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Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood - Trevor Noah

I enjoyed this memoir, which is exactly what it says on the tin, a collection of stories about the author’s childhood and youth in South Africa. It’s a quick read, flows well and is often funny. The writing is clear and has a distinctive voice. It’s aimed at American readers and so tends to explain South Africa in terms of the U.S., which can be helpful if you are in fact an American reader; Noah takes the time to explain things and I learned from it. Despite the grim backdrop – at the time Noah was born, it was illegal for black and white people to have children together, and when out in public his mother would sometimes find a woman of a more similar skin tone to pretend to be his mother – it’s an enjoyable book, told with energy and personality. Ending on the 40-page chapter about the abusive stepfather who wound up shooting his mom (no spoilers, this is mentioned in the first chapter) was a downer though.


I don’t read a lot of celebrity memoirs, and, fairly or unfairly, tend to be more skeptical about them than about memoirs by otherwise unknown authors. Noah fuels my skepticism with a few inconsistencies: he tells a story about himself as a toddler chasing his father through a park calling “Daddy! Daddy!” and then later on tells us that he never called his father “Daddy” or anything else other than his first name because it was too dangerous. Meanwhile some of the other stories seem likely to be embellished versions of what really happened. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book and think it is a good choice for those who enjoy memoirs or want to learn more about South Africa, as well as of course fans of Trevor Noah.


The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig

The Post-Office Girl (New York Review Books Classics) - Stefan Zweig

This is an odd novel, which makes sense, since it was left unfinished at the author’s death. It is a blistering look at economic inequality, set in Austria after WWI and examined through the stories of characters whose circumstances appear to prevent them from ever getting ahead.

Christine is a young woman who was born middle class, but has lived a life of drudgery since her teenage years, when her family lost both money and menfolk to the war. Out of the blue, a rich American aunt invites her to spend two weeks in a Swiss resort, where she flourishes. But on returning home, she is left hating her working-class life, and soon meets a disaffected war veteran who, through many long speeches, provides the intellectual basis for her discontent.

The first half of the book was a lot of fun to read; after an initial slow start, I was quickly absorbed by the story and eager to learn what would happen next. The second half is interesting and brings Zweig’s themes to the forefront, though it is much darker. The end is ambiguous, leaving the characters’ fates up in the air. It is well-written and engaging throughout. The characters feel three-dimensional and realistic, though I wondered in the second half whether Christine is representative of the way an actual Austrian woman in the 1920s would have thought, or only the way a man at the time would have envisioned one (to her, even an active decision to have sex is necessarily an act of submission, and she claims that as a woman she can’t undertake bold action herself, though she can do anything if following her man). And there are a few rough edges and loose ends: I wondered what Christine could have talked about to the moneyed international jet set, which she does constantly and with great animation; without TV or Internet, and without revealing any details of her life, they seem entirely without common ground. I also wondered why she never thought about following up on

(view spoiler)

the older man who was interested in marrying her; she may not have realized that, but he stood by her and invited her to visit his castle,

(show spoiler)

which she for some reason never considered as an option later.

But at any rate, this is a short novel and a very engaging read. It moves fairly quickly and the translation is excellent. A pleasant surprise. 

Bastards by Mary Anna King

Bastards: A Memoir - Mary Anna King

This isn’t an awful book. But I’ll say the same thing I said last time I reviewed a memoir about an adoptee connecting with her biological family: it was written too soon. By which I mean both that it seems premature, with some of the most interesting parts of the story yet to be lived, and that it leaves out much of the information I wanted to know, likely because the author and her family weren’t yet comfortable sharing so much.

Mary Anna King has a complicated family: she is the second of seven siblings – all girls except for her older brother – whose father was unwilling and mother unable to raise them. The four youngest children were given up for adoption at birth, and the three oldest shunted around among family members in varying combinations; the author and her sister were adopted by their grandfather and his wife when she was 10. As they grew up, the sisters adopted at birth began to get in touch, until finally King met them all.

This is fertile ground for a memoir. And I think King is talented enough to produce an excellent memoir if the focus is right, but not so talented that she can write about anything and keep readers interested. The first third of the book is all about her early childhood, up to the age of 7. Aside from the question of how much of this she could really remember – she admits that a “memory” from age one is probably fabricated, but then proceeds to describe in detail events and her thoughts and opinions about them from age 2.5 – the material here just isn’t interesting enough to merit such length. The family is poor, the father is in and out, the mother has several pregnancies and adopts out the babies. There is nothing strikingly fresh or insightful in the author’s account. The bookjacket attempts to spice up this portion of the story by claiming the author was “raised in a commune of single mothers,” which she wasn’t. For a couple of years the mom and two oldest kids live in an apartment complex that happens to be full of single moms and their kids. That’s all.

