Thursday, January 29, 2015

Murder at Belle Vie Plantation

The Cutting Season by Attica Locke
The Cutting Season is a murder mystery by Attica Locke set on a historic Louisiana plantation.  A migrant worker's body is found one morning out past the old slave quarters, and her death seems to have many parallels with a man who went missing more than 100 years ago from the same area.  Caren Gray is the manager of historic Belle Vie plantation.  She grew up there, helping her mother in the kitchen.  And several generations of her family have worked there, many as slaves.  Now she lives on the plantation with her 9-year-old daughter, and her family is comprised of the other people who work at the historic home.  When one of her co-workers is arrested for the murder, Caren gets deeply involved in working to clear his name.

In her book The Republic of Imagination, Azar Nafisi talks at length about the Southern novel in American literature and her discussion with a classmate about how it is distinct from all others, and can only be fully understood by someone from the South.  It's lucky that I read The Cutting Season right after finishing The Republic of Imagination because I can see what Nafisi's classmate meant.  There is so much Gothic atmosphere in this novel, you can practically smell the heady scent of flowers and feel the weight of history on the shoulders of everyone even tangentially connected to the Belle Vie plantation.  I haven't spent a lot of time in the south, but Jenny says that Locke does brilliantly with this, and I trust Jenny as a true southern gal to know what's authentic.

Reading The Cutting Season in the midst of the Ferguson and NYC grand jury aftermath, with the massive distrust that currently dominates the relationship between minority communities and the police, a lot of the decisions and actions that Caren and the other characters made were much more understandable.  I can see why none of them wanted to involve the police (and, as the police were not particularly effective, why they were so frightened that everything they did and said would be misconstrued).  I appreciated how Locke really brought these to life - even very successful, very intelligent people were scared of what the police might do.

I also appreciated the way Locke mixed current events with historic ones to show just how completely the past impacts the world we live in today.  It was so well-done, having Caren learn more and more about her own past and what happened on the plantation generations ago and have that story parallel the one happening currently.  It brought up all sorts of themes that Locke alluded to but never went into great detail on - the case for reparations, the source of money for so many wealthy families, the consequences of trying to ignore or eradicate historical fact.  Not to mention the parallels between the death of a slave and the death of a migrant worker.  Seriously, so many levels!

And Caren's own personal history of going to law school and then dropping out, and her reasons for doing so, and the way her employer kept saying things to her like, "You know, I've done so much for you and your family over the years" as though her family had done nothing for him and his family over the years, and how Caren interacts with the plantation family - all of it is so good!

If you're itching for a super-atmospheric mystery novel, this is a good one to try.  Especially if I have gotten you hooked on Malla Nunn - Locke creates the same stifling atmosphere, brings up similar points about racism and its effects, and the complications that can arise from family drama.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Review-itas: The last reads of 2014

Wife of the Gods introduces us to Inspector Darko Dawson of the Central Investigation Department in Accra, Ghana.  Dawson is a devoted husband and father, though he also displays a rebellious and angry streak when he feels provoked.  Dawson grew up in rural Ghana and has been haunted for years by his mother's disappearance seemingly into thin air one day after visiting her sister.  Now, Dawson is sent back to that same area to investigate the murder of a promising medical student.

What follows is a mystery that takes many twists and turns before arriving at the conclusion, and a story that introduces us not only to the moody Darko Dawson but also to his extended family.  There's also a lot here about Ghanaian culture.  For example, the title Wife of the Gods refers to the practice of marrying a young girl off to a religious leader to ward off bad luck.  We also meet witch doctors, traditional healers and more modern doctors, learning how each interacts with the others.

I enjoyed this book enough to continue with the series, though as usual for me, this is more because I am intrigued by the potential for character development much more than I am the mystery itself.  I am particularly interested in seeing more of Dawson's relationship with his wife; there was one scene in the book in which his wife got very angry with him for not including her in an important decision regarding their son, and I look forward to seeing how the two of them navigate their marriage.  I also hope Dawson's older brother will have more of a role in future books.  In fact, I hope many of the secondary characters introduced here get more quality time in future books.

