Took a vacation day yesterday and two four hour plane rides during my long weekend so I got Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, Educated by Tara Westover, and The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon by Alexander McCall Smith.

I loved Everything I Never Told You, it reminded me of Little Fires Everywhere — they are very different stories, but Ng’s writing is wonderful. Everything I Never Told You is the story of a mixed race family in the 1960’s and 1970’s — not the easiest time to not be a white person in America.  In this case, the mom is a woman who is raised to be a wife and mother and desperately wants to be a doctor, but ends up being mom to three kids. The dad is a Chinese-American (born in America, but to Chinese born parents in the 1940’s and so doomed to spend his life proving that he’s American, that he’s “from here”) who worked incredibly hard to get into Harvard and loves teaching American History, but can’t get a job teaching anywhere but a mediocre college in Ohio.

Ng seems to really enjoy starting with a moment, and then working backwards to tell the reader, here’s how got here. So I don’t think I’m ruining anything to tell you that this book opens with the sentence “Lydia is dead.” In Little Fires Everywhere, Ng doesn’t tell you what happens next, but Everything I Never Told You goes in both directions, telling you both how Lydia (the middle child, and older daughter) ended up dead, and how her family copes with the aftermath of her death.

Despite knowing that Lydia dies, the book still manages to surprise you. Also, some of the complicated dynamics between these parents and their three children do actually get recognized and discussed between the characters. Despite the sadness, this is a fairly hopeful book.

Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated made me feel less hopeful. She was raised by “Mormon” survivalists in Idaho, “homeschooled,” and severely abused and neglected, and managed to get into college, get a PhD at Cambridge, a Harvard fellowship, etc. I say “Mormon” because her parents go to church, but believe a lot of additional things that the Mormon church does not (the government is out to get you, doctors are evil socialists, etc.). And I say “homeschooled” because her parents don’t really bother to teach her anything beyond how to read and do basic math.

I found this book interesting, Westover has a great narrative style. Her book isn’t exactly hopeful though because while Westover left and is now okay with the fact that some of her family (including her parents) aren’t in her life any more. Unlike Everything I Never Told You, because this is non-fiction, there isn’t a catharsis. There is a chasm between what Westover believes (she becomes more okay with getting vaccines,  going to the doctor, believing women can work outside the home) and what her parents believe (God speaks to her mother through her fingers?) and it’s not going to close any time soon.

Currently reading: The Ten Year Nap, heading to pick up Exit West from the library

 

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I read Eat the Apple by Matt Young in what I think was three sittings. Although it’s a pretty disturbing book, it’s a fast read. It’s Young’s memoir about his three deployments to Iraq between 2006 and 2009 (so yes, a downer for sure). It definitely doesn’t convince you that the Iraq War was a great use of anyone’s life.

I found it slightly annoying that the book is unconventional in its structure, not exactly Gertrude Stein, but definitely a mix of different types of storytelling, not exactly linear, sometimes told in second person, there is one long hand drawn cartoon as well as several other cartoons (I actually really enjoyed the cartoons, the style is sort of XKCDish and the annotations are hilarious). But I understand that for Young, a straightforward I woke up, I did this, I did that, I came home, wouldn’t have conveyed the story of his deployments.

No one will enjoy this book, the topic precludes that I think, but I would still recommend it to those who understand what they’re in for. I am actually most fascinated by what’s not here — how did a guy with a drinking problem, PTSD, issues about masculinity, consistently cheating on his fiancé, etc. end up a stable writer who teaches writing, married to someone he loves? How did the person described in this memoir, who is very admittedly, not a great person put through a horrible ordeal for unclear reasons come out on the other side of this? Towards the end of the book there is a conversation between “Past Me” and “Me” which recognizes the chasm that exists between 18 year old Young and present day Young — but doesn’t really explain how he got from A to B.

For the most part instead, you get the story of Young enlisting, his training, and the three deployments as well as the time between when he was basically just continuing to self-destruct. Which, is also important, but left me very curious about how he transitioned from the person he was from 18-21 and who he is now, able to reflect back on these experience and contextualize them?

I marked a chapter called “Rapid” about killing rapid dogs where Young begins almost every sentence with “It’s important” to sort of demonstrate the tone of the book:

It’s important to remember that ‘dog’ is a loose term. It’s important to remember that we can say they probably most likely without much of a doubt and with the utmost confidence all have rabies or worms or congenital diseases or are overpopulated or are suffering from canine depression or have bitten a village child or whatever. It’s important to remember our boredom and lack of sleep and anger and sadness and youth and misunderstanding and loneliness and hate. It’s important to remember that we don’t want to, not really, not deep down. It’s important to remember that we’re just following order. It’s important to remember the Nazis and the Nuremburg Defense.

