, turning up in The Drowning Pool, a stretch of river in the English town of Beckford that has seen many women taking their lives in its waters.  Or have they been victims of foul play?  Only a couple of months earlier, a high school girl was found in the river, an apparent suicide, with stones in her pockets.  She was the best friend of Nel’s daughter, Lena.  Is there a connection between the two events?  Nel was writing a book about the sordid history of the river and its victims.  Did she come too close to the truth for comfort?

61OLegHQzvL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Told from multiple perspectives, including the type-written pages of Nel’s manuscripts, this mystery was layered with secret upon secret.  It seemed every person in the town had a grudge against Nel, even her own estranged sister, Jules. It’s Jules’s perspective that we get the most of, and we see the sisters’ complicated history in flashbacks.  Her grief is overshadowed by something she thinks Nel played a part in  when she was thirteen and Nel was seventeen, something Jules has never recovered from emotionally.

Some of the women you wrote about are buried in that churchyard, some of your troublesome women.  Were all of you troublesome?  Libby was, of course.  At fourteen she seduced a thirty-four-year-old man, enticed him away from his loving wife and infant child. Aided by her aunt, the hag Mary Seeton, and the numerous devils that they conjured, Libby cajoled poor blameless Matthew into any number of unnatural acts.  Troublesome indeed.  Mary Marsh was said to have performed abortions. Anne Ward was a a killer.  But what about you, Nel?  What had you done?  Who were you troubling?  

I liked the feminist tone of the book.  Issues of domestic violence, sexual assault, and statutory rape play a part in the town’s sordid past and present.  In fact, now that I think about it, almost much all the men in the story are creeps.  Not that the women are saints – they’re pretty messed up too, only they don’t seem to be holding the power.  I liked Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, an outsider to the town brought in to help local police with the investigation. She injected a bit of humor in an otherwise pretty dark book.  I chuckled at her frustration when I read this bit:

Seriously, how is anyone supposed to keep track of all the bodies around here? It’s like Midsomer Murders, only with accidents and suicides, and grotesque historical drownings instead of people falling into the slurry or bashing each other over the head.

20-booksWith so many suspects and secrets I admit I didn’t know the identity of the murderer until the very end of the book.  It wasn’t a shock so much as a “Yes!  That makes sense!” feeling.  It was a satisfying ending for me, considering all the plot elements swirling through its pages.  I would say that this book was not about the “big twist” or the surprise ending as so many contemporary thrillers are.  Instead, it’s a book about the complexity and unreliability of memory, and the ways in which “troublesome” women have been dealt with over time.  So my second book for 20 Books of Summer was a hit!  I was pleasantly surprised by how much I like this, and I will definitely be putting Ms. Hawkins’s next book on my TBR.  If you plan to read it, know that it’s pretty different from her first book; for me, that was a good thing.

 

#20BooksofSummer REVISED: Because I’m Awful At Planning My Reading!

I knew that when I signed up for this 20 Books of Summer thing I would have trouble with it!  It’s kind of funny.  I mean, it’s only mid-June and I’m already revising my list. But I am just horrible at planning my reading.  I am a creature of whim when it comes to my books – plus I am in a book group that meets monthly.  WHICH I TOTALLY FORGOT to take into account when I wrote my first post EVEN THOUGH I’VE BEEN IN IT FOR TEN YEARS! Good grief.

140290I’m cutting out five books from my original list. One I started reading and just didn’t like (J. Courtney Sullivan’s Saints For All Occasions.  A shame, since I very much liked her other books.)  So I have already subbed in an Agatha Christie (The Mysterious Affair At Styles.)  And since I’ve become hooked on Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, I’m subbing in the third book, The Waste Lands, because I don’t think I can make it to September without reading it!

Then I’m adding my book group books for June and July to my list.  Our book for this month is Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being.  I’ve heard so many good things about this – I hope it’s good!  I’m going to listen to it on audio and read it, so I can try and finish it by our next meeting.

Taking Out:

  1. Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon by Jane Austen
  2. Discontent and Its Civilizations by Mohsin Hamid
  3. Ghana Must Go by Taye Selasi
  4. Now You See Me by Sharon Bolton

tb-cover-993x1500Subbing In:

  1. A Tale For the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki
  2. The Waste Lands – Stephen King
  3. Unnamed Book Group Pick for July
  4. Unnamed Book Group Pick for August

I do still want to read the four I took out, but I also want to get as close to finished 20 books as I can, so they will have to wait.  This is hard!

I’ve finished the second book from my list (Into the Water by Paula Hawkins.) I really liked it.  Four stars!  I’ll be posting a review in the next couple of days.

So how are you faring with your lists?  Are you having to cut and add things like I am?

The Drawing of the Three (Dark Tower Series #2) by Stephen King (#20BooksofSummer book #1)

Confession:  before last month, I’d never read a novel by Stephen King.  I’d read his book On Writing some years ago (very good,) and I’d enjoyed his regular columns about pop culture in Entertainment Weekly when he was doing that.  But the farthest I’d ever gotten with one of his novels was my attempt to read The Stand when I was about 14 years old.  I’d seen the TV miniseries with Gary Sinise and Molly Ringwald and was totally taken by it (scared witless by it too – pandemic stuff always totally freaks me out.) But it was just too terrifying and gory for me to stomach.

