On Homegoing

9781101947135

Let’s just add spreading the word about Yaa Gyasi’s stunning novel Homegoing to the ever-growing list of reasons why I adore Ta-Nehisi Coates. It was Coates’ off-hand endorsement of Gyasi’s debut in a recent article that first alerted me to the presence of this instant classic. Once I caught onto the buzz via Coates, it was pretty hard to ignore the cacophony of rave reviews, podcasts, and bookstores, all imploring me to read this book. Then I suffered a few agonizing weeks, waiting for everyone else who had heard the buzz ahead of me to return their copies to the library so I could take my turn. Spoiler alert: Homegoing was totally worth the wait.

There are literally thousands of reviews out there lauding the achievement that is Homegoing, and still I feel compelled to add my voice. There isn’t much I can say that hasn’t already been covered regarding plot. The story begins with two half-sisters, unknown to one another, who lead very separate lives in Africa. Effia, married to a white man, becomes ensconced in the comfort of the Cape Coast Castle, while her sister, Esi, comes to live in the very same castle, only she is one of many women kept in the dungeon and sold into slavery. From this starting point, Gyasi follows each woman’s lineage, alternating between the two family lines with every other chapter. But rather than following Effia’s or Esi’s life stories to their respective ends, Gyasi only devotes a single 20-odd page chapter to each character in her story. And so a child of the protagonist from the preceding chapter becomes the new protagonist in the next chapter and so on across the generations.

In so doing, Gyasi covers over 300 years of story, from the eighteenth century through today, profiling specific moments in time from the lives of just a few members of this family. She creates a remarkably complete portrait of the family’s past and present, finding ways to subtly tie loose ends and clear up those questions left unanswered when she abandons one character’s story for that of his or her offspring. Beyond that, Gyasi crafts a fully realized study of the experience of black families across both time, as three centuries of story are captured here, and space, as Effia’s descendants mostly remain in Africa while Esi’s live in the United States.

Though readers may at first consider the general outlines of these characters’ stories rather archetypal, from the runaway black slave who will never know true freedom to the single mother finding community in her church choir, Gyasi is remarkably apt at filling them in to their most fully realized extent. Although we may get only the smallest taste of any given character’s circumstances, Homegoing never wants for greater detail. Despite being an oft-overused and thus weak statement, there is no more apt way to put it than to say that Gyasi makes her characters come to life. She does so in a tender, artistic, and seemingly effortless way, leaving me in awe of her talent and unable to select a character that was my favorite, nor one that felt underdeveloped or that I disliked.

Gyasi not only captured an incredible story in Homegoing, but maybe even more remarkably, she shared it in a beautifully inventive and surprisingly comprehensive fashion. I think this is what struck me most about the novel, the way in which brief snapshots of so many interconnected yet disparate lives were able to so thoroughly capture the black experience. As a white woman, I completely acknowledge the presumptuousness inherent in me writing that Gyasi has captured the black experience; this is obviously an experience that has never personally been my own and all the books in the world could never provide me enough insight to equal the actual experiences of black people themselves. However, I believe most readers would be hard pressed to find a novelist who has provided this type of insight in greater measure than Gyasi has here. In conveying the stories and histories of African and African American people so effectively, Gyasi makes them become at once both universal and absolutely singular. Relatable to those outside the black community through the unapologetic rendering of each character’s essential humanity, their flaws, inconsistencies, struggles, passions, and triumphs, while also brilliantly detailed enough to highlight uniquely specific experiences of life that many readers may otherwise never know. Seeing how Gyasi strikes a perfect balance between these two qualities is quite a treat for readers, but also seems desperately necessary now more than ever. I think Roxanne Gay put it best when she said “Homegoing is a very confident debut novel. Exceptionally engaging and the strongest case for reparations and black rage I’ve read in a long time.” Gyasi renders the existence of intergenerational poverty and structural racism utterly undeniable, logically connecting the historical experiences of black people to the reality of their lives today.

While the structure of Homegoing is unlike anything I’ve ever read and the subject matter is oftentimes heavy, ranging from tribal conflict between the Asante and Fante people to drug abuse, single parenthood, and the violence and abuses of slavery, it is a quick and absorbing read. The frequency with which new characters are introduced, the desire to know what happened to the previous protagonist, and the language with which Gyasi writes all make this novel rather easy to settle into. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Homegoing one day becomes required reading in the classroom. It’s that kind of good, that kind of important, that kind of accessible.

I will admit, I found the ending a bit underwhelming, but mostly because it felt pretty inevitable. This is one of those cases where the cheesy saying is totally true: it’s about the journey and not the destination. While readers won’t have trouble guessing how Gyasi will end her novel, that’s not why you pick up a book like this one. It’s the process of getting there, of seeing how Gyasi takes us through the ages and does so in such a riveting and artful way, that makes Homegoing worth a read.

One of my litmus tests for books is the degree to which I want to discuss a book with others as soon as I’m finished reading. Similarly, the amount with which I recommend a book to family and friends is also highly associated with my opinion of it. I guess the two are intertwined, along with my desire to write this review; good books beg to be shared, discussed, and read as far and as wide as possible so that they can foster more sharing, more discussing. Gyasi’s debut is one of those books that I’m absolutely aching to talk to someone about. I’ve already advised several family members and friends that it’s a must-read, and now I’ve taken to the internet, hoping to connect with other readers who can fill the void in me as I eagerly seek a dialogue about just how incredible Gyasi’s Homegoing is. I couldn’t recommend this book more highly and I couldn’t be more excited to hear from others who consumed this book with as much gusto as I did.

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On The Book of Strange New Things

Image retrieved from http://www.goodreads.com

A genre-bending sci-fi story of evangelizing extraterrestrial life on a far off planet, Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things never feels as out of this world as you would expect – in a good way. The novel follows Peter, a Christian minister sent by an enigmatic corporation to bring the word of God to native aliens on the planet Oasis. Contrary to what this meager plot outline may seem to suggest, however, Faber’s book is largely ground in very human struggles and emotions, rather than the mysteries of outer space.

I will admit that Peter was the one who got me hooked. The story takes its time coming to life due to the density of Faber’s prose, and it was my affinity for the protagonist that kept me reading when I wasn’t sure where the story would lead, let alone if I would be much interested once it got there. The reveal of Peter’s big mission is withheld from audiences for a seemingly long time – we know he and his wife Bea are anxious about an impending, indefinite amount of time spent apart; we learn that Peter is proud to have been selected for his mysterious mission after a rigorous selection process, full of grueling interviews; and we receive tidbits hinting at the evangelical nature of his new position. But what USIC (the acronym for the corporation sending him to Oasis) even stands for, where Peter will actually find himself after his flight from home, what characteristics led to his selection, the fact that his mission involves traveling to another planet – all these crucial details elude readers for so long that I found myself questioning whether to even get involved in the novel much further. Fortunately, I pushed through.

Upon arriving on Oasis, Peter first struggles to connect with the various personnel around him at the base complex operated by USIC. In particular, Alexandra Grainger who functions as both community pharmacist and Peter’s personal guide, remains frustratingly elusive but also represents Peter’s best chance at understanding this strange new place. Supplying Peter with only the most vague and noncommittal information about the Oasans as possible, Grainger takes Peter to his first encounter with the natives. Lucky for Peter, the Oasans are surprisingly eager for the teachings of Christ. In fact, they identify themselves by the name “Jesus Lover” followed by a number identifying the order in which these Oasans came to Christ.

Peter starts to get comfortable on Oasis as he settles for a few days (and these are lengthy days as the Oasan sky’s cycle is much longer than that of planet Earth) with the Oasans, alternated with a few days back on base. Despite the humid air from which the Oasan settlement offers no respite, the sea of indistinguishable fetus-like faces the Oasans present to their religious leader, and the strange tongue in which they speak, Peter experiences a feeling of great calm among the natives, priding himself on starting to know them as a people and to understand them as individuals. In stark contrast, there is an atmosphere of doom looming whenever Peter finds himself on the USIC base. I was filled with a constant sense of foreboding simply reading these scenes, always fearing that the true, sordid reason the corporation brought Peter to Oasis was about to be revealed. I had a gut feeling that the actual nature of USIC’s work on the planet was not as they had originally revealed to Peter (although there never was an especially specific reasoning offered), that we would discover something much more dark and horrible when the truth finally came out.

While Peter has a surprisingly easy time communicating and engaging with the native Oasans, he encounters great trouble in connecting effectively via “the Shoot” (essentially, a computer with email access only) with his wife Bea back at home. The two find themselves growing ever more emotionally distant while Bea describes scenes from an increasingly chaotic planet Earth, changes which Peter can barely comprehend while so far away and, perhaps even worse, from which he cannot protect his left-behind wife as she needs.

Peter’s tense exchanges with his wife, his incrementally-increasing knowledge about USIC, and his heightened sense of comfort with the natives come to a head that is neither highly surprising nor profound, but satisfying for readers to arrive at nonetheless given all the work it took us to get there. It seemed that Peter’s relationship with the Oasans was supposed to abruptly change in the end, but instead I felt a sort of gradual falling apart leading up to it. And when we uncover the true nature of USIC, it struck me as far less monumental and not nearly as horrible as Faber made readers previously fear. Although I was underwhelmed with the conclusion to this novel (most specifically, a late series of events that Faber tries to arrange as an epiphany of sorts), the weakness of its ending did not undermine the pleasure of reading all that came before. In fact, the very length of the book may have been the reason why its ending felt so pale; in a sea of so much information, the climax felt lost.

The novel clocks in at a daunting 500 pages and while it doesn’t suffer for its length, Faber could have sacrificed his verbose and lurid description of Peter’s experience on Oasis to produce a far slimmer volume. But I appreciated the attention he devoted to some of the more seemingly mundane aspects of this other world setting – his efforts at creating a beautiful, detailed picture of Oasis truly pay off.

