The Ghost Dancers by Adrian C Louis (Literary / Multi-cultural Fiction)

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

A posthumous publication by the author of Skins, this is a raw story of Indian life in late 80s / early 90s. Bean Wilson is an educated Indian — a well known poet and journalist. Born and raised a Paiute in Nevada, he now lives and works with Lakota Sioux on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. The events in the book follow Bean, his son Quanah, and his girlfriend’s son Toby. Wilson’s interior and verbalized rants permeate the pages on topics ranging from Indians (and himself in particular) being their own worst enemies to harangues on White oppression. While he tries to honor the old ways, he grapples with alcoholism and his womanizing tendencies. The writing depicts his internal struggles and the male culture in which those are common and even respected traits. This is extremely well done. It’s often crude, but feels real and does an excellent job of fleshing out each of the primary male characters — their experiences, their interactions with friends, family, and those who are “other” and the impact on their personal development. Oddly enough, while plenty of bad things happen, I didn’t find it depressing the way I do most Louise Erdrich books (for example). The tone is not as emotional, or maybe it is just more angry and less hopeless. Perhaps this is because the real focus is on men? The women characters have depth, but the real magnifying glass is on the men.

I have no insight into why this was not published when it was written — probably in the late 80s or early 90s according to the Forward. That was the only frustrating bit — the world was so well-depicted and I have no clue how things may or may not have changed since then.

The writing is powerful, insightful, and supports the complexity required of any real story. Some quotes below demonstrate both the writing and some of the rants. I loved the first line (which is also the first quote) — somehow it just completely grabbed me.

“The Cancerous burrito of Los Angeles summer seemed to have no effect upon the rambunctious innocence of yelling Chicano kids.”

“Bean looked from the two warriors in the painting to the two Pine Ridgers and repressed an urge toward epiphany.”

“America was a cannibalistic society. There was no true freedom in America. The White man thought he was free. The Black man thought he had been freed. The Indian knew he had been corn-holed.”

“…that garish monument to White greed, carved out of the mother earth, gouged out of the sacred Black Hills, and stolen from the Indians despite the treaties promising no intrusion.” (About Mount Rushmore)

“He despised the rhetoric of contrition that AA and its kindred organizations espoused. He despised the self-righteous reformed drunks who made their various programs for alcoholics a large industry on the Pine Ridge reservation.”

“It’s depressing to the max around here. I hate to say it, but you Sioux live like Black people in ghettos. No pride. No hope. Just booze, drugs, and violence. Pregnant teenagers and commodity cheese.”

“And as educated Indians, we know who our worst enemies are. Some of the worst are our own people. They must be re-educated, those that are the rip-offs. And the other bad enemy is the White liberal who lives on the reservation and purports to help our people. They are bloodsuckers. But that is a different matter.”

Thank you to University of Nevada Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 14th, 2021.

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles (Literary / Historical Fiction)

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

On the one hand, a wild adventure story. It is 1954 and 18-year old Emmet Watson is driven back to Nebraska by the warden of the juvenile detention facility where he has served 15 months for involuntary manslaughter. His mother left years ago, and his father just died; the bank is preparing to foreclose on the farm and all their belongings. He is now the guardian of his 8-year old brother, Billy. While they plan to drive to California to start a new life, two stowaways (Duchess and Woolly) from the facility have a different idea. And so it goes…

The writing is — of course — excellent. The narration alternates between Emmett, Duchess, and Woolly, with occasional chapters from a few others. Each character has a distinctive voice as they describe both events and their inner thought processes during the ten days covered. Billy is my favorite character — never a narrator he somehow becomes a focal point for all of the stories. He is earnest, innocent, smart as a whip, and somewhat beatific. Billy doesn’t go anywhere without his large red book — Professor Abacus Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers and Other Intrepid Travelers. This book — which mixes mythical with real-life heroes (all male by the way) in its A to Z collection — serves as a kind of Greek chorus for the action as Billy pores over the pages offering its inspiration to those he meets.

There are many layers to this book, and I don’t claim to understand them all. Well articulated moral themes as interpreted and internalized by our different players. I loved Sister Agnes’ Chains of Wrong doing lecture (which I include in the quotes below) — this book will keep book club discussions going forever. Interesting note: I loved Rules of Civility and yet tried twice to read A Gentleman of Moscow and could not get past about page 50. Lincoln Highway was impossible to put down. One more interesting note: I did find this book a little stressful which says more about me than about the book. It reminded me of the nightmares I sometimes have where I need to get to the airport but things keep happening and then while trying to address those things, other things keep happening, etc. There is an element of that in the pages that stressed me while I tried (in my head) to get our protagonists back on track. My advice for reading — just let it go and enjoy the ride.

