Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Interplay of Place and Person: Reviews on Another Brooklyn (Woodson) and The Bones of Grace (Anam)

For the first time in many years, your friendly reviewer's body is allowing her to work a full-time job.  I'm quite tired as my body adjusts, so my reading is slow...but always present.   I prioritize writing reviews for the books I receive in return for a review, but I also have a growing list of books I actually purchased that I'd love to review some time. 
When August returns to Brooklyn to bury her father, her mind (and heart) fills with the memories of her girlhood in the 1970s.  August arrived in Brooklyn with her father and brother at the age of eight.  In the earliest days, she watches from a window and becomes particularly entranced by a set of young girls who are clearly the closest of friends.  In time, as her father gradually allows her to venture out, August becomes part of a tight-knit group of young black girls coming of age in Brooklyn in the '70s.  The reader gets glimpses into lives that are very different and yet tied by the shared experience of their environment.  One girl is pressured to succeed and become a lawyer, one feels the pressure of her family's religion, one hides the dark side of her own family's secrets.  In August's own home, she feels the influence of the Nation of Islam and is impacted by her father's girlfriends and her need to protect her younger brother.  Together, the girlfriends, experience budding sexuality and burgeoning adulthood amidst a rapidly changing city that sees white flight, drug problems, and sexual violence.  It is clear from the start that the girls will drift apart, but they are a fundamental part of each other, a part they even call "home" for a time. 

This is a novel of place first and characters second.  While I'm a character-driven reader, I appreciated Woodson's ability to plunge her reader into a very specific time and place.  The reader sees Brooklyn along with the young girls and watches as the city and the girls themselves evolve.  There is beautiful and evocative language here and the author is a clear talent.  In some ways, it is high praise to say that I wanted more, but it is also why there was a bit of disappointment for me as a reader.  I also wanted a bit of a deeper connection with the characters themselves, even though I know the place was the main, an most developed character.

Certainly a lovely read, just not full enough in some ways for me.  Four stars.  Great for what it is, a short novel looking at a very specific place and how it shaped the lives of the young black women coming of age amid its chaos.  Many thanks to the publisher for providing me a reviewer's edition in exchange for an honest, unfettered review.

I'll start with two "points of order."  First, this is the third in a series of books about different members (and different generations) of a Bangladeshi family.  I did read the second, The Good Muslim, but didn't read the first and each book is fully capable of standing on its own.  Reading the others might help provide insight into the family members at the edges of the subsequent novels, but it is by no means necessary. Second, like with the prior book, I received this from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased, honest review.

To a large extent, this book is a letter to a lost love.  Zubaida is working as a researcher in anthropology when she meets Elijah at a classical concert.  They have a very intense but brief period together before she leaves for a dig in Pakistan where they are hoping to uncover the "walking whale," an important link in a very unique (and apparently quite real) evolutionary chain. The dig is halted very suddenly (I won't reveal details) and Zubaida chooses to return to Bangaldesh and marry a childhood friend rather than pursue what she knows is a truer love with Elijah.  A series of events at home eventually send Zubaida to a very different world where a filmmaker is trying to tell the story of shipbreakers, men (and children) who engage in the very dangerous work of tearing apart old ships for their parts. 

Honestly, there's more to the plot but I hesitate to say too much.  And that also goes to the heart of my problem with this novel, it simply takes on too much.  I enjoyed getting to know Zubaida and could very much feel the way she is torn between true love (and career) and her past (and culture, family, and expectation).  There were moments where I loved this book and the characters in it (who are all very realistically flawed), but it also just overwhelmed me.  

It all combines to a 3.5 rating.  Recommended to readers interested in the pull between culture/tradition and the life one is drawn to by the heart.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Rambler's Summer Reading: The Bridge Ladies (Lerner) and And After the Fire (Belfer)

I typically read in the evenings, but summer has afforded options for both beachside and poolside reading.  I'll take it!

I rarely read memoirs, but I was drawn to this selection when offered the chance to read and review an advance copy by the publisher.  Having returned to her native Connecticut, Lerner becomes intrigued by her mother and the other women that make up her mom's bridge circle.  These are Jewish women who live in a upper-middle class suburb and who are devoted to each other in a very unique way.  She speaks in-depth to all of the women about their youth, their loves, and their lives.  Lerner had longed struggled to differentiate herself from he mother, but now tries to truly get to know her mother as a fellow woman.  In the process, Lerner also learns to play bridge herself and appreciate the complexity of the game and the relationships built around it.  Of course, she also finds she learns a bit more about herself in the process.

I enjoyed this book which often felt more like a novel than a memoir.  It took me some time to be able to keep track of all the ladies, but I appreciated seeing both the similarities and the differences in a group of women who came of age in the same time period with similar expectations (largely centered on finding a husband who would provide well and then raising a family).  The "cast of characters" includes some truly interesting women who might seem, on the surface, a bit bland to a more "modern" audience. 