But by spending more than half of the book on her childhood, King leaves precious little space for the things I wanted most to read about: the younger sisters’ lives, how they balanced their biological and adoptive families, and how everyone involved related to each other as adults. We do hear a little about the childhood and adopted family of one of the sisters adopted at birth; I wanted this and more for all of them. I wanted to know how their mother felt about watching her two youngest daughters grow up from a distance, without their knowing who she was. I wanted to know how the author really felt about her biological father. He disappears from the story after she goes to live with her grandparents at age 7, then calls her college dorm room expecting her to immediately resume the role of daughter and angry at her alleged bitterness over his never calling or sending presents. She denies this, but is no more candid with the reader than in her guarded email ending her relationship with him; it feels like she is still protecting herself a decade later in case he reads the book. Then she includes a detailed description of being molested by another child at the age of 5, and never says another word about it, unless you count mentions of not liking to be touched. When did she finally tell someone? With this and her family history, what were her romantic relationships like? She mentions a college boyfriend, describes him briefly and in positive terms, and has nothing else to say on the subject.

Of course, what I wanted from the book adds up to an incredible amount of vulnerability from the author and her family, which no reader has the right to demand. But if you are going to write a memoir on a very personal subject, I think you need to go all in on that subject; if you aren’t ready to do that, perhaps the memoir should wait. And this is in addition to the fact that one of most interesting parts of the story – how the relationships between all these long-lost siblings develop and how their history affects their adult lives – has only begun when the book ends. The author meets her youngest sister in the final chapter. Theoretically she could write a sequel one day, but unless you write like Maya Angelou you generally get one shot at a memoir, and Mary Anna King is no Maya Angelou.

Alternatively, if writing a very personal memoir was off the table, the author might have gone the intellectual route, reading up on adoption-related research to share with the reader. She raises the concern that her sisters adopted at birth haven’t necessarily gotten a better deal: they too have imperfect families, they wind up in a similar place educationally to the older three siblings, and they seem to spiral downward after meeting their biological family (or in one case, before). If the author can’t give us the details of her sisters’ lives, she could have gone broad, looking at outcomes for other adopted kids to discover how common this is. But there’s no research here either.

All that said, I read this book quickly, found it readable and basically enjoyed it. The author does a perfectly fine job with those parts of her adult life she does describe, some of which are quite personal. And of course, my reaction can’t predict those of readers for whom adoption is personal. Nevertheless, this is not a great memoir and it may preclude the author from writing a better one someday.

Final two comments: the title doesn't seem quite apropos when the parents were married, and there are unfortunately no pictures.

The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons by Goli Taraghi

The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons: Selected Stories - Goli Taraghi, Sara Khalili

I read the first 5 stories of this collection (through page 179). The first one was decent and unexpectedly funny, but after that they became more a chore than a pleasure. The characters and settings are misty and unformed. All the stories are in the first person, sometimes told through the point-of-view of a minor character who nevertheless relates all of the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist like an omniscient narrator even though he or she has no way of knowing this information. The translation is very fluid, but . . . maybe a little too much so; the stories feel as if they were written in English, but blandly. After pushing myself through four stories out of a sense of obligation, I decided to be done.

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

Anything Is Possible - Elizabeth Strout

This is a lovely collection of interrelated short stories. It begins in Amgash, Illinois, the hometown of Lucy Barton, and when it ventures further afield, it’s to follow characters whose stories are suggested by the previous ones. The protagonists are mostly older people – grandparents or old enough to be – and a common theme is dealing with loss: of livelihood, of a spouse (to death or divorce), of parents or siblings who move away.

It is a melancholy book, and getting a little too caught up in the stories and reading them all in two sittings got to me a little. But it is also a book full of compassion and understanding for its characters (most, though not all, of the protagonists are compassionate and understanding people themselves), of human connection and love, of wisdom about what makes people tick. It is very well-written and got me quickly invested in the characters and their situations. In some cases I wanted to know a lot more; this was especially true of Patty’s story, though Abel’s sticks in my memory as well. Though I thought highly of My Name Is Lucy Barton, the story about the title character’s reappearance underwhelmed me and was probably my least favorite. But I am tempted to re-read that book now that I’ve read this one.

In sum, this is an excellent collection, rather quiet and sad, featuring complex and believable characters. I recommend it.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness - Michelle Alexander

This is an important read for social-justice-oriented folk. Michelle Alexander – a law professor and former ACLU attorney – lays out a cogent argument for mass incarceration and the drug war functioning as systems of racial control, comparable though not identical to prior systems such as Jim Crow. Although white and black Americans use drugs at similar rates, law enforcement treats it as a war only in poor communities of color, where it terrorizes people with military equipment and tactics, and seizes property as “forfeiture.” Harsh penalties, particularly for those drugs most associated with black people, mean more African-Americans are behind bars now than were imprisoned just before the Civil War. In some large cities, nearly half of African-American men are under penal control, whether in prison or on probation or parole. And once released, anyone with a criminal record is a legal target for discrimination in employment, housing, professional licensing, student loans, public benefits, etc. People with a felony record can be prevented from voting or sitting on a jury. And the effects extend beyond imprisonment and even discrimination, tarring the entire black community with the brush of criminality in many people’s minds, so that mass incarceration in many ways defines the relationship between African-American society and the rest of America.

