Mini-Reviews: Swing Time and Letter From New York

Goodreads tells me I’ve read 18 books so far in 2018. This includes audio books and two chapter books I’ve read with my son (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and The Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl.) Currently my son and I have been reading more of the Magic Tree House books by Mary Pope Osborn. I haven’t included those in my tally since they’re so short but I’m thinking perhaps I should. After all, I’m reading them aloud to him a few chapters every night, and I’m enjoying them! Why should book length have anything to do with if it “really counts” as reading?

Anyway, I don’t review everything I read because, frankly, I want to do other things at night after he goes to sleep and I have a couple of hours to myself, including yoga, painting my nails, watching Netflix/movies, and – oh yes – reading! ūüôā So in the interest of catching up, here are a couple of quickie mini-reviews of recent reads.

51hi92m66BLSwing Time by Zadie Smith. When this came out in 2016 I added it to my TBR list and then in 2017 I took it off. Well, it was chosen as my book group choice last month so I ended up reading it after all! I gave it three stars but feel like it might really be closer to two for me. Parts of it felt like a total SLOG. The last 50 pages or so redeemed it a bit and brought up the star rating. It’s about two young mixed-race British girls growing up in a poor part of town, taking dance classes together and watching old dance movies with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, among others. Our narrator (first person) is unnamed, but her more talented friend is named Tracey, and she is more of a vibrant character at times as well. As they come of age, they do grow apart for many reasons, like their families and general paths in life. Our narrator ends up being the personal assistant to a super famous pop star named Aimee, an utterly obnoxious woman (almost a caricature.) Aimee has a notion to open a girls’ school in Senegal and Our Narrator helps get that running. We go back and forth with chapters about the friendship and chapters about Aimee and Africa. I never felt like I really got to know Our Narrator very well. I felt like she was passive, aimless, and very afraid to let herself really love or care deeply about anyone.

There was some beautiful writing, and I feel like Smith is so talented on a purely sentence quality level. I just wish her stories were better, more focused. To be fair, I’ve only read two of her books, this one and White Teeth. But I also felt like White Teeth started strong and petered out by the end. So I’m frustrated with my experiences of reading Smith, and it makes me not want to waste my time with any of her other novels. If anyone else out there has read NW or On Beauty, tell me what you think. My book group meeting is tomorrow (Sunday,) and I’m certain that this book will offer us plenty to discuss.

231256Letter From New York: BBC Woman’s Hour Broadcasts by Helene Hanff. This was a yummy blueberry muffin of a book. Enjoyable, sweet, kind of forgettable. I found my copy of this slim collection of essays last fall in a used book shop in Black Mountain, NC called Black Mountain Books. You may recognize Hanff’s name from her beloved book 84 Charing Cross Road, which every book lover should read in my opinion. Letter From New York is a collection of essays she read on a BBC radio show called The Woman’s Hour. They are short pieces detailing her life in New York City in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Her friends, neighbors, neighbors’ dogs, neighbors’ tiny patio gardens, dinner parties, New York City parades, the wonder and splendor of Central Park – all of these and more are chronicled in charming vignettes that take about five minutes each to read. I read one or two every day, parceling them out in the morning like little mini-muffins of a time gone by. I enjoyed them, but I didn’t take any notes or really even single out any particular paragraphs. I’ll say that if you’re a fan of reading about New York City, or if you enjoyed Hanff’s Charing Cross Road, you should seek out this 140-page collection.

Do you sometimes not “count” certain types of reading in your yearly Goodreads tally? Should I give Zadie Smith another try? Is the movie version of 84 Charing Cross Road worth a watch? Share your thoughts on this or anything else in the comments!


Long Division by Kiese Laymon

51mAbD8758L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Sometimes I read something and when I’m finished I think, “I don’t know if I really got this.” ¬†Kiese Laymon’s novel Long Division is one of those books. ¬†I know I would benefit from a reread, and from simply sitting with it longer than my appetite for reading allows. ¬†Even after a book group meeting and discussion, I still don’t think I fully grasp this novel. ¬†It’s a mind-bending book-within-a-book. ¬†We go from 2013 to 1985 to 1964 and back again. ¬†Characters show up and disappear, characters experience and witness violence, there is humor and sadness and time travel and I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to take from all of this except that I was invested and surprisingly moved in the end.

The book starts out in 2013 with our hero, Jackson, Mississippi high-schooler City (Citoyen) Coldson, getting ready to compete with a few classmates and others in the Can You Use That Word in a Sentence Contest, which was “started in 2006 after states in the Deep South, Midwest, and Southwest complained that the Scripps Spelling Bee was geographically biased.” ¬†It’s nearly impossible to set up this novel, so here’s the Goodreads description:

¬†The book contains two interwoven stories. In the first, it‚Äôs 2013: after an on-stage meltdown during a nationally televised quiz contest, 14-year-old Citoyen “City” Coldson becomes an overnight YouTube celebrity. The next day, he‚Äôs sent to stay with his grandmother in the small coastal community of Melahatchie, where a young girl named Baize Shephard has recently disappeared.

