Thursday, October 8, 2015

#Diversiverse Review: Family Life, by Akhil Sharma

Akhil Sharma's Family Life is a small book that packs a pretty whopping punch in the gut.  It's no wonder it took Sharma a full decade to write it.  The book is based on the author's own harrowing life experience of his brother's fateful headfirst dive into the floor of a swimming pool and the subsequent trauma that his family went through.

In the 1970s, Ajay's distant and wealth-obsessed father moves to the United States.  Ajay, his older brother, Birju, and his mother join a couple of years later.  Immediately, Ajay's parents are consumed with Birju getting into a selective high school.  They pour all their energy and love into their son and are thrilled when he is accepted.  Before he can attend, however, Birju has a major accident.  Ajay narrates how completely life changes for all of them and how hard it can be to lose hope when so many of your dreams were pinned on one person.

This is not an easy book to read.  The language is spare and Sharma doesn't get very emotional.  But the way he describes Ajay's growing sense of isolation from his parents, his father's descent into alcoholism, and his mother's growing resentment of everyone who cannot help her son return to his former self all comes through so clearly.  All this while they dealt with being immigrants in a foreign culture.  While it didn't take me 10 years, it did take me a good three weeks to finish reading it because it's so weighty.

I admit I didn't really like any of the characters in this book.  Ajay is not a very sympathetic character, but it's easy to see why he feels neglected when his parents seem not to care much at all for all his successes.  His parents, too, seem unkind and cruel, but again, you can see how much stress they are dealing with.  The other Indians in the story seem pretty shiftless, and the non-Indians seem racist.  And maybe all that is true, but it does make for some hard reading.

But I don't think this is a book about the characters, necessarily.  It's a book about dealing with the loss of someone who is so central to your life, even while you care for that person every day.  It's about what happens when other people stop feeling sorry for you or giving you sympathy and care, but you have to keep going while nothing changes for the better or worse.  It's about navigating relationships that have lasted through so much but now are defined by one moment that was no one's fault.  It's not a situation anyone wants to go through.  But it's a situation a lot of people do go through.  And maybe Akhil Sharma has written a book that makes sense to them, and gives comfort to them.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

#Diversiverse: A More Diverse Universe Link-Up Post!!

FIRST THINGS FIRST:  PLEASE READ THE INSTRUCTIONS AT THE END OF THE POST FOR HOW TO LINK TO YOUR REVIEW!  This will help me enormously when it comes time to organize the reviews and add them to the #Diversiverse tab.

Hooray!  #Diversiverse is HERE!  

Two weeks of gloriously diverse reading suggestions for you and yours, all so that we can work to make our world a more understanding, empathetic and open-minded place to live.

Considering that I have been barely on the inter webs at all over the past two months, I am mazed and so humbled by the number of people who have signed up for #Diversiverse this year.  Thank you to everyone who has hyped up the event.  By the end of next week, we will have countless reviews that cover an entire spectrum of genres, perspectives, and writing styles.  I cannot wait to read all of them.

I hope that when you read through the many reviews, the A More Diverse Universe mantra will cement itself in your mind:

Reading diversely may require you to change your book finding habits.  It ABSOLUTELY does not require you to change your book reading habits.

Authors all over the world write romance novels, historical fiction, social science, folktales, memoirs, poetry - everything.  You just may need to look a little bit harder to find them.  But luckily for you, there's the #diversiverse link-up post below, and the #Diversiverse tab above.  Browse at your leisure, add dozens of books to your TBR pile, come back for more when you've finished them, and enjoy!

Thank you SO MUCH for participating!  Let's flood the digital world with reviews!

When you add your link below (and PLEASE link to the permalink for the specific #diversiverse post, not just your blog's main home page), please use the following format - COMMAS, NOT DASHES:

Blog Name, Book Title, Author Name
(ex.  Booklust, The Book of Unknown Americans, Cristina Henriquez)

Monday, September 28, 2015


Roland Lazenby
I grew up in Chicago in the 90s, and my entire family (and really, the entire city) was completely obsessed with the Chicago Bulls basketball team.  Scottie Pippen is my all-time favorite player, and I'm still a huge fan of the team (though they have the tendency to break my heart more these days than they ever did in the 90s).

The most dominant player of the 90s era (and possibly of all time) was Michael Jordan.  Pretty much as soon as I saw that there was a new-ish biography out about Jordan, I planned to read it.  Looking back at Jordan's time with the Bulls, it is amazing that the team did so well so consistently for so long.  I really wanted to look back on that amazing period.

