Friday, December 30, 2016

Nonfiction: The Fire This Time by Jesmyn Ward

It felt appropriate to close out 2016 with a post about race. The full title of this collection of essays and poems is The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race. Jesmyn Ward is not the only author, as there are contributions from the likes of Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat, and poet Claudia Rankine. With the help of her editor, Ward worked on the collection as a response to the recent police and civilian violence against African-American men and women in the United States.

Genre, Themes, History: Naturally, I categorized this collection as nonfiction, though it includes essays, poems, and some creative nonfiction. Many of the entries deal with recent events such as the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, while others talk about race in the United States in general. My personal favorite is the entry by poet Kevin Young, "Blacker Than Thou," which discusses Rachel Dolezal, the woman who was recently found out to not be black, though she had been pretending to be, and was even the leader of her local Oregon NAACP. His essay is not only refreshing and humorous because of the acknowledged ridiculousness of the subject matter he chose to write about, but also because of the way he approached it. Somehow, Young manages to make jokes while being completely serious; laughing along while also pointing out that this stuff really isn't supposed to be funny. But I also enjoyed "Know Your Rights!" by author Emily Raboteau, where she walks the streets of New York City, taking pictures of the various murals that had been painted throughout the city by a Chilean artist who goes by the tag name of Cekis. Throughout her entry, Raboteau includes pictures of the murals, which offer tips and observations that are helpful when dealing with the police, and also interprets those murals as well as the surroundings they are placed in. Even though the pictures of the murals that are included are in black and white, they are still somehow made bright and vibrant through Raboteau's descriptions. Overall, the collection does more than just reiterate that black lives matter and make a general call to action. The authors approach this always delicate subject of race in America and pick it apart, sometimes slowly and painfully. The title, The Fire This Time, is a response to the 1963 book by James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, which in turn comes from the slave hymn that states, "God gave Noah the rainbow sign/No more water, the fire next time."

My Verdict: Of course not every essay was funny like Young's, or as fascinating and engaging as Raboteau's. In fact, many of them were uncomfortable or a little hard to read, but for many people, so is the news that another unarmed black person has been shot down by police, or by an armed civilian who rushed to judgment. Even Young's look at the Rachel Dolezal situation asks questions such as what does it mean to be black, and can someone "feel black" when they don't look the part? It is a short collection, coming in just over 200 pages, and while parts of it may be difficult to stomach, any mature adult should be able to make it through just fine. For me, what makes it the most engaging is that the topics vary, as do their approach. Ultimately, the point is made, many times, that violence against blacks by those in power is not a new thing, but with social media and camera phones, we can see a lot more of it, and see it quickly. And with every small step forward we make, there is a wave of backlash waiting to either take away what little we have for fear that one day we will have more than the majority, or to somehow make said majority the center of the story and shift the focus away from black people.

Favorite Quotes: "I believe there is power in words, power in asserting our existence, our experience, our lives, through words. That sharing our stories confirms our humanity." - Jesmyn Ward

"One of the best things about being black is that, barring some key exceptions, it's not a volunteer position. You can't just wish on a dark star and become black. It's not paid either. It's more like a long internship with a chance of advancement." - Kevin Young

"Of course you can see why anyone would want to be black: being black is fun. Don't tell nobody." - Kevin Young

Recommended Reading: If you wish to explore Ward's fiction, then I recommend Salvage the Bones, which won the 2011 National Book Award. But I also recommend How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston, as well as The Sellout by Paul Beatty, and of course, The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Young Adult Fiction: The Reader by Traci Chee

Traci Chee's The Reader: Book One of Sea of Ink and Gold was one of those novels that I actively, though unsuccessfully, tried to avoid, only because it was obviously only the first of what is going to be a series. My fear with the first book of any series is always the same: what if it is terrible, but now I feel obligated to continue until the series is done? Or, something that can turn out almost as bad, what if the series will not be limited to only three, four, or five books? What if this is a series that just keeps going well beyond the point of being interesting? Well, either way, here we are, and I am simply hoping for the best.

The Situation: Sefia lives life on the run, and cannot imagine things any other way, especially after the death of her father. She and her Aunt Nin hide out from authorities, and manage to survive by picking locks, petty thievery, and basically being incredibly aware of their surroundings. Nin has taught Sefia well, and has managed to keep her safe so far. But after going out on her own, Sefia returns to their hideout and sees that Nin has been found, and is being questioned. Although she manages to keep herself hidden, Nin is taken, leaving Sefia on her own for the first time. She knows what they are after. She keeps the item they seek close to her at all times. Sefia has in her possession a book, in a world where people no longer read, and words and stories have incredible power. It is what they were looking for when they killed her father, and now they will come for her.