This One Summer is a great book to read in the depth of a cold, dark winter.  The cover itself made me feel like I was sitting outside with a book and a glass of chilled white wine, enjoying the glorious warmth of the sun.

But alas, summer has never felt further away.  And when it comes, it is always far too short.  This beautifully illustrated graphic novel by the Tamaki cousins makes clear just how fleeting summer is, and just how much people can change from one year to another, just how drastically people can be impacted by an event.

Rose and Windy are best friends who meet every year at the beach.  But it seems like this year they are kind of drifting apart.  Rose's parents are fighting a lot, and Windy doesn't understand why Rose is so obsessed with the older townie kids.

I have mixed feelings about this book.  On the one hand, I didn't like Rose very much, and I wasn't expecting so many heavy subjects to be covered here.  On the other hand, I think the Tamakis really captured the transition from childhood to adulthood perfectly, with all its false starts and skids.  Rose is just like any teenager, making snap decisions on people based on limited information, fairly self-absorbed, and almost callous in the way she treats and talks about other people.  Windy, just a year and half younger than Rose, serves as a great foil to show just how painful and wide the chasm can feel sometimes between childhood and adulthood.  A very realistic snapshot of a tough time in many people's lives, captured beautifully in lovely blue tones.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again

Life After Life
I read Kate Atkinson's Life After Life for a book club I just joined.  I read it as an audiobook, which I think was a mistake.  The book jumps around in time so often and references side characters and events quite often and I'm sure I missed quite a bit.  This is a book that requires flipping from one section back to previous ones and forward to new ones as Ursula basically lives a Choose Your Own Adventure.  But it's a long book and I knew I wouldn't get through it in time for the meeting unless I was reading it on my commute, and one of my new years resolutions for 2015 is to get out more and meet new people, so I really wanted to do well for my first book club, so audiobook it was!

The book is about Ursula Todd, a girl born in 1910 who then goes onto live several different versions of her life.  Once, she died at birth.  Another time, she died by drowning.  Another time, she fell off a roof.  Eventually, she manages to grow out of childhood, really coming into her own during WWII.  Sometimes, she lives in Germany during the war.  Sometimes, she lives in London.  In one life (not a spoiler as this is the very beginning of the book), she shoots Hitler but it's unclear what happens after this.  This annoyed me as the book is quite long and it would be nice to know how that life ended...

Monday, January 19, 2015

The most beautiful nightmares you've ever imagined

Quite possibly the most gorgeous book I read in all of 2014, Emily Carroll's Through the Woods is creeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeepy.  Less about things that go bump in the night and more about the terror we have of the unknown, this collection of short stories is absolutely brilliant.  I do not do well with scary stories, and these are pretty scary.  But the artwork is so amazing, I recommend all of you to get over your concerns the way I did and just go for it.

My favorite thing about this book is hard to describe via words.  But I shall try.  Here it is:  all of the stories have very different artwork.  It's amazing.  Often, you'll read a comic and say, "The art was so good!"  And it is.  But in this book, I was hit by just what an art form comics are.  The way Carroll wrote her words and incorporated them into her drawings, and the way she changed her writing and artistic style for each story both had SUCH strong impacts on the way I read and reacted to each story, and I just loved that.  I imagine it took a ton of work, too, from concept to idea to execution, and I truly appreciate all her efforts.  Here are some examples that hopefully exemplify what I mean:

See how different those all are?  It was glorious.  And as Ana says so wonderfully in her review,
Through the Woods is full of untidy endings that leave questions lingering and refuse to settle the tension her stories raise. When I went to see Sarah Waters discuss the Gothic tradition recently, she said that this lack of resolution and the way it lingers in your mind is one of the hallmarks of Gothic fiction. Through the Woods accomplishes that better than anything I’ve read in a long time.
Yes, yes, yes!  Definitely one to check out if you enjoy comics.  Or if you like creepy stories.  Or if you JUST LIKE ART.  If you qualify for any of the above, I think you will enjoy this read.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Non-Humans of New York

The Golem and the Jinni
Hele Wecker's The Golem and the (D)Jinni is set mostly in Manhattan, right at the turn of the 20th century.  The two main characters are Chava, a golem, and Ahmad, a jinn.  Chava was created to be the wife of a man who died on their voyage to the new world.  Ahmad has no idea how he ended up in Manhattan - his last memory is from about 1000 years ago.  In contrast, Chava's first memory is of waking up on the ship and meeting her (ill-fated) husband.

