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.”

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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red Birds by Mohammad Hanif (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5 /5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5

A satirical and somewhat surreal modern day Mouse That Roared taking place in an unnamed desert refugee camp in a place where Americans are simultaneously active in both destruction and Aid. A US pilot crash lands in the desert outside the very camp he was meant to bomb. He is rescued by 15-year old Momo — a singular character — crafty, entrepreneurial, and utterly focussed on finding his brother “Bro Ali” who disappeared into the mysterious Hangar at the center of camp and never returned. The narrative cycles between the first person perspectives of these two and Momo’s dog Mutt. Yes — the dog is one of the narrators and is by far the most erudite of the three, serving as a more abstract philosophic commentary on the action and The Way Things Are. Only Mutt sees the red birds who suddenly appear off in the corners as a bit of emphasis on events.

Other characters represent types: Doctor cares only about saving the Desert and not too much about the humans. An American aid worker — nicknamed Lady Flowerbody — wants to save the world — as long as she has a sufficient supply of Perrier. She is pursuing a PhD on the topic of the Teenage Muslim mind. Momo goes along with it — he has been studied many times for studies like ‘Growing Pains in Conflict Zone,’ ‘Tribal Cultures get IT,’ and even ‘Reiki for War Survivors.’

The writing is beautiful. At heart are themes on the importance of being loved and not forgotten, at living a life of significance, and the deep and individual horrors of war and craziness of America’s policy. This quote kind of sums it up — as the pilot thinks of his own American role juxtaposed with that of Lady Flowerbody he says: “If I didn’t bomb some place, how would she save that place? If I didn’t rain fire from the skies, who would need her to douse that fire on the ground? Why would you need somebody to throw blankets on burning babies if there were no burning babies? If I didn’t take out homes, who would provide shelter? If I didn’t take out homes who would need shelter? If I didn’t obliterate cities, how would you get to set up refugee camps? Where would all the world’s empathy go? Who would host exhibitions in the picture galleries of Berlin, who would have fundraising balls in London? Where would all the students on their gap years go? If I stop wearing this uniform and quit my job, the world’s sympathy machine will grind to a halt.”

I loved the writing and the story was intriguing, hovering at the border of reality. The satire was apt although by nature left out any positive attribute about Americans and American aid. The tone was not depressing, although the subject matter and conclusion certainly was if you settle back from the tone and examine what lies underneath.

Other great quotes:

“For every wad of cash being pocketed, for every sack of grain or sugar being stolen there is a pile of paperwork to prove that it’s not being stolen.”

“They had trained themselves to be brave, they were ready to lay down their lives for their God and country but they didn’t know that bravery comes with a high noise levels and then an abrupt silence that lasts forever. You can’t be brave when you are dead. And then promptly forgotten.”

“She has the air of a permanent do-gooder who will just leave when they stop feeling good about doing good.”

“Making some moolah and thanking our creator is the only ideology that works here.”

“I can tell you that if he is a spy he is not very good at it. He is the kind of spy who wishes that they owned a cafe and ran a book club.”

“When my folks don’t have a real explanation, they blame it on war. As if before the war we were all a brotherhood and didn’t throw our trash into our neighbor’s yard. As if war gave us bad breath and crude manners. “

“Three parallel wrinkles on her forehead speak of an intelligent mind. The ones who came before her never smelt this nice. And they stopped coming anyway when the Hangar shut down. It was simple, they bombed us and then sent us well-educated people to look into our mental health needs.”

“Sad mothers are made of compulsive, reckless optimism.”

The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q Rauf (Children’s Fiction)

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

This is a British story about the Syrian refugee crisis — focused on one small boy and given a fairy tale ending. 9-year old Alexa gets excited from the first moment she sees the new boy — Ahmet — sitting quietly at the back of the room. She and her three friends befriend him and are introduced to his plight just as the UK is moving to stop the flow of refugees completely by “closing the gates.” Alexa conceives the “MOST AMAZING PLAN” (backed up with an “Emergency Plan”) to help keep the gates open, help Ahmet find his family, and deal with the “haters” of the world (with clearly marked names such as “Mrs. Grimsby” in case you are in doubt as to who they are).

The book is sweet and does an excellent job of portraying the refugee crisis in real human terms by describing one boy’s very sad situation. I do feel that the story was oversimplified and did not like the way everyone was depicted (literally) as “good guys” and “bad guys.” While I support trying to find a real solution to refugee problems, this book was written as a very heavy handed propaganda piece. Anyone who doesn’t absolutely support unlimited refugee immigration is labeled (literally) a “bully,” a “hater,” “heartless,” “selfish,” and by implication stupid, and irrational. I don’t think that was necessary — it would have been just as effective a book if she had focussed on one young refugee’s experience, the way the kids had helped bring attention to his plight, and some positive messages about how refugees can be helped and integrated into society, without including all the nasty labels and overly simplified and often inaccurate portrayals of those with other opinions.

A child in the class — “Brendan the Bully” — is portrayed as a terrible boy with no possibility of education or redemption. And when explaining what is happening in Syria, Alexa’s mother explains: “The bad people are just much stronger than they are and like to feel big and powerful by bullying them. You see, some people think that by taking things away from other people and hurting them, it gives them more power, and the more power they have, the more they want and the greedier they get. So they go on hurting more and more people until everyone wants to run away.” Is that really an accurate description of the Syrian civil war? I don’t think so — and I think that oversimplifying problems for children by blaming and labeling whole groups of people as simply irredeemably bad is a very dangerous proposition.

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 August 6th, 2019.