The Problem: Now on her own, Sefia is convinced that is how she should remain, as everyone close to her seems to get hurt, or killed. But when she comes upon a strange boy who is being held captive, she knows she must save him, although doing so seems to only have earned her a partner she did not want. Now the two of them travel the land of Oxscini together, looking for the men who took Nin, who seem to also be the same people who hurt and captured this strange boy, whom Sefia has decided to call Archer. On their way they will encounter deceptive bartenders, murderous henchmen, and even helpful pirates, all while trying to discover the secrets and stories of the book Sefia has promised herself she will protect. But while they chase the people she wants revenge against, there are still others who are chasing her.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult fiction novel full of spells, magic, adventure, fighting, and storytelling. If there is one takeaway from this novel it is that words are powerful, and storytelling has incredible value, more than people realize. While Sefia may be the main character, her story, along with Archer's, is only one part of what is going on in these pages. Possibly even more interesting than the adventure that they are on is the story of Captain Reed, his crew, and his ship, the Current of Faith. At some point, Captain Reed does end up crossing paths with our heroine, but we also learn more about him from the mysterious book that Sefia is carrying, as his past adventures are written inside. But even beyond Sefia and Captain Reed, there is Tanin, whose full powers and purpose are never quite explained, and also Lon, a young apprentice studying in a strange library where he learns spells and how to control his Vision. All of this takes place in the fictional world of Kelanna. At the beginning of the book, a full map of Kelanna is presented, and becomes increasingly useful as the names of its countries and cities are mentioned. Chee has built an entire world, only a small section of which is explored in this first book. Also, the book Sefia is carrying is not the only one with secrets. The physical book of The Reader has hidden messages in it as well, and they are fairly easy to find if you look for them.

My Verdict: At first, the amount of characters that are presented in the story is overwhelming. I don't know if they are thrown out too fast, or if there are too many of them, but things got confusing quickly. It also did not help that many of them are a part of Captain Reed's crew on the Current of Faith, and each have their own function and personality. And there were times when the writing felt choppy, or the dialogue felt forced and unbelievable, or the relationships didn't seem...right. But I will say this, for any shortcomings there were in the writing - whether real or only imagined by me - the world that Chee has built for the purpose of this book is phenomenal and imaginative and everything you could want for a young adult fantasy novel. And despite my initial hesitations, I look forward to the second book.

Favorite Moment: When Captain Reed expertly deals with an assassin who had made it onto his ship.

Favorite Character: I wish I could like Sefia more, but she made too many obviously terrible choices, so instead I pick Captain Reed. He is a true pirate, with an intense desire for any adventure that will potentially turn into a great story. Plus, he is a picture of courage, and will do what he has to in order to protect his crew.

Recommended Reading: I think the Legend series by Marie Lu would be a good companion to this book. But instead of building a completely new world, Lu takes the world as we know it and reimagined it to where the U.S. has been split into two warring parts; Africa is a thriving continent for the first time in forever, and Antarctica is a highly sought out military ally.        

Friday, December 16, 2016

Nonfiction: The Train to Crystal City by Jan Jarboe Russell

On Thursday, October 13th, Jan Jarboe Russell was given the Award of Literary Excellence, presented by Gemini Ink, San Antonio's non-profit, literary arts center. Russell received the award not only because of her most recent publication, The Train to Crystal City: FDR's Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America's Only Family Internment Camp During World War II, but also because of her work with Texas Monthly magazine, as well as other work that has been published in many notable publications, and her previous books that were either authored alone or in collaboration with others. I had the chance to sit and talk with Russell a few weeks before the gala where she was given the award, and I am forever grateful to have been able to learn more about her and her work.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction novel that talks about the secret internment camp that was operated during World War II in Crystal City, Texas, from the years 1942-1947. It would be the attacks on Pearl Harbor that would spur then president Franklin Delano Roosevelt to order the rounding up of German, Italian, and Japanese people to be moved to internment camps all over the US. The camp in Crystal City was different in that it was the only family internment camp. Wives and children were moved down to Crystal City in order to be with the husbands and fathers that had been arrested months before, mostly on pure suspicion, and little evidence, of being sympathetic or supportive to the enemy cause of their home country. As Russell shows, there were some that were interned who would prove to be a threat, but for the most part, these were innocent people who simply wanted to live their lives. And Russell chooses to tell the story mostly from the point of view of two women who were young girls at the time, making Train to Crystal City one of few books to have stories about the war told from a female perspective. What makes Sumi and Ingrid's story even more tragic is that they were America-born citizens when they were interned with their families. And that also did not help them when it came time for the US government to negotiate exchanges with Germany and Japan for American Prisoners of War. So young children who grew up in the US were eventually sent to a country they knew little about, all because of fear and suspicion surrounding their fathers.