Ahmad and Chava both stumble through their new lives in New York, trying to understand humankind - the relationships that form between people, the decisions they make, how they treat each other, who has responsibility for what actions.  They also, serendipitously, meet each other one evening, and embark upon a friendship that helps both of them understand their place in the world and deal with the consequences of their natures and decisions.

I found several things very interesting about this book.  I'm a sucker for any story with mythology or folklore or mysticism, and this book is full of all those things.  For that reason alone, I wanted to read the book.  But there was more!  For example, I really liked the way Wecker played out the tension between each character's true nature - for Chava, to solve everyone's problems, for Ahmad, to disregard everyone's problems - and their attempts to fit into human civilization.  Chava, for example, is terrified that one day, her true nature will come out and she will beat everyone around her to a bloody pulp because that's what golems do when they are threatened.  In conrast, Ahmad thinks humans over-complicate everything, and people should just do what feels good and damn the consequences.

In that way, Chava and Ahmad play out traditional gender roles even though they are not human.  Ahmad toys with plenty of women, and they are the ones who have to wake up in the morning, bereft, while he just moves onto the next person.  But it's not that Ahmad doesn't care about those women; it's that humankind fascinates him, and he needs to understand the whole species, not just one person.  And so he moves on.  Chava's whole purpose in existing, on the other hand, is to do what other people tell her to do.  In fact, they don't even have to tell her, they just have to think it and she'll know.  She is therefore very eager to please and worries constantly about whether she did the right thing.

Though the main characters were pretty fascinating on their own, I think there were far too many secondary characters who didn't really progress the story that much.  There's a bored, rich girl (doesn't every book set in early 20th century America require one of those?).  There's a curious Bedouin girl.  A cursed ice cream seller.  A lonely, quiet boy.  A lonely, quiet man.  A concerned father.  A creepy old man.  A creepy middle-aged man.  A kind middle-aged woman.  And more, and more.  We get back stories on several of these characters.  And, in general, I enjoyed these back stories, but I don't think they were necessary.  The two title characters in the novel don't even meet until 1/3rd of the way through the book (what is this, Anna Karenina?).   And while I enjoy a good, atmospheric, meandering story, this one just felt weighted down by all those characters.

That said, it's a great story to read on a cold, damp night!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Life under the veil in Iran

The Complete Persepolis
I cannot believe it took me so long to read Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis.  I saw the animated film years ago, but what really pushed me to read this one was when I saw Satrapi about a month ago at the Chicago Humanities Festival.  She was just so vibrant and fun and apolitical (and said a lot of things about feminism that I pretty strongly disagree with) that it really made me want to read more of her books.

So, finally!  Persepolis.  The comic is the story of Satrapi's life in Iran, growing up with a big, liberal, loving family as the government becomes increasingly totalitarian.  Satrapi writes about the early influences in her life - her grandfather and uncle, both of whom fought for people's rights.  She moves onto her teenage years in Vienna, struggling to come of age in a country so foreign to her upbringing and so far from her family.  And then the difficulties of coming home to an Iran that was so different than what she remembered, and became increasingly difficult to deal with.

I loved this book.  The artwork and the writing are seamlessly integrated, in such a manner that I highly recommend Persepolis as a starter comic if you are concerned about reading a comic and are not sure how to deal with the words and pictures.  I am always concerned that I don't pay enough attention to the artwork in graphic novels, but in Persepolis, I had none of that concern:

I also feel like Satrapi does such a great job of showing us everyday Iranian life.  She did the same thing in Embroideries, and I can see why people say that Persepolis is so much better than Embroideries.  What I enjoyed about Embroideries was the rich, deep relationships that existed between the women in the book.  And that is true x1000 in Persepolis.  There is such a deep love between Satrapi and her parents, between Satrapi and her grandmother.  And her whole family is so supportive of her - not just when she shows her brilliance, but also when she makes mistakes.  And they never tell her to be afraid or to bow down to authority - they let her make her own decisions and live her own life and are very proud of her when she stands up for her rights.

