Friday, January 19, 2018

Young Adult Fiction: Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

I know I know...this book would probably fit better under a poetry heading, but it would most likely end up being the only one of its kind on this blog. Poetry has never been my strong suit, so I don't make a habit of reading it, or writing about it. But Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds caught my attention, and given that its primary audience is young adults, and particularly young adults who do not feel seen, I figured I could manage my way through it.

The Situation: Will's older brother Shawn has been shot. The 15 year-old finds it hard to believe, but it's true, and he knows who did it. Where Will lives, The Rules are simple: no crying, no snitching, and get revenge. Since Will knows who killed his brother, the rules say that he is supposed to get them back for what they have done. He knows there is a gun in Shawn's dresser drawer. Does he know how to shoot it? It doesn't matter. He knows what he has to do, so he puts it in his waistband and makes his way out of his apartment building.

The Problem: Will's fairly straightforward goal of finding the guy who killed his brother and doing the same to him is immediately interrupted once he gets onto his apartment building's elevator. In a little over sixty seconds, the elevator will stop six times, with someone new getting on every time. Each person knows both Will and Shawn, or at least knows who they are. However, they are all also dead. Or they are supposed to be. Will remains determined to carry out his plan, though he does wonder if he is losing it. But with the appearance of each new ghost, Will's resolve, as well as his belief that he is doing the right thing, begins to come apart. Turns out he may not have the whole story, and The Rules may not be as important as he always believed.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel written in verse. In other words, it is a collection of poems that, when put together, tell a story. This would appeal immensely to many young readers as it makes for easy reading. And these aren't the type of poems that take a whole lot of analysis in order to get the meaning; although, I imagine many of them could be poured over and tons of hidden meaning could potentially be revealed. Again, poetry is not my strong suit, so I gave up on poetry explication once I finished graduate school. But even for those like me, the themes of gang violence, revenge, generational sin, and what it means to be a man will easily come through. Will is also unfortunate enough to have the past haunt him, but not in a way that means he did something wrong, but perhaps because he is about to.

My Verdict: Even though poetry is my kryptonite, I enjoyed this book a great deal. Even for those who have never been in a situation anywhere close to what Will is going through, his character will be extremely relatable, whether it is the fear, or the insecurity, or the despair, or even the blind resolve despite mounting evidence to the contrary, many of us have felt like Will at some point in our lives. It is that feeling that something needs to be done, and we believe we are the only ones who can do it. Reynolds portrays that feeling of desperation so incredibly well that it is near impossible to judge Will, but only root for him, and hope for him. There is a reason this book was a finalist for the National Book Award. It is a different approach to young adult literature, but a welcome departure to what we are used to seeing.

Favorite Moment: Any time Will does not manage to come off as cool and confident as he would like, especially with a gun stuck in his waistband.

Favorite Character: Buck is the man who took it upon himself to look after Shawn and Will when their father died. Now he continues to do so even though he is dead, as he is the first to visit Will in the elevator.

Recommended Reading: Dear Martin by Nic Stone would be a great follow-up, as would the nonfiction Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward.   

Friday, January 12, 2018

Door Stop: The Sagas of Icelanders

So, this happened. I took it into my head that I needed to read The Sagas of Icelanders. Why? Well, I actually went to Iceland last summer and enjoyed it immensely. Sure, the sun would set after midnight and then rise again at three in the morning, and the temperature never reached above 55 degrees...in June...but it was truly an incredible place. They also have a tradition of giving each other books on Christmas Eve, and then people spend the rest of the evening reading. Isn't that lovely? It was while I was browsing in one of the Reykjavik Eymundsson bookstores that I first saw a copy of The Sagas of Icelanders. Noting its size and length, I knew that eventually it would be one of my door stops.

Genre, Themes, History: The Sagas of Icelanders is actually a collection of ten sagas and six tales, all telling stories about the Vikings and heroes from long ago who migrated to Iceland and did many famous deeds. A saga is usually a story about ancient Nordic history that tells of early Viking voyages, battles, and feuds between families. Each story is different, usually focusing on one particular person or family, and telling not only their history, but the history of the people immediately surrounding them. For instance, the first saga in the collection, Egil's Saga, naturally focuses on Egil, but the story begins with Egil's grandfather and continues to move down the family line, eventually coming to Egil himself before moving onto his sons as the protagonist ages. It is the longest saga in the collection, but it serves as a great introduction into how the sagas are structured and how the Vikings operated. Throughout the reading of the sagas, it becomes clear that the Vikings were big on honor and reputation, as well as justice, trade, and quite naturally, storytelling. Often the main conflict will come from someone spreading lies and slander, and their target will kill in retaliation, as in The Saga of Ref the Sly. From there, families will seek compensation for the death, which is rarely given, and the conflict continues from there. Other times the hero will be driven to killing someone after having been treated unfairly, but justice will be sought against them, leading them to flee or seek help in an effort to defend themselves. Full of drama, some romance, and even comedy, the sagas show a world that may be far removed from our own, but the themes are still familiar.

