Monday, February 19, 2018

The Power by Naomi Alderman

If you liked The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, you will want to read this dystopian novel, which has won a number of awards in the past year, including the Bailey's Prize for Women's Fiction.  This book was particularly terrifying and enlightening at the same time.

The most basic premise is that teenage girls everywhere find out that they can produce a deadly electrical shock. There's a strip of muscle across their collarbones that enables them to produce this electrical charge, which they call a skein. As a result, society is turned on its head with boys being told not to go out alone or at certain hours for fear that they will be shocked. The book combines a number of storylines - there is an American girl that runs away, a British daughter of a notorious gang leader, a reporter, politicians - and yet, the overarching premise is what the impact this has on governments, economic systems, societies.

I loved the questions that this raised - what happens when the tables are turned and men have to worry about being raped? Being threatened with violence that is either overt or implied or both?  And the ways that Alderman makes these points ranges from the light (there is a female newscaster that teases her co anchor and all I could think about was how newscasters faux joke on the air while they're interacting) to the descriptions of the chilling and often violent crimes that are committed by gangs of women.

There are also glimpses of other social issues that are impacted by this - theology and religion play a tremendous role in this novel.  The gospels and the religious texts have to be completely reimagined and iconography has to be changed. New leaders have to rise. Sexuality is also a major theme in this novel, with Alderman redefining courtship and the intersection of pain and pleasure. There is also items that are found in an archeologic dig that describes curbing - male genital mutilation. 

This book is a daring new look at a complete and utter change in gender roles by implementing a shift in the power dynamics.  It is so good in its terror. 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance

This had to have been the most talked about memoir of 2016 so much so that my local library had a wait list as deep as the Mississippi River. JD Vance, the author, is now a venture capitalist in California; however this book is about how he grew up dirt poor in Appalachia to a family that was highly dysfunctional on a good day.  This book generally details how he transcended this dysfunction to attend college and then law school at Yale, while also making forays into why the working white poor in the United States is in such a state of socioeconomic crisis.

Vance's family came from a long line of hill people originally from Kentucky.  They migrated to Ohio to work in the factories that sprang up following World War 2. His grandparents, in spite of the alcoholism that plagued them, had a decent life as a result.  However by the time that Vance was alive industry had left and there was mass poverty. His mother was a neglectful parent with alcohol and substance abuse issues that had a series of new husbands seemingly every year.  Vance's father was largely absent, although he eventually meets him.

I was very much struck by Vance's story but I had a really difficult time with his analysis of why this was happening. In part, this was because I found his academic writing to be mediocre at best. In part it was because I found the story of his life more interesting. That being said, he does pose some really interesting questions the most important of which - how much should the white poor be responsible for their own misfortune? He actually comes out with saying that the white poor are tremendously responsible for their misfortune - albeit in a compassionate tone.  While economic insecurity is a factor, the social decay that seems to come along with it is something that doesn't always need to be a result of that insecurity.He seemed to be particularly frustrated with his people's inability to counteract it - in part because I think that he saw his mother caught in a vicious cycle of abuse, drugs and a revolving door of men. He also told a story about how he worked as a cashier and got tremendously frustrated seeing his neighbors game the system and have cell phones, while he worked and could not afford one.

I respected Mr. Vance tremendously for attempting to take on a subject that everyone knows exists but which no one seems to want to explicitly tackle head on in an honest, straightforward and compassionate manner. Hats off to him for advancing the conversation.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Where'd You Go Bernadette - Maria Semple

I have this quirk - I guess it isn't really a quirk because I know other people like this - where I have to read a book before the movie comes out.  I heard through the grapevine that this book may be made into a movie.  To be fair, it's been a book that I've wanted to read for a while now and the movie prospects moved it to the top of my list.  Maria Semple did however create a winner here.

The main character in this novel is the title character - Bernadette.  She's a Type-A, successful, MacArthur grant winning architect who is married to a successful computer programmer and who suddenly decides she's not going to work anymore (first world problems I tell you!). The story is told from the perspective of Bernadette's daughter. 20 years prior to the events in the novel, Bernadette was living in California working as an architect and was at the cutting edge of "green" design. Her main project was a popular "localvore" project meaning that Bernadette got all of her materials from the area that she lived in. After much conflict with her neighbor, Bernadette gives up and moves to Seattle with her husband, a TED talk genius who loves living in Seattle. Not so much for Bernadette who essentially becomes a hermit, except to emerge to engage in an internet scam and with confict with the local parents, whom she calls gnats.

This book was both screwball and decidedly sweet, in a satirical fashion.  I really think that at the bottom of this novel is the relationship between a mother and her daughter, the daughter being an only child who obviously idolizes her mother. I loved it.  Semple's style is also really interesting. This is not a straight narrative in the traditional sense but is told through a mix of emails, journal entries, letters, police reports and first person narrative as well as school reports. The material is compiled and stitched together by Bee, Bernadette's daughter, who is valiantly trying to figure out what caused her mother to disappear. I loved it.  Just loved it.  Go get this book right now!

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward is becoming a household name in large part because of books like this one. While her previous books were novels, this one is a memoir and it really isn't for people that want a lighthearted beach read. This books deals not only with the stresses of living in poverty in the South but it also deals with suicide, overdoses, shootings and death in general.

