Friday, July 25, 2014

Contemporary Fiction: All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu

I went in blind when I chose to cover Dinaw Mengestu's All Our Names for this blog. It was on a list of recommendations provided by Goodreads, and I was able to find it at the library. Add the fact that it was a recent publication, and I figured why not take a chance on it. Sometimes fantastic new (to me) authors are discovered that way.

The Situation: Isaac has recently arrived in the small Midwestern city of Laurel from Africa. All he has in his possession is his Kenyan passport, the suit he is wearing, and very little in the one suitcase he is carrying. Assigned to help him from the Lutheran Relief Services is Helen, a woman who has been slightly burnt out by the many hospital visits and funeral attendances for her clients because of her job. Sensing this, her boss assigned her to Isaac's case, allowing her to stay away from hospitals and funeral parlors until Isaac has been taken care of. Despite this being 1970s America, and segregation is part of the not-so-distant past, Helen and Isaac quickly fall for each other, having to sneak around and keep their relationship fairly hidden. Middle America is not quite ready for a white woman and a black man to be romantically involved.

The Problem: While being an interracial couple is certainly one issue Helen and Isaac must deal with, there is also a whole other story as to how Isaac even came to be where he is, and who he is. His passport may be Kenyan, but he is actually from Ethiopia, where he was involved in the country's civil war. At first him and his friend simply showed up at the local university where other protesters would show up and sometimes just hang out. Eventually, the police got involved and put a stop to this, but Isaac continued to grow more and more bold in his own demonstrations, seemingly unafraid to be beaten up and abused by both civilians and the police. And when his boldness gains the attention of a powerful man with the means to start a real war, Isaac's idealism and dreams of a revolution become all too real, with real dangers and real consequences. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that I could have easily labeled as historical fiction, as it deals with the real events that occurred in Ethiopia in the early 1970s. The country had recently gained its independence, but was now dealing with the withdrawal of support from the British. Violence would soon break out between the government and those seeking a revolution, and the body count would be high. In Mengestu's story, Isaac would gain the favor of one man, named Joseph, who had enough money and influence to start a war of his own, one in which the soldiers under him would call themselves "liberators" as well as "revolutionaries." Eventually, Isaac would end up in America, even though the fighting continues in his home country. In American he meets Helen, and then must attempt a different type of survival. The chapters switch back and forth between Helen telling the story of her relationship with Isaac, Isaac telling the story of his time in Africa. In this way, the reader somewhat knows the ending on one story by the beginning of the new one. It's a story that isn't just about the brutality and messiness of war and revolution, although there is plenty of that, but also about how the fight doesn't necessarily end just because you switch locations. Also, identity plays an important part in both stories within this book. The Isaac in Africa is incredibly different from the Isaac in America, and in both countries, "Isaac" is really just a name. Identity is something that is played with and the reader never really knows for sure who Isaac is and what he is capable of.

My Verdict: This is an incredibly powerful book that doesn't contain brutal scenes just because it can. Mengestu handles the realities of war and revolution honestly, but not in a way that seems unnecessary or over-the-top. There were scenes where I felt my self turning away from the book, as if I were watching it on TV or in a movie theater, but then I remembered I was reading, and me turning away from the page meant that story stopped and would still be there waiting for me when I turned back. That was how vivid and real everything seemed that Mengestu had written down. With that said, there were times when I felt that Helen's story dragged and I wished to just get back to Isaac's story of when he was still in Africa, but Helen's story isn't without its moments of poignancy either.  I think those who enjoy reading about the conflicts that go on in other countries, especially those in fairly recent history, would enjoy this book a great deal. It is also a story that explores how quickly the ideal of a revolution can become a dangerous reality.

Favorite Moment: When Helen learns more of who Isaac really is and his past, shattering her own idealistic vision of what is going on between them.

Favorite Character: In this book, identity is a weird and tricky thing, so to pick a favorite character doesn't quite feel right, but I suppose I'll try anyway. I'll say that my favorite character was Isaac, but that really isn't clarifying much. So I pick the Isaac that went to the university in Ethiopia, before coming to America, and pretended to be a student, although his clothes and the way he walked immediately told anyone with the least bit of observation skills that he was too poor to be a student. He just wanted a better life for himself than what was available to him at home, and to be accepted by the protesters on the school's lawn. This was before revolution would show him things he could never unsee and force him from the country he would probably never return to.