My Verdict: It may have taken me awhile to get used to the structure and language, but once I got to the middle of The Saga of the People of Laxardal, which actually focuses on the most famous female protagonist of all sagas, Gudurn Osvifsdottir, I was able to find my own rhythm for reading the stories and was able to enjoy what they had to offer. Just like with any other collection of stories, I had my favorites, and there were characters I cheered for, and others that only caused me to shake my head in disappointment. If there was anything that frustrated me it was the injustices of the justice system the vikings used, or rather the way some managed to exploit and manipulate it to work in their favor. It seemed difficult to receive real justice for a wrong committed, which may have accounted for all of the times the victims sought justice in their own way. Either way, I found myself enjoying the stories by the end and looking forward to each new tale the collection had to offer.

Favorite Saga: The Saga of Ref the Sly is easily my favorite, with Ref the Sly also being my favorite character. Ref is a quiet boy who is initially thought to be useless, but proves to be very skilled in working crafts. Others assume they can easily best him in combat, only to be proven this is not the case once he thoroughly defeats them in battle.   

Recommended Reading: If you're looking for a more modern story that tells the long and complicated history of a family attempting to settle in a new land, I suggest East of Eden by John Steinbeck.   

Friday, January 5, 2018

Contemporary Fiction: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Just as I had Jesmyn Ward close out 2017, I am having her work open 2018 with the National Book Award winning Sing, Unburied, Sing. It is one of those books I worry I will not be able to do justice in my little review, but I will give it my best.

The Situation: Thirteen year-old Jojo and his toddler sister Kayla live with their mother's parents, Pop and Mam, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Jojo, just on the cusp of becoming a man, learns all he can from the steadfast and reliable Pop, while also looking after his little sister in the absence of his drug-addicted mother, Leonie, and his incarcerated father, Michael. Mam spends all of her time lying down in her room as she slowly and painfully dies of cancer. When Leonie receives a call from the Mississippi State Penitentiary with the news that Michael is getting out, she decides to take the kids with her to retrieve him. It's a road trip Jojo does not want to take, and Pop feels the same way, but Leonie is determined to take her kids with her to get their father. 

The Problem: Unfortunately for both Jojo and Kayla, Leonie has zero maternal instinct, and Mam says it best when she describes her daughter as letting the love she has for herself get in the way of any love she is supposed to feel for her children. Leonie simultaneously resents the way Kayla reaches for her older brother instead of her, and also looks for opportunities to run off and live a life without them, a life where it would only be her and Michael. The road trip in and of itself is hard enough. The ultimate goal may be to retrieve Michael from prison, but the family must also deal with Mam's impending death, Pop's unintelligible stories about his past, the racism of Michael's parents, and the ghost of Leonie's brother that only visits her when she is high. And just because the road trip ends, it does not mean that the adventure is over.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in the modern day Gulf Coast of Mississippi. The point of view changes from chapter to chapter, mostly alternating between Jojo and Leonie, but occasionally allowing Richie, a boy Pop knew from his past, to have a say once in awhile. Switching between Jojo and Leonie allows for two almost completely opposing points of view for the exact same situations. Jojo is always looking out for Kayla, and wants to desperately show that he can take care of the both of them without any interference from Leonie, especially when he has done so well with such limited involvement from her or Michael. Leonie is always looking out for herself and Michael, and has little interest in anyone else, including her own children. For her, everything is about being with Michael and where she will find her next high. The reader does not get to see much from Pop's point of view, but he does tell Jojo stories from his own time in Parchman farm, which is what the Mississippi State Penitentiary is known as. And of course, Kayla is too young to tell her own story, but she clearly prefers Jojo's company over everyone else, something that bothers both Leonie and Michael. To say that the relationships in this family are complicated would be an understatement. Plus there is the deep south racism to deal with, both in the present day, and in Pop's past. 