Jesmyn Ward grew up on the Mississippi gulf coast, which figures prominently in this book. I really enjoyed how rich and evocative her storytelling style was. It could have gotten really morbid really quickly but instead it was almost lyrical in its matter of factness in its narrative of what it was like to grow up black, poor and female in the Deep South in the modern era. In addition to the seriousness of the deaths that occur, there are also some very familiar coming of age narratives: weed, alcohol, sex and boyfriends, school and family. But there are also some very sobering narratives as well that deal with destitution and delinquency. I found myself particularly drawn in by Ms. Ward's narrative about her own family and her family life. She details the demise of her parents' relationship, her own social isolation at a predominantly white private school and later when she leaves to attend a prestigious university and her brother's descent into the world of drug dealing.

While I don't think it was intended this way, Jesmyn Ward's memoir is a powerful narrative of the sociological, political and psychological impacts of growing up poor and black in the South. A definite must read.

Friday, January 26, 2018

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante is a complete enigma.  No one knows what she looks like or even when she was born, let alone what her real name is.  I think it's because the books that she has written seem to be pretty personal. In this particular novel, which was translated from Italian to English, a young girl is followed growing up in Naples, yearning to be a writer. There are a lot of fairly heavy topics that Ferrante addresses in this novel: everything from physical violence, to economic and class differences to child sexual abuse.

In this book, the main character is Elena Greco - called Lanu - and her best friend Lila.  All of the children in this neighborhood are tight, much as the neighborhood itself is tight and they all know who stands where in the power struggles. There is a scene where, for instance, Lila turns the power dynamics on her head by threatening the sons of a wealthy store owner with a knife after they tried to grab Elena and pull her into their car (the implications of why are there but never explicitly stated, which makes Lila's actions even more noble).

What I loved about this novel and, I hope, about her future novels, is that this one seemed to be a very intimate and thorough examination of growing up female in Naples at a particular time in history - this was the 1930's and 40's in Italy.  I have to admit, because my grandmother grew up in Italy during this time period I was drawn to it maybe a bit more than the average person. That being said, this book was phenomenal and I look forward to reading more. 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Smoke in Your Eyes by Caitlyn Doughty

Oh my gosh, Caitlyn Doughty makes death completely and utterly acceptable and not scary, kinda like Mary Roach did in Stiff, Doughty grew up in Hawaii and was obsessed with death as a teenager in high school, although I don't really see her as being Goth or anything like that. She volunteered in the mortuary in her local high school and got a bachelor's in medieval history (can you get more death obsessed people then those that lived in that time period?!) - her thesis was on dead babies and the role that they played in witchcraft. While in college and after graduation, she decided to work in a crematorium so that she could see real life death. This book is a memoir of her time at Westwind, a funeral home and crematorium in San Francisco.

I admit that I'm not "functionally morbid" (which is how Doughty describes herself) or even morbid at all actually but I loved this book.  First and foremost, her voice is totally amazing and she's very witty.  I really enjoyed reading it - because I could HEAR her telling me the stories.  It was like her voice was in my ear. I loved learning about how modernity deals with death and her comparisons to the history of death were fascinating - for such a short book, I learned a TON about death (it's history and how it is currently viewed). I also appreciated the journey that working at Westwind provided to Caitlyn.  She obviously learned a lot about herself and her emotions deepened tremendously. In fact, she appeared to achieve a level of peace and acceptance of mortality that most people don't have with regards to their own imminent deaths.

That being said, this book is NOT an academic rendering of death.  There aren't statistics in it and it isn't something that Caitlyn spent months and months in a library researching.  There is some historical anecdote in there (and she cites sources) but ultimately, this book is about her experience with death and the history just provides the context within which she's working.  I loved it nonetheless and look forward to reading other books by her. 

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Redefining Realness by Janet Mock

I heard about this book when I was at a conference recently - it is written by Janet Mock, an openly trans woman.  It is one of the first books of its kind in that it is the first memoir written by a trans woman. This offers a public glimpse of Janet's private life and how she seemed to surpass all odds to become the person that she is today and how she is a happy and fullfilled and successful woman.

What makes Ms. Mock's memoir that much better is that I felt compelled to question what constituted freedom.  I had always respected a person's path to self realization. We get to where we need to get through a variety of different ways and the journey to self realization has always utterly fascinated me. In applying this to her own life as a trans woman of color in America, however, Ms. Mock challenges us to see how marginalized a person that walks in her shoes is. Becoming a woman ensured that Ms. Mock had the freedom to be who she was in spite of whee and how she was born. She showed grit and determination and honesty in moving her life forward. This is not an easy story but I still enjoyed reading it.  Ms. Mock intersperses her personal stories with statistics and mini essays in an attempt to show the broader picture of what it is to mean to be trans in America today.

There were things that might not resonate with everyone.  She occasionally uses phrases like "born as a boy" and "born in a boys' body" and part of her journey is finding heterosexual love.  This is not, by far the majority of the book though and it is a very important telling of a journey that is not readily available currently.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

If you liked The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, you will want to read this dystopian novel, which has won a number of awards in th...