Mean, by Myriam Gurba

Coffee House Press, 2017 Mean eBook: Gurba, Myriam: Kindle Store

The first time I read Myriam Gurba’s writing was in an article she wrote, published in December of last year, in which she absolutely annihilates a book that was big news at the time: American Dirt. As I tend to do after reading something excellent online, I found and followed her on twitter, and I’ve come to love everything she says. The next time I heard Gurba’s name was when her memoir, Mean, was selected as one of the April picks for Noname’s book club, upon which I promptly ordered myself a copy and finally got around to reading last week.

Now before I get on with my review, I need you to think about some numbers. The advance Jeannine Cummings received for American Dirt was very public because it was a big deal. The advance Myriam Gurba received for Mean was recently made public by her on her twitter account in a thread discussing advance disparities between white writers and writers of color under the hashtag #publishingpaidme.

American Dirt: 1,000,000$ advance
——————–Mean: 1,500$ advance

There are so many levels to how problematic that disparity is (Cummings is a white author writing an immigration narrative while Gurba is a Mexican author writing a memoir), but what makes me so angry above all else is that American Dirt is objectively poorly written (this has been confirmed by people I know who’ve read it and from authors I respect who’ve read it) and Mean is earth-shatteringly good. I’ll move on to the review, but I had these numbers in my head the entire time I read, and I felt that I couldn’t write this review without that context.

The phrase “poetic writing” is tossed around a lot in book reviews, but when I say Gurba’s writing is poetic, I mean it is frequently actual poetry. Some chapters will contain both poetry and prose, and in others, it is difficult to distinguish whether it is one or the other, which is seen in the first chapter, “Wisdom,” and which gave me one of those—oh my god this is gonna be so good—moments on page 1.

The art, history, and literature that influence Gurba are weaved throughout Mean and are inseparable from her identity. The way Gurba talks about visual art makes me wish I knew enough about art to have a taste in it myself. I’m scared of art in the way I’m often scared of poetry, which is that it’s so open-ended and there’s so much of it that I don’t know where to begin. Gurba is confident in her taste in art and proud of her knowledge of art, especially as she makes her way through college. She interprets and analyzes the work of female artists in powerful and unapologetic ways. She never seems to be scared of creating art that is misunderstood or scared of understanding art differently than everyone else in her college classroom.

Mean is labeled as a true crime memoir, which I think is too small to describe this not-quite-200-page memoir that deals with race, class, growing up as a girl, growing up as a lesbian, and the consequences of sexual violence.The true crime label comes from the portion of the memoir in which the man who committed acts of sexual violence against Gurba and other women in her community is on trial. But you’ll also read about how experiencing sexual violence can damage a person in ways that permeate one’s life long after the perpetrator is caught and convicted. One thing Gurba accomplishes beautifully is in expressing her right to and desire for privacy, even within—or especially within—the space of a memoir. Comparing secrets to acorns hoarded by squirrels, she writes, “When a man asks, ‘What did he do to you?’ he’s asking to eat one of these traumatic acorns. Girls never ask for these seeds. . .They don’t need the details of my particular shame to construct empathy.”

Some of my favorite moments in Mean are the ones in which Gurba writes about her friendships with girls, from her childhood up through college. There are some experiences that all women seem to share, and that makes the things the Gurba experienced growing up as a brown girl with a Mexican mom and a Polish dad, stand out to me even more strongly; I was bullied by other girls but I wasn’t bullied like that and I wasn’t bullied for that. Female friendships are complicated at every age, and reading about Gurba navigating them is sometimes painful, sometimes comedic, and frequently relatable. Mean feels very of-the-moment; I think any woman who reads it will find pieces of themselves—feelings put to words they didn’t have—in this memoir.

Links: goodreads | Buy it on bookshop .org


The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy

(IndiaInk, 1997) The God of Small Things: A Novel (9780812979657): Roy ...

