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Merle

Merle

The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye

The Far Pavilions - M.M. Kaye

Read through page 332, which is only about a third of the way through this extremely long book, and simply didn't feel any urge to continue - I got as far as I did due to reading it on an airplane, where you kind of want shitty page-turners. It's perhaps not quite trashy, but nor did the plot or characters pull me in.

On the Run by Alice Goffman

On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City - Alice Goffman

A very engaging ethnography - as a college student, the author moved to the inner city and spent her time hanging out with a group of young black men often on the run from the law. The book is a good look into how heavy policing affects all aspects of individual and community life. And the author is a good storyteller so it makes for engaging reading. Since she writes about one social network it's hard to tell how representative this is, and I think the criticism that the author herself got in too deep is probably valid. She also contradicts herself a few times. Still, it is worth reading.

The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

The Palace of Illusions - Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Fun, accessible retelling of an epic I'm not familiar with - it's given me a strong starting point; from what I've seen it appears she's quite faithful to the original, only reassessing character motivations. The narrator has a strong voice and the author does a good job making character decisions straight from mythology human and understandable. Rather full of fate and portents for my taste. I wonder what this author's writing is like when she creates her own characters.

A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

A Stranger in Olondria - Sofia Samatar

Beautiful, slow-paced, sad. Linear storytelling makes it a more accessible starting point than The Winged Histories.

Into the Wilderness by Sara Donati

Into the Wilderness - Sara Donati

Fun historical romance/adventure. This is about as close to a romance novel as I get and I enjoyed that aspect of it (though the sex scenes began to get a little repetitive). For some reason, though it is a really long book, I expected it to mostly consist of a huge drawn out will-they-or-won't-they and was pleasantly surprised when that issue was resolved fairly early and the plot moved on to other adventures. However, I am uncomfortable with the author's appropriating the protagonists from The Last of the Mohicans (even though I've never read/watched it) as major characters for her novel; a cameo is one thing, but taking over the life of a character you didn't create feels skeevy. And nobody feels like products of their time, but hey, this is pure escapism.

And it works well as comfort reading. It's adorably PC, and the author clearly loves her creations too much to have any sympathetic characters seriously at odds with one another. Sometimes you just want to read about big, warm, weird families who adopt everybody who wanders in. I'm seriously considering reading the sequel.

Emma's War by Deborah Scroggins

Emma's War - Deborah Scroggins

Interesting book - uses the biography of a young British woman who travels to South Sudan as a aid worker and then marries a warlord as a lens for the history of Sudan in the 1980s and 90s. While the choice of protagonist is cynical, or at least western-centric, the author's research and interviews are clearly extensive; the book digs into Sudanese politics and personalities, who aren't just there as a backdrop for western adventures. Because much of the history is complicated, the chapters focused on Emma's life, or the author's experiences as a reporter in Sudan, come as a relief. This is denser than most journalistic accounts I've read, and so took longer than I expected, but it isn't inaccessible, just not simplified. Well worth the read.

Enrique's Journey by Sonia Nazario

Enrique's Journey - Sonia Nazario

This would be a great book club choice. It's gripping, it's a very quick read despite being nonfiction (large font and generous margins make it feel shorter than its 260 pages), and of course it's about a hot topic: illegal immigration to the U.S. from Latin America. The protagonist, Enrique, sets off from Honduras for the U.S. at age 17, searching for his mother, who immigrated twelve years before. The book primarily dramatizes Enrique's dangerous journey through Mexico - jumping on and off of moving trains and evading corrupt and often violent authorities, who seek to deport Central American migrants to Guatemala, as well as the gangs who prey on migrants. All this makes for compelling reading, and is eye-opening; in the U.S. we have little sense of what people have to risk and endure to enter the country illegally. Nazario also writes about the circumstances in Honduras that compel so many to immigrate - for many mothers, it's a matter of not being able to feed their children - and about Enrique's family's lives in the U.S. And she interviews quite a few people who work with or encounter migrants, adding depth to the story.

So I probably should urge all Americans to read this. But. The writing style is a bit simplistic. The present tense is an awkward choice for nonfiction, and the author has the tendency to remind us of simple facts several times over. A bit more context would have helped too. In introducing her project, Nazario explains she wanted to write about a Central American boy who came by train. But the book doesn't give much sense of how many migrants use the trains vs. other routes, and the focus on the train journeys of Central American migrants leaves little sense of what immigration might look like for the Mexicans who make up the majority of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Finally, while perhaps the story can speak for itself, I felt a stronger policy argument at the end would have been appropriate. Instead the author basically says, "okay, now here are some good things and some bad things about immigration," and then it ends.

