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Zealot by Reza Aslan

Zealot. The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth - Reza Aslan

This is an accessible work of history, looking at what the historical evidence tells us about Jesus of Nazareth and his times. Not knowing much about the context of those times, I found it enlightening, though it sometimes seems that the author overstates the certainty with which much of anything about the ancient world can be known. In the end much of the book is educated guessing – worth reading because it is very educated, but not much can be proven.

Part 1 covers the context of first-century Palestine, a far-flung Roman province bursting with discontent about tribute requirements, leading to high taxes, leading to exploitation of the poor. Many men claimed the mantle of messiah, or the chosen one who would liberate their land from the Romans and restore God’s kingdom. Eventually the Jews revolted in 66 C.E. and kicked out the Romans, only for the Romans to return and wipe out Jerusalem four years later. In this milieu, and given the way the Romans executed Jesus (crucifixion was the standard punishment for sedition and treason, as a warning to others), the author builds a case for interpreting him as a political revolutionary. For instance, an act such as overturning the moneylenders’ tables at the Temple would have been a protest against the priests’ collaboration with Rome and enrichment of themselves at the expense of the common people.

Part 2 is more focused on the information in the gospels: what is credible from a historical perspective, and how Jesus’s words would have been understood at the time. Finally, Part 3 is about the early church in the aftermath of his death, particularly the schism between James (Jesus’s brother, who led the Jerusalem assembly) and Paul, who comes across as a bit of an egomaniac who reinvented Jesus’s message entirely, transforming it from a Jewish sect into an entirely new religion. Jesus claimed that he had come to fulfill Jewish law, while Paul decreed that he had replaced it; when Jesus was originally referred to as “Son of God,” the author argues that this designation meant simply the “chosen one” (David was also a “Son of God”) while Paul interpreted it literally. During his lifetime Paul did not have great success, but his version of Christianity was better suited to take off in a post-Jerusalem world, where the Jews had become pariah and the Temple no longer existed.

I found this to be an interesting and thought-provoking book. While not a fast read, it provides an engaging narrative and is readable and accessible to the non-academic reader. The author’s arguments in general seem extensive researched, well-documented and persuasive. When discounting sources or filling in gaps in the record, he generally explains his analysis rather than simply stating his conclusions as if they were fact.

However, it isn’t a perfect book. The organization can be a bit scattershot, jumping around in time and between general historical background and Jesus, especially in the early sections. There are no footnotes, and some assertions are supported by extensive endnotes while others are not. While not representative of the book as a whole, there are some eyebrow-raising arguments to authority, stating that “the overwhelming consensus” (204) among scholars tells us something, or that another author has “definitively proven” (240) something else. It is helpful to know which ideas are subjects of controversy and which aren’t, and I don’t expect the author to perform independent research on every single topic surrounding life in the ancient world, but it is an odd phrasing for a book premised on the method of drawing conclusions from primary sources even if they differ from established dogma.

More broadly speaking, the book’s analysis left me with big questions unanswered. If the Gospels were written decades after Jesus’s death by people who didn’t know him, and who did not live in a society where fact-checking and documentation were a thing (though the Romans kept extensive records on issues of interest such as tax collection), and were written as testaments of faith with the intention of converting non-Jews to their religion rather than as historical documents, then why remove some politically-charged bits but not others? The author argues that the Gospel writers must have changed the agency in Jesus’s execution from the Roman governor to the Jews for palatability to their intended audience, given that Pilate cared little to nothing what his subject population thought about anything, but why then leave in the overturning of the moneylenders’ tables, the sermon on the mount (which the author argues would have been about the new social order in God’s kingdom on earth rather than a spiritual promise), and other statements targeting the Temple and the Roman government? 

And if the writers needed to transport Jesus’s birth to Bethlehem to argue that he fulfilled the prophecies, why would they have explained this through a census story that their readers would have known to be false, because the census not only didn’t happen at that time but did not work that way (the Roman census was about tallying up property in order to tax it, and putting the economy on hold for months for everyone to travel to their home village without said property would have been absurd)? It’s fair to say that I am hopelessly modern and nonreligious and can’t claim to understand the mindset of a first- or second-century convert, but immersion in a story to me depends on finding it at least plausible. It also seems likely that a new religion isn’t trying to recruit skeptics who will question its facts but rather true believers who will accept the religious leaders’ word. But there still seems to me to be a difference between facts that can be disproven, and unverifiable assertions that must be taken on faith, and why hand your opponents the former if you can avoid it?

So I wish the author would have delved more into the historicity of the Gospels as a whole rather than focusing on specific passages one at a time; for me at least it would have been helpful in evaluating the overall argument. Nevertheless, this is an interesting and educational book of reasonably short length, and I’m glad I read it.

Folk Tales of the Maldives by Xavier Romero-Frias

Folk Tales of the Maldives - Xavier Romero-Frias

This is an enjoyable book of folklore from the Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean. Though the author’s writing in the introduction is a bit stiff, the 80 tales included are characterized by strong storytelling, and paint a vivid picture of the traditional culture of the Maldives. The stories are perhaps best described as legends, featuring kings, ghosts and spirits, good and evil sorcerers, and monsters from the sea, alongside regular people who interact with all of the above, and of course a few animal stories. A few tales are based on recent historical incidents, while most seem to be set sometime in the distant past. Despite the large number of stories, ranging in length from 1-2 pages to 12 or 14, they felt fresh and engaging throughout. In fact, two different stories about a man who falsely sets himself up as an expert have opposite endings.