My biggest doubt about the comparison, before reading the book, was how a system that bases punishment on individual actions could compare to blanket laws disenfranchising people based on race. Alexander doesn’t deal with the personal choice issue quite as directly as I would like, instead making the point that everyone breaks some law sometime, but black communities are the ones heavily targeted by law enforcement. Even if the only thing you do is speed a little, if you’re white you’ll probably never be stopped, but if black you’re liable to be pulled over and have the police “ask” to search your car for drugs (to most people it doesn’t sound much like asking with a uniform and a gun). If we pursued every violation of the law so aggressively in white communities, and treated white kids as potential criminals from a young age, and handed out sentences counted in decades for non-violent crimes commonly associated with white people, huge numbers of them would also wind up locked up, on probation or parole, or with criminal records. That wouldn’t happen, though, which is good evidence that something is going on here that isn’t just about keeping the community safe.

Obviously I’ve only covered the tip of the iceberg here; Alexander is thorough, and her writing clear and convincing, well-sourced through extensive endnotes but still readable for non-academics. Once I got into the book, the pages went by quickly. She says at the beginning that this book is intended for people who care about racial justice but tend to view racial disparities in the criminal justice system as regrettable side effects of societal racism rather than a system of disenfranchisement. As a member of the intended audience, I found this book eye-opening, creating a real perspective shift. I wish I could distill that into a review, but Alexander has already done the work, so I will just recommend the book instead.

Raised from the Ground by José Saramago

Raised from the Ground - José Saramago, Margaret Jull Costa

Look, I like fiction that teaches me about history and deals with social issues, and I don’t mind a bit of stylistic experimentation. But I have my limits. This so-called novel is about 30% story, 10% flights of fancy and 60% unsourced treatise on labor relations in 20th century Portugal. Several generations of a peasant family are dirt-poor, doing backbreaking labor from sunrise to sunset for rich landowners who may or may not pay enough to keep their families from starvation. As the decades go on the workers become increasingly engaged in a struggle for better wages and hours. The landowners, government and Catholic Church unite to keep the workers down, the landowners refusing to raise wages and calling in the police at any sign of labor unrest; the government (particularly under the Salazar dictatorship) responding violently to strikes and arresting and torturing suspected organizers; and the local priests preaching acceptance of their lot to the peasants and getting cozy with the landowners.

Which is a fine backdrop for a story, but here the history is at the forefront; the book isn't about its characters but rather the overall state of workers’ rights and oppression at the time. Whole chapters don’t include anyone we’ve even met, but describe the torture and death of an unknown laborer (much of it from the anthropomorphized perspective of the ants in the room), or elaborate on an extended metaphor comparing the latifundio to an ocean. Meanwhile the appearances of the "protagonists" from the Mau-Tempo family are about putting a face on the workers’ poverty, subjugation and slow empowerment, rather than any excitement in their personal lives. The plot of the book is the story of the rural Portuguese peasantry in general and not anything going on with these individuals. I couldn't help wondering, since Saramago was clearly much more interested in the history than the fiction, if he chose to write an impressionistic "fictional" story rather than the seemingly more natural nonfiction account in part because it allowed him to avoid the work of marshaling all the required facts and figures. Or maybe I'm being unfair and he was simply using his soapbox as a famous author to hold forth on the issues that mattered to him, and fictional conventions be damned.

Meanwhile, the writing style is experimental, full of run-on sentences and paragraphs that incorporate dialogue without quotation marks. Here are samples so you can see for yourself:

“Long live the republic. So how much is the new daily rate, boss, Let’s see, I pay whatever the others pay, talk to the overseer, So, overseer, how much is the daily rate, You’ll earn an extra vintém, That’s not enough to live on, Well, if you don’t want the job, there are plenty more who do, Dear God, a man could die of hunger along with his children, what can I give my children to eat, Put them to work, And if there is no work, Then don’t have so many children, Wife, send the boys off to collect firewood and the girls for straw, and come to bed, Do with me as you wish, I am my master’s slave, and there, it’s done, I’m pregnant, with child, in the family way, I’m going to have a baby, you’re going to be a father, I’ve missed a period, That’s all right, eight can starve as easily as seven.”