I’m not much of a sci-fi reader, but there were aspects of life on Oasis that I found truly fantastical, set alongside other elements that were wholly unimaginative. Peter’s inability to define gender on this planet was a very interesting consideration of extraterrestrial life to include. Despite repeated attempts to understand whether Oasans considered themselves male or female, Peter continually failed to garner a true response on this point from any of the Jesus Lovers. Faber’s exploration of how a different species of life, one that does procreate (we even witness an Oasan give birth in one scene), experiences gender, if they do at all, was a pretty fascinating trip. Peter also describes a mystical, dancing type of rain that creates musical, rhythmic sounds as it patters on the rooftops. Faber’s descriptions of Oasan rain were the type of image that I always love and hate in equal parts in literature; I’m captivated by the unreal beauty described, but find my imagination falling short in its ability to fully picture the author’s vision. Its times like these when I yearn for a movie or some other visual to supplement the gorgeous written description provided.

But on the other hand, the Oasans’ settlement felt way too Earth-like for me to readily accept. True, the buildings had no real doors or windows and they were low and squat, without the ambitious height of metropolitan and suburban dwellings these days. But still, the architecture of the place was described in such terms as to make me picture Adobe houses on a desert plain, rather than a literally out of this world community of homes. The fact that some Oasans could speak English, despite difficulties with their “s” and “t” sounds, seemed remarkably under-explained. Although the community previously had contact with other USIC staff that purportedly taught the natives English, the depth of their knowledge of the language as well as their ability to read it was distractingly dubious, enough to take my mind out of the story in order to muddle over these doubts.

One of the book’s greatest strengths lies in how Faber never offers any type of judgment, good or bad, regarding Peter’s strength of faith. Rather, the fact that his protagonist is a devoted Christian missionary is presented plainly, unemotionally, factually. Certainly there are moral dilemmas that Peter muddles through under the guidance of religion, and his faith comes through in conversation with the USIC staff as well as the Oasans, but readers are not encouraged to look down upon Peter as a naive God-lover, nor to uphold him as a perfect Christian specimen. I certainly liked Peter, respected him and hoped that only the best would come to him, but I was pleasantly surprised by the way Faber treated his main character, given the outline of Peter’s persona. As we near the book’s end, Faber inches ever so slightly toward a higher level of judgment about religion, but only through the direct thoughts and actions of Peter and Bea, never in terms of how the author treats his characters. I found Faber’s whole relationship with his protagonist and his corresponding religious views rather fascinating.

Flawed but compelling, inventive but not wholly so, Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things is a solid good read, an opportunity to be transported to another world in the truest sense of the phrase. While I wasn’t completely blown away with this one, I was eager to continue reading, not just because there was so much to get through, but rather because it was so enjoyable to dwell with Peter in Faber’s Oasis.

On The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Rob Peace since I tearfully made my way through the last few pages of Jeff Hobbs’ book chronicling his life. Although the title indicates, before even opening to the first page, that Peace’s life is somehow tragically cut short, the pain of how it plays out was still highly palpable in me when I reached the book’s end. The rise and fall of this promising young African American man makes for a heartbreaking journey throughout.

Raised by a single mother and son of a drug dealing father, Rob’s story started out not too dissimilar from that of most young men born to poverty-stricken families in the greater Newark, New Jersey area. But as Rob grew, his inherent intelligence was unmistakable. This promise led the young man to St. Benedict’s Preparatory High School and eventually Yale University. It drove Peace all over the world, starting with a trip to Rio de Janeiro after receiving his undergraduate degree. But like far too many young black men with great potential, Rob’s life was cut short by the kind of violence that can ultimately be attributed to the conditions of a life lived in desperate poverty.

Writer Jeff Hobbs, who mid-way through the book is revealed to be one of Peace’s randomly-assigned freshmen roommates at Yale, offers a heartfelt, well-written portrait of his friend while paying due attention to the larger social structure within which Peace existed. He covers Peace’s childhood and family life, including the many sacrifices Rob’s incredibly strong mother Jackie made in order to send her son to a prep school that would match his educational potential. Largely because Rob’s father, Skeet, was a known drug dealer, she made the conscious decision not to marry the man nor have him live in her home as a traditional father figure to Rob. In Hobbs’ efforts to carefully contextualize Rob’s family, a more empathetic and compassionate side of Skeet emerges, an image of a father who helped his son with homework, visited often, and protected the boy’s innocence as best he could. Hobbs demonstrates how hard Jackie worked just so that her son could attend a high school where he would have a fighting chance of being seen by a four year university, the efforts she took to keep her son separate from the drug culture rampant around them. This was a woman who did everything she could in an effort to help her son succeed despite an array of obstacles, from the color of his skin to his family’s income tax bracket to the town where he was born.

This background on Peace pre-Yale was easily my favorite section of the book. The culture at St. Benedict’s Preparatory School, the way that Rob positively blossomed there, the group of lifelong friends he developed who fondly donned themselves the Burger Boyz. It was a treat to see this young man defy the odds and flourish in an academic environment, knowing that soon the world would be at his feet when he stepped onto Yale’s campus. It was encouraging to hear about a subculture within the Newark environment where teenage boys were formed into true men. It was inspiring to behold one man cashing in on so much promise despite the odds.

Once Rob moves on to Yale, I yearned for him to again construct the type of community he created during his high school years. It was a slow process, one that initially made me feel immensely wary, worried Rob would lead a friendless, solitary existence in the Ivy League. But in due time, Rob’s caring nature and easy way of connecting with others gave way to an ever-widening social circle until ultimately he became a friend to many on Yale’s campus, a standout student, an initiate into one of the university’s secret societies, and a known source for grade A pot. Since the time he first tried marijuana in high school, Rob smoked nearly every day. And at Yale, trafficking low level drugs to his fellow upper-class students was an easy way to turn a quick buck, build a generous financial cushion, and even direct some money toward his mom’s household without raising suspicion. Again Hobbs emphasized context, how Yale was a safe place for this kind of drug trade, how it helped to widen the scope of people with whom Rob interacted, how it was never detrimental to his academic performance (in fact, Rob proclaimed that the high he got from pot enabled him to complete his schoolwork). Rob seemed to be at the height of his game during his Yale years, majoring in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, saving for highly-anticipated travel and the future, set to accomplish something few people from his station in life thought possible.

Unfortunately this four year high was followed by a slow decay in Rob’s ambition after graduation. I hated to read about this seemingly-aimless portion of Rob’s life, but I also found it to be the most compelling. The beginning of this downfall came with the loss of Rob’s drug money. He had saved $100,000 from his dealing days at Yale, all in cash. When Rob traveled to Rio de Janeiro after graduation, he stored this money with a close family friend, the type of man who would accept and store a large box for two months’ time without question. When Rob came home, however, he found the lock on his box busted and every last cent gone. Instead of having a nice financial cushion to fall back on while figuring out what comes next, Rob was put in a position of desperation not at all dissimilar to that of anyone existing in poverty without any savings to speak of. Even though he was fresh out of Yale, Peace began to put off graduate school applications in favor of first teaching high school science at his alma mater, then pursing harebrained real estate schemes just as the housing bubble burst, eventually performing manual labor at Newark International, and ultimately drug dealing again. But dealing marijuana at Yale was a completely different ballgame than contending with the gangs and powerfully competing drug interests of Newark.

Hobbs doesn’t paint Peace out to be a saint, especially as the years progress and Rob Peace the Yale undergrad begins to seem incongruous with Rob Peace the marijuana-dealing Continental Airlines luggage handler. Certainly the choices Peace made placed him in a position where drug-related crime and violence threatened, and ultimately ended, his life. But under Hobbs’ deft hand, you can’t help but recognize the forces beyond Peace’s control which lead him to do the type of manual labor and illegal activity that most college-educated people attain a university degree in order to avoid. Rob put off his grad school applications, he got overly comfortable with the Burger Boyz, he fell prey to one too many bad ideas that promised him a quick financial fix. Were he to have been a white, upper-middle-class Yale graduate, the kind of person with a strong web of connections built up over the whole of his and his family’s lives, maybe Rob would have made out better professionally. If he was able to be supported by mom and dad in the transition after college graduation, instead of being expected to become the family’s prime source of financial support, maybe Rob would not have fallen so far.

The sad reality is that these were not the conditions of Rob’s life after Yale. Looking at the post-St. Benedict’s trajectories of all five of the Burger Boyz really drives this point home. These were all prep school educated boys, four of who headed to college upon their high school graduation. Other than Rob, only one of his friends from this group successfully completed college. And their careers in adulthood were not the type of white collar, professional jobs a prep school or four year university graduate would likely aim to attain. That’s not to say that these men led unhappy or unfulfilling lives; it just goes to show that the pressure of existence in a place like Newark makes it near impossible for anyone, even the area’s brightest young people, to ever get much further than where they started from, let alone to the achievement of even their more modest dreams.

While this book is undeniably about a certain person’s life set within a very specific set of circumstances, it is irrevocably tangled with the social, economic, cultural, and political history of a notoriously rough neighborhood. If someone with all the god-given natural ability in the world can’t make it out of Newark alive, is there much hope for anyone? Not that getting out of Newark should be the goal. Rob was so deeply embedded in the lives of everyone he loved from Newark, finding a life that took him away from that place was never the goal. The fact that areas like Newark exist, where so many people don’t feel safe in their own homes but don’t have the means to leave and set up homes elsewhere, isn’t the problem but rather just one symptom of a dysfunctional society that fails to care for its own, that fails to make dangerous communities more livable again. I worry that too many of Hobbs’ readers will decry Peace for returning to Newark, that they would measure Rob’s success, were he still alive today, based upon his ultimate remove from the place where he grew up. Applying this kind of litmus test to success only reinforces the idea that places like Newark are inescapable, an idea I want so badly to believe is untrue. Unfortunately I also can’t shed the nagging suspicion that, if the place were Rob was born to were just ten minutes up the I-280, staying there would not have been so inextricably tied to his downfall and untimely death.

