05 June 2016

Book Review: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

This book is marvelous.  It’s likely to be the best book I’ll read all year, or in years to come. Mostly I just want to sit here and heap it with accolades, but that probably isn’t as helpful to potential readers as an actual book review would be.

The short version: I am truly floored by the talent of this new young writer. Gyasi (pronounced like “Jessie”) follows the parallel lineages of two half-sisters through several generations, beginning in 18th century Ghana at the height of the slave trade. Effia marries a European slave trader while Esi is abducted from her village and sold, and each generation of their descendants carries the family narrative forward in separate chapters, each of which can almost be read as a discrete short story in its own right. The ending brings the novel full circle and is satisfying in the extreme. This book is hauntingly beautiful and it made my heart ache again and again.

The longer version: Homegoing is a book of meticulous, dare I say superlative, craft. The narrative is relentlessly propulsive, and yet Gyasi has pared down a story that is truly epic in scope to a mere 300 pages. It is a book that explores the terrible and ongoing repercussions of enslaving a race, but which does so with an open heart and an eye toward a future where persons, and a people, might yet be made whole. It is the work of a writer at the top of her game, so the fact that Gyasi is a debut novelist not yet turned 30 is all the more astonishing. It is a story of always seeking the missing part, of looking for home in the next place each character ventures, whether it’s of their own volition or not.

If I had dogeared every page where Gyasi’s words resonated with me, I’d have every other page turned down, but here is a passage that were deeply meaningful, and which, I think, give an excellent idea of the urgency behind much of the book and what the writer is capable of:

Originally he [Marcus, six generations removed from Esi] wanted to focus his work on the convict leasing system that had stolen years off of his Great-Grandpa H’s life, but the deeper into the research he got, the bigger the project got. How could he talk about Great Grandpa H’s story without also talking about his Grandma Willie and the millions of other black people who had migrated north, fleeing Jim Crow? And if he mentioned the Great Migration, he’d have to talk about the cities that took that flock in. He’d have to talk about Harlem. And how could he talk about Harlem without mentioning his father’s heroin addiction  -- the stints in prison, the criminal record? And if he was going to talk about heroin in Harlem in the 60s, wouldn’t he also have to talk about crack everywhere in the 80s? And if he wrote about crack, he’d be inevitably be writing, too, about the “war on drugs.” And if he started talking about the war on drugs, he’d be talking about how nearly half of the black men he grew up with were on their way either into or out of what had become the harshest prison system in the world. And if he talked about friends from his hood were doing five-year bids for possession of marijuana when nearly all the white people he’d gone to college with smoked it openly every day, he’d get so angry that he’d slam the research book on the table of the beautiful but deadly silent Lane Reading Room of Green Library of Stanford University, and then everyone in the room would stare and all they would see would be his skin and his anger, and they’d think they knew something about him, and it would be same something that had justified putting his great-grandpa H in prison, only it would be different too, less obvious than it once was (289-290).

Do you see what she just did there? Do you?

Effia’s descendants, still in Ghana, are as lost as Esi’s are in America, and though never saying it outright, Gyasi implies that the effects of slavery -- the abduction, selling, and general obliteration of personhood of a race over generations -- still vibrate in the mitochondrial level of our DNA. Borne back ceaselessly into the past, indeed.

This book is going to be an important book -- important in the way that Toni Morrison’s Beloved has become important -- and it is certainly the hallmark of an uncommon literary talent. I almost always scoff when I hear that Unknown Author X has been paid bazillions of dollars for Debut Book Y, but in this case, Homegoing is worth every penny that Knopf has paid for it. And possibly then some.

If you’re going to read one work of literary fiction this year, it should be this one. I’m not sure that I can say anything else.

NB: I read an advance reading copy of this book provided at my request from the publisher. Its US publication date is tomorrow, June 7, and I’m tickled that I’ll get a chance to meet the author next week when she signs at my store on June 15. 

