This is a brief novella that takes aim at the hypocrisy and arrogance of Angola’s ruling classes. The political situation is symbolized by a couple: Carmina, a communist youth leader who later embraces exploitative capitalism when political winds shift; and her husband João, a well-meaning but ineffective man who retreats into computer games as the capital city of Luanda crumbles around him – quite literally, as buildings mysteriously collapse, leaving their occupants unharmed.
Knowing nothing about the country going in, I found this a fairly engaging read, and the story is well-translated, but it would likely work better for readers familiar with recent Angolan history. Magical realist and absurdist elements – like the dispossessed protesting by going nude in public – obscure the actual history, leaving the foreign reader wondering what really happened. And while it is difficult to separate the personal from the political in such a short and pointed story, there is this recurring notion that all is right in the home when the husband takes the reins and publicly chastises his wife; I wasn’t sure how much Pepetela finds Carmina’s ruling the roost objectionable simply because she’s a woman, and how much because this specific woman is morally bankrupt.
Nevertheless, this is an interesting book from which I did learn a bit about Angola, and at 100 pages it’s a very quick read.
This collection of 12 short stories was written by an author apparently renowned in his native country of Greece, though not translated into English until long after the fact; Papadiamantis lived from 1851-1911, while this collection was published in 1994. The translation is fluid, but a side effect of the long delay in translation is that its contemporary literary English makes it difficult to feel that one is reading a 19th century work.
The stories, set on Papadiamantis’s home island of Skiathos, chronicle the lives of humble people living there. Recurring themes and situations include marriage, the death of children, the injustice of the dowry system,* young men yearning for beautiful women, and middle-aged women whose lives are full of suffering. The portrayal of late-19th century Greek island life is interesting; it appears to be a society divided between the sea and everyday agricultural work, taking place in fields set far from the towns where people live.
I have to admit this collection didn’t do much for me. It wasn’t Papadiamantis’s much-discussed conservatism, which despite a couple of cringeworthy gender-essentialist passages doesn’t really seem to define the text. Perhaps it’s because, as the translator discusses in her introduction, several of these plots are taken from ancient Greek writings or mythology; perhaps the author was too devoted to recycling plots rather than allowing them to develop organically. Or perhaps these characters just didn’t strike a chord in me for any of the nebulous reasons that fiction can fall flat for some readers. But although I can’t point to a specific flaw in the crafting of the plots or characters, I was largely indifferent to these stories and eager to move on from this collection.
* In a couple of stories, families are forced to give up practically all they own to secure the marriage of a daughter, the parents moving out of their home to include it in the dowry, or a family giving up half of its land and mortgaging the other half. These situations were apparently based on reality; the author himself, through choosing the less-lucrative career of a writer, saw 3 of his 4 sisters unable to ever marry. But I’m baffled at how such a system can survive: if most women can’t afford to marry, then most men will also die single; from an economic standpoint you’d expect the dowry demands to decrease dramatically rather than allow a system in which most people never marry. The missing link would seem to be large numbers of men dying disproportionately young, which we don’t see here, unless we’re meant to conclude that they’re all setting sail for the Americas and most never return? The author of course had no need to explain their own society to contemporary readers, but the translator might have done so.
This is one of those books that I enjoyed fairly well, but don’t have many good things to say about. It’s the story of three generations of a Korean family living in Japan, beginning in 1932 (after a first chapter set in 1910) and ending in 1989. It’s interesting from a historical perspective (I was ignorant of Korean immigrants in Japan and how badly they were treated), and Lee is a good storyteller; the book kept me curious about what would happen next, generally without over-inflated drama and without veering too far into sentimentality (though at times the opposite occurs, and events like major character deaths aren’t really followed up on nor is their aftermath developed in the text).
However, I found myself much more engaged while reading it than driven to return after a break. While the characters don’t fall into simple stereotypes, they are not particularly deep or complex, and I felt little emotional attachment to any of them; likewise, the writing style is adequate but quite simple. Ultimately, it was perfectly enjoyable entertainment, but didn’t inspire much thought or feeling in me despite its rather chunky size.
I looked forward to reading this book, because income inequality has become an important topic in America. I see firsthand the deterioration of the middle class, with professionals often working second jobs in the evening; families with two working parents struggling to pay for day care or patch together a network of relatives and friends to provide it because they can’t afford it at all; and people in their 20s and 30s held hostage to student debt or living with parents or roommates due to housing prices. Wages haven’t kept up with inflation, while the price of education and medical care is skyrocketing and the price of housing is climbing steeply as well. The current generation of young people is expected, overall, to earn less than their parents, and people with respectable jobs will tell you they can’t afford to have kids. This is a mess that certainly deserves a book.
Sadly, this is not a good book. It’s overly focused on the very expensive New York City and San Francisco, which the author discusses as if they were representative of the rest of the country. The human-interest segments are lacking, spending too little time with any individual to tell their story or get readers invested; instead the author summarizes their financial situation and feelings about it and then moves on, generally never to revisit the same person again. It’s poorly organized and feels rushed to press, with egregious copyediting errors like random words stranded between sentences, repetitive figurative language (she describes parents and day-care providers as “like nesting dolls” twice in two pages, and then again at the end), and poor word choice (stating, for instance, that a law “argues” something – a statute mandates, prohibits or permits something, it doesn’t argue).