If anything, this book will convince you that we sent a bunch of very young men to the Middle East who didn’t have much of a sense of themselves, without having much of a plan and that for many people, this brought out the stupidest and worst parts of themselves (the amount of porn and masturbation mentioned in this book alone kind of depresses me).

At the same time, the book certainly doesn’t put marines down — another chapter, “Brothers,” discusses the way the men rallied around a fellow marine when he admitted to them he was gay after enduring all the ways that they have been just generally insulting gay men constantly in their conversations — “We think about this and we understand that he has been cast further than us, that he has been struggling and sinking in the desert sands for years alone and it is because of us. We enfold him and defend him and love him like brothers.”

Currently reading: Still Spineless, and now also more Alexander McCall Smith (THINGS WERE GETTING HEAVY UP IN HERE OKAY! Do you have a favorite author you turn to when you need an escape book instead of a “I learned something” book?)

Finished Pachinko last night, and I essentially stand by my prior brief summary and that you’ll like this book if you enjoy historical fiction.

Writing just to say, one criticism of the book is that the later characters seen rushed, and I can definitely see that. Having finished, I was thinking this book reminds me of the three book series by Jane Smiley (Some Luck, also covers about a century of one family, but in the American Midwest) and I kind of wish Lee had written this as a three book series.

Currently reading : Spineless, just finished Eat the Apple.

So, technically speaking I haven’t finished Pachinko (by Min Jin Lee) yet… It’s 485 pages and it hasn’t been a great week for reading, but unless it really falls apart, I think I can recommend it, assuming you like historical fiction.

Essentially, it tells the story of a Korean family living (so far) in Korea and Japan in the 20th century. As a fan of MASH, you’d think I’d know this wasn’t a great time for Korea, but this book made me realize I really don’t know even the basics other than the fact that the Korean War followed shortly after WW2. The characters are very engaging and I do feel really invested in what’s going to happen to them. Not quite as much of a page turner as The Animators was for me, but I think I will ultimately be glad to have read it.

The book does speak a lot about the racism faced by Koreans living in Japan, which isn’t necessarily something I’ve thought much about before (see, lack of awareness of Korean history, colonization by Japan…)

When They Call You A Terrorist (by Asha Bandele and Patrisse Cullorsis) about the racism I’m more aware of, that faced by black and brown Americans, but I’m so glad I read it. I strongly recommend it. Did you already know about racism in America? I hope so. But, Cullorsis’ story (the book is her memoir, written with Bandele’s help) is a powerful reminder to me that I should be thinking and doing more about it. It is a heart breaking book, but, also a book not bereft of hope. You should read it, especially if you’re a white American.

Currently reading : still Pachinko, also Spineless, and I have way too many books out of the library…

Oh gosh. This book guys. This is a great book. I have definitely become the kind of person that forces books into other people’s hands — I used to hate lending books around, but then I cleaned out my parents house and donated more than four Toyota Corolla’s worth of books (yes, I filled my car with books four times, I traded another few bags at my local used book store turning books I didn’t want into fewer books that I did want, and ultimately donated another few bags to the library after the Savers near me went out of business, possibly due to my many book donations…).  And I realized two things –(1) it may be possible to have too many books and (2) man I wish I had kept those books and opened my own used book store.  Since I gave up my easiest chance to become a used bookstore owner, I probably don’t need to hold tight to every single book I own (it is a lot), I should share the great ones.

Sadly I took The Animators out of the library (okay not that sadly, I have a lot of books already…) but suffice it to say that someone is getting this book for their birthday/Christmas/Arbor Day/whatever.

The basics, this is a book about two women (Sharon and Mel) who work together as an artistic partnership and create adult cartoons.  It is sort of a coming of age, although it mostly covers the two-ish years after they begin to be a little bit famous.  You get a sort of short story (the prologue) that sets up their meeting in college, and then the book opens with them finishing their first big project to modest acclaim and winning a grant to make their next project. It is told from Sharon’s point of view.

I thought this book would be about how once you make something great, there can be a real question about whether you’ll ever make another great thing. And it sort of was, but there were also a lot of twists on that. It was kind of, to me at least, a story about feeling very lost, and then coming out on the other side, in your 30’s and realizing that you’re not clueless, that you have some advice to give to the 20 year olds following you, but maybe you’re never going to have quite the clarity you want.

SPOILERS! SPOILERS ARE COMING! IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW ABOUT THE PLOT OF THIS BOOK BEFORE YOU READ IT! ABORT! ABORT! LOOK AWAY NOW! OKAY YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

I marked so many passages of this book because I loved them. I will say, it was kind of a hilarious moment for me in that Mel’s mom dies on page 38. Oh geez, of course. Although I found myself relating a lot of Mel’s thoughts and Sharon’s observations, though not all of it.