01 June 2016

Last Month in Review: May 2016

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My reading concentration is slowly improving, so I’m a-gonna talk about the books I read last month as a  prelude to writing an actual book review.  Some of these books were amazing.  In chronological order, here’s what I read:

Mischling by Affinity Konar. Holy shit, y’all.  This is some serious stuff. Here’s the succinct blurb that I gave the publisher, else I’d just be rambling up in here tonight: It’s difficult to imagine a more horrific subject for a novel than the sadistic experiments Dr.Mengele performed on twins in Auschwitz, but debut author Konar manages to craft something magnificent from such dark origins. Pearl and Stasha tell their stories in alternating chapters, each twin doing her utmost to protect her sister in the camp, their shared history almost enough to create their belief in a shared future on the other side. Konar’s language is so fresh and inventive, even occasionally playful, that it creates a powerful and shocking juxtaposition against the narrative. This author is going places, and after reading this book, I will want to be along for the ride. Every. Single. Time. 

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson.  This was charming.  Did you read and love her previous book, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand? If so, you would probably like this.  Did you love the first two seasons of Downton Abbey, right before and then during The Great War? Then you’d probably like.  It’s a small English village, a woman who has been scandalously hired to teach Latin to school boys, and all of the insulated gender and class restrictions of that age. This is not one of those life-changing-but-exhausting-to-read books. This is a book you’ll want to read when you want to escape a little without putting your mind entirely on vacation.

Redemption Road by John Hart.  This was an audio book I listened to, narrated by Scott Shepherd.  Pretty good.  I don’t read thrillers, by and large, but the publisher sent an advance listening copy to the store, so I nabbed it. Maybe it’s because I’m required to listen at a slower pace than I would read if I had a physical book in front of me, but there were several plot "twists" in this book that I saw coming from pretty early on. There were a few moments where listening to this book creeped me out, but I doubt anybody who regularly reads thrillers would feel that way.  I felt the ending was a bit too pat, and to me the serial killer identity was pretty obvious from the early chapters, but the writing is really solid and Hart brilliantly evokes certain parts of North Carolina with his prose.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  This was an audio book that I purchased for the specific purpose of driving home from Portland, ME one weekend.  It was the perfect length.  I figured that I would like this book and find it both moving and anger-inducing, and I was spot-on about that.  But what I wasn’t expecting about this book was the sheer lyricism of the prose.  Really beautifully written. The author reads it himself. I highly recommend this one.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett.  This is a quiet novel, especially compared to Bel Canto or State of Wonder.  It opens on a fateful day in LA -- a community comes together for a christening, but their lives are forever changed when the husband of one family falls in love with the wife of another. We see the parents and the children across the years and the consequences and emotional fallout wrought by that first infidelity.  Very good.  Patchett often sneaks up on the reader with her writing and insights.

The Best Revenge and The Best Revenge: Time of the Basilisk by Arsinoe de Blassenville.  This is a pairing of Harry Potter fan fictions, the first of which is novel length and the second of which is a novella. They begin with the “What if Snape was the first wizard Harry interacted with?” trope and they end with events from the canon book two, but in reality, all of the action takes place within Harry’s first year.  Because of his relationship with Lily Evans Potter, Snape becomes Harry’s wizarding proxy and things turn out very, very differently. I love these stories -- they’re well written and well paced, and they show sides of both Hufflepuff and Slytherin that Rowling herself was unable to show due to the Harry filter.

Not a terrible showing. I don’t know how many pages the fanfics would be, but Goodreads tells me that my page count for all of the other items comes to 1,753 pages. Except where noted, all of the books I read were advance reading copies provided by the publisher, often at my request.

How ‘bout y’all?  What books were you most excited about reading in May?  

20 April 2016

Stay-Cation + Bacon = Bacation

Wow, I’m off to a blazing start for the year, aren’t I?  Two blog posts in four months?  Only the most dedicated of bloggers would be able to top that.  As my friend Alley says, it’s so much easier not to write a blog post than to write one, and I’ve apparently been exploring the exciting world of not writing blog posts for quite some time.  I’ll give this travel post a shot to see if I can overcome the inertia of not writing.

