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.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney (Literary / Historical Fiction)

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

What a wonderful book! The novel follows 85-year old Lillian’s perambulation around her beloved New York City on New Year’s Eve 1984/85. Alternating chapters expand on her memories of the city beginning in 1926 when she started as an assistant copywriter for RH Macy’s and continuing through her meteoric rise to the “most highly paid woman in advertising.” Walking is not an unusual activity for the elderly Lillian — she has claimed the ancient Greek motto “Solvitur Ambulando — it is solved by walking” as her own.

The exquisite language — completely evocative of the age — folds in bits of the history of New York, the history of advertising and the history of feminism into the story. Lillian’s stunning rebuttal to her younger colleagues’ endorsement of shifting advertising from clever and witty to manipulative and infantilizing is worth the entire price of admission.

This novel is a love song to the beauty of language, the city of New York, and to Lillian’s idea of civilization. Her true religion is “civility” (see full quote below) and she practices this — and her delicious grasp of language — with everyone she meets: the family that encourages her to join them at dinner, the young immigrant manning his parent’s all night bodega in a dangerous part of town, the night watchman, the young bohemians who invite her to their New Year’s party, and even the thugs who want her money.

Lillian’s character is loosely based on Margaret Fishbeck — the original “most highly paid woman in advertising.” The poems, ads, and two letters are hers, though the story around them is complete invention.

While I’ve listed some of my favorite quotes below, the entire book was filled with language that communicates complex ideas clearly and is utterly stylish — a delight to read and a perfect book on which to end my reading year.
Some quotes:
“For though I was raised Protestant, my true religion is actually civility. Please note that I do not call my faith ‘politeness.’ That’s part of it, yes, but I say civility because I believe that good manners are essential to the preservation of humanity — one’s own and others’ — but only to the extent that that civility is honest and reasonable, not merely the mindless handmaiden of propriety.”

“Then she and I got to work, sprinkling each page of copy, mine and others’, with irresistible little eyedrop-sized points of wit.”

“In the 1950s, when I was freelancing, I was often enlisted as a grocery-aisle Cyrano, a ventriloquist for the new and improved, repeatedly making the case that the way Mother did it was not, in fact, best.”

“The city is dazzling but uncompassionate. It always has been, but I feel it more now.”

“Solutions of style have a greater moral force than those of obligation.”

“A disco rhythm, I suppose. I never warmed to disco — which always struck me as crass yet flaccid, all buildup with no payoff — but rap I like. That’s because of the words, of course, which instead of being chained to some inane melody are freed to lead the rappers where they will, by way of their own intrinsic music.”

“Among the many unsurprising facts of life that, when taken in aggregate, ultimately spell out the doom of our species is this: People who command respect are never as widely known as people who command attention.”

“I’m afraid I’ve arrived unprepared to defend my approach to writing ads, never mind the very concept of professional responsibility, or the practice of simply treating people with respect. Therefore I’m compelled to defer to the au courant expertise of my two successors. Please, ladies. resume the accounts of your efforts to unwind the supposed advances of civilization and return us consumers to a state of pliable savagery. Who knows, perhaps some young lady who watches this program will take up where you leave off and find a way to ease us all back into the trees with the orangutans, who I gather are deft hands at the fruit market. With luck and hard work, perhaps we’ll even recover our old gills and quit terrestrial life entirely.”

“We chat about the things New Yorkers chat about — the constant low-grade lunacy of life in the city — but I am surprised to find, and I think they are too, that our stories emphasize the serendipitous, even the magical. Our tone is that of conspirators, as though we are afraid to be overheard speaking fondly of a city that conventional wisdom declares beyond hope.”

“It went by the name of Radio Row before the Port Authority — that practically paramilitary factotum of the odious Robert Moses — demolished it all in 1966, citing eminent domain.”

“We drift — all of us — farther from the fraught spasm of midnight, settling into the fog of another year.”

Girl Gone Viral by Arvind Ahmadi (YA / speculative fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 3.5/5

An engaging, fun, speculative fiction read blending mystery, politics, and technology in the slightly future Palo Alto, CA.