A few good quotes:

“Rather, the comfort of knowing one’s sense of right and wrong was shared by another, and thus was somehow more true.”

“Some evidence of that one desire so delectable, so insatiable that it overshadowed all others, eclipsing even the desires for a home, a family, or a sense of human dignity.”

“From a man’s point of view, the one thing that’s needful is that you sit at his feet and listen to what he has to say, no matter how long it takes for him to say it, or how often he’s said it before.”

“One of her favorite lessons was something she referred to as the Chains of Wrongdoing. Boys, she would begin in her motherly way, in your time you shall do wrong unto others and others shall do wrong unto you. And these opposing wrongs will become your chains. The wrongs you have done unto others will be bound to you in the form of guilt, and the wrongs that other have done unto you in the form of indignation. The teachings of Jesus Christ Our Savior are there to free you from both. To free you from your guilt through atonement and from your indignation through forgiveness. Only once you have freed yourself from both of these chains may you begin to live your life with love in your heart and serenity in your step.

“Let’s simply say that my academy was the thoroughfare, my primer experience, and my instructor the fickle finger of fate.”

Thank you to Penguin Group Viking and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 5th, 2021.

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout (Literary Fiction)

Characters: 5/5 Plot; 3.5/5 Writing: 5/5

I loved this deeply meditative book about how much we can really know one another. This is written as a novelized memoir of the fictional character introduced in a previous work — I am Lucy Barton. It felt so incredibly real to me that it’s hard to remember that she is a work of fiction. Here, Lucy reflects on her first husband — William — with whom she is still friendly and the prior and current relationship between them. The “action” takes place a year after Lucy’s second husband has died and William’s third wife has left him.

I resonated with so many of the feelings and experiences described in this book. Strout has a beautiful and apt writing style that captures the essence of what is important in any human interaction — even within oneself. I was often brought to tears — not because anything particularly sad was happening — but because she captured it so perfectly.

A great line:
“Grief is such a – oh, it is such a solitary thing; this is the terror of it, I think. It is like sliding down the outside of a really long glass building while nobody sees you.”

I also loved the last line but I won’t list it here — you need to read the rest of them first!

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 19th, 2021.

The Human Zoo by Sabina Murray (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 4/5
An unusual (and engaging) book — the narrative felt so real I had to remind myself it was fiction, not memoir.

Filipino-American writer Christina Klein (Ting) travels back to the Philippines — ostensibly to write a book about an episode in Filipino history featuring a headhunter tribe’s role in Coney Island’s “human zoo.” A short year after the election of a dictatorial leader, Ting experiences the new Manila superimposed on the remembered culture and practices of her youth, which in turn are layered on stories and experiences from a more distant past as told through her historical research and the stories of her many elderly Titas and Titos.

The writing is fluid and provides fascinating linkages over time and class — her interactions span people with varied backgrounds, living conditions, and political opinions, from her aristocratic family to earnest socialists to those in the current circles of power. The dialog perfectly distills different perspectives and her ongoing reflection gives us insight into her personal journey to understand and evolve her sense of morality in a situation where nothing at all is perfectly clear. It’s masterfully done, IMHO.

As an aside, I learned a lot about Philippine history, although it is a backdrop to the story rather than a comprehensive presentation — 7,000 islands and 182 non mutually intelligible languages!

Some good quotes:

“Morality is the spine of fiction, even if it is most often twisted and deformed.” <— my fav

“They liked microphones and Spam. America’s streets and classrooms had instilled in many a sense of inferiority and in some a seething resentment at being brown in a white world. The Fil-Ams suffered from the shame of otherness, while Filipinos born and educated in the Philippines struggled with disdain for gauche American culture. In the States, we were all seen as being of the same tribe, but it was, at times, a flawed taxonomy.”

“This was to illustrate the colorful ways of the backward Filipinos and justify American’s occupation of the islands. Why exterminate all the brutes when you could display them and make a profit?”

“Inchoy watched me watching the children, and I felt my perspective slowly shift from mine to his: from my joy at the beauty of the children to Inchoy’s perception of forced child labor. He flicked his eyebrows at me to drive home the point.”

“Tita Rosa’s ambush resolved itself quickly: this was Manila and duty presented itself in clear, direct ways. Resignation was the backbone of survival here. Resistance only created anxiety.”

“The results of Gumboc’s presidency are that the poor live in fear for their lives and with reason. Gumboc’s army of assassins operates in a price per head economy and there is no due process. These people are murdered for money as part of a government-sanctioned program.”

Thank you to Grove Atlantic and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 10th, 2021.

Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny (Literary Fiction)

Jane is a second grade school teacher in Boyne City, Michigan. In chapter one she falls in love with Duncan — the town playboy — and spends the rest of the book following an unexpected path through her own life. Each chapter (carefully labeled with the year — thank you!) is a mini-story that captures the essence of Jane’s personal story in that time frame. Story and personal evolution proceed apace with humor, insight, and poignancy as she becomes deeply involved with a set of characters she might not have voluntarily sought out: Jimmy, Duncan’s sweet and intellectually slow colleague; Aggie, Duncan’s bossy ex-wife; and Aggie’s flat out strange husband Gary.

I love Heiny’s writing style — her precise language perfectly captures internal thoughts and external behaviors. Jane possesses a biting interior commentary and the descriptions of second grade classroom life are pointed and hysterical. The characters are real — some times you love them and sometimes they irritate you completely. Good for fans of Anne Lamott.

Some random quotes:

“In fact, she had not only stopped being the maid of honor, she nearly stopped being human and became just a help desk in a giant green dress. She had to tell the caterers to start serving, and direct the florist on where to put the arrangements and the staff which table to designate for gifts.”

“It all reminded Jane that having a baby was not that miraculous. Any two fools could do it.”

“Worst of all were the mood swings. Although, actually, could it be considered a mood swing if it only swung one direction? Maybe it was more like a mood acceleration. Like the needle on a speedometer that whipped straight from ZERO to ANNOYED and stayed there. Because it seemed like the world was in an unkindly conspiracy to irritate Jane.”

“Endless rolling nausea without vomiting, nausea that spun out before Jane like a curving country lane meandering through a hilly green landscape, the end always just out of sight.”

“Jimmy was always there. He lived with them, and sometimes Jane thought that spontaneous adult conversation had fled her life forever.”

“Little insights into the murky liquid that sloshed around in the fishbowl of Gary’s mind.”

“She felt a sort of cellular-level sorrow and wondered if she loved more deeply than other people. Or was everyone else just more mature, more rational? More realistic?”

Thank you to Knopf Doubleday and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 13th, 2021.

The Hidden Palace by Helene Wecker (Literary / Speculative Fiction)

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

The Hidden Palace is a sequel to one of my favorite books: The Golem and the Jinni. Taking up where the G&J left off, we follow the two as they continue their inhuman lives amidst the sea of humanity that is New York City in the early1900s.

The story ranges over fifteen years encompassing WWI, the sinking of the Lusitania, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, and the disaster of the Titanic and takes place in New York City and parts of Syria. Including most of the characters from the first book, we also meet a Jinniyeh (a female Jinni) who is impervious to iron; an orphaned, ultra orthodox young girl who had helped her rabbi father create a golem to fight the pogroms in Russia; and Yosselle, the new golem himself.

I enjoyed many aspects of this book — the portrayal of the characters and their interactions were fascinating — especially between the young girl and “her” golem. The continuing themes of “otherness” and immigration continued from book one with additional examples through various human and inhuman characters. I’m sorry to say that I wasn’t captivated in the way I was by the first book — for me there was too much time spent evoking the time and place through description when I prefer character interaction. Also, the overall tone felt more sorrowful than I remember book one, which is perhaps more realistic, but less satisfying. While book one brought multiple cultures together through these (non-human) representatives, this book felt more like the follow up on a couple in love but with such different essences that they were heading for an inevitable divorce (my impression — not what actually happens). For those who haven’t read the first book, she does a decent summary of the important background and events in the first few chapters.

Thank you to Harper and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 8th, 2021.

Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

Loved this book! Motherless Esme grows up in the Scriptorium — OED prime editor James Murray’s repurposed garden shed — playing under the table as her father and other lexicographers labor over entries for the decades long effort that will result in the magnificent Oxford English Dictionary.

As she grows older and becomes more involved in the work, Esme begins to notice patterns in the words that are excluded and the definitions that lean away from certain interpretations. She begins to collect words — women’s words, bawdy words, words spoken but never written from the poor and illiterate. Her awakening to the world around her via the medium of the constituent pieces of the English is simultaneously subtle and stunning. Spanning and encompassing the women’s suffrage movement and World War I, it is a phenomenal coming-of-age story with intellectual and emotional growth circumscribed on the story.

Excellent writing with detailed and fascinating descriptions of the process of compiling a dictionary from scratch including solicitation, editing, typesetting, and printing. Wonderful characters including Esme, her Da, the individual lexicographers, her Godmother Edith (also a contributor / editor), and the Murray’s maid Lizzie who serves as a kind of mother figure. While Esme is fictional, many of the other named characters are not, and Williams does a skilled job at weaving Esme and her ideas into an historically accurate narrative.

Highly recommended.

Thank you to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 6th, 2021.