Recommended Reading: I recommend Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland, as it contains many of the same themes, except it takes place India, as well as America, and follows two brothers as opposed to two friends. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Contemporary Fiction: The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore

I certainly arrived late to the Christopher Moore party as the first book I ever read by him was Sacre Bleu, which was published only two years before his latest book that I am writing about today, The Serpent of Venice. More devoted fans will recognize some of the characters in The Serpent of Venice as they also appeared in Fool, which was published in 2009, and now is a must read for me as I would love to know how Pocket's adventures first started.

The Situation: Brabantio, Iago, and Antonio have decided to murder the fool Fortunato, also known as Pocket. They have already murdered his love and Queen, Cordelia, and now proceed to chain him up and wall him in, much like what is done in Edgar Allan Poe's The Cask of Amontillado. But just as Pocket has resigned himself to death, he is saved by a horrifying, although incredibly helpful, serpent-like creature he has decided to name Vivian, or Viv for short. Now, Pocket, who was already bent on revenge for the death of his beloved Cordelia, must find those who have wronged him and sought to end his life, while simultaneously hiding the fact that their plan didn't succeed.

The Problem: For Pocket, keeping his identity a secret while carrying out revenge is difficult enough. But it doesn't help that Iago is attempting to be rid of Othello, a friend of Pocket's, and also be rid of Cassio, Othello's second in command. Also, Antonio and Iago both have come up with a scheme to have Antonio's young friend Bassanio win Portia's hand in marriage, therefore giving him a seat on the council that would have been given to Othello if the plot to have him out of the way works out. And in order to even attempt such a thing, Bassanio would need to have Antonio borrow money from the Jew, Shylock, whose own daughter, Jessica is intent on running away with Lorenzo, another of Antonio's friends. Somehow, Pocket has got to foil all of his enemies' plans while also keeping himself alive and getting revenge for the wrongs done to him, plus find his giant idiot accomplice, Drool, and the monkey, Jeff. It also doesn't help that the serpent-like Viv enjoys showing up and killing off men in an incredibly gruesome manner. Pocket is certain Viv won't harm him, but he doesn't know that for sure, and can't quite figure out how he has gained such an ally.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a humorous fiction novel set in late 13th century Venice. It borrows heavily both the characters and events from William Shakespeare's Othello and The Merchant of Venice. It also borrows from the already mentioned The Cask of Amontillado. In order to use the elements from the two Shakespeare plays, Moore had to move their timelines up by a few hundred years, as both were set in the early 17th century. Some geographical changes were made as well, but ultimately, both plays were set in Venice, which is why Moore chose them for the book. He has Iago and Brabantio from Othello join forces with Antonio from Merchant, therefore making Antonio an antagonist instead of a hero. Moore has also made Othello's Desdemona the older sister to Portia from Merchant, allowing Brabantio to be the father of both. While The Merchant of Venice has elements of anti semitism, Othello has elements of racism, and both certainly play a part in Moore's book. But Serpent also has elements of hypocrisy, greed, revenge, courage, and adventure.

My Verdict: To me, this book was like a How It Should Have Ended for both Othello and The Merchant of Venice. These two plays are some of my least favorite that I have read of Shakespeare's. Othello is just a little too tragic, and Merchant I don't actually think to be that funny. But Moore certainly changes that and has some fun creating his own ending. As I mentioned in the introduction, reading this book has also made me want to find a copy of Moore's Fool so that I can read how Pocket's adventures first began. The book is incredibly funny, and certainly makes for a fantastic introduction into some of Shakespeare's characters for those who may not be all that familiar with the Bard's plays. 

Favorite Moment: When Pocket is able to find and rescue his giant if slow-witted friend Drool. He is certainly a gentle giant, and while he may be stupid, he is still useful with specific skills of his own apart from his enormous size and strength.

Favorite Character: There are certainly many great characters in this book, and while I am tempted to pick Drool, or even Viv, the serpent, I think instead I will go with Jessica. She may a bit blind when it comes to love, and has no problem abandoning her own father, but ultimately she makes a great companion to Pocket while he attempts to carry out his ridiculous schemes.

