This is an interesting memoir, though not a great one. Emily Rapp was born in Nebraska in 1974 with a birth defect that caused one leg to be shorter than the other. Untreated, her legs would have stayed at the same length ratio as they grew, so instead she went through multiple operations as a young child. Her left foot was ultimately amputated so that she could wear a prosthetic leg, which she did from age five. This memoir focuses on her disability and how it affected her young life: it ends when she’s 24, though she was 33 by the time it was published.
It is a vulnerable memoir, as the author talks a lot about her feelings about her disability at various stages of her life. She’s also open about having been a spoiled brat as a child (even torturing small animals) and a bit of a bully in middle school. She’s very insecure about her leg, especially in adolescence and young adulthood, and worries a lot about being ugly or seen as “less than” by others; she becomes an academic overachiever and an expert skier and develops an eating disorder in high school, in what she views as a way of compensating for having a body she hates. It can’t have been easy to expose her insecurities and weaknesses on the page, and I think reading this book is a valuable experience for the way it lets readers inside her head.
That said, I don’t think it was a great book. It spends a lot of time on mundane details related to Rapp’s prosthetics: how they worked, what her prothetists’ offices were like and where they were located and how well she liked their locations and receptionists. It also seems to end a little too soon: her personal journey wasn’t over at 24, and there’s no epilogue about what she did after the main story ended. She even references at one point sticking with lovers too long after she’s let them see her stump, but this never comes up again; by the end of the book she still hasn’t been able to bring herself to take off her prosthetic for sex, and all these bad relationships aren’t included.
But I think perhaps the biggest reason this memoir isn’t my favorite is that the author lives an ordinary American middle-class life, with the “action” of the story almost entirely inside her head. Wearing a prosthetic (especially with the technology available during her childhood) was clearly not fun – it caused sores and even bleeding, especially if not adjusted properly – but fortunately it didn’t prevent her from being active and even athletic. She goes on to college, parties hard, studies abroad, all normal stuff. She apparently only gets picked on for her disability a couple of times as a kid, and only gets a couple of negative reactions as an adult. Despite all her worries about finding a man, she attracts male interest starting in middle school. I’m glad that she didn’t face more external obstacles, but the result is that much of the book is a chronicle of her angst. I don’t blame her for it and think it’s worth reading because lots of people with disabilities seem to share her fears and insecurities, but the story of her life is still a bit mundane.
And you need a fantastic writer to write a great book about mundane events. Rapp is a good writer – the language is fluid and always readable, leading me to read the whole thing fairly quickly, and she does a good job of recreating scenes from her life – but she isn’t a fantastic one. I’m glad to have read this book, and it will likely be helpful for many people, but it isn’t one I plan to recommend widely.
Like apparently most of the people who read this book, I read it for my world books challenge and wasn’t particularly impressed. It seems to be aimed at middle-grade readers (ages 9-12), and recounts the childhood experiences of a boy named Daba as he leaves his village in the Central African Republic to attend school in a larger town and spends his vacations traveling around the country with friends and relatives.
As you would expect, this is a quick and easy read that even includes some illustrations. It’s a pretty gentle story, including adventures such as attending a boarding school and tagging along for a crocodile hunt. However, it is disjointed, prematurely ending events that could have been exciting if fully-developed – like the crocodile hunt, which gets less page time than a neighbor telling the boys a story – and including more episodes than fit comfortably within its brief page count. It does little to immerse the reader in Daba’s feelings or experiences; in the second half of the book, he seems to fade into his group of friends, who are indistinguishable in personality and experiences (except for the French pen pal who somehow is able to fly to a Central African Republic town alone and spend the summer wandering from village to isolated village with the local boys).
Daba grows older – the book appears to cover a couple of years – but he doesn’t really have struggles to overcome or seem to change or learn more about life. At times, knowing the story to be based in some way on the author’s childhood, Daba’s portrayal even comes across as self-aggrandizing: a star pupil, always cool and confident, beats adults at games, liked by everyone except for one classmate who’s condemned by other children and adults alike. Meanwhile, for adult readers, the language is perhaps too simple, and some of the events are eyebrow-raising or could use more explanation (the pen pal trip, Daba’s being awarded a scholarship to study abroad without any apparent effort from him or consent from his parents, etc.).