I would have appreciated more information about the Maldives and the storytellers, who are identified by name and place of residence but not otherwise discussed, though the author might reasonably have seen that as beyond the scope of this book. I was surprised to learn that the book is actually banned in the Maldives, which currently has a strict Muslim government; Islam has been in the islands for centuries and appears in many of the stories, but the stories treat it casually, as part of the backdrop. More information about life in the islands today, to put all this in context, would have been helpful. That said, I think this is an excellent choice for those who enjoy folklore, and I enjoyed reading it.

The Accusation by Bandi

The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea - Deborah Smith, Bandi

This is a collection of short stories criticizing the North Korean government. Purportedly, it was written by an anonymous North Korean official still living in the country, and smuggled out as a handwritten manuscript. Upon reading the first couple of stories, though, I began to wonder if that backstory is a publicity stunt. I’ve read a lot of contemporary English-language fiction, and a lot of fiction from countries around the world, and what struck me about this collection is that it is written in a style characteristic of modern English-speaking authors. This makes it easy reading for those audiences: it’s written with the immediacy and emotional intimacy with the characters that one typically sees in English-language fiction; it has that pleasing balance of dialogue and narrative, that easy-to-read plot-driven flow, that immersion in the characters’ thoughts and feelings that characterizes most popular fiction today. Authors from cultural traditions very different from the mainstream western ones rarely write this way unless they have immigrated to an English-speaking country, even though almost all of them would have ready access to popular fiction, unlike someone living in North Korea.

Having these doubts, I poked around on the Internet for more information about the book (the New Yorker article is worth a read). No one has proven it to be a hoax, and a vocabulary analysis apparently indicates that the writer used North Korean language, which has diverged somewhat from South Korea’s over the decades of separation. However, I found it significant that journalist Barbara Demick, author of the fantastic Nothing to Envy (a nonfiction narrative of life in North Korea, based on her research and defectors’ accounts) also doubts the official version. Her doubt seems to stem primarily from the author’s keen awareness of the regime’s internal contradictions; this is apparently an understanding that takes defectors significant time outside the country to fully comprehend.

As for the book itself, each of its seven stories is a quick and easy read, though they average around 30 pages each. However, after the first two or three stories, which were fairly enjoyable, I began to tire of their incessant drumbeat. All of the stories are about how the regime and life in North Korea crushes a character in one way or another (usually metaphorically, but in one case physically): there is no conflict that doesn’t have the Party at its base and no possibility of happiness. At the end of the final story, a character, gazing at the red-brick local Party office, reflects, “How many noble lives had been lost to its poison! The root of all human misfortunate and suffering was that red European specter that the [party official] had boasted had put down roots in this land, the seed of that red mushroom!” Perhaps I ought to take the idea that the government could be the cause of all human suffering as evidence that the author does in fact live in North Korea, but in any case, such a simplistic view of the world doesn’t make for high-quality literary work.

Whoever the author may be, the fundamental storytelling skills are certainly there, despite a singular political focus, and it will be an especially interesting book for those who haven’t read much about North Korea. But for those who want to learn more about the country, I recommend starting with the brilliant Nothing to Envy.

The Dark Side of Innocence by Terri Cheney

The Dark Side of Innocence: Growing Up Bipolar - Terri Cheney

This is a compelling memoir by an author who is able to pull readers right inside her head, she writes with such intensity and intimacy. It is about her childhood and teenage years and is ostensibly about growing up with childhood bipolar disorder, though it is just as much about growing up in a very dysfunctional family, to the point that I wondered how much the atmosphere contributed to her mental health issues. The parents are obsessed with keeping up appearances, their relationship is fractured at the best of times, each has a favorite child with whom they sometimes side against the other parent, and the author and her brother don’t seem to have a real relationship with each other at all.

Meanwhile the author has mental health issues from a young age, which she never discusses with anyone. Part of this book I think is a skillful portrayal of how childhood works for everyone – you live in a weird private world that you probably don’t talk about, and you lack the perspective and judgment to know what’s normal. In other ways it’s very specific to her family and the place where she was growing up (suburban southern California in the 1960s and 70s): as an adult she realizes that her youth was littered with warning signs, from frequent, prolonged absences from school to poetry about suicide that she wrote from a young age, which somehow never resulted in an intervention.

I found this to be a really interesting memoir, well-written and a fast, compelling read. The author perhaps sells it short by writing that it’s aimed at parents of bipolar kids; while it may provide insights for those parents, I am not one and still enjoyed it. It’s a good read for anyone who wants to know what life looks like through someone else’s eyes – and isn’t that one of the primary reasons we read?

Reading the Ceiling by Dayo Forster

Reading the Ceiling - Dayo Forster

I agree with the other reviews that this is a fine option if you are doing a world books challenge and need a book from the Gambia – this is why I read it, and it’s certainly readable – but there isn’t much to recommend it beyond that.