“Tomorrow, said Dona Clemência to her children, and her nieces and nephews, is New Year’s Day, or so she had gleaned from the calendar, placing her hopes in the brand-new year and sending her best wishes to all the Portuguese people, well, that isn’t quite what she said, Dona Clemência has always spoken rather differently, but she’s learning, we all choose our own teachers, and while these words are still hanging in the air, news comes that there has been an attack on the barracks of the third infantry regiment in Beja, now Beja is not in India or Angola or Guinea-Bissau, it’s right next door, it’s on the latifundio, and the dogs are outside barking, though the coup was put down, they will speak of little else over the next weeks and months, so how was it possible for a barracks to be attacked, all it took was a little luck, that’s all it ever takes, perhaps that’s what was lacking the first time around, and no one noticed, that’s our fate, if the horse carrying the messenger bearing orders to commence battle loses a shoe, the whole course of history is turned upside down in favor of our enemies, who will triumph, what bad luck. And in saying this we are not being disrespectful to those who left the peace and safety of their homes and set off to try and pull down the pillars of the latifundio, though Samson and everyone else might die in the attempt, and when the dust had settled and we went and looked, we found that it was Samson who had died and not the pillars, perhaps we should have sat down under this holm oak and taken turns telling each other the thoughts we had in our head and heart, because there is nothing worse than distrust, it was good that they hijacked the Santa Maria, and the attack in Beja was good too, but no one came to ask us latifundio dogs and ants if either the ship or the attack had anything to do with us, We really value what you’re doing, though we don’t know who you are, but since we are just dogs and ants, what will we say tomorrow when we all bark together and you pay as little heed to us as did the owners of this latifundio you want to surround, sink and destroy. It’s time we all barked together and bit deep, captain general, and meanwhile check to see that your horse doesn’t have a shoe missing or that you only have three bullets when you should have four.”

Certainly Saramago is a talented writer with a strong voice, and for all the unusual choices here he brings the setting vividly to life. The translation is very good, and the publishers deserve credit for a professional job, including a few brief footnotes explaining historical and cultural references that may not be self-evident to a non-Portuguese reader. This book is not without merit, and had I come into it looking for a history of labor relations rather than a novel, perhaps I wouldn’t have been so disappointed. But for all Saramago’s talent, for me it was a drag to read.

Singing Away the Hunger by Mpho 'M'atsepo Nthunya

Singing Away The Hunger: Life In Lesotho - Mpho 'M'atsepo Nthunya

“I dream that this book will go far, and tell people about the Basotho, how it is with us, how poor we are and how we go on with life anyway.”

This is an unusual memoir, consisting of the stories of a poor woman from Lesotho, matriarch of a large family, who works as a cleaning lady to feed her many children and grandchildren. Though she speaks seven or eight languages and attended some school as a teenager, she spent all of her adult life busy with manual labor and raising children and is essentially illiterate. She “wrote” this book in collaboration with an American professor, by telling her stories orally, having them read back to her and dictating changes.

It’s a fascinating book in that it offers a window on a sort of life rarely encountered even in books: not only the lives of a ordinary African woman and her family, but the lives of people so poor they often go hungry or inadequately clothed, and may not even have a home large enough for the entire household to sleep on the floor. When you do encounter characters living so hand-to-mouth, they populate a book that ends in triumph, usually through education. But the lives of Nthunya and her family always feel precarious, even when they’re doing well, working in South Africa or farming in the Maluti Mountains. This isn’t a relentlessly depressing book – life always goes on – but it isn’t a feel-good story either.

Nthunya’s isn’t simply a story of poverty, though. Born in 1930, she remembers a Lesotho that has largely disappeared, with customs that might surprise many readers. She describes what we would call an open relationship with her husband; both were comfortable with the other having outside sexual relationships, and this appears to have been normal. She also talks about what seems to be a romantic friendship with another woman, which is celebrated by the community through multiple feasts. Meanwhile Christianity mixes easily with traditional beliefs, including several episodes of visiting sangomas (traditional healers) for “sickness which is not from God,” usually involving a curse from a jealous relative or neighbor.

Overall, I found this short memoir very engaging. Nthunya’s way of speaking is distinctive, and I’m not entirely convinced that having her tell her stories in English was the best choice. She makes several references to being much more comfortable in her native tongue, and her English grammar is idiosyncratic. The book contains a somewhat defensive afterward by the professor who turned these stories into a book (I got the impression that zealously ideological social-justice-oriented acquaintances gave her a hard time for being involved at all), in which she explains that they tried having a bilingual friend take down Nthunya’s stories in Sesotho and translate them, but that this translation was “much less powerful” than Nthunya’s English. Maybe they just needed a better translator? But regardless, the stories flow well and offer a great window into a world rarely seen in print. This is the sort of experience I’m always looking for in my world books challenge, and I’m glad to have read it.

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis - J.E. Vance

This is an interesting and very readable memoir by an author who grew up in small-town Ohio; it gets its name from the fact that his family was originally from Kentucky, and he grew up with a strong connection to Appalachia. It is worth reading for the author’s story, though not so much for the “culture” portion of the subtitle. And to the extent he talks about politics – many readers suspect he’s an aspiring Republican politician, and given his current activities this seems likely – while he talks about the disconnection and disenchantment that led to Trump’s election in a sane way, he fails to offer productive suggestions for the troubled community of his childhood.

