Mini-Reviews: A Room Full of Bones by Elly Griffiths and Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

I’ve been doing some good reading lately, although so far this weekend I’ve barely cracked open a book (gasp!) I’m about halfway through Anthony Ray Hinton’s memoir The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row and it is SO GOOD, people. This man has an amazing spirit, despite being condemned to die in an utter TRAVESTY of a trial. I need to finish it quickly, because it’s a library copy and there’s still a waiting list. It was due Thursday (yikes!) But I’m NOT turning it back in until I’m finished with it, so too bad. (Confessions of a bad library assistant.) Oh well. Both of the books I’m writing about today were also library books, written by two of my favorite authors.

The fourth book in the Ruth Galloway mystery series, A Room Full of Bones, was a good,download (1) solid read and a well-crafted piece of entertainment. Elly Griffiths has thus far written a series full of multi-dimensional, interesting characters. Even the secondary characters are delightful (especially everyone’s favorite warlock/shaman/pagan Cathbad!) In this installment, forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway is trying to balance motherhood and work, gently dipping her toe into the dating world again after a long absence, and getting ready for her daughter’s first birthday. She is supposed to be supervising the opening of a coffin containing the bones of a medieval bishop. But when she arrives at the museum, she finds the young curator dead on the floor. There’s another death not too long after, someone else associated with the museum, and Ruth and DCI Nelson are once again drawn into an investigation. Aboriginal bones, cultural appropriation, ancestral curses, horse racing, and snakes all play a part in this page-turning mystery. I love how Griffiths seems to find an element of the supernatural to add to her stories, making the rational Ruth and Nelson (and the reader) question the rigidity of their views. I also love the complicated nature of the relationships in the primary and secondary characters. For the first time we see Ruth and Nelson’s wife interact on a deeper, uncomfortable level and it’s compelling stuff. I continue to really enjoy this series and am quite addicted! It won’t be long before I pick up the next book. Four stars.

downloadBarbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered was a delight. She is one of my very favorite authors. I flew through this book because I simply liked spending time with the characters. That is one of Kingsolver’s greatest strengths – she knows how to create compelling, sympathetic characters. Willa Knox is the heart of this book. She’s a free-lance journalist, a wife, mother, and new grandmother who has had to uproot her life in Virginia and move to an old inherited house in New Jersey. The college where her professor husband had tenure unexpectedly closed, leaving the couple grasping for financial security. Not to mention that they have recently taken in her husband’s seriously ill father, Nick, who is a raging bigot and fan of Fox News. Her two grown children, Zeke and Tig, have come back home after trials of their own, and Zeke is now left with a baby to care for on his own after tragedy strikes. As financial troubles mount and the house starts to crumble around them, Willa must find a way to right the ship. She starts investigating the history of the house, hoping for some kind of historical grant that would at least enable restoration.

Enter the second story line, set in the same town in the 1870’s. A young science teacher, Thatcher Greenwood, lives at the same address with his young bride, her mother, and her younger sister. Thatcher is passionate about opening his pupils’ minds to the new teachings of Darwin and other like-minded scientists, but his principal forbids it. We follow Thatcher’s journey as he comes to know his next-door neighbor, the spirited and scientifically minded Mary Treat (a real-life biologist who corresponded with Darwin) and butts heads with the town’s leader.

Kingsolver alternates the two story lines, drawing parallels between them among the forces of stagnation and progress. Both main characters are caught in times of intense change, whether it be climate change and an increasingly interconnected world or a new place for humanity with the dawn of evolutionary theory and archaeological discoveries. I was more drawn to the contemporary story line because I loved Willa so much. Kingsolver always knows how to write a mother/child relationship, and some of the best stuff is the back and forth between Willa and her independent daughter, Tig. Willa is reckoning with mistakes she made as a mother and trying to see her adult children as they really are now, not as the roles she assigned to them when they were growing up. I also love that Willa and her husband have such a physical, sexual relationship – it’s nice to see older characters explore that dimension of marriage.