Meanwhile the factual portions are marked by generalizations, odd tangents, questionable leaps of logic, and conclusions with no factual basis provided. She’ll call something a “racket” or a “myth” when first introducing a situation, rather than leading readers to draw conclusions ourselves. And it’s hard to take her word for it when she uses overheated language: “As of 2004, nearly 40 percent of Americans had experienced nonstandard work lives, if by ‘standard’ is meant the (now semi-mythical) eight-hour daily shift of the past.” What’s “semi-mythical” about a schedule that’s all that 60% of Americans have ever known? She also does a poor job of bringing her own emotions home to the reader; for instance, she meets an overnight day care child “two years older than my daughter” who feels she can’t rely on parents. Okay, so how old is Quart’s daughter? And she feels like she needs to pay rent to go for a walk – wait, what? Why?
But let me summarize the book for you; I read it so you don’t have to!
Chapter 1: “Inconceivable: Pregnant and Squeezed”
Employment discrimination against pregnant women is on the rise; some pregnant employees are fired, while those looking for a job hide their pregnancies in interviews. The author believes this is because employers want to deny human biology.
Chapter 2: “Hyper-Educated and Poor”
Adjunct professors are only paid about as much as grade-school teachers, and may have to patch together classes at several different colleges to make ends meet. This chapter focuses almost exclusively on adjunct professors, even discussing a charity set up to help them with bills.
Chapter 3: “Extreme Day Care: The Deep Cost of American Work”
Employers increasingly expect employees to work unusual hours, so some day cares are now open round-the-clock. Day care is incredibly expensive while at the same time day care workers are poorly-paid; I wish she had delved into this apparent contradiction.
Chapter 4: “Outclassed: Life at the Bottom of the Top”
This chapter makes reference to “keeping up with the Joneses” but then, perhaps realizing that’s a common and not terribly sympathetic phenomenon, shifts gears to talk about how many more lawyers there are these days than actual legal jobs, due to the proliferation of law schools and the assumption that a law degree equals financial security. Seems like this belongs in Chapter 2, since underemployed lawyers aren’t exactly almost-rich. It’s hard to tell from the book how many people are actually affected though, because she gives random statistics like “56% of lawyers in Alaska don’t work in law!” Okay, so why are you talking about Alaska rather than giving nationwide statistics? And this is meaningless anyway without stats on how many lawyers worked in other fields pre-recession; law has always been a gateway to other fields, whether in business, politics, government administration, nonprofit management, or more unusual choices from police chief to novelist.
Chapter 5: “The Nanny’s Struggle”
There’s a decent story in here about a Paraguayan immigrant working as a nanny/cleaner and trying to raise her son, though I’m not sure why it’s here as she’s working poor, not middle class. This chapter segues into discussing the complexity of the educational system in New York, spending a full 12 pages on the difficulty of figuring out which New York public school to request, and the fact that middle- and upper-class folk pay educational consultants for this. As a solution, the author suggests providing free educational consultants to all parents. This seems minimally helpful as presumably there are schools virtually all parents would prefer to avoid, and anyway, I doubt it’s that difficult to choose a high school in most of the country, if you have any choice at all.
Chapter 6: “Uber Dads: Moonlighting in the Gig Economy”
This chapter is focused on Uber, and in particular Uber’s pitch to teachers, and the fact that teachers feel they need to moonlight at a second job at all. This is a real problem, but there’s a lot more to the gig economy than ridesharing, though you don’t see that here. Quart even theorizes that men are more likely to drive for Uber because they constantly have to prove their masculinity, so feel more threatened by loss of class status. No doubt this is a factor in some men’s decision to moonlight, and it seems appropriate to say something about issues affecting men in a book that’s generally much more focused on women’s issues, but Quart overlooks the fact that women typically don’t work as taxi or rideshare drivers due to fear of sexual assault or robbery, and that the demographics of Uber drivers aren’t representative of the gig economy overall. Look at second jobs in retail, hospitality, child care, or pet care, for instance, and you’ll see different demographics.
Chapter 7: “The Second Act Industry: Or the Midlife Do-Over Myth”
A lot of for-profit colleges are scams, making money on students’ federal loans, but not providing good education and landing their students with debt. The author doesn’t really support her assertion that a mid-life career change is a “myth,” though she writes about a lot of people making money off of others’ desire to start over.
Chapter 8: “Squeezed Houses”
This is where I thought we’d get more on housing prices, but this chapter mostly talks about the fact that some parents have decided to move in with other parents and “coparent” their kids together although they’re not related or romantically involved.
Chapter 9: “The Rise of 1 Percent Television”
Quart wants to tie people’s love of watching TV featuring the rich into her narrative somehow. She doesn’t really make the case that this is a new phenomenon, though, and her analysis of the shows in question is doubtful. (She points out that in Downton Abbey the rich Crawleys are mostly good while a couple of servants are the villains, neglecting to mention that the servants Anna and Bates are portrayed as practically angels in comparison to everybody else.) She also claims that people posting pictures of “adventurous vacations” and even attractive spouses on social media are doing so to advertise their class status.
Chapter 10: “Squeezed by the Robots”
The final chapter has some legitimate points about jobs being lost to automation, but Quart takes it to an extreme and spends most of the chapter creating a false dichotomy where robots shuttling linens about the hospital means that future patients’ post-op care will somehow be done entirely by machines, with no “human touch.” She romanticizes care work here – I’ll bet a lot of patients would find more dignity in being lifted by a machine they can control than by a busy, tired low-wage worker – while championing what she admits is an apocalyptic view of robots. Then she advocates for a universal basic income, which she doesn’t really seem to have thought through because, first, why pay people not to work when there’s all-important care work to be done, and second, she suggests both that it would probably be set at the poverty level and that it could replace programs like Medicare. As if any elderly person at the poverty level could afford health care out-of-pocket.
There – now you’ve as good as read the book. I went in expecting to agree with the author, and still thought it was bad; hopefully someone else will tackle this topic with more intellectual rigor and emotional depth, and with a better editor and copyeditor.