There is a second death in this book, and even though I have warned you, I feel bad revealing exactly who it is. But I found the discussion of that death very realistic as well — it is so hard that everyone else goes on living when someone you love has died.  Nothing stops the way it should, you have to go back to work. You have to keep being alive, but suddenly you’re just different. I also really identified with Sharon’s resentment that the person she loves “now exists only in my head. . . It is idealized [name], cheap, ill-made. And that cuts most of all. In my heart of hearts, I know how much she would have hated that.” She hates that this complete person has become “a series of anecdotes.” It is so difficult to integrate that someone is gone, and to figure out how they can be gone, and to figure out what your relationship is with this new gone person.

There’s a lot about Sharon’s past as well (her past ends up being the focus of their new project) — she grew up in Kentucky, as sort of an odd duck and got a scholarship to an elite school. I enjoyed the scene where, after she’s won this scholarship, the local librarian says to her:

“‘This place,’ she said, ‘is a bucket of sand crabs. One tried to climb out, the others’ll reach up and pull him back down. Climb out of here. Don’t you dare come back.'”

I love this image, although fortunately this isn’t a simplistic, get out of hick town narrative. There ends up being a lot of complexity about Sharon’s relationship to where she’s from and who that makes her.

There are additionally just some beautifully written sentences in this book –

“And it is during lovemaking, sometimes rowdy enough to be called fucking and sometimes gentle enough to be called prayer, that we loosen our holds on ourselves enough to confess that this has never happened before, to either one of us, maybe not to anyone else ever, and we hope against hope, with gritted teeth, that there will be no end.”

This book lost, immediately, in the first round of The Morning New Tournament of Books this year. But, as one of the commenters said when people were kind of raining on Fever Dreams (which won, and I get it, because it is powerful if not delightful), we all won the tournament of books because we made all these new book friends, which for me includes my new book friend The Animators.  (This is almost enough to make me not bitter than Manhattan Beach, Sing Unburied Sing, and The Animators all got knocked out. Almost. BUT CAN YOU BELIEVE LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE WAS NOT EVEN PART OF THE COMPETITION??).

Currently reading: When They Call You a Terrorist and weighing whether to start another non-fiction or go pick up Pachinko from the library.

This past week I read The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman and Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld. I didn’t necessarily intend them as a set, but both are about magical sisters. Both happen to be books by authors that I’m fond of — Sisterland was the only Sittenfeld book that I hadn’t read although there’s a lot of Hoffman that I  haven’t gotten to yet.  I loved Hoffman’s Faithful and definitely recommend that to you, and you may recall that I read Practical Magic last year (The Rules of Magic is a prequel).

Sittenfeld has only written five novels so far, previously I’d read Eligible, American Wife, and Man of My Dreams, and last year I finally read Prep.  I really loved Eligible (a modern day retelling of Pride and Prejudice) and I loved American Wife. Sisterland, like Man of My Dreams, was okay. Didn’t care for Prep — I felt like it went nowhere and I wasn’t really invested in the main character.  Sisterland is about twins who both have some psychic abilities — the main character doesn’t want to have ‘senses’ as she calls them, and her twin sister becomes briefly famous predicting a major earthquake will occur in St. Louis and she makes her living as a medium/psychic. The novel deals with the two sister’s lives coming up on the predicted earthquake, while frequently flashing back telling the story of the women’s past up to the present moment. I didn’t love how this book ended, but after about 150 pages it became hard to put down. I was invested in the doesn’t want to be psychic twin and her life took some crazy turns.

The Rules of Magic has a very different feel — this is a world where magic is unquestionable real, whereas you could sort of read Sisterland either way. I want to say that if you liked Practical Magic, you’ll like this, but I think that’s only true if what you liked about Practical Magic was the feel, the flow, the style of the book.  This seemed very much of the same world to me, but this novel doesn’t touch much on Sally and Gillian don’t appear until almost the very end, so if it was those characters that you loved, you may not be satisfied. Basically, this is a coming of age novel for the aunts who appear in Practical Magic, you learn about how they grew up, discovered their magic, lost and found love, and ended up being the aunts of Practical Magic. It is a fairly sad book (so is Sisterland) in terms of plot, but the magic keeps it feeling sort of not so sad despite all the sad things that happen.

Currently reading: Haven’t started the next book yet, but have Spineless, When they Call You a Terrorist, The Animators, and Eat the Apple out of the library right now. (I know, only four library books??) And I keep meaning to start Future Home of the Living God so… who knows what’s next.

