Review: LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng

Monday Reviews

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

publisher: Penguin Press (imprint of Penguin Random House)

publication date: September 12, 2017

9780735224292Some books, like this one, are magic. They succeed on every level, they hit every emotional sweet spot, they do things with words that remind me why writing is such a unique and incredible art form…and I just can’t explain why. This book struck me dumb with awe and gratitude. I finished it over a week ago, now, and I’m still struggling to articulate how much I loved it, because the truth is that I loved it too much for words.

Bear with me, folks.

Little Fires Everywhere is a story about a lot of things, but it’s especially the story of a place and two families that live there: Shaker Heights, Ohio, is a planned community struggling to cope with the rapidly encroaching mess unpredictability of the outside world; the Richardsons are a big, messy, mostly-happy upper-middle-class white family with deep roots; and mother-daughter pair Mia and Pearl Warren are newcomers no one can quite figure out. When Mia instigates an ugly custody battle between a young Chinese American woman, Bebe Chow, and the wealthy white neighbors who attempt to adopt her baby, May Ling, the community is blown open and family secrets laid bare.

The story isn’t told in order, and opens as the Richardsons’ house burns to the ground around them. From that first page, I was hooked. The closest book I can think to compare it to–though they’re not really similar at all–is The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. But where I found Eugenides’ book to be an arch, unpleasant, and chilly allegory for the folly of suburbia, Ng is deeply, warmly concerned with a real suburban community and characters so lifelike they might as well be real people.

I think “realistic” is a quality that can be overrated in fiction, because it’s fiction–why not take the opportunity to create something intricately, beautifully unreal? As long as an author does it well, I’m onboard. But Little Fires Everywhere did remind me of the magic and power of authors who write about the real world and understand real people: what we think like, what we act like, and what we care about. Ng not only understands people, but values them. She treats her characters–most of whom are painfully clueless, some borderline malicious–as if they are all worthy of love and respect. It’s revelatory, especially because Little Fires Everywhere is literary fiction, which is a genre that I think values coldness overmuch and compassion too little.

Every scene, no matter how slight, benefits from this loving characterization. Characters with only few paragraphs devoted to them are still given actions and dialogue that hints at the rich motivation within; central characters we thought we understood are given shake-ups that reveal new and satisfying depths. I particularly loved the (very) minor character of Mr. Yang, a tenant of the Richardsons and downstairs neighbor of the Warrens, and the more central characters of Trip and Moody, teenage Richardson sons who are tender and emotional and defy every dull and tired stereotype of teenage boys.

But of all these characters to fall in love with, my favorite was Mia Warren, whom we discover is a gifted photographer as well as mother and enigmatic drifter. A powerful theme of the book is the process of creation, punishing and healing by turns, whether it’s art-making or motherhood. I cried several times at this book, and each time it was because of that push and pull: the things mothers give up and the things their children give back; the things the children lose that their mothers want to stop them from losing but can’t; the bravery and vulnerability it takes to put art into the world.

I think most of us have at least some idea of what makes a good mother, but novels about visual artists can be especially hit or miss because we can’t see for ourselves whether a canvas or photograph is good or bad or mediocre–the author has to tell us. Thankfully, Ng has a light touch when describing Mia’s talents, trusting the mind’s eye of the reader to fill in the rest.

In fact, it’s been a long time since my mind’s eye felt so engaged in a novel. I was born in ’95 and thus have no memories of the late ’90s, I know nothing about Ohio, and I certainly knew nothing about Shaker Heights, but every scene is so carefully detailed, as lovingly costume-designed and set-dressed as a Wes Anderson movie (though less twee by half), that I felt there.

This absorbing, transporting quality is especially wonderful because Little Fires Everywhere is told in the omniscient 3rd-person, often hopping from mind-to-mind mid-scene, a technique I associate most with epic, impersonal fantasy novels and not with intimate family dramas. It turns out that–at least in Ng’s skilled hands–that mind-hopping can actually make a book more personal and more intimate. We don’t see one side of an argument, we see all of them: a good quality in a book filled with complicated and unwinnable arguments.

I could write a book-length love letter to this book. (Can you tell?) I could especially go on for hours about its razor-sharp critique of the kind of feel-good, orderly white liberalism that crumbles in the face of honest and difficult questions.