Michael Jordan:  The Life, by Roland Lazenby, is an account of Jordan's life, including his family, close friends, and his very volatile relationships with the teams he played on.  Quite honestly, I don't know if this book would appeal to anyone who is not a big sports fan in general or a huge Bulls fan in particular.  I debated whether I should even write a review because it's hard to be objective about a book when it's about a childhood hero.  I'm certainly not an objective reader here.

Lazenby's book is very detailed.  There's a lot of time spent on Jordan's family history and his childhood, which I really appreciated.  There's also beautiful writing about the games Jordan played, the way he moved on the court, the way he could dominate everyone.  I wish that the book had been a more multimedia experience; so many times, I wanted to go to YouTube and find the play that Lazenby was describing.

What comes across on almost every page is just how competitive Michael Jordan is.  He was able to pump himself up for every game, wanted to win every single game.  When you consider that the regular season of the NBA stretches from November to April and includes 82 games, that is absolutely mind-blowing.  He competed not only with other teams, but also with his teammates, forcing them to get better, and with himself, always drilling, always pushing to see how much further he could go and how much better he could become.  He rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.  But the fans hardly ever saw that; they saw an amazing player, a team leader, a media darling.  And, of course, they saw all of his commercials.  Nike, Gatorade, McDonald's... but mostly Nike.  I was fascinated by the Nike deal and all the implications that contract had for Jordan and for Nike.

But fame and fortune have their drawbacks.  And someone so obsessed with competition and winning can easily become addicted to something like gambling.  Michael Jordan gambled a lot.  And for huge sums of money.  He also had a large family and group of friends that depended on him for all sorts of things, and the massive sums of money he made created a lot of tension with them, too.

As a fan, you really only see your team on the court.  To you, they don't really have anything else going on.  No personal lives, no triumphs or failures, no issues with teammates or family or friends.  All you care about is how they play.  In that way, I really appreciated Lazenby's book.  I enjoyed getting a peek behind the Bulls organization of my childhood and understanding just how special that team was.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Another trip to Gateway City

Only the Strong, Jabari Asim
I thoroughly enjoyed Jabari Asim's collection of short stories set in the fictional (St. Louis-inspired) Gateway City, A Taste of Honey.  I picked it up on a whim at the library, and it was one of my favorite reads of 2014.  A couple of weeks ago, the library had Asim's newest book on display, so I immediately picked it up.

Only the Strong is also set in Gateway City, though most of the action is in the 1970s, vs the 1960s setting in A Taste of Honey.  The set-up is similar, though.  While Only the Strong is hailed more as a novel, it feels more like three novellas, each one picking up where the last one left off.  The first section features Guts Tolliver, a man in love who still carries the weight of his past misdeeds.  The second section focuses on Dr. Artiness Noel, a prominent doctor locked in a long-term affair with a gangster; and the third section is told from the perspective of Charlotte, a foster child whose world opens up when she goes to college.

I enjoyed this novel just as much as I enjoyed A Taste of Honey.  The characters are just as flawed but truly well-meaning, the tight-knit community and the relationships that form between people are at the core of the story, and the setting of Gateway City is just as much a character here as it was in the previous book.

My favorite character in this book was Guts Tolliver.  I loved spending time with him, and every time he would pop up in the second and third sections, I would be thrilled to see him again.  He really exemplifies what happens to good people who feel like they have no choices, or who feel like life just isn't fair.  And he just does down a dark hole and then struggles and struggles to come back up and redeem himself.  The entirety of his life story is just so sad and then so sweet and then just absolutely beautiful, and I love Asim for bringing Guts to life in such an empathetic manner.

Both Dr. Noel and Charlotte's sections were excellent, too, though.  I enjoyed reading about how Dr. Noel worked so hard to become such a prominent physician, and all the sacrifices she made along the way.  I loved how passionate and excited Charlotte got when she went to college and learned SO MANY THINGS and met SO MANY PEOPLE.  It can be a heady experience, and it was fun to go through it again with Charlotte.

I would not say that this novel is a companion to A Taste of Honey.  You can absolutely read one without reading the other, and while some of the characters overlap, I don't think you miss anything if you read one and not the other or read in whatever order you would like.  I hope some of you give Asim a try.  I have really enjoyed his books, his writing style, and especially his characters.  I so look forward to more from him.  Hopefully, his books will continue to be prominently featured in my local library branch!

Monday, September 21, 2015

Growing up Black in America

Ta-Nehisi Coates
In accepting both the chaos of history and the fact of my total end, I was freed to truly consider how I wished to live - specifically, how do I live free in this black body?  It is a profound question because America understands itself as God's handiwork, but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men.
Ta-Nehisi Coates' letter to his son, published as the book Between the World and Me has justifiably garnered a lot of attention since its publication.  As Americans struggle to understand their racial legacy, Coates' book provides us with a glimpse of what it was like for him to grow up Black.