Most of the book’s critics cite the gaping difference in the life circumstances of the author and his subject as reason to avoid Hobbs’ work. What right does a privileged white Yale legacy novelist have to write about the life of a black man from Newark? Some, maybe even Hobbs himself, would answer very little. He is fully cognizant of his shortcomings as Peace’s biographer. Hobbs profiled his friend’s life with a thorough recognition that he, a Yale-educated white male from a long line of Yale-educated white males, could never fully comprehend what it was like to grow up as Rob did. I find it actually lends a certain compassion and insight to this biography of Peace that I appreciated. There’s an acknowledgement underlying every paragraph that we as readers and Hobbs as our narrator cannot truly understand what Rob was thinking or feeling, how he was holding it all together, why he made the decisions he made. In Hobbs’ fond portrait, Rob is treated as a remarkably kind, loving, intelligent, determined, and gifted human being, but also a flawed and unknowable one, as we all ultimately are.

Other critics argue that Hobbs is just profiting off the death of a young black man, one that he was barely even friends with. Admittedly, Hobbs was struggling to get his second novel published after the first was received with little fanfare. But a story as compelling as this one begged to be told and the very fact that Hobbs had ambitions of becoming a successful published author made him a prime candidate for writing this book. He was interested in the subject but also separate enough from him that he could do some investigative journalism, recount events in Rob’s life for which he was not present without the taint of foggy memory or his own subjective perspective. Hobbs obviously worked arduously to get the facts straight, to uncover the gritty minutiae of Rob’s life, to get to the anecdotes that would belie what meaning Rob made of his own existence. It would require a lot of trust and confidence from Rob’s closest friends and family, a very wide circle of people indeed, to write this book, let alone to do so this well. The faith that Rob’s loved ones demonstrate in Hobbs by opening up to him about their beloved friend speaks for itself.

Hobbs doesn’t treat his book as a mission to seek justice for his friend nor as an account of Peace at Yale, the only time in Peace’s life that Hobbs can truly speak to. The author makes his best effort to remove himself from the picture of Rob’s life to the point that I spent the first hundred pages wondering how Hobbs had ever come to learn about Rob in the first place. He speaks to his perceptions and understanding of Peace’s life as his roommate when he can, but this doesn’t color the narrative throughout. Clear and concise, Hobbs’ prose captured both the facts and the unanswerable in his friend’s short life. He elucidates the sadness of losing a remarkable friend, inseparable from the much larger problems that led to that lost. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace is an important book, a timely one, and the type to encourage discussions about race and class that we can’t afford not to have.

On Self-Inflicted Wounds

I’m crazy for all things Aisha right now. I first knew Aisha Tyler (as many people did) as Ross’ black girlfriend on the sitcom Friends. Little did I know back then, Ms. Tyler is a lady of very many talents (podcaster, comedian, writer, actress, TV host, writer), vast intelligence, and unparalleled quirkiness. My husband recently got me into her excellent interview podcast, Girl on Guy, on which she speaks with mostly male comedians and entertainers about their origin stories and always finishes up with a tale of their worst self-inflicted wound (Chris Rock’s is pretty epic and can be heard here). I’ve even gone so far as to make my husband suffer through rampant applause breaks and painfully shallow gossip during the 2:00 hour on snow days by watching The Talk, the panel-style afternoon talk show that Ms. Tyler co-hosts along with Cheryl Underwood, Sharon Osbourne, Julie Chen, and Sarah Gilbert. I just can’t get enough of this lady.

So I also picked up her second book entitled Self-Inflicted Wounds” Heartwarming Tales of Epic Humiliation. Not truly a memoir, nor really an essay collection, the book defies any kind of classification. Ms. Tyler first explains the concept of the self-inflicted wound, essentially an event of supreme pain, humiliation, shame, failure, etc. for which you have no one to blame but yourself. She then goes on to recount a series of said wounds experienced in her own life, from childhood up to now. The stories are humorous, well-told, and surprisingly (well maybe not too surprisingly because after all my girl did go to Dartmouth) ripe with wisdom and intelligence. They run the gamut from literal wounds, broken bones, and physical scars to emotional and psychological injuries. Unlike most of us, Aisha owns these shameful incidents with pride, never afraid to make fun of herself, point out her flaws, and pass on a good lesson learned. She fuses the funny with the sage, always coming up with some insight from each tale, no matter how silly and impractical or universal and true. This book even brings in the motivational/self-help genre, as Aisha pushes her readers and fans (as she loving refers to them, her army) to pursue their dreams and be okay with failing in an effort to achieve success (like she did). Really this book couldn’t challenge the boundaries of any single literary category more and that made me like it all the more.

Aisha’s playful idioms kept me smiling and her prodigious footnotes kept me in stitches – and I rarely, if ever, laugh aloud while reading. Since she’s a comedian for a living, I expected the book to be humorous but it takes a lot of smart to be this funny. And Aisha won’t let you forget her wit and wisdom, for as soon as she talks about doing something as stupid as lighting her own kitchen on fire or breaking her arm and then snowboarding down a mountain three more times before seeking medical attention, she turns around and composes a heartfelt, well considered essay about the homeless community of San Francisco or references a quote from a brilliant philosopher to remind you that there is some substance behind the wackiness. Tangents and asides are ripe in this one, but whenever Aisha gets off track, she comes back around to draw connections between the various topics knotted up in one little essay that are at once logical and hilarious. Highly pedantic, Aisha resorts to the type of vocabulary and references that prove her intellectual prowess more than a few times, although she never alienates readers with her smarts because it’s all in the service of humor. The girl can write and she does so with great care and personality and pizzazz.

On The Unspeakable

 

Image retrieved from meghandaum.com

I’m pretty smitten with this Meghan Daum character. I read rave reviews of her recently released essay collection The Unspeakable, only to find that every other reader in town found these same reviews and requested the book from the library before me. So I get my hands on the only other Daum work offered by the Baltimore County Public Library system (which marks a shamefully huge omission in their catalog since she has published a total of three essay collections and one novel), Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in that House, a surprisingly delightful read about Daum’s years-long obsession with finding the perfect home. When the library’s automated system emailed to let me know The Unspeakable was finally mine for a short three weeks, I jumped straight in to this volume with even more enthusiasm for having had a taste of Daum’s talent already.

Daum is a dazzling writer, there’s really no other way to put it. Her essays are ripe with gorgeous metaphor, display her unparalleled intelligence, and steal readers’ attention with their painfully honest wisdom. I found myself reading certain passages over and over again, caught up in the beauty of their perfect structure and artful parlance. But Daum doesn’t just have a way with vocabulary and phrasing; she pours her whole heart into every last sentence she composes, producing profound truths that left me marveling at the depth of her grasp on everything from life’s most meaningful mysteries to the dark fathoms of her own psyche.

Take Daum’s essay “The Best Possible Experience” which recounts her participation in a panel on delaying marriage trends, peppered with reflections on the poor example of marital bliss provided by her parents and tales from Daum’s own bizarre dating history. Personally, I wish I could have witnessed Daum deliver her carefully prepared piece, a meditation on the intersection of materialism, marriage, socioeconomic status, and the randomness of falling in love, to the aging audience members of the halfheartedly-attended event. Daum’s recollection of this (seemingly brilliant) speech isn’t self-aggrandizing so much as self-deprecating, poking fun at her audience’s complete disinterest in and, what she initially believes to be, misreading of her speech. The audience then proceeds to sap up every word from their next panelist, a best-selling author who simply reads from the introduction of her book in which she humorously derides women for being so choosy when it comes to love.

When one audience member labels our author as the romantic one and her fellow panelist as the practical one, Daum is completely taken aback, then ensues on a thoughtful consideration of romance and authenticity rivaling the brilliance of her previously recounted speech. You see, Daum always categorized herself as a profoundly unromantic person, given her aversion to traditional notions of commitment and long-term partnership. But upon further inspection thanks to a vocal audience member, she realizes that maybe her openness to experience and near-religious belief in the importance of authenticity are actually evidence of a nascent romantic nature, that her desire to meet wildly diverse types of people and to hear their stories indicates a sentimental hope that a stranger’s life could come to intertwine with hers in a great, unlikely love story. What I love about this piece is its display of Daum’s uncanny talent for slyly reeling readers in so that they end up just as surprised as Daum at her concluding discoveries; at first we, like her, are duped into thinking Daum’s no-holds-barred approach in these essays is far from sentimental, only to realize upon further consideration that her sincere efforts at writing authentically are better classified as heart on your sleeve, an undeniably romantic approach.

Basically “The Best Possible Experience” completely stole the show for me, and it was only the second essay in the book. In fact, I would have desperately loved The Unspeakable even if every other piece downright sucked. But that isn’t to say that the following essays are a drop off in any way; I simply connected with this piece and immediately wanted to ponder it at great length and depth, while also fighting the urge to forge on to the next wonderfully insightful installment.

Many of the other essays are actually much darker than this one, but the book never borders on depressing or cynical. Daum brings a refreshing degree of honesty to her writing that touches on those unspeakable things (hence the title) that most people would find ways to skirt around. She contemplates her mother’s death, their troubled relationship, and her ambivalence of feeling toward a person so overly concerned with appearances and desperately lacking in motherly warmth. Modeling after her mother, Daum worries how the home health aide, hired to care for her mother through her final days, views this family that faces its matriarch’s death in such a matter-of-fact, unsentimental, and tearless way. Daum forces readers to face truths about aging that are blatantly unpleasant, from the misguided nostalgia we feel for a youth that was never as good as it seems in hindsight, to the irreconcilable loss of a future ripe with possibility once certain decisions force our lives into corners and dead ends we can never hope to navigate out of. She highlights the contradiction between our overly-sappy, sentimental affection for animals, particularly canines, and their patently genuine animal nature, exploring her own fathomless love for these “ticking time bombs that lick our faces,” a species which she would rather have present at her deathbed over any human companion.

One of the more unspeakable topics that Daum touches upon in many of these pieces is motherhood, or rather her lack of interest in entering the realm of motherhood, even after learning that she is pregnant by her husband who desires to raise a child, followed by a miscarriage that is both a welcome relief and a source of great sorrow. These disclosures are heart-wrenching and at times unbelievable. They fall outside the lines of civil conversation, verging on bold truths we would be equal parts scared and shamed to admit even to ourselves. But what makes Daum such a gifted and unique writer, what makes her work so necessary to read, is that these harsh and unpleasant admissions also readily evoke deep empathy from readers.

