End of Year Book Reviews

I am, of course, still reading but wrapping up reading for the year as I head into a busy holiday season with my family. It will be my first holiday celebrated entirely in Florida (or without snow!) so I’m both excited to be avoiding the airport and bummed to be missing what is a guaranteed white Christmas up north.

I finished my GoodReads Reading Challenge for the year a few weeks back actually. I am now five books over on the year for an even 80. I will probably add another 2 to that before we hit January 1. I kind of did abysmally on my reading goals for the year so I’m re-thinking how I want to structure next year! I know the first goal out of the gate is to read all the books in both my to-read drawer AND on my Kindle. I am not allowed to get a book from the library until those are read. That will probably take me a few months, to be honest, so maybe by March, I can trust myself in the public library again!

I’m also woefully behind in sharing out reviews of the books I have read so I’m just going to hit the highlights of my fall reading:

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart: I had forgotten how much I love E. Lockhart and her ability to make me care so much about such flawed, and sometimes really unlikable, characters. This book plays with a great unreliable narrator. Definitely a lot sadder than Frankie’s story, I still enjoyed the gray space this story occupied in who was right and wrong in what happens.

The Girl in the Clockwork Collar by Kady Cross: I started out my year with the first book in the series and really enjoyed it. This one was less memorable to me. I did enjoy reading it but I don’t really feel compelled to read the next book in the series and since I have enough other things to read, it’s not getting added to the reading list anytime soon.

Dark Witch by Nora Roberts: This was recommended as a great fall read to me and it did not disappoint. The atmosphere of this book was key to me pretending it was fall in sweltering Tallahassee. The main character was a tad annoying at times but I liked her enough to enjoy the story and also to want to know what happens to the other characters introduced in the book so this series got added to the reading list.

starsaboveStars Above by Marissa Meyer: I really miss this series. I mean, I am glad she brought it to a satisfying conclusion but I really love these characters. This book is a series of short stories discussing the characters either before or after the action in the main three books. It was fun to get some of the backstories of my favorites and I adored the final story where we get a “where are they now?” type story with everyone. I am a sucker for that type of story with characters I love.

Books for Living by Will Schwalbe: I picked up a signed copy of this at his book reading here in Tallahassee a long time back so I was happy to finally take the time to read the book. Books about books are the best. Particularly this type where it’s just like a long conversation with a good friend over tea about books. This was also surprising tear-jerking in parts. The chapter where Schwalbe discusses his experience as a gay man in NYC during the height of the AIDS epidemic required multiple tissues.

Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe by Melissa de la Cruz: This was sadly disappointing at the end of the day. I got annoyed with Darcy. She swung from one extreme to the next too quickly. I also found it hard to believe the character we’re presented with is as successful as she is supposed to when she goes to pieces immediately the second something makes her uncomfortable. The swings were just too much to buy, to the point where she was just really unlikable and annoying. Bingley, however, is delightful as Darcy’s best friend and I liked his romance with Jim Bennet.

The Bookshop on the Corner and The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris by Jenny Colgan: A friend who knows me very well gave me these books for our early Christmas gift exchange. Colgan’s heroines take me awhile to warm up too but they always develop so wonderfully into women I want to be best friends with, I know I need to just stick through the tough bits. Bookshop was such a cozy read! Delightful characters too and gave me the urge to sell everything and buy a book truck (oh, and move to Scotland). In Chocolate,  Anna Trent very much fits into that category of Colgan heroine but is also so determined, you’re rooting for her to succeed before you know it. This book also makes me want to suddenly become brilliant at making chocolate. And move to France to live in a garret to do so. Clearly, Colgan mostly just makes me want to quit my job, move to Europe and do some job I’m not really qualified to do…

52 Cups of Coffee by Megan Gebhart: I enjoyed this read. The audience is supposed to be recent or so-to-be-recent college graduates but I think there is something for everyone whether you don’t know what you want to be when you grow up yet or if you’ve always known and are hitting some bumps on the road.

newsworldNews of the World by Paulette Jiles: A very subtle read. It’s a classic western in many ways but the language really elevates this book. The writing is beautiful in its simplicity and evokes a world that is long gone and we only think we know from the movies. Captain Kidd and Johanna are incredible characters to watch grow to trust each other over their treacherous drive from North Texas to San Antonio.

