Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
Read by Jacqueline Woodson, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Peter Francis James, Shayna Small, Bahni Turpin
Published September 2019 by Penguin Publishing Group
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary: 
Moving forward and backward in time, Jacqueline Woodson's taut and powerful new novel uncovers the role that history and community have played in the experiences, decisions, and relationships of these families, and in the life of the new child.

As the book opens in 2001, it is the evening of sixteen-year-old Melody's coming of age ceremony in her grandparents' Brooklyn brownstone. Watched lovingly by her relatives and friends, making her entrance to the music of Prince, she wears a special custom-made dress. But the event is not without poignancy. Sixteen years earlier, that very dress was measured and sewn for a different wearer: Melody's mother, for her own ceremony— a celebration that ultimately never took place.

Unfurling the history of Melody's parents and grandparents to show how they all arrived at this moment, Woodson considers not just their ambitions and successes but also the costs, the tolls they've paid for striving to overcome expectations and escape the pull of history. As it explores sexual desire and identity, ambition, gentrification, education, class and status, and the life-altering facts of parenthood, Red at the Bone most strikingly looks at the ways in which young people must so often make long-lasting decisions about their lives—even before they have begun to figure out who they are and what they want to be.

My Thoughts:
I am not the least bit surprised to have found this book on 2019 best-of lists. After reading it late in the year, I had to make the difficult decision as to which book on my list of books I loved in 2019 I was moving off the list to make room for this book. It's so good that Edith Wharton, one of my favorite authors, almost had to come off the list. And just what makes it so good, you ask?

Woodson's brilliance is this: she can tell the most layered, emotional story in the fewest words of any writer I've read. This book is only 200 pages long but manages to tell the story of three generations of a family while touching on, as you can see by the summary, so many important themes. In just about 200 pages, Woodson manages to tell the story of three generations and leave readers feeling like they really know these people. She can, even, make readers rethink issues that we've long felt certain about - here a mother who doesn't bond with her daughter. Woodson manages to make Iris not quite the evil woman we mother, in particular, might consider her. She helps readers to understand Iris' choices and allows us to consider the possibility that Melody is better off without Iris as her mother. It's a tough sell but Woodson handles it beautifully.

I clearly recommend this book but I even more strongly recommend the audiobook. The readers are all wonderful; I felt that I was actually listening to people relating their own stories not merely reading a book.

Monday, January 20, 2020

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson
Published May 2019 by Sourcebooks
Source: checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
The hardscrabble folks of Troublesome Creek have to scrap for everything—everything except books, that is. Thanks to Roosevelt's Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project, Troublesome's got its very own traveling librarian, Cussy Mary Carter.

Cussy's not only a book woman, however, she's also the last of her kind, her skin a shade of blue unlike most anyone else. Not everyone is keen on Cussy's family or the Library Project, and a Blue is often blamed for any whiff of trouble. If Cussy wants to bring the joy of books to the hill folks, she's going to have to confront prejudice as old as the Appalachias and suspicion as deep as the holler.

Inspired by the true blue-skinned people of Kentucky and the brave and dedicated Kentucky Pack Horse library service of the 1930s, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is a story of raw courage, fierce strength, and one woman's belief that books can carry us anywhere—even back home.

My Thoughts:
What are the chances that I would read three books about book mobiles in just a couple of months? I don't really know how I ended up doing that but I'm afraid that they all may have suffered some because of being read too closely together. This one particularly did given that it is the second book about the Kentucky pack horse librarians I've read, Jojo Moyes' The Giver of Stars being the first.

Richardson has given this one a turn that one didn't have, a twist that is based on fact; there actually were people in Troublesome Creek, Kentucky who were blue because of a rare, recessive genetic disorder. In the book, the "Blues" are considered even lower than African-Americans and it seems likely that would have been the case. In reality it was not until there had been blue people in this area for almost 200 years before the case was found and a "cure" discovered. Richardson moves that cure up twenty years so that Cussy Mary has a choice to make. Does she take the medicine and put up with the side effects? Will being white make her life better? And is taking the medicine merely a vanity? The Blues were ostracized because they were different but also because no one understood why they were blue. While townsfolk looked down on the blue people because of inbreeding, there wasn't much choice. Cussy Mary faced all of that even as her father pushed for her to marry so that she wouldn't be alone when he was gone.

