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?