#CBR9 Review #123

The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg

I confess that my knowledge of Afghanistan has been fairly limited to the few things I’ve seen or read in the news or Khaled Hosseini’s body of work (well, add Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil to my fairly limited list). So when my library book club selected Jenny Nordberg’s investigative journalistic book, The Underground Girls of Kabul, I wasn’t sure what to think. But after I read, I felt that a new world and source of activism had opened up for me.

While on an investigative trip, Nordberg stumbled onto a concept that she had never heard of: the bacha posh, or a girl who is dressed like a boy. Because Afghani culture demands sons at all costs, the lack of a son can be the cause of great distress, mourning, dishonor, or danger to a family. Therefore, out of necessity, many women dress their young daughters as sons and pass them off as sons to retain family honor. And it’s a phenomenon, while not acknowledged, that has roots in more than one home. This book is Nordberg’s quest to understand how this plays out in Afghani culture, and the many components involved that create such restrictive gender roles in society.

This book read fairly quickly, and was a compelling cultural study. If anything, there were so many characters, I had a hard time telling a few of them apart. But I have to give Nordberg credit for informing me. We had an engaged and enlightening book club discussion. It did leave me with this burning question: now what? Now that I know women are trying to push against restrictive and oppressive gender norms, what can I do to help?

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#CBR9 Review #122

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Many of my CBR friends have read this book and raved about it, and the mini-series has brought Big Little Lies into a new cultural forefront. I decided to watch the mini-series, but because I am a by-the-book person, I decided to read the book first. This was actually quite a slow read for me, and there are lots of elements I’d like to unpack.

This is the story of three women: Madeline, Celeste, and Jane. Each of them has a child in a new kindergarten class, and each has her own story to tell. The novel moves backward and forward in time, starting in the present moment: a murder has occurred at the school’s Trivia Night Fundraiser, and we don’t know who. The novel then spends its time unfolding many little and large secrets and backstories that may or may not contribute to the murder and its aftermath. That’s really all I can say without spoiling anything.

Here’s the thing: Moriarty tackles a difficult subject, and I commend her for that. In fact, the final chapter and the culmination of this story is the reason I gave this book three stars instead of two. I’ll be interested to see how the show brings this issue to life.

That said, the book often approached it like a Very Serious Subject or After School Special, much like Kathryn Stockett in The Help, and I just didn’t think the writing was strong enough to make it sincere without falling into camp territory. The book is ultimately too long for what it’s trying to accomplish, and I don’t think framing it as a mystery/suspense served its goals very well. Even without spoilers, I accurately predicted the recipient of the Big Event mentioned in the first chapter, and the Big Reveal that led up to the Big Event made me roll my eyes.

Perhaps I’ve been spoiled for good family drama by Megan Abbott, but whatever the case, I think I much prefer her adult fiction. I’ll definitely watch the show, but I won’t be reading any of Moriarty’s other work.

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#CBR9 Review #121

Salt Houses by Hala Alyan

I was library-shopping after a LONG week at school, when I stumbled upon Hala Alyan’s novel Salt Houses. I read the blurb and was instantly intrigued. I’ve been trying to read more works about Muslims from a variety of ethnic and national backgrounds, and reading about Palestine presented a double interest to me. This is a well-written and engaging novel, with a historical scope that reminds me a little of Homegoing.

On her wedding weekend, Alia’s mother reads her fortune and predicts a life of strife and upheaval. The novel begins in the 1960s and unfolds over the next several decades, including the Six Days’ War and post-9/11 anxieties. It takes place in Palestine, Kuwait, Lebanon, Jordan, Paris, and Boston. It spans four generations: Salma the matriarch, Alia, her children, and their children. Each narrator has a different story to tell and a different take on being Palestinian without being from Palestine. The novel shows how global culture unfolds, particularly in times of conflict or crisis, and it asks how we develop national pride if we become refugees. Each of the characters also has their own take on what it means to be Middle Eastern and Muslim, which also adds a nuanced component to the novel.

The characters are vivid, and the writing is simply gorgeous. I found the characters to be interesting and relatable, though still very human. This was a solid 4.5 star book for me (with maybe a quibble or two in pacing), and I would be very interested to read more of Alyan’s work. I am definitely including this in a teaching rotation.

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#CBR9 Review #120

Life Before Man by Margaret Atwood

One of my projects this year was to make a dent in the Atwood canon, and I seem to have done so in the latter half of 2017. I had heard very little about Life Before Man, but I thought it would be intriguing to see some of her earlier work, since I had never read any books published prior to The Handmaid’s Tale. You can see her sly humor and nascent feminism here, even if there are some heavily domestic tropes in the novel.

Atwood pulls apart the threads of family and relationship like no other, and this novel focuses on a trio of individuals who become pulled into each other’s webs of influence. This novel is told from three perspectives: Elizabeth’s, Nate’s, and Lesje’s. Elizabeth and Nate are married, though theirs is an open relationship of sorts. Elizabeth’s latest lover Chris has committed suicide and Nate’s has left him for someone who will leave his wife and children. Lesje is more interested in dinosaurs than men, but she is dating the staid and reliable William, until Nate pulls her into his orbit. Did I mention that Elizabeth and Lesje are also coworkers at the museum? The novel twists and turns as each person tries to gain control of his life and possibly, of others.

