The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 5+/5
Loved this book — 500 pages and I read it in a day and a half — I couldn’t stop!

A skillfully constructed family drama pulsing with life, love, relationships, tragedy, and personality — yet (thankfully) never crossing that line into the minefield of melodrama. Amina Eapen is a talented photojournalist who fled to the safety of weddings and quinceaneras after taking a stunning suicide photo that led to both massive acclaim and massive recrimination. A second-generation, Indian-American immigrant, this story features some of the immigrant flavor, but primarily throws stereotype aside to focus on intricately drawn individuals with so much detail I feel I know them better than I know myself. The action takes place primarily in Albuquerque and moves between the present (1998) and (well sign-posted) pieces of personal history.

I always hesitate to give anything away because the stories unfold at the perfect pace and you should get to enjoy the uncoiling. Suffice it to say that this is a book about family relationships, concomitant personal growth for all, love and loneliness, life and death. Characters: Amina’s father Thomas, the brain surgeon who prefers life in the U.S.; his wife Kamala who wants nothing more than to go back to India; brother Akhil, angry and ranting until he meets his perfect foil; and their extended families — the biological portion left in India and the even closer family created locally.

The writing is beautiful and manages to be funny and poignant at the same time. One of those books where I highlight phrases on most pages (see samples below). I thought the last line of the novel was absolutely perfect. Some comprehensive and edifying descriptions of the process of creating artistic photography which I found fascinating.

As an aside, I learned about a group of Christians that was completely new to me: Amina’s family are part of the Syrian Christians of India who trace their conversion to the 1st century AD after a visit from Thomas the apostle. This plays only a tiny role in the book but I love a good historical tidbit.

It reminded me a little bit of A Place For Us — which I also loved — probably because both are 2nd generation immigrant family dramas that do not claim to represent the category but are splendidly unique and have that amazing character insight that draws me in.

Some quotes:

“Amina nodded calmly, trying to keep her face from registering any hint of worry, but something in her chest bunched up on itself, like a cat being cornered.”

“It wasn’t that she doubted their love or intentions, but the weight of that love would be no small thing. What would they do with everyone else’s worry on top of their own? Thomas did not weather other people’s concern well. He was not going to be happy with her.”

“Cool, flabby arms squeezed her round the middle hard, more a Heimlich than an actual greeting.”

“A minute later Amina set everything on the counter between them and sat down, instantly more jittery, like there was a panic button on her ass.”

“It resembled nothing as much as a set of monster’s dentures fallen from some other world and forgotten on the dusty side of the thoroughfare”

“Her mother’s convictions that movies continue in some private offscreen world had always been as baffling as it was irrefutable. Whole plots had found themselves victims to Kamala’s reimagining, happy endings derailed, tragedies righted.”

“Like plumage that expanded to rainbow an otherwise unremarkable bird, Kamala’s ability to transform raw ingredients into sumptuous meals brought her the kind of love her personality on its own might have repelled.”

“…she would not destroy another creature’s carefully wrought world. If she were God, she’d be a little fucking kinder.”

“Why is it that fathers so often ensure the outcome they are trying to avoid? Is their need to dominate so much stronger than their instinct to protect? Did Thomas know, Amina wondered as she watched him, that he had just done the human equivalent of a lion sinking his teeth into his own cub?”

“… it was that every part of Paige, from her conscience to her politics to her grown woman’s body, was suffused by an optimism so assured that to stay with her, Akhil had to stop being such an angry dick.”

“Her cigarette had a thumb-tip-sized ash growing on it. She flicked it, stuck it between her lips like a straw, and sucked. A cat with its claws out skidded down her trachea.”

“Why bother? Once rewritten, Kamala’s history was safer than classified government documents.”

“It was one of Dimple’s favorite theories, how thousands of years of obsession with a Christian God in a subcontinent of more dynamic religions had petrified the Syrian Christian community, turning them into what she alternately called ‘the stalest community on earth’ or ‘Indian’s WASPs.’ “

“She hated seeing her own face right next to Simple’s — all beak and long chin and awnings for eyebrows, where Dimple’s was a crisp, pert heart.”