Reading the Ceiling has an interesting premise: the narrator, Ayodele, is turning 18 and determined to get initiated into the mysteries of sex, so she needs to choose a partner with whom to do the deed. The three sections of the book follow alternate versions of her life as it unfolds along three different trajectories depending on whom she chooses: Reuben, an awkward classmate who likes her much more than she likes him; Yuan, a friend of Chinese descent in whom she is interested; or Frederick, the sexually experienced father of her best friend.


I was curious to see how the different stories played out, and there is a sense of place, though oddly for African fiction, Ayodele lives a middle-class life in terms of both values and material comforts, and there’s not much of a sense that she and her classmates are better off than those around them. Tracking the similarities and differences among the stories and the different ways characters relate to each other based on different lives and choices was interesting, and the author does a good job of showing different sides of those events that occur in multiple stories, avoiding repetitive content. I didn’t always believe the author’s choices, though: a character will die in a motorcycle accident in multiple stories despite having lived two different adult lives, or Ayodele will get a scholarship for London in one story but only for Dakar in another even though she submitted the applications before making her choice.


More to the point, though, the book is on the dull side. Ayodele’s feelings about events are often left unclear; instead we get bland descriptions of her surroundings, lacking in emotional content. And she’s not a particularly interesting character or one who inspired much emotion in me. While a character doesn’t need to be pleasant to be compelling, Ayodele doesn’t balance her lack of resilience or less-than-admirable choices with a strong or complex personality to keep readers engaged. In two of the stories she folds emotionally at the first blow, allowing an early failure or tragedy to shape and define her life, while in the final one she chooses to carry an unexpected pregnancy to term, though it derails her life, apparently just to spite her mother. She doesn’t seem destined to be happy regardless of her choices, though it’s hard to tell when the last two end without reaching a conclusion, leaving readers wondering what happens next.


Overall, this isn’t one I would recommend, though if you too have reason to read a book from the Gambia, then go for it. I’ve certainly read worse.

The Latehomecomer by Kao Kalia Yang

The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir - Kao Kalia Yang

This is an interesting memoir by a Hmong-American writer, about the experiences of a community that is opaque to many Americans. The Hmong are an ethnic minority who moved from China to Laos centuries ago; the Chinese outlawing their written language is apparently the reason they lack one even today. Many Hmong assisted the Americans in the Vietnam War, in which about a third of their population died; another third was killed in the persecution after the American army’s departure. The author’s parents and extended family, like many others, fled into the jungles of Laos and later to a refugee camp in Thailand, where they lived for several years before relocating to Minnesota.

Though a memoir, this book is more about the author’s family than about Kao Kalia Yang herself. It begins by detailing her family’s travails in Laos and Thailand before her birth in the refugee camp, and the bulk of the book focuses on the camp and the family’s immigration to America when she was seven. It goes on to describe the difficulties of their adjustment, for her (being too shy to speak English in school even once she learned it), but mostly for the family: part of the extended family winds up in another state; money is tight, and her parents are forced to take exhausting night shifts at a factory to support the family, while Yang and her older sister are responsible for caring for their younger siblings and sometimes serving as interpreters for their parents. There is little sense of the author’s life after elementary school, though; while she is a student at Carlton College by the end (and later went on to Columbia University), the later chapters focus exclusively on the last years of her grandmother’s life and the grandmother’s death and elaborate funeral. I would have liked to see more of the author’s life and how she has related to Americans and American culture – her educational choices indicate that she has her own stories to tell – but the focus of the book does make clear how extremely family-oriented both she and her community are.

It is an incredible story, and especially given that the Yangs’ experiences were evidently common among the Hmong after the Vietnam War, it’s an important one to tell for the sake of awareness. The writing is fairly good, though it doesn’t always flow in the clearest way. Here’s a sample:

“My mother and father told us not to look at the Americans. If we saw them, they would see us. For the first year and a half, we wanted to be invisible. Everywhere we went beyond the McDonough Housing Project, we were looked at, and we felt exposed. We were dealing with a widespread realization that all Hmong people must do one of two things to survive in America: grow up or grow old. In the case of the noticeably young, the decision was made for us. For those who were older, the case was also easy to figure. Those marred by the war, impaired by the years of fighting, social security and disability were options. [sic] For my mother and father, already adults who had waited on life long before it was their time, the government stepped in and told them: the welfare clock was ticking. She was twenty-five. He was twenty-eight. They knew they wanted a chance to work, but they did not know how to keep that chance safe, so on the streets, before the slanted brows of mostly white men, they held us close for security.”

The gist of the passage makes sense: the family feels insecure, they don’t want to attract attention, and the parents are under pressure to find work. But the notion that there is pressure on “all Hmong people” to “grow up or grow old,” and how this is meant to apply to the author’s parents, is unclear to me even after taking the time to re-read it carefully. And perhaps because of the author’s cultural and linguistic background, she has a distinct way of expressing ideas that may not make a lot of sense to American readers if read quickly or with less than full attention.