Last week, I had three and a half days off from work, plus my regular weekend, and my beau and I had planned to visit Washington, DC, for our first vacation together. Funds were a little tight, so we selected DC as a great place because most of the fun activities available there are free. Sadly, we both had unexpected expenses in March that made canceling the trip the wiser thing to do. Yay for adulting and all of that.

So we canceled DC and decided to stay home.  My roommate was going to be away for the entire week traveling for work, so we’d still have lots of privacy, and on the plus side, we ended up eating bacon every day for the win. For a little splurge, we decided to head up to Brattleboro, VT, for one night.  We originally selected a private apartment via AirBnB, but it wasn’t available the night we wanted to go, so we rented a room in somebody’s apartment instead, with a shared bathroom.  Here’s the pretty, light-filled room we selected:
The apartment was within walking distance of downtown, which was our primary criterion, and after dropping off our bags, we headed out to explore.  A little online research had revealed a few things we wanted to do whilst in the area, all of which pertained to eating and drinking. I’d worked out a little time table to make sure we could take it all in.
Our first stop was Saxtons River Distillery, maker and purveyor of fine maple-infused spirits. They offer free tastings of all of their beverages, plus tastings of the maple bitters that they sell, but do not make. There was maple bourbon, maple rye, maple liqueur made with neutral spirits, a coffee liqueur, and then their super-special aged maple one. I’m not a big maple fan, so I was quite taken by surprise with how much I enjoyed them all. I’m also not a big rye fan, so I was even more surprised that I liked the rye better than the bourbon. We bought a few bottles, took some photos, and thanked the young man for his time. 

Next up was a stop at the Grafton Village Cheese Company.  They offer lots of complimentary cheese tastings -- perhaps twenty? -- and also have various jams, sauces, and spreads available for tasting, too.

We poked around, we sampled everything. Well, I sampled everything except the Bernie Sanders “Feel the Bern” Habañero Mango Jam, because I’m a wimp when it comes to spicy things. The nice cheesemonger behind the counter struck up a conversation with us for a few minutes and then she offered to let us sample one of the super-duper-fancy gourmet cheeses that sell for roughly $50/pound -- the one she opened up for us was a medium cheddar marbled with black truffles.  Very yummy!

This is where the magic happens!

We made our selections, paused at the observation window to see the cheese making in the back room, snapped a few photos, including some of the burros grazing in a paddock outside, and headed back to our room. Where I promptly fell on the bed for a nap.  I’d hurt my back the day before at work, and the extra-firm mattress was just the thing.  Apparently what with all of the cheese and booze sampling, I had missed my mid-afternoon ibuprofen replenishment for staying ahead of the pain.

After my refreshing nap, we walked downtown to the Hermit Thrush Brewery, home to many sour beers.  I didn’t know from sour beer a year ago, but my beau has introduced me to its joys. I mostly don’t mind beer, and I like darker beers like stouts, but I may just start a love affair with the sour ones.

This place was made for us. Well, except for the awful, uncomfortable seating, this place was made for us.  Really, folks, just buy some actual bar stools -- don’t make your patrons perch aloft on those spinning atrocities with no feet on them. We ordered two different tasting flights, plus samples of their two beers not available as part of their flights.

We bought a mini growler of the Green St sour IPA to go and headed out into the world to see what we could find for dinner.  We basically just stopped in everywhere to check out the menus, and we had just agreed that we would do a full lap of the restaurants downtown before committing to a location, when a sandwich board on the sidewalk stopped me in my tracks -- the Fireworks restaurant was hawking a cocktail special featuring passionfruit purée.  In we went. Obviously.

They had me at passionfruit purée
It was the right choice.  I was in the mood for cocktails, and good ones, too, dammit. We planned ahead by walking, and it was vacation, dammit. So you’ll pardon me for forgetting the names of some of the drinks I had.  We had five cocktails between us, and they were all amazing. Carefully-crafted, well-balanced, and all featuring a house-made infusion or flavored syrup, this might be my favorite cocktail menu I’ve ever encountered in New England.