“She imagined all of it gone, undone, erased back to 1968, when the city was nothing but eighty miles of hope huddling in a dust storm. She imagined Kamala on the tarmac, walking toward a life in the desert, her body pulled forward by faith and dirty wind.”

142 Ostriches by April Davila (Fiction)

24-year old Tallulah wants nothing more than to blow her small Mojave desert town and head for a fire prevention hand crew in Montana. However, when the grandmother who raised her dies suddenly and leaves her the Ostrich Farm (complete with 142 ostriches), all bets are off.

Tallulah is a gratifyingly strong character. Coming from a family that runs away from problems — her uncle is a meth-head, her dread-locked mother is constantly on the move, and pretty much everyone she knows is a drinker — Tallulah has to learn how to face her problems, figure out what is important to her, and decide what kind of life she wants to lead. The journey is full of drama, quirky ostrich behavior, and the beauty of the desert.

The writing is decent, and I liked the overall “face your problems” message. I did have some trouble with the attitude towards the addict in the story. He inflicted real, and potentially lethal, damage on multiple people (and ostriches) and yet Tallulah continued to make excuses for him and feel bad for him. I don’t agree with having compassion to the point of relieving people of having responsibility for themselves and therefore allowing more people to be badly hurt.

That aside, a good read, likable characters, and enjoyable ostrich lore.

Thank you to Kensington Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on February 25th, 2020.

Factfulness by Hans Rosling (Non-fiction)

An absolutely, utterly clear book about how to think with Facts (factfully). I was initially put off by the self-help / Idiot’s Guide style structure and cover, but I read it because a friend who is a strong and skeptical thinker recommended it. And I’m glad I did!

The premise of the book is simple — the world is actually getting better in almost every dimension. While there is plenty of work left to do, we should be aware of the progress that has been made and is continuing to be made. We should not sink into despair at the hopelessness of it all.

Rosling is a “possibleist” — he celebrates progress while continuing to work on progressing further. A Swedish physician whose practice and research has extended across the world, he urges people to think for themselves, making use of the (many, many) facts at their disposal. He wants people to be aware of the natural “Instincts” that can make them feel “sure” when in fact they are utterly wrong.

There are ten such Instincts, and each one gets its own chapter. Each chapter starts with a small anecdote, moves on to a definition of the Instinct, proceeds with accessible graphs depicting the real data that flies in the face of the Instinct, and finishes with more anecdotes. The anecdotes are illustrative but not the basis for the facts! Very readable and I found myself constantly saying “yes!” to myself.

Some of the key messages:
• Better does not mean that there are not still problems needing work; just that the issue is improving.
• Slow change is not the same as no change.
• Different countries may currently exist at different levels of progress, but appear to be on the same trajectories. For example, the life expectancy in Tunisia today is the same as that in Sweden in 1970, but is on the same improvement trajectory.
• Continuous insistence on the urgency and utterly dire predictions on every front leads to mass anxiety or inertia, not on anything productive.
• Things change and yet it is easy to stick to “old” knowledge about the way things were when you first learned them.

The ten instincts — all obvious when described and yet so easy to fall into:
• The Gap Instinct: Stories tend to focus on gaps between two extremes; remember that the majority is usually right in the middle.
• The Negativity instinct: Bad news is more likely to reach us than good news, giving us a systematically negative view of the world.
• The Straight Line Instinct: We assume that trends (like population) follow straight lines into infinity; instead, lines tend to bend.
• The Fear Instinct: The kind of things that grab our attention (terrorist attacks, kidnapping) are usually not the actual things we should be focused on. Calculate the real risks and allocate resources accordingly.
• The Size Instinct: One statistic on its own can appear alarming; you need to view numbers in their contexts and in contrast to other numbers to get a real understanding.
• The Generalization Instinct: Pay attention to the categories you’ve divided things into — look for differences within the group and similarities between groups. And always find out how much the “majority” really is — 51% and 98% are both majorities but of very different dimensions!
• The Destiny Instinct: Change may be very slow but it is happening; don’t confuse slow change with no change and no possibility of change.
• The Single Instinct: Look at a problem from multiple viewpoints
• The Blame Instinct: Resist pointing the finger — it’s easy to find a scapegoat and offload the blame, but this prevents an understanding of the more systemic issue and stops us from preventing similar issues in the future
• The Urgency Instinct: A feeling of urgency pushes us to act before any real thinking is done. Things are rarely as urgent as they are presented.

