Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Hunger by Roxane Gay

One of the perks of living in a college town is getting to hear great speakers from away. I was so eager to hear Roxane Gay that I lined up on a snowy path nearly a half hour before her talk in March. Roxane Gay is the Gloria Steinem for the Millennial generation and very popular with college students. Alas, the theater filled with her fans so I was unable to hear her speak in person.

Determined to hear her voice, I listened to Hunger: a Memoir of (My) Body on audiobook. Roxane has a beautiful, warm voice, and it broke my heart to listen to her narration. At age twelve, she was gang-raped by her boyfriend and his friends and told no one out of misplaced shame. To protect her body, she gained hundreds of pounds and built emotional barriers. Her memoir also shows how society punishes "unruly bodies" such as hers. Roxane was further marginalized as a bisexual woman of color living in the midwest, but she found support from friends, family, and lovers.

Roxane Gay (photo from her website)

Although Hunger starts with tragedy, it is also an inspiring tale of resilience that teaches empathy. More than any other book I've ever read, Hunger allowed me to experience life inside someone else's skin. I'd recommend this beautifully written memoir to everyone. On audiobook I missed being able to underline her powerful words, but it was more emotionally resonate to listen. I'm looking forward to discussing her work with a savvy friend, who lined up earlier and said Roxane was a marvelous speaker. Thanks, Chryl Laird, for the nudge to read this book!

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@Barrie Summy

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Someday, Somewhere by Lindsay Champion

What looks like an insta-love romance becomes something else entirely as lies accumulate on both sides of Someday, Somewhere by Lindsay Champion. On a school trip to Manhattan, Dominique falls for Ben when his music conservatory performs at Carnegie Hall. To win his love, Dom pretends to be a wealthy NYU student instead of a high school junior from a gritty New Jersey suburb. Ben, a musical prodigy, has secrets of his own.

This YA novel gripped me from the opening scene to the perfect last line. Both of the teen protagonists have creative passions and natural talent, however Dom had to quit dance to help her mom keep her laundromat afloat. Ben has a supportive family and all the privileges money can buy, but he struggles under the pressure to live up to his potential in an ultra-competitive atmosphere. Both kids tell self-destructive lies to survive. Their stories are told in alternating point-of-view chapters, allowing the reader to piece the true narrative together. This engaging book is structured like a classical sonata with jazz riffs.

The main characters were well developed but only superficially diverse. Since Dom's Ecuadorian immigrant dad deserted her years ago, she can't speak Spanish or understand her cultural heritage. There is a throw away line about Passover towels (huh?) in Ben's apartment, but Jewish identity doesn't shape his character or the narrative. As a Jew with Hispanic relatives this lack of depth disappointed me. It's still better to have some diversity than none, and strong voices and realistic flaws fleshed out the characters.

I loved how this contemporary novel explored socio-economic differences, but some of the financial details were unrealistic. A low income student would get free lunch at public school and food stamps at home (only coupons were mentioned), and a credit card would be frozen if a cardholder started making unusually large purchases rapidly. However, these were minor details that didn't detract much from the story overall. If you enjoy unreliable narrators, mismatched romance, and music, check out this impressive debut.

It's been a late spring in Maine: freezing on Tuesday morning and then high 80s F yesterday! Only Scout misses the snow.

Reviewer's Disclosure:
I'm friends with the editor of this novel, but glowing early reviews on Goodreads and in Entertainment Weekly made me decide to read it. When I was unable to find a copy at independent bookstores in Maine, I purchased the ebook for my Kindle. The hardcover was released last month.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden

While browsing in the Wallingford Bookshop in that medieval market town in England, I was drawn to the gorgeous cover of The Bear and The Nightingale (January 2017). The writing inside was equally beautiful. Set in a remote village in northern Russia, this new fantasy series draws on local folklore and history. Author Katherine Arden spent her gap year in Russia before studying its literature at Middlebury College. Her mastery of the language and culture grounds the medieval fairy-tale in its historical context.