I still think people should read this, because if you're going to have a strong opinion about something you should be informed about it. But if you can recommend a better book along the same lines, please let me know.

Gather Together in My Name by Maya Angelou

Gather Together in My Name - Maya Angelou

I enjoyed this more than Angelou's first memoir, which won't be a surprise to anyone who knows my tastes, because in this book she's a teenager/young adult while in the first she was a child. Adults make for active protagonists, while children are passive. So I enjoyed the content more and therefore appreciated the writing more. It's a short, quick read and kept me engaged, though, as in the first book, events sometimes seem disconnected from each other, and Angelou's tone can be so wry and detached that it's hard to tell how the events of her life affected her; when she does write about her feelings, there's often a sense of amusement behind it. I wanted a little more, especially since some of the events are so outlandish they're hard to believe (a naive teenager stumbles into opening a brothel and pressuring a couple of part-time hookers into staffing it? Whaaaaat?). Clearly creative license is being taken - hence all that dialogue that moves the story along so quickly - and I wonder just how much. But regardless, this is an enjoyable book with a strong voice and a fresh perspective.

The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul

The Murder of Halland - Pia Juul, Martin Aitken

Huh. This is a weird novella, from the perspective of a woman whose longtime partner is murdered. I hesitate to call it a mystery novel, since the mystery isn't really solved. The writing is fine and there's some decent characterization here, but in the end neither the events nor the characters nor their relationships made a lot of sense to me, and I wasn't quite sure why it ended where it did. I suppose that's a bit like life. This book didn't do much for me, but it's short enough to read in a sitting if you're interested.

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois

The Souls of Black Folk - W.E.B. Du Bois, Terri Hume Oliver, Henry Louis Gates  Jr.

Note: this is "no rating," not "zero stars."

 

This is actually quite a short essay collection, clocking in at 164 pages in my edition; those hundreds of additional pages are all made up of supplemental materials and literary criticism. I would consider myself someone who loves to read about writing - hence spending time on book sites - but I don't set out to spend more time reading about a text than reading the text itself. And the pomposity of academic criticism makes it difficult to get through, so in the end, I just read Du Bois's text and skimmed a couple of the other pieces.

But that total page count (374 in my edition) is more representative of how long this book will take you, because the writing is dense. They just don't write like this anymore. If Du Bois was alive today, the only way he could get this type of work published would be blogging. But this book was apparently a great success when published, despite not being nearly so easily digestible as we expect today. And it is still quite influential; I finally had to read it because I kept seeing it quoted around in other works. As it turns out, Du Bois's description of the psychological effects of belonging to a scorned minority group apply to quite a lot of people in addition to African-Americans.

There's a lot to recommend this book, from a historical perspective and for its insight into people in general and into race relations in the U.S. It's an interesting work to read more than 100 years after its publication, because on one page you'll think, "Wow, seriously? At least we solved thatproblem," and on the next, "Hmm, that hasn't really changed much at all."

I have a bias for narratives, so my favorite piece was the one short story, "Of the Coming of John." My least favorite pieces were the ones that chronicled the author's observations after spending a short amount of time in some rural place, or that expound at length at an issue that seems obvious today (arguing that black students should be able to attend either liberal arts colleges or trade schools depending on aptitude, vs. Booker T. Washington's campaign to build only trade schools). It's all educational, but some pieces are certainly more interesting than others. I do recommend it - despite being a classic it is still timely - but you'll need some patience. I'm sorry not to have read this in school, since the classroom seems like the ideal setting for it.

Potiki by Patricia Grace

Potiki - Patricia Grace

I enjoyed this book more than I expected. When other people claim a book is a great adventure story I find it too academic, and when others claim it's too academic, apparently I find it to be a warm, enjoyable family story. The first half of this novella develops the life of a family and their small community, before getting heavily into Maori land politics in the second half. That's a wise choice, keeping the story grounded in the characters rather than turning them into props for an op-ed piece.

Granted, this isn't the most accessible book for Western readers, but it clearly isn't supposed to be. The importance of storytelling in defining a community, and the characters' not seeing themselves reflected in the mainstream canon, is referenced several times; this book seems intended in part to remedy that lack. So there are some untranslated Maori phrases here, and there's a certain vagueness around some of the book's events, particularly at the end. But there's also a strong voice, and a certain rhythm to the language to which the reader quickly gets accustomed, which give the book a feeling of authenticity. While I wouldn't recommend it to the casual reader, this would be an excellent choice for anyone interested in the subject.