Bacon Old-Fashioned. For the win.
Wishful Thinking, featuring muddled cucumber, house made limoncello,  and mint syrup
We also tried the Pineapple-Thai Basil Margaritaand The Payback,
featuring jalapeño infused tequila and muddled kiwi. Kiwi, I say!
Oh, yes.  There was also food.  We shared the Pizza Bella, which had garlic shrimp, arugula, and shaved cheese on it.  It was amazing.  And the perfect size for sharing when one has no recourse for leftovers.  So what if our food bill was $17 and our bar bill was $47? It was all worth it.  Every bit of it.

We went someplace else for dessert, but it wasn’t memorable, and then we walked back to our room for the night.  Brattleboro, I like you and your walkability. The next morning we poked around in various shops for a couple of hours before hitting the road for home.  Although I had two coworkers check in on the kitties, I was still a little worried about leaving Murray for so long -- Murray of the high vet bills who had almost died a few weeks before.

There’s a small town called Shelburne Falls on the way home from Brattleboro that is picturesque and quaint, and best known for its Bridge of Flowers, so we made the slight detour to check it out.  The day was beautiful and sunny, but unseasonably chilly, and alas, very few flowers were actually in bloom on the eponymous bridge.

Here’s what it looks like in other seasons:

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Photo credit
There weren’t many things open that we wanted to explore, so we walked down to the glacier potholes instead.  You can’t get as close to them as you once could, but it was still interesting.

Who knew that grinding and gyrating could create such wonders?

We stayed for awhile, listening to the thunder of the water and meditating on the perfect roundness of the potholes and the forces that created them. But then it was time to head homeward and bid adieu to our one-night [vacation] stand. After all, there was bacon in our near future and we didn’t want to miss a bite of it.

01 February 2016

Best of 2015: A month late and many dollars short

Let’s pretend like I’ve been here all along, shall we?  That I didn’t take a nine month hiatus from my online life and such.  I shall tell myself this over and over, as obviously it’s much easier to write a blog post when one is already in the habit of doing so, rather than trying to overcome the tremendous inertia it would take to come back from an absence of that length.

Since it’s also easier to create a book list than to write a book review, I’m a-gonna start with counting down the best books I read in 2015.  Usually this is a pretty daunting task, choosing my favorite 10-15 books out of the 125+ books I read in any given year, but 2015 was special in that I essentially stopped reading during those same months that I wasn’t blogging.  I’m still clawing my way out of that bookless  pit that I fell into, but things are definitely getting better.

I only read 53 books in 2015, but forty of those books were read in the first four months of the year. Since one thing I learned last year was the importance of being kind to oneself, I’m trying very hard not to berate myself for those shocking numbers.  After all, who could have predicted that being unable to read would be the collateral damage of my separation?

The best book that was published in 2015 that I read was A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara; despite having finished it at the end of 2014, it has earned a spot on this list.  My god, that book had everything in it that a reader like me could want, not least of which was a deep sense of catharsis from reading the last third of it.  I wrote a rather gush-y post about it here, if you’d care to check it out.  

Everything else that I list is in chronological order from when I read it:

2. God Help the Child by Toni Morrison. Here’s what I said about it back in February 2015: I liked this one significantly more than her last 2-3 novels, and it might even be my second favorite of her books, after The Bluest Eye.  This one is spare, either all plot or all character, with very few descriptors in between.  It's almost like she said, "Fuck it.  I'm 83 and I don't have time for any filler.”  

3. Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller.  Little did I know when I read this book about the dissolution of a marriage that I would be relating to it on a much more personal level before the year was out.  Fuller is an excellent writer and memoirist. My full review is here.

4. The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora is a wonderfully dark collection of short stories featuring the underbelly of suburbia. I had the pleasure of meeting the author for dinner at NEIBA in the fall of 2015 and had the most delightful time sharing stories with her.  My full review is here.