At any rate, this isn’t too bad if you’re doing a world books challenge – Daba travels around his country, giving the reader a sense of the landscape and the culture in the places he visits, and quick reads are always valued for big challenges – but those searching for diverse books to give to the children in their lives would be better served looking elsewhere.
At the end of the year (or the beginning of the next one), I like to post the best 10 books I read in the year, in hopes of introducing some of you to great books! I read 64 books in 2018, and here are the 10 I think you should consider reading too.
Evening Is the Whole Day (review)
The best book I read in 2018, this is a fantastically-written story of a complicated, prosperous Indo-Malaysian family slowly tearing each other apart. It’s told in a non-linear fashion, as the family’s secrets are slowly revealed, and if you can stand the darkness in both the characters and their country, it’s an incredible read.
Echoes from the Dead Zone (review)
This hidden gem is the best nonfiction I read in 2018. A Greek Cypriot anthropologist set out to investigate the divide between the Greek and Turkish sides of the island, digging into the history, culture and politics of both sides, their traumas and the way they represent them. It’s an insightful and fascinating book, and the author’s examination of his own childhood indoctrination and the feelings and behavior on both sides could be applied to many conflicts around the world.
The House of Mirth (review)
This is an excellent classic, whose examination of the gap between its complex central character’s place in society and what she considers her due is still relevant today. I discovered Edith Wharton in 2018 and will certainly be reading more, given her keen eye for human psychology, along with an engaging story and polished style.
Proud Shoes (review)
This is an excellent family memoir of a mixed-race American family, following the author’s grandparents from the time of slavery (when her grandmother was a slave and her grandfather, though classified as black, fought for the Union) through the Jim Crow South. Pauli Murray, a civil rights leader herself, based this book on a combination of family stories and historical research, and she has a fascinating family I’d love to learn more about.
The Time in Between (review)
The most fun book I read in 2018, this is a gripping, immersive story of a young Spanish seamstress who becomes trapped in the colony of Morocco in the 1930s, pulls herself up by her bootstraps, and works as an Allied spy during WWII. The author is a professor who clearly did a lot of research, but more importantly, is a fantastic storyteller.
Small Animals (review)
Perhaps the most eye-opening book I read in 2018, this is a critical look at the culture of parenting today, and the way fear has come to dominate parents’ decisions to the point that many will no longer let kids out of their sight. It’s based on both personal experience and research, and reveals a culture that’s harming both parents and kids.
Probably the darkest book I read in 2018, this is a masterful combination of psychological thriller and historical fiction, set in Estonia between the 1930s and 1992. Two women of different generations – but both with brutal pasts – come together, but both remain in danger.
Inside the Victorian Home (review)
This is a fascinating, detailed and engaging social history, focusing on domestic life in Victorian England. It was a very weird world, and the author does an excellent job of bringing to life its values, technology and everyday activities.
Prairie Fires (review)
A thoroughly researched biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, as well as an excellent history of the times in which they lived – the true story of pioneering in the American West. And of course, the true story of the Little House books and the political agenda behind them.
Little Soldiers (review)
Part memoir and part nonfiction by a Chinese-American author who enrolled her son in a prestigious Shanghai preschool, this is a great examination of education, the Chinese school system, and the advantages of both the Chinese and American ways of teaching. It’s a thoughtful, open-minded and informative account.
This is both a useful book and a simplified one that never questions its westernized assumptions. Hans Rosling, a Swedish professor of public health, armed with decades’ worth of UN statistics, wrote this book (with the assistance of his son and daughter-in-law, who published it after his death) to convince people in rich countries that the rest of the world is better than we think, and that several logical fallacies prevent us from seeing it that way.