So do you need to actually read this book now that I’ve summarized it? I found the examples and illustrations incredibly compelling, and I would recommend reading the whole thing. It’s a fast and fascinating read.

For some great examples, go to his dollar street website where he has pictures and interviews with families around the world living at different income levels. Completely stereotype breaking:

https://www.gapminder.org/dollar-street/matrix

Loot by Sharon Waxman (Non-fiction)

A thorough and comprehensive overview of the world of antiquities — and the seedy underbelly comprised of looting, demands for restitution, greed, and the occasional ruined life in the name of political expediency. The author does a decent job of presenting multiple points of view fairly, only occasionally throwing in her own opinions.

She focusses on four source countries — Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and Italy — each demanding the repatriation of important antiquities currently housed in a Western museum. As an example, Egypt insists the British Museum return the Rosetta Stone — discovered by Napoleon’s troops in 1799 and forfeited to the British upon his loss in 1802. She also presents the story behind the four major museum targets of repatriation claims: The Louvre, the Met, the British Museum and the Getty.

There is much complexity in the stories. Many of the targeted items came to the museums over 200 years ago. Some were rescued from locals who were extracting building materials, others willingly donated by the head of the country at the time, some the spoils of war and conquest, and others a share of goods under the system of Partage that splits finds between source countries and foreign funded excavations. And others, of course, looted and sold to the highest bidder willing to look the other way when faced with questionable provenance.

The book takes us through a muddle of rationales, explanations, and hidden agendas. Some museum directors and curators point out the lack of facilities in many source countries to maintain and protect such treasures, that the local museums are not secure and ill attended, and that politics and media threats have played a large role in pushing museums to give up expensive works that were gained legally. They also point out that this type of nasty legal attacks will only push artifacts underground — away from the public and into private collections where it is much harder to identify and pursue looted objects. They also point out that while foreign governments are demanding big ticket items back — claiming they were looted — they are doing little to clamp down on modern-day smugglers, preferring to go after the deep pockets and easier targets of large, public institutions.

Read the book to find out more about the arguments from the source countries — after reading the whole thing I come down pretty squarely on the side of the museums. While there are some cases of fraud and obvious theft, for the most part I feel museums come by their artifacts as honestly as they can, given the contexts of the time, and I feel like the source countries are pursuing these objects more for political capital than anything else. I’d be interested in other points of view!

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (Literary Fiction)

Plot: 4/5 Characters: 5/5 Writing: 4.5/5

Brit Bennett’s second novel is just as good, if not better than, her first (which I already loved).

Identical twin sisters grow up in the 1950s in Mallard: a small Southern town that doesn’t even make it onto a map. Mallard is “colorstruck” — a town inhabited by colored people, all obsessed with lightness.

The twins leave Mallard, each for her own reasons. One disappears overnight — “passing” into the white world; the other rebels, marrying a well-educated, sweet-talking, and very dark man . From these beginnings emerge a narrative that spans the 50s through the 80s, extends across the U.S., and incorporates expanding family and friends. It’s an exploration of characters who aren’t completely comfortable in their own skin: a colored woman passing as white; a transgender man in a time predating legal surgical options; a dark child shunned in a negro community valuing lightness above all else.

What I loved about this book was that any dramatic events (e.g. domestic abuse, lynching, cruelty in many forms) were tied to individual characters — how they felt, how they reacted, how their personality was modified — shifting how they made decisions, protected themselves, and made the most of their lives. The point was not the drama of the acts themselves, but how they impacted the characters. The author also embedded the impact of societal trends of the time as well — feminism, civil rights, and many blunt and subtle inequities. I so appreciated that each character was a true individual — no stereotypes — and that no single group was demonized. Each character was both interesting and likable (to me) and I loved watching them develop, learning about their own strengths, disappointments, and fears. The ending was quite realistic — no pat finish artificially tying up all the loose ends — but lives continuing with some aspects resolved and some ongoing.

