Gather Together in My Name by Maya Angelou (Classics Club Review #3; 20 Books of Summer #1)

It’s only been in the last couple of years that I realized that Maya Angelou had written more than one memoir (her most famous one, the one most likely assigned in school, is the first, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.) And then somehow I started reading them out of order – me, the person who is a stickler for reading mystery series in order! So I’ve read the first, many years ago, and then the third and the fifth more recently. Gather Together in My Name (published in 1974) is the second of her memoirs, and it takes up where Caged Bird leaves off. It’s post-WWII San Francisco/Oakland and teenage mother Maya (Marguerite, shortened to Rita for a short-lived job as a Creole cook) is determined to make her way in the world  with as little help as possible from her mother. In doing so she finds ways to make money that are surprising to say the least.

This is a slim book and covers a lot of ground for a time span of just a few years in her life. Maya/Rita has lived more lives than any one person ever really should – here she is a cook, a waitress, a dancer/entertainer, a madam (yes, you read that right!,) a prostitute, a chauffeur, and nearly enlists in the Army. She also goes back to Stamps, Arkansas, the tiny place where she grew up with her grandmother, on the run from her time as a madam. (Things are a little different in Stamps between whites and blacks, to say the least, and she ends up getting quickly sent back to California for her safety after offending a white store clerk.)

Gather Together is a darker volume than the third and fifth books. I had to keep reminding myself that Maya was a 17 year-old single mother, with the judgement/naivety of a 17 year-old. She keeps falling in love with men who aren’t good for her, and she has the mentality (probably common in the late 1940’s) that a man is going to rescue her and  her child and allow her to be a homemaker.

He would be a little younger than my father, and handsome in that casual way. His conservative clothes would fit well, and he’d talk to me softly and look at me penetratingly. He’d often pat me and tell me how proud he was of me and I’d strain to make him even prouder. We would live quietly in a pretty little house and I’d have another child, a girl, and the two children (whom he’d love equally) would climb over his knees and I would make three-layer caramel cakes in my electric kitchen until they went off to college.

With all of her travels, adventures, and lucky escapes, one thing that struck me was how her son, Guy, was passed around from caretaker to caretaker, and she left him for long stretches with women who she paid to look after him. During her time as a prostitute, she leaves him in the care of a woman named Big Mary. After an extended absence caring for her mother and brother Bailey, Maya returns to collect Guy only to find that Big Mary’s house is boarded up and she’s moved to parts unknown with Maya’s baby in tow. A neighbor watching from her house tells Maya that Big Mary has a brother in Bakersfield. With only that as a tip a distraught Maya manages to track down her Guy, who by this time is three years old.

He took a fistful of my hair and twisted and pulled, crying all the time. I couldn’t untangle the hair or pull my head away. I stood holding him while he raged at being abandoned. My sobs broke free on the waves of my first guilt. I had loved him and never considered that he was an entire person. Separate from my boundaries, I had not know before that he had and would have a life beyond being my son, my pretty baby, my cute doll, my charge. In the plowed farmyard near Bakersfield, I began to understand the uniqueness of that person. He was three and I was nineteen, and never again would I think of him as a beautiful appendage of myself.

Poor Guy! I am glad that I read this because I want to read all of her memoirs, but this one wasn’t one of my favorites so far, probably because young Maya is an unappealing  combination of naive, snobby, and headstrong. She gets herself into some insane situations by virtue of ignorance, misplaced self-confidence, and desperation to be loved.  As usual, the writing is elegant and thoughtful, if a tad detached. For me it wasn’t as captivating a read as the third (Singin’ and Swingin’ And Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas) and fifth (All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes.) But of course Maya is older in these books and has more about herself and the world figured out, and they both are set in interesting locales all over the world. I was shocked to read about the things young Maya did, knowing what we all know about the dignified, insightful, talented writer and poet she became, the lady who read poetry at President Clinton’s first inauguration. It’s a remarkable testament to the power of people to learn, grow, and change over the course of their lives.

