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.”

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (Literary Fiction)

Fantastic book! Jennifer Egan’s writing is extraordinary. This was an audio book — not my preferred reading mechanism, and it just about killed me not to be able to write down the many, many, (many!), amazing lines.

This story is a whole set of interlocking vignettes that rocket backwards (and sometimes forwards) in time from two main characters: Bennie and Sasha — a record executive (and former punk rocker) and his (somewhat kleptomaniac) assistant. Real in-depth characters with surprising cameos in each other’s stories, the later impact of chance meetings, and plenty of odd “where did they end ups.” The stories pan across time and space — from New York City to the high desert to unlabeled countries with genocidal generals — with music and / or the music industry playing a major or minor role.

All the tales have one thing in common — the impact of time. Every one of the characters is trying to figure out — how did I end up here? How did this happen? One thing they all agree on — “Time’s a goon.”

Jennifer Egan is the best — I have to go back and find out what else I have missed.

Writers and Lovers by Lily King (Literary Fiction)

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

A sharply observed tale of a writer’s tumultuous journey.  31-year old Casey Peabody is the very definition of a struggling writer — deep in debt from student loans, living in near-squalor, and six years into her “Great American Novel.” Her mother’s sudden and recent death coupled with a devastating breakup have left her with debilitating panic attacks and general anxiety. Making it through each day is not a done deal.

So what makes this book worth reading? For me it’s King’s writing and her ability to meticulously document every aspect of this character’s experience — both personally and as a writer. In many ways, it was hard for me to read about Casey — because we really don’t know her that well, we also live the stress of not knowing if she will be able to get through this period (I’m going to cheat and tell you that she does get through it). In other ways, though, Casey is such an appealing character — her insights and experiences as a writer are fascinating, as are her thoughts about books, teaching literature, and literary criticism. I particularly enjoyed the details of a writer’s workshop near the end — her engagement with the exercises were intriguing.

I love her writing — I felt like I was highlighting every other line. The opening paragraph was perfect — it set the stage and drew me in with just few short lines:

“I have a pact with myself not to think about money in the morning. I’m like a teenager trying not to think about sex. But I’m also trying not to think about sex. Or Luke. Or death. Which means not thinking about my mother, who died on vacation last winter. There are so many things I can’t think about in order to write in the morning.”

A few more great quotes:

“I look back on those days and it feels gluttonous, all that time and love and life ahead, no bees in my body and my mother on the other end of the line.”

“It’s like a dream, the way they transform from sloped strangers, a man with a crackled bald spot and a woman in a gold jacket, into my father and stepmother.”

“Bob chooses this moment to put his hind legs through his front legs and produce a soft tan coil of poop at the base of a Japanese lilac.”

“I didn’t much like the writers Paco did, men who wrote tender, poetic sentences that tried to hide the narcissism and misogyny of their stories.”

“I should be wary of the guy who locks in too soon. It’s a sort of premature commitulation.”

“There’s a particular feeling in your body when something goes right after a long time of things going wrong. It feels warm and sweet and loose.”

“All problems with writing and performing come from fear. Fear of exposure, fear of weakness, fear of lack of talent, fear of looking like a fool for trying, for even thinking you could write in the first place. It’s all fear. If we didn’t have fear, imagine the creativity in the world.”

“Admire me. Admire me. Admire ‘judge’ and ‘courthouse’ and ‘seven sharp.’ I don’t like myself around Adam. I don’t think he wants me to.”

“The bees in my chest stir. A few creep down the inside of my arm. One conversation can destroy my whole morning.”

“I love these geese. They make my chest tight and full and help me believe that things will be all right again, that I will pass through this time as I have passed through other times, that the vast and threatening blank ahead of me is a mere specter, that life is lighter and more playful than I’m giving it credit for.”

Thank you to Grove Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 3rd, 2020.

The Boys Who Woke Up Early by A.D.Hopkins (Literary / Historical Fiction)

Great historical fiction — peppered with the kind of details that say someone actually lived this story (or something close to it). Most historical fiction can’t help but overlay modern sensibilities on the story, but this one feels completely embedded in the time — from action to dialogue to thoughts.

Thomas Jackson “Stony” Shelor is a high school junior in small town Early, Virginia. His first-person account describes his experiences from Sept. 1959 through Sept. 1960 — working “for free” in the sheriff’s office, getting into trouble with town bullies, hankering after a girl who knows her own mind, and befriending the somewhat crazy new kid in town. This is all amidst much bigger events: massive black voter registration and the resulting Klan rallies; the (very) slowly shifting attitudes of whites towards blacks; and the fine line a good sheriff has to tread to work with corrupt elected officials and still try to keep a town lawful and safe.