418T3GHQAQLLeave it to another movie adaptation to get me interested in reading King again.  When I heard that Idris Elba and Matthew McConoughey were going to star in the upcoming Dark Tower movie, I knew I wanted to see it – but I wanted to read it first.  I’ve always had a thing for Matthew McConoughey ever since I saw him in A Time To Kill back when I was in college.  I now think he might not be that awesome IRL, but on screen he is magnetic and fascinating.

So last month I read the first book in the series, The Gunslinger.  I didn’t review it because I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT THE HELL I READ.  Honestly, I was as confused as I was entertained.  If you’ve not read it, all I can tell you is that there’s this Gunslinger named Roland, and he’s SUPER talented with guns, and he’s on a quest to find The Man in Black. Finding The Man in Black is the first step towards getting to The Dark Tower, which is Roland’s obsession.  He’s traveling through a desert area that resembles the American Old West, but it’s not our universe – it’s like a parallel universe with some echoes of things we’d recognize.  His language is a weird mix of archaic English and modern-day English.  He meets up with a boy named Jake, who is from our world and time, and we find out that in his world Jake was pushed into oncoming traffic and died crushed by a car.  They go through these ridiculous mountains pursuing The Man in Black, and then bad stuff happens, and then Roland and The Man in Black have this weird, trippy talk where TMIB takes Roland on this tour of the universe and reads his tarot cards…  yeah, it’s bizarre.  But I had read and heard that the first book in the series is the weakest, and that the second book is much better and more compelling.

I liked The Gunslinger enough to continue with the second book, The Drawing of the Three.  And people were right – the second book really delivers.  It’s just as hard to describe as the first book, but not as confusing. Roland wakes up on a beach, and he immediately encounters these terrifying lobster-like creatures that are as big as dogs that he calls “lobstrosities.”  One of them gets his hand and chops off two of his fingers.  Infection ensues. Short plot summary:  He sees these doors on the beach, totally unsupported by anything, which are portals into our universe at different times.  Three doors.  Each one leads him to a person who is vital to his quest for reaching The Dark Tower.  We have Eddie, a young heroin addict in modern time; Odetta, an African American woman in a wheelchair in the 1950s; and Jack Mort, a psychopath sadist with a connection to Odetta. Roland can go through these doors and into the minds of the three while his physical body is left behind on the beach in his universe.  It’s weird, I know.

But I couldn’t stop turning the pages.  King has this way of leaving you wanting more with every chapter’s end.  I was totally immersed in this strange tale – would Roland make it before the infection killed him? Would the three people he inhabited help him, or would they turn on him? Why does Odetta seem to be schizophrenic?  Would they ever get off the damn beach??  If you couldn’t tell, I’m hooked.  I have to continue with the next book, The Waste Lands.  I’m really regretting not putting the rest of these on my #20BooksofSummer list.  I may have to switch out one or two of the books for the third and fourth in the series!  We’ll see.  (Oh, and I just remembered that I have my book group books for June and July to consider and fit in as well. Ugh, I STINK at planning my reading!)

So have you read this series?  Are you interested in the movie?  Have you read any Stephen King before?  What’s your favorite Matthew McConoughey role?  I’d love to know your thoughts.

#20BooksofSummer: Taking the Plunge

Last year I joined Cathy’s #20BooksOfSummer Challenge but chose the option of reading ten books instead of twenty.  I know myself, and I know that I am a mood reader. Writing down a list of books that I MUST read ignites my inner rebel and instantly makes me want to read anything but.  And when I began thinking of my lists for this year’s challenge, I was going to go with the 10 books again.  However, having seen many lists going up this week, I’ve started to question my decision.  I think I’m going to go ahead, roll the dice, and do the FULL TWENTY!  So what if I don’t finish?  So what if I decide to swap out books?  No one is going to notice, because they’re too busy reading their own books and writing their own posts, right?  I’m not being graded on this, so why not?  Quit being such a perfectionist, Laila!  So, here is my list. (BTW, the picture below is not the full twenty – some of them will be library books I haven’t checked out yet.)

IMG_1646The Cutting Season by Attica Locke

The Drawing of the Three (Dark Tower #2) by Stephen King

Passing by Nella Larsen

Now You See Me (Lacey Flint #1) by Sharon Bolton

In the Country by Mia Alvar

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Saints For All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan

Discontent and Its Civilizations:  Dispatches From New York, Lahore, and London by Mohsin Hamid

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Apex Hides the Hurt by Colson Whitehead

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie

The Reckoning (Maeve Kerrigan #2) by Jane Casey

Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon by Jane Austen

Ghana Must Go by Taye Selasi

American Street by Ibi Zoboi

At Mrs. Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor

Anne of Avonlea by L.M. Montgomery

Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery

Anne of Windy Poplars by L.M. Montgomery

(Yes, I’m combining my #AnneReadAlong2017 with this challenge!)

20-booksThere it is!  Have you read any of these?  Are you joining the #20BooksofSummer Challenge?  

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.)