Vance begins the story with his grandparents, who moved from Appalachia to Middletown, Ohio, in search of better opportunities. They found them, but isolated from their community, they created a toxic household for their kids – he drank too much and sometimes turned violent; in response she tried to murder him in his sleep. They shaped up only in time to help raise the grandkids when their deeply damaged daughter, with an addiction and a never-ending string of failed live-in relationships, proved inadequate to the task. Vance’s childhood was chaotic, and he made it through high school only because his grandmother stepped up and took him in. But even once he managed to get out, the legacy of poverty and domestic chaos continued to shape his life: he needed the Marine Corps to teach him self-confidence and basic financial literacy, and a patient partner to deal with his total ignorance of how to handle conflict constructively.

The story is well-told, and will be an eye-opener for many who haven’t faced the challenges Vance did growing up. It’s important to remember that poverty isn’t just a lack of money; it’s the lack of educational, social, and emotional resources that people need to make money. Someone who doesn’t believe they can do better, or is completely unaware of need-based financial aid for college, is going to struggle even if they seem from the outside to have options. That said, this does read like a memoir by an aspiring politician; even when it’s candid, it is careful and polished in a way that seems designed to keep political doors open.

But the book doesn’t deliver on its promise of “a memoir of a culture in crisis.” While Vance visits Appalachia frequently, he never actually lives there and so is on the sidelines of its culture. Certainly his white, working-class Ohio neighborhood is in crisis, but the book doesn’t engage much with Vance’s friends, neighbors and co-workers. Understandably, his attention is focused on his own personal and family struggles. The “culture” aspect comes up mostly in his placing blame for the Rust Belt’s economic failures on its culture; he writes about people who talk a good game about “hard work” but never actually perform it, and young parents who spend their days watching TV and receiving government benefits, and then he talks about how “the community” rather than the government needs to solve the region’s problems.

Forgive my cynicism, but this just sounds like abdication of responsibility. Conservatives will like Vance’s message because it’s about less government, and many liberals seems to have liked it as well, perhaps because he points the finger at those very white working-class people who tend to vote Republican, or perhaps just because it puts all of us middle- and upper-class folk, liberals and conservatives alike, in the comfortable position of having no responsibility for this problem. How would we react if the people being blamed here were non-white? Certainly race adds to and compounds all the problems of class, but I don’t think anyone – even Vance – believes that Appalachia and the Rust Belt acquired their economic malaise as a result of a “lazy” culture, rather than the other way round. But once we accept that cultural decay results from a lack of economic opportunity, it seems perverse to blame the people trapped in these disadvantaged areas for the problem.

And there’s a larger question here, which is: who is this “community” that is meant to solve the problems of Appalachia and the Rust Belt, and how are they meant to do it? Do we really think the Ladies’ Garden Club, or the Baptist church with 100 members, is going to create new jobs, or help those who’ve gotten caught up in the criminal justice system due to addiction get their lives on track, or feed three meals a day to the three kids whose single mom can’t afford to work because day care costs more than a public college and she doesn’t have a reliable support system? No, addressing these needs is going to require “the community” coming together in a much more large-scale way, with enough funding to actually make a difference... hmm, this sounds like government, whether it’s involved directly or through providing funding. After all, what other institution can claim to represent the entire community?

But Vance – who at the time he wrote this was living in San Francisco, not working in that “community” onto which he offloaded responsibility – takes the well-worn route of blaming individuals for not being perfect, and then using human weaknesses to justify his argument that government shouldn’t help them. When writing about his teenage job at a grocery store, he takes the opportunity to complain about food stamp recipients: some of them bought steaks (likely meaning they’d go hungry at the end of the month, though he doesn’t mention that), while others “gamed the welfare system” by “ring[ing] up their orders separately, buying food with food stamps, and beer, wine, and cigarettes with cash.” That is how food stamps are supposed to work, by the way: you buy food with them, and non-food items with your own money.

Of course, in a perfect world all poor people would only ever make smart financial decisions, and none would ever indulge in luxuries or have addictions. But, you know, people are human, and I don’t blame them; would you scrimp every penny if you saw no prospect of anything better on the horizon, or would you try to enjoy what you had while it lasted? I understand the teenage Vance’s anger at seeing others receive public benefits while he worked and was still poor (though he doesn’t address whether he and his grandmother qualified for food stamps but opted not to apply, or whether they made more money than their neighbors). But he merely complains about “welfare queens” – trying to make this concept acceptable to liberals by applying it to poor white people – without offering any actual solutions.

In reality, more than a quarter of households receiving food stamps consist of elderly or disabled adults, while 58% of able-bodied, working-age recipients of food stamps are employed when they apply, and 82% within a year. I would guess those numbers are lower in economically depressed areas like the ones Vance describes, where jobs aren’t always available. But simply working isn’t the answer when 45% of retail employees receive some type of government benefits. And of course conservatives also oppose increases in the minimum wage, which might help these people make it through their work alone.

So it’s unclear how Vance thinks poor and working-class people ought to feed their families and otherwise make ends meet, but let’s just focus on a couple of people who from the outside at least look lazy and entitled, and then place blame responsibility on a “community” that we aren’t part of, and we can all go home satisfied. Right? I grant you that he sounds a lot saner than many Republican politicians these days when it comes to questions like why so many people distrust the media or believe Obama isn’t a citizen, but he certainly doesn’t say anything here to convince me that putting him in office would be good for his constituency or the country.