Belle’s Library by Belle (aka the Walt Disney Company): This was a divine little read that was basically like have a long conversation with Belle about books. So, pretty much perfect!

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A Tale as Old as Time

The first movie I can really remember seeing in the movie theater was Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Belle was my hero. I wanted to be just like her. Adventurous, loyal, smart, kind, able to walk and read at the same time. Bonus? She got that library in the end too! This was before princess culture took over the toy aisles and before Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique was a thing. This was just a heroine who saved the day. I am who I am because I had Belle as a role model and never once has that been a bad thing. I didn’t even realize it could be until college.

I was a women’s studies minor in college and I adored it. However, it was the first time I really needed to defend my love of Disney and the movies. Look, they are problematic at times, don’t get me wrong but I know it’s also something we have a lot of control over in how it effects us thanks to how our world shares it with us. [See my rant a while back on Cinderella and princess culture] My parents never told me “look at the pretty princess who gets her prince, you should be just like that!” No, my dad only ever said, “look, Belle likes to read just like you!” I always felt I could go off and have adventures because Belle did. And honestly, while I enjoy the Beast, I never felt he was really all that necessary to Belle’s adventures. A catalyst? sure! But necessary…eh. I am the girl who went onto write one of her best papers on how men are superfluous in 19th century novels so clearly I had an idea from a young age that princes and their elk were around for plot purposes, not because the heroine actually needed them. And hey, look at Disney movies with that lens and suddenly, it’s a whole different ball game.

But, I digress. I’m here to talk about Beauty & The Beast of which I lately read and/or watched a couple of fabulous re-tellings that I wanted to share. I read a lot of Cinderella re-tellings but not so much B&TB so yay for different fairy tale re-visits!

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Seriously, so gorgeous. La belle et la bête (2014)

La Belle et La Bête is an absolute gorgeous film out of France in 2014. It has been on my list for awhile so I requested it through the library recently and then they decided to purchase it. I do have great taste after all. And then, right after I got it from the library, Netflix started streaming it so you should all check it out! This version stays a bit more on the traditional tale side of things. Belle and her family (widowed father, two brothers and two sisters) move to the countryside after her father’s merchant business is ruined by bad storms and the family’s finances are immediately tanked. Belle loves her new life in the countryside though the family is less than pleased. However, miracle! One ship manages to get back to port so Belle’s father and oldest brother head back to the city to reclaim their good fortune but that doesn’t work out so well. The eldest brother is in hock to a very bad guy (why isn’t all that clear) and her father ends up hunted by wolves until he finds his way to an enchanted castle. It goes on from there. Things I really liked about this version were: the visuals – the movie is yummy to look at and the costume design is out of this world. Seriously, Belle’s dresses at the castle are works of art and I am so impressed she could move in them; The backstory to why the Beast is cursed; The little enchanted dogs; Giant walking statues at the climax of the film; the ending. Also, the relationships in this movie are SO stereo-typically French which doesn’t always come across well to an American audience (I hate you! I love you! Save me! Get away from me! all in the span of five minutes) but I enjoyed them. My main issue with this version is the plot has a few holes in it and lot of plot points aren’t explained very well.

2974811Belle: A Retelling of Beauty and the Beast (Once Upon a Time #14) is actually part of me getting back to finishing up series on my reading list. This installment is by Cameron Dokey, one of my all time favorite fairy tale re-tellers (if that’s a thing you can have a favorite in).  This was quite a decent retelling of Beauty & The Beast. I liked the woodcarving Belle in this adventure and the idea that the name is more of a curse than a blessing when her face does not live up to the promise of the name. I liked the evolution of the family here as well; much closer to the original story where Bell has two sisters but this version redeems her sisters in ways the original tale did not.