On the one hand, he’s absolutely right. Insulated in our well-off countries, we tend to hear about other places only in the news, which generally reports only the most dramatic, i.e., the most tragic and appalling stories. We struggle to see members of “other” groups as non-uniform and to believe their cultures can change in the way our own have (in fact, many societies around the world are changing and developing much faster than western Europe and the U.S. did). As a college student who only knew about Africa from the news, I remember thinking that one couldn’t afford to care what was going on there because it was only one horrible tragedy after another. In reality this is far from the truth, and I have to credit my world books challenge (to read a book set in each country in the world, with a preference for books by authors from the country; I’m up to 165 out of 201 now) for showing me a more accurate picture of what everyday life around the world is like. But UN statistics also show that the world is improving in many ways, such as widespread access to electricity, primary education, and vaccination against deadly diseases. And yet, many people in rich countries don’t know this and even believe the world is getting worse.
But there’s a lot Rosling misses too. His quizzes to test people’s knowledge of the world (one of which is included at the beginning of the book, and which distinguished audiences at his talks have consistently flunked) are designed to encourage wrong answers. Let’s look at the first three questions:
1. In all low-income countries across the world today, how many girls finish primary school?
A: 20 percent
B: 40 percent
C: 60 percent
2. Where does the majority of the world population live?
A: Low-income countries
B: Middle-income countries
C: High-income countries
3. In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has…
A: almost doubled
B: remained more or less the same
C: almost halved
Answers: 1. C; 2: B; 3. C
Rosling emphasizes throughout the book of how badly people answer these and similar questions. But many are designed to fool you. Question 1, for instance: leaving aside the issues of what constitutes a “low-income country” and “finishing primary school” (different countries’ educational systems being different), this question cues a negative answer because its options skew so negative. The incorrect answers set a lower bracket in test-takers’ minds, suggesting that 60% is a very high number indeed. When all we’re really saying is that something over half of girls in poor countries go to school at least until, what, age 11 or so? – an achievement, absolutely, but one leaving lots of work still to do. I wonder, if test-takers were asked to produce their own answer rather than seeing these suggestions, whether their guesses would be much higher. And then too, despite all the logical fallacies listed, one Rosling doesn’t mention is the fear of being labeled “naïve” for believing positive things about the world; might some test-takers’ answers be influenced by the desire to come across as jaded and cynical rather than as privileged Pollyannas?
Question 2 is an issue of definitions. Rosling chides people from wealthy countries for seeing everyone else as simply “poor,” despite their differences, but viewed from a wealthy country, everybody else is in fact “low-income.” Rosling divides the world into four income levels. Level 1 means living in a mud hut or flimsy house without electricity, traveling only on foot, and spending the vast majority of one’s time fulfilling basic needs: fetching water, gathering firewood, cooking over a fire pit, etc. Level 3 means having consistent electricity and running water, having access to some form of motorized transport such as a motorcycle, having many modern conveniences and kids in school, but still having to work very hard for what you have and falling short of Level 4, where you don’t have to worry about basic needs, have a car, can fly somewhere for vacation, etc. Certainly the differences between Levels 1 and 3 are enormous, and I think Rosling’s four-level framework is far more useful than the old first-world/third-world or developed/developing dichotomies, but people who answer incorrectly might not be as uninformed as he believes.
Question 3, though, is legitimate. Not everyone knows what “extreme poverty” means by UN definitions (living on less than $2 a day), but the basic fact is that standards of living have risen around the world over the last few decades, yet most people in Level 4 countries don’t know it. The book does a great job of driving home the progress that has been made, even while pointing out that much more is needed.
But Rosling’s analysis has two major issues. One is that it’s quite simplified. It’s nice, for instance, that most children in poor countries are in school. But in India, huge numbers of poor children remain illiterate even after several years of schooling. Of course learning can’t be improved without people buying into education, but if education isn’t happening in the schools, their value is limited.
And Rosling’s income divisions are quite rough, as I realized when visiting Dollar Street, a site set up by Anna Rosling Ronnlund that compiles pictures of the homes and belongings of people around the world at various income levels. It’s interesting to view, but an issue that quickly becomes clear is that people are classified into Levels 1-4 based on income per person, regardless of the number of people in the household. So, for instance, an American family of four (parents and their young adult children) with an income of $996 per month per person is considered Level 3. Now, living alone in the U.S. on an income of under $1000 per month puts you below the poverty line, with money tight even to meet basic needs, but a family of four with $48,000 a year and no childcare expenses is doing all right, as this family seems to be based on the photos. They’re nowhere near the poverty line, which for a family of four is $25,100. The effect of pooling resources is huge: every home needs a kitchen, for instance, but add several more people to your home and you still only need one kitchen. So the income level cutoffs, which seem useful to describe the rough income levels of different countries as a whole, are far less helpful for individual households.