Overall then, I found this memoir worthwhile, mostly for the opportunity to learn more about a community that was unfamiliar to me. However, it’s not the first one I would recommend for literary reading.

Falling from Horses by Molly Gloss

Falling from Horses: A Novel - Molly Gloss

Molly Gloss is an excellent writer, but this isn’t my favorite of her books. I loved Wild Life, and The Hearts of Horses is a lovely examination of a rural community. This one is a sequel of sorts to The Hearts of Horses, featuring Martha’s son Bud, who at age 19 takes off for Hollywood to become a stunt rider. Much of the book is about the difference between the real American West and the West as portrayed in cowboy movies, and about the dirty underbelly of Hollywood at the time: the frequent injuries and deaths of men and horses in stunts, the sexual harassment, the various tricks used to make everything in movies look more exciting than it really is.

And I think the best of this book is in its themes, in its examination of Hollywood and its contrast between the myth of a West full of heroes, villains and derring-do and the real world in which a hardscrabble ranching family does unromantic work and loses a child in a meaningless accident. It’s a very well-written book, and there’s a resonance to Gloss’s writing that more literary-oriented readers will enjoy. But I found the plot of this one a little lacking. It has a very long, slow start – half the book passes in Bud’s bus trip to Hollywood, initial attempts to find work and first job working for a stable that rents horses for the tamer scenes – which doesn’t leave much time for the meat of the story. Bud also interested me less than Gloss’s heroines; his friend Lily, a budding screenwriter whom he meets on the bus to Hollywood, is a more interesting and colorful character, but she isn’t the narrator and so we see less of her.

Overall, then, this book has a lot going for it, but my expectations for this author are very high. I liked it, but for most readers I’d recommend Wild Life or The Hearts of Horses first.

The Bamboo Stalk by Saud Alsanousi

The Bamboo Stalk - Saud Alsanousi, سعود السنعوسي

I read the first 78 pages of this book, which has proven popular in the Arab world. It's about the position of foreign workers and outsiders in Kuwait, though the early sections are set in the Philippines, and it's constructed of short chapters. Unfortunately, I found it unengaging. The narrator describes his family's lives and his childhood and there's not yet a plot to be seen on the horizon. The characters are flat; I read an interview with the author about how we're supposed to love the narrator, and this was meant to make the criticism of Kuwaiti society easier for Kuwaiti readers to bear. It looks like that has worked for its intended audience, which is excellent, but I never felt anything for the narrator, nor did I find him interesting. Clearly, this is not for me.

Legends, Traditions and Tales of Nauru by Timothy Detudamo

Legends, traditions and tales of Nauru - Timothy Detudamo

Ratings on books of folklore, especially from outsiders, shouldn’t be taken too seriously: I can rate my experience with a book, and can give my opinion on its literary merits, but am in no position to judge the contribution it makes to the preservation of cultural information, nor the importance it might have to people who actually belong to the culture in question. That said, this proved a bit of a challenging read, and the presentation could be improved. It is unclear exactly who the book is intended for; there is no introduction to put the work in context or explain how it came to be. According to the bookjacket, it was compiled and translated by Head Chief Timothy Detudamo in 1938, based on lecturers by unidentified “native teachers,” but not published until 2008.

This is a very slim volume, and as it turns out the title refers to the three sections of the book. First come 34 pages of “legends,” 11 stories which remind me of the Old Testament, both in their content – origin myths and historical legends, preoccupied with the lineage of their characters – and in their dryness despite dramatic content. Clans go to war, young men kill each other or old people or children, often without any sense that this is seen as inappropriate; shorn of emotional content and without getting inside the heads of any of the characters, it’s difficult for someone outside the culture to appreciate the meaning of any of this.

Next up are 18 pages on “traditional culture,” brief descriptions of aspects of traditional life on Nauru, from hygiene to food storage to inheritance, and with a focus on tools and fishing. This is interesting but quite short. It is all told in the past tense, but without any information on how long ago these traditions existed or on sources – did this traditional culture exist during the lifetimes of the people who put the book together, or did they rely on what older people had told them?

Finally, there are 33 pages of “tales,” of which there are 17. These feel more relaxed and have more narrative flow than the “legends”: they are more like fairy tales, starring regular people or animals. Perhaps it’s because they’re rendered in so few pages that the tales seem odd, leaving me confused about what a listener might get out of them, or perhaps it’s just the cultural divide. But for the foreign reader, it would have been helpful to have some explanation of repeated motifs, such as all the families consisting of a husband, wife and 30 daughters.

And then, as other reviewers have commented, there is the world’s least helpful glossary. The scant information contained in the glossary is available from context, so why anyone would think to include the following I can’t fathom:

Eaeoquar – A type of fish
Eakaberere – A type of sport
Earu n eded – A type of fishing line made from hibiscus bark
Earu n eiror – A type of fishing line made from hibiscus bark
Earu n gatimore – A type of fishing line made from hibiscus bark
Earu n kagaga – A type of fishing line made from hibiscus bark
Earu n oquoe – A type of fishing line made from hibiscus bark
Eatu n anape [sic] – A type of fishing line made from hibiscus bark
Ebaba – A type of food
Ebawo – A type fish [sic]

All in all, for a reader unfamiliar with Nauru this book is likely to be more confusing than enlightening; whether folklorists or modern Nauruans might make more sense of it, I can’t say. It isn’t necessarily a bad book – it may not have been intended for readers like me at all – but I can't claim to have gotten much out of it.