Some reviews have mentioned Kingsolver’s tendency towards preachiness. At this point, after having read and loved so many of her novels, I don’t even care anymore if she’s preaching to me – the story she’s created here mattered more to me than any notion that I was being taught a lesson. I feel like Willa is representative of a lot of people in the Baby Boom generation; she’s asking legitimate questions and trying to figure out how and why things have changed so much in the last 30-40 years in terms of climate, technology, economic instability. I came away from this book with a sense of hope, which is not a small consideration in 2018. I’m torn between four and five stars for this one, but I’m going with five because I feel such tenderness for Willa and her family. (And because Kingsolver writes with such heart and sincerity.)

 

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Brother by David Chariandy

But during that first night in Mother’s birthplace, I remember feeling afraid, though of what I did not know. Something old and unburied in the darkness, something closer to us now than ever before. I remember lying awake with Francis and hearing for the first time the scream of a rooster, my brother’s hand pressed hard in mine. The sun still hadn’t risen, and I remember looking at Francis, who lay beside me very still with his eyes wide open. I remember searching for a clue about our situation in some slight movement of his ear, or of his jaw, or of that expressive space between his mouth and nose. And when he caught me looking at him, he swallowed and nodded.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said.

36672820Oh my goodness. This book. I don’t know that I’ve read a book that made me feel more in 177 short pages. David Chariandy’s Brother was highly recommended by three bloggers I trust, Anne @ I’ve Read This, Fiction Fan @ Fiction Fan’s Book Reviews, and Naomi @ Consumed by Ink (links to their reviews if you click their names.) They did not let me down. It’s a book that I could have read in a day or two but I deliberately drew my reading out longer because I wanted to savor the writing and really let the story sink in.

Set in Toronto, flashing back from present day to the 1980’s and 90’s, Brother is the story of Michael and his older, cooler brother Francis. Growing up in a part of town called Scarborough, home to immigrants from many nations, the brothers are smart but swimming against both the high expectations of their hard-working Trinidadian mother and the low expectations of their community. The specter of gang violence haunts their nightmares and impacts their waking hours too. Their father has disappeared and their mother works two or even three low-paying jobs but still doesn’t have enough money to fix a rotten tooth. But the boys find small ways to escape and experience peace through food, music, and through visits to a nearby park called The Rouge Valley.

When we were very young, we’d build forts and hideaways in the brush, using branches but also cardboard and broken piece of furniture occasionally dumped here. We’d race twigs in the creek, spot the little speckled fish swimming together in the blowing current, hunt for the other small lives that had managed to survive in the park unnoticed. The tracks in the mud of a muskrat or a raccoon or maybe a turtle…. One fall we piled the stuff of this land over our bodies like blankets. Coloured leaves and pine needles, branches and the barbed wire of thistles. Also plastic bags and foil drifting down with smashed drinking straws and rushes. Our faces were already the colour of earth.

This is a coming-of-age story as well as a story about grief and identity. The possibility of young love gently permeates the tale, lending the narrative a bit of needed lightness. There is not a word wasted in this book. I marveled at Chariandy’s craft in creating such a powerful story in so few pages. Small details, like a mother gently pinching her son’s earlobe “lightly between her thumb and finger as if it were a raindrop from a leaf” are the kinds of things that made me want to linger instead of racing through the pages.

There is tragedy here, and the reader knows this from pretty early on, so I was bracing myself while simultaneously enjoying the beautiful, searing writing. Yet even with the devastating pain of loss there is still a note of tender hope here, that lives can be patched back up to form something new. This is Chariandy’s first novel published in the United States, and his second novel overall (2007’s Soucayant is one I must somehow find a copy of.) I am so thrilled that I learned about Brother from my blogger friends, and I hope that you will give it a try if you haven’t yet read it. It’s one of my favorite books so far this year.