I picked up this book because I was craving more Indian lit after finishing Latitudes of Longing, (which, 3 months later, I still cannot stop thinking about), and Shubhangi Swarup lists Arundhati Roy as one of the influences on her writing. I read the back cover of The God of Small Things, which on my copy begins by saying, “Compared favorably to the works of Faulkner and Dickens … .” As someone with a passionate disdain for Dickens and distrust of anyone who voluntarily reads Faulkner, this made me nervous. Then again, what does an Indian woman writing in the 21st century have to do with the white men of the 19th? Before even opening the first page I was thinking about what it means to compare a novel to Dickens and Faulkner, and how doing so is assumed to be somehow the highest level of praise. With all this in mind, I dove in, and what I found was the beautiful, tragic classic that I never knew was available to me. Where A Tale of Two Cities made me (a reader!) hate the idea of reading, The God of Small Things in all its lengthy, descriptive, dark, epic glory, had me re-reading paragraph after paragraph after paragraph to ensure I didn’t miss a single moment.

The story takes a little time to ramp up. It took me a while to figure out how the characters were related (literally—it is a family drama) to each other, who was who, and who I should like and who I should not, but with some patience, I found my bearings. And in hindsight, while at times I felt like I was trying to put a puzzle together with a lot of missing pieces, Roy goes into detail about each character’s background at the precise moment in the narrative at which she is ready for you to know about them. The God of Small Things has a complicated but meticulously crafted narrative structure. While I could see some readers not enjoying it, I loved it. And I might have had a more difficult time becoming invested in the story early on if it wasn’t for the fact that I became enamored with the twins, the central characters—Esthappen and Rahel—by page 2, and also with Roy’s use of language.

The writing in The God of Small Things is truly gorgeous. I took a long time with this novel because I continuously got stuck on the sheer beauty of Roy’s sentences and analogies. In Goodreads and other summaries of this book, I saw it said that Roy has invented her own language to tell this story, and to me it feels more accurate to say she invented her own grammar. The most obvious is her liberal use of capitalization for emphasis. This is an idiosyncratic thing that I’ve come to love (I saw the reverse in Sister Outsider in Lorde’s refusal to capitalize amerika and to spell it with a “k”). Roy seems to use capitalization to indicate that a word is more than a word and is instead an idea. It helped me to focus on words that maybe I would have moved quickly passed otherwise, and I really enjoyed it. She also creates words and plays with their order and with hyphenation as a means to convey meaning. I found it all brilliant.

And while the events of The God of Small Things take place in India in 1969, it felt very relevant to what we’re seeing in 2020 America, the most obvious being the simultaneous ineptness and unchecked power of the police: “[He] seemed to know whom he could pick on and whom he couldn’t. Policemen have that instinct.” The central conflict exists within the context of such complex and inseparable issues as the Indian caste system, (internalized) sexism and gender roles, (internalized) racism, corrupt politics, and police brutality. And the terrible day in question, on which the entire narrative revolves, is experienced alongside a pair of seven-year-old twins. The way these children are betrayed by adults, over and over again, and too young to be able to do anything other than let the blame—the blame that is not theirs to have—consume them entirely, is crushing. The grownups, just big children themselves, take far less responsibility for their actions than the children do. Ultimately, the message is clear: the existing systems destroy the lives of everyone it touches.

Finally, I can’t complete this review without mentioning Ammu—the twins’ mother—who is one of the most tragic characters I’ve ever read. She is sympathetic, relatable, sometimes cruel, and so clearly doomed from the start. The ways Roy describes her is magnificent: “The Unmixable Mix—the infinite tenderness of motherhood, the reckless rage of a suicide bomber.” She is a woman that the world has no room for. Without spoiling anything, she becomes one half of—and I do not exaggerate—the most tragic and beautifully-written love story I have ever encountered. There is so much to this novel; I don’t think I’ll ever stop thinking about it. I would re-read it tomorrow if I could. It’s absolutely breathtaking.