My Verdict: I think what I appreciate most about this book is that there is so much here in less that 300 pages. Often when a book is that short, it feels like something is left out, or everything was rushed. I do not get either feeling with this book. Instead, all themes and plot lines feel fully explored with nothing being abandoned or forgotten by the end of the novel. And while switching between points of view can be confusing in some books, or cause some chapters to be less interesting than others, neither of these things occurs here. Jojo's viewpoint is frustrating in the sense that he is only 13 and can only do so much without the intervention of an adult, and Leonie's viewpoint is frustrating because she is so unapologetically selfish. The road trip is most of the novel, but still somehow only one small part of it, which is both surprising and delightful. Like I said, there is a lot here.

Favorite Moment: When Kayla manages to throw up all over a cop.

Favorite Character: Pop is one of the most trustworthy and steadfast characters in all of literature. He has is own past to fight and problems to deal with, but he does not let that get in the way of him doing what he needs to do when it comes to his family.

Recommended Reading: Salvage the Bones also won the National Book Award back in 2011. Though I did not enjoy it as much, I will still recommend it as a companion for this book.   

Friday, December 29, 2017

Nonfiction: Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

For the second time, Jesmyn Ward will close out another year at Door Stop Novels with one of her works. Last December, 2016 ended with a post on The Fire This Time, a collection of essays about race, edited and put together by Ward. This year, it is her memoir from 2013, Men We Reaped.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction book, or memoir, detailing Ward's early life growing up in Mississippi. More specifically, Ward focuses on what it was like growing up poor and black in America's south. As she tells the story of her childhood, she also talks about the death of five black men from her community, one of which is her only brother, Joshua. The deaths, however, are told in reverse order, beginning with the most recent, and going back to the first in 2000, which is where she ends her own story. Switching between the two, Ward gives the reader a detailed look into life in De Lisle and Pass Christian, Mississippi, starting from the early 1970s, all the way to 2004. There are even occasional stories that take place in New Orleans. Also, Ward manages to touch a little bit on her time in Michigan, where she went to college, and also New York City, where she would eventually land a job after graduation. Men We Reaped is not the usual, straight forward memoir in that it is not all about the narrator. She makes it a point to have the men she talks about be the focus of their own individual stories. It is about more than just her life in the south, but that of all poor black people who find themselves straining against systemic racism, economic inequality, social injustice, and the fracturing of families that seems to be rooted in our history in this country.
 
My Verdict: Ward does exactly what could be expected from a memoir: she tells her story and she tells it honestly. Events and revelations are not sugar-coated, and they are not ignored or conveniently glossed over. Instead they are confronted head-on, but not in a way where the author is clearly hoping to see the reader flinch...though you probably will. Ward tells the story with the confidence, and also the heartache, that comes with knowing something needs to be said, even though there will be pain on both sides. But that pain has been a part of her experience, and sharing the stories is a difficult but hopeful step towards change.    

Favorite Moment: When Ward stands up to a group of boys at her predominantly white school who have made comments/jokes about lynching.

Favorite Quote: The title comes from a quote by Harriet Tubman: "We saw the lightning and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped."

Recommended Reading: Ward's Salvage the Bones received the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction. It is the story of a poor black family in Mississippi that culminates in the terror that was Hurricane Katrina.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: American Street by Ibi Zoboi

American Street by Ibi Zoboi is one of those books that has spent the better part of the year on my to-read list, but for whatever reason I kept passing over it. I am excited to finally read it and be able to talk about this different take on the immigrant experience as young Fabiola attempts to find her own way on the streets of Detroit.

The Situation: The time has finally come for Fabiola Toussaint and her mother to make the move from Port-au-Prince, Haiti to Detroit, Michigan. It is in Detroit that they will join Fabiola's Aunt Jo and her three daughters, Chantal, Primadonna (Donna), and Princess (Pri). But plans immediately get interrupted when Fabiola's mother is held up at JFK airport in New York, while she is sent ahead to Detroit. The family will later learn that not only did Fabiola's mother not make another flight out of New York, but she is also currently being held in an immigration detention center for overstaying her visa on a previous visit. Now Fabiola must face harsh cold weather, strange food, loud family members, and a new school all without her mother beside her. It is only with Aunt Jo's assurance that things will be worked out that she is able to continue forward.

