BOOK REVIEW | Stay Awake by Dan Chaon

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3.5 / 5 stars

My thoughts:
This is a solid collection of short stories from an incredibly talented writer. Reading Chaon’s work, you can’t help but feel as though he is either consciously or subconsciously revealing parts of himself. His flaws, his fears, thoughts on family, love, and death. He is a man who has loved and lost, and you feel the depth of his experience between the pages of his books.

This collection has a few brilliant, eerie stories. The first story, The Bees is so, so good, and so, so creepy. This collection started off with a bang! There’s some imagery there that I can’t get out of my mind. This story felt complete, it gave me everything I needed.

I struggle a little with short stories because I almost always want more, and this collection is no different. Many of the stories felt incomplete – I wanted Chaon to save therm to flesh out full novels! That said, they were all great to read and that is certainly the mark of a great writer – give me more! All of the stories are dark and twisted in one way or another.

Chaon is my kind of writer, and I am excited to continue working through his catalog. If you’ve read Chaon, tell me what I should pick up next!

 

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BOOK REVIEW | You Can’t Touch My Hair and Other Things I Still Have to Explain by Phoebe Robinson

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4/5 stars

Let me start by saying that this title is everything. I have curly hair, and people ask to touch it ALL.THE.TIME. As soon as I heard about this book, I knew I had to read it. Phoebe Robinson is hilarious. I want to hang out with her, and I feel like she’s my new literary best friend. This was a total blast, but a smart one filled with perspective and power. I switched between the audiobook and physical book,  and laughed out loud many times throughout. Nothing is better than listening to a comedian narrate their own book. It’s amazing. She’s a comedian and writer, and her talents come together beautifully in this short book of essays. Phoebe is bold and unapologetic in her takes on race, feminism, sexuality, and more.

I loved, LOVED, Phoebe’s sections on music. I may not love U2 the way she does, but I don’t listen to much music that would be expected for a non-white person. She talks about how people assume she knows what’s new in hip hop, when in reality she’s about to listen to Arcade Fire or Phil Collins. Cultural stereotypes, gotta love them.

Phoebe, you’ll never read this, but I need to talk to you! This book is written as though only people of colour (POC for short) will be reading it. I wanted Phoebe to be a little more inclusive with her audience, to assume that enlightened or curious (or any!) white people may want to read this book! I think she may keep her non POC readers a little at bay with this assumption, but hey, I’m a biracial reader, so maybe I just see both sides of the fence?

Speaking of being biracial, I adored Phoebe’s letters to her infant niece Olivia. She offers solutions for getting through life female and biracial. She even offers her a plethora of biracial celebrities to look to for identity: Lisa Bonet, Prince, Bob Marley, and more!

Don’t let all the fun fool you, Phoebe is on a mission with this book. She dives deep into her personal experiences with sexism and racism with a strength that I truly admire. She puts herself out there, exposing times when she felt weak and used, and made to feel less than. She discusses the young black people killed at the hands of police in America, and injustices that are difficult to swallow.

I loved reading about these topics in a practical, everyday sort of manner. Phoebe, at least for me, is so relatable that it made this book feel like a conversation with a good friend. I really enjoyed this, and will be looking out for whatever Phoebe does next.

BOOK REVIEW | All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood

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5/5 stars

My thoughts:
This book is stunning. It’s challenging, disturbing, and will make you uncomfortable. Bryn Greenwood creates a relationship that by all practical accounts will make your stomach turn, and flips the table so drastically that you will question everything you know to be right and moral. I found myself struggling with some of the scenes, but also found myself justifying so much of it. I had to ask myself, what defines love?

It’s 1975 and Wavy is a little girl at 5 years old. Her parents are addicted to drugs, and she is living with her aunt Brenda and her cousins. As a result of her trauma, Wavy doesn’t speak, leaving everyone to think she’s mentally challenged. Wavy eventually goes on to live with her he grandmother, and finally ends up back with her mother.

Living with her mother, Wavy takes care of herself and her younger brother, Donal, cleaning and preparing food. A few years have passed and she is 8 years old when a chance encounter with 19 year old Kellen occurs. Kellen, a criminal who works for Wavy’s father, crashes his motorcycle by her house, and Wavy rushes out to see if he is OK. There is clearly a connection between the two, and after her becomes aware of Wavy’s living situation, Kellen steps in to help. Kellen cleans the house, buys food for Wavy and Donal, and begins to pay for Wavy’s school fees. Over time, Wavy begins to trust Kellen, and the two become inseparable.