And finally, Rosling assumes throughout the book that development is always good, without ever addressing the question directly. It was interesting to read this book alongside Unbowed, a memoir by a Kenyan activist for democracy, human rights and the environment. As a child, Maathai lived on Level 1 or 2, but that didn’t mean a terrible life; she found enjoyment and pride in cultivating the land, had a large, supportive family, and loved the storytelling around the fire each evening as the family waited for the food to cook. To Rosling though, Level 1 is nothing but suffering, and he never acknowledges any potential downsides to development except for environmental degradation. Now, it’s fair to say that it’s easy to romanticize “a simpler lifestyle” from one’s couch, while parents who have buried three of their five children have no such illusions (one of the key statistics Rosling often uses is child mortality). But loss of family, community and cultural connections can lead to increased mental health problems, while today’s diets, high in fat, sugar, and processed foods, lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other serious health problems. Rosling, though, paints a uniformly positive picture of modernization without acknowledging its costs.
All that said, his description of logical fallacies is still useful. For those still reading, they are below:
The Gap Instinct: The notion that humanity divides into two groups, with a significant gap between them, such as “rich countries” and “poor countries.” Countries’ income, like probably most other things, is actually on a continuum.
The Negativity Instinct: Paying most attention to negative information, such as apocalyptic news reports, without noticing the gradual improvements that get far less attention but are more impactful in the long run.
The Straight Line Instinct: Assuming a phenomenon will continue to occur at the same rate (this one is mostly for analyzing data: world population growth, for instance, is already slowing).
The Fear Instinct: People are more afraid of dramatic events that tap into our primal fears of violence, captivity, and poison, than of everyday stuff that’s more likely to occur. This is why American parents won’t let their kids walk places for fear of extremely rare stranger kidnappings, despite the fact that car accidents are far more common and deadly.
The Size Instinct: Also about analyzing data: get numbers into perspective by finding something to compare them to, and focus on the biggest items on a list (for instance in a budget) rather than the tiny ones.
The Generalization Instinct: Assuming that all members of a group are alike, or that two groups are similar when they aren’t.
The Destiny Instinct: Assuming something “will always be” the way that it is and that “culture” is immutable - at least when it comes to cultures other than our own.
The Single Perspective Instinct: Using your pet theory to explain everything that’s happening in the world and how to fix it.
The Blame Instinct: Looking for someone to blame for a problem can cause you to stop thinking. Looking for the system that caused that person’s behavior can be much more productive.
The Urgency Instinct: Decisions made in haste are poorly thought-through; slow down on important stuff.
At any rate, definitely an interesting book, and probably especially useful for those whose knowledge of the world mostly comes from the news. Even for those who are more knowledgeable, it’s useful to be aware of the ways your brain can trick you. That said, I think this book should form the beginning of a conversation rather than the end of it.
This memoir of a Muslim journalist reporting on jihad was interesting, though I wasn’t blown away in the way most reviewers seem to have been. Souad Mekhennet grew up primarily in Germany, the daughter of guest workers from Morocco and Turkey. She encountered racism and xenophobia on her way to becoming a successful journalist, but speaking Arabic and her familiarity with Middle Eastern cultures went a long way to ensure her success.
Aside from some description of her childhood, this book is focused almost exclusively on her professional life, with chapters organized around a visit to a particular place or an act of terror on which she was reporting. Mekhennet interviews dangerous people – on occasion braving serious danger in order to reach them – is arrested by Egyptian security forces, and impresses a lot of jihadists, who are willing to vouch for her and sometimes even propose to her. She asks everybody tough questions though and challenges everyone’s views.