Recommended Reading: I would most likely recommend Fool had I actually read it, so instead I recommend Moore's previous novel Sacre Bleu. The book focuses on post-impressionist painters and has them as its main characters. Like Moore's other works, it is funny, vulgar, irreverent, and has fun with history. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Historical Fiction: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

I decided to read The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd after it popped up on Goodreads as a "mover & shaker." I of course had heard of The Secret Life of Bees, and The Mermaid Chair, but this book would end up being my first by Kidd, although probably not my last.

The Situation: At eleven years old, Sarah Grimke would be given her very own slave. It is 1803 in Charleston, South Carolina, and Sarah lives with her plantation owning family and their many slaves. The one assigned to her is named Hetty, but prefers to be called Handful, the name her mother Charlotte gave her at birth. Up until the day she was given to Sarah, Handful had always slept by her mother's side, but now she sleeps outside of Sarah's bedroom door, in the cold of the hallway, should Sarah need anything in the middle of the night. Even at only eleven years old, Sarah abhors the "peculiar institution" and sets her mind to setting Handful free. But after a failed attempt to do so, Sarah believes that perhaps becoming a lawyer, something that women back then just did not do, will be her way to be able to change the laws and be rid of slavery altogether. Meanwhile, Handful and her mother commit their own small acts of rebellion, attempting to be free in any way they can, if not physically.

The Problem: Sarah's ideas about abolition and equality are not welcome in the slave-holding south, not even inside of her own house. Her difficult and ill-tempered mother is not above inflicting cruel punishments on the slaves that make mistakes or misbehave. While her father isn't quite as harsh, he is less than supportive of Sarah's ambitions to become a lawyer, and does not welcome her "radical" ideas concerning freedom for what he believes to be his property. Meanwhile, as Sarah struggles between her privileged but constrained life and fighting for what she knows to be right, Handful is simply fighting to survive and not let the Grimke's enslave her mind as well as her body. Charlotte had made Sarah promise that she would do what she could to set Handful free, but while waiting on the promise to be fulfilled, she sneaks away from the Grimke property with fake passes that allow her to walk the streets of Charleston and earn money that she intends to save up in order to purchase freedom for both her daughter and herself. Handful fears her mother will one day be caught and all hope will be lost, and Sarah fears her being a woman will give her no opportunity to fulfill her promise. Over the next thirty-five years, both women will fight for similar things using what little they have available to them.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel that begins in the early 19th century and extends into the beginnings of the Abolitionist Movement as well as the Women's Rights Movement. Sarah and her sister Angelina, or Nina, were real sisters who became involved in both movements, despite having grown up in a slave-holding family in Charleston. While Sarah would be known mostly for her writing, Nina was known as a great orator, and both were incredibly passionate not only about freedom for slaves, but also equality with their white counterparts. They came under heavy fire not only because of their radical views, but because they were women, something that caused much friction between those that wanted to focus only on abolishing slavery, and those that were also concerned with the rights of women. Many of the events Kidd has put into the novel are fictionalized, but there are also a great deal of them that are true, if maybe placed a few years ahead or behind when they actually happened. Sarah was even given a slave named Hetty, but little is known about her, so the half of the story that came from her is completely of Kidd's own invention. In the novel, while Sarah was a free white woman, she felt trapped because of the roles she was confined to despite her intelligence and her ambition. And because Handful was a black slave, she was physically trapped, but determined to never let them have her mind, mostly due to her mother's influence who was bent on the same. Freedom is of course a big theme, but so is greed, as this seems to be the main thing that keeps some people who believe slavery to be awful from actually freeing their slaves. Insecurity and fear also play a role in people's hesitance to push for both abolition and equality, and they seem to play a part in the public's resistance to the two outspoken Grimke sisters.

My Verdict: While I certainly see that value of this book and can see that Kidd did her research into the lives of both Sarah and Angelina Grimke, I wish that parts of it were written better. I think I was much more drawn to Handful's story than I was Sarah's. At first, I was interested in both stories equally as they are both children, one meant to be served by the other, but instead there was a strange friendship that had formed, because that is just how children are. But as the girls get older, and when Sarah eventually leaves Charleston, I am no longer as interested in her story as I am Handful's. Maybe it was because, at the end of the day, Sarah was a free white women while Handful was a black slave, and probably always would be. Both stories had moments of intensity and their fair share of trials, but Handful's story just seemed more compelling. Perhaps it was because there is more written about Sarah Grimke, and therefore more actual accounts that this fictionalized version was attempting to adhere to. Meanwhile, Handful's story is pretty much completely made up. I'm not sure what it is. But overall, it isn't a bad book, just not as interesting as I had hoped. 