As the years pass, Wavy and Kellen’s relationship evolves from something innocent to something more – there are many moments that gave me pause. Their connection, however, is something hard to define, something more than love. Is Kellen a pedophile? Is he taking advantage of Wavy in her disadvantaged situation? There is no sexual attraction between Wavy and Kellen initially. Kellen states “that’s not the only thing love means. You just got your mind in the gutter”.

Told from multiple points of view, we gain other character’s perspectives on their relationship. Naturally, many characters are horrified by their bond and work to keep them apart. Greenwood herself is the ” daughter of a mostly reformed drug dealer”, and has stated that this book was partially inspired by her relationship with an older man when she was 13 years old. Greenwood has created a world in which this relationship feels right, regardless of how inappropriate much of it is. As a mother and a fierce protector of children, I’m blown away by her feat. Only a skilled writer can craft a story like this and have you rooting for the couple. I’m looking forward to more from Greenwood, and may have to check out her backlist.

BOOK REVIEW | The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
Enid, long-time matriarch of the Lambert family, sets her heart on an elusive goal: bringing her family together for one last Christmas at home.
Published to universal acclaim, Jonathan Franzen’s novel about a post-modern family breaking down in late-twentieth-century America is a comic, tragic masterpiece. Richly realistic, darkly hilarious, and deeply human, The Corrections has been a fixture on bestseller lists since its debut and was one of the most talked-about books of the year.

My thoughts:
Finally, after way too long, I have read Franzen. Yes, this was my first. I’m not sure what my expectations were going into this book, but I must say I really liked it. I think I was prepared to hate it purely based on Franzen’s reputation for being, you know, a pretentious asshole. I love confident, bold writers, but cannot stand it if there is no merit behind the big personality. Thankfully, I was able to connect with it and understand his appeal.

This is the story of a family, the Lamberts. Enid and Alfred, the matriarch and patriarch, are living together in a way that many couples live together after a lifetime – as roommates. Enid longs for Alfred’s touch and attention, while Alfred grows increasingly irritable and senile. Alfred has always been moody and distant with his family, while Enid fantasizes about romance and the ideal family. Enid wants, more than anything, to have one more Christmas celebration in their hometown of St. Jude. This means attempting to rally her three children, Gary, Chip, and Denise, together for the event. This sort of sounds like the setup for a fun holiday movie, but I can assure you that is not what this is.

I’m finding this review difficult to write – there’s a lot going on with this book, but there’s also not a lot going on – which I realize makes no sense. There’s action and advancement of the story line, but this is heavily character driven. Franzen shines with his characters. He has created a cast of flawed people with messy lives that many will hate, but I found myself relating to each member of this family for different reasons. Enid’s desire for love and family, Alfred’s internal space and need for privacy, Gary’s depression and the pressures of family life and responsibility, Denise’s search for identity, and Chip’s hunt for success. Some of the moments that hit me the hardest in this book are so quiet and unassuming that they can easily be missed. For example, a family meal that no one is enjoying only to be topped off with a desert of pineapple, igniting Alfred to become angry with Enid. It’s not a loud moment, but it also is. If that makes sense.

There’s a lot of unpack with this book, and a lot more going on than I will touch on here: economic crisis, sexuality, depression and mental illness, elder care, and so much more. Readers who enjoy beefy books that call for analysis will likely be at home with the Corrections.

BOOK REVIEW | Ill Will by Dan Chaon

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
A psychologist in suburban Cleveland, Dustin is drifting through his forties when he hears the news: His adopted brother, Rusty, is being released from prison. Thirty years ago, Rusty received a life sentence for the massacre of Dustin’s parents, aunt, and uncle. The trial came to epitomize the 1980s hysteria over Satanic cults; despite the lack of physical evidence, the jury believed the outlandish accusations Dustin and his cousin made against Rusty. Now, after DNA analysis has overturned the conviction, Dustin braces for a reckoning.

Meanwhile, one of Dustin’s patients has been plying him with stories of the drowning deaths of a string of drunk college boys. At first Dustin dismisses his patient’s suggestions that a serial killer is at work as paranoid thinking, but as the two embark on an amateur investigation, Dustin starts to believe that there’s more to the deaths than coincidence. Soon he becomes obsessed, crossing all professional boundaries—and putting his own family in harm’s way.

My thoughts:
This book is completely my wheelhouse – incredibly dark, twisted, pure literary goodness. I was on edge the entire time, but not because of the action – this book is not fast paced but rather a calculated unraveling of the pieces of a puzzle. I felt uneasy while reading it, and the discomfort made me squirm. I’m honestly in awe of Dan Chaon and what has accomplished with this story.