In a piece reflecting on her experience meeting Joni Mitchell, Daum attributes to Joni the lesson that “if you [don’t] ‘write from a place of excruciating candor you’ve written nothing’.” The Unspeakable itself is a testament to this teaching, an exercise in exploring the ungenerous and unexplored sides of life with poignancy, frankness, and comedy (because what reveals the darkness of things with more honesty than humor?). Daum truly takes Joni’s words to heart, and luckily she is gifted with the rare ability to speak the unspeakable and gain so many devotees in doing so.

On Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House

Meghan Daum’s pseudo-memoir “Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House” is an account of her life told in zip codes, outrageous home prices, swoon-worthy woodwork, disastrous architectural layouts, and soul-crushing house hunting failures. I worried that I would quickly grow weary of a 245-page book about the trials and tribulations of real estate, despite my love of all things interior design and HGTV which, like Daum, I can wholeheartedly attribute to my mother’s influence. But “Life Would Be Perfect” is far more engrossing than even a final reveal episode of Rehab Addict. Via her constant search for the perfect home, Daum takes readers on a deep and entertaining exploration of her life story and the seemingly-innate desire for homeownership. Our author is a fascinating and intelligent personality in her own rite which makes her book so readable; Daum writes brilliantly, with great wit and an expansive vocabulary, but also frankly, exposing her flaws, pretensions, and ridiculousness to readers with no holds barred.

By meditating on her history of homes, and a very robust history it is as she tried on dorms, apartments, and houses with more fervor than most brides search for the perfect gown, Daum explores the way our abodes cradle not just our daily lives but also our very precious identities. We follow Daum in her exhausting efforts to fulfill her childhood dream of renting a sprawling and elegantly bohemian New York apartment to her more adult (but still childlike) desire for a Laura Ingalls Wilder-style prairie farmhouse, farm included notwithstanding the fact that Daum has really only ever lived in suburbia or New York City.

Over each incarnation of Daum’s elusive, imagined perfect home, she explores what longings were at the heart of her search – the desire to be among the New York literary elite, living in a home filled with the warmth of worn Oriental rugs, the sound of intellectual conversation, and the subtle essence of effortless wealth; a display of rugged individualism and the pull of a vast landscape in her own little house on the prairie; the appearance of self-possession, confidence, and excellent taste conveyed via careful interior design as a prerequisite for introducing one’s home, and thus one’s very self, to a new suitor. This theme of home being mixed up with imagined identities and real hope is perfectly captured in the very title of Daum’s book, playing upon the equal parts ridiculous and rational belief that our homes define us, that our houses can make or break or alter our lives, that the places we live are of profound significance, that our decor has meaning all its own.

Though this is a story of housing dreams and disasters, it also encourages readers to engage with Daum, at once a frustratingly impulsive and entirely relatable narrator. As she signs yet another lease or completes the paperwork to purchase a home in Lincoln, Nebraska the very same day she first saw it, readers will at turns cringe, be consumed with jealousy, wonder at the cost of all those damn movers, cheer her on, and wish to see these homes, both the gorgeous and the ramshackle ones, in the flesh. I reveled in descriptions of her beloved New York City apartment on 100th St between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive, pursed my lips in disgust at her search for a home in the smog- and traffic-laden, over-priced hills of Los Angeles, and envisioned what my own prairie farm home would entail. I wished I could try on homes for size just as much as Daum, then gently reminded myself how much I deplore the reality of moving. But my shuffling thoughts were always followed by a wistfully envious phase, envy of Daum’s freedom both financial and geographical, her bold search for a perfect place to call home.

Balanced by the reality that our homes, like ourselves, are imperfect and impermanent spaces, “Life Would Be Perfect” inspired dreams of my own ideal forever home and sparked reflections upon the places I have lived, been defined by, missed out on, and hope yet to find. Unlike the cookie-cutter perfection of interior design and home-buying shows that leave me bereft, covetous, and unsatisfied with my own slightly grubby, hand-me-down rental, Daum’s indulgent meditation on her housing history made me more fond of my own space and all its reflections of me (not including its grubbiness though). Culling wisdom from years of attending open houses, making more moves than I could keep track of, and renovating to perfection, Meghan Daum considers why home is so important to us, how the physical and aesthetic concerns begin to override the true function of a house, and the true measure of a perfect home.

On I’ll Give You the Sun

Image retrieved from goodreads.com

I’ve had trouble getting into most young adult fiction that I’ve crossed paths with lately. Certainly you have to bring some laxity to the reading of any novel geared to a teenage audience, but despite my cautious, lowered expectations, it wasn’t until I landed upon Jandy Nelson’s brilliant second novel I’ll Give You the Sun that I finally found some young adult fiction I could truly sink my teeth into and devour.

Nelson’s novel centers around twins Jude and Noah, told from their alternating perspectives. Part of the appeal was in the three year time gap between points of view; Noah’s story is delivered from the vantage of their 13 year old selves, while Jude’s perspective is offered three years later when they reach age 16. Nelson devoted great attention to each story line before her transitions so readers get to intimately know Noah, then delve deeply into Jude’s world, rather than having the more constant, banter-like back-and-forth. Nelson’s plot twists and turns were very carefully revealed; one twin’s knowledge was withheld from readers (and the other twin) far longer than a more traditional novel would allow. Like Jude and Noah themselves, we readers were trying to piece together two sides of the larger story at a tantalizingly slow pace.

The basic gist is that Jude and Noah are wildly different but deeply connected twins at the tender age of 13. Living on the Northern California coast, Jude fits in with the middle and high school crowds, an adventurous surfer girl who isn’t afraid to keep up with the guys but is right at home surrounded by a gaggle of girls. Noah is more of an outsider, an extremely talented and artistic kid whose main focus is attending a prestigious arts high school and hiding the fact that he has discovered his own homosexuality. Once we hear Jude’s side of things from the vantage of 16, however, we find that the twins’ identities have been practically swapped and their connection all but severed by endless hurt, misunderstanding, and jealousy. Jude gets into art school and  secludes herself from her old crowd and the rest of the world, while Noah attends the local public school and hides his true sexual orientation in an effort to secure his fragile social status. The two are practically estranged by this point but Nelson wisely only doles out the slightest clues as to why at her own pace, keeping us readers completely hooked.

The cause of the rift and resulting personality switch is a family tragedy, the details of which I’ll let Jandy reveal to you herself in her poetic, imaginative, engrossing work of literary art. There’s little more that I want to say plot-wise because the characters are so vividly, realistically, and complexly written into the story; it would be a disservice of me to spoil your pleasure of discovering them and their contributions to this fictional world on your own. I’ll Give You the Sun is just so damn beautiful that I don’t think any review could adequately encapsulate how powerfully Nelson’s gift for literature comes across in her work.

Themes of art, family, loss, identity, and misunderstanding are tenderly woven into the twins’ story as they struggle with their relationship, the power of creativity in their lives, and the common realities of coming of age. Certainly the book rings a bit formulaic, but I had no trouble forgiving Nelson this fault, given the target audience and the otherwise overwhelming profundity of this book. Similarly I could see some of the twists coming from a mile away, but that’s what watching too many R-rated movies and reading too many family dramas will do to a person; I’m more jaded than the average teen. I think I’ll Give You the Sun would be truly a delight for young adults, if not a gentle introduction to some more adult topics, in it’s mixture of innocence, tragedy, and misunderstanding.

Reading should take you to another world, one that is heartbreaking and compelling and imaginative and breathtaking. A gifted novelist can challenge you, engage with you, and move you for years with a single piece of fiction. It should never feel like a chore to read, but more like a gift, a pleasurable state of being that you want to revisit over and over. Every unopened book holds this potential to me, but I always find myself truly surprised and deeply grateful when I actually complete a book the delivers. I finished I’ll Give You the Sun with the much sought after but rarely experienced desire to flip back to page one and immediately read it all over again. Instead I chose the alternative – sharing it with the world and/or my mother because stories like this are far too special to be kept to oneself.

On Why We Broke Up

Image retrieved from gmfunkbook.blogspot.com

Although I consider young adult fiction to be a guilty pleasure of mine, sometimes I don’t feel quite so guilty about it. Despite the fact that Daniel Handler’s YA novel Why We Broke Up feels even more juvenile than most picks from the young adult genre because it is a picture book (artist Maira Kalman’s work is included at the beginning of each chapter), the art is actually a quirky and creative means to tell the story of why protagonist Min (short for Minerva) broke up with Ed Slaterton. I certainly anticipated feelings of guilt before I started reading this one, but once I picked it up those feelings evaporated rather quickly. This was an incredibly enjoyable read and one I wouldn’t feel an ounce of shame to recommend to me friends (which is why I’m writing this review, I guess).

So the plot: en route to her now-ex’s house, Min composes a letter detailing the reasons why she and Ed broke up as she goes through a box of all her Ed-paraphernalia. Each item within the box (illustrated in the book by Kalman) is afforded its own chapter in which Minerva elaborates upon the circumstances surrounding the physical object that reminds her of Ed and how it made her fall for Ed or foretold their coming break up. In so doing Minerva shares with readers the story of how she came to fall for Ed in the first place. It’s a deceptively sweet young love story told within the confines of an unapologetic break up novel, the classic tale of two young people from different worlds falling in ill-fated love.

Minerva, an unabashed cinema nerd, continually cringes as Ed’s friends try to describe her – she always dreads being labeled “arty” but what she is more commonly classified as, “different,” isn’t much better given its vagueness and potential for profoundly negative connotations. Ed is co-caption of the basketball team, a charismatic high school senior that seems to have dated pretty much every girl in school with even the slightest ounce of popularity to her name. Min and Ed meet one another at a party, a chance encounter for two high schoolers from completely different social circles – after a disappointing basketball loss, Ed and company crash one of Min’s friend’s parties. Minerva’s friends are a delightful bunch, fiercely loyal to both one another and their respective ideas of themselves as independent and authentic. They spend time at coffee shops and see black and white movies at the art house movie theater, they explore the most interesting haunts of their neighborhood and have ironic Bitter Sixteen birthday parties. They aren’t the most developed teenage characters in the world of fiction, but they are appealing in their earnest attempts at being themselves and their ability to plainly recognize the superfluousness of popularity, athleticism, and high school drama. Ed’s friends fall on the other extreme, a group of far more one-dimensional characters who spend their time at bonfires dominated by gossip, kegs, and an endless game of musical girlfriends among the basketball players.