In The Bear and the Nightingale, young Vasya runs wild in the woods, refusing to conform to traditional gender roles, antagonizing her miserable stepmother. Her ability to see spirits also puts Vasya at odds with a handsome young priest, who is trying to establish Christianity in their farming community on the edge of the wilderness. Vasya fears being labeled a witch, but she also needs to warn her family of the threats only she perceives. The line between right and wrong often blurs, depending on perspective. I loved how the demons were as well developed and as morally ambiguous as the mortals and how winter was both a character and a setting.
"Moscow, just past Midwinter, and the haze of ten thousand fires rose to meet a smothering sky. To the west a little light lingered, but in the east the clouds mounded up, bruise-colored in the livid dusk, buckling with unfallen snow." 
-The Girl in the Tower
In The Girl in the Tower (December 2017), teenage Vasya disguises herself as a boy and sets out on a magical horse to see the real world, encountering spirits, bandits, and storms on the icy trail. She is more afraid of being sent to a convent or confined to a palace tower in Moscow, like her princess sister. Feminism is a difficult fit for the times. This second book in the Winternight trilogy was even better than the first, now that the protagonist has matured into a young woman. The sequel combines literary style with a page-turner mystery, less horrific than the first book but equally surreal.

Although this series was published as adult fantasy, it could as easily be young adult fiction, given the age of the protagonist and the content. I bought both for my sixteen-year-old niece, who loved them as much as I did. We're eagerly awaiting The Winter of the Witch, due to be published in August. I prefer the British cover art as shown, which looks more Russian than the American editions. I'd strongly recommend these books to historical fiction and fantasy readers of all ages, especially to fans of The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. They are just the right books for this never ending winter!

I also have an excellent audiobook recommendation: Long Way Down, a YA novel in verse read by the author, Jason Reynolds: An African American boy, set on revenging the gang shooting death of his older brother, encounters the spirits of his past in the elevator.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko parlor in Nara, Japan

The sign of a good book is feeling bereft at the end. After finishing Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017), I spent days picking up new books and putting them down. I kept thinking about Lee's captivating characters and missing them as much as real people. This brilliant historical novel shows the plight of Koreans under colonial rule and as immigrants in Japan. By focusing on one peasant woman, Sunja, and her family from 1910 to 1989, history segways to near contemporary times and comes to life.

Under Japanese rule from 1910 to 1945, Koreans endured poverty, hunger, and rape. Some immigrated to Japan to live in slums. Even after World War II freed Korea, the Koreans who remained in Japan were treated as a legal underclass. Desperate immigrants opened pachinko parlors; the game is similar to pinball but with movable pins and gambling. Some Korean Japanese became involved with the yakuza (the Japanese mafia) and other nefarious vocations, leading to more social stigma even toward those working in lawful industries. The most intriguing character in Pachinko was a morally ambiguous yakuza boss.

Although I studied Japan at college, I learned a lot from Min Jin Lee. The Korean American author spent 30 years writing and researching Pachinko. It has a marvelous sense of place and period without info dumping. Her engaging story shows how racism takes an emotional toll on its targets. I won't demean her characters by calling them victims because they work hard to assimilate and take pride in their accomplishments. All the characters were well developed and their stories were inspiring.

I loved Lee's vivid descriptions of landscapes and characters:
"As they approached the forest located on the opposite side of the island, the enormous pines, maples, and firs seemed to greet them, decked in golds and reds as if they were wearing their holiday clothes." 
"Her expression was one of a small child who had been disappointed by her birthday present."
Pachinko parlor in Okinawa (from my sabbatical in Japan)

I would strongly recommend Pachinko to everyone. The historical sections from 1910 to the early 1960s were perfectly crafted, but the more contemporary part read a bit like a prolonged epilogue with a message. Still, it was important to have the narrative stretch to more current times. My husband, who is a professor of Japanese politics, had a similar reaction, and my mother loved it too. We are still casting around for new books that will be as satisfying as Pachinko so I'm hoping to find one from the reviews linked to this post.

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@Barrie Summy