I liked this book and learned from it, and I’m impressed by Mekhennet’s gutsiness. We need reporters like her to dig deep enough to get the real story, and to be skeptical and push back on what they’re being told. That said, I didn’t love her book. As a work of nonfiction about the state of the Muslim world and its relationship to the U.S. and Europe, I found it a little disconnected, as it focuses tightly on Mekhennet’s specific assignments and experiences. It reminded me of how much I don’t know about the Muslim world without filling in many of those gaps. But learning about how jihadists and their family members and supporters view the world was certainly enlightening.
As a memoir, it’s rather impersonal. Even as a teenager Mekhennet portrays herself as a powerhouse whose only obstacle to overcome is xenophobia; nothing more mundane like shyness about approaching important people or soliciting internships, or issues with dating, seems to faze her. (As an adult she often mentions wanting to marry, and briefly discusses dating, where her primarily stumbling block seems to be concern for her safety, such that she wants to chat anonymously for months before meeting a man.) Though I do give her credit for discussing the alienation she, like many other Muslims teens in Europe, felt after seeing hate crimes on the news and experiencing harassment and discrimination. Fortunately she had a strong support network, positive role models, and opportunities to succeed, but less lucky kids who feel despised are vulnerable to recruitment by terrorist organizations that understand their mindset very well.
Overall, I’m glad I read this, but didn’t have strong feelings about it. The book is a somewhat dense read that takes some time to get through, but it is informative, and the author has definitely had some interesting experiences.
I hadn’t read any spy genre novels before, but this one came highly recommended and seems to be a classic of the genre. We’ll call it 4 stars for “this seems like a good book, but it isn’t my genre so don’t take my star rating too seriously.”
George Smiley is an unsexy but astute official in Britain’s intelligence service who has recently been forced into retirement due to a change of directors that happened under somewhat mysterious circumstances. Not too happy with retirement (his wife has recently left him), he’s called in to investigate word of a double agent passing intelligence to the Russians. The book is a thriller in a way, with its high tension, secrets, close focus on individual scenes, and slow drip of clues as George approaches the culprit. But it’s not a modern thriller in the sense that there’s little action or physical danger to George, who slowly uncovers the truth through talking to other spies.
The book is well-written, and I didn’t find the plot as dense as some other readers did; despite my not reading it all at once, it was understandable. That said, the heavy use of 70’s Britishisms in addition to the invented spy slang (which, life imitating art, has apparently since come into actual use) makes the language opaque at times. And a lot of characters are introduced early on whose role in the plot is minimal, which makes them a bit difficult to keep track of.
But I was able to figure things out (or ignore them) without too much trouble, and this was an enjoyable read. It fits within the mold of a genre novel, but is more intelligent than you typically find in “thrillers.” And it’s a spy novel, but it doesn’t glorify spies; having read it, the author’s comment in the introduction that both the SIS and CIA “would have done much less damage to their countries, moral and financial, if they had simply been disbanded” makes perfect sense. Worth reading even if this is not your typical fare.
This is an impressive work: not only a detailed biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, but a history of a century of American life. The level of research that went into it is nothing short of incredible; Fraser seems to have tracked down every public record throughout several states related to the Ingalls and Wilder families and those around them, as well as obscure connections like a mocking portrayal of Rose (under a different name) in an acquaintance’s novel. The level of detail and the length (515 pages of text, plus extensive endnotes) make this a hefty read, on the dense side for a general audience but not so dense as to restrict its audience to academic readers.
It’s not only slow going because of the detail; the subject matter is also heavy. Laura Ingalls Wilder lived in poverty for most of her life, and Rose, though often financially successful, was an unstable and difficult person. Both, especially later in life, became staunch conservatives – Rose, in particular, seems to be the prototype of a Trump supporter – and they crafted the Little House books into a parable of a kind of self-reliance that the real-life Ingalls family never actually attained.