Favorite Moment: When Sarah ignores her mother heads outside to help a wounded slave.

Favorite Character: While I would probably be annoyed with her if she were my sister in real life, I liked Nina, Sarah's younger and much braver sister. She grows up to believe much the same thing as Sarah does, but she doesn't hesitate to say what is on her mind and jumps right into the movement despite the consequences and doesn't understand why others wouldn't do the same.

Recommended Reading: Slavery is always a hard subject to read about, fictionalized or not. So because the book I just reviewed falls under fiction, I will recommend the nonfiction Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. But be warned, it is incredibly difficult to read.      

Friday, July 4, 2014

Nonfiction: The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue by Daniel Vaughn

I thought for the 4th of July I would post about something very near and to me: Texas BBQ. I was fortunate to meet "BBQ Snob," author and editor of the blog Full Custom Gospel BBQ, and Texas Monthly editor Daniel Vaughn at the 2014 San Antonio edition of the Texas Book Festival. I then heard him talk about his book, The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue. During the question and answer portion, it was only natural that someone would ask him about the best BBQ joints in San Antonio. He then mentioned B&D Ice House, which a quick Google search on my phone told me I could walk to from my house. I had already bought the book before I had a chance to try B&D, but one bite of the brisket told me that this guy knew what he was talking about and I could trust the rest of his recommendations. But be warned, today's post is unashamedly all about Texas.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction book that gives fairly detailed reviews about the BBQ joints all across the great state of Texas. Vaughn traveled, along with photographer Nicholas McWhirter, across every section of the state - which is slightly bigger then the entire country of France - trying every BBQ place along the way, most of them planned, but there were quite a few that were impromptu stops. The result is a book that covers 35 days, 10,343 miles, and 186 BBQ places. Each chapter covers a specific section of the state, starting with the Panhandle and ending with Central Texas, with Vaughn often stopping at the best places more than once as he comes across them in different trips. Vaughn is actually not a Texan by birth, having been born in Ohio, but as we like to say of those who eventually find their way here, he got here as soon as he could. Throughout the book, along with the reviews of various smoked meat - the "holy trinity" of which is brisket, sausage, and ribs - there are color pictures of not only the food, but also the people and surrounding sights. And in the back of the book, Vaughn not only included a very helpful and practical index, but also profiles of pitmasters (those who have become experts in producing the best smoked meat), and a final short list of what Vaughn has decided are the places to find the BBQ in Texas. But the one page I found myself referencing more than any other throughout my reading of the book, and one that I will continue to reference as I form my own BBQ trail, was the map of Texas at the front of the book that marks out where each restaurant is located, as well as what type of wood they use in their smoker.

My Verdict: If you live in Texas and love, or even like, BBQ, this is a book for you. If you enjoy driving out to middle-of-nowhere Texas, and the state has a lot of that, and finding hidden gems with great food, then you'll find this book incredibly useful. The pitmaster profiles even include some recipes so you can attempt to replicate their flavors and creations on your own. But while this book is certainly about Texas BBQ, it is also about the joys of the road trip, and just how much the vast state of Texas has to offer someone willing to just get in the car and drive. Vaughn encounters the loneliness and desolation of the miles between San Angelo and El Paso, the tension that comes from the Texas/Mexico border, the trees and views of northeast Texas, the popular urban areas that lie along I-35, I-10, and I-45, and almost everything in between. And while I was worried that there would end up being a mind-numbing repetition as Vaughn declares this place great, and that place bad, and this other place as mediocre, I can honestly say that I was never bored with this book. There is a lot of repetition, but I was always eager to see what Vaughn's ruling was going to be on every place he visited, even if he had already been there. 

Favorite Moment: In the pitmaster profiles, it is revealed that the beautiful plate of food that makes up the cover of the book came from a place in San Antonio, Texas known as Two Bros. BBQ Market. Such a seemingly small thing makes me even more proud to call San Antonio home. I have actually never been to Two Bros, but I guarantee you it is on my list.

Recommended Reading: I'm fairly certain this is the only food-related book I have ever covered on this blog, so I suppose I'll go with another book that explores life in small-town Texas. Karen Valby's Welcome to Utopia does exactly that as she talks about the real lives and struggles of the people who make up the extremely small town of Utopia, Texas.