Dragons in the Waters by Madeleine L’Engle
Woo hoo! Double cannonball for me! I actually cannot remember how many weeks ago I read this book (sad, I know). I’m pretty sure I can make it to a triple Cannonball with a spare bit of change, but a quadruple is looking pretty out-of-reach for me at this point. I’m not complaining. It’s been a good year of reading so far. And I’m delighted I got to reach this point with a L’Engle book.
Dragons in the Waters is the second O’Keefe family saga. This time, Dr. O’Keefe, Poly, and Charles are heading down to Venezuela on top-secret business. They encounter 13-year-old Simon Renier, who is accompanying his distant cousin Forsyth Phair there with urgent family business: the sale of a portrait of relative Simon Bolivar. While on the boat headed south, Forsyth is murdered and the portrait is stolen. All the crew and passengers become suspects, while Dr. O’Keefe’s secret mission, as well as Simon’s own destiny, are endangered by the slightest hints of social unrest. The mystery of the painting and the murder are both tied up in the secret mission that Dr. O’Keefe must find a way to keep discreet.
While this is not my favorite L’Engle, it was definitely an interesting and worthwhile read. You can tell that L’Engle has ecological leanings, and you sense that here. Further, her specialty is precocious adolescent characters, and they are on full display here. Simon is full of the same earnestness that categorizes Meg and Poly, which is both frustrating and highly endearing. Poly is shedding a bit more of her childishness and learning to see the world through teenaged eyes. You can see her progression, as well as her relationship to the world, more clearly than in The Arm of the Starfish, where she comes across as a too-precocious child.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
I had a student write about pop culture depictions of African Americans in my spring Composition course for online studies, and she used Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow as one of her sources. I was intrigued. I’ve done a bit of reading in African American studies, history and literary, and this was a good sociological balance to the knowledge base I’ve tried to create.
Alexander specifically examines mass incarceration of black individuals for nonviolent crimes. She further examines the way that nonviolent drug offenders are treated in the United States if they are individuals of color. It’s shocking, really. The things that “good white kids” get probation or no charge for, black offenders often get sent away for years at a time and then denied public aid when they re-emerge into society. This is something that Orange is the New Black has brought up, too. Seriously, if you get three meals and a bed in prison, how can you cope in a real world if you are forced to crash on someone’s couch and find yourself unable to get a job if you have a criminal record? It’s horrible. Alexander documents the political history of the “War on Drugs,” which was more rhetorical fearmongering than anything, and the presidential history of “cracking down” on drugs while not making families’ lives better.
There were instances of weak writing that made me wish Alexander had had a better editor, but it’s a strong and shocking book. I’m glad I read it, although its focus is much more academic. If you’re expecting a light and conversational tone, you will likely be disappointed, though if you like sociological books, you might appreciate it.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
I had heard early acclaim for Yaa Gyasi’s debute novel, Homegoing, but it wasn’t until ElCicco’s rave review that I first thought, “I must read this.” I come and go on long family sagas, but Gyasi has forever changed the game, in my opinion. This is a must-read book, and I cannot quite say enough about it. Definitely in the running for Best Book of 2016.
Homegoing starts in the early 1800s in Ghana, with a focus on two half-sisters who don’t even know of the other’s existence. Effia is a renowned beauty raised by a stepmother who doesn’t love her and is married off to an English officer. Esi is sold into slavery. Each has a fire-polished black stone that is a symbol of her mother. The book follows each subsequent generation in Ghana and the United States in moments of history. We see the effects of slavery on both Ghanians and African American slaves. We feel the effects of Jim Crow and oppressive laws, and we see the ways that class, race, and gender intersect, too. The novel’s culmination is both surprising and moving, and it ties the threads of history together neatly and powerfully.
The writing is absolutely incredible, and you move through a lot of history in a way that is powerful and compelling. I am trying to read works by African and African-American writers that is more than “just” slavery and Civil Rights, and Gyasi fills in those gaps proficiently. Further, even though she packs in a LOT of history, the book moves quickly, a lot faster than you’d expect. You meet a lot of characters, but the vignettes are poignant and powerful, which makes the reading go faster, too. I greatly look forward to Gyasi’s next works, as her first novel is a home run for me.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling
[We interrupt this Madeleine L’Engle reading binge with an important foray into Harry Potter. Because…reasons.]
When J.K. Rowling announced that she’d be writing a play about Harry Potter, we all knew she wouldn’t be done with Harry Potter. Several people began plotting ways to get to London to see the play’s premiere. There was controversy that the actress who played adult Hermione was black. The horror, you guys. How DARE black women live in England?????? [For real, though, that was incredibly stupid. I think I need to reimagine Hermione as black in my re-read instead of picturing her as Emma Watson] And then Rowling graciously had the script published for us, so we can all be a part of The Cursed Child. I’ll try not to be spoilery, so those of you who want to read but haven’t won’t be spoiled. [I had Order of the Phoenix AND Half-Blood Prince spoiled for me, and believe me, no one should have to go through that kind of hell. NO ONE]
It’s been 19 years since Harry’s scar hurt. You’d think that life would be great. But Harry’s younger son Albus is struggling to embrace the legacy with which he was born. His dad is famous and his older brother stands for all the things his father represented: mischief, Quidditch, Gryffindor values. So how do you live your own life under a shadow? And what happens when you accidentally unleash evil that can unmake the entire world in which you live?
