Thursday, April 19, 2018

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi







In this astounding debut novel, the story of a young woman as she comes of age unfolds in a completely unique and beautiful way. The novel begins with the voices called "We" and tell the story of their "birth" or their awakening into a human called "the Ada", who we soon discover is a woman with many voices and personalities that live in her head. Each chapter in the book is told by one of many versions of herself and through this narration we are told the story of Ada's childhood as one of three children born to a Nigerian father and a Malaysian mother.

Her parents separate when Ada is still a child and we see how traumatizing that is for Ada through the "We"voices in her head. Over the course of the story, we find out details of Ada's childhood that shed some light on how she became "sectioned" by these gods that lived inside her mind. After her mother abandons the family to work in Saudi Arabia, her father remains completely distant and Ada retreats further into many selves. When she is old enough for college, she travels to America where she experiences a trauma so profound that yet another "god" comes to life in her mind. This god is named Asughara and is a deeply self destructive version of Ada. Throughout the years that follow her trauma, Ada is controlled by Asughara, among the other voices and becomes involved in one self destructive situation after the other, abusing substances, self-harming her body through cutting and casual sexual encounters, and taking delight in hurting others along her own destructive path.

I found this book so stunning and captivating from the first page that it was difficult for me to know how to really summarize it or review it. While I was reading it, I found that I could be completely confounded by what was happening in it while also coming to a deep understanding of what Ada was going through. It was really a remarkable feeling. The writing style made me think of recent novels like Rabih Alameddine's "The Angel of History" and Eimear McBride's "A Girl is a Half Formed Thing" and I got a stream of consciousness sense from the pacing and the strangeness of it. Emezi is a skilled and talented writer with a unique voice. This is a book that needs to be experienced. I recommend it for anyone who is looking for a truly unique and unforgettable read.




Monday, February 26, 2018

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh





I am a fan of Ottessa Moshfegh. She cemented her place in my list of Books to Recommend as soon as I closed the cover on her astonishing novel Eileen. And reenforcements were added after I finished her superb short story collection Homesick for Another World. So when I read that she had a forthcoming novel, I knew I had to request it immediately. I was fortunate enough to be granted access to an advanced copy by the publisher.

We meet our unnamed narrator at a time in her life when she is tired. She's a young woman who, by all outward appearances, has everything one could want. It is the beginning of the 21st century and she's an Ivy League graduate, is physically beautiful, lives in a gorgeous apartment in a nice Manhattan neighborhood. She has an enviable job in an art gallery and a relationship with a Wall Street guy. Yet none of these things interests or fulfills her and none seem to be able to pull her away from her overpowering desire to sleep.

Sleeping, in fact, is the only thing that gives her any comfort. Having lost both of her parents, she is without family. She has one friend named Reva who is probably most accurately described as a frenemy and her on again off again boyfriend is actually a huge asshole who treats her exclusively with disrespect. Our narrator responds to the circumstances of her life by falling asleep and into a deep depressive state. Most of her days are spent going downstairs to her local bodega to get two cups of terrible coffee, then retreating to her apartment to watch VHS copies of movies while falling in and out of sleep. Her life carries on this way until her sleeping interferes with her job and she is fired. She decides that she will hibernate for a year and, thanks to an inheritance from her deceased parents has the means to do this with little interruption.

She finds a psychiatrist for the sole purpose of getting prescriptions to aid in her slumber. Dr. Tuttle is a complete quack, prescribing several medications in random dosages to the narrator with little to no supervision or therapy. One drug in particular, called Infermiterol, plunges our narrator into complete blackouts. She wakes from these blackouts with traces of evidence that she participates in truly bizarre activities. By experimenting with this drug, and getting increasing dosages from Dr. Tuttle, she pushes her limits and finally decides to fully sleep for a year.

What to say about this truly bizarre premise? Nothing I write about it will do it justice. This novel is an experience. And it isn't a wholly pleasant or entertaining one but definitely one worth having. The unnamed narrator is someone I have begun thinking of as a Moshfegh heroine. Oddball, damaged, living on the fringes (internally, if not in practice in this case), and completely captivating. Moshfegh continues to write stories that are unique and that always leave me with the feeling of having read nothing like it before. And this novel left me at many times feeling as though I had taken a drug right alongside the narrator. The writing is evocative and drags you right down with her, each time she takes one pill after another and experiences her life in half awake segments. I was a little confused by the ending of the book. And I'd love to have a discussion about it if anyone reads it.

A word about the cover. In the archives of cover art as it relates to the content, this cover is one of the best I've seen in a very long while. Since I had an advanced copy, there is always the possibility that it is not the final cover. I truly hope that is not the case here.