I didn't love the book, but I definitely liked it so 3.5 stars (I'll round up where I can't pick half-stars, but I really do like my 3.5!).  I think it is particularly well-suited for women who might be the daughters or granddaughters of these ladies.
This book spans centuries with the story tied together by a piece of music.  The piece is by Bach and thus inherently considered a masterwork, but it also contains highly Anti-Semitic words.  In the modern-day tale, Susanna finds the piece when cleaning out her uncle's belongings after his death.  Susanna is a newly divorced woman living in NYC, coping with the aftermath of an attack, and working in the non-profit arena.  She takes on the role of the piece's caretaker and devotes substantial time and energy to learning more about it and understanding where it came from and why her uncle kept it hidden for years. 

The modern-day story is interwoven with the story of the piece's prior caretakers starting with a relative of Bach gifting the piece to a young Jewish woman in the latter 18th Century.  A substantial part of the book is about this woman's life, a life she devotes to the arts and to her extended family.  We also watch as the piece is handed to other caretakers, building up to the book's opening scene which depicts the transfer of the piece from a young woman to Susanna's uncle in the days following WWII. 

I enjoyed this book (I read an Advance Readers' Edition supplied to me by the publisher), but it did eventually drag a bit for me.  I definitely preferred the storyline(s) depicting the piece's past caretakers to the modern day story.  The book raises a lot of questions about art as all of the caretakers, including Susanna, struggle to with the conflict between the piece's beauty and the hateful words it contains.  These are interesting issues and I enjoyed thinking about them alongside the characters.  I did get a bit tired of Susanna's story.  I appreciate well-rounded characters but it felt like Belfer tried to put too many ideas into the narrative and tried to hit too many genres (a bit of romance, a bit of growing past tragedy, etc). 

3.5 stars -- Like but not love. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Two Very Different Novels: A Disturbing Look at Teenage Ties (Girls on Fire, Robin Wasserman) and a Stirring Portrait of Family and Community (LaRose, Louise Erdich)

I like to try and tie books together with some sort of theme or even just an apt post title when I'm posting multiple reviews.  I keep failing with this pair since these were such completely different experiences.  I'm posting in the order I read them which also puts the harsher review first and the more positive one second (I always did prefer bad news before good)....
It is the '90s in a small, rural town in Pennsylvania.  Hannah is a quiet girl, the type who gets lost in the crowd, when suddenly Lacey appears on the scene.  Lacey is new to town and she is anything but invisible.  Hannah and Lacey become the closest of friends and Hannah adapts much of Lacey's world including her rebellious attitude, goth-like fashion, and her love for all things Kurt Cobain.  She even adopts a new nickname, Dex.  The friendship develops in the wake of a popular boy's suicide and a cruel bullying incident involving his popular girlfriend Nikki, who is nearly but not quite a third protagonist.  Dex and Lacey's tie takes extremely dark twists and turns with sex, drugs, and violence abounding, all building to an explosive conclusion. 

This is NOT a happy teenage story.  It is VERY dark and readers need to know that (a few moments of bubbly-girlhood only serve to make the dark moments darker).  There are moments that make my stomach turn even as I write this review.  It is hard to put that aside.  I certainly believe there is a place for dark fiction.  I believe that some of the very best books make the reader a bit uncomfortable.  However, I feel like that discomfort needs to serve a purpose and I have trouble finding one here.  I can see the power of Wasserman's prose and I can see that there is an audience for this book.  It's just not really me. 

There is POWER here and the book deserves praise for that.  I want to recognize that Wasserman certainly has a talent and there are moments that are drawn in very vivid, real-feeling prose.  Still, I was anxious for it to be over and felt like the story just kept piling more and more damage and darkness to the narrative.  It is tough to place a rating on this book because I want to recognize the strengths of this book, but I always promise an honest review (I received an ARC from the publisher) and I end up at 2-2.5 stars.

LaRose opens with tragedy.  Landreaux is hunting a deer, just at the border of reservation land, when he mistakenly hits and kills his neighbor's young son.  Landreux and his wife, Emmaline, choose to follow an old tribal custom and give their own son, LaRose, to Nola (also Emmaline's paternal half-sister) and Peter, the grieving parents.  The arrangement evolves over time and it becomes abundantly clear that the young boy is wise and spiritual beyond his years and he binds the families together while also causing jealousy and resentment at the same time.  The reader learns that he is just one in a line of Larose's, all the rest female, and the reader is taken through time to meet the original LaRose.  Also figuring into the narrative are a minister who has been working on the reservation (and is in love with Emmaline) a childhood companion of Landreaux's whose life took a very different path, and Larose's siblings (in both households). 

I'll start with the broad statement that I very much enjoyed this book.  There are some truly captivating characters, including some who take paths I never expected.  I loved the aura of the Native American heritage that pervades the entire novel, including the elderly reservation residents in the modern day and the LaRoses in the part who struggled to find their place at the intersection of two worlds.  My primary issue with the book is simply that it tries to include far too much.  I can't possibly hit every topic and keep this review reasonably succinct.  I'd have preferred if the author cut at least a few of the storylines.  I do appreciate that the book attempts to paint a big picture of a community at the same time as it is about one little boy, but there are still a few too many branches on the tree.  Still, the writing is gorgeous and evocative.  This is an emotional novel, but while much of it is quite sad it still left me with a feeling of hope and an appreciation of the beauty of its world.

Four out of five stars.  With thanks to the publisher for providing an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.