Also, where I work we tend to be very focused on quarters, so I’ve just about wrapped up a quarter of this year, and I’m on track (actually ahead of schedule) to read 100 books, here’s the completely Q1 list :

Books Read in 2018

January
1. The Power – Naomi Alderman
2. Lab Girl – Hope Jahren
3. How To Fall In Love With Anyone – Mandy Len Catron
4. The Awkward Age – Francesca Segal
5. From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death – Caitlin Doughty
6. The End We Start From – Megan Hunter
7. Where the Past Begins – Amy Tan
8. Manhattan Beach – Jennifer Egan

February
9. Before We Were Yours – Lisa Wingate
10. Our Lady of the Prairie – Thisbe Nissen
11. Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng
12. A Distant View of Everything – Alexander McCall Smith
13. The Last Girlfriend on Earth – Simon Rich
14. The Double Comfort Safari Club -Alexander McCall Smith
15. Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House – Michael Wolff
16. Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder – Caroline Fraser
17. The Largese of the Sea Maiden – Denis Johnson
18. The Owl Killers – Karen Maitland

March
19. The Saturday Big Tent Wedding – Alexander McCall Smith
20. Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive one of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures – Ben Mezrich
21. The Bride Wore Size 12 – Meg Cabot
22. My Dream of You – Nuala O’Faolain
23. How to Stop Time – Matt Haig
24. The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection – Alexander McCall Smith
25. Sing Unburied Sing – Jesmyn Ward
26. Fever Dreams – Samanta Schweblin
27. The Rules of Magic -Alice Hoffman
28. Sisterland – Curtis Sittenfeld

Current favorites of the year: Little Fires Everywhere and Manhattan Beach.

This past week had me reading Sing Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward and Fever Dreams by Samanta Schweblin. Fever Dreams wasn’t on my list until it beat Lincoln in the Bardo in The Morning News Tournament of Books. I read the entire book in one sitting in about an hour, which is partially because I’m a fast reader, and partially because you cannot put this book down or even really pause while reading it because, for me at least, you’re desperately trying to figure out what the heck is going on. The book never really tells you what the heck is going on. So, if you want to read a kind of terrifying, wonderfully written book, that in the end leaves you with lots of questions – this is the book for you. I’m very impressed with the translator (it was originally written in Spanish), because while I’m sure something was lost in the translation, I really couldn’t tell. The book is gripping. It kind of made me think of the documentary Koyaanisqatsi- Life out of Balance although Fever Dreams tells a specific story and Koyaanisqatsi doesn’t really tell a story at all so much as create a similar terror inside you at what we’re doing to the planet…

The more I think about, the more I am forced to tell you that I didn’t like Fever Dream and I’m not sure I would recommend it to you. It doesn’t exactly feel like a book to me. It was more of an immersive experience. So I guess I don’t want to not recommend it to you because it is an amazingly written book, it’s just going to leave you thinking AHHHAH and WHAT??? I realize I have provided you with no summary of the plot of this book and I guess that because I still can’t really tell you what it was about… And I don’t want to ruin anything for you if you do pick this up.

I will recommend Sing Unburied Sing which is one of those books that’s gone on my “to read” list and come off and then gone on again as I read different reviews. Once again it was the Tournament of Books that convinced me to bump this up the list. I thought this book would be creepier and more sort of fantastical, al la Beloved (although in deference to Beloved, I read it in high school when I loved sci-fi but didn’t really get supernatural realism or genre bending), but I found it to be painfully real.

Sing is narrated by Jojo a 13 year old boy, his mother Leonie, and a ghost Richie. Yeah, okay, so the book is a bit supernatural… Despite the ghosts that populate the book, this book feels true, it says important things about how people face life and death. I don’t know how much of the plot to describe to you, basically the book covers Jojo’s father getting out of prison and Jojo, Leonie, and his little sister go to pick him, also accidentally pick up Richie the ghost, and then they go back home.

SPOILERS:

I found Mam’s death scene kind of realistic, which is maybe odd because there are multiple ghosts and supernatural stuff that happens, but for me at least, it captured the emotion of being with someone as they die, especially in a situation where you’re letting them go and you don’t want to. Also, while I don’t believe in ghosts, my Dad repeatedly told my mom at the end that her parents were with her, that her family had come to take her home, so I think a lot of people will identify with the idea that Mam’s son comes to fight for her and to take her home.

Sing is a beautifully written book. I returned the book to the library today, pretty much immediately after finishing it, because I didn’t want to be preventing anyone else from reading it. I kind of regret this and would like to re-read the end of the book, so I may actually end up buying this one.
Also read – The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection – Alexander McCall Smith. I’ve written about this series a few times, so I’ll spare you the same thoughts. Managed to resist getting the next book in The Number One Ladies Detective Agency series out of the library today, instead taking out The Animators and When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir.

Currently reading: The Rules of Magic (and then on to my new library books and my older library books…).