Barker House by David Moloney (Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 5/5

A set of interconnected stories as told by prison guards in New Hampshire’s Barker County Correctional Facility or “The House.” Each unfolds specific events, though the import of the story comes not from the events themselves but from what they uncover about the life of the person telling the story: a sexual attraction, a fellow officer’s suicide, a softball game between law enforcement branches, the attempted suicide of an inmate, the processing of an accused child killer, etc.

This is way outside of my comfort zone — everything I’ve ever learned about prison comes from documentaries, bad TV shows, and sensationalized news stories. I liked this book because it didn’t appear to come with any specific political agenda — the focus was far more on individual lives. And there were no real stereotypes — each guard is a distinct human being with his/her own motivations, coping mechanisms, and personal context. Some are withdrawn, some mean, some afraid. Many are dealing with their own personal issues while trying to maintain an acceptable demeanor. Not your typical adventure story, it’s all character. It also includes detailed descriptions of typical days in a correctional facility from the perspective of those who run it: the tiers, transportation, property management, and booking. I have no idea how accurate it is, but I found it fascinating and full of depth. Couldn’t put it down.

Thank you to Bloomsbury and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 7th, 2020.

The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay (Literary / Historical Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4/5

A beautifully written book — a kind of delayed coming-of-age story about a naive young women from a privileged class. Shalini grows up in Bangalore with a successful businessman for a father and a manipulative depressive for a mother. After her mother dies during Shalini’s last year of college, she seeks to combat the ennui of a life without purpose by searching for a dimly remembered Kashmiri merchant — a frequent childhood visitor to her home.

As her search takes her deep into the Kashmiri conflict of the early 2000s, a parallel narrative unfolds the details of her childhood. Strong themes of cowardice and courage, misplaced love, friendship, injustice, and the impact of depression on a family weave through the story.

The writing is outstanding with deeply drawn characters and profound reflective insight dappled with (sometimes scathing) social commentary. While this ticks all my boxes, I did find the overall experience to be somewhat depressing, primarily because I didn’t like the main character. She is privileged and guilt-ridden but spends most of the book being too cowardly (her words) to really do anything about the injustice she sees. The story is her “memoir” — six years after the events — to go public about what happened. To me it felt more about her attempt to expiate guilt rather than actually draw attention to things that happened. If the purpose was to highlight atrocities that had been kept under wraps, there was far too much middle-class angst taking center stage; and if the story was about her own development, I wish she had managed to develop a little further.

Having said that, I read the whole quickly, completely immersed in a masterfully depicted world.

A few quotes:
“His whole lanky body seemed to be one nervous tic: his knees bounced, his shoulders shook, his toes curled. But his hand, I noticed, rested quietly on the bulky, complicated-looking camera beside him, as if it were an infant that drew comfort from his touch.”

“I glanced at my mother, but she was unreachable now, offering no clue. It was the single most devastating habit she had, to withdraw, to take back the thrilling gift of her joy as casually as she bestowed it.”

“Was this what made her tilt her chin back and gaze down at you with contempt and say those unfeeling things? This terrible, ungovernable anger, which threatened to sizzle a hole through her veins unless she turned around and poured it into somebody else?”

“She was smiling, but I could sense the loneliness that lay behind her smile, and I could hear, too, the entreaty in her voice, for a woman’s understanding, a woman’s sympathy. And to my lasting shame, I denied her both.”

“I had not expected to like college. I wasn’t sure why. But from the minute my parents drove away, my mother’s hair snapping in the wind, I was armored, prepared to dismiss each of my lecturers, my fellow students, to look down on all of it. I suppose it was, like so many other things, a trick I’d learned from my mother. To keep approval in reserve, to lead with mockery and distrust, for to reveal affection was to reveal weakness.”