But then Min catches Ed’s eye and introduces him to her world. There is something rather endearing about the trope of the artistic love interest opening up new doors for the more conventional one and Handler carries it out rather sweetly.

Of course, conflict arises. Ed was conditioned to behave towards women in a certain way that is far from conducive to Min’s expectations of coupledom. Min tries to ignore Ed’s complete lack of taste, not to mention his lack of genuine interest in her friends. Their circles are so far removed that social events require careful and elaborate planning so as to evenly split time with both groups. Ed’s ex-girlfriends are constantly around, constantly contributing to Min’s sense of self doubt. Min learns her lesson that you can’t choose a boy over your true friends.

Handler also gives readers a fair share of what we always seek in romance novels, whether written about the young or the old – a glimpse into the remarkable and unrepeatable world two people create together. Even though we know all along, thanks to the author’s wise choice of title, that this relationship will end with a split, that doesn’t negate the moments of tenderness, humor, and adventure that Min and Ed share. On their first date, Min takes Ed to see a movie and, upon leaving the theater, surmises that an elderly lady also exiting the theater is in fact the aging star of the film they just watched. The ensuing narrative of Min and Ed following the supposed actress around town and to her home highlights the way that Min brings out a certain side of Ed many don’t see, not even Ed himself. It’s a side that is game for adventure, that seeks something in life other than the unquestioned norm, but he painfully needs some guidance in how to access that part of himself to begin with. Each item in Min’s box is a testament to this world that no longer exists by novel’s end, the small touchstones that indicate the type of people Min and Ed were in the short time they spent together.

Handler expertly characterizes a modern day Romeo and Juliet, a pair that obviously don’t belong together but are still drawn to one another in ways that are at once plainly clear and deeply complicated. Why We Broke Up is easy to mock (I’ve seen my fair share of negative reviews whose titles are hackneyed puns along the lines of “Why I Broke Up With This Book”), but I appreciate Handler’s bold (and I would argue successful) attempt at navigating the seas of teenage love and heartbreak in a fresh way. And if it makes you feel any better, you don’t have to tell anyone that pictures accompany the story though in retrospect, I ultimately found them to be just another sweet touch.

On Labor Day

Image retrieved from http://www.bookfinds.com

I was initially drawn to previews for the film Labor Day because of the story alone: a single mother living takes in an escaped convict and the two fall in love. The tragedy of the conflict and the romance that must exist for a woman to so blindly endanger herself and her son sound like the stuff of a great story. When I realized it was all based on Joyce Maynard’s novel of the same name, I did what I usually do in such situations: requested the book from the library as soon as possible and avoided clips, trailers, and reviews of the film as much as possible in an effort to preserve the wonder of reading a story with no preconceptions or spoilers.

Maynard crafts a compelling plot in Labor Day, a narrative that is uniquely told from the perspective of Henry, the thirteen year old son of Adele. A recluse after a series of harrowing miscarriages and a divorce from Henry’s father, Adele interacts with few people other than her son. Her efforts to avoid the outside world go so far that Adele and Henry only make trips to the grocery store once every two month, subsisting upon frozen dinners and canned soup between each stop in town. But over the Labor Day weekend before Henry is to enter the seventh-grade, he convinces his mother to make a trip to the local Pricemart for additional provisions. With a kind face, a gentle demeanor, and clothing that makes it appear he is an employee of the store, a stranger named Frank approaches Henry and asks for a ride. Already having identified Adele as Henry’s mother from across the store, he pleads with the boy to convince his mom to exercise some kindness towards this man. While readers may never fully understand what it is that causes Adele to so uncharacteristically agree, especially in light of the fact that minor but noticeable traces of blood pour onto Frank’s shoe and below the brim of his hat, she does and Frank makes his way home with mother and son.

The escaped convict is quite open with Adele and Henry about his situation. In need of an appendectomy, Frank was transferred to a hospital from the state penitentiary and following his surgery, jumped from the hospital’s second floor window. Maynard’s characterization of Frank is so endearing, engaging and kind-hearted that you know his crime, the nature of which the author withholds for some time, is most likely fraught with misunderstanding, maybe an accident for which this otherwise decent man has taken the blame. And so it isn’t at all hard to believe that Adele and Frank could fall as deeply in love as they do over the long weekend.

Initially enamored with Frank himself, Henry learns many things from the man that is more of a father figure to the young boy that his own dad Richard. They play baseball, make a perfect pie crust in stifling near-100 degree heat, dream of escaping to northern Canada, and have conversations with Henry that make him feel a part of the relationship developing between his mother and this man. But readers cannot forget that Henry is also at a tender age in the throes of a tough adolescence, a young boy as lonely as his mother, partially on account of her strange behavior.

During a trip to the library, Henry meets Eleanor, a tortured girl one year his senior who has a history of divorced parents and an eating disorder. Desperate to be liked by someone his own age and to explore his burgeoning sexual feelings with someone of the opposite sex, Henry soaks in Eleanor’s knack for victimization. He shares with his new love interest the fact that his single parent mother recently started dating a new man. The young girl quickly twists the situation in such a way as to make Henry feel the outsider, as though his mother would abandon her only son to be with Frank. Once this cruelly misguided idea is planted in his mind, Henry begins to question Frank’s motives, as well as his mother’s, and resent their lovemaking each night, their shared looks and plans of escaping to start a new life where the authorities are not on Frank’s path. Eleanor’s suggestions also make clear to Henry just how much power he holds over the new couple. With a simple call to the police, Henry could not only claim a $10,000 reward, he could send Frank back to the penitentiary and prevent the loss of his mother’s love and attention, things he has never had to share before.

Henry’s moral dilemma and the resultant string of events following his meeting with Eleanor are not as well executed as the earlier portions of the novel, but things occur in such a way as readers expect that they must. I was completely engrossed by the beginnings of the novel, largely until Eleanor enters the picture. By that point, I was so enamored with the pseudo-family forged between Henry, Adele, and Frank, that I was rooting against the odds for nothing to interfere with the life they erected over this Labor Day weekend. The way things unfurl in Maynard’s version is just one of a few predictable and realistic potential outcomes, but the execution proves a bit rocky in action. The conclusion felt rushed in comparison to the slow pace at which Maynard allowed the weekend to so pleasantly unfold elsewhere in the novel. But maybe this is just my aversion to Eleanor speaking or my dissatisfaction with the fact that everyone didn’t ride off happily into the Canadian sunset as neatly as readers hope they will.

The world of Adele and Frank is completely developed through Henry’s eyes, a narrative choice that I initially thought was pretty bold but, in time, proved wise and effortlessly smooth. Because Henry is not party to the throes of affection, readers can better retain a more realistic perspective on the Adele-Frank relationship. Our narrator’s naivete allows us to hold out hope that love and familial happiness will prove triumphant, while his jealousy tempers this nearly impossible wish and evokes a very visceral conflict in the character and readers alike. While we may recognize Henry’s concerns as mildly selfish and largely misguided, his ability to voice them in the narrative puts readers at enough of a remove from the love story that Maynard can create a larger family drama out of the plot, rather than simply romance. It was a surprisingly but ultimately rewarding choice on Maynard’s part to have her youngest, most adolescently-unstable, inside-observer character serve as the narrative voice.

After finishing up Labor Day, I dug into the special post-conclusion section published in my copy which included an interview with the author. It turns out that Maynard actually had a written correspondence with a convict that seems to have partially inspired this story. Someone to whom she refers as Lucky wrote her a letter after reading a series of newspaper columns she had published. This Lucky figure was someone Maynard responded to and, in time, began to feel rather close with. I hate to give away the ending of this story, so skip the remainder of this paragraph and the entirety of the next one if you want to read Maynard’s telling for yourself via her website. But I think the true life conclusion highlights some important truths about the novel’s conclusion and the ideas explored by the author therein. Maynard felt it would be a breach of trust to ask Lucky why he was imprisoned, so she refrained from doing so for the entirety of their correspondence. But when he told her that he was about to be released from jail and planned to visit Maynard and her three children, fear got the better of her. When Maynard contacted the prison to inquire, she was told that Lucky had horrifically murdered his parents and would essentially never be released from jail given the number of years for which he was sentenced. She immediately cut off all correspondence with Lucky.

Though it was disheartening to discover that Lucky was not who Maynard believed him to be, the very fact that she went on to compose a novel dealing with a character not so unlike her imprisoned pen pal signifies the depth of his impact on the author, even though their relationship was entirely based upon written word (although she is a writer, so that may have something to do with how powerfully connected they were through mere letters). Learning about Maynard’s relationship with Lucky elucidates the myriad ways we humans are inclined to make excuses, compose arguments, or erect blinders in an effort to confirm our perceptions with the anticipated or actual truth. In the case of Frank, readers are immediately smitten and recognize the goodness of his character despite whatever faults or flaws may have landed him in the state penitentiary. Readers do not essentialize Frank as a criminal, and for this reason they will seek any evidence available to point to his innate goodness. We are rewarded for our faith in Frank by discovering that his crime was largely accidental, the result of a gross misunderstanding, rather than a reflection of a truly cruel and perverse nature. Likewise, Maynard did not allow herself to question what type of behavior Lucky could have engaged in to end up where he did, because doing so could interfere with her conception of Lucky as a generous, kind, thoughtful, and loving person. The morality of how we exercise these judgments upon others based on their actions, in isolation from the other traits they embody, is a moral dilemma we each need to wrestle with on our own. But the very fact that we do this in a routine way is something Maynard cunningly uses to her advantage in Labor Day to indulge readers and fuel the plot. I can’t speak to the merits of the film, but at least give the novel version a shot first, for it is completely engrossing and serves as a sharp observation on human nature.