A Lupita le gustaba planchar by Laura Esquivel

A Lupita le gustaba planchar: [Lupita Always Liked to Iron] (Spanish Edition) - Laura Esquivel

I’m a little surprised that this book has as low a rating as it does – though only a little, since flawed female protagonists seem to draw a lot of hate. I definitely liked this one better than Esquivel’s major hit, Like Water for Chocolate; this book is much more grounded and contains very little romance (both the romance and the male lead in Like Water for Chocolate are incredibly unattractive).

This book makes no bones about being a parable for modern Mexico, with a broken woman representing a broken country. Lupita has had a hard life and coped poorly, and though she’s somehow become a police officer (an explanation would not have been out of place, since she previously served time), she struggles with addiction. Her fragile sobriety is shattered when she witnesses an at-first-inexplicable political assassination, which kicks off the novella.

I found this to be an entertaining book, with a good mix of action and forward momentum with introspection and backstory. Esquivel also brings the setting to life well; a reader would learn much more about Mexico from this book than Like Water for Chocolate. It is quite explicitly political, which isn’t in a fault in itself, as books should reflect life. Most Americans would probably be surprised to learn that Lupita’s opinions about the drug trade – that American consumers are largely to blame for generating demand in the first place – are commonly held in Mexico. However, the book’s solution for Lupita and for Mexico is simplistic, seeming to suggest that a reversion to indigenous beliefs (often explained in set-asides from the text) would bring instant healing of all wounds. An additional couple of chapters at the end could have done a much better job of wrapping up the story.

All told, then, an okay book, and the writing is better than I remember from Esquivel. Still not one I’ll recommend widely.

All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister

All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation - Rebecca Traister

You never know when it comes to books about pop culture and feminism, but this is a really good one! It’s a combination of historical information, interviews with modern women, sociological statistics and analysis, and stories from the author’s life; Traister, an experienced journalist, weaves it all together in a seamless and readable way.

More women are single in the U.S. than ever before – whether that means marrying late, never marrying, or not staying married forever. Single women are nothing new though, and the book chronicles the stories of many of the most influential women in American history, who happen to have been single for much or all of their lives. But mostly the book explores how single women live their lives today, dealing with work and money, urban and rural life, female friendship, sex and dating, single parenthood, and how having been a single adult affects later marriages. The author also writes about societal pressures – how the meaning of singlehood has changed, and the conservative backlash.

I suspect most young and many not-so-young American women would enjoy the read and recognize something of themselves here. The book celebrates singlehood for the opportunity it provides to become independent, create one’s own life and career, and build intense friendships. At the same time, it’s hardly anti-marriage; Traister herself married in her 30s, and credits her single years with making her marriage better. If nothing else, had social pressures forced her to marry young, she wouldn’t have been available when Mr. Right came along!

And it’s probably the most inclusive book about modern womanhood that I’ve read. Rather than being relegated to one separate chapter, women of color appear throughout and inform every section of it. While the book is tilted toward educated, urban women – though as it discusses, single women have always flocked to cities, so the focus is perhaps not disproportionate – poor women and single mothers appear as well. There are no glib attempts to generalize all single women: on sexual choices, for instance, whether you have tons of sex, some sex, varying amounts of sex depending on where you are in your life, or have never had sex, you’ll see your decisions reflected here. Traister interviewed people from all walks of life, resulting in sensitive portrayals and spot-on analysis.

There is the criticism that the book’s contents aren’t new and surprising, and that’s fair. But it would be strange to be very surprised by a profile of one’s own demographic. It definitely kept my attention, and there’s enough solid research here that I did learn some things. While single American women may not find a great deal of new information, this should at least be an affirming read.

Excellent Daughters by Katherine Zoepf

Excellent Daughters: The Secret Lives of Young Women Who Are Transforming the Arab World - Katherine Zoepf

This is an engaging, readable account of a young journalist’s experiences in the Arab world, and particularly the women she met. It’s not as fascinating or information-packed as Geraldine Brooks’s fantastic Nine Parts of Desire, which you should absolutely read if you have any interest at all in women’s lives in the Middle East. But it is fun and informative, a great introduction to the topic. And from her writing, Zoepf seems adept at breaking through cultural barriers to connect with individuals, with the result that the women she profiles sound like people you might actually meet.