“A manic, holy gleam in my eye, as in the eyes of hose ragged, hippie Westerners I sometimes saw around Bangalore, with bare feet and billowy clothes, matted blond dreadlocks, consecrated by their first exposure to yoga and the poor? Prayer beads around my wrist, a curly Om tattooed on my shoulder, and a cache of photos in which I smiled next to a pair of gaunt village women, to whom I would later casually refer, at dinner parties or in bed with new lovers I wished to impress? They have so little, you know, but that just means they’re more connected to the things that really matter.”

The Astonishing Life of August March by Aaron Jackson (Fiction)

August March grew up in the theater — literally. Tossed in a laundry basket at birth by an empty-headed starlet, raised by the laundress who found him, but left him in the theater at night so she could sleep, and educated by a typically vain and pompous leading man (who was the only one to know he existed), August indeed had the titular astonishing life advertised.

A fast romp through New York from the 30s to the 60s, the best parts of the book are August’s classics inspired dialog and soliloquies. He was trained in the theater (never, in fact, leaving the physical building until he was in his teens), and he behaves like a character in the dramas he observed. While the tone is light, there is a serious thread throughout — August craves family and belonging as most of us do, but has never been in a position to find it. He adapts, he survives, but it’s often a lonely existence.

I wouldn’t call the plot realistic in any sense, but who cares? Lots of fun, well written, and featuring a character who, while understandably flawed, forges a strong path through his own life.

Thank you to Harper Collins and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 7th, 2020.

Non-Binary Lives by Jos Twist, et al (Non-Fiction)

An interesting collection of essays by and about non-binary persons. From wikipedia:  Non-binary is a spectrum of gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine — ‌identities that are outside the gender binary.

Most of the authors are living and working in the UK, though a few were from other countries. My impression is that most are therapists and / or gender study students or professional academics.

While a few of the essays proved to be overly jargonistic or borderline offensive (one railed against the “ableist, capitalist, patriarchal, white supremist, cisgenderist dominant society” and another kept mentioning “toxic gender binary notions”), most were well-written and explored aspects of the non-binary gender concept that were new to me. Many examined the intersectionality of being non-binary within different cultures or religions as experienced by (for example) a Vietnamese Confucianist, a Jewish feminist, a Quaker, and an Hispanic. One essay explored the effect of motherhood (via the traditional biological pathway) on someone who self-identified as non-binary.

I was naively surprised by the references to infighting between differently gendered groups. Said one author: “…the phenomenon of self-identified transsexual folk who are vehemently opposed to non-binary as a concept as they feel it undermines the realness of their own identities. The vitriol they express is nearly as bad as the right-wing opponents of ‘gender ideology’ who are freaking out about the end of gender and gender roles.” Another bemoaned the fact that as a non-binary person, they were no longer able to benefit from the many women-only groups and privileges they had been enjoying. They had been happy to be part of women’s theater companies who were “dedicated to presenting lesser-told stories” as compared to the more “mainstream” companies, “dedicated to working their way through the safe Western dramatic canon of plays by dead cishet white dudes,” and were now unhappy to be automatically lumped in with the outsiders.

I’ve been fascinated with the concept of gender and gender fluidity ever since reading Gender Mosaic by Daphna Joel and Luba Vikhanski, and I enjoyed many of the essays in this book. They forced me to examine my own perceptions and actions: Why do I care what gender a person is? Or whom they prefer as a sexual partner? And yet I notice that if I can’t tell at a glance, I spend time trying to figure it out. For some reason I feel I need to know. Does this mean I treat people differently based on gender or simply that I have a great need to keep things categorized in my head? I have no idea!

I do know that I am greatly in favor of more inclusion in society, but not at the expense of other groups. Let’s hear more stories and give more opportunities to previously unrepresented groups — but why is it necessary to exclude people simply because some perceive them to have been part of a “privileged” group? Today’s white, cishet, men should not have to suffer because in the past *some* white, cishet, men benefited at the expense of other groups. And why on Earth would we want to belittle the great works of the past simply because their creators were white men when there were others at the time who did not have the same opportunities? Shakespeare’s plays are still amazing as are the works of Mozart, Rembrandt, and Sir Isaac Newton. Let’s work on making the world a place where we can have more greatness, not less.