On The Other Typist

Image retrieved from http://www.goodreads.com

Author Suzanne Rindell crafts an enticing, easy to devour story of deception and sin in her debut novel The Other Typist. This is the kind of book you can (and I certainly did) finish in a single weekend, a pleasurable story full of suspense and scandal. Set in the 1920’s, Rindell’s prose rings with the effortless formality of that era’s speech, never jilting or awkward to read as such writing can sometimes be. Her picture of Prohibition-era Manhattan is replete with flapper dresses, edgy bob-haircuts, dark alleys leading to speakeasies, and all the glamour and depravity expected of that time.

Rose is an immediately endearing character, but her reliability as a narrator and her purity don’t take long to come into question. At first, she seems the picture of simplicity and goodness with her uncomplicated lifestyle, her remarkable plainness, and her ability to recognize and quickly forgive the faults and flaws of others. As it is revealed that Rose grew up in an orphanage, we learn about her exceptional capacity for observation, developed at a young age but in her adulthood, bordering on voyeurism. The purity of Rose’s nature becomes increasingly questionable when a new girl is hired at the office, an alluring but mysterious woman whose favor Rose fools herself into thinking she doesn’t desperately want to win.

Working at a Manhattan police precinct during the early days of Prohibition, Rose is initially one of three typists on staff, but becomes one of four when Odalie is hired to meet the increased demand for stenographers due to rising alcohol-related arrests. Odalie’s arrival is treated as ominous from the moment she steps through the precinct’s doors for her interview. Fashionable and obviously from a moneyed family, Odalie possesses a magnetic presence and a stunning wardrobe. Through the first person narrative, Rose drop hints as to how everything will change once Odalie comes into her working life. At first we are just privy to the daily minutiae of the precinct, gossip about the new girl, minor transgressions when some of the typists exclude the other ladies from a lunch date, and a cast of drunken criminals providing incoherent testimonies for Rose to transcribe. During this time, Rose’s keen observation of her new coworker manifests itself as she keeps notes on Odalie, becoming both overwhelming suspicious and jealous of the new hire. But when Odalie befriends Rose, treating her to lunches at white tablecloth restaurants and eventually inviting her to live in the spare bedroom at Odalie’s spacious apartment, Rose’s initial misgivings about Odalie are immediately forgotten.

Rose delivers her narrative from an unidentified point in the future, struggling to tell the story of past events in chronological order. She makes repeated reference to her doctor, assumedly one from the mental health field as it becomes increasingly obvious that she is unstable, easily influenced, unreliable in the narrative, and maybe even prone to illusions of grandeur and resolute morality. Odalie introduces Rose to the world of speakeasies, fashion, and high society. Though she strenuously argues otherwise, Rose’s will and sense of goodness is not so strong; she quickly succumbs to the temptations placed before her by the new typist, going so far as to forge the testimony of a serial murder who won’t speak in an attempt to see justice done. Odalie’s motives for applying to the precinct were initially questioned on account of how she presented herself; such a stylish woman obviously comes from good breeding and shouldn’t need to work to survive. Rose accepts Odalie’s haphazard excuses for these sorts of incongruities, accepting that the truth of Odalie’s past will never be nailed down. But to both readers and Rose alike, the later revelation that Odalie is involved in the speakeasy community, importing illegal alcohol, comes as no surprise.

In fact, the majority of the book hovers upon similar suspicions that are usually confirmed. This predictability, however, isn’t boring because the personalities and stories are so fascinating to discover in their unveiling. While there is an overriding ominous feeling that something large, terrible, and irreversible are about to occur, the beauty of the book lies in seeing just how such events play out, in determining the full extent of Odalie’s sinful nature and Rose’s blind loyalty and naivete.

Rose’s story is ultimately about betrayal, temptation, loyalty, and the ways in which morality can go against the grain of social codes. So completely obsessed with Odalie, Rose ties herself tighter and tighter into bundles of trouble that she has no hope of removing herself from, sometimes consciously and other times at the hands of Odalie without a hint of suspicion from Rose. The play of deception is a constant undercurrent of the story, the source of the twists and turns that make it so interesting despite the often easily foreseeable turns of events. The course of Rindell’s novel also speaks to the glitz and glamour that makes it easy to forgive, if not deny against all evidence, the sins of others, and how we are so easily enraptured by such superficial and socially valued things as wealth, expensive wardrobes, and glittering diamonds.

Although The Other Typist doesn’t offer anything groundbreaking in the world of suspenseful, thriller novels, it’s a highly satisfying addition to the genre that will quickly envelop you in Rindell’s fictional world, never sure whether to champion, abandon, denounce, pity, or even trust the unsteady Rose.

On Tiny Beautiful Things

Image retrieved from reviews.libraryjournal.com

I’m beginning to think that Cheryl Strayed is one of the most remarkable humans I could ever know (in the figurative rather than literally knowing her personally sense). With wit and humor and wisdom and personality and so much heart you can’t stand it, Strayed, under the auspices of “Sugar,” maintained an anonymous advice column for The Rumpus website which has now been compiled into a brilliant single volume entitled Tiny Beautiful Things. Not usually one for advice columns (I can’t stand the idea that people actually compose a frivolous letter to ask such trivial questions as what to buy as a hostess gift or how to handle a dispute about which European country to travel to for a family vacation when the answer is painfully and obviously to just have a conversation about it!), I kept this one on the shelf for a while before I felt compelled to crack its spine. I adored Strayed’s memoir Wild but couldn’t jive with the advice column format, much as I knew her readers would have more profound and heavy questions than your standard ladies’ magazine fare.

Shoving my biases and fears aside, I plunged right in on my lunch break one day, ready to toss the book if I wasn’t smitten after the first 40 minutes of reading. I was won over in just 5.

At first, the thing I found most remarkable about Dear Sugar’s column was the vast array of life experience she has to draw from. Nearly every response to her readers includes an anecdote from her own life; her horrendous loss of innocence at age three, the heartbreaking tragedy of losing her mother, sweet moments with her husband who she adorably refers to as Mr. Sugar, vast suffering, trials and tribulations from parenting, countless friends who’ve cried upon her shoulder for reasons she recounts in order to help readers find their way. The fragmented pieces of her life are revealed in each response as isolated events, but we can still string together from them, and the general timbre of her writing, an idea of who Cheryl is, how she faces life, embracing the messy, awful, fullness of existence with a go-get-’em attitude. The Dear Sugar column wouldn’t be nearly as powerful if she only had those negative stories to share, rendering her obvious appetite for life all the more vital and worthy of imitation. So while it’s true that Cheryl has had to endure far more tragic experiences in her lifetime than anyone ever should, she doesn’t shy away from life in the least; she has determined her own fullness of existence, accepting, pursuing, embracing the range of glorious and breathtaking along with the awful and ugly.

Anyone can identify a time in their life when they felt heartbroken, despairing, confused, at a crossroads, or any of the other ways we feel when life throws us a curve ball that requires some coaching to hit. But it is a rare gift to take those uniquely personal emotional experiences and relate them to a reader enduring such specifically different struggles. Cheryl thoughtfully identifies the universality in each letter she receives, and ultimately it is that ability, rather than an exceptional depth of experience, which allows her to meaningfully connect with each and every reader in her responses. By thinking critically about her reader’s concerns and treating them with all the respect, concern, and dignity deserving of a dear friend, Dear Sugar is able to transcend the advice column format to a whole new level of connection, guidance, and healing. The result is an inspiring, invigorating, capable-of-restoring-your-faith-in-humanity thing to behold.

Sugar’s readers provide her with questions as varied as relationship uncertainties to which we all can relate, brutal personal roadblocks in life that need to be overcome, family shackles, crossroads decision-making, parenting advice. Letters came from jilted lovers, happy halves of strong relationships, recovering-addicts, young and naive twentysomethings, world-weary middle-aged readers, mournful souls, writers with strength of character bleeding through their words. No matter what the situation or who the writer, Cheryl’s responses are full of wisdom and spunk, not only educational for the letter writer but enjoyable for a reader of any kind.

I was completely moved by how totally Cheryl gave herself over to readers, allowing herself to lose sleep over their letters, putting her whole heart into providing (brutally) honest answers that we would normally expect only from the closest, if not harshest, of friends. But every response was fueled by love, as Cheryl softened the necessary firmness of her responses with validation of each reader’s feelings and a gentle understanding of the struggles that compel someone to write a stranger for an answer, complete with endearments like honey bun and sweet pea. I was amazed, not just by the strength and wisdom of the content of Cheryl’s answers, but in her absolute mastery of the advice column craft, how perfectly balanced her responses were in tone and form, how deeply attuned to people given the brevity of their inquiries.

You may not be experiencing any major crises, crossroads, or turning points in your life. Uncertainty may be a vague memory from the past, pain only a dull ache that your heart has not had to endure for years. But still Dear Sugar holds something for you. This book is not just for the troubled, confused, or heartbroken; it is a meditation on the human condition, the sufferings large and small that make up our lives and how in the world we’re supposed to rise up and meet them. Her refrain is continually that the answers lie within; we write to Sugar because we fail to trust our instincts, because we need someone to validate what we know we need to do, because we require reassurance to take control of our own lives, because we seek permission to allow ourselves pleasure and generosity and kindness. Downright essential in a crisis, the affirmations that Cheryl provides under the auspices of Dear Sugar are nourishment for anyone intending to lead a fuller life with confidence and grace and the very best of human instinct.

On Twelve By Twelve

The idea of living in a 12 foot by 12 foot cabin is likely more appealing and trendy today than it’s ever been before. I see articles about tiny houses flood my feed on facebook, posts that represent more of a fascination rather than a sense of disgust with how people are able to so remarkably downsize their lives. But William Powers took on the experiment of living small in 2007, before it was trendy to do so. And the extremely modest home he occupied belonged to Jackie Benton long before Powers’ stay there began. For these two, living 12 by 12 is more about a new way of life, commonly referred to among its proponents as “wildcrafting,” than just mere downsizing.

