BOOK REVIEW | The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner | Man Booker Prize 2018

3/5 stars

All of them were people who suffered and along the way of their suffering they made others suffer.

In this powerful novel about women in prison, Rachel Kushner touches on both issues within the correctional system, and the cycle of poverty and addiction that often leads women there. More than once, correctional officers allude to the women’s poor choices in life that led them to an existence under lock and key, with no regard for the circumstances which may have contributed to their crimes. An added layer of depth would have been beneficial here, as I feel in many ways this book only scratched the surface on this complex topic.

The story is focused on Romy Hall and the inmates she encounters while serving two consecutive life sentences at the Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility. We get a picture of Romy’s life before prison through recounts of her youth in San Fransisco, her drug use, and her experiences working as an erotic dancer at The Mars Room. I liked this book, and found many scenes to be especially powerful; Romy’s relationship with, and separation from, her son was the most affecting for me. Romy is not forgiven of her crime by Kushner, she murdered the man who was stalking her. Rather, we examine how Romy’s socioeconomic status may have led her to such a place.

There are many timelines and perspectives at play, which occasionally made for a disjointed read. I can only describe my relationship to Romy and the other characters as distant – there was a lack of emotional connection at work. I think focusing a little less on certain secondary characters, and honing in more on Romy’s emotional journey would have kicked this book up a notch for me. Romy seeps ennui about her life and crime, and it’s only when she realizes her son may be alone on the outside that we feel the retching pain that she must endure. An interesting addition to the Man Booker list, and a valuable read for those who have an interest in the mentioned topics.

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BOOK REVIEW | White Teeth by Zadie Smith

3/5 stars

I’ve delayed writing this review because I’m struggling a little with placing it appropriately. Zadie Smith is an immaculate writer and this book is witty and insightful, with razor sharp prose. Smith writes dialect beautifully, crafting characters that feel real. Something is lacking in the plot for me though, and while this is a character driven story, something is missing from each character’s arc that would push this into 5 star territory. This is a multi-generational saga that follows 2 two very different families as they overcome immigration, racial tension, war, and the pressures to raise their children in modern society without losing connection to their heritage. Throw in some genetic engineering and The Godfather, and that about sums it up.

There is a weighty plot here with a lot going on, but it essentially boils down to the story of Archie and Samad, two friends who meet at war, and their families. Archie, an Englishman, marries a Jamaican woman named Clara, and they have a daughter, Irie. Samad and his wife Alsana are Bengali immigrants and they have twin boys, Magid and Millat. I absolutely loved Clara but she disappears before long, becoming a secondary character. There was an interesting friendship between Clara and Alsana which could have been fleshed out into something significant as well.

I felt the deepest connection with Irie and I wanted so much more from her story; I would have loved to follow Magid and Millat further, to find out how they reconciled after a lengthy separation. Too many narratives felt incomplete and I wanted to go deeper. We are introduced to a third family, the Chaulfens, resulting in a completely unexpected turn in the plot. I found many scenes with the Chaulfens to be worthwhile, but ultimately felt like I was reading two different books – it felt disjointed.

Smith’s style is reminiscent of my favorite writer, John Irving: confident, bold, a little over the top, but never lacking in the right amount of sentimentality. Even though this wasn’t a home run for me, I’m really looking forward to reading more of Smith’s work.

BOOK REVIEW | There There by Tommy Orange


5/5 stars

We all been through a lot we don’t understand in a world made to either break us or make us so hard we can’t break even when it’s what we need most to do.

If this is Tommy Orange’s debut, I can’t wait to see what he does next. There There is a portrait of the “urban Indian”, and how racism, colonialism, and a painful history have contributed to modern day challenges. I’ve read many books by Aboriginal writers from Canada, but this is my first from the American perspective.

Told through twelve unique voices, There There follows each character as they travel to the Big Oakland Powwow. Each has heir own reason for going to the powwow: to connect to their culture, to reunite with family, to create art out of pain, and to bravely debut newfound talents. The stories of Dene, Jacquie, Blue, Opal, Orvil and more will ultimately clash in a violent denouement that is difficult to read. This is a commentary on gun violence in America as well.

We’ve read this sort of narrative before; multiple storylines cumulating in an epic event. However, Orange brings a passion for his culture to the table, making this a powerful read that resonates. His passages about traditional dance are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever read, so I’ll leave you with this moment in which Orvil, backstage, dressed in his regalia before his first public dance at the powwow, finds himself in his culture:

Orvil looks around the room, and he see all these men dressed up like him…There’s something like the shaking feathers he felt somewhere between his heart and his stomach…To cry is to waste the feeling. He needs to dance with it.

BOOK REVIEW | The Comewdown by Rebekah Frumkin


3/5 stars

A sweeping family epic that covers a lot of ground without turning into a paperweight, Rebekah Frumkin’s The Comedown is perfect for readers who enjoy dysfunctional family narratives.

The basic plot: a drug deal goes wrong, thus entangling the dealer’s and the addict’s families for generations. There’s a mysterious yellow suitcase that everyone wants to get their hands on, issues of race and religion, and a whole lot of characters named Leeland or Lee. There are a lot of characters, time frames, and multiple family lines to follow – bookmarking the character map at the start of the book is a must.

The first half of this book felt like a 5 star read for me, and then it eventually started to feel like a chore. I could have been the problem – I just isn’t care to decipher which Leland I was reading about in any given moment, and therefore started to fall off track with the book. Sometimes I want my books to feel like work, especially when the payoff is there. This wasn’t one of those cases.