Before leaving, City is given a strange book without an author called Long Division. He learns that one of the book‚Äôs main characters is also named City Coldson–but Long Division is set in 1985. This 1985 City, along with his friend and love-object, Shalaya Crump, discovers a way to travel into the future, and steals a laptop and cellphone from an orphaned teenage rapper called…Baize Shephard. They ultimately take these with them all the way back to 1964, to help another time-traveler they meet protect his family from the Klan.

City’s two stories ultimately converge in the mysterious work shed behind his grandmother’s, where he discovers the key to Baize’s disappearance.

It’s not a long book, despite all the plot elements. There’s different typeface for what’s happening in the present day and what’s happening in the book City’s reading, which helps a bit to keep everything straight. ¬†It tackles serious subjects like race, class, and sexuality, with a sideways dark humor. ¬†It felt alternately playful and serious. ¬†Parts of it, especially at the beginning, reminded me of another book that made me feel dull-witted: ¬†Paul Beatty’s The Sellout.¬† (Not as outrageous, though.) ¬†I was not prepared for how absorbing this book is – it’s more like a speculative mystery than straight literary fiction. What happened to Baize? ¬†What is City’s grandmother hiding in her shed? ¬†Does everyone make it back to the present day? ¬†I was also not prepared for how emotional I would get reading it. ¬†I know. ¬†I cried, how shocking! ¬†ūüėÄ But for most of the book I was kept at a distance by the book-within-a-book format and the dizzying prose, and then – BAM! ¬†The last 30 pages hit me hard.

Make no mistake, this book is using fantasy and humor and meta fiction to talk about race in the Deep South. ¬†A white man in conflict with City’s grandmother says a mouth full with one sentence.

“Y’all mad at something more than me,” he said. ¬†“I ain’t do it.”

There’s a powerful moment where City is in his grandmother’s church, and he’s wondering what the parishioners would think if they knew what his grandmother was doing. ¬†He says,

If they ever found out, maybe two of them would talk smack about my grandma, but I figured that everyone in the church had been treated like a visitor on their own road, in their own town, in their own state, in their own country. ¬†It wasn’t really complicated at all, but I’d never understood it until right then in that church. ¬†When you and everyone like you and everyone who really likes you is treated like a pitiful nigger, or like a disposable nigger, or or like some terrorizing nigger, over and over again, in your own home, in your own state, in your own country, and the folks who treat you like a nigger are pretty much left alone, of course you start having fantasies about doing whatever you can – not just to get back at white folks, and not just to stop the pain, but to do something that I didn’t understand yet, something a million times worse than acting a fool in front of millions at a contest.

As I write this, I’ve decided that I must read this book again. ¬†And I’ve got to slow down next time.


A Friend From England by Anita Brookner

After reading Colson Whitehead’s¬†dazzling, sweeping novel The Underground Railroad, I was in the mood for something smaller and more intimate. ¬†I have it in the back of my mind (but not on my stated reading goals for the year) to read some of the books I already own. ¬†So I reached for Anita Brookner’s A Friend From England, which I purchased last year at a used bookstore for $.75. ¬†(What a steal!)

The most 80’s cover ever?

It was a good choice. ¬†Anita Brookner (who passed away last year, sadly) is a British author I discovered about nine years ago at the recommendation of a friend. ¬†I have read nine of her novels including this one, and I consider her to be among my favorite authors, but she’s definitely an acquired taste. ¬†Her novels (the ones I’ve read anyway) often follow a pattern. ¬†There’s the main character, often a single woman, who is independent, quiet, solitary. ¬†She is thrust into contact with a person or group of people wholly unlike her – gregarious, loud, or with family entanglements, for instance – and the growing relationship forces her to reconsider her life. ¬†It’s not always a happy comparison, and I’ve finished more than one of her novels kind of bummed out. ¬†Yet I can’t stop reading her!

First of all, she’s just a phenomenal writer. ¬†Her language is so precise, so thoughtfully rendered, it’s just a joy¬†to read. ¬†Second, she burrows so deep into the minds of her characters that it leaves me with a pleasurable claustrophobia that I sometimes crave in my reading. ¬†I want to know the characters, I want to try to understand them even when they can’t seem to understand themselves. ¬†I want to feel that their thoughts and motivations ring true, and Brookner knows how to convey that. ¬†And third, these books are quiet books about ordinary people and the workings of modern relationships. They are not epic in scope save¬†the scope of the human heart and its yearning for connection.