I recommend this to fans of odd characters, immersive, innovative storytelling, and anyone looking for something unlike anything they've read before.

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman






According to Goodreads, I read the "The Golden Compass" ELEVEN YEARS AGO. I actually cannot believe that since it, and the subsequent books in the His Dark Materials series, have basically stayed with me in a such a clear way that it seems like I just finished them. When I learned that Pullman was writing a prequel of sorts to the story of Lyra and her adventures, I was thrilled and made the rare decision to not only buy this book, but to buy the hardcover version at full price. I don't think I've done that in a very, very long time. Now that I've returned from my adventures in Pullman's unique world, I can safely say it was 100% worth it.

"The Book of Dust" brings us back to the world we first learned about in the His Dark Materials series.
Malcolm is a young man who lives and works at The Trout, a local watering hole. Together with his daemon (the outward manifestation of one's soul), Asta (who is still in the stages of changing animal forms before settling on one...something that happens to the young before they mature) he spends his days helping his parents run the pub, going to school, learning everything he can from books and the people who flow through The Trout, and taking meticulous care of his beloved canoe, La Belle Sauvage. He also spends time avoiding Alice, the prickly housekeeper that sometimes works at the pub. He is a precocious child with a voracious desire to learn all he can and when he isn't at home, he crosses a nearby bridge to spend time at the convent, helping in the kitchen and assisting their handyman.

Malcolm's life is quiet and he expects that as he grows older, despite his deep desire to be a scholar, he will assume the business for his parents and carry on in his uneventful life. One day a baby is taken in by the sisters at the convent and Malcolm is intrigued by her story. Rumors abound that she is the illegitimate daughter of prominent people and as strangers continue to pass through town, he becomes convinced that all is not what it seems when it comes the baby Lyra.

Meanwhile, the country is increasingly under the thrall of the CCD, a religious organization that seeks to control the lives of everyone and encourages and fosters mistrust throughout the region, calling on neighbors to spy on and report each other to authorities. Dr. Hannah Relf, an Oxford scholar, has been put in charge of reading one of six rare tools called the alethiometer, a mysterious device that can divine the future and give information that has been deemed dangerous by the CCD. Scholars and scientists have had to form secret societies and clandestine methods of communication to discuss findings and theories about the substance of life. The religious authority is deeply against anything that contradicts what they teach and have been killing agents of these societies. Dr. Relf befriends Malcolm and he is unwittingly bringing him in to the resistance of the CCD.

After a devastating flood happens, a series of events leads Malcolm and Alice in charge of getting the baby Lyra safely to her father. They have only each other, scant supplies, and La Belle Sauvage to see them through the dangers of the flood and the threat of the CCD following them at every turn.

This is a triumphant return to the world we first entered in the His Dark Materials books. Malcolm is a well rounded and sympathetic character. As in the previous books, the world that Pullman creates is completely immersive, while resonating with our own society. The story moves along at a fast pace and there is so much packed in to the plot that makes the reading go quickly. I am always in awe of Pullman's ability to create situations, characters, and settings that mirror our own world, especially in terms of religion and control of the government. He does what good fantasy does: creates a world you can get lost in while also seeing your own experiences represented.

You don't have to read the His Dark Materials trilogy to enjoy this book, but it does help in understanding the world in which this takes place so I do recommend you read those first, if only for the fact that they are superb books.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid



This timely, compelling, original, and quick read is already in line to be one of my favorites this year. I'm not prone to jumping that particular gun but when you know, you just know, you know?

Exit West is the story of Saeed and Nadia, two young college students in an unnamed country on the brink of war. They meet and instantly form a connection, despite some fundamental differences. Saeed is a traditional, more conservative, and introspective man from a close knit family. Yet he is immediately drawn to Nadia, an independent, free spirit who lives in her own apartment, drives a motorcycle, and is estranged from her family after following her own path. The first part of the novel tells their budding love story against the backdrop of a looming war. Nadia and Saeed fall in love as their everyday lives change by degrees and what was once a safe and prosperous city, quickly falls apart as an uncontrollable insurgency battles with a ruthless government.

After the city is almost completely demolished and falls prey to daily violence, Nadia and Saeed hear of magical doors that provide escape to distant lands. Leaving behind Saeed's father and the only life they have ever known, they walk through one of these and land in a refugee camp in Mykonos, Greece. There they begin their lives as refugees among thousands of others, also escaping war torn countries. In the midst of all the hardships that living in a refugee camp in a completely foreign land entails, Saeed and Nadia are also navigating their still new relationship and discovering the difficulties and comforts of depending on one person in an unknown new life. Throughout the novel,  brief views into situations from around the world illustrate how, at heart, the experience of exile and isolation is the same; the idea of home is universal.