 

 

Mini-Reviews – The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir by Thi Bui and Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

My book group’s pick for July was Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir.  It was an excellent choice both for reading and discussion. Bui recounts her parents’ personal histories growing up in Vietnam before the war as well as the story of their harrowing escape (she was a toddler and her mother was heavily pregnant) from the country after the fall of Saigon and eventual resettlement in America. She weaves in her own story of becoming a mother for the first time, all the anxiety and doubt about being responsible for a new life and wondering if her family’s tragic history will be a burden to her son. It is a marvelous exploration of trying to relate to one’s parents, trying to understand their own pain while trying to forgive them for the mistakes they made along the way as parents. Plus, it’s an excellent chronicle of the lead-up to the Vietnam War, the complexities of the situation and what it was like to live there. I feel like I learned a lot reading this and it certainly moved my heart. The artwork is amazing, only shades of white, black, and an orange-brown color that contains multitudes.

I highly recommend this if you are interested in graphic memoirs, Vietnam history, or moving stories of family dynamics and immigration. (4 Stars.)

(This is the 14th book of my 20 Books of Summer list.)

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal was a pleasant surprise for me. It had 23398625been on my Goodreads TBR list for quite some time, mainly because I had read good things about it. Filling one of my “reader’s choice” slots for 20 Books of Summer, this book was the perfect choice for pleasurable summer reading. It’s essentially a book of linked short stories, all orbiting around the character of Eva Thorvald is some way, from her birth and childhood to her adulthood as a famous chef in Minnesota. Foodies will certainly find a lot to love here, with enticing food writing, but for me the real pull was the way Stradal wrote about people and relationships, with gentle humor and heartfelt insight. This was a book that I didn’t want to put down. I grabbed it at every spare moment, and some moments that weren’t spare at all, ignoring my family in order to read a few more pages. For pure enjoyment of reading I rated it 5 Stars.

(This is the 15th book of my 20 Books of Summer list.)

 

 

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (Classics Club #5)

I scarcely know how to describe that room. It became, in a way, every room I had ever been in and every room I find myself in hereafter will remind me of Giovanni’s room. I did not really stay there very long – we met before the spring began and I left there during the summer – but it still seems to me that I spent a lifetime there. Life in that room seemed to be occurring underwater, as I say, and it is certain that I underwent a sea change there.

81IceqICE0LI’ve been putting off writing this review for weeks now because I feel intimidated, almost unqualified to write about this book. It was a five-star read for me, one that I feel like I could pick up again just a few weeks later and read all over again, losing myself in the quality of the lush prose and the haunting ideas and emotions. Giovanni’s Room is stunning, and even though I have only now read two of Baldwin’s books (this and The Fire Next Time) I have to put him among my favorite authors. I must read everything else he’s written. Published in 1956, this is a story of a man at war with himself, his inner turmoil spilling over and also scarring anyone who comes close enough to care about him.

David is a young white man in Paris in the 1950s, staying at a rented country house outside the city, reflecting on his life and recent events as the novel begins. He is melancholy and alone – his fiancée Hella has left him to return to America and someone named Giovanni (we don’t initially know his significance in David’s life) is “about to perish, sometime between this night and this morning, on the guillotine.”  He then recounts a long-buried sensual experience as a teenager with a male friend named Joey and the reader knows this is someone who is afraid to truly acknowledge his sexuality.

We had our arms around each other. It was like holding in my hand some rare, exhausted, nearly doomed bird which I had miraculously happened to find. I was very frightened; I am sure he was frightened too, and we shut our eyes. To remember it so clearly, so painfully tonight tells me that I have never for an instant truly forgotten it. 

Later on in the first chapter David says, “I had decided to allow no room in the universe for something which shamed and frightened me.”