(This is the third of my reviews for my Classics Club list and the first book of this year’s 20 Books of Summer Challenge.)

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Mini Reviews: Force of Nature by Jane Harper and Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

As usual my reading pace is way ahead of my blog posting, so here are some quick mini reviews as I try to catch up!

Force of Nature by Jane Harper (Aaron Falk #2.) A solid, enjoyable, page-turning 9182oC-vCTLmystery. Federal Agent Aaron Falk and his partner Carmen are investigating money laundering when their informant goes missing in the Australian bush on a company-sponsored wilderness retreat. As she did in her debut, The Dry, Harper excels at atmosphere, with the dense mountain foliage and isolation of the setting practically becoming a character in the novel itself. I like that we get a little more of a glimpse into Aaron Falk’s past, specifically more of a focus on his fraught relationship with his late father. But there is still a lot to learn about Falk, and I’m still curious. I also think the light glimmer of a spark with his partner is intriguing. The specifics of the mystery plot are well-written, although perhaps one might have to suspend one’s disbelief a bit to buy the circumstances in which the woman goes missing. If you can do that, you will enjoy the second in this series. I look forward to the next one! Four Stars.

Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi. How to describe this weird, magical book? I read this in earlyMr-Fox-Helen-Oyeyemi-Penguin April for my book group, although we were just able to meet last weekend to discuss. We all loved it. A riff on the Bluebeard fairy tale, if I had to summarize it briefly I’d say that Mr. Fox, an author, and his muse, the fictional (or is she?) Mary, write stories back and forth to one another. Mary wants Mr. Fox to stop writing misogynistic stories about women. Mr. Fox’s real-life wife, Daphne, is jealous of Mary and despairs about her marriage until she, too, begins writing herself into the story. I think that this book is about two things: the role of women in fiction and the challenges of vulnerable and equal romantic relationships. I’m not sure which one Oyeyemi is really emphasizing. But what resonated with me more was the love story between Mr. Fox and Daphne, and I have to say that the end left me with hope. This is one of those books that still perplexes me and challenges me, and I’d like to reread it again someday and try to puzzle it out some more. Four-and-a-half Stars.

Have you read either of these? Do they pique your interest?

 

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn

Is this what’s become of me? A woman who gawks like a guppy at an every day lunch hour? A visitor from another world, awed by the miracle of a new grocery store? Deep within my dry-iced brain, something throbs, something angry and vanquished. A flush sunrises in my cheeks. This is what’s become of me. This is who I am.

Sometimes what you need is a purely escapist thriller. A don’t-think-too-hard-about-it, page-turning suspense novel. Something you can finish in 2 or 3 days, even with work and family and hard things going on in your life. I greedily gobbled up A.J. Finn’s best-selling debut, The Woman in the Window, grateful for the respite from reality. (It’s hugely popular in the U.S. right now – my library system has a wait list over 200 people long, usually reserved for the likes of John Grisham and James Patterson. I must have put my name down relatively early I guess!)

u34+1F!EVWH7ngw7NLVXIcKIKW2pmYA+Gl!w8rbMsYH!BRIAG5OUet9tcq9F2XjffXkZsjELHH1dotzfe59Az8458JDs9D0t2hphI9KAc!+WsW1OYzkgsRAdZgmVYczuAnna Fox is severely agoraphobic, a virtual prisoner in her New York City home. She has a physical therapist and a psychiatrist who come over weekly to tend to her. She orders food (but mostly wine) online. She plays chess and takes French lessons online too. A former psychiatrist herself, she gives mental health advice to her fellow agoraphobics on an online chat room dedicated to the condition. She speaks to and about her family, husband Ed and daughter Olivia, who don’t live with her in the home. We don’t know what’s happened, but hints are dropped bit by bit that something terrible has happened, something for which Anna has blamed herself and that has resulted in the lonely half-life she currently lives.