I was aware before reading this book that the Little House books omit darker aspects of the real Laura’s childhood, such as the death of her baby brother. But the myth-making reached beyond the personal to a whole period of American history. Americans are sold the myth of the self-reliant frontier famers, including in Wilder’s own books, although that vision of triumph is tempered by the knowledge that it was achieved at the expense of the native population. But in the reality Fraser carefully documents here, it wasn’t really a triumph even for the white settlers. Most the Great Plains were not in fact suited for small-scale farming, consisting of land not productive enough to sustain the level of intensive agriculture needed to support family farms. Rather than supporting the family through the farm alone, Charles Ingalls worked a variety of jobs throughout his life – and Laura started working herself at the age of nine. Droughts and plagues of locusts led to starvation; intensive farming removed fragile topsoil and caused the Dust Bowl, which was both a humanitarian disaster and one of the largest man-made ecological disasters in world history. The Ingalls family failed at several homesteads, lived with some unsavory characters in between farms, and, like many others, accepted government relief to eat. Laura and Almanzo Wilder eventually achieved financial security – though not through their farm, but rather, through work in town, Laura’s writing, the gift of a house by Almanzo’s parents, and Rose’s assistance – but Laura’s sisters remained impoverished.
So it’s not the most cheerful of biographies, but it’s an engaging and informative one. Fraser deserves to be commended for her thoroughness and her detachment – though I imagine an author generally has to admire a historical figure in order to spend years researching and writing about her, Fraser makes no bones about the darker aspects of Laura’s and Rose’s personalities and viewpoints. My sense throughout was of a careful scholar presenting the facts, along with their context, rather than arguing for one perspective or another. While reading this book takes some commitment, it should be worthwhile not only to fans of the Little House books, but to those interested in the history of the American West in general.
This is basically the world’s longest magazine article. I kept reading because the author had a great idea for a book: we in the English-speaking world are always idealizing the Nordic countries, but we don’t actually know much about what it’s like to live there, nor do we visit them very often or learn their languages. So the author, a Brit married to a Dane and living in Copenhagen, proposed to travel around these countries and report on, as the bookjacket claims, “how they may not be as happy or as perfect as we assume.”
Which could have been great, if it weren’t so light and frivolous. Aside from giving a brief overview of the history of each of the five countries included (Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland), chapters cover topics such as a visit to a sauna; a visit to Santa’s Village; traditionally-dressed revelers celebrating Norwegian Constitution Day; and a visit to a supposedly dangerous housing project occupied by Muslim immigrants in Malmö, which turns out to be pretty quiet and unremarkable when the author visits in the middle of the day and doesn’t actually talk to any immigrants other than the elderly Macedonian who heads the local mosque.
The book does briefly explore various issues – immigration, the rise of right-wing politics, high levels of taxation and government involvement in society, the causes of Iceland’s economic woes – mostly through talking to a small group of writers and professors who give rather fuzzy impressionistic answers. But he never does really get “behind the myth” in the way I expected. After his stroll through the housing project, he observes that its Swedish neighbors, said to resent the immigrants, “probably faced precisely the same problems as their immigrant neighbors in Herregården – poor education, few opportunities, little hope, and no money – yet each was fearful and resentful of the other.”
Wait. Stop the presses. This is it – this is “behind the myth.” Sweden isn’t supposed to have people, especially native-born ethnic Swedes, with “poor education, few opportunities, little hope, and no money.” Isn’t that the entire point of the welfare state? Isn’t that the heart of the “myth”? And yet Booth just keeps tripping blithely along, talking about views on immigration and even including a chapter entitled “Class” that turns out to be all about the weirdness of the Scandinavian monarchies. In another baffling omission, he observes that a Norwegian museum “featur[es] the usual Nordic tiptoeing around the subject of their oppressed indigenous minority,” then proceeds to describe the exhibit, note the Sami’s territory and numbers, and never mention them again. I checked the index just to make sure and yep, this is the only mention in the entire book. How you can think you’re writing a book about a region’s negative aspects and not include its generational poverty or oppressed indigenous minority, I have no idea. But on to Legoland!
The book is very focused on the author’s own experiences and observations, while some of his theories are just wacky. For instance, he theorizes that Finnish men drink too much because their country has a long history of foreign rule and military defeat, never mind that this does not appear to affect modern-day Finns in any way. He even writes about floating this theory to others, who all shoot it down, which doesn’t stop him from devoting a full two pages to defending it in the book.