This was truly a beautifully written, funny, and wonderful book.  I am so glad that I finally read it, and I can't wait to read Satrapi's Chicken with Plums and perhaps watch the movie that she directed this year!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Nafisi's love letter to the Great American Novel(s)

The Republic of Imagination by Azar Nafisi
Azar Nafisi's The Republic of Imagination is a passionate tribute to the importance and power of fiction in our world today.  Someone told Nafisi that Americans do not value reading as much as Iranians do because Americans can read whatever they want - and so, often, they choose not to read anything of value at all.  Nafisi chooses three American novels - The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Babbitt, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter to form the backbone of her argument.  The great American novel has just as much to teach us today as it did in the past.

There is a lot in this book about how the arts are under attack, particularly in the schools.  While this is true, I don't know if I believe fiction in our schools is at as much risk as Nafisi seems to believe.  Granted, I haven't been in school for a long time - parents and young adults out there, do you worry that kids will have no creativity or imagination or subtlety in their lives due to a decrease in the amount of fiction they read?  Do you think they read less fiction?  Nafisi seems very concerned, probably because she sets up this whole book as a way to combat that way of thinking.  But I can't imagine going to school and not reading Mark Twain or Shakespeare or Richard Wright, and I hope that education doesn't get SO focused on STEM that it forgets the beauty of language.

Whatever her motivation for writing this book, I am so glad Nafisi did write it.  I want to read every single novel she mentions here, from The Wizard of Oz to Go Tell it on the Mountain and everything in between.  I absolutely want to re-read The Adventures o Huckleberry Finn, and I would like to supplement that reading with Mark Twain's autobiography, too.  I want to read Bartleby the Scrivener, Their Eyes Were Watching God.  All of them!  The enthusiasm and admiration that Nafisi feels for the authors of these books, the empathy and care she has for the characters that populate these books, and her ability to show readers exactly why those books were so important to her, why they are so important to everyone is just so inspiring.  These are the sorts of novels that make you miss your high school and college English classes, where you could debate so many topics in a safe place, have a real discussion about important themes and symbols and experiences.  And, to a great extent, when so many people in a country have read the same books and discussed similar topics related to those books, it creates a sense of community and shared experience that it's hard to get from anything else.  What would happen if everyone in America read Go Tell it on the Mountain, James Baldwin's semi-autobiographical novel about growing up in Harlem during the Great Depression?  Maybe we would have some common ground from which to begin complicated, difficult discussions.

I read this book on audio, so I unfortunately do not have the book at hand to share quotes with you.  But one thing Nafisi said really stood out to me.  Most Americans do not read James Baldwin in school any more.  I certainly didn't.  In fact, I only even heard about him more recently.  The reasoning is that there are many more Black authors to choose from now who can relate the Black experience just as well.

There are many problems with this way of thinking.  Obviously, most English departments don't spend a lot of time thinking, "Gosh, I think we need at least one token book on the White Experience."  And James Baldwin worked very hard to write novels that were universal, that spoke of the human condition in a way that would resonate with all people.  He was first labeled as a Black writer, than as a gay writer, and he worked so as to defy all those labels.  How callous is it, then, to put him in the "Black authors" bucket and then say sorry, that bucket is full, we have no need of you any more?

She makes a parallel argument for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the number of times the N word shows up in that book.  This often leads to Huck Finn being on the banned books list or beign removed from required reading in school.  It can be difficult to face that word and all the weight it carries with it.  I get it.  But does that mean we should ignore all of the wonderful, beautiful lessons that Huck Finn can teach us because some parts of it make us uncomfortable?  Life is uncomfortable.  At least in fiction, you can see that the discomfort serves a purpose.

This was such a moving, inspiring book.  Nafisi's love of so many novels and the way she draws parallels between the characters and the authors and her own life experiences, or the experiences that all of us collectively share, is just so lovely.  And the spotlight she shines on so many under-appreciated classics - just lovely.  I now have James Baldwin's first book to read on my commute next week, and I hope to follow it up soon with Huck Finn.  I hope that she inspires you to do much the same.

I leave you with a James Baldwin quote that Nafisi used in her book:
You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.


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