My Verdict: Of the few things I try to avoid more than fiction about WWII, it is nonfiction about WWII. With that being said, this is a fantastic book. I probably enjoyed it so much because it is about one of the aspects of WWII that many people do not know about. The camp in Crystal City was supposed to be a secret - many people who lived in the area at the time did not really know what it was for. And as Russell pointed out during our conversation, many of the people who stayed there that are still alive were young children then. And when the camp closed, many of the former inhabitants did not care to talk about or relive the experience. In detail that makes it clear that Russell did her research, the book not only presents the story of people like Sumi and Ingrid, but it also talks about the key political players of the time, including FDR, his wife Eleanor, J. Edgar Hoover, and later, former president Dwight D. Eisenhower, among others. If you want to look at a different aspect of WWII aside from what is normally written about in novels, then I highly suggest this book.

Favorite Moment: When persecuted Jews (albeit a small amount) are included in the number of people exchanged along with American POWs.

Recommended Reading: As mentioned, I do not read much nonfiction about WWII, but as for fiction, I recommend The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, or Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly.  

Friday, December 9, 2016

Young Adult Fiction: The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko by Scott Stambach

It is no secret to a regular reader of this blog that young adult fiction books are my absolute favorite to read and review. And I am always excited to read one that is not set in an American high school, but maybe instead somewhere overseas, and in a setting other than a school. Scott Stambach's The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko gives me both, as it is set in a hospital in Belarus.

The Situation: In the foreword to Ivan's story, it is explained that the papers that contain it were found in the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children in Mazyr, Belarus by a journalist. The writer, Ivan, is believed to most likely have suffered from the connective tissue disorder known as Beals syndrome, as well as several other conditions. Ivan often describes himself as being only half of a person. With no legs and only one arm, Ivan must use a wheelchair in order to get around the hospital, where he has lived his entire life. He does not know who his parents are; has been through fourteen different psychologists at the hospital; can tell how long a patient will be at the hospital by the amount of pills and drugs they have to take, as well as the symptoms they show; and reads every book that he can get his hands on. Due to the limited library at the hospital, he receives most of his books from Nurse Natalya, who is not only his favorite nurse, but also the best friend he has ever had.

The Problem: Despite his own health problems and disabilities, and the fact that he is confined to the hospital, Ivan has more or less gotten used to his situation and has come up with many ways of dealing with it and keeping himself entertained. But in late 2005, all of his preconceived notions and ideas almost have to be done away with when Polina enters the hospital. She is beautiful, but also orphaned, and incredibly sick. Despite her problems, she does not look at all like she should be at the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children, and her appearance has caused such a disruption in Ivan's otherwise fairly orderly life that none of his usual tricks and games do anything to put it back together. Polina is someone whose attention he actually wants to get; someone he wants to talk to; and someone who he actually cares whether they live or die.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel set in a hospital in Belarus. Though Ivan does not know when his birthday is, it is later revealed that he is 18 years old. Having spent his entire life in the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children, he knows everything about the building and those that have worked there for a long time. Even when it comes to those who have been at the hospital for only a short time, Ivan's sharp observational skills quickly tell him everything he needs to know about that person, and he has no problem using that information to his advantage. The other residents, or mutants as Ivan calls them, are not as aware as Ivan, but that changes when Polina is admitted. She challenges Ivan in ways that not even Nurse Natalya can manage, and although he has insecurities about his physical appearance, Polina does not seem to at all mind how he looks or how he talks. It is assumed that Ivan's deformities, and even most of the problems that plague the children in the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children, can be blamed on radiation that was released into the area when a nuclear reactor in Pripyat, Ukraine exploded in 1986. Even in 2005, the surrounding area is still suffering the consequences of this explosion, giving the hospital a constant stream of patients. With the appearance of Polina, Ivan experiences emotions and a relationship he never thought he would get to have. It is the kind of story that is rarely told, but should be told more often: a boy who thought he knew everything there was to know about loss ends up learning so much more, while also receiving the love he never knew he deserved. 