And this sets the stage for the main action of the novel, where we find that David, broke817TxalnT7L and having proposed to Hella, waiting for her answer, (she has gone to Spain to travel and think about it) meets a young Italian waiter named Giovanni. He has been spending much of his time with people who were, “as Parisians put it, of le milieu, and while this milieu was certainly anxious enough to claim me, I was intent on proving, to them and to myself, that I was not of their company.” These older, wealthier gay men don’t seem to mind David’s condescension and continue to lend him money. The new waiter at the local bar causes a sensation among the regular patrons, but it is David who he ends up chatting with in sparkling and lightly flirtatious conversation, a fact which doesn’t escape the notice of everyone there. Jacques, one of the older men who seems much wiser than David in the ways of the heart, pointedly tells him, “Confusion is a luxury which only the very very young  can possibly afford and you are not that young anymore.”

I don’t want to go further and spoil anything else because this is a novel which deserves the designation “classic” and one that is so readable that modern readers will find a treasure trove of beautiful, philosophical lines to relish. As David and Giovanni become closer and Hella finally reenters the picture David is forced to make some hard choices about the path his life is going to take. No one is left unscathed by the outcome. As the reader already knows from the third page that Giovanni has done something that has caused him to be sentenced to death, it will come as no surprise that this novel is a sad one. Hella’s heartache when David finally opens up is also terribly moving. But as an exploration of the human heart and a man wrestling with his own shame this novel is a must-read.

(This book is also the 13th book from my 20 Books of Summer list.)

The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, edited by Jesmyn Ward

The Fire This Time is brilliant. Read it. The end.

Oookay, so I can’t really stop there. It was my book group’s read for June, and we all were impressed by it. Let me tell you about it.

71aOha7tq9LIt’s an essay and poetry anthology edited by the amazing Jesmyn Ward, author of Salvage the Bones, Men We Reaped, and most recently, the National Book Award-winner Sing, Unburied, Sing (which I haven’t yet read.) In her introduction, after trying to process the unjustified killing of Trayvon Martin and seeking wisdom from James Baldwin’s classic The Fire Next Time, she writes,

It was then that I wanted to call on some of the great thinkers and extraordinary voices of my generation to help me puzzle this out. I knew that a black boy who lives in the hilly deserts of California, who likes to get high with his friends on the weekend and who freezes in a prickly sweat whenever he sees blue lights in his rearview, would need a book like this. A book that would reckon with the fire of rage and despair and fierce, protective love currently sweeping through the streets and campuses of America. A book that would gather new voices in one place, in a lasting, physical form, and provide a forum for those writers to dissent, to call to account, to witness, to reckon. A book that a girl in rural Missouri could pick up at her local library and, while reading, encounter a voice that hushed her fears. In the pages she would find a wise aunt, a more present mother, who saw her terror and despair threading their fingers through her hair, and would comfort her. We want to tell her this: You matter. I love you. Please don’t forget it.

Writers I have read before like Carol Anderson (White Rage,) Kiese Laymon (Long Division,) and Claudia Rankine (Citizen: An American Lyric) contribute essays while poets Natasha Tretheway and Clint Smith offer moving poems. I was introduced to quite a few writers I’d never read before, like Garnette Cadogan, who wrote what might be my favorite essay of the bunch, “Black and Blue.” In it Cadogan contrasts his experiences walking all over his Kingston, Jamaica home as a teenager to his experiences walking in New Orleans and New York City as an adult. As a college student in New Orleans, university staff told him to restrict his walking to certain touristy, “safe” areas of town. He scoffed, thinking, come on, I’ve already been through every rough neighborhood of Kingston, these New Orleans criminals have nothing on them.

What no one had told me was that I was the one who would be considered a threat.

He describes incidents with white pedestrians and police, detailing how he would formulate the outfits he wore to appear as non-threatening and scholarly as possible.

Light-colored oxford shirt. V-neck sweater. Khaki pants. Chukkas. Sweatshirt of t-shirt with my university insignia…The sidewalk was  a minefield, and every hesitation and self-censored compensation reduced my dignity. Despite my best efforts, the streets never felt comfortably safe. Even a simple salutation was suspect.