All the Little Hopes by Leah Weiss (Literary Fiction / YA)

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

All the Little Hopes is a double coming-of-age story set in a North Carolina tobacco farming community from 1943 until the end of the war in 1945. Thirteen-year old Lucy Brown lives with her family on a tobacco and honey producing farm when she meets Allie Bert Tucker (Bert) who was shipped away from her Asheville mountain home when her mother died. The story alternates between their voices as they rapidly move from strangers to best friends to family. Lucy worships Nancy Drew and wants to be a detective; Bert wants more than the “puny life” she was headed towards back home. They both get what they want when a German POW camp provides labor nearby and men — not the nicest of men — start disappearing.

The story is firmly embedded in factual events and surroundings — WWII on the home front with a beeswax contract with the government; cheap labor from a nearby POW camp and community misgivings; an entire world of German glass marbles and the ubiquity of earned marble skills; purple honey with potentially healing properties; and Shape Note Singing (look it up — it’s cool) as examples. Racial and ethnic stereotypes, segregation, and attitudes are matter-of-factly included without being the focus on the story.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book which is billed as Literary Fiction but could easily serve as YA. It’s a small and local story painted on a big and global canvas that gives insight into young lives maturing under the auspices of war, propaganda, and local culture. Great characters and an intriguing plot as told from the perspective of youngsters who were forced to gather information piecemeal and fit it into their own emerging mesh of internal knowledge.

Some good quotes:

“I don’t tell Bert that sometimes I wonder if Irene’s heart is too small. She isn’t very amiable, and she’s stingy with kind words, like she’s scared she’s going to run out. It must be tiresome being Irene.”

“It’s got bits and pieces that glue me together when I’m coming apart.”

“It ain’t nice to shine a light on the ugly, but the ugly came home with Whiz and sits in our front yard.”

“We’ve crossed some invisible line into the land of beguile, and I feel a power I never knew before.”

Thank you to Sourcebooks Landmark and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 27th, 2021.

Vera by Carol Edgarian (Historical Fiction)

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

A wild coming-of-age story — Vera is the daughter of the Barbary Coast’s most successful (and infamous) Madam (Rose) and is raised by a “proper” Swedish widow (Morie) who lives on that income. At 15 Vera is a “scrawny and sharp-tongued girl” seething with a fervent desire for more: more time with her real mother, more options, more life. And then the 1906 San Francisco quake hits.

With a cast of unforgettable characters deployed across unforgettable scenes, we follow Vera through adventures during and after the quake and resulting fire (which burned 28,000 buildings and 500 city blocks). From Rose’s “gold house” on Lafayette Square to Chinatown to the many encampments for the suddenly homeless (400,000 people), the novel depicts the new mixtures of uppercrusters, corrupt politicians, wandering orphans, and the military with their overrun field hospitals — all adhering to their own sense of morality, loyalty, and their survival instinct.

Real life personalities Alma Spreckles, Abe Ruef, Caruso, and Mayor Eugene Schmitz (the quake occurring on the eve of his arrest on corruption charges) all play parts. The writing is full of details such as the ingredients in Dills cough medicine (chloroform and a heroin derivative). Completely brings to life the time and the place for a variety of characters with different backgrounds. Could not put it down.

Thank you to Scribner and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 2nd, 2021.

The Poet X by Elizabeth Alcevedo (Young adult)

Spectacular book — possibly one of the best I’ve read this last year. Made me really “get” some concepts that I knew only peripherally.

This is a coming-of-age story about Xiomara — an Afro-Latina teenager with an intensely religious immigrant mother and a father who is absent even in his presence. She is “unhideable” with “too much body for such a young girl.” And she is a secret poet who puts her thoughts about family, religion, boys, and the place for girls into her poetry.

The story is a novel-in-verse — told in poetry with an overall narrative arc. I was hesitant because I don’t typically enjoy poetry but this was utterly engrossing. The author was able to consistently distill complex thoughts, feelings, and narrative into a concise set of stanzas of great profundity. Told from Xiomara’s point of view, we see depth in the characters — her mami, papi, twin brother, best friend, potential boyfriend, priest, and the teacher who convinced her to join Poetry Club — through their relationship with her. Incredibly engaging and incredibly well-executed. No stereotypes in this book — Xiomara is anything but — she is always “working to be the warrior she wanted to be.” I was surprised to find that I really liked the character of the priest who was culturally bilingual (able to deal simultaneously with Mami’s deeply religious life and Xiomara’s search for her own way) and thus was able to help Xiomara and her mother come to terms with their different priorities and goals.

I’ve put some of my favorite quotes below — additionally, I absolutely loved the whole of the “Church Mass” poem on page 58-59.

“The world is almost peaceful
when you stop trying
to understand it.”

“But everyone else just wants me to do:
Mami wants me to be her proper young lady.
Papi wants me to be ignorable and silent.
Twin and Caridad want me to be good so I don’t attract attention.
God just wants me to behave so I can earn being alive.”

“How your lips are staples that pierce me quick and hard.”