By choosing to write about the blue people, Richardson has placed her novel right in a place where there are a lot of other things that make for interesting story lines - life in the hills of Kentucky, the mines and the fight to unionize the workers, and the pack horse library project of the WPA. Richardson does a respectable job of tying all of these things together. We spend a lot of time on the routes with Cussy Mary, meeting the people along her route and seeing the reaction of the hill people to her color (versus the city people) and to the idea of putting books into the hands of people who might otherwise not have access to them and the knowledge they bring. All of that time riding along with Cussy Mary seemed to be more than was necessary; Richardson could have cut back here and not lost her story at all. And I could see where the book was going long before it got there, although there was a twist that I did not expect (and which I felt might have been resolved differently in a way that would have tied up all plot points better).

I have to admit that I got a better feel for the terrain than I did in Moyes' book and I actually like Cussy Mary better than I did Moyes' protagonist. I wish this one had been edited a little more tightly and been a little less predictable but I still enjoyed it and would probably recommend it over the Moyes' book.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Well, it still doesn't look like this outside my door but it looks a lot more like that than it did a week ago, what with snow and ice we got this week. Years ago, when The Big Guy taught be how to use the new snow blower, I jokingly said to him "well, that's one less thing I need you for." This weekend I'm reminded that, while I may very well be able to scoop snow and scrap ice, I hate, hate, doing it!

Last Week I:

Listened To: Still listening to Jeffrey Colvin's Africaville. I'm about half way through it and I'm struggling a bit with it. It's actually a book I think might have benefited by being longer (I'll bet you never thought you'd hear me say that!).

Watched: I spent a good chunk of the week watching Season 2 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. I also watched three movies this week, Gloria Bell (oh my land, so depressing!), the live action Aladdin (which I thought it is probably way too scary for little kids), and, finally, Lady Bird (worth all of the accolades!).

Read: I'm working my way through The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern. I loved her debut, The Night Circus, but half way through, this one still hasn't sucked me in the way that one did.

Made: It's only been Miss H and me this week and she's been at work most evenings to I haven't cooked much. What I have made would lead you to believe I'm carbo loading for a major sporting event. We had goulash one night, a pasta dish another night, and I made rice pudding two nights. Miss H and I love, love rice pudding and we may have eaten it for breakfast more than once!

Enjoyed: Hearing my kiddos talk about their trip to Green Bay to cheer on their Packers to a first round playoff win. The two of them had so much fun hanging out together.

This Week I’m: 

Planning: I'm working on a desk project that I'm trying to get finished up before BG returns this week. 

Thinking About: Spring. Our winter hasn't even been that bad yet and I'm ready for it to be over now. I've already planned my gardens and potted plants for this spring.

Feeling: Sore. That first snowfall reminds me of muscles I haven't used enough in a while.

Looking forward to: Book club this week. Now if I can just find my copy of the book. Oops.

Question of the week: Are you more of a winter or summer person?

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
Read by Ocean Vuong
Published June 2019 by Penguin Publishing Group
Source: my audiobook copy from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family’s history that began before he was born — a history whose epicenter is rooted in Vietnam — and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation. At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity. Asking questions central to our American moment, immersed as we are in addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and tenderness, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is as much about the power of telling one’s own story as it is about the obliterating silence of not being heard.

My Thoughts:
This has been a tough review for me to write. I finished the book a couple of weeks before I started to write this then read a couple more books and the holidays came and it's a little blurry for me now. But, also, I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this book.

I knew as I was reading On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous that it would end up on best-of lists for 2019 and it has. For good reason; Vuong is a poet and it shows in his beautiful writing. All of your senses are brought into play - tastes, smells, and touch stimuli are vividly written. To be honest, some of it was a bit too vivid for me and I suspect I'm not alone in being uncomfortable with some of it. But, as the Time reviewer said, Vuong is daring and "goes where the hurt is." The parts that made me uncomfortable are also the parts that most show Little Dog's vulnerability.

The reviewer for The New Yorker called this book "auto fiction" because the book is largely the story of Vuong's life; it's a deeply personal book that feels almost as though there were things Vuong needed to say to his own mother as much as it is a story about a writer looking back on his life and writing to his mother. Which actually brings me to a problem I had with the book (and I'm not alone in this) - Little Dog is writing a letter to a woman who can't read which means he isn't really writing a letter to his mother so much as just putting in writing things he wants to say. That being said, the writing goes back and forth between something that one would write in a letter and a novel. It sometimes made things complicated to follow.