Refugee stories are vitally important ones to tell and this novel does so, expertly. That we see the experience from the vantage point of a couple who we met before they became refugees lends a beautiful complexity to a story and a situation that, in reality, we often only glimpse from a distance. Saeed and Nadia are unforgettable characters that I grew to deeply care about in a way that extended beyond the hardships they faced as strangers in strange lands. I was also completely captivated by the way this novel focused on the challenges of refugees once they had already arrived at their destinations. Many of these stories focus on the getting there (understandably so, since the way out of a war torn land is often just as harrowing as staying) but Hamid takes the original step of focusing on what comes next. All told, this novel has a deeply important message and brings the experience of refugees to the spotlight where it belongs. I recommend this to readers interested in refugee stories, magical realism, and great writing.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn



In keeping with my last post, I chose this book from atop a pile of recently acquired galleys. I first heard about this book when I attended a librarian's preview event inside the glossy offices of a very, very large publisher last fall. The author was the featured guest speaker and I found him to be witty, sardonic, and he basically charmed me into wanting to read his book. (These author appearances sometimes work exactly as they are meant to!) I should say now that I am forever grateful for these opportunities to not only hear about these titles before they are published but also to be given a super maxi extreme ultra exclusive copy of the pre-pub book. 



Finn's novel is told through the eyes of Anna, a former child psychologist who has become a shut in, suffering from crippling agoraphobia after experiencing a trauma that isn't at first revealed. She spends her days in a drug and wine tainted stupor, looking out the window of her Manhattan brownstone, spying on her neighbors. The world outside arrives to her dark, quiet house through the lens of her camera and through the online worlds of support groups and chess games that she visits each day. She has been separated from her husband and young daughter and, aside from her downstairs tenant, her physical and mental health visits, the occasional phone call, and the classic old films she loves and watches often, she spends most of her time inside her head. 



When the house across the street is bought by a couple with a teenaged son, Anna expects to add them to her roster of people to check up on through her window; it is business as usual. Until one day, she is visited by the wife and mother of the family. She thinks she has found a new friend and bonds with this woman over a lot of red wine and for someone like Anna, a lonely and solitary person, this is quite an event. A short time later, Anna witnesses a terrible scene through her window. She sees her new friend stabbed and bleeding and though she tries to make her way across the street to get to her but, thanks to her crippling fear and heavy drinking, she is unable. In the aftermath, she finds that no one believes what she saw. She can't prove anything, least of all, that the woman ever existed. Did she imagine everything? Is she sicker than she thought? What is everyone hiding? Anna must face her own unreliable memory as well as the pain of her own past in order to get to the truth. 



I enjoyed everything about this book. From the opening pages, it read like an old school noir tale with a fresh take on a familiar trope. Comparisons to classics like Rear Window and Rope will pepper the buzz around this title and they are well deserved. Anna is a classic heroine of this type of mystery, which blends the old school noir mysteries of 1940s cinema with the unreliable narrator/damaged woman protagonists of modern suspense stories like The Girl on the Train. Finn is great at setting an atmosphere that blends these two moods together. I liked Anna as a character because she is complex and surprising. Though I have to admit that I saw the twist coming way before it happened, I didn't anticipate the way she would react as a character and I was pleasantly surprised. Considering the buzz surrounding this book and the fact that the film rights have already been purchased, I have no doubt that this will make a good adaptation. I hope they choose a retro feel to it, since the book has it in spades. 

I recommend this to fans of noir suspense in both book and film form. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

New Year, Fresh Books

Hi hi hi!

It has been a minute. A very long, month long minute during which I read but not as much as I'd have liked and wrote not anywhere near as much as I should have. And that includes writing about the books I read. And as I sit here in update of this neglected book blog of mine I can see it coming in a distance...that ever expanding ball of excuses as it rolls down the slope, gathering girth and momentum as it accelerates. Instead of describing all the reasons why, I'll just brace myself against it and say that I'm going to try better.

Considering I just got back from a badly needed vacation, during which I managed to read two books (reviews to come), I think the two nascent weeks of 2018 that continued my long silence and half assed reading attempts can be forgiven, no? Please?