Now sure, if you are looking for a lighthearted travelogue that will introduce you to a few cultural concepts, and fill you in on a bit of history and politics, this may be the book for you. I didn’t find it as funny as others did, perhaps because it relies heavily on pop culture references that don’t mean anything to me (“Swedish unemployment figures are about as reliable as Joan Collins’s age”). The book is just so long, without achieving any real depth, that at times I considered not even finishing it. I did learn some things from it, but I would have appreciated it more if it had been pared down and marketed as the lighthearted travelogue that it is.
I enjoyed this book. It’s quick, relatively light compared to a lot of my reading, and shows a lot of compassion towards a wide variety of characters. I don’t think it digs quite deep enough to be literary fiction, though it’s certainly more intelligently written than a lot of the “suburban drama and social issues” books out there.
This book focuses on the drama growing out of the enmeshment of two families. The Richardsons are prominent citizens in their planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio, who rent a home to struggling artist Mia and her teenage daughter Pearl. The Richardsons have four teenagers of their own, all of whom are drawn to Mia or Pearl or both. But Elena Richardson, the mother, starts digging into Mia’s past when a controversial adoption case divides the town and the two women are on opposing sides. All of this leads to a conflagration, as we learn in the book’s first sentence.
What I most enjoyed about this book was its empathy and understanding toward its characters. Rather than painting people in black and white and dismissing some of them as just being lousy, it reaches out to turn everyone’s viewpoint into a sympathetic one. The omniscient narrator dips into the heads of even minor characters, which works well, drawing a full picture of events that allows readers a greater understanding than any individual character possesses. And the level of empathy is particularly noticeable around the adoption case, where the author shows an understanding of both the poor, desperate immigrant mother who abandoned her baby in a dark moment and the loving couple that want to adopt her despite their contented ignorance about her birth culture.
And yet, there’s still a certain remove from the characters that left me frustrated. If only the book had dug one layer deeper with the protagonists, I think this would have been a great novel. Perhaps it’s the amount of narrative summary (though there’s still a lot of scenes and dialogue) or the omniscient narrator (though that works well in many books) or the cramming of six or so “main” characters along with many more of lesser importance into a novel of average length rather than focusing on one or two protagonists (though again, this has been done successfully).
Or maybe it’s that certain moments don’t ring true.(show spoiler)
At any rate, I enjoyed my time with this, though it didn’t rock my world. I would consider reading more from this author.
Books about communities seldom portrayed in media have an undeniable cultural value aside from their literary value. This book, about a large number of Native American characters living in contemporary Oakland, California, clearly has a lot of cultural value for readers whose vague notions of Native Americans encompassed no more than reservations, feather headdresses and a sense that these folks aren’t really around anymore. I suspect the book will also be valuable to a lot of Native American readers, particularly in its portrayal of native characters struggling with issues of identity: what does it mean to be native if you don’t know much about your heritage, if you’re mixed race, if you learn powwow dancing by watching videos on YouTube?
That said, I am not in either of these groups, and on a literary level I was disappointed. Like a lot of first novels by MFAs, this book bites off more than it can chew, experimenting with literary techniques but distancing the reader from the characters. It follows 12 point-of-view characters – eight men, three women and a boy – in a novel that due to short chapters is even shorter than its 290 pages would have you believe; and each POV character comes with their own supporting cast of friends and family. Seven of these characters have chapters told in the first person, despite the fact that every character’s voice sounds alike. (They always do, and yet first-time novelists persist in doing this.) One obnoxious 17-page chapter is even told in the second person. (“You went back every Tuesday for the next year. Keeping time wasn’t hard for you. The hard part was singing. You’d never been a talker. You’d certainly never sung before. Not even alone. But Bobby made you do it.”)
Unfortunately, so little time with each person means that everyone is a bit-part character. We barely get to know any of them as people, and their surroundings feel oddly blank as well, with descriptions of place mostly limited to Oakland street names. It’s definitely urban grit lit: the emotional arc of one chapter is traced through the character’s constipation and ultimate pants-pooping, while another character pulls spider legs out of a bump in his leg . . . and although we spend too little time with any individual to see much more than a snapshot of their lives and histories leading up to a powwow, it’s clear from the beginning that it will culminate in a mass shooting. When it comes, we don’t even learn the fates of all the characters before the book ends.