Cherokee Stories of the Turtle Island Liars' Club by Christopher Teuton

Cherokee Stories of the Turtle Island Liars Club: Dakasi Elohi Anigagoga Junilawisdii (Turtle, Earth, the Liars, Meeting Place) - Christopher B Teuton, America Meredith

It’s hard for me to rate a book of folklore. Its primary purpose is to preserve stories and information about a culture, rather than to entertain, and perhaps the most important target audience here is people of Cherokee heritage who may not have much connection to traditional culture. Not being one of those people, I can’t claim that my review will reflect others’ experiences with the book.

The author, Christopher Teuton, is a professor of Cherokee descent who spends time on tribal lands in Oklahoma with four older men who jokingly call themselves the “Turtle Island Liars’ Club.” The four are involved in various ways in the preservation of traditional culture, and are all storytellers. The book is built of many short sections, interspersing stories which range from less than a page to a few pages in length with sections in which the group hangs out and discusses various aspects of Cherokee culture. The stories range from legends to accounts from the lives of the storytellers and their families, and while some read like traditional tales, others clearly have had modern updating: animals encounter steel traps or become roadkill, for instance. But there’s no pretense at telling an authoritative version of any of the tales; in discussing their art, the storytellers make clear that the stories are alive and changing, that different people tell different versions and they even tell different versions themselves to different audiences. And in fact I have encountered different versions of a couple of these stories elsewhere.

I found the stories to be interesting and enjoyable, but Teuton made an excellent decision in choosing to include more than that; the short topical sections in between provide grounding and context, and I generally found the factual information interesting. Most books of folklore seem to be compilations of stories without telling readers anything about the storytellers, their lives, or their wider culture, beyond what one might glean from the tales they tell. This one provides a much fuller picture of Cherokee life, at least as seen through the eyes of these four men.

The fact that a fairly small number of voices – of men from roughly the same generation with similar life experiences – make up the book is a drawback. Another, at least in my eyes, is the way the author renders speech: at times it is almost like reading a transcript, with the “ums,” the people interjecting with “yeah” or “mmhm,” the sentences that trail off without communicating anything. Journalists clean up speech to make it more concise and avoid making their subjects look dumb, and Teuton doesn’t explain why he chose not to, though he does discuss other decisions about how to shape the book. Fortunately though, he’s talking to people who are used to public speaking, and the storytellers’ voices along with the brevity of the sections mitigate the dryness of the author’s writing, which is quite evident in his introduction.

Overall, I found this book engaging, and readers with a particular interest in Cherokee culture or folklore will likely enjoy it. A general audience may become more impatient, though there is certainly wisdom about life in the book that applies regardless of culture. Also, four of the stories are transcribed in both Cherokee and English, which is fun.

The Wind in His Heart by Charles de Lint

The Wind in His Heart - Charles de Lint

It’s interesting how authors who start their careers writing atmospheric, mystical books about the intersection between magic and reality seem to become increasingly paint-by-numbers as their careers progress. Juliet Marillier followed this pattern, going from my favorite author with her original Sevenwaters trilogy, to churning out trite and recycled stories fifteen years later. Of De Lint’s work, I’ve read only his first book, Dreams Underfoot – a short story collection I enjoyed – and this, his most recent. This one is kind of fun as an escapist, plot-driven novel, but the characters and setup are unconvincing, and the emotions it elicited in me ranged from mildly entertained to moderately bored.

This story is set in Arizona, on and around the reservation of a fictional Native American tribe which lives alongside an ancient tribe of shapeshifters. Steve, a retired rock star living in the desert nearby, finds a teenager, Sadie, abandoned in the desert, and brings her to the reservation to seek help, but Sadie is a traumatized and troubled kid who sows chaos in her wake. Meanwhile, when a customer at a local hunting lodge inadvertently kills a shapeshifter, the traditional and entrepreneurial factions on the reservation are thrown into conflict. Besides Steve and Sadie, the other major point-of-view characters are Thomas, a local boy who wants to see the world but is under pressure to become a shaman, and Leah, a music blogger who comes looking for Steve after Sadie tips her off to his location.

It is a fast-paced book, in the sense that there are many relatively short chapters with lots of dialogue and that the action moves quickly, with chapters often ending on cliffhangers. Unfortunately, the characters are simplistic and unconvincing from the get-go, all too ready to share their deeply-held secrets or revise their outlooks on life at the drop of a hat, and bizarrely uninformed about their own close-knit community. Somehow Thomas doesn’t know that his boss spent several years living elsewhere (though there’s no indication this is a secret) or that his sister also sees into the otherworld (which for a supposedly deeply held secret on both of their parts, comes out awfully easily in casual conversation as soon as the book begins). Steve is even worse, being somehow unaware that anything unusual is happening even though he’s lived there for 40 years – in a trailer that is invisible to outside eyes, and with a girlfriend who, in an attempt to hint that she might not be entirely human that somehow went right over Steve’s head, has antlers and sometimes (but not always) a tail.