But I won’t go on any longer. I’ll just trust that you’ll read Little Fires Everywhere, and tell all your friends, and tell them to tell all of their friends, too. This book is miraculous. Don’t miss it. 5/5 stars.

My copy of Little Fires Everywhere came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

4 oldie-but-goodie books about food and farming to read this Thanksgiving

party-at-home-dancing-cranberries-picjumbo-com.jpg
image source: picjumbo.com

I love cooking, good food, and that peculiar quiet that happens when most stores and offices are closed (don’t get me started on Black Friday creep), so Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year. It’s also a holiday based on over-simplified feel-good fibs, and can also stir up unpleasantness about everything from eating disorder recovery to acrid family politics.

In other words, it’s complicated, kind of like our national relationship with food on the whole. To celebrate–or at least commemorate–the upcoming food frenzy, I’m sharing four of my favorite food and farming books that would be perfect for savoring over the long weekend.


Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver (with Camille Kingsolver and Steven L. Hopp

9780060852566Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Troubled by the ecological toll of modern agriculture, particularly the fossil fuel expenditures involved in transporting food from farm to grocery store to table, Barbara Kingsolver and family moved to Appalachia and embark on a year of local eating. The result is this book, which is adventurous, funny, alarming, warm, and also a love letter to Appalachia.

If you’re a fan of Kingsolver’s fiction, you know that she is deeply concerned with themes of family and sustainability, making this memoir–peppered with nonfiction reporting on food issues and environmentalism–even more charming. The window into Kingsolver and her family’s life is as precious as the window she opens onto our alienating modern food system.

Hit By a Farm: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Barn by Catherine Friend

9781569242988Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Certified city girl Catherine Friend fell in love with a woman who dreamed of farming, so the two picked up and moved to southeastern Minnesota to raise sheep and wine grapes. In Hit By a Farm, Friend explores the steep learning curves of both farming and long-term relationships, and it’s as much a book about her partnership with her now-wife Melissa as it is a book about farming.

Still, there’s plenty of farming and food commentary to be had, accompanied by a glimpse of the swath of writing life that exists between unpublished nobody and runaway bestseller–Friend is a moderately successful technical writer and romance author as well as farmer. This book is laugh-out-loud, bust-a-gut funny, and Friend’s no-nonsense approach to her relationship with Melissa makes this one of the great lesbian memoirs–if such a sub-genre exists–too.

The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball

9781416551614Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Dirty Life is another fish-out-of-water memoir, recounting formerly-of-NYC writer Kristin Kimball’s whirlwind romance with a sustainability-minded farmer, and their move to a plot of land in Vermont that they slowly transform into a thriving CSA (a weekly share-based community-supported agriculture business). Kimball’s book is honest and gritty, featuring more of farming’s bitter disappointments than most books in the sustainable agriculture sub-genre, making it more credible and complex than the typical feel-good, permaculture-will-save-the-world story.

I spent my teens living on my mom’s failed hobby farm, and The Dirty Life came closest to capturing what that’s like (even though Kimball’s farm eventually does succeed). If you’re looking for an emotional rollercoaster and sensory feast of a farm memoir, this is it. (There’s also a memorable scene where she recounts eating a heart–if memory serves, a venison heart–stuffed with breadcrumbs. It’s a lot to take if you’re squeamish, but it’s certainly evocative.)

Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies by Laura Esquivel

9780385420174Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

It’s a classic “food book” to the point of cliché, but for a reason–Like Water for Chocolate is one of the most sensual and lovely books about the power of food that there is. Esquivel’s novel follows the life of Tita, the youngest daughter in a wealthy Mexican family who is prohibited from marrying in order to devote her full attention to her aging mother. Tita’s heart breaks early when she has a forbidden fling with a man named Pedro, who eventually marries her sister. The story of Tita’s fight for independence is told through her cooking, which imparts whatever emotions Tita is experiencing upon whomever eats it.

Is it over-the-top? Absolutely. Is it gorgeous and memorable? Absolutely, again. I especially love the glimpse into family life during the Mexican Revolution and into a food tradition that’s very different from my German-Scandinavian-American family’s food traditions. The book is relatively short if memory serves, but if you’re in the mood for a three-hour drama fest, the film has its own sort of joy and magic. It’s in Spanish, but English subtitles are available, and the ridiculous image of Tita’s sister, Gertrudis, riding naked on horseback through the wilderness with a rebel soldier, is well worth it.