A Facebook++ VR entertainment platform called WAVE. A father who “disappeared” seven years earlier while working on a stealth startup. A shocking win by a Luddite presidential candidate. It is within this setting that high-school tech wunderkind Opal Hopper (an homage to Grace Hopper?) and her friends start a VR show that goes viral — all based on how people lie — even to themselves.

While the teens get caught up in their instant success and the avid interest of the company that invented WAVE, they are also stressing about college admissions, romances, and a world gone haywire with the election (sound familiar?). Some reasonable discussions about the pros and cons of technology — job losses, fears of a robot president, tracking and privacy loss on the one side and going back to the stone age on the other. At the individual level, there are some good messages about self-awareness as Opal explores her own motivations for doing things that feel wrong in some ways and right in others.

A big theme in the book is “it’s complicated” — and it is! I liked the way the characters kept coming to this conclusion. Nothing is ever as simple and straightforward as the extremists make it sound, and it’s important to face the compromises that must be consciously made.

A well-written look at a future Silicon Valley, America, and world.

Quotes:

“When we make eye contact, he ducks like a whack-a-mole.”

“You look down on people like me,” Matthew finally spits. “People who read and write and appreciate art. Who enjoy irrationality and inefficiency. Who don’t live optimized lives.”

“Anyway. I know how the game is played. Comment sections are less playground, more kiddy pool of pee, and maybe deep down, that’s why I never check them any more.”

“One day, while we were working on a problem set in class, Moyo looked around the room of white and Asian boys, sighed, and turned to me.” You know it’s on us to flip the scripts,” he said. That’s when we promised ourselves that someday, we would build an empire together.”

“It reminded me of how I act around people like Kara — people in your world with power, whose attention you’re almost ashamed of wanting to win.”

“Now, the Luds want to take us back to that old place — where people like us, the coders and the dreamers, are relegated to the loser table.”

“What you tech types need to understand is that humans are the dominant species. We’re storytellers. We don’t just want to listen to perfect stories. We want to create them out of our imperfect lives.” … “So I’ll continue writing my own novels, thank you very much, even if robots might do a better job someday.”

“Smartphones ruined our attention spans. Self-driving cars took away our freedom And now, artificial intelligence and virtual reality will take us the rest of the way in rendering humans obsolete. It will make us ignorant. Weak. This technology you’re building will corrupt us further with narcissism and greed, alienate us further from our best selves.”

“He’s the nerdiest of our nerdtastic unit, an honor we liken to being the tallest giraffe.”

Good Talk by Mira Jacob (Memoir / Graphic Novel)

A memoir in graphic novel form. I had read a great review which never even mentioned that it was a graphic novel — so it was a big surprise to me when I got it from the library! I’m not generally a graphic novel fan — I like language — but I found it to be an excellent medium for this book. Most of the content is in the form of conversations between the author and her son, her husband, her parents, her in-laws, and her friends — punctuated by the occasional “letter” or statement. The artwork provides the context which allow for the content to be more pithy — highlighting the essence in a way that is difficult to do with too many words.

The author is East Indian and is married to a Jewish man. Much (most) of the book is about her experience as a person of color, extending from childhood, through 9/11, and to the current Trump era. The opening chapter features a conversation with her six-year old son about Michael Jackson — whom he loves — and whether Michael is black, brown, or white and which of the three he liked best. A brilliant opening. The closing is a kind of letter to her son about the man she hopes he can become given the current political climate.

For me, her descriptions of bigotry and racism as she struggled to explain them to her curious son were both fascinating and educational. The word “racism” is thrown around a lot these days, and her definition (supplemented by some google searching) helped me understand the difference between them in a way I hadn’t previously. I appreciated the many different examples of stereotyping and the confusion that ensues even when people want to treat others the “right” way. In her life, her own extended family in India found her “too dark” to ever be attractive to a good candidate husband; she stumbles over what to say to the first lesbian she meets; and is given a particular job because the wealthy white woman hiring knows they will have a lot in common because she (the white woman) likes yoga and is spiritual. The author has to explain to her son that sometimes Indian people can be mean to others on the basis of race also, which saddens him because he wanted to be one of the “good guys”.

This is a riveting, well-written exploration of one woman’s experience as a person of color and — due to the graphic format — a pretty fast read!