Oh, and she also obsessively watches her neighbors through her camera lens. When she becomes acquainted with the new family who has moved in across the park, the Russells, crazy things start happening. Anna witnesses a gruesome act of violence through her window, but she can’t get anyone to believe her or corroborate her tale – not the police, not the Russells themselves. A heavy drinker and liberal mixer of medication and alcohol, Anna starts to doubt herself. The reader is taken along with Anna as she tries to prove that what she saw was real and that more people – including Anna herself – are in very real danger.

So we’ve got an addicted, possibly unreliable narrator as we did in Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, but I have to say that Finn’s writing elevated this novel over that one in my mind. Also, Anna is a much more sympathetic character than Rachel was, and as the novel goes along we get a glimpse into the truly devastating event that changed everything for her. I wanted Anna to quit mixing her wine and her meds already and rejoin the world, but I can’t say that I blamed her when I found out what happened. Still, I rooted for her.

I seem to have a weakness for these big, splashy thrillers that “everyone” is reading. I LOVED Gone Girl, really liked both of Ruth Ware’s novels that I’ve read, and thought that Paula Hawkins’s follow-up, Into the Water, was even better than Girl on the Train. I have to say that I think it’s best to approach these books with the mindset of fun and escapism, and not try to deconstruct or look too closely at the undercarriage. Maybe it was my distracted frame of mind, but there was a twist in this one that I did NOT see coming. There was one red herring that I did guess, or at the least my radar was alarmed by and had confirmed by the end.

I recommend The Woman in the Window if you’re a fan of thrillers, or if you’re just in the mood for a page-turning read. Also, side bonus: Anna is a huge fan of classic movies, especially Hitchcock films. (There’s a Rear Window vibe to this book for sure.) There are a ton of films referenced in the novel, and it reminded me again how many of his films I’ve not yet watched. In fact, I ordered Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 version) from my library to watch later this week. I don’t know that this book is one that will stay with me for long, but it was just what I needed to sink my teeth into recently. It would be a very good poolside read for the summer. 4 stars.

What’s the last escapist/page-turning book you read? Talk to me!

 

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

27746288I finished Goodbye, Vitamin on a screened-in porch on Folly Beach, South Carolina. I didn’t read very much on my vacation. Something about taking a vacation with a family group makes my attention feel very scattered, and I only picked up my books sporadically. But this is a short novel, and I was already a third of the way into it when we left for the beach. I was determined to finish at least one book while I was there. I’m glad I read it, but I don’t think I’m tempted to pick it up again.

Naomi, Deepika, and other bloggers I follow have read and reviewed this one favorably, so I knew I would probably enjoy it, despite the heavy subject matter. Fresh from a really tough break-up with her fiance, Joel, and at an impasse with her career, Ruth comes home (for a year) to help her mom care for her dad, who is in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Her dad, a former college professor and recovering alcoholic, is still under the impression he’s teaching classes because some of his students get together and take a fake “class” at various locations so that he’s not miserable. Ruth has a complicated relationship with all of her family members, including her younger brother Linus. In years past, her dad cheated on her mom and then there’s the whole alcoholism thing. But Ruth kind of idolized her father despite all of this, and seeing him decline is heartbreaking.

This sounds like a tremendous bummer. But somehow the mood of the book is never too sentimental or depressing. It’s quirky, because Ruth has a deadpan, matter-of-fact tone, and she is always including these odd little observations of her new strange life that have nothing to do with her family. For instance,

I see, walking on the other side of the street today, a man with enormous pecs. They look as inflated as popcorn bags right after microwaving.

The phrase “born humans” is what I think of whenever I see someone wildly different than me.

Fetal circulation is different from that of born humans. Fetuses have fine hair all over them that born humans don’t have. Fetuses do a thing like breathing that isn’t actually breathing – the motions develop their lungs. They take their first breath  when they’re born and that’s when the whole system changes incredibly: unborn to born.