Incredibly skilled writing — the stories emerge and twine together as each character develops and builds / evolves relationships with others. I didn’t find a lot of quotable sentences in this book as I did with the first — but it’s quite possible this is because I was devouring the book too quickly.

Highly recommended.

Thank you to Penguin Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 2nd, 2020.

 

Afterlife by Julia Alvarez (Literary Fiction)

Antonia Vega: recently and painfully widowed, recently retired Professor of English, of Dominican descent, the second of four sisters with wildly divergent but equally strong personalities. While trying to focus on her Afterlife — “No longer a teacher at the college, no longer volunteering and serving on a half dozen boards, no longer in the thick of the writing whirl — she has withdrawn from every narrative, including the ones she makes up for sale. Who am I? the plaintive cry.” — she is reluctantly drawn into the here and now.

Her eldest sister is behaving erratically and is now missing; a pregnant, illegal, Mexican teenager has shown up at her doorstep and needs help; the local Vermont dairy industry is dependent on illegal labor but with ICE encroaching, her translation and leadership skills are in demand. People keep expecting her to rise to the occasions, and she really doesn’t want to.

The writing is absolutely beautiful, the focus internal. The book doesn’t follow a typical narrative arc — while all of the plot lines progress, the real story is Antonia — how she copes and how she struggles with decisions: what is the right thing to do? who is most important? how does she feel about the decisions she is forced to make? I love that Antonia herself defies stereotype, and in fact, spends a great deal of time considering her own stereotypes — both positive and negative — of herself and those around her. Examples:

“Embodied in a man who could so easily fall into the stereotype where Antonia and friends often banish the Jesus folks, the political right-wingers, the gunslingers and xenophobes. Her own othering of others. Whatever is driving him, Sheriff Boyer’s not going to turn off the tide of meanness sweeping over the country, but at least he’s saved a handful of “her” people from being carried away.”

“Just because she’s Latina doesn’t automatically confer on her the personality or inclinations of a Mother Teresa. It irritates her, this moral profiling based on her ethnicity.”

Her characters have depth and variability and she explores their personalities in different contexts. How much personality is expressed or subdued depending on your circumstance? How is behavior judged externally based on cultural norms for the time and place? Fascinating and very well done.

The writing is wonderful — I feel like I underlined something in every paragraph but here are a few good ones in addition to those above:

“Like opera, farm art is an acquired taste. There she goes again, shoving someone down her othering chute.”

“In their small town, it seems everyone wants to tell Antonia their Sam story. A testament to how much he was respected and loved. These narratives are a kind of offering — to what god Antonia cannot guess. All she knows is that for the moment she is its reluctant priestess.”

“Her sisters are doing what they always do when they depart a scene, parsing the meat off its bones, analyzing, judging, exclaiming over the different personalities, a kind of sisterhood digestive system.”

“Does suffering hurt less if you’re poor? she asked the room full of young students. Only the silent dark looks of her two minority students signaled to Professor Vega that they got what she was talking about.”

“Call her what you want, Mario says, a snarky insolence in his voice Antonia has never heard before. It grants her a rare glimpse of who the young man might be in a world where he could be the macho, wielding power.”

“Into the vacuum of her considerations he would step with his big, clunky certainties.”

Thank you to Algonquin Books 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.

 

2019 in Book Review!

Happy New Year everyone!  I read about 120 books this year, and these are my favorites by category.
 