I had read Robin McKinley’s Beauty a long while back but she wrote another B&TB re-telling and I only just now got around to it. Rose Daughter is a lovely rendition of the original story. I liked the emphasis on description over dialogue; much more in keeping with the original fairy tale tradition. The sisters especially were wonderfully rendered and their relationship very much the core of the story over Beauty’s relationship with her father and even to some extent, the Beast. The only thing missing from this version was a good library but I liked the idea of Beauty as a gardener as something new that made perfect sense. Indeed, this book would have fit perfectly into a widening of my thesis in college – the idea that a fairy tale heroine is much stronger when surrounded by a network of supportive and strong females.

Indeed, you get a glimpse into how we re-imagine our heroines in all these versions. Belle as a bookworm, as a woodcarver, as a gardener. As someone who is brave and strong for her family even when she is placed in impossible situations and asked to do impossible things. I think that is something I appreciate more and more about fairy tales each year; they are infinitely malleable to times and places and never seem to cease having tales to tell us in new versions. And surely, Beauty and the Beast will remain a favorite.

 

The Girl with Silver Eyes

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From Goodreads, modern cover

Recently, I treated myself to a bit of a belated book spree on Amazon. I’d been hoarding a gift card balance from Christmas and my birthday. I like to keep a balance for ebook purchases but I’d also been waiting for a move to be done before picking some books off the long to-buy list (not as long as the to-read list so that’s a good thing for my wallet).

A while back, I’d added a book from childhood to the list. I have a small collection of my childhood books. The ones I’ll re-read periodically or the ones I’m going to force down my nieces’ and nephews’ throats when they come to visit someday. However, there were a few glaring omissions. One of my latest acquisitions was a big one and I know why I didn’t own it. It’s actually one I found through school.

Most of the reading I did early on for school wasn’t my cup of tea. I was often bored because the books were too easy or I didn’t care for the characters. This all started to change in 5th grade. Mr. Clark wasn’t the sort of teacher I’d encountered before and I adored his class. We dissected owl pellets, cows’ eyes and a sheep’s brain that year. Went to the swamp for our class trip. Fostered baby snapping turtles and very happily called Mr. Clark’s Florida King Snake Blackie as we wore him around our necks. Science was big in his classroom and it was the first time it was a real focus of my schooling that I remember. With Mr. Clark also came some very cool science fiction books. When I recently posted about picking up a copy of The Girl with Silver Eyes, a classmate from that year said that was the teacher that led to her love of science fiction and fantasy and I would have to agree. This book and the White Mountain trilogy were like gateway drugs and I happily fed the newfound addiction with Bruce Coville’s Magic Shop books and Dinotopia that year too. Overall, 5th grade was a great reading year. Except for Where The Red Fern Grows but I have blocked that one out completely…not. I am still traumatized. Animals in peril. Enough said.

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From Goodreads, cover I remember from 5th grade (love the attitude Katie has going here!)

So, what is The Girl with Silver Eyes? For starters, it’s not a trilogy. Ten bucks says if it was written today, it would be. It’s also not preoccupied with world building; it’s completely character driven in a normal suburban setting. It’s the story of Katie, a very quiet, very shy not quite 10 year old who has silver eyes. And can move things with her mind. And talk to animals. In short, Katie is awesome and a bit of a spirit animal to my 5th grade self. As the book begins, Katie has just moved into an apartment with her mother after her grandmother passed away. Katie’s powers start to cause problems and brings the interest of a new neighbor on her head, a new neighbor who is not what he seems be at first glance. Also, Katie’s figured out why she has silver eyes and that maybe, just maybe, there might be other kids like her out there. But how to find them?

So, to start with, this book holds up really well even though to some extent, this book could not exist today. A lot of the tension and pages of this book owe itself to the fact Katie couldn’t simply Google the other kids’ names once she finds them. Also, a lot of it runs on the idea of the telephone in a way we just don’t worry about anymore. Katie has to stay in her apartment to wait for phone calls. Think about that. Still, the idea behind the story is still solid and I sort of love that the book has a bit of an ambiguous ending. Like I said above, today the book would probably be a trilogy and have some odd love triangle develop along with lots more details about the shadowy Psychic Institute introduced in the end but here, we’re left with this idea that Katie is going to be OK…we think. A kid can make up their own ending and I think we don’t do enough of that in kids’ science fiction and fantasy today (and I cannot believe I am writing that as I am one of those people that loves every little plot line wrapped up in the end usually).