We’re born humans, I think, about the huge-pec’ed man. With our functioning circulatory systems. Breathing, walking, having real hair. Just look at us.

Ruth is also slowly working her way back into life after the devastating breakup. She is on the verge of being detached, but this is probably a coping mechanism of her situation, I think. Her father gives her a book that he kept when she was little, where he wrote down the cute little things she said and did. That in and of itself is enough to trigger my tear ducts! But then, near the end of the book, Ruth starts keeping a book for her dad of the comical/strange things he says and does. When I realized this, I absolutely BURST into tears. I wailed and said to my husband, who was sitting on the porch next to me, “I don’t know if I can take this!” But I was so close to finishing I pressed on.  It’s a terribly crappy and unfair situation, one that everyone knows won’t have a happy ending. But in concentrating on the little things and living in the present moment every day, Ruth and her family come together in very moving and realistic ways.

In the end I am glad I read this. It was something I wouldn’t have picked up without the recommendation of bloggers I trust. I’m a sensitive reader, I cry easily, and sometimes I tend to shield myself from sad books. This one was really moving and tender without being maudlin or manipulative. I appreciate that so much. Writing this review made me start to cry again, just thinking about Ruth and her dad. Rachel Khong is a talented author who has created a family I didn’t necessarily want to join but one that I definitely believed and cared for. Four stars, sad but worth it.

 

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith (Classics Club #1)

A sense of purpose, strange and sweet to him, carried him along in an irresistible current. Merely in gazing out the window, he felt a new coordination of mind and eye. He began to realize what he intended to so. He was on his way to do a murder which not only would fulfill a desire of years, but would benefit a friend. It made Bruno very happy to do things for his friends. And his victim deserved her fate. Think of all the other good guys he would save from ever knowing her! The realization of his importance dazzled his mind, and for a long moment he felt completely and happily drunk. 

51eqhnR+VGL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_My first pick from my Classics Club list was a good one. Patricia Highsmith’s debut novel Strangers on a Train was a creepy, tense, psychological read. I had watched the Hitchcock film for the first time a few months ago, and wasn’t quite impressed. I found it overly long and lacking in star charisma. The book was better in my opinion, because it gives the reader a more revealing look into the minds of both its main characters, Charles Bruno and Guy Haines. Tension builds slowly as both men become more and more unhinged.

Guy and Bruno meet on a train to Metcalf, TX, where Guy’s mother lives. Bruno is on his way to meet his own mother in Sante Fe. Bruno is pushy and lonely, fueled by alcohol, and convinces Guy to dine with him in his private drawing room. There he regales Guy with tales of how unfairly he’s treated by his father, who controls the purse-strings and disapproves of Bruno’s gadabout, lazy ways. Guy humors and observes him, and when Bruno tells him he’s committed a robbery, Guy believes him.

Bruno could be violent. He could be insane, too. Despair, Guy thought, not insanity. The desperate boredom of the wealthy, that he often spoke of to Anne. It tended to destroy rather than create. And it could lead to crime as easily as privation.

51YICz8X2yL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Bruno gets Guy to open up about his own troubles, the fact that he’s trying to get his unfaithful wife Miriam to divorce him (partly so he can move on with his girlfriend, Anne, which he doesn’t tell Bruno at the time.) So Bruno offers what he considers an unbeatable idea: Bruno will murder Miriam and Guy can return the favor by murdering his father. They just met on the train, after all, so there will be nothing to connect them to one another in the investigations. A foolproof plan, right?