The Problem: Time moves on for Fabiola without any indication that her mother's situation will be resolved. And while her new life comes with many distractions, not all of them are welcomed, especially when it comes to Donna's tumultuous relationship with Dray, and older boy from the neighborhood. While knowing Dray may also come with knowing Kasim, a much kinder boy who takes a liking to Fabiola, she still recognizes that Dray is trouble and it would be better if he weren't in their lives. Then an offer presents itself that could potentially solve a couple of problems for the family, including her mother's immigration issues, but this offer may come with its own problems. The longer Fabiola stays in America, the more she learns that obtaining "the good life" may come at an extremely high cost.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult fiction book told from the perspective of Haitian-born Fabiola Toussaint. For years, her Aunt Jo has been sending money to her sister, Fabiola's mother, so that the two of them could leave Haiti and join her and her daughters in Detroit, Michigan. So not only is this book about the immigrant experience, but also about what it is like for a young girl living in one of the toughest neighborhoods in one of America's toughest cities. From the beginning, Fabiola is able to draw comparisons from life in Port-au-Prince to life in Detroit. In both places she must watch herself, protect herself, always be aware of her surroundings, make sure people know she is not someone they can easily mess with, and draw on her faith in Voodoo to give her strength. There are many scenes with people attempting to teach her how to say common words and phrases, while simultaneously laughing at her accent while she tries to do so. But there are also many scenes where Fabiola takes care of herself, and still other scenes where she looks out for other people. This book is just as much about immigration as it is about the cycle in which many people find themselves caught when it seems there is no other way. 

My Verdict: If there is one fault with this book, it is that maybe it tries to do too much in such a short length. Fabiola's stories about her mother and life back in Haiti, and their dream to ultimately come to America work great. Add in her problems getting used to living with a larger and louder family in Detroit, and it becomes an interesting take on the immigrant story. And then there are drug dealers, abusive boyfriends, Aunt Jo and her mysterious illness, her three cousins that apparently no one messes with, as well as an entire cast of incredibly well thought-out characters, and things start to get a little muddled while also feeling rushed. One things is for certain: The book is never boring, and is almost sure to hold any one's attention. Maybe if it were a little bit longer, all of the different elements could have more space to work themselves out. 

Favorite Moment: When Fabiola makes a decision to stand up for her friend, even if it means she has to stand against her cousins.

Favorite Character: While Chantal seems to be the one of Aunt Jo's cousins that is the most put together (and she is), she also has her own issues, and has her own way of dealing with life on the west side of Detroit.

Recommended Reading: Both The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and Dear Martin by Nic Stone would be fantastic follow-ups.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Nonfiction: Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown

The full title of today's selection is Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. Bren é Brown, author of Daring Greatly and Rising Strong, is once again writing about courage, vulnerability, and shame, and this time she has extended the discussion to include what it means to truly belong and what it looks like when we dare to stand up for ourselves, even if that means we stand alone.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction, self-help book and the latest addition to Brown's already impressive and influential body of work. Themes from her previous work, including courage and vulnerability, still make their appearance here, but with the primary focus on the paradox of true belonging while standing alone. Brown asserts that to stand alone, we must brave the wilderness, and that can be hard, even painful. Brown not only pulls from her research, but also her personal experience, the personal experience and stories of others, as well as current events and today's political environment. The tone of this book differs slightly from previous ones in that, at least to me, it seems more direct, but still without being punishing. That is not to say that what she says will not be hard to hear for some (or most), or even cause some hurt feelings or anger, especially when she discusses politics. But like her previous works, Brown is extending the conversation on true courage and how ultimately, vulnerability is still at the root of it.

My Verdict: Opinions on this book seem to be split. It may be Brown's most polarizing work. Some praise it just as they did Daring Greatly and Rising Strong. Others believe Brown phoned this one in, citing how short it is (with only 163 pages of actual narrative content), the somewhat extensive use of quotes and other people's research, and the often seemingly repetitive nature of the message. I suppose that leaves me somewhere in the middle. The shortness of it is what first made me suspect that this book may have been a cash grab, or at least something that was published just to have something to publish, if that makes sense. With a little more time and a bit more research, the book could have been fleshed out to at least make the 200 page mark. Even as it stands, the last ten pages or so felt forced and a repeat of what was already covered. However, everything before that I found to be just as insightful, thought-provoking, and of course, helpful as her previous books. And yes, she does get political, sort of. But with things the way they are in this country currently, it would seem like an act of cowardice to ignore the topic completely, and Brown's research is about showing up and standing up.