That said, the book is mostly about his story rather than politics; while I don’t want to see him in office (at least not unless he’s able to find more compassion for those outside his immediate circle and propose real solutions), I do recognize his achievements and believe that he has a story worth the telling. So read it if you like, but don’t turn off critical thinking just because he seems more rational than many current politicians.

The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss

The Hearts of Horses - MOLLY GLOSS

It’s too bad about the title and cover. This is a lovely work of literary historical fiction, which happens to feature a protagonist who trains horses, but which neither anthropomorphizes nor is sentimental about them. Really it’s a story about the hearts of humans: how they live together and love one another. It’s the first winter of America’s involvement in WWI, and the shy but tough 19-year-old Martha Lessen arrives in a rural Oregon county looking for work. Which she finds gentling horses for eight local families; this allows the author to dip into many lives, with a strong sense of compassion and understanding of people and relationships.

So Martha is the protagonist, and hers is a fairly standard though well-told story of finding community and love after a rough childhood. But she’s also the catalyst for other characters’ stories, which occupy just as much of our time. There’s the “German” couple ostracized by many of their neighbors (they are German in that his family immigrated from there, and she married him). There’s the woman who splits wood to feed her three young children and alcoholic husband. There’s the educated farmer dying of cancer – which at the time had no real treatment – and the stalwart wife who must confront the reality of his illness and death every day.

This is a very well-written book, told in a measured, contemplative way; when there is excitement, the book is more interested in how the characters manage their situations and how those situations affect them than in action for its own sake. The omniscient narrator drops into the heads of various characters in a natural way, and also fills us in on local history and on the times. Writing 90 years later during another overseas war, the author seems particularly interested in the culture of wartime America.

Overall, this is a wise, warm and observant character-driven novel with social commentary. Be warned that it takes awhile to get going; I wasn’t hooked until somewhere between pages 50 and 75. But it was well worth the investment, and I enjoyed it as much as Gloss’s stand-out epistolary novel, Wild Life, though they are very different books. I look forward to reading more of her work soon.

Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley - Charlotte Gordon

This is such a fantastic biography that I suspect it will become my gold standard. It’s a dual biography of two well-known female intellectuals (who were also mother and daughter), Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. All I knew of either woman before reading this was her most famous book, but as it turns out they both lived fascinating – and, because they were writers, well-documented – lives. Both traveled internationally (Wollstonecraft even lived in France in the midst of its revolution), wrote extensively, and had children outside of marriage, and all this in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

This isn’t only a factual account; it brings both protagonists to life in alternating chapters (because Wollstonecraft died giving birth to Shelley, the two barely intersect), with distinct, complex and vivid personalities. And Gordon is an excellent storyteller, rendering their lives in a readable style more compelling than many novels; the end of a chapter would often leave me wanting to read just one more. The book is rich in information about the times, providing the context of these women’s lives and the lives of those around them, but despite being a history, the facts never feel inevitable; this is quite an achievement, requiring fresh and vivid storytelling. For the first 100 pages I was concerned that it would be a downer, featuring women oppressed by their gender and culture at every turn, but both women soon grow up and take control of their destinies. In the end, my only concern is that, while the book includes extensive endnotes and a bibliography, the author usually only cites a source when directly quoting someone; I wanted to know where more of the assertions about people’s feelings, in particular, came from.

Overall, this is an excellent book, and it left me curious to read both of these writers and see how my analysis of their works compares to the author’s. This would be a great choice for anyone interested in the lives of historical women; for those who don't typically read biographies, it's a perfect place to start.

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

Love Medicine - Louise Erdrich

This isn’t a terrible book, but I can’t claim to have enjoyed it. Love Medicine is a somewhat awkward merger between novel and short story collection, made up of 17 pieces about two families living on the Ojibwe/Chippewa reservation over the span of about 50 years, from the 1930s to the 1980s. I call it an awkward merger because the stories all feature the same group of characters, but there’s neither the overarching plot you want from a novel nor the neatly encapsulated plots you expect from short stories. Life happens, but it isn’t organized by much plot structure at all.

Still, my dissatisfaction stemmed less from plotting issues and more from the fact that I simply never became invested in these characters. The first chapter was promising enough, but the older generation’s love triangle provided little interest, and something about the characters’ motivations and viewpoints felt off. It certainly doesn’t help that 13 of the 17 stories are told in first person, by 6 different narrators, of both genders, various ages, and from three different generations, and they all sound alike. Which tends to destroy the illusion that we’re hearing from different people, and for that matter, that these are characters at all rather than multiple figments of the same author’s imagination. It’s always baffled me that first-time authors – those least equipped to write multiple narrators successfully – are the most likely to attempt this feat, but I think I’ve hit on the explanation, which is that almost no one, no matter how experienced, can do this well and debut authors are also the least equipped to recognize their limitations.