Links: Goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org

Sister Outsider, Essays & Speeches by Audre Lorde

Ten Speed Press, 1984

One of my favorite bookstagrammers, @blkemilydickinson, describes Sister Outsider in this article for Crwn Mag, The True American Curriculum: 10 Books to Remind the Black Woman she is God, as “A holy text,” and concludes, “If I could go door-to-door with this text Jehovah’s Witness style, I would.” So that about sums it up. If you’re looking for a powerful, brilliant, unapologetic takedown of white feminism, colorblindness, the patriarchy, you name it, Sister Outsider is IT. And behind each of the 15 speeches and essays is Lorde’s steadfast reminder that time and time again it is the oppressed who are asked to educate the oppressor (spoiler: this is a tool the oppressor uses to distract the oppressed and ultimately maintain the status quo), and that the oppressed—those furthest from America’s “mythical norm,” that is white, male, young, thin, heterosexual, and wealthy—are so often called to lead the revolution against the system that works against them. There is a reason you find Black trans women at the forefront of the fight for gay rights, at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement now, and at the forefront of each preceding revolution.

Lorde asserts over and over again that it is the acknowledgement and celebration of our differences—not the erasure or ignorance of them—that will lead to liberation for all. She was a visionary, and instead of a traditional review, I have decided to highlight ten quotes from Sister Outsider that provide a glimpse into what you will find in her essays.

  • “In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light, and what I most regretted were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid?”
  • “Some problems we share as women, some we do not. You fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you, we fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs upon the reasons why they are dying.”
  • “To refuse to participate in the shaping of our future is to give it up. Do not be misled into passivity either by false security (they don’t mean me) or by despair (there’s nothing we can do). Each of us must find our work and do it.”
  • “Revolution is not a one-time event. It is becoming always vigilant for the smallest opportunity to make genuine change in established, outgrown responses; for instance, it is learning to address each other’s difference with respect.”
  • “If we are to keep the enormity of the forces aligned against us from establishing a false hierarchy of oppression, we must school ourselves to recognize that any attack against Blacks, any attack against women, is an attack against all of us who recognize that our interests are not being served by the systems we support.”
  • “But there is no simple monolithic solution to racism, to sexism, to homophobia. There is only the conscious focusing within each of my days to move against them, whenever I come up against these particular manifestations of the same disease.”
  • “The future of our earth may depend upon the ability of all women to identify and develop new definitions of power and new patterns of relating across difference. The old definitions have not served us, nor the earth that supports us.”
  • On the mythical norm: “In america, this norm is usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, christian, and financially secure…Those of us who stand outside that power often identify one way in which we are different, and we assume that to be the primary cause of all oppression, forgetting other distortions around difference, some of which we ourselves may be practicing.
  • “Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade responsibility for their own actions.”

And finally, the quote I have seen most often cited in other literature:

  • “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”

Each of these quotes is powerful on their own, but void of so much of the meaning you will find when reading them yourself in context. Black feminism is the heart of the revolution and has been and will continue to be where real change stems from. Read Sister Outsider or choose to read one of the countless other Black feminist texts available to you.

Links: Audre Lorde (Poetry Foundation .org) | Goodreads .com | Buy it on Bookshop .org

Edinburgh, by Alexander Chee

Picador, 2002 Edinburgh (9780544916128): Chee, Alexander: Books

I wasn’t sure that I wanted to write this review because I wasn’t sure I had the right words—or the right experiences—to do so. Edinburgh follows a gay Korean American boy growing up in Maine, Aphias Zhe (Fee), as he experiences sexual abuse at twelve years old and how he processes the trauma that follows him into the subsequent stages of his life. It wasn’t just the fact that I’m not a gay Korean American boy that made me hesitate to write about Edinburgh. This is also a case of my being intimidated by just how good this book is. But two weeks after reading, I am returning to write this review because I haven’t been able to stop thinking about how deeply this novel resonated with me. And that has led me to consider what it is about this very specific story that feels so relatable.

I do not by any means want to sound like I am comparing my definitively trauma-free life to that of the characters of Edinburgh. But the way Chee writes about childhood, teenage, and young adult anger, depression, and angst is so visceral that I couldn’t help but be reminded of the ways that I felt at those ages. The following is one example that stopped me in my tracks: “Sometimes the scattered thoughts of their deaths run like a ragged red seam of fire inside me and I burn from the inside out, like a lightning-struck tree: the outside whole, the inside, that carried the lightnings charge, a coal. At other times, I feel empty, transparent, a child of the wind. Touching nothing, nothing touching me. And alternating between these states, with no warning as to when one will turn into the other.” And later, when Fee is deeply depressed and suicidal in college, Chee describes it as, “The year a long shadow I walked through.”

