Mini Reviews: Barbara Pym, Jess Walter, Cristina Henriquez

My reading has been far outpacing my blog writing lately.  I feel like maybe I’m in a blogging funk.  The past couple of weeks I either want to spend my evenings (after the kiddo goes to bed) reading, zoning out with television, or sleeping.  I hope to find my blogging vigor again soon!  I’m pretty sure it’s a phase.

But before I get too far behind, I thought I’d play catch-up with a few mini-reviews.

18899436I adore Barbara Pym.  I’m slowly making my way through all of her books.  A Few Green Leaves is my eighth Pym novel, leaving five more works to go.  Published in 1980, it was her last completed novel.  Not quite as sharp in focus as some of her earlier works, it still contains many elements of Pym-ish goodness:  British small village life, clueless but well-meaning and unfailingly polite characters, romantic misunderstandings.  Our heroine is Emma, an unmarried anthropologist in her 30’s, coming to the village to get some peace and quiet to work on her notes.  We also meet the rector Tom, who lives in the too-large rectory with his sister Daphne.  Daphne swooped in to help Tom after his wife died some years ago, and is now chafing at her life in the village, dreaming of moving to Greece, where she vacations annually.  Pym portrays traditional gender roles in a changing time with subtle skill –  men are usually oblivious and self-centered and women are ambivalent about their unappreciated efforts.  Country doctors, elderly spinsters, people behaving incredibly politely to one another while thinking something else entirely… the rambling cast of characters circle around one another throughout the novel, and nothing much happens but the stuff of life  – conversations, garden walks, “hunger lunches,” a few halfhearted romantic assignations.

A Few Green Leaves was delightful.  It’s not my favorite Pym ever, but it’s a worthwhile, most enjoyable read.  If you’ve never read Pym before, I wouldn’t recommend that you start with this one; I’d pick Excellent Women or Jane and Prudence.  Still, if you’ve read a Pym or two and you’d like to continue, feel safe that this one will provide you hours of intelligent, amusing, entertainment.

51crAY8ox2L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_I don’t even know how to begin to describe The Zero by Jess Walter.  The jacket blurbs mention satire many times, and Kafka and Heller are referenced twice.  Jess Walter is another of my very favorite authors, and he has a terrific gift not only for scathingly funny black humor, but he also portrays his characters with a genuine compassion and humanity – even when they’re not “nice”  people.  This is a book about 9/11, published in 2006, with a reverent eye on the tragedy and an irreverent one on America’s response.  Brian Remy is a New York City cop who was among the first on the scene of the Twin Towers falling.  He now is experiencing alarming gaps in his memory, waking up in the middle of scenes and acts that he has no idea how he got into.  No one seems to want to hear about his problem, or they think he’s being funny when he tries to tell them about it.  So the reader is pulled along into this bizarre mystery/political satire, trying to piece together just what the heck Brian’s gotten himself into.  A shady secret government organization chasing paper scraps that flew out of the towers?  Infiltrating a terrorist cell?  His own son is pretending Brian died in the towers, and Brian’s just desperately trying to stay one step ahead of the other person living his life.  It was trippy, weird, dark, funny, sad, smart, and a page-turner.  Jess Walter does it again!  Seriously, this guy can do anything.

51pATEiEJnL._SX337_BO1,204,203,200_Last, but not least, my book group book for April was The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez.  It made for an excellent discussion last weekend.  Told from multiple points of view, this book highlights Latin American immigrants from various countries all living in one apartment complex in Delaware.  The main characters are the Riveras, a husband and wife and their teenager daughter,  Maribel.  Maribel sustained a traumatic brain injury in an accident in Mexico, and the Riveras are told that special education in America is the best hope of recovery for their daughter.  So Arturo gets a work visa for a mushroom farm, and the Riveras pack up everything they own.  The realities of living in a country where you don’t know the language, have no transportation, and face bigoted individuals is humanely portrayed by Henriquez.  She puts a human face on Latinx immigration in America. Others in the apartment complex have their own stories, from a Panamanian-American teenage boy named Mayor who falls in love with Maribel, to a Guatemalan man named Gustavo who’s working two jobs to send money to Mexico for his children’s education.  These strangers become like family to one another.  I empathized with them, and greatly appreciated Henriquez’s message.  These are voices we need to hear more of in America, now more then ever.  However,  there was something about the novel that didn’t work for me as much as I would have liked.  I felt like it was a bit heavy-handed at times, and Mayor’s actions towards a mentally compromised Maribel were problematic for me.  I cried, so obviously I was emotionally invested, but I couldn’t give it more than three stars.  Still, I would recommend it for book groups because it offers a lot to discuss, and I think it’s a book that deserves to be widely read on the strength of its message alone.  Plus, it’s a quick read.