Steve’s bizarre ignorance is representative of the world of the book generally. The accidental killing of the shapeshifter happens because the entrepreneurial Sammy, a tribal member who grew up on the reservation and owns the hunting lodge, also somehow doesn’t believe in the shapeshifters. It’s unclear how this can be when they are more than willing to reveal themselves to him and beat him up, and for that matter when others on the reservation are perfectly willing to tell strangers who showed up on their doorstep five minutes ago all about their not-quite-human neighbors. In TV Tropes terms, the world is presented as if shapeshifters conceal themselves through a Masquerade, but in what we see throughout the book there is zero actual attempt at concealment and plenty of volunteering information.

Meanwhile, none of the POVs are really the central characters in this story or the ones driving it forward, unless you count Sadie’s acting out. The story is actually about the tribe and the shapeshifters, but three of the four POVs are white people from elsewhere, and they feel a little shoehorned in. Even Thomas, who is a tribe member, is an almost entirely reactive character, never driving the action. Steve is appointed “the arbitrator” of the shapeshifter community, which does not feel particularly earned and edges close to white savior territory in a book that otherwise manages to avoid the worst racial tropes. Leah has little reason to be in the book at all, other than to provide a connection to Newford, the fictional city where much of De Lint’s work is set. She arrives obsessed with Steve’s band because she wants to know why their music didn’t save her best friend, also a fan, from suicide, at which I can only wonder why she would have expected some band’s music to save someone from crippling anxiety and a negative self-image. Then she easily replaces this preoccupation with blogging about the plight of migrants crossing the border, which is even weirder since she never meets a migrant, just some old guy who tells her this is a worthy cause.

At any rate, this made for good cotton candy reading, exemplifying my favorite quote about how readers sometimes get sucked in, even when we know better: “That’s the problem with fiction — or the charm, if you want. Even mediocre plots have a way of sinking their hooks into you, until you find yourself concerned for the fates of characters who aren’t even fully convincing.” Put another way, there’s plenty of craft here – cliffhangers and tense situations to keep the reader going – but precious little magic. It could make a fun beach read, but don’t expect more.

How Does it Feel to be a Problem? by Moustafa Bayoumi

How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America - Moustafa Bayoumi

This is an interesting book about the lives of young Muslims of Arab descent living in Brooklyn in the first few years after 9/11. If that sounds very specific, well, it is, but despite what may initially seem to be a narrow focus, the book seems to me to do a good job of addressing various aspects of Arab Muslim life in the U.S. Each of its seven chapters is devoted to a different young person, whose story unfolds over 30-odd pages.

Most of the chapters have a specific focus. Rasha’s story is about an entire family detained and held in prison for two months shortly after 9/11, although they were never charged with any crimes. I am sorry to say that I was unaware of the post-9/11 mass arrests of Muslims in the U.S., although they were hardly unknown, even drawing the attention of Amnesty International. Sami’s story is about a Muslim soldier going to war for the U.S. in the Middle East. Yasmin’s is a story of a high school student who fights back against religious discrimination at her school. Omar’s is about employment discrimination, and Rami’s, the final story, about a young person getting religion. The author includes factual information about the various topics alongside the stories for context. Of course, giving each story relatively few pages limits their depth to some extent; in some cases the author focuses in on a particular aspect of someone's life, while other chapters follow their subjects for a longer time but with less detail.

I found these stories interesting and the author’s style accessible, and there is a lot in here I didn’t know. For instance, apparently the U.S. government drew up plans in the 1980s to put Muslims in a concentration camp. I am not sure how representative these young people and their families are of Arab-American Muslims, or if that was the author’s goal. Two of the families are Palestinian and two more have one Palestinian parent, which is not representative of the Middle Eastern population in the U.S. generally. The author is also strongly attached to writing about Brooklyn, which seems to me more unique than representative of American life, but enough of these folks have also lived in other places that that turned out to be less of a limiting factor than I initially expected. Regardless, these are important stories, many of which I hadn’t heard before. No book could represent all of Arab Muslim life in America, but this one does an excellent job of opening a window.

Crick Crack, Monkey by Merle Hodge

Crick Crack, Monkey (Caribbean Writers Series) - Merle Hodge

Published in 1970, this novella from Trinidad is classic postcolonial writing, but also the enjoyable story of the life of a young girl. Cynthia, called Cyntie or Tee, and her younger brother are raised by extended family after their mother dies and their father goes abroad. She has childhood escapades and attends a couple of different schools and it’s all vividly portrayed. But she also has a well-off aunt who prizes whiteness in all its forms – physical and cultural – and who makes Tee her project. And so it turns into a story about what in book-critic speech might be called the colonization of a person’s mind: how Tee turns against her upbringing and the people who really love her, but without gaining anything of value to take their place.