Literary Fiction
  • A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza: Insightful and intimate story about the intra- and inter-personal dynamics of an Indian-American, Muslim family living in Northern California.
  • Washington Black by Esi Edugyan: Born a slave on a brutal Barbados plantation in 1818, Black becomes a naturalist, scientist, and inventor via circumstance mingled with aptitude and fortitude. The book defies categorization — it is simultaneously a wild adventure story and a personal reflection on a life propelled by both trauma and serendipity.
  • Clover Blue by Eldonna Edwards: Northern California commune in the 70s, 10-year old Clover Blue is a wonderful character. Completely engrossing.
  • Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles: A deep, richly painted, adventure story in East Texas just after the civil war. (avail 4/4/20)
  • Lilian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney: Exquisite language, New York City in the 20s through 80s, highest paid woman in adverstising.
  • Circe by Madeline Miller: A surprisingly engrossing page turner that brings to life the stories of antiquity in a new genre of fictionalized mythology.
 
Historical fiction
  • City of Flickering Light by Juliette Fay: Holllywood during the silent era
  • The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chun: A thoughtful and unusual memoir-style novel describing the personal journey of a female, bi-racial mathematician as she simultaneously navigates a male dominated field and slowly uncovers the truth of her family history.
  • A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier: In 1933, Violet Speedwell is one of the many “surplus” women — women for whom there simply are no men, WWI having depleted the stores. This quiet, slow-paced, and yet utterly engrossing novel follows the 38-year old Violet as she slowly makes an independent life for herself without the availability of traditional options.
 
General Fiction
  • The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman: Funny, intelligent writing, quirky characters, grammar jokes, literary references, and a hidden part of L.A.
  • The Astonishing Life of August March by Aaron Jackson: A fast romp through NYC from the 30s to the 60s. August March literally 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
  • The Night Visitors by Carol Goodman: Perfectly paced story about a sanctuary for battered women and a woman and child show up. Big themes of Justice, Vengeance, Forgiveness. Classic literary references, balanced views. I forgot how much I love Carol Goodman!
 
Memoir
  • Good Talk by Mira Jacob: A memoir in graphic novel form. Personal experience as a person of color raising a bi-racial child up through the Trump era
  • All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung:well-written and insightful memoir about the author’s trans-racial adoption (white family, Korean birth family), eventual reunion with her birth family, and the birth of her first child.
 
NonFiction
  • Gender Mosaic by Daphna Joel and Luba Vikhansi:Completely shifted the way I think about gender. Focus on research and evidence and NOT on identity politics. Based on copious (and referenced) research and clear but comprehensive writing makes everything pretty straightforward.
  • The War that Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan:Unbelievably good. The story not of WWI, but of how the war happened despite everything that worked so hard to prevent it.
  • The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis:Fascinating book about the birth of the field now known as Behavioral Economics. Part biography, part history, part research summary, this is the story both of the evolution of a friendship and collaboration as well as the melding of two previously disconnected fields: Economics and Psychology.
  • On The Clock by Emily Guendelsberger:Journalist undercover at a series of high churn, low paying jobs: Amazon fulfillment center at “Peak” (December), a Convergys call center, and a McDonald’s (located at the corner of Tourist and Homeless in downtown San Francisco).
 
Mystery
  • The Lost Man by Jane Harper: Completely absorbing. Part mystery — part family drama, all playing out in a landscape that is real, but unlike any that most of us know — the remote Australian Outback.
  • The entire Ruth Galloway series by Elly Griffiths — my new favorite mystery writer
 
F&SF
  • Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik: A beautifully done fantasy novel that (as an aside) turns gender stereotyping on its head. A merge of fairytales, with a well-blurred line between the magical and the familiar and an unparalleled evocation of place
  • The Ten Thousand Doors of Januart by Alix E Harrow:Great adventure story! Love, betrayal, and a panoply of creatures, cultures, and “magical” objects that leak through Doors: the thin boundaries between our world and innumerable others.
 
YA and children’s
  • Pet by Akwaeke Emezi: Vivid and visceral — the kind where every phrase says far more than its constituent words would suggest. Strong themes of righteous vengeance against evil combined with realistic and subtle explanations of what people do. Vibrant, powerful writing.
  • All That’s Bright and Gone by Eliza Nellums:A beautifully imagined book about a child growing up and making sense of her (in no way average) world.
  • This I Know by Eldonna Edwards: A luminous voice — a delicate and unique coming-of-age story set in rural Michigan in the 60s.