Some of my favorite moments in Edinburgh were Fee’s interactions and changing relationship with his Korean grandparents who had immigrated to the US to live with their family in Maine. You see Fee’s understanding of his grandparents grow and develop as he gets older. This moment from early in the novel where Fee is musing about his grandmother says so much with so little: “She sighed, and it sounded like a sigh that had been learned under a different sorrow.” This is such a complex concept for a pre-teen to grasp—that adults have lived lives outside of the reality in which they presently reside. And the way this is written shows how Fee was just beginning to understand that there were probably a lot of things he didn’t know about his grandparents.

One moment that really struck me as demonstrating Fee’s growth is an offhand comment he makes about a teenage mother in his high school: “She had always been, I recalled, a fiercely silent girl, pretty and small. Now she seems a giant. I see her in the school, nonchalant. Widowed, a mother, a high school senior. Our lives, I decide, watching her, are tiny beside hers.” Chee fills even the small, in-between moments of Fee’s adolescence with these deeply perceptive thoughts.

One of the ideas that stuck with me coming out of this novel was a reminder to take kids seriously; to take teenagers seriously. And the flip side of that being, adults don’t always have a firmer grasp on themselves that kids do. The things that happen to us stick with us, and often, we simply get better at forgetting. Chee’s words sum this up better than I ever could: “Do you remember what it was like, to be young? You do. Was there any innocence there? No. Things were exactly what they looked like. If anyone tries for innocence, it’s the adult, moving forward, forgetting.”

Links: goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org

A Long Petal of the Sea, by Isabel Allende

Ballantine, 2020

A Long Petal of the Sea: A Novel: Allende, Isabel, Caistor, Nick ...

I am completely obsessed with Isabel Allende’s writing. I read The House of the Spirits two years ago, and it blew me away. I remember coming away from it thinking, this is what I should have been reading all along. It felt classic and timeless and was written by a woman for women. I didn’t write a review and I truly regret it. I promise to reread it and write a full review in the future, and if you’ve never read Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits is the book I would label as Must Read and would recommend first. That said, we’re here to discuss A Long Petal of the Sea, and it was spectacular. I was nervous to start this book because what if my second ever Allende novel disappointed me! It has been almost 40 years since The House of the Spirits was published. It did not take long, however, for me to get past this initial nervousness and to become fully absorbed in the story of Roser and Victor Dalmau.

In fact, it was on page 8, upon introduction to a semi-minor character, that I felt confident I would love A Long Petal of The Sea. Above all else, it is Allende’s female characters—frequently strong, always strikingly developed, and never simple—that draw me to her writing. This is true for her male characters as well, but that is something that isn’t lacking nearly as often. So, when I encountered Elizabeth Eidenbenz, a nurse that follows war in order to be where she is most needed, I was hooked: “Her character had been toughened by her struggles against military bureaucracy and men’s stupidity; she kept her compassion and kindness for the women and children in her care.”

A Long Petal of the Sea sees the reader through an entire lifetime, beginning in Spain at the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1938 and ending in Chile in 1994. I have a soft spot for multi-generational fiction, or fiction that follows characters through their entire lifetimes, which better describes what A Long Petal of the Sea does. Roser and Victor remain the central characters start-to-finish. I always find novels of this sort particularly heart-wrenching; it’s hard to watch the characters you’ve grown attached to get older and eventually die, even when they’ve led long and full lives. I say heart-wrenching, though, because it elicits the good kind of sadness in which acceptance and hope can be found.

While the novel closely follows two fictional characters, it is historical fiction that is very grounded in historical fact—which may seem obvious of a historical fiction novel, but there’s varying degrees to which history can be central to historical fiction, and in A Long Petal of the Sea, the narrative is very much structured around historic moments and historic figures of Spain and Chile. I found myself thinking a lot about the cyclical nature of history while I read, and how frustrating it is that, around the world, people in power manage to make the same mistakes over and over again. And I think that in A Long Petal of the Sea, Allende is making a conscious effort to demonstrate this, and then provide the solution, which is to remember and know and interact with the past.