When Dustin Tillman was a child, his parents, aunt, and uncle were killed. His foster brother, Rusty, was arrested for the crime, Dustin’s testimony and the Satanic Panic of the 80’s playing major contributing factors in his conviction. Years later, Rusty is released from prison, exonerated by new DNA evidence. Meanwhile, young men are turning up drowned in rivers across the country. Dustin, a psychologist and widow with two sons of his own, is treating a new patient who believes he has insights into the drowned men, and all is not what it seems.

Initially this plot and Chaon’s direction seen straight forward – a sinister novel about murder, revenge, and hysteria. There is so much more here though, and I soon began to question Dustin and his memories. As we learn about his past, more questions arise than are answered.

The ending of this book will drive some readers mad, but I actually found it perfect. You are not going to get a perfectly wrapped up story, and questions are left unanswered. This book was a hell of a ride, and I loved it so much I have already stated reading Stay Awake, a book of Chaon’s short stories.

BOOK REVIEW | Choke by Chuck Palahniuk

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
Victor Mancini, a medical-school dropout, is an antihero for our deranged times. Needing to pay elder care for his mother, Victor has devised an ingenious scam: he pretends to choke on pieces of food while dining in upscale restaurants. He then allows himself to be “saved” by fellow patrons who, feeling responsible for Victor’s life, go on to send checks to support him. When he’s not pulling this stunt, Victor cruises sexual addiction recovery workshops for action, visits his addled mom, and spends his days working at a colonial theme park. His creator, Chuck Palahniuk, is the visionary we need and the satirist we deserve.

My thoughts:
On the surface, Choke is a seedy look into the world of a sexual compulsive. Our central character, Victor, is a sex addict and we follow him through his many explicitly detailed trysts.

However, it becomes quickly apparent that Victor is lost: a self-proclaimed “doormat” who works as a historical interpreter and caretaker to his sick mother, Victor’s sexual deviance is the more or less his only selfish endeavor. He gives his time and money away easily, asking for little in return. His mother seems to be holding onto a family secret, and much of this story is Victor’s journey to uncover the truth. He discovers early in life that if you nearly die by chocking, the person who saves you will want to continue saving you forever. All of this cumulates with an oddly satisfying ending.

Stylistically, this book is unique. Highly satirical with lots of repetition, and strangely poetic prose. This was my first Palahniuk, but I’m curious to read more and see how these elements translate in his other work. Learning Palahniuk’s story and inspiration for this book makes it that much more fascinating – be sure to look it up after you’ve read it!

This book is not going to be for everyone – not by a mile – but for those willing to think outside of the box, or those who are interested in the darker side of things, this is definitely worth the read.

BOOK REVIEW | The Hate U Give By Angie Thomas

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5/5 Stars

From the Publisher:
Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does—or does not—say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

My Thoughts:
It would be easy to quit if it was just about me, Khalil, that night, and that cop. It’s about more than that though. It’s also about Oscar. Aiyana. Trayvon. Rekia. Michael. Eric. Tamir. John. Sandra. Freddie. Alton. Philando. It’s even about that little boy in 1955 who nobody recognized at first – Emmett.

I don’t read much YA, but knew I had to pick up The Hate U Give. Angie Thomas is bold, throwing literary punches right out of the gate, and by the end of chapter two I was in tears. Told from the perspective of Starr, who witnesses her friend shot and killed by the police, Thomas provides enlightenment and education about #blacklivesmatter.

The story itself is one we know all too well: a young, unarmed, black person is shot and killed by the police. The aftermath is wrought with pain and injustice, families senselessly torn apart. This book stands out though, not because of the tragedy, but because of Thomas’ strength as a storyteller. She has created a robust cast of characters, each fleshed out and diverse.

Starr is sixteen years old and struggling with her identity as many teens do. Her struggles, however, eventually become a source of her strength. She attends a “white” school that her parents send her to, rather than the school in her neighborhood. She is constantly working out which star she can be in any given situation – prep school Starr, or Starr from the ghetto. When a cop pulls her and her friend, Khalil, over one night, she had no idea she would become witness to tragedy and forced to find her voice against great odds.

We follow star as she moves through her grief, initially fearful, but eventually finding her inner power. Thomas consistently returns to the importance of speaking up and speaking out against injustice – your voice is your most powerful weapon.

Among all of this, we have a YA book with elements that lighten the mood. A romance between Starr and her white boyfriend, Chris, (I laughed out loud when “swirling” came up!), complex friendships, and a love for sneakers.

This book is important and timely, and I hope it reaches beyond liberal minded thinkers. I’d love to see this book in classrooms, sparking conversation among today’s youth. I already felt everything this book is seeking to teach, so I can only hope it finds its way into the hands of people who may not understand #blacklivesmatter.