So, in short, I still love this book and hope it’s still being shared in some way with kids today. If nothing else, I kept trying to think through how the story might change in a 2017 setting and realizing I’d still really like to be Katie, silver eyes and all.

Reading Catch-Up

Time for some drive-by book reviews to get you all caught up on my reading since the last one.

The Oracle of Stamboul by Michael David Lukas: It has been awhile since I read this one but I remember liking it. I especially enjoyed the setting; the touch of magic surrounding all the characters and the setting of the romantic Istanbul does a lot to save a sort of convoluted plot.

Maud’s Line by Margaret Verble: [This is excerpted from my Goodreads review and I still agree with it all] Ugh. So, this book and me did not get on. First of all, I know I am coming from a place of white privilege and do not have the same fear of authorities that minorities, particularly Native Americans in 1920s Oklahoma, rightfully have but ugh, Maud needed to trust someone, ANYONE. I found it extremely annoying. If she would have just been honest with a lot of people, she would have been better off. The story is not boring and moves along at a good clip. In fact, it is packed full of action. The author’s similes are a bit much at times; so much so they could bring me out of the story as they were quite jarring but I think that must be the cadence of the language of the area she’s bringing in. Not having visited Oklahoma, it was an area and a culture I was very unfamiliar with. So, I think that was also a sense of my discomfort with the story and its characters. It was very foreign to me, the distrust of authority, the scheming on Maud’s part and then her ability to know what she should do and not doing it anyway, the rather dreary setting and the way the very landscape seems to be driving people crazy. Maud and I agreed on one thing; she needed a change of scene. She was not a comfortable character but rather infuriating. And when it’s her story, it’s hard to get past that.

Ink and Bone (The Great Library #1) and and Paper and Fire (The Great Library #2) by Rachel Caine: This series gets better with each book. I enjoy every character and it’s been awhile since I could say that about a book (or books). The idea for the series is also delightful and the world building is spot on. I do have difficulty when the big bad represents something I generally adore (libraries, books, knowledge) but I like that the whole idea of the series is exploring what happens when the desire to protect such things comes at too high a cost, with too much control over the very thing you’re trying to protect that you subvert its ideals.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger: A good mystery made more compelling by the coming of age story at the center of it. The brothers Frank and Jake make for excellent guides through a turbulent summer in small town Minnesota.

We Have No Idea: A Guide to the Unknown Universe by Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson: Really enjoyed this read; made difficult physics questions easy and fun to understand. Not that I still always understood but I definitely followed better than I did in my high school physics class all those years ago. I enjoyed the partnership between the text and the drawings as well as the type of humor. I’d recommend for someone like me who is curious but not always very good at following high concept science but also for someone a lot younger who hasn’t encountered a physics class yet. I think this would make a great companion for someone taking a class right now too.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren: Second time the charm! Happy I got this back from the library fairly soon after I had to return it and go back on the waiting list (the first time I got it out, I didn’t have time to finish it!). I really enjoyed this memoir. The science interspersed with Jahren’s stories makes for a very interesting and compelling read. While it doesn’t sound glamorous in any way, it does make you want to be a scientist. Or at the very least go plant something after you’re finished reading it.

Letters to Zell by Camille Griep: As always, I enjoy a good fairy tale retelling. This one was a lot of fun to read. The premise was great to begin with and I love a good book of letters but I think this book surprised me a bit too. I think a lot about what happened after the “happy ever after” (it’s a hobby) and this is one of the more compelling and interesting takes on it. It’s a bit of Shrek meets chick lit in many ways which works better than you’d think.