5. The Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry.  I couldn’t believe that this was a debut novel -- well written and well constructed, interweaving multiple characters’ narratives into one brilliant story overall. Atmospheric, engaging, ends beautifully.  Not sure you can ask for more than that in one novel.  Here’s a partial review, such as it is.

6. Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne.  I’m a little embarrassed that I’d never read this book as a child, which is quite a shame since it’s as delightful a book for young readers as I’ve ever encountered.  Even so, it took me weeks to read it last year.  I have no review for it, but probably most of you already know it better than I do anyway!

7. Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson. This collection of short stories, a follow up to his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, is strong.  Strong, dark, and largely tragic.  I was a little surprised when it won the National Book Award recently, but not displeased.

8. The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra.  Another short story collection that follows up a better-known and prize winning novel (in this case, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena). This loosely-related collection of stories, however, forms a novel in the same way that Olive Kitteridge did.  I dig Marra’s writing -- his lyricism and sense of metaphor in particular -- and he’s overall one of the most genuine, kind, and engaging authors I’ve ever had the pleasure to have met.

9. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.  This was technically an audio book that I listened to, and it’s the only non-fiction to make my Top Ten list this year.  Holy crap, but this book was good, and it should basically be required reading for everybody who has ever felt outrage over the treatment of the disenfranchised in this country.  Or better yet, for everybody who has not felt that outrage.  So basically required reading for everybody. The audio was fine, but I think it might have been better served by a professional reader.

10. Scary Old Sex by Arlene Heyman. This is also a collection of short stories, which won’t be published until March 8, 2016. You know, I’m a little surprised that short stories comprise 40% of my Top Ten list.  But then again, considering the nature of short stories and being able to pick them up and put them down again at shorter intervals might explain a lot.  These stories are not interrelated per se, but they are linked thematically by love, sex, marriage, aging, and the fragility of our mortal coil.

So that’s that, then.  I’m a little surprised at my list, but those are all of the books I read in 2015 that I gave a 4- or 5-star rating on Goodreads.  My reading does seem to be picking up a bit now in 2016.  I’m able to finish a book in less than two weeks usually, and while I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to resume my average pace of 2.5 books per week, I’ll be quite grateful if I can get back to one book per week.  We’ll just have to see.

But what about you, Gentle Reader?  What books excited you most in 2015?  And are there books coming up this year you’re particularly keen on? 

24 December 2015

I Wish You Peace and Light In These Dark Times

Stonehenge in the Midwinter Snow
Image source: http://www.disclose.tv

NB: This is a slightly modified post from years past that I wanted to reuse for Christmas.

It's a little out of character for me to write a blog post that is about neither books nor travel.  It’s also a little out of character to share many of my personal details in such a public space, but I’ve been away from the blogosphere since April, and I’ve had many supportive inquiries from readers.  2015 has been a very difficult year, which has marked, among other things, the death of one of my cats, the imminent death of my dog, the most difficult and exhausting time at work I’ve ever survived, and above all, the dissolution of my marriage.

Among the collateral damage of the latter was a swift blow to my ability to read, a blow that I’ve only lately been recovering from and am still not back to normal. Thus this holiday season has been far more emotional and challenging than most, and it’s the first time in my life that I’ve ever been alone on Christmas Eve, a day which has been far more important to me (and my family) than Christmas itself.

There's a Christmas song lingering in my mind right now that I have been listening to more or less on a loop for  the last couple of days.  I love sacred Christmas carols, though I'm not Christian, or at least I’m not a Christian if by “Christian,” you mean somebody who believes that Jesus Christ is the offspring of God. Agnostic, I suppose, is the proper term for me.  Perhaps a cultural Episcopalian is a little more specific. But if by “Christian,” you mean somebody who thinks that guy Jesus Christ was a revolutionary ahead of his time, especially his ideas regarding the treatment of the disenfranchised, then maybe the term fits.

Whatever inclination toward the sacred that remains buried in me always feels deeply disheartened by the relentless commercialism of a secular Christmas; thus, my recent mental soundtrack of Loreena McKennitt's performance of Good King Wenceslas.