My Verdict: This is a good story. In fact, it is extremely close to being a great story. Besides a few things here and there that made the novel either too much like the rest, or that did not quite fit with Ivan's voice, it is an engaging story with a fun, tricky, sometimes frustrating, but also sympathetic narrator. Ivan is often a jerk, but given his condition and history, it is understandable, and it is also often forgiven. And framing the story as a handwritten diary of sorts coming from Ivan himself works very well. The only way someone like Ivan would find the need to write down anything from his life is if something massive and/or catastrophic happened. So the reader knows Ivan's story is going somewhere, even during the moments when it seems like he is only describing the daily events of his life at the hospital. Every sentence is leading to something, and nothing feels wasted or unnecessary. But there are moments that do not quite feel true, or like something the Ivan we get to know would do. Other than that, this is a touching story of a hurt soul who is not done hurting.

Favorite Moment: Partially because it was so fascinating, I enjoyed Ivan's description of who he refers to as the Ginger Twins. Two red-headed twins named Mary and Magdalena live at the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children, and they are inseparable. That in and of itself is not so fascinating. But they do everything together and play together without even speaking. Without words, they both decide to do the same things and play the same games. Even Ivan with all of his tricks was not able to disrupt them, separate them, or make them acknowledge anyone else in the hospital.

Favorite Character: It would be easy to see Nurse Natalya as an enabler of Ivan's jerky behavior, but when you consider how little he gets to do, her behavior makes a lot more sense. And really, she treats him the way she does because she respects him enough to give him as much of a "normal" life as possible.

Recommended Reading: A book by John Green is always a good idea, so for this week I recommend The Fault in Our Stars. Also, Not If I See You First by Eric Lindstrom would be a good choice too.     

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Winners of the 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards

Finally! The winners have been announced for the 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards. It has been a slow and somewhat painful couple of weeks waiting for these results to come out, but they are here and the readers have spoken. 

Although I did not vote for it, I am still thrilled to say that The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead has won for Best Historical Fiction. But the one I did vote for, Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly, did end up coming in second, narrowly missing the win by less than 200 votes. For anyone who thinks their vote does not matter, this close race shows how untrue that is.

And it should be a surprise to no one that J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Cursed Child blew away the rest of the competition in the Best Fantasy category, with my personal pick of All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders coming in sixth. 

While I had high hopes for Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's The Long Cosmos, I am not too surprised it did not end up winning for Best Science Fiction. It did still manage to come in fourth, however, and I think that is a fairly strong showing.

Another close call comes from the Best Horror award, with Joe Hill's The Fireman edging out my choice of The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchison. I knew that Hutchison's haunting tale deserved to be in this category, and if there was an underdog that I really believed had a chance, it was this book. But hey, there is no shame in losing to Stephen King's son. 

I had sincerely hoped for a better showing for All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister in the History & Biography category; instead, it ended up coming in fifth, with The Midnight Assassin by Skip Hollandsworth coming in eighth. And the winner? Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man by William Shatner.

And again, Lilac Girls end us coming in second place in its second category, Best Debut Goodreads Author. This time it comes in behind Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton. The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner, which is the book I actually voted for, came in eighth. 

Aside from Best Historical Fiction, much of this blog post has been me listing off a bunch of near misses and close races for many of the books that have appeared on this blog. But I am beyond thrilled to say that Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys has taken home the award for my absolute favorite category of Best Young Adult Fiction. It feels right that the two categories that a Door Stop Novel would win for are Best Historical Fiction, a category that no Door Stop Novel has ever won before today, and Best Young Adult Fiction, my favorite category. Congratulations to Sepetys.

So now, we once again wait 12 more months until the next Goodreads Choice Awards nominees are announced. I certainly enjoyed discovering the 15 total Door Stop Novels that ended up being nominated this year, and I am sure I will enjoy the process of searching, finding, discovering, and guessing all over again in 2017.

'Till next year. 

Friday, December 2, 2016

Door Stop: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

For the life of me, I cannot remember what it was exactly that compelled me to pick up Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Sure, I had heard of it, and knew of it as one of those incredibly long books that people like to say they have read, even when they haven't. But I don't know what actually made be begin searching the shelves at Half Price Books for it, before finally buying the 20th anniversary edition pictured here off of Amazon. Whatever the case may be, I have read it. It took me forever, but I read it.