Reading since January

I have been reading. I promise. Lately I’ve been feeling the need for historical romances as chasers for some heavier fiction. Being part of a book club has changed my reading habits more than I expected so I’m still adjusting to the fact I have this one book each month that is not of my choosing. I’m enjoying them; they just aren’t often quick reads. They need to be read slowly and thought over, mulled if you will, so I have something to say about them when I sit down to informally lead a discussion on it. So, let’s take a look at what I’ve been reading since I started the year with Austen. [You will note none of these go towards my reading goals really…I need to re-group on that set of goals one of these days…]

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Cocaine Blues (Phryne Fisher #1): I discovered Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on Netflix late last year and it was the best find ever. I was happy to discover they were books first and my delightful friend got me the first one for Christmas. While the book was lovely, I am going to say something that pains me a bit…I like the TV series version better. I know! For shame! But the series does a few things with what is a solid story base and the makings of a fabulous characters that make it that much better. 1) It cast perfectly – seriously, the TV series was almost too perfect in picking actors to enhance the makings of the characters in the book. And it edited them well too – taking some roles out and attributing them to other more prominent characters. It could also be over the course of the book series this happens as well but the TV series hits you with them 10 minutes in. 2) It takes everything on page and fleshes it out more. Which is odd because you usually have the opposite problem with film adaptations but this is a relatively short book with some odd choices in it. The series edited it perfectly; adding where needed, removing some of the odder choices. It’s one downfall might be it made all the “hero” characters a lot more likable than they come across in the book sometimes. I will be interested to keep reading to see how they continue to compare but for the moment, the TV version is winning this series.

As Old as Time (Twisted Tales #3): ** spoiler alert ** I am enjoying the Twisted Tales series from Disney. I missed the second one somehow but they are really stand alone stories, just in the same vein of storytelling. Besides, Beauty and the Beast is a personal favorite so clearly this was a must read for me. This particular retelling played well with the original story, having that pivotal moment again where the book begins to deviate from the movie we all know so well. In this tale, it is the moment of Belle and the rose in the West Wing. In the movie, she is stopped before she can touch it; here, not so much and so sets off the adventure. I liked this version of Belle; she is the one you recognize but also a bit like you would probably be in her shoes. The talking furniture freaks her out, she calls herself out when acting too much like a gothic heroine and is, quite rightly, not perfect. She sticks her foot in her mouth with the Beast as often as he loses his temper. I also liked that this story focuses as much on Belle and the Beast as it does on Belle’s mother and father. For the first part, the two stories are actually told in parallel and well the changes are sometimes clumsily wrought (the forgetting spell is convenient but doesn’t play out 100% well and Gaston is…well…not the villain here so I can forgive the changes there but they are kind of just weird in the end.) Overall, I liked this re-telling of B&B and I liked that it left the door open for more adventures of Belle and the Beast as they head off to find more of the displaced magical creatures.

The Complete Stories: I picked this up when I was in Savannah last fall at one of the most swoon-worthy bookstores I’ve found in a while in my travels. Flannery O’Connor is one of those 20th century authors I actually rather enjoy. I remember thanking heaven for Wise Blood in my contemporary American lit class as it was one book I enjoyed out of many I loathed. However, it took me awhile to get through this collection. Her stories are lovely but can be a lot in one sitting. I needed to pace myself to enjoy her language and quirky plot twists. These are never fun to read; it is language you read O’Connor for and that particular brand of Southern Gothic no one does better.

Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World: [I read an uncorrected proof via Edelweiss so some issues I had with this one are probably fixed in the published copy.] I both liked this and found it extremely annoying at the same time. I think a lot of it had to do with the formatting and I hope once this is actually published there will be better indicators to the readers when Stevens is switching between her narrative, one of her short stories, and the unfinished novel she’s working on because I spent a lot of pages figuring out which one was which a lot when reading. That said, I liked the disjointedness of the narrative (which surprised me), I just want a better marker for when the narrative is switching up. The author herself can grate a bit. She’s very much what you think of when you think “twenty-something rather insecure MFA graduate working on first novel.” But she is incredibly honest (or seems to be) and I cannot but applaud that sort of raw honesty about one’s self. She can be annoying, whiny, and unlikable and she doesn’t sugarcoat that. She also isn’t hiding her failure here and I liked that best of all. She is very clearly writing an entire book about this really weird and rather foolish idea she actually acted on and then failed at pretty spectacularly. I think she is strongest when it’s her narrative; I found the fiction she includes of that sort of pretentious overly sexual blather that MFA programs are churning out by the literary review full and I find utterly ridiculous and boring most of the time (because do you know the people in those stories? I don’t and I don’t want to either). I read this for the premise; the idea of a writer going off to live in the middle of nowhere and Nell Stevens delivered beautifully for that part of the story.

