#CBR10 Review #12

The Power by Naomi Alderman

I’ve heard a ton of buzz about this book. One of my dear friends had read and raved about this book, and it made President Obama’s list of best books for 2017, alongside my book of the year, Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. I had high hopes. The premise intrigued me. What would we do in a world where women had all the power and the tables were turned on the class and power dynamic?

The problem starts when you look at a metaphor–power–and turn it into *literal* electricity. I don’t think that making a metaphor a literal object in a book makes your message more compelling or persuasive. In fact, if you’re going to look at genetic mutations/deviations/variants, you’re going to draw comparisons to X-Men, and I could never quite shake that comparison off. As a work of speculative fiction, I just didn’t quite understand the science, and I felt that there was room in the book to explore the world-building aspect that just didn’t quite add up or help me situate the history and context that Alderman built.

But that’s minor compared to my biggest problem with the book, which makes a potential (perhaps unintended) case for women being just as bad as men–whether just as condescending, just as brutally violent, or just as power-thirsty. And frankly, I don’t buy it. As a feminist, I don’t believe that we should wrench power away from men or that we gain power in order to brutalize men. Rather, we should be equals, and that means being stronger together. And the trajectory of the book left me feeling more and more frustrated.

There were some moments that felt like cultural appropriation and did not sit well with me at all. I would have been interested in power dynamic from a global perspective, but I do not think Alderman is the writer to explore this, as evidenced by her very Westernized treatment of the Saudi women.

I haven’t spoken much about the craft, but that also was a little frustrating, because so much potential is there and just not used well. Alderman writes well, but having as many narrative perspectives as she did weakened the pacing of the book substantially. Not all of the narrators are interesting, and that also kept me from diving into the book as readily as I might have. Finally, the letters at the beginning and the end of the novel felt…tacked on. Or at least unnecessary. There wasn’t enough archeology/science/etc. to make this feel like a multi-modal text.

Ultimately, this is an original premise that left me rather cold with its ideology and execution.



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#CBR10 Review #11

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

I read Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers for CBR8, and I’ve included my original review link here. F has chosen this for our February book club, and I’m excited to discuss it with the group. I am trying not to re-read books, since my TBR is enormous, but I was very glad to revisit this novel. In the wake of the 2016 election, the topic of immigrants and their American Dreams takes on an added importance today as we shape policy (or, in the case of the current administration, lack thereof) to help them stay and build a life here in America.

What struck me in this re-read was the connection between race and class as immigrants in the United States. Jende and Neni have a concept of America from TV and product placement, yet they don’t realize until they live in the United States just how deep racial divides run. As immigrants, they are directly caught in the crosshairs, and they don’t see how Lehman Brothers and the 2008 recession will impact them most directly.

It’s heartbreaking to read about people who seek a better life only to find that they have to work inordinately hard in order to make it “rich.” In fact, the American Dream is an ephemeral and often unrealistic fantasy for any but the richest and whitest of people who have an economic security net upon which to fall. What also struck me was the way that white women, in their quest to “have it all,” rely upon the labor of poor women in order to climb the social and corporate ladder. I’ll definitely be including this novel in my teaching rotation in the future.

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#CBR10 Review #10

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

I enjoy trippy, alternate-universe texts, and I was looking forward to my library book club discussing Dark Matter for our February meeting. I had heard good things about this novel, and I wanted to see how it would play out.

Jason Dessen is a professor at a community college living in Chicago. He goes out to celebrate his friend’s winning a prestigious award—one he had wanted to win in the years before he met his wife, got her pregnant, and then raised their child—and is promptly kidnapped. When he wakes up, he is welcomed in an environment that he does not recognize by a person he does not recognize, but who greets him as a friend. Confused, Jason has to figure out why his world has seemingly vanished and why getting back to his wife and son may be a virtual impossibility. I don’t want to say any more without spoiling the book, and you’re best not being spoiled.

This reminded me somewhat of the excellent and short-lived TV series Awake starring Jason Isaacs. I’ve spent time wondering what would have happened if I had never met my husband, if I had broken up with him in order to take an academic job in a different state, or if I had given up on my PhD. As a Christian, I believe very much in the idea that God guides your life and helps you make decisions—I’m not necessarily fatalistic, but I do believe that some things were meant to happen. And this book toyed with these ideas of fate or destiny in a way that is both touching and thought-provoking.


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#CBR10 Review #9

Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown

I’ve read two of Brené Brown’s books, and I was intrigued by the premise of this book. She hinted previously at writing more explicitly about spirituality, and I wanted to hear her thoughts specifically on faith and community. This book surprised me and challenged me in ways I did not expect, and it’s going to sit with me throughout the next few years of this challenging and exhausting presidency.