The Situation: Hal Incandenza is the youngest son of James and Avril Incandenza. James founded the elite Enfield Tennis Academy (ETA) in Boston, Massachusetts that Hal now attends and trains at in hopes of becoming a world-class tennis player. Though Hal's older brother, Mario, does not technically attend ETA, he does live there, and he and Hal share a room. And while James committed suicide back in the Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar, Avril continues to assist in running ETA, along with her adoptive brother Charles Tavis. On the other side of the hill, at the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery, Don Gately does his best to keep the halfway house running safely and smoothly, while also staying clean and sober. The two extremely different worlds are linked in various ways, but mainly through  a woman named Joelle Van Dyne, a former girlfriend of Hal's oldest brother, Orin, who finds herself at Ennet after a suicide attempt.

The Problem: Though Hal is a fantastic tennis player and incredibly smart, he suffers from severe insecurity, and loves few things more than he going down into the tunnels below Enfield to smoke marijuana in private. His insecurity is so bad that he seems to nearly fall apart after he is almost beaten in a tennis match by one of his close friends. Hal's problems could stem from marijuana; or the pressures of ETA and to be a great tennis player; or his father's suicide; or even his mother's strange behavior, as she has become increasingly agoraphobic since her husband's suicide. At Ennet, Don has his hands full trying to maintain order as well as stay clean, especially after one resident decides to supplement his addictive urges by killing small animals and pets belonging to neighborhood residents. Meanwhile, there is a third main story line where a group of radicals are attempting to commit an act of terrorism by finding and distributing a film that is apparently so addictive, that viewers want to do nothing else but watch it once they see it. And because this film was made by James Incandenza before his death, this group begins to seek out those closest to him as they look for the master copy.

Genre, Themes, History: Because this book is nearly 1000 pages of tightly packed prose, and also contains close to 400 endnotes, it has been categorized as an encyclopedic novel, which of course leads me to simply label it as a door stop. It was published in 1996, but is set in the future. In this future that Wallace has imagined, not only has the U.S., Mexico, and Canada merged to become the Organization of North American Nations, but each year is subsidized by a corporate sponsor, hence the aforementioned Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar. Most of the action seems to take place during the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, which we can only guess to be around 2009. Even without the crazy state the world is in (or at least North America), Wallace gives us characters that fit that space nicely. At first glance, the Incandenza family is not perfect - given James' suicide and Mario's disabilities - but they are stable. All it takes is a closer look at each member and how they interact with each other to realize that this may be one of the most dysfunctional families ever put on paper. At one point, Joelle remembers a dinner she attended at the Incandenza's when James was still alive. While the meal went off without a hitch and everyone was perfectly nice to her, she could tell that something was not right, and that Avril was just controlling enough for everything to look okay, but too controlling for it to actually be okay. And all of this is without the addicts living at Ennet, and the separatists wanting to commit a terrorist act. The title of Infinite Jest refers to the film the terrorist are looking for, created by James and starring Joelle. The novel deals with family, addiction, recovery, suicide, entertainment, and even tennis, as each character just tries to be 'okay,' and struggling immensely only to not pull it off.

My Verdict: More than once I have mentioned how hard Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is to read despite actually being fairly short. Well for me, Infinite Jest has the exact same problem, only it is incredibly long. As a whole, it was okay, with certain parts of it being amazing, and other parts being meh, and still other parts being quite boring. It is regarded by many as a masterpiece, and I easily understand why. What Wallace has done is no small thing, and it is what many try to do but fail to due to lack of execution, talent, or even patience. Wallace goes for broke, and it pays off. And the way he links the different story lines together does not at all feel cheap or easy or convenient. I recommend this book, but only if you have the time, and the desire to take the time, to read something that cannot be knocked out over a few days by the beach, or at a coffee shop. This book is an investment, and it should be approached as such.

Favorite Moment: As macabre, and somewhat gross, as it may be, I enjoyed Hal's description of the moment when he came home and found that his father had stuck his own head in the microwave and turned it on.

Favorite Character: Sometimes this is hard when pretty much every character is an absolute mess. Hal would be the easiest choice I guess, but instead I will pick Don Gately. After a life of hard drugs and hard living, Don has finally gotten clean through Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, and now works for Ennet house in several different capacities. He still has his demons, and the other residents give him plenty of grief, but overall he is a decent guy trying to get his life together.  

Recommended Reading: If you want another door stop (although I seriously recommend going for something light after this one), I say go for The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. It also focuses on one main character, but has several side stories that connect to the main story line. For something lighter (as in shorter) that also offers an interesting view of the future, I recommend Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.