The Never-Open Desert Diner: I liked this novel but I’m not entirely sure I could tell you why. I liked the characters; as weird and rather unlikable as they could be. I liked their quirkiness. I loved the setting of the book. The desert is as much a character as its human counterparts and it made me want to go explore middle of nowhere Utah someday. The plot…is odd. About halfway through the book, the plot becomes even weirder than the characters involved and I’m not sure I really buy it in the end but I also don’t think the reader gets the full story so there are still a lot of blanks when you read the last page. It fits the story though so didn’t bother me as much as it normally would.

The Underground Railroad: This is as good as everyone is saying. You need to read it. Heartbreaking and yet inspiring to read. Cora is a character with a story who stays with you long after you finish the last page. I have nothing more to add, just go read it ASAP.

Orphan Train: I really enjoyed this read; I particularly liked the structure which is odd because often in a split narrative like this I prefer one storyline over the other but I liked both stories equally here and thought they complimented each other incredibly well. Both Vivian and Molly are strong, relatable heroines that you root for throughout the book. I also liked learning more about this odd little episode in American history and its after-effects on the generations that followed the orphan trains in the American midwest.

I have a stack on the bedside table at the moment (of course). I am about halfway through The Oracle of Stamboul and have Maud’s Line and Lab Girl on deck then it’s back to working on the books in the to-read pile before then getting back to my reading goals for the year…oy. I need more time to just read!

Last Minute Drive-By Reviews

I am feeling like I usually did right before winter break in school. Anxious to get things done, excited for what is coming and really unmotivated to do the before said work. It’ll get done but I’m not moving very fast on it. I’ve done my yearly round-up of reading on Goodreads already and I did pretty good on my goal to finish series this year. I started with a pretty hefty list and I have only 24 books I didn’t get to. Considering I deviated periodically and also added books onto the list for a series I wanted to continue, I did pretty well for myself! I’ve also knocked two more out since I last did reviews so onwards:

Silent in the Sanctuary (Lady Julia Grey #2): I liked this book better than the first in the series. You get a really good look at Julia’s kooky family in all their glory here and it is hilarious. I laughed out loud quite a few times which isn’t something you expect to do in a murder mystery. I also liked the ambiguity of right and wrong in this book which again, is not something I usually like. I prefer when my fiction is uncomplicated however here, one of the culprits gets away free as a bird and commits another murder we learn much later. Yet somehow we’re OK with that within the framework of the narrative; those people could technically have deserved to die because of information we have. I think the name Grey is a good moniker for more than one reason for Julia and her series. Also, Brisbane, the series’ reluctant hero, continues to be annoying and delightful at the same time.

Charmed (Fairy Tale Reform School #2): As my Goodreads review put it “Gilly hon, that was a bit rough at times but believable. Just glad you remembered your friends in the end!” This suffered a bit, as series do, from some growing pains. However, a more delightful cast of misfits you’d be hard pressed to fit in middle grade/YA lit right now in my opinion. Our (mostly) reformed students all earn their freedom from school in the end of the story but the epilogue assures us that is really only temporary as they’re so easily bored…

An Inquiry into Love and Death: the author Simone St. James is very good at evoking a ghostly atmosphere in her books. I liked this one a bit better than The Haunting of Maddy Clare. Jillian is the sort of heroine I enjoy; smart but human. She puts together the pieces just as fast as the reader and is as scared as the reader is when the ghosts are present as well as the very human villain. What I enjoyed and found ironic is the reasons behind the villain’s actions are villainous to some extent because he believes World War II is inevitable and the heroine thinks that is impossible. That the world would never go to war again. It is both charming and sad to know what is headed for Jillian. Oh, and she has a pretty fabulous hero (but only in fiction; in real life, he would be as big a jerk as he says he is).