His adoptive aunt persuades him to move to New York City, and he dreams of following in the footsteps of writers who had “wandered that  great city before me.” He spent the first few months exploring with friends and lovers, but it wasn’t long before “reality reminded me I wasn’t invulnerable, especially when I walked alone.” When running to dinner one night, a white man turned and punched him in the ribs, assuming he was a criminal, then blamed him for the assault because he ran up behind him. Another night he was jogging to the subway because he was late to meet a friend, and suddenly a police officer has pointed his gun at him and orders him against the police car. More cops surround him, each badgering him about why he was running, where was he going, where was he coming from. He couldn’t answer them all at once, trying to be calm and explain that he’d just left one group of friends to meet another, they could go find the friends down the street, look at his phone and see the texts. It turned out that a black man had stabbed someone earlier a few blocks away and they were looking for him. When a police captain puts his hand on Cadogan’s back and feels no sweat, he tells them to let him go because, “If he was running for a long time he would have been sweating.” The captain offers Cadogan a ride to the subway station, and when thanked for his help, the captain said, “It’s because you were polite that we let you go. If you were acting up it would have been different.”

I returned to the old rules I’d set for myself in New Orleans, with elaboration. No running, especially at night; no sudden movements; no hoodies; no objects – especially shiny ones – in hand; no waiting for friends on a street corner, lest I be mistaken for a drug dealer; no standing near a corner on the cell phone (same reason.)

This collection of essays and poems blew my mind. Sometimes I begin to think I am aware of my privilege and then I read more and more and I am shaken by all that I don’t know, all that I can’t truly know, because of the color of my skin. I am profoundly grateful that this anthology exists and that reading books like this enables me to question the status quo, empathize, and learn.

(This is book 8 of my 20 Books of Summer challenge.)

Five Sentence Reviews: Little Fires Everywhere and The Power

I just finished reading my 11th book (!) for 20 Books of Summer but I’m behind on my posts, so I thought I’d try a couple of short reviews.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

91twTG-CQ8LIntricate story, many layers of secrets, many points of view. Set in the planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio in the late 1990’s (and Ng really nails the sense of time and place.) I was completely absorbed in this story of unknown interior lives and two mothers with diametrically opposed ways of living, thinking, and raising children. This was better than Ng’s debut, Everything I Never Told You. I absolutely loved it. (5 Stars.)

Favorite quotation:

Parents, she thought, learned to survive touching their children less and less… Now, as a teenager, Pearl’s caresses has become rare – a peck on the cheek, a one-armed, half-hearted hug – and all the more precious because of that. It was the way of things, Mia thought to herself, but how hard it was. The occasional embrace, a head leaned for just a moment on your shoulder, when what you really wanted more than anything was to press them to you and hold them so tight you fused together and could never be taken apart. It was like training yourself to live on the smell of an apple alone, when what you really wanted was to devour it, to sink your teeth into it and consume it, seeds, core, and all.

 

The Power by Naomi Alderman

51PUiZ2CfqL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_This was a real page-turner for about the first 100-150 pages. Super compelling premise: teenage girls (and later grown women) develop a bodily adaptation (a power) to shoot electricity out of their hands, upending gender norms and relations all over the world. It was a neat idea – what kind of power would women wield? In the end, it sort of lost focus and fizzled and got incredibly dark, violent, and depressing, and there were only two characters well enough developed to care anything about. Would probably be a good book group choice, though. (3 Stars.)

Favorite quotation:

Tunde interviews a woman in the crowd. She had been here for the protests three years earlier; yes, she had held up her banner and shouted and signed her petitions. “It was like being part of a wave of water,” she says. “A wave of spray from the ocean feels powerful, but it is only there for a moment, the sun dries the puddles and the water is gone. Then you feel maybe it never happened. That is how it was with us. The only wave that changes anything is a tsunami. You have to hear down the houses and destroy the land if you want to be sure no one will forget you.”

