Book Reviews January 2018:
Long, cold January is the perfect month for reading. I did quite a bit of it. As I began to look back on the books I read in January, I realized they all leaned heavily on the theme of relationship. Whether set in crowded Calcutta, the migrant farm fields of south Florida, or a New York insane asylum, interaction with family, neighbors, friends, home, and even complete strangers made for compelling storytelling. Stephen King calls books portable magic. Charles William Eliot referred to books as his quiet, constant companions.
My January books certainly provided quiet, constant companionship as they magically transported me to Iowa, Ohio, a front porch in Mississippi. I even made a few new friends.
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry
by Gabrielle Zevin
This is the charming story of a grumpy man who seems way older than his age (he’s only 39 at the beginning of the novel but acts a bit like Ove in A Man Called Ove). He owns Island Books on Alice Island, a touristy town in the northeast. The story is much like an modern day Silas Marner in that a baby is left in his bookstore, and he decides to raise her. There’s also the story of a stolen rare Poe book of short stories, and a bookseller who becomes his love interest. The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry was a fun, quick read, that added a much needed shot of brightness to the first frigid week of 2018. I particularly enjoyed the way the author wove in Fikry’s favorite books, the reason I didn’t much understand until I did.
This book made me: look up the word Anthropomorphize (a word I should know because I do this often).
My favorite line: You know everything you need to know about a person from the answer to the question, what is your favorite book?
Looking for Esperanza:
The Story of a Mother, A Child Lost, and Why They Matter to Us
by Adriana Páramo
When Páramo heard about a woman named Esperanza who left Mexico with her children and walked through the desert with her dead baby strapped to her, she set out to find her and tell her story. In the author’s journey of searching for Esperanza, she met other women with equally harrowing stories. I met Adriana Páramo last year in Iceland. We were members of the same small writer group. From the first time I read her writing, I knew she was a powerful, passionate writer. I believe that one-thousand fold after having read Looking for Esperanza. Páramo, who is Columbian, gives real names and faces to undocumented immigrants often scooped into a blurry group, dismissed as less than human, accused of being job stealers unwilling to learn our language. Páramo illuminates the migrant plight in a raw, real way that will definitely make you feel something and perhaps even make you rethink your stance. This may very well be the most important book you’ve never heard of. Until now.
This book made me: devastated for these women whose transgressions stem wholly from situation of place.
My favorite line(s): Take a look at them toiling in the field on the outskirts of your town. They have no shame. They arrive barefoot and hungry and within hours they are already working in farms across the country… Know that they will have touched everything you put in your mouths. Fruits and vegetables, everything bulbous, everything that sprouts and nourishes, everything with peels and seeds and sheaths and edible flesh.
Little Fires Everywhere
by Celeste Ng
The story begins with a fire. As Mrs. Richardson stands in her yard holding her pale blue robe closed, she watches her suburban Ohio home burn. We learn its arson. From the get-go we suspect the youngest daughter Izzy. But there are other people who might have motive, too. The themes of relationship and family are strong throughout this story, but man alive, there’s a whole whole whole lot going (i.e. lots of little fires) and lots of characters, many of whom seemed clichéd. Before we get to the who and the why of the house fire, we follow several lesser storylines woven throughout, stories touching on hot social issues—adoption, abortion, mixed race dating, surrogate pregnancy (little stories everywhere). I viewed these lesser storylines as kindling stoking the main plot line. The author uses an omniscient point of view, moving us inside the minds of every character, often in the same paragraph. FYI, I listened to the audio version of this book, and maybe because of that, I initially had trouble distinguishing Lexie and Izzy. With respect to the large cast of characters, my favorites were Pearl and her vagabond, artist mother Mia, who reminded me of Winona Ryder and (a more thoughtful, less free-spirited) Cher in the 1990s movie, Mermaids.
This book made me: a bit depressed for reasons I won’t go into.
My favorite line: The silence seemed to stretch itself out like taffy.