But I go back to the writing - it's so good and the story touches on so many topics. One that really stuck out for me was war. Because the family is from Vietnam, of course that's the most obvious example. But Vuong also takes on the war of drug addiction and the war that often wages between our feelings for family. Little Dog loves and depends on his mother but she is also physically abusive, leaving him with complicated feelings for her, feelings so many people battle with. If you're up for a book that is difficult, emotionally, to read, I would recommend this one for the writing alone andVuong reading the book definitely enhances the book.

As for that wonderful title, The Guardian had this to say about that:
"The essential gesture of the novel is there in its title: in early youth, somewhere beyond the margins of conventional society, there’s a brief authentic flowering of life and happiness, which can’t be carried forward into disappointing, grown-up, settled existence. That nostalgic pattern so characteristic of US fiction, whose archetypal expression comes in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, exists in interesting counterpoise with the shape of Lan and Rose’s stories, their ungorgeous youth, their war trauma and blunt humour, the sheer dogged persistence and will to survive that carry them into emigration and the future."

Monday, January 13, 2020

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Read by Joe Morton
Published September 2019 by Random House Publishing Group
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library

Publisher’s Summary:
Young Hiram Walker was born into bondage. When his mother was sold away, Hiram was robbed of all memory of her—but was gifted with a mysterious power. Years later, when Hiram almost drowns in a river, that same power saves his life. This brush with death births an urgency in Hiram and a daring scheme: to escape from the only home he’s ever known.

So begins an unexpected journey that takes Hiram from the corrupt grandeur of Virginia’s proud plantations to desperate guerrilla cells in the wilderness, from the coffin of the Deep South to dangerously idealistic movements in the North. Even as he’s enlisted in the underground war between slavers and the enslaved, Hiram’s resolve to rescue the family he left behind endures.

This is the dramatic story of an atrocity inflicted on generations of women, men, and children—the violent and capricious separation of families—and the war they waged to simply make lives with the people they loved

My Thoughts:
Ta-Nehisi Coates has impressed me with both Between the World and Me and We Were Eight Years In Power. I’m not sure, as a white woman, I’m qualified to say who is or is not an important voice for African Americans but it certain seems to me that Coates is one. He has certainly challenged me look at and think about things differently. I knew, when I saw that he had written a novel, it would be something that would well worth reading. I was not wrong.

I couldn’t help but make comparisons to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad as I read The Water Dancer because like Whitehead, Coates has taken a known piece of history and put his own spin on it in a way that ties it directly to the Underground Railroad. In Whitehead’s case, the Underground Railroad was, literally, a railroad that was underground. Coates picks up from the idea that railroads have conductors and Hiram’s power is called “conduction,” a power he will grow to learn allows for people to be transported using their own powerful memories. And Hiram does have memories. Born with a photographic memory that allows him to become an even more valuable asset to the plantation owner who is also his father, Hiram will learn to use that skill to become educated, to recall terrain and routes, and for the handiwork with forging papers that will make him so valuable to the underground railroad.

Coates doesn’t pull any punches regarding the treatment slaves suffered at the hands of what Coates calls “The Quality,” but it is much less graphic than in some other books. I appreciated that – I have seen enough and read enough to understand how horrific the physical damage done to “The Tasked” was. Coates seems equally interested the mental and emotional toll the work, the degradation, the fear, and the loss of family took on the enslaved. For example, in one chapter, as the railroad is bringing some men north, they stop at the men’s freed parents’ place to rest and eat. The men’s father brings food to them but never looks at the men and later moves with them for part of their journey blindfolded so, if asked later, he can honestly say he never saw them. He gives up what is likely to be his last chance to see his own sons because of fear. It is every bit as hard to imagine having to live like that as it is to imagine the physical abuse.

Coates doesn’t end his story with his characters making it North and he wants readers to understand that even making it North didn’t mean a black man or woman was safe. And he portrays the Underground Railroad in a way I’ve rarely read – as much as it was an humanitarian effort, there were many ways it had to be handled as a business. There were surely differing opinions about how things should be handled. And, in Coates’ hands, choices have had to be made in order to protect the railroad and its operators that felt heartless. Given the source material he was working with, I can’t help but think this is historically accurate.

If you choose to read this book, and I hope you do, I highly recommend the audiobook; Joe Morton does an amazing job!