If you need to like your characters in order to like a novel, you’ll want to give this one a skip. Pretty much everyone is unlikeable in this novel, and no one comes off really well. I don’t mind, though, because I think that Atwood is making a fairly sharp and unflattering statement about infidelity and hypocrisy. Further, because she alternates perspectives, you get to read each person’s point-of-view, and it veers from sympathetic to repulsive fairly quickly. It’s a challenge to exercise empathy with people who make poor life choices, but Atwood is up to the occasion and works fluently in the uncomfortable. If you’ve never read Atwood or are not a diehard fan, you won’t want to start here. But if you are and have never read this one, I suggest you do.

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#CBR9 Review #119

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

My friend S was going through books and passed on her copy of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius to me. I had heard it referenced before in many cultural contexts (including a Gilmore Girls episode, if memory serves) but had never read it. The only Dave Eggers I had read was The Circle which I found quite interesting (if some parts a little frustrating). I was eager to see how this work stacked up.

The premise of the story is eye-catching. Dave Eggers’ parents die within a year of each other when he is about 21 or 22, and he and his older siblings have to build a life for their much younger grade school-aged brother. Toph is a sibling but he becomes a combined best friend and child for Eggers as he navigates his own young adulthood and career ambitions. We hear a lot about the magazine that Eggers worked for before McSweeney’s, just as we hear about all sorts of relationship dramas and the pains and joys of raising a kid when you yourself are fairly young.

But I need to be real: as interesting (and painful) as the subject matter is, the writing style drove.me.crazy. There is a fair amount of ranting and unnecessary strings of profanity, which very much shows that Eggers was a young, white, self-important man when he wrote the book. It’s not say that this isn’t worth reading, but after reading several other authors who sort of belong as Eggers’ contemporaries, I think my patience has been somewhat exhausted for this kind of literature.

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#CBR9 Review #118

The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

Back in the 1990s, my mom did not allow me to watch Disney’s adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, because she thought it looked too dark and scary (watching it many years later as an adult, I have to say that she’s not entirely wrong. It’s really not a children’s film at all). Hilariously enough, my parents got me the novel for Christmas a mere few years later, not realizing that this is a Little Mermaid situation in that the Disney adaptation is a MUCH cheerier version of the original story. I tried to read the book in high school but got bogged down with a description of France and gave up. I am SO pleased to have tackled my white whale and discovered that I actually really liked it.

This is a story of medieval Paris. It is a critique, novel, Gothic parody, and history rolled into one. We have Quasimodo, a hunchbacked young man who has gone deaf from ringing the bells of the Notre Dame cathedral. There is Claude Frollo, a priest haunted by his own desires and taking them to a lecherous excess. Esmeralda is a warm and loving gypsy dancer who is innocent and beautiful. And then there is the self-serving Captain Phoebus. These characters all collide in ways that lead to explosive conflicts as misunderstandings and quests for power ignite over a period of several days.

Victor Hugo writes a terrific takedown of power and desire, as well as xenophobia in this novel. I do have to warn you, the description at the front end is a little heavy, and the story doesn’t get moving until about 100 pages in. If you can manage it, I think the payoff is worth it. I’m not going to lie, though. There is one point in the book where I imagined movie Quasimodo yelling, “SANCTUARY!”

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#CBR9 Review #117

What Happened by Hillary Clinton

Peeps. We’ve been living this nightmare for almost a year now. It feels like ten. I don’t want to relitigate the 2016 election, except to say that I was blue no matter who (thanks to my Throwing Shade podcast for that line!), and I am tired of Hillary Clinton being burned in the town square of public opinion. She is not president of the United States, and she is not running again. And after reading her book, I began to understand the enormity of what we lost out when we elected Donald Trump instead of her.

Clinton is no stranger to controversy, and What Happened eschews the First Lady years and Secretary of State years in order to focus on the 2016 presidential run and what happened that led up to her Electoral College loss. The answers are not easy, and Clinton herself discusses the metrics that her team used in order to campaign (they followed a similar path as Obama’s campaign teams), the email scandal and subsequent media shark tank feeding frenzy, the Democratic primary process, and the James Comey bombshell that ultimately sealed the deal for a lot of undecided white voters.

As a writer, Clinton is smart, funny, and engaging. She spares no detail when it comes to the campaign, her policies, and her frustrations. The chapters on sexism are painfully relevant and resonate with me on so many levels. The chapter on Russia is honestly the most important. I feel disappointed that the media has Angelina-and-Jennifered her and Bernie Sanders instead of focusing on Vladimir Putin and Russia’s interference in the election, of which we are getting more evidence.

In my personal opinion, Hillary’s big mistake was not connecting more to the Rust Belt states, in which I have lived almost all my life, though my parents are from other states. I personally think she should have gone through all the states she lost to Bernie in the primary and assumed those were going Trump and that she would have to work hard for them. I’m not forthcoming about location, but I will say this: I lived half my life in Wisconsin, and that state is ruby-red. Milwaukee and Madison are typically large and liberal enough to swing the state blue (and have done so since the late 1980s), but honestly, north of Madison, almost everyone is a Teapublican. The Koch Brothers have enormous sway in the farming/agro areas, not to mention a puppet in Scott Walker. Let’s also not forget the horrible racial profiling occurring in the state, no thanks to cartoon villain Sheriff David Clarke. Clinton lost Wisconsin by 10,000 votes, but 100,000 people were refused a vote, because of the voter restriction laws. Obviously some of those votes would have gone to Trump, but not all, particularly in Milwaukee among diverse voters.

I highly recommend this book. It’s much more a policy-oriented book than a complaint about the campaign. Clinton’s economic and foreign policies were sharp and interesting, and she had many good ideas about how to improve ObamaCare. If only. If only.

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