For that reason alone, I think as many Americans as possible should read this book.  I am lucky enough to have a diverse group of friends with whom I can frankly and honestly discuss race and gender issues.  I realize that many people do not have that luxury, which is yet another reason why reading diversely is so important.  Between the World and Me offers those people with an idea of just how terrifying it can be to be Black here.  And it serves as a reminder to everyone that fear runs both ways.  As frightened as a middle-class white man can be to see a black guy walking the streets of his neighborhood, it's pretty much guaranteed that the black guy feels just as frightened, except add in the fact that he probably doesn't trust the police to protect him, either.

There are so many parts of this book that made me so very sad.  Coates is such an emotionally charged author.  He pushes you and challenges you, and it was such a good lesson.  Soon after finishing this book, I took a trip to Charleston, SC, and I think because the stories were so fresh in my mind, I found myself constantly telling myself and my friend, "Do not forget that these beautiful houses were built by slave labor.  Do not forget, do not forget, do not forget."  Of course, it's easier to remind yourself when you are a Northerner visiting the South, as Northerners love to think we have some sort of moral superiority to the South.  We like to forget so much of our own horrifying history.  Or the fact that when half the country uses slave labor, the entire country benefits from slave labor.  I hope that all my reading about the black experience in America will help me to flush out my own biases, and constantly remind myself that my experience of America is not universal.

Other quotes that really stood out to me and the reasons why:
I have no desire to make you "tough" or "street," perhaps because any "toughness" I garnered came reluctantly.  I think I was always, somehow, aware of the price.  I think I somehow knew that that third of my brain should have been concerned with more beautiful things.  I think I felt that something out there, some force, nameless and vast, had robbed me of ... what?  Time?  experience?  I think you know something of what that third could have done, and I think that is why you may feel the need for escape even more than I did.  You have seen all the wonderful life up above the tree-line, yet you understand that there is no real distance between you and Trayvon Martin, and thus Trayvon Martin must terrify you in a way that he could never terrify me.  You have seen so much more of all that is lost when they destroy your body.
 That one had me in tears, really.  The possibility of a life well-lived, lifelong friends, the potential and opportunity to do something extraordinary, so much of that passes through Chicago schools every day, and so much of it is lost to horrible schools, violence, and issues at home.  Think of all the amazing, brilliant, artistic, world-changing people that our country has lost.
You may have heard the talk of diversity, sensitivity training, and body cameras.  These are all fine and applicable, but they understate the task and allow the citizens of this country to pretend that there is real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed to protect them.  The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country's criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority.
Many times in this book, Coates reiterates the point that no matter how successful, how polite, how friendly, how un-confrontational a black man can be in every moment of his life, it can all fall apart so quickly and so easily because someone else can just see you and feel frightened and take action.  Many people move out of unsafe neighborhoods as quickly as they can, put their kids into excellent schools as early as they can, give them experiences and gifts that expand their minds in hopes of helping them become good, successful, happy people.  But black men have to work so much harder for that to happen, and the possibility that it can all be taken away is ever-present.
"And one racist act.  It's all it takes."

Monday, September 7, 2015


I basically dropped off the planet for a few weeks there.  I apologize.  This year has been a struggle for me, blog-wise, mostly due to a pretty stressful work situation.  That situation has ironed itself out - I start a new job on September 14th that I'm very excited about! - but it took a huge toll on my desire and motivation to read and blog.  I have been very inconsistent this year, with fits and starts, announced breaks and unannounced absences.

Somewhat concerning is the fact that I didn't really miss blogging at all.  I miss reading your blogs and keeping on top of the book world, but I admit that I didn't miss my little corner of the internet very much at all.  This isn't a great realization to come to when you are in the midst of planning a big blogosphere event like A More Diverse Universe.  I have really dropped the ball on that event, and I think so much of the excitement and the sign-ups are coming because of YOU all getting the word out and creating your reading lists and tweeting and doing amazing things.  While I've been sitting on my couch looking for jobs or outside enjoying the last of the summer weather, you have been pushing and championing the event, and I am so immensely lucky.

Thank you all so much.  It really means so much to me.  While I don't know what my blogging future looks like right now, I do still have a passionate and deep-rooted commitment to reading diversely, and I am SO THRILLED that #Diversiverse has helped other people make that commitment, too.  Even if, every year, I start with even grander hopes for the event and end up scrambling to achieve even the bare minimum of what I want.