But also within this historical framework is a fascinating study of love and relationships. The characters of Victor and Roser are a unique starting-off point for contemplating what a loving and successful marriage can look like. Allende so insightfully shows different types of love between people, and demonstrates that having love for one person doesn’t detract from the love one has for another. A Long Petal of the Sea is an astoundingly well-rounded view of what a life encompasses from one’s sense-of-place, relationships, idea of family, and everything else beyond.

Links: isabel allende .com | goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org

The Shadow King, by Maaza Mengiste

W.W. Norton & Company, 2019 The Shadow King: A Novel (9780393083569): Mengiste ...

For a lot of people, The Shadow King will be a deeply challenging read. To start, it is a story that was to me, and will be to many white/American readers and readers with euro-centric educations, an extremely foreign story. I combatted this by occasionally pausing to orient myself geographically and by reading wikipedia pages as necessary (obviously this is the lowest level of research, but even this small effort helped). Another area in which this novel is challenging is in the morality of its characters. For the most part, Mengiste does not write characters that are fully good or fully bad. And it isn’t just that each character sits somewhere in the middle of the morality spectrum, but that most of the main characters do both very good and very cruel things.

The novel is primarily about two women—Hirut, an orphan and a servant, and Aster, an upper-class woman and wife to the powerful and respected Kidane—and the roles they come to play in Ethiopa’s war with the invading Italian army. There is a much wider cast of characters, however; you will also read from the POV of Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia, as well as of Ettore Navarra, a Jewish photographer for the Italian army. You will come to feel a full and extremely complicated range of emotions for many of the characters. Mengiste does not go easy on the likable characters and does not ignore the humanity of the detestable ones. These characterizations make much of the novel difficult to process, but also lend to its greatness.

And since I have not said it outright yet, The Shadow King is a stunningly fantastic novel. Mengiste’s writing is spectacular. I found myself stopping over and over again to jot down sentences that blew me away. Eventually I gave up on writing down quotes and started keeping track of entire pages, and even consecutive pages, that were so stunning that to try and limit my record of them to just one sentence would be both impossible and a crime.

Regarding the pacing of the novel, while there are a lot of big action moments, Mengiste spends far more time with the characters as they deal with the consequences and memories of an event than with the event itself. Similarly, the moments leading up to a battle seem to last far longer than the actual battle. The Shadow King is frequently about memory and different kinds of loss. Mengiste interacts with these themes through Hirut and the loss of her parents, Aster and the loss of her child, Selassie and the loss of his daughter and in many ways his country, and also symbolically through Ettore’s photography. Some of Mengiste’s most beautiful writing is in the way she describes photos that Ettore has taken and in musings on what photos show us and what they cannot. Because the plot follows the POV of characters on different sides of the conflict and with extremely different experiences, the reader sees how different truths can be found in each moment. What Ettore, for example, believes Hirut to be experiencing is almost never what she is experiencing at all:

“He wants to shout to Hirut and ask her how she does it, how she manages to stay in that jail, leaning against that wall as if it were the most natural thing in the world to be trapped.”

Ettore is frequently used to demonstrate the colonizers naïvety and cruelty toward the colonized, even when that cruelty is sort of accidental and nearly well-meaning. The fact that he’s a Jew whose parents are in Italy facing the ramifications of being Jewish in Europe during WWII makes this all the more complicated. The Shadow King, however, is ultimately Hirut’s story and we are called to sympathize with her, or maybe more importantly, accept that she owes no white man, or any man at all, her sympathy.

While much of the The Shadow King is painful and heartbreaking, the female protagonists demonstrate exceptional growth and resilience, and Mengiste offers up moments of pure female empowerment. One of my favorite scenes occurs when Hirut experiences what it is like to feel truly joyful after years of a life in service:

“This is where all the light in the world has settled, she thinks. This is where it has been while she was struggling in such darkness.”

If I have not made it obvious yet, I think The Shadow King is a Must Read novel. It is challenging, but a challenge we owe to ourselves—and to the women that came before us—to take on.