That said, awhile back I tried to read Erdrich’s most recent novel, LaRose, and bounced off of it, finding the plot diffuse and the characters uninteresting. So it seems most likely that I simply don’t connect with this author’s writing. Fortunately for me, after finishing this I started Anything Is Possible, which provides everything I wanted here – a constellation of linked short stories about beauty and pain in everyday life, with characters and situations that caught and held my attention – albeit featuring white Midwesterners rather than Native Americans.

An endnote about the endnote: removing “The Tomahawk Factory” from the main text because “it interrupted the flow” and then tacking it on to the end just seems to muddle the book’s ending. I read it second-to-last, which happily turns out to be its chronological placement, once I realized it was meant to be part of this book and not a preview for another one.

Tales in Colour by Kunzang Choden

Tales In Colour And Other Stories - Kunzang Choden

This is a surprisingly good collection of short stories about the lives of women in contemporary, mostly rural Bhutan, by a Bhutanese author, whose own life I wanted to read more about after the all-too-brief introduction detailing her own culture shock as a young girl in an Indian boarding school and her observations of the way women’s lives have changed in Bhutan, often becoming less independent under the influence of foreign culture.

The quality of the book was unexpected to me because, first, I bounced off the author’s novel awhile back (I may now give it another chance), and second, the publishers really let the author down here. The punctuation is bad and there are some grammatical mistakes. It’s unfortunate, though understandable, that this lack of professional copyediting has led some to conclude that the author lacks literary talent, when other indications are to the contrary. The thirteen stories are well-structured and engaging, getting the reader quickly invested in the characters’ lives.

As a cultural document this is fascinating, illuminating various aspects of ordinary life in Bhutan. The stories range from optimistic (a young woman who alternates between visiting her brother in the city, where she adopts the life of an urban sophisticate, and returning to the country to muck out sheds for her mother) to tragic (a dwarf who is shunned by most of her family and community until her death). There’s a strong sense of community life: in one story no one will turn in the village thief because everyone is interdependent, while another, about a single mother whose hard work gets her son through school and allows him to achieve a comfortable life for them both, feels not quite triumphant because it’s framed by the villagers left behind, who experience their success only by viewing photographs.

But the stories are still focused on individual choices and lives; many of the protagonists are poor single mothers, either giving birth outside of marriage, or providing for their families after leaving or being left by their husbands. It is certainly a more dynamic view of individual and family life than Western stereotypes about Asian farmers would lead you to expect. It’s mostly a realistic collection, but there is room for fancy too, as in one story about a misunderstanding between a woman and a mouse.

I finished through this collection quickly, was engaged by the stories, found the characters believable and sympathetic, and enjoyed the strong sense of place and learning about Bhutan. It’s a shame the publishers didn’t do their part; with a bit of polish and a strong publishing house behind it, this could be a real literary success.

How to Fall in Love With Anyone by Mandy Len Catron

How to Fall in Love with Anyone: A Memoir in Essays - Mandy Len Catron

This is an enjoyable and thoughtful book: part memoir, part essay collection. The author reflects on love through the lens of her own experiences and those of her parents and grandparents, but also discusses the subject more broadly, referencing scientific research and analyzing books, movies, and fairy tales. She writes well and candidly, digging into the complexities of relationships rather than trying to prescribe one-size-fits-all advice or hand out easy answers. It is in some ways a very personal book, particularly as the author discusses the end of her 10-year relationship, but she keeps it classy. In discussing her relationships, she writes about how she felt and behaved, rather than dishing on her exes.

Rather than writing a traditional review, I’m going to list some of the ideas in the book that interested me:

- This book began with a Modern Love article, about a relationship that started with the author and an acquaintance asking each other a series of questions that made a couple fall in love in a lab experiment. But the title is misleading: the questions may not have been designed to create romance (they’ve apparently been used in decidedly non-romantic contexts, like increasing trust between police and communities). And the author and her boyfriend didn’t immediately start dating after that night. Instead the questions allowed them to get to know and trust each other quickly, setting the stage for a relationship if they wanted to pursue it, which they ultimately did.

- Some passages from the book suggest that Catron’s ultimate conclusion is that people ought to learn to love well rather than obsessing over finding the right person. But it isn’t so simple. She writes about a friend who, on the advice of a recently-married friend of his who champions choosing to commit for commitment’s sake, casts aside doubts about his relationship and proposes. But he backs out before the wedding, and the friend who gave the advice gets divorced a couple years later. The book never argues that if you just choose any decent person and treat each other well, the result will be lifelong marriage. It doesn’t give prescriptions about the ideal relationship, but rather things the author has observed along the way.

- There’s a word for the assumption that the true goal of all relationships is lifelong marriage: amatonormativity. Looking this up online led me to an interesting article from someone for whom romance isn’t a goal at all; Catron is more traditional, but she was able to enjoy romantic encounters more when she valued them for their own sake, rather than considering everything that didn’t end in marriage a failure.