Have you read either of these, or are they on your TBR? If you’re participating in 20 Books of Summer, how is it going?

(These are books 6 and 7 that I’ve written about from my 20 Books of Summer list.)

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

I do exist, don’t I? It often feels as if I’m not here, that I’m a figment of my own imagination. There are days when I feel so lightly connected to the earth that the threads that tether me to the planet are gossamer thin, spun sugar. A strong gust of wind could dislodge me completely, and I’d lift off and blow away, like one of those seeds in a dandelion clock.

31434883Oh my goodness, I loved this book. I had heard so much buzz about it that I didn’t know what to expect. When a book blows up like this one has it is sometimes a disappointment. Sometimes I avoid reading such a book in a perverse bit of book snobbery. If I had done so with Eleanor Oliphant, I would have missed out on one of my favorite books of the year so far, and it would have been a real shame.

This book is not what you think it is, even once you start digging into it. It starts off kind of quirky in tone, and you think maybe it’s lighter and fluffier than it turns out to be. It quickly becomes warm and wise, deeper and more life-affirming than I had anticipated. Eleanor is quite a character. She has constructed her life with precision to cut herself off from other humans as much as possible in today’s world and still hold a job. She holes up in her flat over the weekend with a couple of bottles of vodka and drinks slowly to dull her pain until Monday morning when she gets up and goes to work again. She is desperately lonely, however, talking to her houseplant Polly (the only possession she had saved from her childhood.)

I talk to her sometimes, I’m not ashamed to admit it. When the silence and the aloneness press down and around me, crushing me, carving through me like ice, I need to speak aloud sometimes, if only for proof of life.

But Eleanor is not pathetic. She is smart with a cutting wit and is a character that I was instantly drawn to. She doesn’t bother with the little societal niceties that make an office or most social interactions run smoothly. She doesn’t see the point, frankly. I wasn’t sure if she was supposed to be on the autism spectrum or not, but in any case, she isn’t really like most people.

And we soon see why. Little hints here and there are dropped about her past. She’s has a trauma, social workers check in on her bi-annually, and she has weekly conversations with her “Mummy” which are truly awful. Mummy is horrible and cruel. Initially I wondered, why on earth does she even talk to her once a week? Well, we come to find out a lot about Mummy and Eleanor’s past. It’s horrific, and we can see why she so desperately wants to cut herself off from other human beings and numb her feelings with a slow drip of vodka.

But things change in Eleanor’s life – the new IT guy at work, Raymond, inserts himself into her life in an affable, friendly way, and when the two happen to witness an older man, Sammy, collapse in the middle of the street, they team up to help get him the medical attention he needs. She also develops a rather intense crush on a rock singer she sees when she wins an office raffle of tickets to a concert. She is convinced that she’s found the man for her. It’s the kind of crush I has when I was 12 or 13. As she starts stalking the singer in her free time, Raymond and Sammy slowly thaw Eleanor’s defenses and draw her into an actual life. But Eleanor’s past, the things she can’t or won’t deal with, won’t let her go towards happiness easily…

This novel ends on a hopeful note, and when I finished I was tempted to flip back to the beginning and start again. I can definitely see myself reading this again in the future. It’s not exactly a “feel-good” read; it’s too sad and weighty to be considered that. But it is what I call a “life-affirming” read. This is a story of a woman who is not really living who slowly is pulled into something resembling a life, with genuine human connections and investment in herself. I really appreciated the way that Honeyman didn’t manipulate the reader. She lets the reader do the work of feeling things for herself instead of pulling the heart strings with maudlin sentimentality. And the fact that I never pitied Eleanor speaks volumes about the author’s affection for her character.

I highly recommend this novel, if this sounds at all like something you’d be interested in. Yes, everyone and her aunt’s book club is reading it, and Reese Witherspoon’s production company has optioned it, but there is much here to savor: a character you can truly root for and sharp commentary about the modern epidemic of loneliness.