I’ve read a LOT of mixed reviews on Goodreads and there are two here on CBR. ingres77’s spoilery review is mostly favorable. The Chancellor did NOT love it at all. We spent a lot of time debating its merits. I personally liked it. Having mourned the loss of J.K. Rowling as a “great” writer after reading The Casual Vacancy (yes, I know, incredible snobbery on my part), I have set my expectations very low. I wanted to see her explore elements that she sort of glossed over in the Harry Potter books (notably, not all Slytherins are evil), and she did that. Albus is very different than Harry, and I think it’s overall a good thing. The sort of impetuous GRYFFINDOR!!!! rhetoric is wearying at times (says the Ravenclaw). I enjoyed the book as an addition to the series, but I also liked the epilogue (several did not), and I also happen to like exploration of alternate realities that comes with time travel. Your own mileage may vary.
The Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L’Engle
The L’Engle reading saga continues! This time, I am delving into her O’Keefe family saga, which specifically focuses on oldest daughter Polyhymnia, or Poly (later changed to Polly). This series has a much more scientific and mystery-oriented thrust than the Time books, though there is still plenty of philosophy to go around. Up till now, I had only read An Acceptable Time (billed as part of the Time books, but it’s really not), but I was eager to see how the rest of the books stacked up.
We first meet Adam Eddington (the yummy young scientist in A Ring of Endless Light, which is my second or third-favorite L’Engle of ALL TIME, because, dolphins) in The Arm of the Starfish, when he goes to a remote island off Portugal to work in Dr. Calvin O’Keefe’s laboratory on a secret regeneration project. While waiting for his flight to Lisbon, he sees Poly with a priest, Canon Tallis, and he is warned by a beautiful young woman to beware the Canon and to trust her no matter what. Swayed by Kali’s persuasive and vulnerable beauty, Adam naturally agrees. Things quickly set into motion, and Adam finds himself caught up between young Poly’s trust, desire for Kali, and a need to be important in the research findings. And of course, someone could get hurt.
I have to tell you guys, this backstory was a BUMMER, because younger Adam? Total idiot. I kept yelling that he was trusting the wrong person, because of course he was. People get hurt because Adam does not know how to follow directions, which is perhaps the most frustrating part of all. Seriously, dude. You don’t need to be the hero here. I’m hoping that this doesn’t poison my re-read of A Ring of Endless Light, because that would be a huge bummer.
Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle
You guys. Reading this book was a chore, and that’s a crime, because Madeleine L’Engle is such a fantastic writer. I’ve only read this once before, and I remember really disliking it before, but because I’m a completionist, blah blah blah, I had to read the whole sequence. So I read it. And here we go.
Sandy and Dennys are the least compelling members of the Murry family, and they have zero hoots to give about it. So one day when they’re in high school (we move back in time, by the way), a quest for hot chocolate in their parents’ lab (Dr. Mrs. Murry does a lot of her cooking on a Bunsen burner to keep an eye on her experiments, which is like totally the best) leads to an accidental tessera back to the antediluvian era. Sandy and Dennys, trying to figure out their place in an unfamiliar world, grapple to remember the Bible story and the implications for all the people who live there, including a compelling young woman who has grabbed their hearts.
Like I said, this story is just not that great, and it feels a lot longer than the others in the series. It’s too bad, because the rest of the series is so strong. Read this if you want to complete the Madeleine L’Engle bingo, but if you skip it, you’re not missing out on much. I will add, though, that adult Sandy and Dennys do grow up to be pretty awesome in the O’Keefe family saga. That was kind of a relief, because the younger versions of themselves are just kind of “meh.”
A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle
When we read The Doomsday Book for Book Club, I was excited about the time travel aspect, though disappointed in the execution and plotting of it. So I was delighted to revisit my favorite in the L’Engle series, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, which features a move through time in order to save the universe from nuclear warfare (and yes, this book is a little dated by that feature, but it doesn’t matter in the end).
The plot has jumped forward about 9 years. Meg is pregnant with her first child, and her husband (I won’t tell, but it’s not really a surprise, squee!) is in London for a conference over Thanksgiving. Her mother-in-law, a taciturn, unloving woman, has finally agreed to join them for dinner. Charles Wallace, now 15, is still fascinated by the universe’s infinite variety, while the twins, Sandy and Dennys, are their usual basic pragmatic selves. When Mrs. MIL (named redacted to prevent minor spoiler) bursts into an old chant by the Star-Gazing rock, Meg and Charles Wallace know there’s a mystery afoot. A unicorn, Gaudior, appears to take Charles Wallace back in time while Meg kythes with him to figure out how her mother-in-law is connected to the dictator Madog Brazillo and how her fate is linked to the threat of nuclear warfare.
The time travel is just done so well, and the universality of the characters through time evokes David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, but is more succinct and profound in its connections (for the record, I thought Cloud Atlas was okay not great, but your own mileage may vary). The kything is done to fullest effect here, and my only regret is that Meg takes a more sedentary role than her usual active self. But it’s a rapid page-turner, and the journey through time makes you wonder where the time modification is supposed to take place. Highly recommended, even above A Wrinkle in Time.