Brown starts, as she often does, with a pivotal moment in her life that challenged her for years on end. Maya Angelou, in an interview, said that she didn’t belong anywhere or to any community, and this sentiment sparked a disagreement within Brown that lasted until she read the quote in context. Belonging is not necessarily about conformity—it’s about identifying who you are and who you want to be, and how you are your best and most authentic self in a world that often demands conformity. She uses the acronym BRAVING, but mercifully, avoids using it too often. She provides a challenge for us in a toxic political climate to elevate our conversation and show how we can find true belonging together.

I confess, I’ve struggled mightily with this idea of belonging. I’m a feminist, a Christian, an academic, and a moderate Democrat. Good luck fitting all of these things together! Something Brown has challenged me to do is strike out into the “wilderness” and not fear the desolation but find the wild beauty within. Another thing she has struck within me is to avoid dehumanizing discourse and to be balanced and fair in my criticism. This book is, in my mind, a must-read.

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#CBR10 Review #8

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

It’s well-documented that I am neither a Rainbow Roweller nor a John Greener. I typically don’t find the earnest-hipster-loner-pop culture throwback to be all that appealing of a trope, which explains where some of my dislike originates. I had no intention of checking out Turtles All the Way Down, until I heard a Fresh Air interview that Terry Gross conducted with Green. And it was compelling. I had no idea he had OCD, and hearing him discuss the writing process and applying it to Aza convinced me that I needed to read the book.

Aza is our protagonist, and she has OCD. Her best friend Daisy writes Star Wars fanfiction and is trying to make ends meet, while they both float through high school. And then a multi-millionaire goes missing, and his son went to a camp with Aza when they were children. The two friends strike up a friendship with Davis, and Aza finds out that her world is both macrocosmic and microcosmic, as she struggles to break the boundaries of her own mind.

At first, I felt that Turtles was falling into some of the Green Tropes—unique name, nerdy potential love-interest, and unusual circumstances in a small town. But Aza’s struggle with OCD brings about an original component to this novel. Green lays bare her “thought spiral” as she struggles to manage her anxiety and mind in a turbulent world. I also really liked the candid nature of her relationship with Daisy, as well as Davis. This was, to my mind, Green’s maturest work to date. I really appreciated this novel, and it’s really well-written.

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#CBR10 Review #7

The Kalahari Typing School for Men by Alexander McCall Smith

I’ve so been enjoying my foray into the Mma Ramotswe books, especially since I have never done a re-read with the series, or even finished reading the series. This is going to be a great reading year, I can tell. As always, there is a specific formula to the series, but Alexander McCall Smith knows how to balance the familiar and surprising all at once. And that’s perfectly fine by me.

With The Kalahari Typing School for Men, we find out more about Mma Makutsi. She is doing a terrific job at running the Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors bookkeeping and office, being Mma Ramotswe’s assistant detective, and caring for her ailing brother. And yet, she realizes that if she is going to have money for her brother’s care with something left over for her wardrobe, she will have to diversify. So, she starts a typing school for men. Women, she knows, are expected to do clerical and typing work, but men may avoid it out of embarrassment or shame. Out of this class, she meets a charming gentleman and faces a difficult choice. Meanwhile, Mma Ramotswe is trying to help a man atone for a decades-old wrong that he committed against trusted people and his one-time girlfriend. With Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni on the mend, life can start to stitch itself back together.

Here, we get to see some diverging of paths for the detectives. Mma Makutsi’s story is fascinating and also tragic, and I hope that Smith develops it further. At the same time, I’ll be interested to see how he develops Mma Ramotswe’s relationship to Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni and building their family.

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#CBR10 Review #6

Morality for Beautiful Girls by Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith addresses pertinent issues that face people around the world, and he does so in a way that is both funny and tender, so that you don’t feel too raw at once. This time, he looks at depression. And while his solution may not ultimately be practical—after all, we can’t all just pack up our loved ones to an orphanage for a few weeks for treatment!—he does examine the mindset that many of us have when it comes to mental illness.

This book deals with a few issues at a time. First, Mma Ramotswe has to go undercover for several days to find out if someone is being poisoned. At the same time, she has to make arrangements for Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s (and hers, by proxy) adopted children, while Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is just not the same. And then, Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi have to balance their business and try to maintain their overhead. Of course, it’s not a spoiler to say that they can manage to juggle all their stress with grace and the usual cup of bush tea.

What I liked about this particular entry was the moral question that Mma Makutsi has to deal with in her case. There is a question about whether it is morally right to withhold from a client or if they should know the entire truth, even if someone innocent is hurt badly in the process. The resolution is, obviously, convenient, but because this series is cathartic, it makes sense that things tend to fall into place. This series is the very definition of comfort food, and frankly, in this fractious climate, that’s not a bad thing. On to the next book!

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