I didn't do a best of post for last year because literally every other book blog, magazine, newspaper, you name it did that and did it better. I didn't decide on a book challenge for this year because, as the autumn of 2017 taught me, life can enbusyfy (yes I made that word up) without warning, making all one's goals and challenges impossible to see through to the end. So I've contented myself with making general goals, the biggest of which is to make a significant dent in the books I have at home. Yes, dear friends, I am planning to focus on the books I have in my bedroom. (Notice, if you will, that I did not say I'm going to read them all nor did I say I'm ONLY going to read the books I have at home.) Three years ago I moved from my apartment after losing my job and into my sister's place and in that time, I've managed to become overwhelmed with the books in my possession. I am a librarian and librarians are literally begged to take free books at every professional (and most social) functions. Oh and also I have a book collecting "problem"that has no cure. These "bedroom books" don't include the boxes upon boxes of books that are in my storage unit, cooling their heels until we can be together again. No, these are fresh books, just hanging out horizontally on multiple surfaces of my bedroom and they must be cleared out. My new job required me to move a library of 70k books and piles and piles of archives and it did something to me, my people. It made me want to be a more orderly collector. It also made me want to dust more but I digress.

So, the only way out is through. I'm going to make a concerted effort to read the books in my room. I haven't counted them yet; my thought on that is that I'll become overwhelmed right out of the gate. I'm prone to "right out of the gate" emotions. Instead I will approach my mountain of books with a tiny pick axe and start chipping away. I'm two books in and I think I can do it. I wonder if I'm right.

What are your reading goals for this year?

Sunday, November 26, 2017

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson/ Read Harder Challenge #14


"A man is a god in ruins. When men are innocent, life shall be longer, and shall pass into the immortal, as gently as we awake from dreams."—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

So begins Atkinson's remarkable novel, A God in Ruins. The story of Teddy Todd, brother to Life After Life's Ursula Todd, is told over the course of the 20th century, beginning with his idyllic childhood at Fox Corner, the Todd home in rural, picturesque England, following him through the ravages of his service as an RAF pilot during World War II, and continuing through his life after war and into the end of the century. As a young man, well before the start of war, Teddy has a feeling that he isn't meant for the life everyone else seems destined to live. He has no interest in following his father's business career, in settling down to have children, and he doesn't really know exactly what he would like to do. He knows he loves nature and writing poetry and he even takes a trip around Europe to try to find out what his future could hold.

After war begins to consume Europe, Teddy enlists as a pilot for the RAF. He never expects to survive the war and approaches every mission and each day in training and the war with no expectation of seeing another day. He volunteers for mission after mission and though he experiences so many close calls, he survives, defying all the statistics. After the war he marries Nancy, his childhood sweetheart and they have one daughter before Nancy dies of brain cancer. Teddy spends the rest of his life caring for Viola, his daughter who deeply resents him (for reasons unknown to him, but are revealed to the reader in due time) and later, caring for his grandchildren.

The narrative switches between Teddy's point of view, Nancy's, Viola's, and his grandchildren Bertie and Sunny. Each character has a fascinating and heartbreaking story and some narratives are more engaging than others but each one is rich and heartbreaking in their own right.

Ever since finishing Atkinson's Life After Life, the companion predecessor to this novel, I've been in enamored of Atkinson's storytelling. The complexities and nuances of her plots and characters are nothing short of masterful. I had extremely high hopes going in to A God in Ruins and I was not disappointed. Teddy, as a character rivals only his sister Ursula as one of the best characters I've ever read. There were many times throughout the book when I found myself overcome with emotion for Teddy's story, particularly when we read about his old age, the loss of his beloved family members and friends and, of course, his war story.

I would recommend this book to fans of historical fiction, war stories, books that could be called sweeping epics, and anyone who loves an engaging, multi-generational story.

I read this as part of BookRiot's Read Harder challenge. This completed challenge #14: Read a book about war. Just like in Life After Life, Atkinson finds a way to make what is, at its heart a war novel, about so much more. In her author's note, however, she says she set out to write a war novel. A goal of taking on this reading challenge was to read books that I wouldn't normally read. So far this year, I've read two really detailed, dense, distinctly-about-a-war novels. (Catch-22 was the other.) The historical fiction stories to which I gravitate tend to have war as a backdrop and I'm an avowed fan of Atkinson. But I'm still counting it as part of the challenge! And though I inch closer to the goal by fractions of inches, I'm just not a 'gonna make it.

2017 Read Harder Challenge
1. Read a book about sports.
2. Read a debut novel.
3. Read a book about books.
4. Read a book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author.
5. Read a book by an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative.
6. Read an all-ages comic.
7. Read a book published between 1900 and 1950.
8. Read a travel memoir.
9. Read a book you’ve read before.
10. Read a book that is set within 100 miles of your location.
11. Read a book that is set more than 5000 miles from your location.
12. Read a fantasy novel.
13. Read a nonfiction book about technology.
14. Read a book about war.
15. Read a YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+.
16. Read a book that has been banned or frequently challenged in your country.
17. Read a classic by an author of color.
18. Read a superhero comic with a female lead.
19. Read an LGBTQ+ romance novel.
20. Read a book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey
21. Read a book published by a micropress.
22. Read a collection of stories by a woman.
23. Read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love.
24. Read a book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green


