Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich
The Chancellor has June’s book club pick for our friend group, and he chose Future Home of the Living God, much to my enormous delight. I read and reviewed this about seven months ago for CBR 9, so I am going to plunk that link right here and just talk about my response for this re-read. Because I loved it even more than the first time I read it. I think we’re going to have a rollicking discussion this month, because a few of us loved it, and The Chancellor DID NOT.
This time around, the theme of uncertainty really came alive. Cedar does not know what is happening. The news is full of rumor, falsehood, and heresay (sound familiar?). She does not know whom to trust or to turn. The novel is her first-person diary to her unborn child, because she wants to remember the world and so that her child can remember her, whatever the circumstances may be. But Cedar is thrust into a lot of unknowns, and the world-building reflects this idea. I personally really liked that, because Cedar does not know how her own story ends and neither do we. We are living in a dark and scary world at the moment (and reading about the G-7 yesterday filled my stomach with rocks), and we don’t know how this particular story is going to end. Erdrich is very deliberate in ending on an unfinished note, because she wants to remind us that our own stories are being written as we write them, and we can’t know until much later how everything turns out. (there is a very sad interpretation as to why the story ends the way it does, but I won’t discuss it, for fear of spoiling things)
Another thing I liked was the concept of faith or losing one’s faith. Cedar is a newish Catholic, and she’s grappling with the idea of being abandoned by God. This is something that Elie Wiesel tackles proficiently in Night, and something that all people of faith wrestle with when terrible things happen in life. Cedar’s own spiritual struggles and reliance upon writers like Hildegard von Bingen were poignant and powerful.
The book has drawn a lot of comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale on Goodreads. I can kind of see it (I myself made a few comparisons to Children of Men), but I do think that Erdrich tackles issues of race in a way that Atwood does not conceive of.
Arena by Holly Jennings
I had never heard of Holly Jennings or Arena before my library book club assigned it, but that’s the beauty of reading new books and authors you never knew existed. I am also not a video gamer at all, so the content is unfamiliar. Sometimes, I learn a lot, and other times, I learn to gut through a book in order to finish and be able to discuss it with other people. This book, I am afraid, falls into the latter category for me.
Kali Ling is an interactive gamer for a tournament. She’s part of a team which must capture the other team’s tower and take out the other team (cyber killing them) in order to win the match. They lose their first match and get thrown into a Losers Bracket, endangering their management and sponsorships. And then, tragedy strikes the team. Kali is thrust into a world of self-reflection and doubt, even as her team must regroup and she must come to terms with the time she spends in a virtual reality.
Honestly, I spent a great deal of this book being bored. Kali is not a compelling protagonist for a great deal of the book. Rooke is interesting, but he’s there as a plot device for most of the book, which: boo. We don’t spend a lot of actual time in the Arena. And so much of the plot/conflict feels recycled from other books. I do think there is a compelling and empowering message about truth and learning how to be mindful, which is why this escaped a two-star rating. The book does pick up speed as it continues, and the team’s interactions do become more fleshed out. But I don’t know if I would have finished the book if it was not a book club read. I also had Questions about cultural appropriation, and I’m not sure if the author is the right person to write this particular story and character.
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
I’m a sucker for new books, but I don’t often read them, because of time limits, my library tower (graduated from stack), and my enormous TBR list in general. My sister recommended Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, and I saw it available at my library and put it in my basket on a whim (yes, I have officially gotten greedy to the point of getting basketfuls of books from the library—it’s a new first for me!). It was a great book to read on the airplane from my Florida vacation, and an interesting summer read in general. I have not read A Visit from the Goon Squad, which is Egan’s most famous novel, but after reading this, I need to bump it up on my TBR.
This novel takes place in a few separate timelines and with three major protagonists: Eddie Kerrigan, a down-on-his-luck family man who turns to odd jobs for mob bosses; Dexter Styles, for whom Eddie works; and Anna Kerrigan, our main protagonist and Eddie’s daughter who works in a factory during World War II and aspires to do something more ambitious with her life, while searching for the reason her father suddenly disappeared five years earlier. The three stories weave in and out of each other, which can make timing and sequence difficult to follow, but it does have a real noir sense about it, particularly in the relationship between Eddie and Dexter.
There was one plot point that had me fairly worried, but Egan did a great job with the resolution. She writes a complex narrative with interesting characters and a well-researched setting that was engrossing and also felt original. I am being deliberately vague about this book, so that you can experience it fresh, as I did. I think as little information as possible is the best way to approach this book. The plot structure is a little messy, but it’s an enjoyable read, all the same.
When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds
I greatly enjoy Jason Reynolds’ voice in young adult literature. I think his works are necessary to adding diverse literature for young adult readers, and I have liked his novels to this point. Since I read and LOVED All American Boys and Long Way Down, I think I may have a hard time going back to his first books (case in point: The Boy in the Black Suit was just okay). So I had that in mind when I read When I Was the Greatest, which is apparently trending at my library.
Ali is fifteen and lives in a brownstone in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood (the infamous setting of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing). Ali’s younger sister Jazz is an outgoing and charismatic young woman. His neighbors are too brothers, nicknamed Needles and Noodles. Ali’s mom is a caring but overworked woman, and his dad floats in and out of the picture after time in prison. Needles has a syndrome (we find out what, in the novel). Noodles therefore tries to care for him in the best way possible. But sometimes, fear and bravery live side-by-side, as all three young men are about to find out.