This is an interesting and influential book that in its broad conclusions makes a lot of sense, though I have doubts about Diamond’s reasoning on some of his smaller points. It’s longer than it needs to be, but largely because it is thorough and takes the time to break down academic subjects to be accessible to intelligent but non-specialist readers.
First published in 1997, this book sets out to explain why Europe was able to colonize such a large part of the world in the last few centuries. Europeans’ possession of “guns, germs and steel” was an immediate cause, but why did they have these things when people on many other continents did not? Diamond’s answer comes down to the environment in different parts of the world. In essence, all of these advantages come down to agriculture. In a hunter-gatherer society, population is kept relatively small, people have to focus on acquiring food, and (unless they live in an especially bountiful area), small groups typically need to move from place to place, such that they can’t have too many belongings, especially if they have no domestic animals to carry them. A society built on farming, however, tends to be much more populous, can support a class of people who do something other than farm (an elite class of nobles, but also specialized trades), and can accumulate belongings, which makes developing new technology more worthwhile. So, parts of the world that had a head start on farming also had a head start on developing technology, such as metallurgy.
Meanwhile, European germs played probably the most decisive role in their conquest of the Americas, as well as some other parts of the world; given the size of the native population (an early European visitor to the east coast of the modern U.S. wrote that there didn’t really seem to be room for colonies because the area was so heavily populated) and the difficulty of getting even small numbers of people across the ocean on wooden ships, one can imagine that this could have turned out much more like the English conquest of India, or might not have happened at all, if not for the epidemics that killed some 90% of the population. Why were the Europeans the ones with the germs? Well, human epidemics have come from domestic animals (think swine flu and avian flu today), and epidemics need a large population to stay alive; otherwise they will simply kill everyone they can kill and then die out with no new hosts. Therefore, epidemics evolved in places where people lived in close quarters with domestic animals, and stuck around in populations large enough to produce a new crop of children before the epidemic died out (this is why diseases like measles were once considered “childhood diseases” – not because children were more susceptible, but because the diseases were so prevalent that children would almost inevitably catch them before growing up). Both individuals and populations exposed to these germs would eventually develop immunity if they survived.
But the opportunity to domesticate animals wasn’t spread evenly around the world. Asia and Europe (referred to throughout the book as “Eurasia” since it’s really one landmass, considered two continents for political rather than geographic reasons) had lots of options, including horses, cows, water buffalo, sheep, pigs, and goats. As far as domesticable large mammals go, the Americas had only the llama (which didn’t spread beyond the Andes), while sub-Saharan Africa had none. It isn’t that people didn’t try – people will keep almost anything as a pet – but numerous factors influence whether a large mammal is a good candidate for domestication. It needs to live in herds, to tolerate its own herd’s territory overlapping with others (or you’d never be able to bring in a new cow that wasn’t related to your current cows), to not be overly or unpredictably aggressive toward humans (this is why the zebra has never worked out), to not panic, bolt and throw itself against the fence until it dies, and more. Eurasia had a couple of major advantages here. Being the largest landmass, it had the most animal diversity. And, as modern humans evolved in Africa and Eurasia, animals evolved alongside them, presumably learning how to deal with human hunters’ increasing skills; on the other hand, most large mammals went extinct in the Americas and Australia shortly after people arrived.
With agriculture, too, Eurasia had an advantage, causing it to kick off there early. Again, there was a greater diversity of plants, only some of which make sense to domesticate and begin to grow. The Fertile Crescent (roughly modern-day Iraq and Turkey), perhaps the first site of agriculture in the world, had it particularly easy: wheat already existed in a form quite similar to its modern equivalent, and grew bountifully, so the idea of taking it home and growing it wasn’t much of a leap. On the other hand, with corn – a staple crop of Mexico and eventually the eastern U.S. – there isn’t even agreement on what the wild ancestor was; the plant that might have been the original corn produced husks only about an inch long with tiny kernels and other disadvantages. People had to work on it for a really long time before it became a suitable staple crop for large swathes of the continent.
And then too, you wouldn’t switch from hunting and gathering to farming for just one crop. While hunting and gathering seems like a precarious lifestyle to us, it can actually be better than subsistence farming. Farmers worked harder – which makes sense, since they had to nurture their food every step of the way rather than simply finding it and bringing it home – and based on their skeletons, early farmers’ nutrition was worse than that of hunter-gatherers. So it’s the total package that counts; in areas that provided a nutritionally-balanced diet of domesticable plants, plus domesticable animals to supplement that diet and also provide labor and fertilizer, farming made a lot more sense than it did in areas without such a bounty. Essentially, the sort of lifestyle people had depended on the food options available, and some places supported agriculture much more than others. Nobody’s building a densely-populated empire from a desert like the Australian outback.
There is a lot more to the book of course, but I think it’s the central thesis that’s the most convincing. Many of Diamond’s other points – ancillary to his main argument – don’t work so well. For instance, he’s very interested in how a Spanish force of about 150 managed to defeat and capture the Inca emperor Atahualpa, who was supported by thousands of troops. Certainly the Spanish weaponry played a decisive role, particularly since it was the first time the Inca had encountered guns or cavalry. But Diamond claims that we know well what happened based on the (likely self-serving) accounts of several Spaniards, without apparently realizing that the Inca would probably have told a different story, and then makes a big deal of the fact the Inca lacked writing, arguing this is why they weren’t aware of prior Spanish conquests in Central America and therefore walked into a trap. But this ignores the fact that people who can’t depend on storing information in written form tend to have far better memorization skills than people who write everything down (Homer was not unusual in being able to recite epic poems from memory), and the fact that “they’re going to try to kill you with terrible weapons” is a simple message that could certainly have been transmitted intact had the Inca had envoys in Central America, all while assuming that Atahualpa didn’t know it was a trap. Without contemporary Inca sources, we have no idea whether perhaps he did know, but being new to the throne of an empire destabilized by epidemics, had to go anyway or risk looking weak to his subjects and promptly being overthrown.