It reads like good journalism — no surprise as this is the debut novel of a 46-year veteran journalist. I had forgotten how much I like a real story — not overburdened by excess angst, overly bold characters, and well-defined narrative arcs that bear little resemblance to reality.

I love the way the clean writing describes both the action and our narrator’s perceptions, reactions, and evolving opinions. He does some (to me) stupid things but we are treated to a real understanding of how his worldview and principles led him to those actions. Billed as a YA novel (the main character is 17), for me it was much more a documentation of a particular time and place as experienced by someone growing up in that time period. A nice juxtaposition of history and personal development.

As an aside, lots of interesting details about things like learning to shoot and care for firearms, working at a sheriff’s office, a garage or an apple orchard. Just enough detail to be interesting to someone (like me) that isn’t actually interested in those topics, but never enough to be boring. Also, fascinating attitudes among the largely working class members of the town — they don’t map to any definitions of “liberal” or “conservative” today — just people using their own minds as to the right way to live and treat people.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (Literary / Historical Fiction)

Writing: 5+/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 5/5

Shockingly good — one of the best books I’ve read in years. The plot follows Washington Black — born a slave on a brutal Barbados plantation in 1818, he becomes a naturalist illustrator, 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.

The story careens from the Barbados plantation to the open seas to the Arctic to England and beyond. The Victorian pursuit of knowledge and invention permeates every page (especially pertaining to marine life). The relationships across race, sex, and status in a violent and yet rapidly evolving time period are examined in every possible way. I love the depth of that exploration and what feels (to me) like a fair portrayal of the complexities of every one of those relationships — the individuals, the culture, and the time period all coming to bear and the bald fact of each person interpreting behaviors of others in very personal ways — there is no absolute truth, only personal truth. Wash himself is aware that his perceptions are probably flawed and yet that does not change them in any way.

The writing is Pulitzer quality — absolutely stunning — one of the few books I’ve read without skimming a single sentence. I rarely read books about slavery or the Holocaust — I’ve read too many and just don’t want to go there anymore. I picked up this highly recommended book with the intention of reading a couple of pages and then giving it back. I didn’t put it down for 75 pages (and then only because I was called to dinner!).

Highly, highly, recommended.

Here are too many quotes — just know that I winnowed these down from many, many, more:

“Moistening my lips, I sat at a table in the soft, monstrous upholstered chair, across from a white man who possessed the power of life and death over me. I was but a child of the plantations, and as I met his gaze with my own, my mouth soured with dread.”

“The skin round his eyes tightened. He shook his head. ‘Negroes are God’s creatures also, with all due rights and freedoms. Slavery is a moral stain against us. If anything will keep white men from heaven, it is this.’ “

“Christopher Wilde had not your best interests at heart. You were a cause to him, not a person — however much he protested otherwise. You were something to be used to further his own crusade, his own sense of goodness.”

“I understood. He meant that I had been a slave, and that the savagery of that past left me a ruined being, like some wretched thing pulled smoking from a fire. It did not matter that he accepted me as a thinking man, that he respected my mind, or even that he was in the midst of taking a favour from me. I was black-skinned and burnt, as disfigured inside as without…”

“I had long seen science as the great equalizer. No matter one’s race, or sex, or faith — there were facts in the world waiting to be discovered. How little thought I’d given to the ways in which it might be corrupted.”

“He was a wretched man, a pox, but I did not rejoice at the brutality of his end, however well deserved. He too had been a boy once, desirous of understanding the world. And how he had wasted all his talents, all his obvious facility for learning, twisting every new fact and arranging it into senselessness and cruelty. He had spent years trying to cultivate an ethos, and despite possessing a clear intelligence, he had lived his whole life in avoidable savagery.”

“…her silence was marked by a held-in rage that I have only now, several years later, come to understand as the suppression of will. For she was a ferociously intelligent woman, and it strained her to have to conceal it.”

“The sky was still black where we were, but the wind was already hurling us seaward. I watched the half-cut cane fields in the faint light, the white scars of harvest glistening like the part in a woman’s hair.”

“He was sixty years old at least, with pulsing red hands and extravagant wrinkles.”

“And despite all, his dark eyes seemed to me soft, restless, thoughtful, with a kindness so rarely granted to one like me that, meeting his eyes, I shivered.”

“How was it possible, thought I, that we lived in such nightmare and all the while a world of men continued just over the horizon, men such as these, in ships moving in any direction the wind might lead them? I thought how Titch had risked everything for me. I knew he had preserved my person despite the death of his own flesh and blood, and I knew, too, how strange it felt to be alive, and whole, and astonishingly worth saving.”