Fueled by admiration for Jackie, Powers recounts his stay in her home for a few months during the year 2007 while Jackie was away on travel. Without running water or electricity, Jackie was able to subsist largely off the land through the gardens surrounding her home and the alternative solutions she utilized for energy, bathing, and the like. Living in such a small space was partially a political move for her – structures which dimensions less than 12 feet by 12 feet are not considered to be houses in North Carolina, thus requiring no property tax payments. Jackie chose these dimensions for just such a purpose, similar to how she downsized her income as a doctor to about $11,000 a year in order to avoid income tax requirements. Dr. Benton was not a tax evader, but rather a citizen practicing nonviolent protest against tax money being devoted to war.

These types of thoughtful decisions infused nearly every aspect of Jackie’s life, so it was nearly impossible for Powers to not model some of his decisions after Jackie’s while staying at her place. What seems at first to be an account of an environmentally-minded lifestyle experiment comes to encompass a whole host of questions about the status quo and how we lead our lives. There are also profiles of the neighbors, other figures trying their hand at similar lifestyle experiments, accounts of Powers’ conversations with visitors who just don’t understand and then other exchanges with people who truly do get it. He compares his domestic simple living experience with his international travels, finding startling similarities between many of those people he purported to help in “underdeveloped” nations and Jackie, her neighbors, and even himself. And he details the simple days of traveling through the woods around his temporary home, observing nature without distraction or obtrusion.

Powers writes with a sharp self-criticism, casting Jackie’s chosen path against his own efforts to save the world through international aid. The two both lead intentional and meaningful lives, however our narrator questions his previous jet-fueled travels as efforts at assimilating those who tread lightly in third world nations to the environmentally-cumbersome lifestyle of Westerners. It is patently obvious in the best way that he spent much time and consideration on these issues before setting pen to paper, that he poured over every angle and challenged his own perspective before putting any of his views in print. A philosophic personality to start, Powers’ time spent leading a leisurely, self-subsisting life alongside other equally minded people obviously provided ample opportunity for him to dwell on a variety of ethical and philosophic issues, and the results are endlessly intriguing. I found myself repeatedly earmarking pages for further consideration and seeking anyone with whom I could discuss the ideas introduced to me by this remarkable narrator. There is so much thought packed into this 260-page volume, that I felt the need, almost immediately after finishing, to start from page 1 again in order to fully process all the information my mind was only beginning to process.

While writing about his occupation of the 12 x 12, Powers seems to anticipate all the questions I want to ask, raising them to himself as soon as they arise. Will he be able to maintain such a sustainable, wildcrafted lifestyle once Jackie comes back to her home? How do you reconcile the newfound philosophies of a 12 x 12 lifestyle with the environmental sins of your past? It was refreshing to see Powers ask those questions that were on the tip of my tongue, and to see him shamelessly admit to sometimes not knowing the answer. He even changed his answers, as more truths revealed themselves to him and changed his perspective on previously addressed topics.

I was not expecting this to be a story of inequality and racial progress, but since Jackie worked tirelessly as a civil rights activist, strains of thought related to racial division in the South infused Powers’ stay in the cabin. The result: an entirely thorough and intelligent analysis of all facets necessary to truly lead a sustainable lifestyle. Signs of the South’s history of slavery abounded and further evidence of enduring inequality surrounded Powers, from the old sharecroppers’ houses he encountered on long walks to the nearby chicken factory staffed largely by Latinos, to his neighbors’ attitude toward the Hispanic families living nearby. Powers’ concerns about inequality were so intertwined with his efforts to lead a sustainable existence while living at Jackie’s that the resulting narrative covers a range of ethical and moral questions – inequality, Third- and First-world notions of development, workaholism, addiction, consumption, ecocide – with the grace and wisdom that I’ve come to see as characteristic of Powers’ writing.

But despite the volume and depth of Powers’ ideas, this piece is far from inaccessible or alienatingly-intellectual. Powers’ thoughts are lofty but introduced through the everyday experiences that introduced them, drawing an easy to follow chain along which readers can connect the 12 by 12 concept to other principles of living, moral dilemmas, and social questions. Twelve By Twelve unquestionably proves how inextricably intertwined all the facets of leading an ethical lifestyle can be. As soon as he decided to live in a more environmentally sustainable way, Powers questioned his commitment to Western ideals of development, American workaholism, how we relate to others with different backgrounds than our own, our addiction to technology, and so much more. We cannot choose to align our lives to our values in piecemeal ways; rather, we must question the whole of it. If not, all the non-choices that have shaped our lives for so long without question will soon enough be thrown in the fray after the first small change is initiated.

Powers recognizes the way in which he takes 12 by 12 to an extreme; in fact, he is forced to re-evaluate his understanding of the wildcrafted lifestyle while still occupying Jackie’s cabin. His unfaltering commitment to the idyllic conception of 12 by 12 begins to render the entire challenge useless as he finds himself judging others and experiencing discontent.  Ultimately he uncovers a more balanced understanding of his and Jackie’s reconceptualized American dream, but his long-term transformation post-12 by 12 is ground in mindfulness practice. What Powers gained the most from his rather isolated, meditative time as a wildcrafter was the ability to think calmly, carefully, and thoroughly in each and every present moment.

Meditating and captivating, Twelve by Twelve challenges the contours of the American dream by profiling an exemplar of how we can achieve through other means the ultimate purpose of said dream: happiness. And his book impacted me in the best way, both encouraging me to question my current lifestyle choices and inspiring me to change. At times surprising, restlessly thought-provoking, and a great discussion piece, Twelve by Twelve left me itching for more and completely invigorated with a more holistic, mindful, and optimistic take on life.

On Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Image retrieved from http://www.cnn.com

What starts as a slightly sketchy job opening working the night shift in a 24-hour bookstore nestled beside a questionable establishment named Booty’s soon leads readers on an epic adventure, fueled by the limitless potential of computer technology and the hunger for immortality. Attempting to categorize Mr. Penumbr’as 24-Hour Bookstore is quite the task; is it science fiction? Adventure? Mystery?  If I knew that the book’s genre classification mirrored any of the above, I may not have been so inclined to read it. And if I knew the general subject matter of thisnovel before I checked it out from the library, I also may not have been so inclined to read it. But the hype kept this title on tons of best-seller and must-read lists, so I cracked it open as soon as I got home from the library. And it was took me on such a delightful and engrossing journey that I finished the book in two short evenings – a pleasantly surprising read in much the same way I found Ready Player One to be.

Author Robin Sloan’s story begins with Clay Jannon, an unemployed San Francisco-based web-designer who chances on a help wanted sign in the window of a 24-hour bookstore. Desperate for work, Clay accepts the position of night clerk from the store’s owner and namesake, Mr. Penumbra. The fact that the bookstore remains open all night long is curious enough, but further oddities of the shop reveal themselves immediately. There are two distinct sections in the bookstore. The first is the short shelves up front containing a limited number of titles typically found in bookstores, which occupy a relatively small portion of the shop. The vast majority of the store, however, is devoted to towering shelves of mysterious and beautifully bound ancient books, tall stacks that require the climbing of ladders if a clerk hopes to procure any of the volumes contained therein. Despite Mr. Penumbra’s strict order to never break the spine of the books belonging to the second category of the store’s inventory, Clay soon discovers that they contain impenetrable code rather than dense prose after one of his visiting friends takes a look inside one such volume.

Stranger still is the store’s clientele. Apart from the sparingly seen legitimate shopper, drifting in with the express purpose of purchasing a book, Mr. Penumbra’s store is frequented by a contingent of quirky characters who utilize the inventory of coded books as though it was a lending library. This rotating cast of readers enters the store at all hours of the night, though Clay will work many shifts without seeing a single soul cross the Mr. Penumbra’s threshold. One of Clay’s odder duties is to carefully document each and every visitor to the store, including their build, manner of dress, and demeanor, in the shop’s age-old ledger books.

When Kat Potente wanders into the store while awaiting her bus, Clay is immediately smitten by the adorable Google-employee who effortlessly cleans up the code he is working on to create a 3D digital model of Mr. Penumbra’s store. As Kat and Clay grow closer still, she reveals a staunch belief in the ability of computer technology to outpace human intelligence, the perfection of an unimaginable future, and the idyllic dream of immortality. The quiet secrets of an antiquated bookstore and the limitless power of the world’s leading internet-search engine soon merge in a way that the young lovers employed by these respective companies could never have presumed.

And so the stage is set for a delightful adventure that could only take place in the 21 century. Uber-internet-savvy Kat unveils a multitude of web tools which allow Clay to uncover the perplexing patterns of Mr. Penumbra’s cultish band of repeat customers borrowing coded books. But this isn’t only a journey set in the virtual world; Clay and Kat, along with Clay’s childhood friend Neel, follow the case on a physical journey to track down others involved in Mr. Penumbra’s scheme, ultimately aiding Clay’s boss in the process. Clay’s resourcefulness proves itself again and again as he relies upon his talented network of nerdy friends and his own intelligence to solve the multitude of puzzles surrounding the cryptic books in stock at Mr. Penumbra’s.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore may sound like a novel for bibliophiles, but it’s much more bizarre and complex than that. Easily in the running for one of the most uniquely imaginative novels I’ve ever come across, the narrative reads like a Murakami novel (which may explain why I took to it so much). This is a story containing dark-robed decoders in underground reading rooms, weightily important typeface, historical entertainment storage facilities whose self-propelled, wheeled shelves contain more artifacts than any museum could hold, and the high-paced, green-grassed, and blue-skied Google complex. Stretching from the hills of San Francisco to subterranean New York City, Clay’s effort to understand the secretes of Mr. Penumbra’s books dwells upon the vast potential of computer technology but vacillates between its good virtues and evil effects. It is a meditation on old versus new knowledge, evoking in readers’ minds long pro and con lists relating to our newly digitized world. And Kat’s pursuit of immortality, a token of her bottomless optimism and enthusiasm for all technology’s potential, cannot be ignored as it is one of the great questions readers must ask themselves.

At times unpredictable (although the key to the master puzzle does become increasingly obvious to readers as we near the book’s end), constantly exciting, touched with humor, always thought-provoking and endlessly satisfying, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was simply a brilliant read.