Delicious!: This book was a delightful read, and I read it fast. It has so much good food! I was so hungry reading it! That said, it wasn’t perfect. It’s, quite rightly, separated into 3 “books” inside it and maybe was trying to juggle a lot of plot, a lot more that it could handle at times. It also had a borderline annoying heroine. You know, one those absolutely perfect, talented beautiful heroines who thinks she isn’t even though everyone is constantly telling her she is. They get worrisome after a while. But the story is good enough to work through that in my opinion.

Homegoing

Evil begets evil. It grows. It transmutes, so that sometimes you cannot see that the evil in the world began as the evil in your own home.

I relate to the world through books. In light of the recent election, I’ve tried to figure out what to read to help me understand what happened. As I bulk up my reading list with political treatises, calls to action and historical reviews, this book was already on my nightstand. It was the book for discussion at my library’s book group this month and it was perhaps more timely than expected when selected over the summer.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi tells two parallel stories of a family tree starting in Ghana; one sister is sold into slavery and taken to the American south, the other sister is married off to a white colonialist in their native home. Each chapter tells the story of the next generation until at the end when the two branches of the family tree meet again in “current day” to bring the story full circle.  The timing of the novel is a bit off (I stuck to thinking about each chapter as taking place in a vague time period and not worrying if characters were still alive that probably should not have been) but I think Gyasi wanted to make sure certain generations were in place for certain events such as Birmingham coal mining by prisoners and the unionization of the mines later in the South or in Ghana, the conflicts of colonialism over time as well as the overarching evil of slavery that threads through both storylines. The stories are all powerful (some stronger than others as often happens when your chapters are basically vignettes that could stand on their own). I would also note Gyasi is strongest in her African chapters; her American chapters could sometimes feel like they are out of Hollywood’s central casting. I did wonder a bit if that may have been slightly intentional; that she was using the stereotype as a sort of shorthand and that the reader could then fill in the character blanks as a sort of self-examination. But that could be years of readers’ response theory rearing its head.

For me, the American chapters definitely held up an ugly mirror. For one, several are set in Harlem, in the north. In fact, the family is part of the Great Migration of African American families to the north during the early 1900s. Now, in school, growing up in the northeast, I think we’re taught a quiet sort of pride in that. We were “better”; we weren’t “racist” because African Americans could make a life for themselves in the North. It is a way, I see now, we comfort ourselves. The north could be, often was, just as bad. I liked that Gyasi did not sugarcoat Harlem of the 1920s. The lead character in that chapter wanted to be a jazz singer and was told continually she was too dark to make it big, no matter her talent. Her husband, light skinned enough to pass as white, leaves her and starts a family with a white woman. It made me reflect on how I was taught about African American history growing up in a almost all white northern suburb. I definitely had guilt and shame but was comforted again with this idea that we were “better” than the south. Later history classes corrected me on that and Gyasi makes a powerful statement about it here by illustrating it but not overtly addressing it. In light of recent events, I think perhaps the comforting message of high school history class had stuck with me more than I thought. I also find, living in the south now, that I cling to my northeastern identity more and more. In a sense, willfully other-ing myself at times as a comfort. Gyasi doesn’t let you do that in this read; we are all culprits. We all allowed this to happen and we are all tainted by the history of slavery and what it led to, both in the Americas and in Africa.

Gyasi is also touching on other aspects;  I think she is saying some powerful things about masculinity, both white and black. A particularly heartbreaking chapter features a gay man deciding to follow the standard path open to him; marrying the woman his uncle arranges for him. She touches on social class and how that intersects with race and gender as well. From an artistic perspective, she’s also just telling a fascinating story of one family and its parallel branches and doing it with lyrical language. Her African chapters especially paint a vivid picture of the time periods she is capturing. The book very helpfully comes with a family tree in the front so the reader can keep track of where in the family they are as the book progresses.

While I have been adding lots of non-fiction to my reading list lately to help me understand our new world, this book reminds me why fiction is always my favorite. It can bring to light the world we inhabit in much truer ways sometimes that simply recounting the facts.