I'll admit it. I was going to read the latest John Green novel, regardless of its subject matter. I'm a fan. When I learned the title a few months ago, I was even more intrigued. "Turtles All the Way Down" is a phrase, often used in cosmology/philosophy/anecdotes all over the internet that references the myth that the world sits atop the back of a turtle, that that turtle sits atop the back of another turtle and on and on...turtles all the way down. It illustrates the philosophical idea of infinite regress or the notion that the reasons given to justify something must also have reasons to justify them and so on and on, to infinity. Green has a penchant for good titles referencing other things (The Fault in Our Stars, etc.) and I was interested to know how a YA book was going to incorporate this concept. He does it really well.

Aza is sixteen, an only child living with her mother in Indianapolis. A local millionaire has gone missing after some shady business dealings and, egged on by her best friend Daisy, Aza begins investigating the disappearance, with the goal of claiming the $100,000 reward. Daisy convinces Aza to contact the millionaire's son, Davis. Aza previously met him at "sad camp," a place for kids who have a deceased parent. Aza finds Davis and his brother living alone in a huge, secluded mansion, mourning their mother and convinced that their father has abandoned them. She soon discovers that she and Davis share a deep connection and sense of isolation.

Aza's isolation is different, however. She suffers from severe obsessive compulsive disorder. She is often triggered by the smallest detail and frequently finds herself in a downward spiral of her own obsessive thoughts. At one point she cuts her finger and spends long passages of the novel obsessing over whether or not it is clean, whether she needs to change the bandage, if she has contracted some parasite or bacteria that will give her a deadly disease and how many more times she will need to clean and disinfect her cut before she can be certain she will not die from the disease. Meanwhile, she is experiencing all the traditional teenage trials; high school drama, crushes, fights with her friend Daisy, the feeling of not belonging anywhere. She tries to focus her energies on overcoming her consuming thoughts and helping Davis find his father.

The mystery part of the novel didn't engage me in the way that the "mystery" of Green's previous novel The Fault in Our Stars did, likely because the investment these characters had in solving didn't feel as life and death. I also didn't find myself emotionally attached to any of these characters. Although very well constructed and well written, this did not deeply engage me.

Although I knew the book's subject matter was bound to be serious (with some humor and heart thrown in), I was not expecting it to be quite as dark as it is. Aza's mental illness and the in depth glance we get into her thought processes is upsetting. There were moments during her inner monologues when I, too, felt trapped inside the uncontrollable downward spiral she was leading. Evocative and vivid, Green's writing invites us to witness Aza's imprisonment inside her own thoughts. Like so many "invisible" illnesses, obsessive compulsive disorder is hard to face and recognize and having the heroine of the novel suffer from this is an important contribution to the discussion.

I'd recommend this to older YA and new adults. Also, fans of John Green will find that he's still exceptional at telling an honest teenage story.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Futilitarians by Anne Gisleson


So, I have a "story" that led me to this book and it takes place where so many spooky, coincidental, ghosty stories do: New Orleans. This past spring, I was lucky enough to take a long weekend trip to the city. I was born in Louisiana and grew up just outside of New Orleans in Kenner. I left when I was 12, after my parents split up and have been a New Yorker ever since. In the ensuing 29 years, returning to Louisiana has always been fraught with a mixture of emotions; some nostalgia, some apprehension, and a decent helping of sliding-doors-style what would have become of me if had I never left this crazy, magical place. The last time I visited was in 2004, right before the core of the city changed forever. Enough time and distance has passed for me to feel towards my birthplace the way I feel about a film I loved, but saw a long time ago: observing from outside, but feeling a pang of nostalgia and belonging.

My most recent springtime was fraught with sadness and health problems. My heart was both broken at a recent loss and it was literally not functioning properly, resulting in tests and doctors' visits and moments when I thought I might actually be dying (though I should note that I never was, actually...that's the "charming" thing about heart issues.) So this trip was a welcome respite.

I wanted to take advantage of my time and I was a tourist through and through, mainly because New Orleans is a fantastic place to be a tourist. At one stop, my group and I visited Lafayette cemetery, a beautiful, somber, city for both the dead and the living, with mausoleums arranged like a small city, the “streets” full of stories and sadness and memory. On the day we walked through, I was feeling my heart beat a thousand miles a minute and was doing my best to focus on the names and dates of the headstones we passed. This is something I do anyway, my imagination searching in vain to know about the people and the lives they left behind.

