Tuesday, September 13, 2016

If I Was Your Girl (by Meredith Russo)

I was researching possibilities for my next Read Harder Challenge book, and stumbled upon this YA novel that is both about a trans girl, and by a trans author. (One category is "by a trans author or about a trans character" -- this has both, and as a bonus, uses a trans model on the cover.) Instead of clicking "download sample" I accidentally clicked "buy" and after reading the first chapter, I was sucked in and decided to go with it.

This is the story of Amanda, a girl who moves in with her father after a Difficult Past and starts over at a new school.  And the story hangs largely on her narration and characterization, as Russo explores her inner conflicts and her negotiation of relationships while learning to live as herself for the first time in her life. What Russo has done here is not only make Amanda a wonderful character you really root for, but also has given all the secondary characters -- who sometimes get short shrift in YA novels -- full inner lives and story arcs of their own. I loved that.

At heart it's a YA romance -- Amanda falls in love with a boy at school, but will he still love her once he learns her secret? But it's a nuanced examination of what it means to be a trans girl, the good the bad and the ugly. I read this book in a day (could not put it down) and cried through the entire denouement.

I particularly appreciated Russo's author note (where she mentions she herself is trans) because she acknowledges some of the more "fairy tale" aspects of Amanda's character and explains why she made those choices. It completely worked for me, as a cisgender reader -- although if I were a trans reader or the parent of a trans child, it might work less well, I can't speak for those audiences. From where I'm sitting though, I think this is not only an Important book for teens to read, but also a very well-written one. Really, really great YA.

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Monday, September 12, 2016

Tender at the Bone (by Ruth Reichl)

Oh, I loved this. I needed a "food memoir" for the Read Harder Challenge and was familiar with Ruth Reichl from Top Chef Masters, but I did not anticipate her writing to be so delightful, wry, honest, witty, and charming, or her life to be so fascinating.

From hanging out with hangers on of Andy Warhol, to inviting herself to France with Kermit Lynch, to telling stories about her manic-depressive mother poisoning an entire party with rotten crab, every page of this is delightful. An excellent food memoir.

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Mislaid (by Nell Zink)

I feel like I cannot improve upon this review. But I will try, because panning a book is fun!

I truly disliked this book. The writing is precious and mannered -- I kept visualizing the author as an MFA student who was very pleased with herself -- and the characters behave in zero ways that are recognizably human. The "satire" of race is completely nonexistent -- compare to something like The Sellout or The Good Lord Bird and you see how it fails. I care about the teenage characters marginally more than the adult characters, but they all seem like shadow puppets of people. There is no authenticity here.

My notes: "Characters and their choices seem implausible." "Do not care for writing style." "Ending fun but way too pat and again, implausible." "Dislike button."

 tl;dr: hated it.

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Tuesday, September 06, 2016

An Unnecessary Woman (by Rabih Alameddine)

I read this for the Read Harder Challenge category "book set in Middle East." This was a tricky category considering I did not feel like reading about terrorism and war, and a lot of Middle East-set books cover those topics. However, someone in the Goodreads group recommended this one, set in Beirut in the (roughly) present-day.

It's the narrative of a 72-yeard-old woman who translates literature into Arabic -- but she translates only translations in French and English. So for example rather than translating Tolstoy directly, she translates Constance Garnett's translation of Tolstoy. This is a quiet character study that takes place all in one day, like Mrs Dalloway (which of course is referenced).  It's not about what "happens" so much as it is what Aaliyah, our main character, is thinking: about literature, about her life, about whether she -- a reclusive widow -- is in fact "unnecessary."

About halfway through I wrote a note: "This novel is an erudite character study about the culmination of a life of reading." That held through to the end. The shoutouts to literature are like wonderful little gifts -- mentions of everything from Pale Fire to The Ashley Book of Knots, from James Joyce to Proust. But they are often subverted.  I highlighted so many quotes but here is just one. (Also: read this book. It's wonderful.)

If you think that Marcello of The Conformist becomes a porcine fascist because he killed lizards when he was a boy, then you assure yourself that you can never be so. If you think Madame Bovary commits adultery because she’s trying to escape the banality of Pleistocene morals, then her betrayals are not yours. If you read about hunger in Ethiopia or violence in Kazakhstan, it isn’t about you.

We all try to explain away the Holocaust, Abu Ghraib, or the Sabra Massacre by denying that we could ever do anything so horrible. The committers of those crimes are evil, other, bad apples; something in the German or American psyche makes their people susceptible to following orders, drinking the grape Kool-Aid, killing indiscriminately. You believe that you’re the one person who wouldn’t have delivered the electric shocks in the Milgram experiment because those who did must have been emotionally abused by their parents, or had domineering fathers, or were dumped by their spouses. Anything that makes them different from you.

When I read a book, I try my best, not always successfully, to let the wall crumble just a bit, the barricade that separates me from the book. I try to be involved.

I am Raskolnikov. I am K. I am Humbert and Lolita.

I am you.

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Friday, September 02, 2016

The Dog of the South (by Charles Portis)

This was the latest selection for our long-distance book club, the League of Unreliable Narrators. This is one that Chris had already read and loved, but I had never read. (I'd never read any Portis.) It also qualifies for the Read Harder Challenge in the category of "book published in the decade you were born," since it was published in 1979. 

This book is hilarious, with some pitch-perfect dialogue and one of the best closing paragraphs of all time. It's a bit of a shaggy dog story with -- appropriately enough -- a slightly unreliable narrator. Ray Midge's wife runs off with another man, and Midge heads down to Honduras to track them down. He runs into many interesting characters. Adventures ensue.

The Dog of the South really is a book that is about the experience and not the destination. It's about the many lines that I underlined -- for example, when Midge sees a pelican get hit by lightning and says, "I was astonished. I knew I would tell this pelican story over and over again and that it would be met with widespread disbelief but I thought I might as well get started and so I turned to the woman and the boy and told them what I had seen." These funny run-on sentences and strange moments are what The Dog of the South is all about.

One question we pondered at our meeting: metaphorically, who is the dog of the south? Is it Midge? Reo Symes? Is it a literal dog, with booties on its feet? Is it the marriage of Norma and Midge? Is it a dead pelican? All or none of the above? A question for the ages.

Thumbs up!

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