- Historically speaking, our expectations for marriage have ascended Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. At one time marriage was mostly about economic stability, while we now expect our relationships to meet our needs for self-esteem and personal fulfillment. No wonder we struggle to find “the right person” while our ancestors managed to stay with the first person they were attracted to or the person their family chose.

- There’s a lot in the book about love stories, and how they affect real relationships. Storytelling is humanity’s way of organizing information and making sense of interactions with others; we need to see patterns to recognize what’s going on. Many people acknowledge the more obvious discrepancies between love stories and the real world, like the idea that once the two of you decide to get together, everything else is “happily ever after” rather than requiring effort.

- But some of the subtler refrains in love stories go unnoticed. For instance, the idea that love is a moral reward given to the most “deserving” people. For women, this often means being passive and “good,” i.e., pleasing those in authority, and not pursuing love directly. The idea that love will come on its own as a reward for quiet virtue led the author to quietly play the chameleon for years as a teenager rather than pursue what she wanted.

- All this makes me wonder about the current crop of love stories for teens, which often portray abusive or controlling relationships as romantic. Perhaps we can neutralize the messages of these stories by talking about the issue, so kids don’t use assume that’s the way love works. But no matter how much we talk about it, some readers are sure to miss the conversation and drink in those assumptions. This isn’t addressed in the book – fortunately for her, the author doesn’t seem to have had any truly awful relationships.

- People are very invested in their own love stories. A good “how we met” story can build social support for a relationship, which is healthy. But a meet-cute doesn’t predict the quality of the relationship, and some people get into bad relationships because their beginnings make great stories.

- Relationship advice is often geared to justifying the advisor’s decisions. Listening to a lot of advice can be destabilizing, if it suggests all sorts of deficiencies in you or your relationships (who cares if your significant other doesn’t bring you flowers, if this isn’t important to you). Advice is also usually geared toward keeping people together – see amatonormativity above – and at avoiding ambiguity; if a seemingly great relationship breaks down, we want an explanation as to why. But in reality, falling out of love may be as mysterious as falling in love.

In the end, though she’s in a happy relationship, it doesn’t seem like the author has it all figured out (probably nobody does), so this is definitely a personal reflection rather than an advice book. It didn’t knock my socks off, and the last chapter seemed off-base and elegiac despite containing nothing that needed an elegy. But it was enjoyable and interesting, smart and well-written. It’ll make you think a bit and won’t make you feel hopeless or inadequate, which seems like a good measure for a book about love. 

The Land Without Shadows by Abdourahman Waberi

The Land Without Shadows - Abdourahman A. Waberi

I read this short book (only 80 pages of text, plus a 20-page introduction) for my world books challenge, as a book set in Djibouti. I’m not sure I really “got” it, hence the lack of rating. Though billed as a collection of 17 short stories, most of these pieces are better described as a description, or an extended metaphor. Other reviewers have referred to them as essays, but as most of them seem to exist in fictional space (though often without plot and sometimes even without real characters), rather than advancing an organized argument, that description too seems not quite accurate.

Obviously I can only judge this work as a foreign reader and can’t predict the reactions of those who share the author’s cultural background. But I had to push myself through this one, and didn’t connect with it. The short pieces are highly stylized and often hard to understand, and only a couple, the ones with a recognizable plot, had me at all interested in the fates of the characters. However, the book did show me something of Djibouti. The pieces are set throughout the country’s history: dealing with legends, with the lives of nomads, with the colonial period, with modern war and disenchantment. Unfortunately for a reader unfamiliar with Djibouti, they are not organized chronologically. The introduction did help me understand these pieces and their context a bit better, and for other foreign readers I’d recommend reading that first; this isn’t the sort of book where spoilers are much of a concern. (Academics generally seem to assume that every single reader already knows how every single book ends and that no one gets any enjoyment from discovering the story as they go, so I typically read introductions last if I read them at all, to avoid massive spoilers. But here the introduction can serve as more of a readers’ guide.)

Camino de Hormigas by Miguel Huezo Mixco

Camino de Hormigas - Miguel Huezo Mixco

This was a somewhat confusing book, at least for me reading in my second language. We start off reading about an older man from El Salvador who lives and works in a stable in California, and has written a manuscript based on his experiences fighting in the war there, which he mails to an unknown friend. The protagonist of the novella isn’t the narrator from the frame story – or is he? The last chapter seems to blur the line between the two, while each individual chapter slips between multiple time periods and focuses on a different episode from the protagonist’s life. Although the backdrop is the war, the episodes are about the protagonist’s many sexual and romantic liaisons. I never really lost the sense that I’d rather have read the “true” story about the fictional writer’s past than about the misadventures of his promiscuous alter ego.

Nevertheless, the book was engaging enough (and short), and while the protagonist didn’t especially interest me, the women he got involved with did. I also learned a bit about El Salvador, its war and the lives of the guerrilleros. To my knowledge this hasn’t been translated to English, but I think it is likely worth translating.