There’s some other questionable reasoning here: that it makes sense that the wheel, while invented in Mexico, wasn’t actually used for transportation because there were no animals capable of pulling carts. (So what? People too can transport far more weight on wheels than they can carry.) That New Guineans are probably smarter than Europeans because their society has a higher homicide rate. (A society with lots of murder and warfare would select for strength, skill with weapons, and ability to maintain strong social ties far more than it would select for abstract, creative, or analytical thinking. Plus, an anthropological study of a New Guinea tribe found that those typically targeted for murder were the elderly, who would have already passed on their genes regardless.) And the 2003 epilogue, attempting to apply principles of societal development to how corporations should organize themselves to best promote innovation – apparently inspired by business leaders writing to Diamond about the book – even if true, has nothing to do with the contents of this already-long book.
Obviously there’s a lot to chew on here, hence the long review. I do think the book is worth reading, though it’s unfortunate that Diamond doesn’t cite sources for individual facts, and only includes generalized “further reading” lists. The book has some repetition that makes it a little longer than it needs to be, but overall I think it does a sound job of explaining some of the broad strokes of human history.
This is in a lot of ways a fun, quirky book, but somehow I managed to not realize going in that it’s ultimately about the effects of catastrophic climate change. So I wound up finding it too depressing, for real-world reasons, to really enjoy.
The book starts with the two protagonists, Patricia and Laurence, as kids, both outcasts at school who happen to be unusually gifted (Patricia with magic and Laurence with science) and who become friends. Usually I don’t have much to say for child characters, but the third of the book following their childhoods was my favorite part of this one. It’s fun and quirky, vividly over-the-top in a Roald Dahl kind of way that doesn’t take itself too seriously. And the pair as kids are fun and relatable.
Then they grow up, and the middle third of the book sags a bit, as the characters meander through a near-future San Francisco without a particular sense of urgency. The characters aren’t especially deep, but they do feel like real, weird people, speaking and thinking like actual millennials; for instance, Laurence worries that he’s not good at active listening, while Patricia is concerned that she’s too self-centered (when she’s not). Then at about the two-thirds mark, we get a chapter straight out of On the Beach, and this became “that horribly depressing book that I have to finish because I’m most of the way there” for the remainder; even when depressing things weren’t actually happening, it was still a climate change book. The ending isn’t a total downer, but only because of(show spoiler)
And yeah, it’s important that people think about this stuff and take it seriously, but I’ve done that for years with no effect; in the end I’m one person with no particular power to effect change, and exposing myself to this kind of material depresses me without doing anyone any good. Real power is in the hands of corporations and the politicians they fund (supported by a public who will believe any message they want to hear that lets them claim moral high ground while requiring nothing of them). And the powers-that-be don’t care much about anything beyond this quarter’s profits. So, too bad we don’t have the level of magic and science that exist in this book to solve our problems for us, I guess?
God, this was depressing. I would read something else by this author on a different topic though.
This is less a travel book than the memoir of the author’s emotional journey. Kira Salak seems to be a professional adventurer, which is pretty cool, and she’s also a compelling storyteller, bringing to life her experience traveling around New Guinea’s swamps, rainforests, mountains, crime-ridden cities, and even a rebel refugee camp, in 1995. What she does not do quite so well is illuminate the lives of the people she meets; she’s in New Guinea to discover herself.
And I get the sense she’s spent a lot of time analyzing herself, and no wonder, having received more than her share of dysfunction being raised by evangelical Objectivist parents, and feeling compelled to go off on life-threatening journeys to prove herself. But she was 24 when she took this trip and only a few years older when she wrote about it, and some of the ways she describes her emotional experiences seem a little simplistic. I also couldn’t help but shake my head at her idea that she was going to recover from the trauma of a previous kidnapping (also on a dangerous trip) by traveling through another dangerous place where, unfamiliar with the environment, she would be at the mercy of strangers. It’s no wonder this doesn’t really work for her… or it doesn’t seem to, until the epilogue, which wraps everything up rather too neatly; insisting, for instance, that she wasn’t taught to fear like other girls, when she spent most of the preceding 400 pages preoccupied with danger and fear. Her threshold for what she’s willing to do anyway is certainly higher than most women’s, but she rarely feels safe enough on this trip to enjoy herself.
That said, Salak does write well about the places she experienced: the grueling hikes through swamps and mountains; the wonder of a helicopter ride over the jungle; the tragedy of the refugees from the western portion of New Guinea, victims of genocide from Indonesia; the hubris of missionaries trying to drag locals into a modern way of life. When she does write about locals, it’s really quite good; I loved reading about the calm swamp village where tiny children learned to paddle in tiny canoes, and she was taken in by a man who had no plates or silverware because his wife took them all when she left and moved across the road. And for that matter, about the truck drivers in Mozambique, where Salak’s early attempt at adventure got her in well over her head. But she rarely stays in one place long, and I was left wanting to learn more about these people: for instance, about the women living away from their families at the YWCA in Port Moresby, despite rampant crime there.
Overall, this was enjoyable reading; it seems a bit long for what it is, but Salak has such an intense and varied journey that I’m not sure what could be cut. I think this book is worth reading, though if your primary interest in it is learning about New Guinea, you may come away frustrated.
