BOOK REVIEW | Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

5/5 stars

She leaned forward and peered at the rosebush – why, there was another bud coming right behind that bloom!

Oh, Olive, where to begin? I adored this book from the first page to the last. The quote above is the simplest and most meaningful way of summing up this book – life just goes on. You live, have experiences, create human connections, and you die. And then another bud follows your bloom. This is a book about reflection – the messiness of life, the stuff in the middle.

Olive is back in this follow up to its predecessor, Olive Kitteridge. Please note that you do not have to have read the first installment to enjoy this book, but it’s a fantastic return to this character if you have. Told in Strout’s signature style, this is a series of short stories about the people and places of the fictional town of Crosby, Maine. Each story is about or ultimately connects with Olive – even the stories that she doesn’t appear in reveal connections by the end.

Olive is as cynical as ever, speaking her mind in the most hilarious and inappropriate ways. She says what everyone thinks, but would never dare to say out loud. Time passes as the stories roll on, reflections on life and human connections being the bond that ties them all together. This was a particularly poignant time in my life to read Olive – I have 3 young kids, one of them being a baby. Olive’s reflections on motherhood and her marriage reminded me that the the chaos, busyness, and work that comes with raising 3 boys and maintaining a partnership is, in fact, the stuff of life.

I loved Olive, especially as she became elderly. I loved how she processed her age, her losses, her loneliness, her relationships with her son and late husbands – all with her cantankerous flair. I don’t think we’ll be hearing from Olive again, but this was the perfect way to say goodbye.

BOOK REVIEW | The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

4/5 stars

Colson Whitehead shines a light on the dark recesses of American history with The Nickel Boys. Inspired by the haunting true story of the Arthur G. Dozier reform school for boys, Whitehead’s fictional account is as important as it is disturbing. Operating out of Marianna, a small town in the panhandle, black boys were routinely beaten, raped, and killed by staff. As of 2011, at least 80 bodies were found in a mass gravesite on the school grounds.

The story revolves around Elwood, a young boy, coming of age and beginning to engage with the civil rights movement. He’s a good kid; works at a convenience store, idolizes Martin Luther King Jr., and is starting to find his way in the world. Elwood is planning to go to college when he finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and is ultimately sent to reform school, The Nickel Academy. Elwood quickly discovers the atrocities occurring behind the walls, himself falling victim to brutal beatings.

The story is told in a uniquely non-linear format, which works well with Whitehead’s story. It’s not until the epilogue that everything comes full circle, and the reality of what you’ve read sets in. So often the dark parts of the past are “razed, cleared and neatly erased from history”, and I’m grateful to Whitehead for taking this on and bringing attention to the boys lost and forever changed at Dozier school.