I don’t want to spoil any of the developments in case you’ve neither seen the movie nor read the book. As the two men’s lives become more entangled and things go awry, Highsmith does an excellent job conveying the deteriorating mental conditions of both men. Bruno is practically in love with Guy, hounding him for attention and friendship. Guy is repelled by Bruno and wants nothing to do with him but can’t seem to be able to tell Anne or the police what’s going on. At one point Bruno sends him letters detailing how Guy should carry out the murder of his father. Then he burns them, thinking no one would believe him. I exasperatedly wrote in my notes, “IDIOT!” But of course, if he had gone to the police, the novel would have ended at about 130 pages. Bruno keeps tightening the screws on Guy until he becomes a sleepless, depressed mess, and then…

Despite the ingenious plot device at the beginning, I wouldn’t say this was a plot-driven novel. It’s more of an interior, psychological character study of two men – one with an alcohol problem and deep-seated mental problems that reveal themselves over time and one who is seemingly “normal” but is slowly driven mad by guilt and secrets and perhaps his own unacknowledged rage.  It reminded me in a way of the standalone novels I’ve read by Ruth Rendell, one of my favorite mystery writers. She has a way of making unlikable and possibly deranged characters at the very least understandable. Highsmith wasn’t quite there yet, in my opinion, with this debut novel, but the quality of the writing and the depth of the main characters elevate it to four stars in my eyes. Can anyone really be capable of murder, as Bruno believes?

Have you read this or seen the film? Have you read any other of Patricia Highsmith’s novels?

Dead Scared by S.J. Bolton (Lacey Flint series #2)

Jesus, what was I thinking? I had no idea how to be an undercover officer. SO10 trained its officers rigorously. The programme was tough and not everyone who applied made it through. Whilst it wasn’t unusual for run-of-the-mill detectives to go undercover, they were rarely sent into situations that lasted any amount of time. Besides, I’d joined the Met to work on serious crimes against women. If I spent the next few months off the grid, I could miss the chance to transfer to one of the specialist units. Why had I agreed?

Like I needed the answer to that one. I was doing it for Joesbury.

13120860Here is a mystery series on which I have become good and hooked. S.J. Bolton knows how to write a page-turner. Dead Scared is set in the academic world of Cambridge, where an alarming trend of grisly apparent suicides and suicide attempts has set the University on edge. Most of the victims are attractive young women, and DC Lacey Flint is recruited to pose undercover as a student. The police think that perhaps someone is encouraging these vulnerable young women to end their lives, perhaps on an online chat room. What Flint uncovers is much darker than she ever imagined.

As with the first in the series, Now You See Me, Bolton includes some nice misdirection; I was sure that a certain character, to whom Lacey feels attracted, had something to do with the deaths. There is also an interesting secondary character, a professor named Dr. Evie Oliver, head of student counseling, who forms a bond with Lacey and is the only person on campus who knows that she is a detective. She’s treated some of the young women involved and feels a great interest in the investigation.  While Lacey is trying to settle into the routines of academic life, including a frightening episode of hazing (which actually disturbed me a great deal) involving a bucket of water on a cold night, Dr. Oliver is dealing with creepy things going on in her university-owned home. Pinecones (which hold significance for her) being left in a neat line in her driveway and in a pile on her dining room table, a wind-up “bone-man” going off in an upstairs closet, threatening message left in the steam of her bathroom mirror. But the police, for various reasons, don’t seem to exactly believe her. Things get scary for Lacey as well, as she deals with her feelings of inadequacy in the academic environment and starts having some vivid, terrifying dreams that feel all too real.

There is a tremendous sense of menace throughout this novel. While reading at night, I had to put the book down in a few places and wait to read it the next day in the safety and bright lights of my workplace break room! And I will warn you, the apparent suicides and attempts are very dark and gruesome. I normally don’t really go for stuff like that, but this series is so well-written and the relationship between the two main detectives, Lacey and DI Mark Joesbury, is so full of complicated and repressed attraction that I can’t help but be drawn in. I would say that if you’d not read the first in the series, you could still jump in with this one and be fine; there’s just enough allusion to the backstory that you’d feel up to speed and the plot is so engrossing you wouldn’t care. If you like British mysteries and can tolerate darker plot lines, I recommend you give these a try.