Favorite Moment: When Brown tells several short stories about collective joy and pain: those moments we share with strangers during some of the most joyful or the most painful events.

Favorite Quotes: "They tell you to develop a think skin so things don't get to you. What they don't tell you is that your thick skin will keep everything from getting out, too. Love, intimacy, vulnerability. I don't want that. Thick skin doesn't work anymore. I want to be transparent and translucent. For that to work, I won't own other people's shortcomings and criticisms. I won't put what you say about me on my load." - Viola Davis

"There's an unspoken message that the only stories worth telling are the stories that end up in history books. This is not true. Every story matters. My father's story matters. We are all worthy of telling our stories and having them heard. We all need to be seen and honored in the same way that we all need to breathe." - Viola Davis

Recommended Reading: Of the three books I have read by Brown, Rising Strong remains my favorite. I also recommend Susan Cain's Quiet.    

Friday, December 8, 2017

Contemporary Fiction: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

When the 2017 shortlist for the Man Booker Prize was announced, I was glad to see that Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 had made the cut. Also on that list was Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, a story of the relationship between two people and their decision to leave their homeland as it is torn apart by war.

The Situation: Saeed is a thoughtful, dutiful boy who lives with his parents. Nadia lives in an apartment by herself after deciding that living under her parent's roof was not for her. The two meet in an evening class, and although it took more than one attempt, Saeed eventually convinces Nadia to come have coffee with him. While their country implodes around them, the two young students manage to foster a relationship, and eventually Nadia moves in with Saeed as she realizes the danger of a woman living alone as the situation outside becomes more intense. And as things escalate, it becomes clear that the idea of leaving the entire country will have to be more than just a passing thought. More and more, the two begin hearing about  doors that open up into other parts of the world. If this is true, then there could be hope to escape and begin a new life in a safer location.

The Problem: The doors may make it easier to get to a safe location, but the usual issues regarding refugees and immigration still persist. With the amount of countries experiencing war and conflict, the locations the doors lead to suffer overpopulation and their own brand of conflict. There are many doors of course, but the ones to the best locations are heavily guarded, while the others are ignored due to lack of interest. After the first move, Saeed and Nadia soon find the need to move again. It is one thing to gain safe passage through a door that leads to a better location, but it is another thing to be allowed to stay in that location. Also, there is the strain that the situation can put on Saeed and Nadia's relationship. There may be a natural sense of loyalty to each other with every decision and step they take in their journey, but it may not be enough to hold them together forever.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that is often categorized under magical realism, fantasy, and literary fiction. Human beings migrating from one place to another is nothing strange or new, but being able to use a door to quickly go from a Greek island to the city of London is not something we are familiar with. Hamid gives a twist to the story of the refugee fleeing their homeland in search of a safer place to live. And while he may have made the actual journey a bit easier, everything else stayed the same, from the hostilities they face from those who inhabit their new location, to the hoops they have to jump through in order to gain access to the doors. Also, Saeed and Nadia's relationship proves to not be immune to the stresses of being a refugee. They always look after each other, and stay close to each other, but the romantic feelings are certainly difficult to maintain. While they are certainly the focus of the novel, the story does often move away from them in order to briefly talk about someone else in another part of the world and their experience with either a door, war, or the migration situation.

My Verdict: This is certainly an inventive and interesting take on a story we have heard before. Instead of having the characters make the long arduous journey across a country and a border, Hamid allows them to simply step through a door, though the argument could be made as to whether this actually makes anything easier. Just because a journey is made quicker does not mean it is safer or better. My only issue is that while Saeed seems fully fleshed out, Nadia seems to be little more than the cliched fiercely independent girl that no one (including Saeed sometimes) seems to know how to react to. But their relationship feels real, as well as the issues that come with it. It is a fairly short novel, so even if you find yourself less than interested about a quarter of the way through, I suggest continuing if only to find out where the couple's journey through various doors finally lands them.

Favorite Moment: When Saeed's father begins to regard Nadia as a daughter rather than just his son's friend.

Favorite Character: Saeed is as steadfast and loyal as they come. His consistency serves the pair well as they go on their often perilous journey.

Recommended Reading: And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini also tells of choices made that take characters around the globe and how their lives are altered as a result.