880698So I haven’t actually written anything about this particular book, have I? ¬†Well, essentially the plot is this: ¬†Rachel, a single 30-something London bookstore co-owner, orphaned at a young age, is swept into the fold of a wealthy family and asked to be their daughter’s mentor/friend. ¬†Heather, the inscrutable spoiled only daughter, makes a disastrous marriage and complications ensue for the entire family. ¬†See? Not much there plot-wise, really. ¬†But Rachel’s ordered, quiet life is completely upset by Heather’s refusal to accept her advice on how to live as an independent woman. ¬†Rachel is forced to look at her own life and question her choices.

“Some of us have to work,” I said. ¬†“Stay buoyant. ¬†Stay purposeful. ¬†Stay smiling, and helpful, and solvent. ¬†People like us are braver than people like you will ever be. ¬†And, frankly, I think I am light years ahead of you. ¬†I know what I need, to be all these things, and clear-headed, and useful. ¬†Women don’t sit at home anymore, you know, dreaming of Prince Charming. ¬†They don’t do it because they’ve found out that he doesn’t exist. ¬†As you should have found out. ¬†I live in the real world, the world of deceptions. ¬†You live in the world of illusions. ¬†That is one of the differences between us. ¬†Another one is that I don’t choose to go public every five minutes. ¬†What I do is my own affair and nobody else’s. ¬†Of course it’s terrible,” I said with some passion. “But you see, I’ve found out that there are no easy options.”

This wasn’t my favorite of the Brookner novels I’ve read. ¬†It was a bit too much of a slow burn, only truly coming alive in the last third. ¬†And the reason that Heather’s marriage falls apart is weirdly jarring. ¬†But I liked it, and it provided just the type of reading experience I wanted, a quiet, slightly melancholy¬†character study. ¬†If you’re curious about Ms. Brookner’s books and want to know where to begin, I’d start with either Look At Me, Hotel Du Lac (for which she won the Man-Booker Prize) or Incidents in the Rue Laugier.

Have you read anything by Anita Brookner before? ¬†Do you enjoy quiet, character-driven novels or are you more of a plot-driven reader? ¬†Do you read an author regularly who kinds of bums you out, but you can’t stop reading them? ¬†(Okay, maybe that’s just me, ha ha!) Tell me in the comments.


The Book of Night Women by Marlon James

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

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

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

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

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

Lilith, while watching a slave auction in Kingston:

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

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

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

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


Reading Ireland Month: House of Splendid Isolation by Edna O’Brien

(This post is part of Reading Ireland Month, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at The Fluff is Raging.   )

picmonkey-collageJosie O’Meara is old and lonely¬†in her crumbling big manor house in the Irish countryside. ¬†She’s come home from the hospital to die in her own home. ¬†She is haunted by her past, her abusive husband and a tragic love affair with an unavailable man. ¬†She is utterly alone in the world, a nurse occasionally coming to check on her and a grocery delivery coming once a week. ¬†The last thing she expected is to be caught up in the manhunt for a dangerous escaped IRA soldier, McGreevy, nicknamed The Beast. ¬†Informed of the owner’s invalid status, once he escapes from jail he travels south and uses her house for cover in an operation to kill a vacationing English lord. ¬†The last thing Josie expects is to feel something for a man described who is a¬†killer.

House of Splendid Isolation is a complicated novel, a mix of suspense, social commentary, and¬†exploration of the choices one makes and has to live with. ¬†I don’t pretend to know very much about Ireland’s Troubles, just the bare bones, but O’Brien makes McGreevy just sympathetic enough to have probably gotten some flack for her portrayal. ¬†My sympathies were engaged by many characters in this short novel – Josie, McGreevy, a young policeman who kills a man for the first time (one of McGreevy’s comrades,) a young woman who sympathizes with the IRA and seems to be waiting for her life to really begin. ¬†They are all caught in their roles, it seems, playing parts almost predestined for them. ¬†The action of the story shifts back and forth from the present to Josie’s sad past. ¬†McGreevy is not the only one who may have something to atone for.373131

Reading House of Splendid Isolation, I bemoaned the fact¬†that I had never read anything by Edna O’Brien before. ¬†I was thoroughly engrossed in the compelling story and propulsive writing style. ¬†O’Brien has crafted a moving story with some thrilling scenes – I was reading the scene where McGreevy breaks into Josie’s house while my husband was working at night, and my son was asleep, and I was convinced I heard a noise outside. (I was totally creeped out!) ¬†I appreciated the way O’Brien makes the reader work a bit – we’re not always sure who is talking or thinking when a scene shifts perspective. ¬†She keeps us on our toes. ¬†It is a sad novel, but the fast pace and the sensitive characterization make it worthwhile. ¬†This may have been my first O’Brien novel, but it will not be my last.


Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

I read Beloved in high school, and Sula in college. ¬†Both were excellent. ¬†But somewhere along the way after college I got the impression that Toni Morrison’s books were intimidating, and I shied away from them. ¬†Having read Tar Baby last year, and Song of Solomon this year, I can now say how foolish a notion that was. ¬†I was utterly captivated by Song of Solomon, and it’s something I most definitely would read againIMG_3026

Set mostly in an unnamed Northern city near the Great Lakes, Solomon focuses on the Dead family – father Macon, cold to¬†his family and obsessed with acquiring rental properties; mother Ruth, desperate for affection; daughters Magdalene called Lena and First Corinthians, sheltered¬†into spinsterhood; and¬†our hero, “Milkman” Dead, self-centered and stifled by his father’s ambitions for him. ¬†As he grows up he’s coddled by his mother and cared for by his sisters, while his father only tries to instill in him the love of money and property. ¬†Milkman goes to his aunt, Macon’s sister, Pilate, for something deeper, hungry for connection to his family’s story. ¬†Pilate is a bootlegger, a strong, earthy, witchy woman who wants nothing to do with her brother and his “civilized” pursuits. ¬†She also was born without a navel. ¬†(!) ¬†Her granddaughter, Hagar, falls in love with Milkman, and even though they are cousins they embark on a lengthy romantic relationship.

Milkman doesn’t love Hagar, however, and he¬†realizes he has¬†to find a way to leave his city and his family and make a life of his own, however he has to make that¬†happen. ¬†His father tells¬†him that Pilate’s got a stash of gold buried in the old family land in Virginia. So he leaves Hagar bereft and unhinged, and sets off on his quest in the South.

This is where the story really came alive for me, Milkman’s journey through the South, seeking literal and, ultimately, spiritual treasure. ¬†What really happened to Milkman’s grandfather and grandmother? ¬†Is there really any gold? ¬†Will Milkman be able to dodge the wrath of his best friend-turned-enemy Guitar Bains, who is convinced that Milkman’s holding out on him? ¬†Will Milkman find a way to be his own man?

The compelling plot is enhanced by Morrison’s¬†lyrical, beautiful writing. ¬†At times I wanted¬†to re-read a paragraph simply because it was so jaw-droppingly good. ¬†Here’s a section from the point of view of Hagar once she’s been spurned by Milkman:

The calculated violence of a shark grew in her, and like every witch that ever rode a broom straight through the night to a ceremonial infanticide as thrilled by the black wind as by the rod between her legs; like every fed-up-to-the-teeth bride who worried about the consistency of the grits she threw at her husband as well as the potency of the lye she had stirred into them; and like every queen and every courtesan who was struck by the beauty of her emerald ring as she tipped its poison into the old red wine, Hagar was energized by the details of her mission.  She stalked him.  Whenever the fist that  beat in her chest became that pointing finger, when any contact with him was better than non, she stalked him.  She could not get his love (and the possibility that he did not think of her at all was intolerable) so she settled for his fear.

Hagar, Pilate, Ruth, Corinthians and Magdalene called Lena are interesting characters, and they engaged my empathy. ¬†But this is really Milkman’s story. ¬†I didn’t think too much of Milkman until his journey south, until he started asking questions and seeking answers, the context of his family’s dysfunction. ¬†I was fully invested in this novel, and the final chapters held me breathless with emotion and anticipation. ¬†This is truly a masterwork by a master artist.


Housebound by Elizabeth Gentry

Imagine reading a book that is the equivalent of being locked in the Sleeping Beauty castle. ¬†Thorny vines wind their way around the windows and turrets, while inside, beautiful young people are sleeping peacefully. The family members in Elizabeth Gentry’s¬†Housebound are similarly asleep, as if under a spell. Reading it¬†was an enchanting but slightly breathless¬†experience.

Maggie and her eight siblings are home-schooled and isolated from the small town they live near, except for a weekly library trip. ¬†She is the eldest at 19, and the story begins when she realizes that it’s time for her to get a job and leave home¬†–¬†that if sIMG_2965he doesn’t, no one else ever will. ¬†Her announcement at breakfast one morning seems to break the spell that the family has been under for years. ¬†Maggie begins exploring the woods near her house, rambling around places she doesn’t remember going before, and meets neighbors and family members she’d forgotten existed. ¬†They start filling her in on what’s really been going on with her family all this time, and deeply buried family secrets are brought painfully to light.

This is an enthralling and slightly claustrophobic read. We get inside the minds not only of Maggie and her siblings, but also her parents, and very briefly, a rat that bites Maggie’s finger in one of the opening chapters. ¬† Menacing characters fill the woods like trolls or witches from fairy tales. The family’s house itself holds mysteries. I felt compelled to keep reading, to see if Maggie, was going to find her way out of the labyrinth of secrets and forgotten memories she was ensnared in. It’s a dark, cautionary fable, vague in time and place, but explicit in the ways families hurt each other and believe lies that both comfort and bind.