Have you read, or do you plan to read, any of these books or authors?  Have you ever been in a blogging funk?  Have you ever read a book that you felt almost guilty for not liking better?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus today, and I wanted to write about it while it was still fresh in my mind.  I wanted to write about it because the books that I write about manage to stay fresher in my mind than the ones I don’t.  It’s my book group’s pick for this month – our meeting is Sunday.  I really hope that my fellow members read it because I want to talk about it!  It’s one of those books that grew on me as I read it, and by the end, I didn’t want to put it down.

This was Adichie’s first novel, but I found it to be as captivating as the only other one of hers I’ve read thus far, the epic Americanah.  It’s a far more quiet novel, though; it sneaked up on me with an emotional heft that took my breath away.  A coming of age story set in modern Nigeria, it follows fifteen year-old Kambili and her family: her older brother Jaja, her mother and father, and her father’s sister Ifeoma and her family.img_0469

Kambili’s father is wealthy, publishing a progressive newspaper and owning factories, and his children lack for nothing physically.  However, their house is a quiet one, where every day has a schedule and no one speaks out of turn.  Laughter is nonexistent, and the household is strictly religious (Catholic.)  Kambili loves her father, wants to make him proud with her grades at school, but she also fears him.  As the novel progresses we get more of a picture of what’s going on inside the house – it becomes obvious that the father is physically abusive not only to their mother but also to Kambili and Jaja.  One day a girl at school asks Kambili why she always runs to get into the car her father sends to pick her up instead of walking and chatting with the other girls.

“I just like running,” I said, and wondered if I would count that as a lie when I made confession next Saturday, if I would add it to the lie about not having heard Mother Lucy the first time.  Kevin always had the Peugeot 505 parked at the school gates right after the bell rang.  Kevin had many other chores to do for Papa and I was not allowed to keep him waiting, so I always dashed out of my last class.  Dashed, as though I were running the 200-meters race at the interhouse sports competition.  Once, Kevin told Papa I took a few minutes longer, and Papa slapped my left and right cheeks at the same time, so his huge palms left parallel marks on my face and ringing in my ears for days.

Things begin to change when Kambili’s Aunty Ifeoma manages to convince her brother to let the children come stay with her and her family for a week during a school break, under the pretense of going to visit a pilgrimage site.  Ifeoma, a widow and university professor, is a vibrant, strong, colorful woman, and at first Kambili doesn’t know how to behave around her or her opinionated children.  She is painfully shy and afraid to do or say anything that she’ll have to later confess to her father.  This includes even having a relationship with her grandfather, whom her Papa considers a pagan heathen, since he never converted to Catholicism.  As Kambili and Jaja stay with Ifeoma, they start to open up, speak their minds more, laugh, and learn a new way to be a family.  Inevitably, this new consciousness chafes against the ways that their Papa controls them and their mother.

This was one of those books that had potential to be “too heavy” for me, a self-described wimp when it comes to sad things in books.  But Adichie has such a succinct yet beautiful way of writing, with not a word wasted, that even when she describes painful events, it’s not too much to handle.  Ifeoma’s home and community in Nsukka is such a vibrant, loving environment, I longed to be there, embraced and cared for by her and her children. We also meet a kind, strong, attractive young priest named Father Amadi, who is a positive, fatherly figure for Ifeoma’s children and other children in Nsukka.  He and Kambili develop a unique friendship and he helps draw her out of her shell, giving her a glimpse at another way to embody the Catholic faith.  He’s a lovely character.