“After a long moment of trying to muster my courage to speak, I remained silent.”

“He had a thick black mustache and a very pale, grey mouth, as if his lips suffered for sunlight.”

“I saw him, and I kneeled dripping in the low entrance, staring. For he was short, fat, and under his scraggly whiskers was a face very much alive and quite brutally ugly.”

“For there could be no belonging for a creature such as myself, anywhere: a disfigured black boy with a scientific turn of mind and a talent on canvas, running, always running, from he dimmest of shadows.”

“Staring into her sharp face, her brown front teeth edging over her lower lip, I felt a kind of despair, sensing the solitary mornings of the world fade from me, and grow dim.”

“Sometimes when I spoke she’d stare on with quiet ferocity — but it was not pity I sensed there, nor morbid fascination, but something like a greed to fully enter my consciousness.”

“What an agony it was, to see them together: old Goff, earnest and probing and high-minded and utterly oblivious; Tanna, sharp-tongued and brilliant and stifled and yet somehow devoted to that self-absorbed man. It was clear to me that both were intelligent, kind people, but careless with each other’s feelings, and poles apart in temperament. I liked both immensely; I hated their way together.”

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi (YA)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4.5/5

There are no Monsters left in the town of Lucille. Long ago, in a time not often spoken about, the Angels rid the town of Monsters and left the inhabitants with a peaceful existence. But when Jam’s mother, Bitter, paints a picture that comes alive when accidentally touched with Jam’s blood, it appears that perhaps not all of the Monsters in Lucille are gone after all. It appears that “Pet” has come hunting a Monster, and it is closer than anyone would like…

The book’s description did not prepare me at all for the vibrant, powerful, writing. It is 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. “Monster” is the epithet for people who do bad things, but “Angels” and “Monsters” aren’t pretty or ugly like the pictures in a book: “It’s all just people, doing hard things or doing bad things. But is all just people, our people.”

The plot is actually a bit simplistic (aimed at a middle school audience), but the characters, writing, and themes make it impossible to put down. Emezi is going right on my “follow” list.

Some of my favorite quotes:
“Jam always felt lucky when she stood in the path of her father’s joy.”

“Everyone, everything deserved some time to be. To figure out what they were. Even a painting. Bitter finishing it was just her telling it what she thought it was, or what she’d seen it as. It hadn’t decided for itself yet.”

“You humans and your binaries, Pet said. It is not a good thing or a bad thing. It is just a thing.”

“It built a stone of guilt in her chest, and Jam added it to the pile that had been forming there since she told Pet to stay.”

“That’s precisely the point, little girl. Your knowing, you think it gives you clarity, sight that pierces. It can be a cloud, a thing that obscures.”

“Jam nodded, even though the fear was still a tangled necklace in her stomach, heavy and iron.”

“The creature growled low in its throat and changed its body language, small shifts that bled naked menace into the room.”

“But Jam could still feel the anxiety and fear like a spilled sourness soaked up by the floor, circulating through the house.”

“Not one of my concerns in this life, to be nice, to sound nice, what is nice.”

“Your world is unpleasant, your truths are unpleasant, the hunt is unpleasant.”

Thank you to Random House Children’s and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 10th, 2019.

When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Character: 5/5

21-year old Zelda is obsessed with Vikings. Drawing inspiration from Viking lore, she is writing (and living) her own legend, tackling life with courage and loyalty to her tribe. She was also born on the fetal alcohol syndrome spectrum (FASD) and is aware of needing to take things slowly, follow rules, and study things more thoroughly than others. Her brother Gert — with his shaved head, tattoos, and a thug-like exterior — has been taking care of her since he extracted both of them from the abusive Uncle who took them in when their mother died.

A remarkable cast of characters populates this unique coming-of-age story as Gert gets into some questionable means of support in a neighborhood rife with violence and trouble … and Zelda tries to help. It has one of the most beautiful, heartfelt, and meaningful endings I’ve ever read. It wasn’t the traditionally happy ending I was expecting, but one in which people had to learn some hard truths about themselves and the people they loved. I particularly appreciated the way nobody was presented as all “bad” or all “good” but merely people trying to do their best, not always succeeding, and coming to terms with how to make the best of what they had.

Zelda’s voice is quite engaging. While many reviewers call it “humorous”, I actually found it to be innocent and completely lacking in artifice — which I found quite refreshing. From Zelda directly, galvanized by her Viking research: “Dagaz means to become awake or to transform. That is what I want to do in my legend: I want to go from a normal Viking to a hero.”

Highly recommended.

Thank you to Gallery/Scout Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Jan 28th, 2019.