This is not bad by the standards of self-published books, but there isn’t much to recommend it unless you happen to be seeking a book set in Bahrain; it is currently the most popular book on Goodreads (admittedly, an English language-dominated site) set in that country. Titled “Yummah,” a word used in the book to mean “grandmother,” it seems to be the fictionalized life story of the author’s grandmother – a conclusion supported by the fact that toward the end, a favorite granddaughter appears who, like the author, is named Sarah, goes to college in Boston, and moves to Saudi Arabia for marriage.
The book begins sometime in the mid 20th century, and spans the time period from British colonial rule of Bahrain, to the country’s independence in 1971, the First Gulf War, and the beginning of the 20th century. It is narrated by a woman named Khadeeja and focuses on the domestic dramas of her own and her children’s lives. Khadeeja is married off at age 12, loses several people she loves and is abandoned by her otherwise apparently perfect husband as a pregnant mother of eight, but overcomes adversity and sees her children find love and success.
It’s a quick read, and the story moves briskly, covering an entire lifetime in fewer than 200 pages. It does suffer from several drawbacks, however. Khadeeja narrates the story in first person (except for a few brief sections told in third person from someone else’s perspective), and her perspective is not particularly nuanced; she romanticizes child marriage and makes sweeping statements like “in my days the twelve-year-olds were still innocent, their eyes still had their childish sparkle and their hearts were pure as angels’,” or, on the day of Bahrain’s independence, “there wasn’t a single soul on the island of Bahrain who wasn’t happy.”
She’s also a heavily romanticized character herself, with no apparent flaws, and called an angel even by her ex-husband, who is similarly romanticized despite his abandonment of his pregnant wife and eight kids. (I can sympathize with his shame at losing his job and his initial decision to flee, but to never send for them or even send money once he’s back on his feet – when they’re on the verge of eviction and the older kids are leaving school to support the family – did not seem nearly so forgivable to me as it was to every character in this book. That said, my guess is that this book is based on the author’s grandmother’s life, and if this is treated as a great love story in her family, well, at least it’s authentic I suppose.)
Beyond that, there are problems one expects from a self-published book. It appears to have been copyedited by spellcheck, given the number of misused words. For the most part, the author’s English seems fluent, but she struggles with prepositions (Khadeeja is concerned about someone’s “desire in revenge”; a character comments that “life has been cruel on you”), the occasional word is jarring to the English-speaking reader (the dialogue tag “screamed” is overused, including even for a polite greeting at one point), and there are some run-on sentences and some passages which lapse into the present tense although most of the book is in the past tense. Meanwhile, I was never sure whether the seeming expansion of the age gaps between Khadeeja’s children (all nine born within eleven or twelve years) was a continuity error, or whether society really was changing so rapidly that the middle and younger children wind up seeming a full generation younger than their older siblings.
All in all, this was a quick and painless read, especially since my expectations for a self-published book were so low. It’s not one I would recommend on its literary merits, but it’s a perfectly decent choice for those looking for a story set in Bahrain.
This book was lovely, unexpected fun. After reading Mansfield Park and Persuasion in recent years, I concluded that Jane Austen’s work was not for me: their characters seemed bloodless, their heroines prim and infallible, their subject matter a tedious catalogue of the social lives of the independently wealthy. But I may have fallen into the trap of judging an author by her worst works, having read her three most popular books while too immature a reader to judge them. Northanger Abbey, now: this book is just fun, a lively tale of a teenage girl discovering the world outside her town for the first time, falling in with some of the wrong people, having a bit of an adventure, all while the book pokes fun at melodramatic Gothic novels of the period.
Discussion of this book generally seems to revolve around Catherine’s wilder fantasies about Northanger Abbey, the home of some of her new friends, so I was surprised to find that this section is the smaller part of the book – most of which takes place in Bath – and the least convincing. Up to that point, Catherine is portrayed as a sensible if inexperienced girl, raised by an endearingly sensible mother (whose reaction to Catherine’s being sent on a sudden road trip alone by post is “well, that was strange and uncivil behavior on your host’s part, but now you’ve had to rely on yourself and managed, which is good for you"). On arriving at the abbey she abruptly throws common sense to the winds, only to regain it just as rapidly after a talking-to, the gist of which is “be sensible, those terrible things couldn’t happen here in England.”
That said, I enjoyed Catherine as a protagonist; she’s a naïve but appealing teenage girl, capable of standing up for herself and going after what she wants and not intended to be a paragon. The secondary cast is also strong, with believable and incisive characterization despite the book’s relatively short length. And I found Austen’s wit genuinely humorous, particularly enjoying the passages contrasting the characters’ real-life behavior with novelistic expectations. Here, for instance, is Catherine encountering her crush in public:
“He looked as handsome and as lively as ever, and was talking with interest to a fashionable and pleasing-looking young woman, who leant on his arm, and whom Catherine immediately guessed to be his sister; thus unthinkingly throwing away a fair opportunity of considering him lost to her for ever, by being married already.”
This book may be 200 years old, but it sped by for me. Life is an adventure for Catherine, and that energy seems to transmit itself to the pages. Perhaps I should be giving Austen more credit.
This is either an unusually good self-published book, or an unusually poorly-edited traditionally-published book. Set in the Bahamas, probably around the 1990s, it follows the adventures of a young man named Gavin Blake (whose name looks enough like the author's to give me pause), who despite being born in the islands is not considered a citizen because his father was American. Though college-educated, Gavin takes a job caretaking a yacht for the well-off Jacob Thesinger, and witnesses lawlessness and corruption firsthand.