I passed a mausoleum that had a glittery high heeled shoe in front of it and saw that it belonged to a family by the name of Gisleson. The final name on the list was Geronimo, and not only was I struck by how unique and beautiful the name was, but I was also struck by how young he was when he passed. He was twenty four.

Later that day, resting in the air conditioning of my very old, quasi-spooky hotel room, trying to ignore my medication and heat induced dizziness, his lyrical name popped up in my head again and I Googled his name. His obituary said that he had “lost his battle with addiction” which is tragic. But I was also struck that it was in his obituary at all. I thought it brave of his family to include that detail, which is rare to see, but important in the fight against drug addiction. The Google search also revealed that other members of his family had preceded him in death, two aunts who were around my age (and also very young when they died) as well as a prominent grandfather, that he received care during his final days in Oschner Hospital, a place where I spent a week sleeping in my mother’s hospital room after my younger brother was born. It seemed to me like I knew families just like his, could have grown up with someone just like him. It did make me want to know more about this family but, in the interest of not prying into lives, accompanied by my being sick while on vacation, I stopped searching there. That was in March.

Around the end of September, I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t fall back to sleep. I started to clear out the search history of my phone (as you do when you are an insomniac and it’s 2am) and, since I’m a bit obsessive about things I’ve searched, I was checking to make sure I didn’t delete anything I might want to remember. And there was the name again, Geronimo. I reread the obituary again, six months after I first came across it and I thought about that family, wondered about them and felt a strange melancholy for people I’ve never met.

The very next day at work, I was straightening out books on display. Someone had rearranged some of the titles and as I was fixing it, I noticed a book had fallen behind the others in between the shelves. I reached behind the shelf to pry it out and when I looked at the cover, I saw a familiar last name: Gisleson. This time it was Anne Gisleson. The name is so unusual that I was stunned. Reading the jacket copy I saw that the author resided in New Orleans and the summary of the book mentioned the tragedy of the author losing her two sisters and father. This woman was Geronimo’s aunt. I don’t always put too much stock in signs, but sometimes, it just feels like you should follow a path. I felt compelled to read this book and I did. Below is my review.

In 2012, Gisleson was emerging from a period of hardship and grief. She and a friend decided to form a book club and call it the Existential Crisis Reading Group (ECRG) or The Futilitarians. Still mourning her recently deceased father, the ravages of hurricane Katrina on her home and home city, and the long ago loss of her beloved twin sisters, Rebecca and Rachel, both to suicide, Gisleson found herself at a moment in life where gathering together with a group of friends to read and discuss existential writings and searching seemed like the perfect thing to do. So, together with her husband (who also experienced tragedy) gathered a group together to discuss existential works and in the process, hopefully, to lend some comfort to each other. This memoir covers the year they formed the group.

With an impressive reading list that included (but was not limited to) Kingsley Amis, John Cheever, James Baldwin, Tadeusz Borowski, Shakespeare, Kafka, Tolstoy, and several others, including a poet named Everette Maddox who's work I need to get to know, the group spends the year gathering and discussing and grasping for meaning and connection.  Each chapter is dedicated to the group’s monthly meeting and Gisleson discusses their readings, their ensuing conversation, all while drawing connections to her state of mind and the memories of her beloved father and sisters.

From the outset of the book, it is very clear that Gisleson is an intellectual. The writing is heavy on philosophy and introspection; what else could be expected in a book about a book club? She is a creative writing teacher and her work combines her philosophical interests and her way with prose. There were many standout passages. To wit:

"Someone once asked if it fucked me up having two sisters who committed suicide. I gave a wrongish, three-beers-in answer ----"Yeah, when I think about it. But, wanting to cut that line of inquiry off, I didn't explain that I thought about it a few times and hour for the year and a half between their deaths and then for about another year after Rachel died. These continuous sucker punches to the gut wore me down in ways that weren't evident at the time, and maybe still aren’t. Subsequent years were textured by the fragile, damaged quality of a Metaphysical Hangover. The roiling uneasiness of aftermath gives way to despair, then teases you with moments of relief and normalcy only to pull you under with another current of grief."

The specter of her deceased loved ones permeates the book and as she works through her losses, she writes intimately of her memories, bringing the reader inside her family. I felt immersed in her (and their) stories and the moments when she writes about her relationships with her father and sisters read much a like a generational novel. There was no mention of her nephew but that could be for any number of reasons. Gisleson is a gifted writer. She also writes vividly about New Orleans both in the present as well as in memory, having spent her whole life there and witnessing the transformation post-Hurricane Katrina.

"After a few years, the city's transformation that accompanied the Rebuilding Hangover was followed by the stubborn, natural, but rather American forgetting, a collective survival mechanism, a getting back to "normal." But I think that once you've seen firsthand what the wholesale destruction of your home looks like, the memory of it forms a substratum in your consciousness, alive and molten under the optimistic layers of the reconstruction, under the new foundations and drywall, new roads and schools."