I haven't read that many books since my last post.  Those I have read, I don't really want to write full blog posts about.  I expect I'll do a review-ita roundup soon.  I came to the computer today expecting to write the review-ita post, actually, but now that I'm here, I just don't want to.

I will be traveling this week to enjoy some time off before beginning the new job, and then next week, I'll be starting the new job.  #Diversiverse begins October 4th, so I'll plan to be back the week of the 21st, raring to go to get some last-minute sign-ups for the event the two weeks leading up to it. Here's hoping I'll have some of my swagger back!

And to all of you whose blogs I truly adore and usually comment on, I'm so sorry!  I'll be back.  In fact, I am reading your blogs, but I am reading them on my phone, and often I will try to comment, but it can be a little fussy at times.  I still love reading about your books and your lives, and I will be back to commenting in a few weeks.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Gloriously diverse Regency era fantasy

Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho
If you remember my post about Zen Cho's short story collection Spirits Abroad, you'll know that I was super-stoked about Cho's full-length novel coming out, Sorcerer to the Crown.  I got an advance copy of this book through the help of fate and magic and pure luck, and so now I can tell you ALL OF MY FEELS about the novel!

I am probably the prime target for this book because:
1.  It is set in late 18th/early 19th century England.
2.  It is a fantasy novel.
3.  The main female character is half Indian, and that half is from southern India.
4.  The main male character is a former slave.
5.  The other kind-of main character is an old Malaysian woman.

Actually, now that I review the list, I feel like those are five things that would probably make ANYONE want to read this book, though I understand some people don't love fantasy and some people don't love historical fiction, and even though that is my ideal combination of all sorts of books, I know that is not the case for all of you.  In general, I feel sorry for all the amazing stories you are missing, but I get it!  I am probably missing BOATLOADS of awesome stories because I veer away from "literary fiction" and women's fiction.

Anyway, back to Sorcerer to the Crown.

The story centers on Zacharias Wythe, a freed slave with super-impressive magical abilities who, much to everyone else's chagrin, becomes Sorcerer Royal of England.  But magic seems to be leaving England, and Zacharias faces opposition and threats from everywhere, not least from some tiny island nation in the Pacific where vengeful female ghosts are attacking the populace.  Luckily, he meets a beautiful and amazingly talented woman, Prunella, who technically shouldn't practice magic but is really good at it, and the two set off to make everything better.

I admit that if I had a slight problem with this book, it was in the character development.  There are just a lot of people in this book.  And while I enjoyed spending time with both Zacharias and Prunella, and I think they were both awesome, I wouldn't say that they were fully fleshed out, complex people.  I would have liked to dig a little deeper with them.  But maybe Cho just had so much going on in terms of setting the scene and introducing the magical elements and explaining the class/gender/race relations between everyone that there just wasn't enough time to also develop the characters that well.  What I knew of Zacharias and Prunella I liked, but I hope that in future books, they are more full-fledged oil paintings than pencil sketches.

But seriously, I liked so many other things about the story!

One of my favorite things about Spirits Abroad was the way Cho infused all her stories with Malaysian culture, from using dialect to describing food to incorporating folklore and so much else.  She does the same thing here, even though the book is set in London and the main characters are not Malaysian, and I love that.  THIS IS WHY DIVERSITY IN PUBLISHING IS SO IMPORTANT.  How many people would think to combine Indian history with Malaysian folklore, add a healthy dollop of English Faerie, and then make light but awesome references to equal rights for women and people of color?  Not many.

And the feminism, it is awesome.  There so many different women, most of whom wield different sorts of power that complement and contrast with one another.  And Cho doesn't just hit you over the head with the feminism, she really just kind of pokes fun at history and pokes holes in its rules, and it's a lot of fun.  And then she also shows how women in different cultures (English, Malaysian, Indian and, er, faerie) push against their boundaries even while working within their cultures.

And then there's the race stuff, too!  I think Cho maybe could have gone further on the race component than she did, but this is a pretty light book, so I can understand why she didn't.  Suffice it to say that Zacharias (and, to a lesser extent, Prunella) never forgets that he is different, and so much of his personality and actions are informed by that fact.  He's always a complete gentleman, and utterly polite to everyone, so that no one knows just how frustrated and angry he is.  All because he doesn't want to give them any reason to remember how different he is.  It's subtly done but so powerful when you catch on.

All in all, this book is great!  I think you should read it.  And then tell your friends to read it!  Perhaps for A More Diverse Universe :-)

Note:  This review is based on an advance reader's copy.  I received an e-galley of the book in exchange for an honest review.


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