Each topic has a different overarching topic and location, with Saudi Arabia and Syria getting the most page time, while Lebanon, the UAE and Egypt get a chapter each. Other reviewers have commented that the book overall seems more “excellent daughters” than “bringing change.” I’d say it’s about evenly split. Saudi Arabia in particular feels static in Zoepf’s depiction, and those chapters mostly cover life as it is, focusing on topics like female friendship and matchmaking (though with some hints of change). Other chapters deal more with social problems and change: the Arab Spring, particularly in Egypt; honor killings in Syria; young women migrating to the UAE in search of work, a practice that would have been unthinkable not long ago. But it’s true that the change that’s chronicled here is incremental.

Meanwhile, the book is very readable, and if you’ve read many stories in the New York Times over the years, you might just recognize some of it (in one case I did, which made me feel great about my memory!), since the book is drawn from the author’s research as a reporter. But it works smoothly as a whole, and though I recognized some of the material, the book never felt cribbed together from articles.

Overall, while this isn’t the most in-depth account you’ll read, it is still a good book. It’s a bit like having a conversation with a smart, perceptive, nonjudgmental and extremely well-traveled friend. I recommend it.

The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro

The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose - Alice Munro

This is my first Alice Munro, and it clearly deserves its literary accolades. It’s a short story collection that follows the same characters more or less chronologically through their lives: a girl and later woman named Rose, and her stepmother, Flo. The characters are certainly believable, and I became more engaged with it in the latter 2/3 of the book, as Rose becomes an adult living her own life and making adult choices – many will disagree with me on this point, but to me there’s only so much that can be done with child protagonists.

So, this is a strong literary book. It’s very well-written, with enough packed into even short sentences to warrant (and reward) re-reading. The characters are engaging, and their decisions and the ways they are affected by their lives are entirely credible. I did not have a strong emotional connection to the book or find myself thinking about it when not reading it, so maybe it wasn’t the best choice for me; maybe one of Munro’s more recent collections would have inspired a stronger reaction. But I’d certainly recommend it to those who are interested.

The Lion Seeker by Kenneth Bonert

The Lion Seeker - Kenneth Bonert

This is an engaging historical novel, and given the quality of writing and characterization I can see Bonert going on to write excellent literary novels in the future. This one falls short of its ambitious goals, but it’s still worth a read.

The Lion Seeker follows a young man named Isaac, a Jewish refugee from Lithuania, growing up working-class in South Africa in the 1930s. Numerous threads follow various aspects of Isaac’s life: his complicated family, his romance with a rich girl, his work – this last is a surprisingly large part of the book, as Isaac is pulled between his own desire to work on cars (encouraged by his craftsman father) and his mother’s urging that he make as much money as possible, by fair means or foul. The social situation of the day also intrudes, both in ways that make Isaac’s blood boil (anti-Semitism) and ways he refuses to acknowledge (oppression of black South Africans).

All these threads are woven together in an engaging way. The style, meanwhile, is on the literary side and takes a little getting used to: quotation marks are not used, and there’s a lot of South African slang. It’s all easy enough to understand if you roll with it, and the local language lends vibrancy to the text. The characterization, meanwhile, is very strong. Isaac is a prick – selfish, none too bright, easily moved to anger and violence – but drawn so believably that rather than spending time disliking him, I was engaged in seeing how his life would play out. By drawing readers into Isaac’s life, Bonert does a great job of creating empathy for him without trying to convince us to like him.

My biggest issue with the book is the way it falls apart towards the end. Isaac does something awful, though understandable given the hundreds of pages we’ve read before, and then the book mostly peters out. He joins the army, which we don’t see, but which is perhaps meant as some sort of atonement, and then he returns home and still is not particularly remorseful, and finally the book ends with little sense of any thematic arcs coming to a close. I was left wondering about the point of many of its threads, especially the romance (which was always the least believable aspect of the book, though at least it ends believably). What is this book ultimately about? It’s hard to say. And for such an ambitious novel, that is an issue.

I’ll also add, even for folks who don’t think of themselves as sensitive readers, that the book includes a couple of particularly horrific death-by-torture descriptions. Honestly, they’re so gruesome I’m not even sure I find them believable. It seems like there’s so much of this out there now that authors feel they have to outdo all other authors for such scenes to have an impact.

Ultimately, I did enjoy this book, and for immersion in a time and place and in the life of a flawed protagonist, it’s excellent. I look forward to seeing what Bonert writes next.