Overall, I am glad that I followed the coincidences that led me to this book. As someone who often lives introspectively, processing grief and alienation through reading (and sometimes drinking), the themes of this work resonated. I would love to start a similar book club post-Trump age (I don’t think I or anyone I know could take too much of existential reading that isn’t the news) and will make note of her reading list. I’m also happy to have learned about that family I wondered about all those months ago. It is a beautiful rarity for which I am grateful.

I would recommend this to philosophy readers, New Orleans-o-philes, anyone working through grief or loss.

As just occurs to me, this book qualifies for Reading Challenge #3 in the BookRiot Reading challenge: Read a book about books. Score!


BookRiot 2017 Read Harder Challenge

1. Read a book about sports.
2. Read a debut novel.
3. Read a book about books.
4. Read a book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author.
5. Read a book by an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative.
6. Read an all-ages comic.
7. Read a book published between 1900 and 1950.
8. Read a travel memoir.
9. Read a book you’ve read before.
10. Read a book that is set within 100 miles of your location.
11. Read a book that is set more than 5000 miles from your location.
12. Read a fantasy novel.
13. Read a nonfiction book about technology.
14. Read a book about war.
15. Read a YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+.
16. Read a book that has been banned or frequently challenged in your country.
17. Read a classic by an author of color.
18. Read a superhero comic with a female lead.
19. Read an LGBTQ+ romance novel.
20. Read a book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey
21. Read a book published by a micropress.
22. Read a collection of stories by a woman.
23. Read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love.
24. Read a book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh




What first drew me to this book, the latest from critically acclaimed author Ottessa Moshfegh, was the title. If I could title the general zeitgeist in America of late, it would be that. Homesick for Another World. And in "judging a book by its cover" news: the image of a vintage looking UFO on the cover accompanied by the clean color blocks spoke to me as well. Lately I've been looking for stories about people living just outside the edges, people who don't fit inside their own lives and spend most of their time inside their own heads. Something about the repellent nature of living in the world today makes characters like these resonate. I should also add that, by comparison, my own private Idahoes feel so much better when I read about theirs.

Homesick for Another World is a collection of short stories that fit exactly what I was looking for. Moshfegh's characters all live (or in some cases, spend just the summers in) the fringes of society, involving themselves in self-destruction, dysfunctional relationships, failed careers, and their own bizarre "other" worlds. There is a pervasive morbid quality to all of their lives and their situations are at once strange and totally normal. Moshfegh is so gifted at voice; though each protagonist was so profoundly different in each of the stories, they shared a quality of isolation and loneliness that managed to connect them all. I got the sense that they would recognize something in themselves if they met each other.

Some standout stories include "Bettering Myself" about a highly dysfunctional teacher with a penchant for inappropriate conversations with her students and ex-husband."The Beach Boy" tells the story of a widower and the discovery of his deceased wife's infidelity during their last vacation together. "Slumming" was the most engaging story for me. The story is about a teacher who spends her summers in a small, run down town, doing drugs which she buys from the "zombies" at the bus station and keeping the residents as "part of the scenery," until a pregnant young woman from the town comes to clean her house. Moshfegh gives us a glimpse inside the inner lives of these oddball, yet wholly relatable people.

I read this book as part of the Book Riot 2017 Read Harder Challenge. This is challenge #22: Read a collection of stories by a woman. There were SO MANY to choose from and ultimately, it came down to about six choices for this. What tipped me over to Moshfegh was that I so loved her novel Eileen and I wanted to hear her distinct and unique voice again. I get that this challenge's purpose was to promote more writing by women, however, I didn't find this part all that challenging. There is so much great short story writing by women. I'm thinking of Lorrie Moore, Miranda July, and if we want to take it old skool, Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, Kate Chopin....

(A note about the Read Harder Challenge: Considering we are mid-October and I am hella behind my reading schedule, I am doubtful I'm going to complete the challenge in 2017. I will pick it up in the first half of 2018...maybe. There will undoubtedly be a 2018 challenge that will strike my fancy by then and I'm nothing if not a slave to my own fickle reading brain. I do still have a few months but I'm not optimistic I'll get more than one or two more into this challenge. There are just too many other books on deck, damnit.)