The book is crammed full of issues – alcoholism, missing parents, urban violence, domestic violence, interracial adoption, more alcoholism – which is fine, but at the point that the author addresses the reader directly about Native American history in both a prologue and an interlude, and a character in the middle of fleeing her abusive husband gets a random lecture from her friend about the issue of native women going missing in large numbers, I had the image of the author with a bullhorn going, “Do I have your attention? Excellent! Let me tell you ALL THE THINGS!”
That said, I do think author shows a lot of promise. The characterization is decent given the fact that the book barely gives any of the characters room to breathe. The writing is fine – it’s not always as staccato as the brief excerpt above, though still too distinctive to plausibly attribute to a large number of characters of different ages and backgrounds. Many first-time authors attempt and then get past the multiple-narrators thing, and Orange’s second book will probably be much less frantic in its issue-inclusion just because he packed so much into this one. I will be curious to learn more about the next book, but on its literary merits I wouldn’t recommend this one.
These days I often find myself appreciating classics more than contemporary fiction – but not all classics; there are still books whose quality doesn’t quite live up to their reputation. This is one of those.
Set in early 20th century England, this book follows the adventures of Margaret and her younger sister Helen; these two are certainly appealing characters to a modern audience, being intelligent, thoughtful, socially-conscious youngish women who inherited sufficient funds from their now-deceased parents to live independently and comfortably for life. So they travel and enjoy social and intellectual pursuits and worry about what they should be doing for those less fortunate than themselves. Their liberal guilt is dramatized through two families they encounter: the wealthy Wilcoxes, a sporty family whose focus on their own financial interests lives little room for even basic politeness to anyone else, and the lower-middle-class Leonard Bast, a clerk struggling on the edge of poverty, and his unfortunate wife.
It’s an interesting premise, and the issues of the role of money in people’s lives and of liberal guilt are fairly well-developed. It’s also a reasonably interesting portrayal of England before the First World War; the sisters’ father was German and the determination of both their German and English relatives that their own country is meant to rule the world is treated with gentle irony. Unfortunately, the first half of the book – after a strong opening – loses momentum fast and is almost entirely lacking in plot. Nothing much happens to these characters for a long time; Margaret, our protagonist, glides through the story without struggle; there’s nothing she needs or wants and doesn’t have. The true plot appears around the halfway point, but unfortunately so many character decisions lacked believability that I can’t say much for it in the end. Meanwhile, while some of the issues Margaret ponders remain interesting and relevant today, its philosophical maunderings often left me underwhelmed, and the ideas about the superiority of England haven’t aged well. The rest of my criticism contains a lot of SPOILERS, so beware.
The second half of the book rests on two big eyebrow-raising decisions, and the story finally wraps up with a third. Margaret receives a marriage proposal from Henry Wilcox, and the book never gives any particular reason that she should marry him, aside from the fact that he expresses a liking for her: he’s a smug, self-satisfied conservative old enough to be her father, who embraces self-serving platitudes on both gender and economic inequality and has a nasty tendency to use Margaret’s moments of weakness as evidence of the inferiority of all women. And in the single scene portraying their physical relationship, he leaves Margaret disappointed and confused. And then it turns out that his track record for fidelity is not great. Margaret doesn’t need Henry, yet she gives up her autonomy to be with him – why?
Helen’s encounter with Leonard is equally baffling: she’s presumably a virgin, living in a society where women who have premarital sex are shunned; he’s probably never slept with anyone other than his wife, who is asleep in the next room at the time; he’s in awe of her as his benefactor, and he’s probably none too clean or well-fed; at no point in the story does there appear to be any romantic or sexual attraction between the two. And yet they have sex?
All of which leads to the final confrontation, which is believable enough – and then Forster skips right to the aftermath, perhaps knowing that tracing out these events would strain credibility too much. Helen decides to stay in England even though she’d enjoy more social acceptance in Germany; Henry abruptly loses all concern about Helen’s wayward behavior; Margaret’s magical influence apparently convinces everyone to live together happily every after. Um, okay.
So I didn’t really buy this one. The writing is fine, and many of the issues it raises are important and remain timely. But Forster’s plotting and ability to get the characters to the places where he needs them to be in a believable way left something to be desired.
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.