Ten Days in a Mad-House
by Nellie Bly
This TRUE story, originally written in 1887 as a series of investigative pieces for New York World newspaper, required journalist, Nellie Bly, go undercover as an insane patient at The Women’s Insane Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. Step one in doing this was convincing several doctors she was insane. Horrifyingly, she did this with relative ease. The power of suggestion is, well, a powerful thing. As a committed patient, Bly recorded ghastly conditions such as no heat, inedible food, beatings, once a week bathing in dirty water, nurses who physically and mentally tortured patients. She discovered that many of the patients were as sane as she, committed due to physical health issues, old age, or immigration status and inability to speak English. Compare this with a criminal who is given every chance to prove his innocence. Who would not rather be a murderer and take the chance for life than be declared insane, without hope of escape? In ten days’ time, Bly blurred the line between the sane and insane while exposing a horrific snapshot of women with zero rights and no voice. Once she was released (her employer secured her release), her investigative reporting brought swift change to the way New York treated its
prisoners patients. The city dedicated $1MM to the care of the insane. We can only hope the sane people being held benefited.
This book made me: wonder how long any person could hold on to sanity in such conditions.
My favorite line: It is only after one is in trouble that one realizes how little sympathy and kindness there are in the world.
One Writer’s Beginnings
by Eudora Welty
If you’ve read The Accidental Salvation of Gracie Lee (shameless plug), you know Eudora Welty references are woven throughout. I relate best to the writings of classic southern authors such as Welty and Flannery O’Conner, maybe because I grew up in a rural farm setting and love the sense of place created in their stories. Maybe because the characters are gritty and real. Reading One Writer’s Beginnings (what on earth took me so long?) felt like sitting on the front porch of Ms. Welty’s Mississippi home while sipping sweet tea and shelling peas and listening to her tell the story of her writing life. She talks of how learning to listen and see helped develop her writing voice. How she drew from real experiences, real smells, sounds, and people. Welty opened my eyes to how mere snippets of memories develop into full-fledged storytelling.
This book made me: say, “Oh yeah, me too!” She put into words what I’ve often thought about the writing process yet been unable to fully grasp.
Favorite Line: Daydreaming had started me on the way; but storytelling, once I was truly in its grip, took me and shook me awake.
by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Lowland is a sweeping family saga of two brothers born fifteen months apart in India. Sabhash and Udayan grow up much like twins, with a special almost mythical childhood closeness. Wildly opposing temperaments send them down different paths. From beginning to end, there’s an isolated, melancholy feel to this story as we dissect a single tragic event from the point of view of each character and follow how it bleeds into future generations. No, time doesn’t heal all wounds. Not always. Not when politics become personal and family secrets are draped like saris around major life decisions. In the style we’ve come to expect from Lahiri, her writing is poetically beautiful, her place descriptions come with specific emotion. Once again, I remain in jaw-dropping awe of Lahiri’s stunning writing.
This book made me: want to visit Rhode Island.
My favorite line: With her own hand she’d painted herself into a corner, and then out of the picture altogether.
by Marilynne Robinson
When I downloaded this audiobook on Hoopla, I had no idea Lila was part 3 of Robinson’s acclaimed Gilead series. As I listened to the story, I remembered reading Gilead (part 1) when it came out in 2006. (It won no less than a Pulitzer.) I haven’t read part 2, Home, but no matter. Lila stands alone. Boy does she. Lila is a homeless, motherless, feral sort of girl who stumbles into the church in her small Iowa town mainly to get out of the rain. She strikes up an odd sort of friendship with the much older pastor, John Ames, that leads to baptism and marriage, both things as foreign to her as schooling and a clean, soft bed. The story fluctuates from past to present, present to past. Lila’s worrisome recollections repeat, stream of consciousness style, in much the same way something frightful can’t be un-seen or un-remembered. As she restlessly settles into her more civilized life, she continues to struggle with personal demons of mistrust and loneliness. Robinson’s haunting, bare-boned words and stripped-down love story reminded me of Donald Harington’s stories of Staymore. And that’s saying something.
This book made me: lost for a while.
My favorite line: If the world had a soul—that was it—wandering through it. Never knowing anything different or wanting anything more.
Whew. January’s done. What’s the best book you’ve read so far in 2018?
Grace Grits and Gardening
Farm. Food. Garden. Life.
Bad Mountain, A Woman Like This