There’s a lot of postcolonial literature out there that follows children as they leave behind their traditional upbringings to attend school and encounter the white world – The Dark Child, Nervous Conditions and Mema all come to mind – but this one stands out for its exploration of how internalized racism works. It’s also different for being set in Trinidad, where there isn’t quite the “traditional” lifestyle that exists in Africa; the population is mostly descended from African slaves and South Asian indentured servants, a cultural mix that’s clearly present in the book and gives it a unique color.


But this isn’t only a political book, and I was a little surprised by how well the characters came to life, after seeing them discussed mostly for their ideological roles. Tee’s Auntie Beatrice, for instance, the symbol of colonial thought, turned out to be a surprisingly vulnerable and complex character. She lacks power at home, where her daughters flout her authority and her husband refuses to engage with the family, and in trying to change Tee she seems largely motivated by a desire for the ideal family she’s never had. Other characters likewise feel real and nuanced despite the brevity of the story.


Overall, this book was a pleasant surprise and one I would recommend; social justice oriented readers will particularly appreciate it, but in the complex characters, the vivid descriptions of Tee’s childhood, the rhythms of local speech and the colors of island life, it is also simply a good book.

All Aunt Hagar's Children by Edward P. Jones

All Aunt Hagar's Children - Edward P. Jones

I think I am done with this one, at least for now. I've read the first 5 out of 14 stories (132 pages) and am finding it a drag, though I loved The Known World years ago and later on liked Lost in the City. The going felt slow, and the stories felt cluttered and sometimes confusing. Not all readers will share my short story preferences - I like them to be streamlined and to end with a bang - but that didn't really fit with these stories, which tend to meander along with two or three subplots that often don't reach any resolution or have much to do with the main plot. They're well-written and I'd hardly say they were objectively bad, but I'm not feeling it right now.

Some commentary on the individual stories, because I always want to see more of that in reviews of collections:

"In the Blink of God's Eye" - a young couple moves from Virginia to D.C. at the beginning of the 20th century, and begins to grow apart after she adopts a baby abandoned in their yard. I liked this one, though I felt it was a little padded out with the stories of secondary characters.

"Spanish in the Morning" - a young girl starts at Catholic school and skips ahead to first grade. The ending of this one baffled me.

She falls at her desk when standing up and thinking about how she's not happy about the treatment of a couple of other students, and then we rejoin her in bed at home with a wound in her hand and her family saying she doesn't have to return to that school. I couldn't tell whether she'd had a seizure or medical episode - which would make sense practically but not thematically and wouldn't explain the wound - or whether she spoke up and the teacher stabbed her in the hand, fitting in with a story an older relative told her earlier about a teacher who had a pitchfork like the Devil. Which would make sense thematically but is bizarre.

(show spoiler)

"Resurrecting Methuselah" - an American soldier in Korea is diagnosed with breast cancer, and his wife decides to leave him. In this one it was the motivations that confused me. We spend a lot of time with the wife, including a long sequence in Hawaii on the way to Korea in which she buys some candy she remembers from her childhood to find it completely different.

Then for some reason that was unclear to me, she immediately gives up on visiting her husband and flies home instead. My guess is that, having spent her adolescence as an invalid, she wasn't willing to have sickness in her house or around her daughter. But what does the candy have to do with it?

(show spoiler)

"Old Boys, Old Girls" - a young man is imprisoned for the second of two murders he's committed, does his time, and once on the outside, has to figure out how his family and an old lover fit into his life. I liked this one, which is interesting and doesn't have room for random subplots.

"All Aunt Hagar's Children" - a Korean war vet wants to head out to Alaska to pan for gold, but the older women of his family ask him to look into the murder of one of their sons instead, and he does. This was interesting but the end unconvincing.

He sees the murdered man's wife strike a powerful pose and concludes that she was the murderer, although there are plenty of other suspects.

(show spoiler)

And this one too grew weeds: it spends a lot of time on a stranger who died in front of the narrator getting off a streetcar, which does nothing in the story other than to haunt him, and I didn't believe for a minute that he somehow memorized her last words when they were full sentences in a language he didn't speak. Strings of unfamiliar words are unmemorable gibberish to me, and I'm good at foreign languages.

At any rate, I'm certainly not denying that there's merit here, but this wasn't the right time for this book, so it's heading back to the library.

Purge by Sofi Oksanen

Purge - Lola Rogers, Sofi Oksanen

Part psychological thriller, part historical fiction, this book was not at all what I expected. You should avoid reading reviews if possible because too many give away too much, but to give a general idea, the novel begins in Estonia in 1992, where an old woman, Aliide Truu, lives alone in the countryside in an atmosphere of fear and decay. She finds a young woman, Zara, lying crumpled in her yard, and the story follows the relationship between these women and the explosive secrets they carry, tracing the history of Estonia back to the 1930s.

It’s an ugly time period: from invasions by the Nazis and Russians, to decades as a repressive Soviet satellite, to lawlessness following the fall of Communism. And I wasn’t expecting the amount of horrific sexual trauma in it. It’s an intense, visceral book that draws the reader into the characters’ world, one where they don’t ever feel safe. The plot is gripping, full of secrets to be unraveled; the characters are morally complex, with believable inner worlds; the settings are vivid and the writing strong.