The insider look at life on the Bahamas is quite interesting, though it’s a grim vision, centering largely on rich people preoccupied with rising crime rates, and on government corruption and ineffectiveness. The vividness of Buckner’s writing, meanwhile, is impressive; he sets an immersive scene, virtually transporting readers to the Bahamas. Gavin’s role in the plot is a bit weak though – the blurb definitely oversells it with his “struggle to do the right thing,” which amounts to voicing a couple of ineffectual protests to Jacob’s bad behavior toward the end while continuing to enable it. A good editor could have whipped this plot into excellent shape, but as is it’s a bit flabby.
But the need for better editing is most glaring in the writing itself. I think the book was copyedited by spellcheck, and not the current version that highlights grammatical errors too. That’s the only way I can explain the sheer frequency of misused words, which occur on average every couple of pages throughout. “We starred out at the sea,” “people collapsed and slid, taking other’s with them,” “A long main of white hair blew about his shoulders,” “he wore white leather Weejuns without sox,” “They’re faces shone,” the list goes on and on. But the thing that most makes it look like an amateur effort are the overblown, ponderous “philosophical” passages that say nothing much. Here’s an example:
“We don’t have the energy to feed all our hungers. We choose one and try to make it perfect. One thing to polish. One thing to shine. A single path to keep to over the turmoil of years. That we have just this one choice is intimidating. Some never decide. Thesinger had chosen his path. He knew who he was and I envied that. But once you begin to feed that lonely burn, it becomes law.”
Which starts out talking as if it’s describing a universal condition, but changes gears halfway to make it specific to one character, all without describing human behavior in a way that resonated with my real life experience at all.
That said, I don’t want to come down too hard on this book. My expectations for it were rock-bottom – only four libraries in the United States even have it (thank you Interlibrary Loan!) – and on that basis I was rather pleasantly surprised. Dialogue and some action move the story along, and the vividness of the writing helps a lot. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it, but in the course of my world books challenge I’ve read much worse. This book has plenty of potential; with a good editor to polish it up it might have shone.
This book is a hidden gem: the biography of a mixed-race family around the time of the Civil War. It was published well before its time – in 1956 there wasn’t much interest in African-American family sagas – but it is well-written and fascinating in part because this isn’t a commonly-told story. Murray was a fascinating character in her own right – a prominent civil rights and women’s rights activist, a lawyer and finally a priest, genderqueer long before people knew what that was – but here she focuses on her family history, which is fascinating in its own right. The book is chiefly about her maternal grandfather, who grew up free in the North, joined one of the first black regiments to fight in the Civil War despite the fact that he was already going blind from an injury, and went south after the war to educate freed slaves in the face of white opposition. Murray’s grandmother’s story is quite different: she grew up a slave, though she didn’t feel like one, being the daughter of a son of the house and mostly treated as such. (Murray’s mother’s family would likely be seen as white today, though by the conventions of the time they were black no matter what they looked like.) All this is mixed in with Murray’s memories of being raised by her grandparents in the early 20th century.
Pauli Murray mural in her hometown of Durham, North Carolina
Overall, I really enjoyed this biography/history/memoir and found it to be absorbing reading, though somewhat slow going. It is a good story and provides a little-known perspective on a well-known time in American history; unlike many books, which approach the time period through fiction, this one is based on family stories and documents and on historical research, and is more complex and authentic for it. I am definitely interested in reading more about Murray and her family.
Overall, I enjoyed this book a lot, though a number of issues bothered me. The author, a journalist, follows the lives of three young Mexican-born women living in Colorado for several years, beginning just before they finish high school. Two of the girls are undocumented, having been brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents at a young age; despite their intelligence and motivation, their immigration status creates myriad barriers to living a normal life. The third has a similar history, but comes from a family that was able to obtain legal status, and the differences in opportunity sometimes put a barrier between her and her friends.
This book is not a representative look at the lives of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. (I would love to read a book like that, but it doesn’t appear that one exists.) These girls are exceptional, able to overcome the barriers that poverty and family circumstances put in their way, perhaps because they have such a strong support system in each other. The author does an excellent job, though, of bringing them to life on the page, getting to know them and their lives and telling an engaging story. I really enjoyed reading the book, found the author’s style readable and compelling, and became invested in the protagonists. The pages flew by.
That said, it has its issues. First, there's the degree to which it is influenced and held back by the career of the author’s husband, then mayor of Denver and currently governor of Colorado. Immigration was a hot topic in Colorado at the time of writing (the book was published in 2009), and Thorpe even writes about her articles being used against her husband by his political opponents. In the same paragraph, she insists that she opposes illegal immigration, largely from seeing how their lack of status limits the girls’ opportunities. Thorpe visits Yadira’s family in their hometown in Mexico and knows very well that however curtailed her opportunities in the U.S., she would have had even less of a chance there, so I don't believe her; either she's not thinking her opinions through or what she actually opposes are the circumstances that make illegal immigration necessary. In another cringeworthy passage, she observes that some critics called then-U.S. Representative Tom Tancredo “a modern-day Nazi, but . . . I did not think he could be so easily dismissed. His critics failed to acknowledge the congressman’s considerable charm,” as illustrated by an anecdote in which he makes a joke. I can’t tell whether she’s honestly stupid enough to believe that charm is inconsistent with hate, or is just struggling vainly to look “balanced.”
Either way, her discomfort with being the mayor’s wife crops up a lot, for a book that isn’t about her – in another unfortunate passage, she compares her life to the girls’ because both are defined by other people’s decisions – and she closes the acknowledgments with the opinion that “In truth, writers and politicians should never marry, so at odds are the two endeavors.” Based on this book I think she is right, and awful as it sounds, the fact that she and her husband divorced before she published another book makes me more likely to read her other work.