Passing by Nella Larsen

The trouble with Clare was, not only that she wanted to have her cake and eat it too, but that she wanted to nibble at the cakes of other folk as well.

349929I’m not sure I’ve read a novel of 114 pages that contains more ideas, more things to talk about and consider than Nella Larsen’s 1929 classic, Passing. As much as it is a story about race in America in the 1920’s, it is also about friendship, marriage, class, and motherhood. The awakening of a childhood friendship between two light-skinned African American women sets both on a collision course with unnerving and surprising results.

Catlike. Certainly that was the word which best described Clare Kendry, if any single word could describe her. Sometimes she was hard and apparently without any feeling at all; sometimes she was affectionate and rashly impulsive. And there was about her an amazing soft malice, hidden well away until provoked. 

Passing opens with Irene Redfield receiving a letter from Clare that instantly takes her back to a chance meeting in Chicago two years prior. There Irene became reacquainted with Clare at a hotel rooftop restaurant, in a not very comfortable conversation where Clare, the granddaughter of a white man, nonchalantly told Irene that she’d been passing for white.

“You know, ‘Rene, I’ve often wondered why more coloured girls, girls like you and Margaret Hammer and Esther Dawson and – oh, lots of others – never ‘passed’ over. It’s such a frightfully easy thing to do. If one’s the type, all that’s needed is a little nerve.”

Irene, who is strangely under Clare’s spell, yet finds what she’s doing “dangerous” and “abhorrent,” decides after the meeting that she doesn’t want anything more to do with Clare. But Clare persuades her to come by before she leaves town. There she finds another old acquaintance, Gertrude, who is also passing, but with the distinction that her husband knows of her true heritage. Clare, we find out, is hiding her racial background from her husband, John “Jack” Bellew. Bellew is a repulsive loud-mouthed bigot, totally unaware that he’s married to a mixed-race woman. He goes so far as to call her “Nig” because she has gotten darker as their marriage has progressed. The whole conversation with Jack and Gertrude is most uncomfortable for both the characters and the reader. After the meeting, Irene receives a conciliatory note from Clare, but she never thinks that she and Clare will meet again.

But they do indeed meet again, as Clare can’t help herself but reach out to the African American community she misses desperately. Irene, herself preoccupied with her duties and the stability of being a mother and wife, reluctantly lets Clare in to her social circle in Harlem. We learn that Irene and her husband Brian are on shaky ground in their relationship, and Irene is increasingly mad to hang on to her marriage and family.

It was only that she wanted him to be happy, resenting, however, his inability to be so with things as they were, and never acknowledging that though she did want him to be happy, it was only in her own way and by some plan of hers for him they she truly desired him to be so. 

I don’t want to spoil anything else in this slim, yet jam-packed classic. Clare and Irene are opposites in temperament and lifestyle, and yet they orbit one another as if magnetically attracted to each other. There are consequences that are compelling and almost shocking, with an ending that leaves the reader pondering what actually happened. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. Larsen writes beautifully and thoughtfully about the racial intricacies of 1920’s New York City; there’s a great scene between Irene and Brian where they fundamentally disagree about what to tell their sons about the racial realities they’ll face as they grow up. She also writes about a marriage on rocky ground, and portrays Irene as a sympathetic yet not warm-and-fuzzy character. She’s someone I felt like I understood but didn’t particularly like (which is fine, I don’t have to like characters to find them compelling.) In the end I found myself questioning Irene’s reliability as a narrator. There is plenty to discuss and this would make an excellent choice for a book group!

I’m looking forward to reading Larsen’s other work, Quicksand, which Melanie at GTL tells me she prefers to Passing. And she’s written some short stories I’d like to check out as well. I highly recommend this to those who are looking for a classic novel that’s not too long but full of emotion, plot, and beautiful writing!

(With much thanks to Fiction Fan for inspiring me to read this novel. You can read her stellar review here.)