I hate identity politics, and I’m happy to say that most of this book was focused more on individual experiences and perceptions than on politics. Worth a read if you’re curious about the concept.

Thank you to Jessica Kingsley Publishers and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 21st, 2020.

All Adults Here by Emma Straub (Fiction)

Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4/5 Writing: 4/5
Engaging novel about the complex family dynamics of three generations of Stricks: Astrid (a 68-year old widow and newly woke bi-sexual), her three adult children, and her teenage granddaughter Cecelia — all in various stages of “growing up.” Evolving relationships between couples, parents and children, siblings, friends, and ex-lovers pepper the plot. Featuring lesbians, bi-sexuals, single mothers, and trans teens, there are strong themes around gender norms, roles and expectations and the impact they have on our lives.

The characters are all well-drawn and interesting, the writing insightful and clean, the story interesting. My only complaint is the (mostly) subtle anti-man feeling permeating the text. All the male characters are stunted, shallow, or dead with the exception of one delightful teen boy … who actually turns out to be a girl in boy-skin (trans). There were even a couple of quotes which were meant to be light and funny, but really are pretty awful:

“It seemed so easy, to cut out the creeps and sexual predators, just by cutting out all the men.”

“It’s always white men, you know, nine times out of ten. It’s white men who turn to violence against their families, against strangers, against the world.”

This kind of thinking is a big problem. Even if it’s true that most violence is done by men (and reducing the set with “white” is actually completely incorrect), it does not at all follow that most men are violent. This is the kind of sloppy thinking and gross over-generalization that brings out hate all over the place. I wish authors would be more careful about popularizing this kind of thought.

That aside, I did enjoy the book. Some very good lines:

“Astrid’s greatest strength, as a person, had always been her iron tear ducts.”

“Any perks were vastly outweighed by the crushing feeling of apocalyptic failure and profound injustice.”

“So much of becoming an adult was distancing yourself from your childhood experiences and pretending they didn’t matter, then growing to realize they were all that mattered and composed 90 percent of your entire being.”

“No one laughed at gorgeous white men. It was a design flaw in the universe.”

“Nicky made marriage look like an art project, and Elliot made it look like prison.”

“Cecelia wanted the Hollywood version of her own life — fast-forward, with wrinkles made out of papier-mache. It was too hard to wait and see.”

“All love settled. Not settling for something less than you deserved, just settled down, the way breath settles in a sleeping body, not doing more than necessary.”

“That was the problem with being part of a family: Everyone could mean well and it could still be a disaster. Love didn’t cure all, not in terms of missed communication and hurt feelings during an otherwise uneventful dinner conversation.”

“The downside of Buddhism, as Cecelia understood it, and also of years of therapy, was that no one ever seemed to think anything was their fault. Everything was always open to everyone else’s feelings, or the ultimate balance of the universe. If the point of life was to let things go, then you never had to be sorry about anything.”

Thank you to Riverhead Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 5th, 2020.

 

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

A compelling story combining a fictionalized history of Sarah Grimke — one the first female abolition agents and among the earliest major American feminist thinkers — and a “thickly imagined” story about Hetty — the slave girl given to Sarah on her 11th birthday.

The interwoven stories are told in alternating chapters by the two first person narrators. The time period: 1804 – 1838. Sarah’s story takes us from the North Carolina plantation to Quaker country to public abolition speaking tours around the country. She and her sister, Nina, were the authors (along with Nina’s husband, the famous abolitionist Theodore Weld) of the pamphlet American Slavery as It Is which influenced Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Hetty’s story — created from the barest of historical documents — tells a story full of the horrors of slavery, including a potential slave revolt (and harsh retribution) populated by figures drawn from historical rumor. Woven through the stories are the interactions between the two women. I loved this summary from Hetty when the two were around 18 and had a kind of friendship:

“People say love gets fouled by a difference big as ours. I didn’t know for sure whether Miss Sarah’s feelings came from love or guilt. I didn’t know whether mine came from love or a need to be safe. She loved me and pitied me. And I loved her and used her. It never was a simple thing. That day, our hearts were pure as they ever would get.”