Perhaps because of her husband, or perhaps because she was a journalist still feeling out the transition to author, Thorpe chooses to spend much of the book reporting on the immigration debate, rather than contributing to it. Where other authors would supplement the human drama with their own research by interviewing other immigrants, providing relevant statistics, or tracing the history of immigration policy, and ultimately would make an argument or policy proposal of their own, Thorpe just describes the political situation, for instance, by going to the statehouse for a floor debate on an immigration-related bill and quoting what various state representatives have to say on the topic, or by attending yet another Tancredo event. This is not very enlightening – anyone likely to read this book already knows the contours of the immigration debate – and seems to equate immigration opponents’ opinions to the girls’ lives.
Finally, for an author who is clearly sympathetic to the plight of immigrants, Thorpe sure likes to call people “illegals,” with a frequency that made it nails-on-a-chalkboard for me. Marisela and Yadira are collectively “the illegal girls,” a discussion of a court case will say that “the judge ruled in favor of the illegal schoolchildren,” and so on. I wonder what the girls – Marisela in particular is an activist – made of that.
It speaks to the quality of Thorpe's writing, though, that despite all these issues, I’m still interested in reading her other books. She sounds a bit obnoxious as a person, but she can sure tell a story, and does a great job of finding and getting to know people with different perspectives (including the woman whose identity was stolen by one of the girls’ relatives). While I would have made different recommendations had I been Thorpe’s editor, I still recommend this book.
Meh. I read this book because it is primarily set in Slovakia, and it was a drag. Its title character is a Romani singer, turned into a poet by Communist authorities after WWII, and based on a real-life poet named Papusza. (Zoli is about 20 years younger though, conveniently allowing her to be a sexy lover for the Englishman who narrates one of the middle sections of the book.) The book follows Zoli’s life in a disjointed and meandering way – switching points-of-view between sections and switching between first and third person – and has no particular plot. Two-thirds of the way through, a major chapter in Zoli’s life closes, and I wasn’t sure why the book wasn’t just finished rather than needing to drag on for another 100+ pages.
Of course, a character’s life can be a plot, but it helps if you care about the character, and I didn’t give a whit for anyone in this book. The characters have no personality, just life circumstances; they seemed more like ideas of people than actual humans. Even when we’re in their heads, they take seemingly arbitrary actions that feel disconnected from any thoughts or feelings that they have. McCann’s writing being rather stylized, those thoughts and feelings are often expressed in the form of long flights of figurative language that do more to draw attention to the writer than humanize the characters. Meanwhile he describes in great detail the characters’ mundane actions, which drag down the pace without revealing insights into the characters. Even by the end, Zoli was still a cipher to me; I was never clear on what she wanted out of life, what was behind her often strange or inconsistent decisions, or why I should care what happened to her. “Has suffered tragedy” does not substitute for a personality and an inner life.
Speaking of tragedy, this is not exactly a fun book to read; the setting for the majority of the novel is drab and gray and hopeless, punctuated by occasional brutality. Later on it becomes less dark, but more tedious, as its opaque protagonist wanders about with no discernible objective. You’ll learn a bit about the persecution of the Romani/Gypsies, but you can get that more directly from other books. I’m glad to have this one behind me and would not recommend it.
This fantasy novella is entertaining enough for its brief length, and shows some originality, but it fails to explore its most interesting ideas, and the character development and worldbuilding – while serviceable – are not particularly deep.
In a quasi-Asian world, a Protector rules over not-China with an iron fist. The first half of the book follows the Protector’s youngest children, twins Akeha and Mokoya, through their childhood, discovery of their magical powers and coming-of-age, while in the second half they appear as adults (the book covers 35 years) building their own lives and becoming involved in a rebellion against their mother’s rule.
As far as the plot goes, I found the second half more interesting than the first, and the book is a very quick read. With small pages and generous font and spacing, it goes by even quicker than the page count would have you believe, and the author does keep things moving – we get little more than a snapshot of the action at each phase of the twins’ lives. The thing that makes this book notable is its treatment of gender: this is a world where people don’t have one until they choose it, be that at age 3 or age 17. Which is a bombshell of an idea that is incredibly underexplored, treated as background and only barely mentioned in the lives of anyone other than the twins.
It’s a fascinating idea: what would gender mean in a world where everyone got to choose their own? Would gender be considered meaningless, merely a matter of plumbing? Would gender roles carry less weight because anyone could choose either, or more, because if you chose your gender you forfeited the right to complain? Perhaps there would be even less tolerance for crossing boundaries, because if you wanted to be a construction worker you should have chosen male? Would society be more equal, because people wouldn’t choose a gender they viewed as oppressed? Would governments try to incentivize people to choose one or the other based on their current needs? Would families pressure their kids to choose a gender that suited their needs better? Would horny teens choose the gender they figured would get them more sex, regardless of other factors?
And how would you choose, if you could freely choose either and hadn’t been handled a default? There’s so much to consider: what role you want to hold in society and your family; how you want your actions, strengths and flaws to be viewed; how you want your worth to be judged; which physical risks you are more willing to accept; what expectations for showing emotion fit your personality; what expectations for personal grooming suit you best; whether you want to be pregnant and give birth; what type of body you want; what role you want to play in sex; and so much more.
And guess what, none of this is actually considered in this book. The book doesn’t delve into how people choose their genders at all, beyond the idea of choosing what “feels right.” Akeha looks into a mirror, tries out one gender’s pronouns, feels they don’t fit, tries out the other’s, likes them better, and chooses that. This kid is 17, old enough to choose a college and potentially a career path in our world, yet puts about as much thought into this decision as the average person picking a restaurant for dinner.