As far as I know, it is the only Christmas carol that remains as relevant today as it ever did.   Regardless of any divine context,  a couple of millennia ago, give or take, this guy Jesus did some pretty revolutionary stuff.  I'm prepared to accept that at face value, if not his divinity.  But what does the celebration of his birth mean for the world today, all those angels and mangers  and glorias in excelsis deo*? For my money, it's the et in terra pax ominibus** that is so important, so relevant today, yet so sorely lacking in our current times where grace and graciousness are endangered species.  

With the changing of just two little words so the song is non gender-specific or non-religious specific, Good King Wenceslas is what speaks to me tonight and all year 'round: give of yourself, give of your time, share what you have, even especially if it takes you out of your comfort zone.  It's pretty simple.  Here are the lyrics, with my slight modifications in place.  Maybe they will speak to you, too.

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
Where the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gathering winter fuel.

"Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know'st it, telling--
Yonder peasant, who is he? 
Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence,
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence,
By St. Agnes' fountain."

"Bring me flesh and bring me wine, 
Bring me pine logs hither.
Thou and I shall see him dine
When we bring them thither."
Page and monarch forth they went,
Forth they went together.
Heedless of the wind's lament
And the bitter weather.

"Sire, the night grows darker now
And the wind blows stronger.
Fails my heart, I know not how.
I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, my good page.
Tread thou in them boldly.
Thou shall find the winter's rage
Freeze the blood less coldly."

In his master's steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted.
Heat was in the very sod
Which the saint had printed.
Therefore, all good folk, be sure,
Wealth or rank possessing:
You who now shall bless the poor
Shall yourself find blessing.

It's not just the song, for me, but also the arrangement that is so important.  I love the melding of a traditional western carol with Celtic and Middle Eastern musical elements and the instruments you don't normally hear outside a medieval/Renaissance festival. The Middle Eastern aspect actually places the song in a historical context like never before, and it’s an important signpost in these dark times when many Americans think Islamophobia is the way to go.

I hope, wherever you are, that you find peace in your heart during these darkest days of the year. 

* Glory to God in the highest
**And on earth, peace to all people

03 June 2015

What I Read In May: A Big Fat Nothing...

...but I might be able to work up a mini book review just for you.

Seriously, folks.  I didn't finish a single book in May.  This is probably the first month in my 40 years of reading that I've not finished a book, and it astounds me every time I think about it. 

There are reasons (travel to Ireland) and there are Reasons (private). Life has been difficult lately, and it's probably going to get harder before it gets better.  Any spare prayers or good vibes or Magic 8 Ball answers you can send my way would be terrific.  I'm being utterly in earnest. I don't want to bog down my space here, which is purportedly dedicated to books and travel, by talking too much about my personal life. Sharing that much in a public space isn't really me, but it's also true that I'm in need of  any support you can share over the ether. Please and thank you.

Last night I met a terrific author whose debut novel I pretty much fell in love with. Her name is Leslie Parry, and she's as adorable and fun as her photo indicates.  Plus just look at her shoes. She was raised in Pasadena, California, where she worked in television and film for a while, before moving to Chicago where she now lives with her two lazy but wonderful cats.  If you really want to get her animated, ask her about her dog back home in California, whom she misses like crazy, or the goats and chickens she would like to raise one day.

Church of Marvels is a many-splendored thing, tying together various narratives from the most colorful characters, exploring the darker underbelly of fin de siecle New York City. We get side show characters from Coney Island, we have a character who wakes up in an insane asylum with no clear knowledge of how she got there, and there's one poor young man who is a night soiler.  That is, he cleans the privies on the lower east side by hand. By the time I started to anticipate just how their stories would become intertwined, it was too late – I was so mesmerized that I had to finish the last 200+ pages in one long stretch. 

Just read this book.  It's fun.  It's atmospheric. It's well-written. And it ends beautifully. There are lots of good novels out there that fall apart at the end, or that don't know how to end. Leslie Parry could teach a master class on how to end a novel, however.