On Overdressed

Image retrieved from ecosalon.com

Have you ever realized how clothing is restocked so much more quickly in stores these days than a decade or two in the past? Or how vintage finds produced prior to the 1980s stand up over time so much better than things purchased only a month ago? Or that finding a trendy outfit is increasingly easier and alarmingly cheaper than its ever been?

Elizabeth L. Cline’s Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion uncovers the highs and lows of fast fashion. The term “fast fashion” was actually new to me upon reading this book but it perfectly describes the current state of the US clothing industry. Comparable to the fast food industry, fast fashion is defined by the ubiquity of stores and a high volume of sales, allowing for low prices but also forcing major sacrifices in quality, social consciousness, and environmental-friendliness of the product. Certainly everyone understands the horrors of sweatshops, and while Cline explores some of the off-shored factories where our favorite US brands produce the latest trends, she goes even deeper into the history and vast repercussions of our changing clothing culture.

Largely because of projects such as The Center for a New American DreamZero Waste Home, and the Story of Stuff, in the last few years I became more conscious of the sheer volume of possessions I owned. I couldn’t ignore  how carelessly I bought new clothes only to quickly discard them once they were out of fashion and wore out in a few washings, of how burdened I felt by the things that I owned. Part of my efforts to rectify the discomfort I felt about my consumerist habits of the past included donating as much of my stuff to charity as I could. We’ve all heard plenty of stories about the local Salvation Army being overrun with donations they could never possibly hope to process and sell. But there was something about purging my closet that felt so satisfying on a personal level and on a charitable one, I couldn’t (and still can’t) resist. Cline finally did the necessary legwork to help me realize what actually happens to all that merchandise we so generously drop off on Goodwill’s doorstep. Those colored tags on thrift store clothing correspond to the week when the item hit the floor. That way, employees can take items that haven’t sold after a specified length of time (usually four to eight weeks) out of the stores. And then what happens to them? Well I was happy to know that some of our donations are repurposed into other useful cloth items – rags, towels, and such. And some are donated to third world countries, largely to South Africa, wear the Western obsession with fashion trends has taken hold. But a sizable tonnage (literally, tons) of those clothes end up in landfills, having been deemed unwearable or undesirable. While it isn’t ridiculous to believe that someone less fortunate may be happy to take a few hand-me-downs, it is entirely unrealistic to think that there is demand for all the clothes that Americans of each and every class are trying to get rid of.

I also made efforts to source from thrift stores instead of buying new clothes with varying levels of success. While there were plenty of times when my will failed me, I also began to notice something very telling about the clothes at the thrift store. I had imagined that many of the items to be found at my Goodwill would be wearable, cast-offs in good condition but in need of a new home since their previous owner grew prematurely tired of them. In reality, most of what was to be found at these stores wasn’t in such good shape, with frayed fabric, torn hemlines, pills galore, and lumpy fits due to too many washings as the norm. Sadly, some of these clothes were ones I recognized from the racks at Target, H&M, or Old Navy no more than one season ago.

The reason so many of our clothes end up in donation bins and landfills isn’t just because we have so many clothes nowadays, though it is intimately tied to that fact. Why do we have so many clothes in the new millennium? Because we can afford sizable wardrobes built of $15 tops, $20 jeans, and $30 formal dresses. Unlike our counterparts from 70 years ago, clothing is affordable and ready to wear right out of the store. And why is it so affordable? Because the quality of our modern day garments is so significantly lower than that of clothes made in the past. From the original design to stitch and fabric selection, today’s clothes wear out faster, fit more poorly, do not wash well, and literally unravel in ways that our mothers’ and grandmothers’ clothes never would have. As Cline wisely points out, clothes that cost so little are more disposable in our minds because of their negligible price. We’re more likely to give up on a $20 shirt than a $100 one. But cheap clothing is also more disposable in a literal sense, given that it is so poorly constructed and not built to last. The life cycle of today’s clothes is grossly short, and oftentimes looking for second life at the thrift shop is a lost cause. But imagining our unwanted pieces in someone else’s wardrobe is much more pleasant than imagining them in a landfill.

Cline explains the rise of fast fashion, how affordable stores like Gap and Old Navy quickly gave way to uber-cheap and trendy lines at Forever 21 and H&M. The movement of garment production offshore, the decline of the American fashion industry, the ethical implications of fast fashion, the environmental impact of these changes, blog cultures that espouse trends, and potential solutions to these problems are all covered in Cline’s expose. From the plush carpeting of Bergdorf Goodman to the factory floor of Bangladesh’s garment manufacturers, Cline leaves few players untouched in the fashion game, fast or slow.

Though she ultimately focuses a bit more on alternate answers rather than changing the essential question (how to make more ethical clothing choices? vs. do we really need to buy that many clothes in the first place?), I do appreciate the author’s appeal to rediscover the lost art of sewing (though I can’t say that I’ve always been on friendly terms with my sewing machine – ours is a volatile love-hate relationship closely tied to the complexity of my project) and to visit tailors and to educate ourselves as clothing consumers. Far too few people understand the pros and cons of different fabrics and even less take the time to visit a tailor when the fit of a could-be-beloved item is just a bit off. She ends on an optimistic note, profiling the efforts made by talented sewers in her local Brooklyn neighborhood to transform our wasteful attitudes toward clothing and explaining how the current unsustainable system is bound to force production efforts back to the US. But I still cannot help thinking about the reality of our dilemma – where are all these unwanted clothes piling up? How can we force consumers to associate their purchase at the local mall with the overworked and underpaid factory ladies churning out thousands of identical products each day? And what will it take to make enough people change their ways so as to counter big fashion business? Here’s hoping that suggesting Overdressed to a few more readers will help.

On Serena

Image retrieved from http://www.nclr.ecu.edu

While the setting is not one to which I would typically be drawn – a Depression-era North Carolina lumber camp –  Ron Rash’s characters, boldly drawn and irresistibly ruthless, are what make Serena truly worth reading. It begins when the title character, Serena, arrives in Waynesville, North Carolina with her new husband George Pemberton. As the head of a timber empire in the region, Pemberton is, unlike his wife, already well known around town. Rachel Harmon, a Pemberton employee pregnant with the newly married man’s son, is waiting at the train station for Pemberton with her father. After Mr. Harmon’s fatal confrontation with his daughter’s employer, readers and Pemberton’s coworkers who are present gain their first glimpse of Serena’s nature, fiercely loyal and fearlessly unforgiving.

Serena tells the story of an anachronistically strong willed woman, a female who fully participates in the operations of her husband’s lumber company with the foresight of a champion chess player and the rightfully-earned respect of everyone on her payroll. Alongside her husband, Serena will go to unimaginable lengths to secure the lumber company’s stronghold in North Carolina, fighting preservationists intent on buying their land for a national park, effectively eliminating threats posed by even the most peripheral of employees, and paying off whomsoever they can to ensure the unfettered spread of the Pemberton reign. Initially the title-character seems admirable, an unlikely female hero in a time when women weren’t wont to wear pants much less to run timber operations. But as her efforts to protect the Pemberton company expand, what once seemed to be remarkable confidence and business acumen in Serena prove far more dark, mad, and dangerous.

The title character is easily one of the most willful and fully realized female protagonists in modern fiction, which is why I can’t think of a more perfect title for this novel than her very name. Rash’s portrait of Serena evokes an unforgettable image and her character is equally hard to overlook. Colorado-born, the new Mrs. Pemberton is not one to tailor her behavior in the ways expected of high society East Coast women in her time. She rides her white Arabian through the work sites on a daily basis, monitoring the lumber company’s business as much as her husband does, if not more so. More often than not, a novel which goes by the name of its female lead is a love story, some sort of romance novel, even if not a necessarily trashy one. And while Serena certainly does not belong in that category of fiction, the title is completely appropriate for Nash’s tale of unfettered power, deception, crime, murder, and even a little love because it is Serena who single-handedly carries this book.

That is not to say, however, that Rash’s other characters are any less intriguing. Serena’s husband George is a man who married his beautiful, powerful wife only a few months after being introduced to her. Though Pemberton instills requisite amounts of both respect and fear among his employees, readers quickly recognize his weaknesses, prime among them his son born out of wedlock to Rachel Harmon. The Harmon girl seems at first to be a minor figure in the Pemberton landscape, an annoyance in the back of Pemberton’s mind and a smudge on his otherwise flawless record. But to imagine that Rachel Harmon, a central character in the opening scene of Serena, plays anything less than a pivotal role in this novel by its conclusion would be entirely erroneous.

An aging Pemberton employee, Galloway, is one of the more delightfully devious figures in this story. After Serena saves his life, Galloway pledges to cater to Mrs. Pemberton’s every wish without reserve. He becomes an accomplice to Serena’s many crimes, all committed in an effort to preserve her unquestionable power in the lumber camps. Serena values loyalty above all else, a virtue which Galloway seems to hold in endless reserves, even more so than Serena’s husband.

The gallery of timber company laborers whose dialogue readers occasionally find themselves privy to offers some semblance of morality in the Pemberton world, as well as a bit of comic relief. Workers are offed without reserve, some deaths and disappearances more accidental than others. The various employees to whose conversation readers are occasionally party not only serve narrative purposes, they also set the moral compass for readers, reflect on and digest the Pemberton’s decisions, and add levity to balance the darkness of Rash’s story. Life under the Pemberton empire is dangerous, and fatalities only abound as the owners’ greed steadily outpaces their concern over worker safety. Without the a variety of workers to offer some perspective, Serena would otherwise be a very heavy novel indeed.

The true nature of these smartly devised characters  slowly unravels in this great vacation read. A thrilling page turner with substance and intrigue to boot, Serena isn’t packed with constant action, but rather gets by on the strength of its various protagonists. This isn’t your typical serialized crime novel, nor was a frustratingly formulaic and predictable book. Much as I relished reading this one, I’m equally curious to see how it translates to film as Jennifer Lawrence (absolutely perfect casting!) and Bradley Cooper are slated to reunite in order to portray Mrs. and Mr. Pemberton together in the movie version this fall.