This book was a mixed bag for me. The plotting is a bit slow and predictable. The conflict takes quite a while to unfold, and when it does, the resolution feels both convenient and understated. That said, this is a novel appropriate for younger teens, and Reynolds knows it well. The characterization of the teens is fantastic, and that’s where the novel shines. Ali is an interesting protagonist, and he paints a picture of the neighborhood for his audience with a vivid brush. This is not Reynolds’ best novel, but some of his real strengths as a writer emerge in this novel.
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
I was trawling the library’s New Books shelves (as you do when the school year is over, and you can easily read a stack of books in a few weeks), and R.F. Kuang’s debut novel The Poppy War caught my eye. I am trying to read more work by women of color, and science fiction/fantasy is not always the easiest to come by. I decided that this book held an intriguing premise, and I was curious to see how it would pan out. I read this book over my Florida vacation (complete with a Sunday morning where my nephew and niece screamed at each other over a 7 am Lego fight), so there are already some parts that are fading in my mind. I don’t think that’s an entirely good sign.
Rin is an orphan and living with foster parents, who are merchants by day and opium smugglers on the side. Education is her only chance to leave her rural town and make something of herself. To win a full scholarship to the greatest military academy in China, she must sit the national exam and ace it, which she does. At school, she is made fun of for her looks, accent, and naïveté. Yet she perseveres, with the help of odd Lore master Jiang. She makes a pledge to be his mentee, and then war comes to tear the land apart. Rin is fated to be a major cog in the war, but she has to realize that her great power comes with enormous consequences that could separate her from her humanity. And, as the book blurb gravely notes, it may already be too late.
Guys, I’m going to be real with you on this one. I loved the first half of this book and HATED the second half. I’m really disappointed about it, too. The school stuff was interesting and engaging: Kuang is frank about race and gender, and Rin was an engaging student to follow. As a teacher, I always find school novels interesting and entertaining (because I’m a nerd, I guess). So it was a shocking shift to get kick-dropped into a brutally violent war narrative in the second half. Like, it’s GRIM. I think there’s a purpose for talking frankly about violence to innocent people and civilians during times of political upheaval, but this book was dark and the descriptions veered into the gratuitous, in my opinion. I’m giving it three stars, because the first half was so interesting, and the second half so unbearable. Your own mileage may vary, but I do feel responsible for adding a trigger warning to the second half.
Mothers of Massive Resistance by Elizabeth Gillespie McRae
I really am not exaggerating when I make this proclamation: Mothers of Massive Resistance may be the most crucial book I have read this year. I am not joking, I swear. As a white woman, I have been working diligently to do my part in activism, namely, owning up to the ways in which white women have participated in the oppression and suppression of women of color. It’s unglamorous, introspective, and uncomfortable work, but it’s one of the most vital things I can do to make real progress and use my privilege to lift up people of color in this world. This is a book I discovered through Cannonball Read. I am actually going to link to ElCicco’s amazing and comprehensive review, because her analysis is incredible. I’ll be vague about plot in my own review, as a result, and focus mainly on my own reflections that came about from reading the book.
The only thing I can really add is: damn. White women have depended on whiteness as a means of protecting their fragile ecologies for a really long time. This is not unique to 2016 and beyond. It has always been there. It’s an inconvenient truth that I have shamefully not faced up to, and now I am staring at it after reading this book and wondering how I have participated in this lie throughout my life. Like I said, this book is uncomfortable, but McRae’s unflinching historical data-gathering and analysis is deeply necessary and cuts through a lot of myth-making about the South and white women in general. She also gets at the kind of internalized misogyny that drove so much of this myth-making.
I am recommending this book to everyone I know, because it caused me to rethink history in significant ways. That’s, to me, the sign of an effective, timely, and significant book. This is not easy reading—you may find yourself raging at things that women did to perpetuate the idea that segregation was good or excuses they made to separate their children from children of color. What I hope is that we use this book to educate ourselves and our communities to develop inclusive and integrated worlds that pull everyone up, not just our own families.
What Are We Doing Here? by Marilynne Robinson
I’m fairly mixed on Marilynne Robinson’s novels. I hated Housekeeping, but loved Gilead. I liked Home and Lila okay, though neither got to the level of the first novel in the sequence. I had never read any of her nonfiction, but I couldn’t resist What Are We Doing Here? when I saw it in the library. I had read Robinson’s interview with President Obama and enjoyed it thoroughly, so I wanted to see how her newest nonfiction would go.
Robinson writes on a huge variety of topics, but they deal with religion and faith, the Puritans (A LOT), and the state of intellect in the United States after 2010. A variety of lectures and talks are interspersed throughout the book, and she speaks critically to fellow liberals and academics about the state of affairs in the US.
I am mixed on this book. I think that Robinson makes many salient points. I do not share her deep enthusiasm for John Calvin or the Puritans, and as a literary scholar, I think she conveniently ignores some of the problematic aspects of Puritanism, as well as their long-lasting effects on American culture. That said, the essay “Slander” is excellent. It makes an interesting critique of misinformation and desire to live in one’s confirmation bias that plagues contemporary Christianity today. I just hope that the people who most need to read it will (though I fear that the majority of this book’s readers will be preaching to the choir, so to speak). I do wish there had been a clearer organizational structure that divided essays by rough topic (religion, politics, etc.). This book was dense and at times rather more arid than I anticipated, but it was thought-provoking, as well.