I’m so glad we chose this novel to read for my book group.  I had it on my TBR, but you know about my TBR, right?  Things might linger there for one, two, three years before I “get around to them,” if I ever do.  Don’t make the same mistake I made – get your hands on a copy of this gorgeous, sad, but ultimately hopeful novel sooner rather than later!

Snapshot of a Book Group: 2/21/16

I love my book group.  We’ve been together for almost 10 years, and we’ve had members come and go with moves, babies, etc., but our core has remained mostly the same.  We’re friends and friends-of-friends, some who have worked or still work in the county library system.  Our hosting and book choosing process is pretty easy-going and democratic, which is why I think we’ve been a successful group for so long.  Sometimes people don’t read the book, but they can still participate in the discussion, knowing that those who have finished can talk about all the spoilers they want to.  We have a WIDE range of interests – some are married, some have kids, some have the cutest cats ever.  We are teachers, librarians, artists, social media mavens. We love books.  We have fun. And I guess after so long we’re kind of like family.  (Two new members joined us last month – yay! – so they’re still settling in and getting used to our quirks.)

Setting:  11:00 am, Member X’s house

Members present: 8 out of 10

Brunch/Snack foods provided:  Parmesan artichoke dip, pretzel thins, Nutella Greek yogurt dip, apple slices, assorted ginormous pastries from a local bakery, spinach pepper potato frittata thing what was delicious,  probably some other stuff I can’t remember.  Oh, and mimosas for those who wanted them.  (Somebody almost always brings champagne!)

IMG_2973Book Discussed: Corey Feldman’s Coreyography: A Memoir.  (Ironic side note:  the member who had been pushing this book forever as a choice DID NOT READ IT.  Which I half-jokingly called her out on.  But seriously.)

Topics discussed:  Whether or not Feldman was a narcissist/could avoid being a narcissist with his very messed-up celebrity upbringing; who is the person who sexually abused Corey Haim during the filming of Lucas; did Feldman come across as sincere and/or truthful; the shock of learning that Feldman was married to General Hospital alum/goddess Vanessa Marcil for FOUR YEARS; what exactly are “Corey’s Angels” (his recent business endeavor involving scantily clad young women who can show up at your next house party – for a fee;) the genuinely charming account in the book of Feldman’s hero worship of Michael Jackson when he was a kid and how cool it was that he got to become friends with his idol; also, did we believe Feldman’s assertion that Jackson was not a pedophile; the genuine brotherly love Feldman had for the late Corey Haim.

Other topics discussed:  Beyonce’s Formation video, and how it makes one book group member want to “slay” at meetings; the fact that Jump Little Children had a reunion concert tour in December and two members had no idea, despite being huge fans of JLC (Yes, I was utterly dismayed to hear that I’d missed it!;) my trip to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band with my mom in Atlanta on February 18 (IT WAS THE BEST); The Dark Tower series by Stephen King – who’d read it, should I read it (I’m interested in it now because Matthew McConaughey and Idris Elba might star in the adaptation;) pop star Kesha’s current legal situation; whether or not author Lily King was Stephen King’s daughter (she isn’t;) two members’ recent trip to see Bernie Sanders speak at Moorehouse College in Atlanta; do Knoxville drivers drive like grandmas or are Atlanta drivers simply insane (yes and yes.)

Books Choices Presented by Host for Next Month:  Euphoria by Lily King; Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart; and A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines.

Book Chosen by Group:  Super Sad True Love Story (5 members voted for it.)

The meeting’s at my house next month, or if I choose we’ll have it as a local restaurant. So I’ll be responsible for presenting book choices upon which everyone will vote.  I’ll write more soon about what I think I’ll present (so many possibilities!)   Are you or have you ever been part of a book group?  Have you read the Dark Tower series?  Is it worth checking out?