Nor are gender roles in this society explored at all, though there are indications that they exist: Akeha – raised in a monastery – reflects on not really having known any men because monks aren’t “real men” in the eyes of society, and has a stereotype of women that involves simpering and makeup. Gender roles don’t seem to be particularly strict, or at least don’t follow our stereotypical defaults – most of the military officers we see are female, which is a bit confusing because if you could choose your gender and wanted to join the military, wouldn’t you go for the extra upper body strength? (Though the military seems to be more about magic than physical strength in this world, so perhaps not.) Or considered another way, how likely are the types of people who choose female to then decide to join the military in large numbers? Presumably testosterone is still a thing in this world.
The mechanics of all this aren’t explored either. The book indicates that due to magic, puberty doesn’t happen until people choose: but what plumbing do they have beforehand? What happens if someone never chooses? What if they later change their mind? If people have a “correct” gender – as is implied by having characters just choose what “feels right” – then one can choose wrong, for instance by choosing the same gender as one’s older siblings to fit in, or succumbing to family pressure, or choosing to please a love interest (homosexuality and people having love interests before choosing their gender both occur in this book).
On the positive side, the book did make me reflect on how large a role gender plays in how I view a character (and by extension, presumably real people too). Reading about Akeha and Mokoya in the first half of the book, before they choose, I felt distanced from the characters, largely I think because this key aspect of their identities was missing. Unfortunately, the language is also unavoidably clunky at times: “Akeha was used to being patient and staying very still, but irritated prickles flushed up their spine and raced across the skin of their neck. They pressed their teeth together.”
At any rate, this is a really quick read and a reasonably satisfying one on a plot level, so go for it if you want. But I would have appreciated it more if it had truly engaged with the ideas it introduces.
I struggled with how to rate this book. On the one hand, this collection of 43 short stories is brilliant. The writing is clear, vivid, engaging and insightful. The author clearly has a deep understanding of people and how they work, and has been around the block a few times. The settings – mostly the American Southwest, the Bay Area and Mexico – come to life so that you can practically see, sometimes even taste them. And there are some really excellent, tightly-written stories here. They are often melancholy – dealing with alcoholism, difficult family relationships, social injustice – but written with a freshness and empathy that, for me, kept them from ever feeling too dark. A few standouts (not an exhaustive list):
“A Manual for Cleaning Women”: A woman describes her various jobs cleaning houses for the wealthy and her daily routine, while the tragic end to her last relationship is slowly revealed.
“Tiger Bites”: A young woman who has just separated from her husband goes to Mexico for a back-alley abortion, and upon realizing she can’t go through with it, is tasked with the care of a young girl.
“Good and Bad”: A teenage expat in Chile is drawn into the orbit of a socialist teacher.
“Friends”: A single working woman struggles to make time to spend with an older couple who seem alone, only to discover that they think they’re doing her a favor.
“Mijito”: A teenage girl follows her lover from Mexico to the Bay Area, only to be abandoned with a child in the worst possible conditions – a realistic portrayal of the life of an uneducated, impoverished immigrant.
“502”: An alcoholic leaves her car on the street, where it crashes into the car of her alcoholic friends (fortunately, neither car was occupied at the time).
So I don’t disagree that Lucia Berlin is a hidden gem of an author. But what drove me batty about this collection is that virtually every story seems to be taken from her life, and features a protagonist whose life is consistent with Berlin’s own distinctive biography: the early years in the mining towns; growing up with her alcoholic mother and grandparents in El Paso during WWII; being kicked out of multiple schools; the teenage years living a privileged life in Chile; college in New Mexico; an early marriage that produced two sons and soon ended; two more marriages (one spent primarily in New York and abandoned for the third husband in Mexico) that also ended, leaving her a single mother of four sons; moving to the Bay Area and taking jobs as a high school teacher, hospital switchboard operator and ward clerk, cleaning woman and physician’s assistant; the alcoholism; the scoliosis; the difficult, alcoholic mother with pretensions of class; moving in with her disowned younger sister in Mexico City to care for her while the sister was dying of cancer; the writing; eventually moving to Boulder. Sometimes names are changed, sometimes not; the sister is always named Sally, the oldest sons always Ben and Keith, the mother’s family always Moynihans and the flamboyant cousin always Bella Lynn; the younger sons’ names sometimes vary, as does the protagonist’s own (sometimes she is Lucia, sometimes not; Carlotta is a recurring alternative).
And that didn’t really work for me – having all the stories be about the author, or at least, about characters who had lived the author’s life (the two largely superfluous introductory essays argue that the stories aren’t entirely autobiographical because she changed some details and otherwise exercised creative license). What I enjoy in short story collections is the boundless possibility, reading about different people in different situations reading different lives. When all of the stories are about the same character, those possibilities are hemmed in, and the stories begin to feel repetitive. Some don’t really have a plot at all, but are simply musings on the author’s life and relationships: in “Mama” for instance, the narrator and her sister Sally discuss their memories of their mother and complicated feelings about her, rehashing what we’ve already seen in other stories. Stories often include superfluous details, as if the author knew too much about her own life to include only the information relevant to a 10-page story.
So that was frustrating; I wished Berlin had just written a novel or a memoir. Only in a couple of stories out of the 43 is the protagonist’s life actually inconsistent with Berlin’s. Three of them begin with a narrator who is very obviously not her, and I started to get excited, only to find upon reading further that her avatar was the second narrator and/or another primary character. Granted, some of my disappointment likely stems from expectations; if the stories were arranged chronologically and the book presented as a semi-autobiographical collection, I might have enjoyed it more.
So, do I recommend this? Sure – it is excellent writing and you know now what it is, so read it if that appeals to you. There is no doubt excellence here.