Frumkin is clearly a fantastic, clever writer – I initially though this book would be a slam dunk for me. I could very well pick this up for a re-read in a year and absolutely love it from start to finish, but I just wasn’t fully jiving with it this go around. It’s a good book that lost it’s way by becoming unnecessarily complicated.

BOOK REVIEW | The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

5/5 stars

If you knew the date of your death, how would you choose to live your life? Chloe Benjamin explores this complex question through a narrative following the lives and deaths of four siblings in The Immortalists. If you knew you’d die young, would you live recklessly, essentially securing the prophecy? Or would you live a clean life, in hope of swaying fate in your favor?

It’s 1969 and the Gold siblings – Simon, Daniel, Klara, and Varya – sneak out to find a mystical woman they’ve heard about; she can predict the day you’ll die. One by one, the kids enter into the woman’s home to hear their destiny. Armed with this knowledge the kids move on with their lives, and the chapters that follow track each of them on their paths. They never share their death dates with each other but the siblings carry it closely as they traverse life, effecting each in its own significant way. The first story, and undoubtedly the one I connected with the most, was Simon’s. Next was Klara’s story, then Daniel, and finally Varya.

This isn’t a new concept, that death is what ultimately gives value to life, but Benjamin’s unique take on this theme was both heartbreaking and refreshing. It’s the sort of story that’s easy to get lost it, and I found it hard to say goodbye to these characters as they reached their ultimate destiny. This book calls to mind the final scene in Six Feet Under; if you’ve watched the show you’ll know what I mean. I’m not sure why books about death resonate so deeply with me, but this is another valuable contribution to the genre.

BOOK REVIEW | Foe by Ian Reid

 

*I received a digital advanced review copy from Simon and Schuster via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

 Release date: August 7, 2018

4/5 stars

No writer confounds and surprises like Ian Reid. His books keep you guessing and on the edge of your seat. This book is particularly bizarre, but I read I’m Thinking of Ending Things very recently, so I knew what to expect: philosophical debate disguised by an eerie story in which all is not as it seems.

Junior and Hen have a quiet, rural life together. They work hard, feed the chickens, and enjoy their evenings together. One day, a man named Terrance appears at the farm with a strange announcement – Junior has been long-listed for a potential trip away from Hen via a research project called OuterMore. Terrance leaves, but says he’ll be seeing them again soon. A year or so later, Terrance returns with the news that Junior has been officially selected and will be leaving for the OuterMore project for an unknown amount of time. Terrance moves in with them to prepare and research for the trip. And that’s about all I can say.

Books like this are meant for going in blind -learn as little as you can before diving in, and then enjoy the ride. Reid is asking some big and often contemplated questions here – how well can you truly know another person? How well can you truly know yourself? Where is technology leading us, and is all advancement positive? What is the essence of lasting relationships? What is up with the horned rhinoceros beetle?! Ok, this last one may be one of my lingering questions…

I have to admit that I caught on to the big twist long before it’s reveal, though I wasn’t expecting the second twist right at the end. I don’t want to spoil this book for anyone, but know that Reid not only carefully crafts his words, but makes subtle stylistic choices that can be revealing. This is for those who enjoy thinking about a book long after it ends, and who are comfortable with an artistic storyline. This book doesn’t wrap up nicely at all, in fact the ending is completely open for continuation. My only criticism of this book is that it could have been longer, gone deeper, explored further. I can’t rate this as high as ITOET, as it doesn’t pack quite the gut wrenching, emotional punch that his first novel did. Reid may very well be one of my favorite new (and Canadian!) authors.

BOOK REVIEW | Harvard Square by André Aciman

4/5 stars

Perhaps he was a stand-in for who I was, a primitive version of the me I’d lost track of and sloughed off in America. My shadow self, my picture of Dorian Gray, my mad brother in the attic, my Mr Hyde, my very, very rough draft. Me unmasked, unchained, unleashed, unfinished: me untrammeled, me in rags, me enraged. Me without books, without finish, without a green card. 

André Aciman’s flare for writing internal dialogue is alive and well in Harvard Square, as is his focus on meaningful relationships. While romantic relationships are explored in this work, Aciman’s focus here is on the power of male friendship. Told through the lens of the immigrant experience, Aciman explores an unlikely, and occasionally unwelcome, friendship.

In recounting his days as a student at Harvard, our unnamed narrator reflects on his old friend Kalaj (short for Kalashnikov). He meets Kalaj by chance one day at Café Algiers, a local eatery and hangout. Kalaj is everything he is not – loud, opinionated, and unabashedly forward with women. The two bond and develop a sort of love-hate friendship, though they connect deeply on their experiences as immigrants in America. Our narrator is Jewish, from Alexandria, Egypt, while Kalaj is from the Tunisia; they struggle with both money and assimilation, they long for France and the feeling of home.

I adored the ending of this book; it’s subtle, but remind us of the imprint that people have in our lives, even ones that are long forgotten. While our narrator is often frustrated with Kalaj’s big personality, the two shared a unique friendship that leaves a lasting impact. As this is my third Aciman read, I feel like I have a good grasp of his writing. Aciman is well read and highly intelligent, there is no doubt about that. There are moments in this book that drag a little, alienating readers who may not be as well versed in certain topics as he is. Overall, this was another great Aciman book, and I’m looking forward to continuing with his backlist.