Actually, my biggest complaint is not about the content, but the deckle edge pages, which publishers continue to inflict upon readers despite the fact that, if we still aren’t using e-readers, one reason is that we like to be able to easily turn pages and flip around, especially in a book like this, where readers will be inclined to re-read earlier sections in light of new information.

I’m glad I read this book. It is an intense, compelling read, and allowed me a window into a place I knew little about, though it isn't a history book and the focus remains tightly on the experiences of the protagonists. It is dark and brutal and so isn’t for everyone, but fans of psychological thrillers will find it well worth their time.

Eugenie Grandet by Honore de Balzac

Eugénie Grandet - Christopher Prendergast, Honoré de Balzac, Sylvia Raphael

Classics, we are told, are books that “stand the test of time” – that, even after the society that birthed them has passed away, continue to enthrall readers with their complex and relatable characters, their insight into universals of human nature, their artful command of language. I read Eugenie Grandet in translation, so I won’t attempt to pass judgment on its use of language (Raphael’s 1990 translation is acceptable though not impressive in its own right). But the characters, the conceptions of human nature: these represent the tropes and prejudices of Balzac’s own society, nothing universal or transcendent.

This is a short book with a fairly simple story, though it is detailed and atmospheric enough so as not to require large amounts of plot. Felix Grandet is a miser, who makes large amounts of money through sometimes scurrilous means but refuses to use any of it for the comfort of his wife and daughter, Eugenie. When her city cousin Charles comes to visit for the first time, Eugenie falls immediately in love, but the corrupting influence of money threatens everything meaningful in her life.

Unfortunately, the main characters are not particularly complex or interesting. Felix Grandet is “the miser,” and Balzac takes every opportunity to hold forth on the characteristics of all misers. I’m pretty sure I’ve never met a miser or even heard of a real-life one secondhand, if we define a miser as someone who hoards money for its own sake rather than saving for anything in particular and who refuses to spend even small amounts for their own or their family’s comfort. So this old-fashioned trope and Balzac’s “insights” into the character of misers fell flat for me. Eugenie is defined by another musty trope; she’s the angel in the house, that selfless, innocent, long-suffering 19th century woman. “In her honest simplicity she followed the promptings of her angelic nature,” Balzac tells us at one point. Like her father and the other characters, Eugenie is written as a character in a parable; they exist to fulfill specific roles in the story, and there’s no sense of depth beyond that.

Meanwhile, Balzac’s indictment of misers is strange to my 21st century eyes. We are clearly supposed to feel bad for Eugenie because she’s required to eat simple foods and use footwarmers rather than having a fire in the spring and fall, even when this lifestyle is credited for her robust good health. Wow, how awful? But Eugenie and her mother (who does legitimately suffer from Felix’s behavior) are portrayed as the only people of moral character in the book, which makes it appear that Balzac is speaking out of both sides of his mouth on this issue. On the one hand, Felix is morally repugnant for refusing to “live up to his income” (that 19th century virtue) and provide his family the luxuries they can afford, but on the other hand, his refusal to do so is a recipe for producing the ideal woman, an angelic figure absent from the households of the Grandets’ moneyed acquaintances. Admittedly, this is complicated somewhat as [Eugenie grows older and picks up some of her father’s traits, but that only happens after she remains single and at home long past the prescribed age, suggesting that marrying as a young woman should might have allowed her to continue unspoiled. And she continues to live for religion and devote her money to charity, even while she is unhappy. (hide spoiler)]

Either way, Balzac brings a boatload of gender-based generalizations to the table, which he is eager to share with the reader. For instance:

“All women, even the most stupid, can use wiles to attain their ends.” (60)

“Is it not the noble destiny of women to be more touched by the trappings of poverty than by the splendours of wealth?” (63)

“Pity is one of the qualities in which women are sublimely superior; it is the only one that they are willing to reveal, the only one they will forgive men for allowing them a greater share of.” (90)

“Women have in common with angels the special care of suffering beings.” (93)

“A woman’s mistakes nearly always stem for her belief in good news or from her confidence in truth.” (109)

“In every situation, women have more cause for grief than men and suffer more.” (134)

To my amusement, the writer of the scholarly introduction (which, as usual, you shouldn’t read before the book unless you want to be spoiled) shares many of these complaints. “Much of the contrast [between Eugenie and her father] is best skated over – Eugenie is written in the imagery of the ‘angelic’ and the painfully embarrassing analogies with Raphael’s madonnas and so on,” he writes. And, “There is much tiresome rhetoric about it being in the nature of women to show ‘angelic patience’ in the face of misfortune.” And, “This is the dimension of Balzac’s manner which tends to turn his novels into machines for spewing out generalizations, maxims, quasi-proverbial utterances on virtually every conceivable subject . . . many of them are false or just inadequate to the complexity of experience.” Indeed.

The introduction writer then attempts to defend Balzac by pointing out his use of chiasmus and antithesis, and perhaps if you are the sort of literary reader more interested in techniques and symbolism than characterization, insight or wisdom, you might find much to enjoy in this book. As for me, I found little to appreciate and much cause to question its status as a classic, though I did learn a bit about Balzac’s society from it.