Links: Goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org

Latitudes of Longing, by Shubhangi Swarup

One World, 2020

Latitudes of Longing by Shubhangi Swarup

I picked up this book on a whim at ALA (I was drawn to the cover and the title) and had no idea of the treat I was in for. The first third of the novel follows Girija Prasad and Chanda Devi: a newly married couple set up by their parents based on their compatible but very different interests, intelligences, and oddities. This section of the novel is flawless. The couple lives on a small and beautiful tropical island in the Bay of Bengal and you get to know them as they get to know each other: you will grow with them, learn with them, and eventually feel devastating loss and pain with them. And while their story is followed up by stories of new characters in new places, the lives of each character you meet is somehow tied to Girija and Chanda.

This first section is the longest and best of the novel. Of the following sections, there were some I loved and some I found just okay, but I found the conclusion to be entirely worth it. At the heart of Latitudes of Longing is a deep awareness of the relationship between humans and nature as well as a sense of humility toward and acceptance of natural forces. The natural thread that connects each character in Latitudes of Longing is each person’s proximity to a turbulent fault line that spans the Indian Plate, which takes the reader from the rural Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal to Kathmandu, Nepal to the mountains of Pakistan. Human history and geology are portrayed as inseparable. In a fascinating interview for “The Hindu,” Swarup says: “A tectonic fault line is the narrative thread of my novel, and when you shift your gaze this way, a very different story emerges. One where natural history is the framework to our lives, not political borders or artificial plots.” And in response to questions of the prominence of the environment in her novel: “We don’t need manic fluctuations in temperature to include rainforests and blue whales in our national discussions, novels or films. We just need humility.”

For fans of magical realism, Latitudes of Longing is magical realism informed by the religions and spiritualities of the Indian subcontinent. But for an ambitious literary novel, it is also grounded in a simultaneously gritty and beautiful reality. The stories are devastatingly human and universal. The title, Latitudes of Longing, is apt. You will feel the longing of the characters as well as a longing for life itself. I came out of this novel feeling bigger than I did before, in the sense that I suddenly encompassed knowledge of more places, more cultures, and more beliefs than I had previously. This beautifully-written epic novel is one that will stick with me for a long time to come.

Links: Goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org | The Hindu .com interview

Luster, by Raven Leilani

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020

Image result for luster a novel

With Luster, I continue my trend of reading ARCs that I’ve picked up from book conferences (this time ALA in Philly), and I have not been led astray yet. I attended a panel of three debut female authors with their (female) editors. I thought it would be interesting to hear authors discuss their novels alongside their editors, plus I’d heard a lot of men speaking the day before and really needed to hear some female voices. While all three novels sounded exciting, it was this book and the author, Raven Leilani, that really caught my attention.

I picked up this book last night hoping that it would pull me out of a slight reading rut. I’ve been working my way through a long dense read for almost a month and it was time to take a break. I remembered how Luster sounded so new and exciting when I heard Leilani speak and thought it would be the perfect change in pace. I could not have made a better choice. I started and finished this novel in an evening.

One thing Leilani’s editor repeatedly said was that it was the incredible sentence-level writing that drew her to this manuscript. And after reading, I fully agree. Some sentences are absurdly quotable. Some are hilariously relatable. And some are so long and winding that you almost lose track. . . but in turn are made to slow down and focus on the words in the moments that require it, as if it was intentional. (It definitely was. Have you ever encountered someone and gotten the feeling that their mind operates on a level on which yours can barely comprehend? That’s how I felt listening to Raven Leilani speak.)

And the characters! The protagonist is a 23-year-old black woman, and the other central characters are an older wealthy white married couple, and their adopted 12-year-old black daughter. None of them are people I have any major commonalities with, and yet each one of them feels relatable in their realness. Each flaw these characters have—and there are many—is convincing. And so, as you read about the unusual and increasingly insane scenario that unfolds, at no point does the plot feel invented or exaggerated. The tone and 1st person POV create a strange surface-level calm that exists around a situation that is objectively stressful. While reading, I thought about how overwhelmed I would’ve been in the protagonist’s place; how I likely would have given up entirely. This led me to consider that my version of giving up is a privilege the protagonist did not have. I would have gone home, moved into my childhood room, moved onto a friend’s couch, borrowed money . . . but the protagonist doesn’t have these options. She has this sort of calm, immediate acceptance of every twist and turn because she doesn’t have much choice but to roll with the punches.