In all honesty, I didn’t love this book. The writing is good and the story compelling, but I didn’t find any new insights. Hetty’s story smacked of modern sensibilities applied to a horrible situation that has already been described (and often better) many, many times. The Grimke story was more interesting as it was new to me — and the emotional tone was probably pretty accurate given the times and the lack of opportunity for women — but it took a long time and a lot of hand-wringing before anything could really happen.

I want to read books that have new insights or teach me about a period of history or new (to me) cultures. I’d like to move away from noxious concepts such as slavery and the idea that women are incapable of contributing outside the domestic sphere — these concepts are old (and well-documented) news.

Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear (SF)

World building: 4/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4/5 Writing: good but too long for me…

Space opera with an emphasis on how society has evolved across the millenia. A small salvage operation finds aeons old technology and evidence of a terrible crime at the outer edges of the galaxy and have to battle space pirates and corrupt outpost bureaucrats to see justice done. A well-developed, quirky crew: our narrator Haimey — an engineer escaped from the human female isolationist Clade which simultaneously gave one a sense of belonging and an utter inability to disagree; Connla the pilot — born and bred on Spartacus where everyone seems to look and behave like Kirk Douglas; Singer — the endlessly curious ship mind (easily my favorite character); and a couple of cats who … behave just as you’d expect cats acclimated to space to behave!

The best part for me was the many discussions about the interplay between society, government and the individual — freedom vs social controls, right-minding vs brainwashing, human control of AIs vs slave intelligences, etc.  I loved the ability (and sometime reluctance to use) the crew had to tune their own chemistry on the fly and the ensuing discussion about what made a person who they were and how personality was formed.

For me the book was way too long — I liked the world building, the ethics discussions, and the character development, but I got tired of all the science / engineering talk and the action. Which means that if you’re a hard science fiction fan you’ll like this book a lot more than I did. I would say the book breaks down into 25% action, 35% science / engineering / surviving by your wits and tools, 20% discussions about right, wrong, and how to live, and 20% character development. I like her writing style — plenty of insight, good banter, clear descriptions — there was just too much repetition, and I realize that I have simply gotten bored with action! Chase scenes, battles, blah, blah, blah — give me a good discussion on what makes us human any day over that 🙂

Great for fans of The Martian!

Some good quotes:
“The thing picked out in iridescence on my skin looked like renderings of the intergalactic structure of dark gravity.”

“Bureaucracy is the supermassive black hole at the center of the Synarche that makes the whole galaxy revolve.”

“In the face of the unthinkable, there wasn’t much else to do except think about it obsessively.”

“He gazed at me with the sort of interest one reserves for reprieves from the guillotine and similarly refocusing events”

“But where’s the line between right-minding and brainwashing? Or, in the case of an AI, programming for adequate social controls versus creating slave intelligences.”

“If they could, cats would invent full-time full-sensorium VR for all humans everywhere so they could sleep on our immobile bodies eternally. And probably eat our extremities , too.”

“…I got a string of programming jargon that was so far beyond me it might as well have been one of those twelve-tone semi-ultrasonic methane-breather languages that shatter ice crystals and sound like a glass harmonica having a bad dia at work.”

“Maybe I was a nice, safe little puppet of the Synarche, or Justice. Or maybe I was a person who valued community and well-being of the mass of sentient life over the individual right to be selfish.”

“Total freedom for the ones who can enforce it, until somebody comes along and murders them to take their stuff. Slavery for everybody else. Pretty typical warlord behavior in any society, and one of the reasons we have societies in the first place.”

“I was floating near a viewport with my screen and Jane Eyre. It’s kind of horrifying to think of an era when people were so constrained to and by gender, in which the externals you were born with were something you would be stuck with your whole life, could never alter, and it would determine your entire social role and your potential for emotional fulfillment and intellectual achievement.”