2017 Read Harder Challenge
1. Read a book about sports.
2. Read a debut novel.
3. Read a book about books.
4. Read a book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author.
5. Read a book by an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative.
6. Read an all-ages comic.
7. Read a book published between 1900 and 1950.
8. Read a travel memoir.
9. Read a book you’ve read before.
10. Read a book that is set within 100 miles of your location.
11. Read a book that is set more than 5000 miles from your location.
12. Read a fantasy novel.
13. Read a nonfiction book about technology.
14. Read a book about war.
15. Read a YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+.
16. Read a book that has been banned or frequently challenged in your country.
17. Read a classic by an author of color.
18. Read a superhero comic with a female lead.
19. Read an LGBTQ+ romance novel.
20. Read a book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey
21. Read a book published by a micropress.
22. Read a collection of stories by a woman.
23. Read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love.
24. Read a book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook by Mark Bray


We are always living through uncertain times. Some periods in history always seem more tumultuous than others but at any given time, it would depend entirely on perspective. Lately, in America, things seems to be metaphorically (and sometimes literally) on fire. Recent events surrounding the Berkeley protests of controversial speakers, the terrible tragedy at Charlottesville, and the distinct mainstream visibility of white supremacist voices (and the accompanying sympathy for them by administration in power) have brought a renewed attention to the history of fascism and its roots in white supremacy. The political movement "Antifa" has surfaced to the top in conversation.

On a personal level, I was only tangentially aware of Antifa before this year. There are many reasons for this which I won't go into here. Recently, I hear so much about Antifa in counter arguments about the Nazi/fascist/white supremacist groups. The equivalence drawn by many in these conversations between Antifa and white supremacy piqued my curiosity. When I attended a book buzz earlier this year at the offices of Melville House, one of the books discussed as a forthcoming title was Mark Bray's work Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook and I decided to read it for my own edification. 

Bray interviewed 61 current and former anti-fascists from 17 countries, as well as conducted exhaustive research in order to write this book. Part of the book's end goal is, as per the introduction, is to expand "our geographical and temporal outlook to contextualize opposition to Trump and the alt-right within a much wider and broader terrain of resistance."

Antifa is short for 'anti-fascist' and what struck me immediately is that a huge majority of the information that floats around our media today regarding Antifa and the basic understanding of the average person who maligns it, has absolutely no idea what Antifa is, much less what it stands for. Before reading this book, I was under the impression that Antifa was one big organization/political party and I half expected to read a standard history of a traditional political movement. Many recent news articles have crafted this narrative, likely in order to make drawing parallels between Antifa and white supremacist hate groups a means of deflection. 

This book posits that there are a few reasons for this misinformation and confusion. One is that fascism itself is hard to define. Historical fascist movements and governments did not follow a one size fits all doctrine and would often change and twist the belief system as circumstances changed. A direct result of this difficulty to neatly define fascism makes the tendency to define Antifa as "simply" anti-fascism. However, this book argues that "the reduction of the term to a mere negation obscures an understanding of anti-fascism as a method of politics, a locus of individual and group self-identification, and a transnational movement that adapted preexisting socialist, anarchist, and communist currents to a sudden need to react to the fascist menace. This political interpretation transcends the flattening dynamics of reducing anti-fascism to the simple negation of fascism  by highlighting the strategic, cultural, and ideological foundation from which socialists of all stripes have fought back." 

The shortened version of that answer is; it's complicated. Or at least defining it is. And in modern times and governments, it becomes ever more expansive. Bray's book is exhaustively researched and the interviews he has conducted with anti-fascists are illuminating. He highlights the wide variety of anti-fascist groups throughout the world, the differences in their core ideologies, their methods of protest and action, and the different ranges of focus in fighting the far right and fascism. He makes the case that Antifa is not a single issue movement but rather "one of a number of manifestations of revolutionary socialist politics (broadly construed)." This is the first work of its kind; the study of anti-fascist groups has been lacking, largely due to the reluctance of anti-fascist activists to reveal their identities. Bray has been a political activist for some time and was able to reach these interviews because of the trust he has built within these circles. 

For certain, the tone of the writing is very academic. I would not recommend this book to a reader looking for an easily palatable read and discussion of a serious and complex movement. Bray admits in his introduction that his focus is on Western Europe and the United States, despite the fact that Eastern European countries as well as Latin America, Australia, and East Asia all have antifa movements. Perhaps his next book could focus on those? I'd be interested.

Reading this book was both a political and historical lesson for me. I have been introduced to a wealth of historical information from various countries (including my own) that I have been unaware of and it has prompted me to do further research. If you are a person interested in history and politics, particularly in how understanding the history of political movements and activism in context as they relate to the world we are living in today...then I recommend you read this. And I definitely recommend this book to each and every person I have engaged with, in person and online, who hear a few buzzwords about Antifa and then use it as a talking point without understanding anything about it. I have the distinct feeling that if any of them did, the conversation would experience a very, very welcome sea change.