“And the truth is that when the officer had his arm pressed into my neck, there was a part of me that felt like, all right. Like, fine. Because there will always be a part of me that is ready to die.”

Not all of Luster is this dark. A lot of it is, because things really are this bad in the world, but just as all our lives are, it is sometimes normal, mundane even, or funny, or surprisingly nice, and a million other things besides.

Links: Goodreads | Raven Leilani .com | Buy it on Bookshop .org

Apeirogon, by Colum McCann

Random House, 2020

I got an advance copy of Apeirogon at a booksellers conference and was thrilled; I absolutely adore Colum Mccann’s writing. I read Let the Great World Spin in my junior year of college, and I view it as a turning point in my life as a reader. It marked the time at which I dove into reading adult literary fiction, and it opened up an entirely new world of books for me. With that said, I am reviewing Apeirogon with a degree of caution. It has received some negative attention because it is a book about the Israeli occupation of Palestine written by a white man with no connection to the conflict or with any Palestinian or Israeli heritage. My immediate reaction was to be okay with it because McCann was writing a narrative surrounding the real life experiences of two men—one Israeli and one Palestinian—both of whom support the book and whose speeches are quoted at length within it. However, it is not up to me to decide whether or not Colum McCann is the right voice for this story. I am leaving this overwhelmingly positive review up for now but will continue to follow any negative reactions to the book from Palestinian or Muslim readers. 

Upon finishing this novel, I mentally categorized it as one of the best things I’d ever read. It is, on the surface, daunting. It’s long and tackles a complicated and serious subject. But even more than that, it’s difficult to understand what type of book it is until you really dive into it. It has elements of both fiction and non-fiction. It’s written in chapters, but not in the usual sense. A chapter may be one sentence or three words. It may be a few pages. The chapters jump in time and place. How McCann (and I imagine his exceptionally skilled editor) managed to arrange all the pieces in an order that works is mind boggling to me, but it was done flawlessly. And while it’s definitely literary—Borges is mentioned more than a few times; ancient art, religion, and philosophy and their modern counterparts are all tied in to the plot; and it would strongly appeal to a scholarly reader—a scholarly knowledge isn’t required to enjoy Apeirogon. I found that all of the references to art, literature, religion, etc. allowed me to connect to the story and simultaneously feel inspired to educate myself about the ideas that were unfamiliar to me. And, because the novel exists around two real men, it stays grounded; it doesn’t get lost in it’s literary-ness. Beware the lack of women. Apeirogon is about the trauma of two fathers, and while you are introduced to the important people in their lives, McCann’s focus does not extend beyond the fathers’ experiences. 

You don’t need to go into Apeirogon with any knowledge of Bassam Aramin or Rami Elhanan—I certainly didn’t—but if you’re hesitant to check out this book, look into their stories. Search their names and hundreds of articles and interviews will show up. Their mission should be heard by everyone.

Links: Goodreads | Colum McCann | Combatants for Peace | Buy it on Bookshop .org

The Last Wish, by Andrzej Sapkowski

superNOWA, 1993

last wish

This will be a quick review, but I didn’t want to skip it because The Last Wish is one of the most fun things I’ve read in awhile. I love SFF and every time I get back around to reading fantasy, I ask myself why I don’t do it more often.

The Last Wish is one of two short story collections preceding The Witcher Saga written by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. I’d never heard of the saga, but its been explained to me that it entered American popular culture with an extremely successful video game. I’m not a gamer but was told I would love the book, and I really did. As I was reading The Last Wish and thinking about how it was both serious and absurdly fun, I thought that it felt sort of like reading Lord of the Rings if it was written by Terry Pratchett. It’s not a perfect analogy, but I think helps indicate the tone you can expect from The Last Wish. I also enjoyed that there are elements that are reminiscent of familiar fairy tales—Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, etc.—but with distinct differences that clearly originate from a separate mythology. And of course, the writing is impeccable. I already have the next book of short stories and The Witcher saga on a shelf waiting for me to read.

Links: Goodreads | Andrzej Sapkowski | Buy it on Bookshop .org