What are your favorite books about food? I’m always looking for good food journalism, food and farm memoirs, food-centric fiction, cookbooks, and more, so please leave your recommendations in the comments, especially if it’s a more obscure title than these four.

Because of the holiday, I’m skipping Friday Bookbag this week. I’ll be back on Monday with a review of Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng!

Review: GINNY MOON by Benjamin Ludwig

Monday Reviews

Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

publisher: Park Row Books (imprint of Harlequin)

publication date: May 2, 2017

9780778330165Ginny Moon is a quirky book that doesn’t know it’s a quirky book. (This is a good thing.) The eponymous Ginny Moon is an autistic 14-year-old who survived an abusive mother only to find that those survival skills have left her ill-equipped for a safe home and a family that loves her, so she decides to run away from her adoptive family in order to reunite with her drug-addicted mother and her Baby Doll…who, we eventually discover, isn’t a doll after all.

It’s a lot for the reader to piece together, especially since the novel is told entirely from Ginny’s first-person, idiosyncratic, and utterly unselfconscious perspective. Ginny’s many obsessions–including Michael Jackson, Maine Coon cats, having 9 grapes for breakfast, gallons of milk, and her Baby Doll–are inexplicable to those around her, including her well-meaning but struggling adoptive family, her special education peers at school, and her therapist; surprisingly, Ludwig has captured Ginny’s voice in such a way that these obsessions make perfect sense to the reader, and that’s where this book’s magic lies.

Because Ginny Moon is so concerned with Ginny Moon herself and not just the people around her, it’s personal rather than alienating, often funny, sometimes sad, always compassionate, and overall the sort of story that I wish there were more of in the world. It’s also fast-paced and readable–I devoured it in two or three sittings–and I think it could have tremendous YA crossover appeal.

I’m still surprised at how much I liked this book because I almost returned it to the library unread, worried it was going to be a try-hard, “inspirational” disability story. I’m disabled myself, and I absolutely hate the garbage fire that is disability “inspiration porn” (which activist Stella Young so wonderfully condemns in this video). On the inside flap of Ginny Moon, Benjamin Ludwig’s author bio shares that “[s]hortly after he and his wife married, they became foster parents and adopted a teenager with autism.” It felt like a red flag that this book would fall into the “inspirational” trap, but but thankfully, that wasn’t the case at all: Ginny is Ginny, a well-rounded protagonist who is neither inspirational nor uninspired.

In fact, it’s actually Ludwig’s honest and nuanced writing that’s inspirational here. Ginny’s foster parents love her, but occasionally they fumble and are even borderline cruel at times. Ginny’s birth mother is a horrible parent, but it’s understandable how badly she wants to make things right. Ginny’s teachers and classmates want the best for her, but they also find Ginny’s single-minded desires obnoxious. And Ludwig captures all of this from Ginny’s point of view, conveying things to the reader that Ginny herself doesn’t understand, but without any distasteful winks to a neurotypical audience.

There are a few rough patches in the narrative, but they mainly stem from Ginny being so utterly sympathetic, not from some terrible flaw in the writing. I found myself craving a happy ending for Ginny so much that I felt almost fatigued with worry by the end of the book. Ginny’s autistic perspective is an interesting twist on the “how could [character] make such an obviously terrible decision?!?!?” problem that I sometimes have as a reader, since, for Ginny, it’s not a terrible or inexplicable decision at all. (And she’s not portrayed as pathetic or stupid for making those decisions, either–as much fault rests on the neurotypical people around her as does on Ginny.)

Ginny Moon resonates as a portrait of a misfit learning to live in the world–a theme that’s not unique to autistic kids and their foster parents. By placing Ginny’s voice front and center and trusting the reader to read between the lines, Ludwig has authored something truly affecting and gratifying, and I can’t wait to see what’s next from him. 4/5 stars.

My copy of Ginny Moon came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 11.17.17

friday bookbag

Today I’m trying something new: sharing a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise received this week. I’m calling it Friday Bookbag and I plan to make it a weekly feature. I love spreading the book love around and it’s a nice way to give attention to some books I might not get the chance to review.

And so, without further ado, here are this week’s new books!


Pretend We Are Lovely by Noley Reid

9781941040669It’s the summer of 1982 in Blacksburg, Virginia–seven years after the suspicious death of a son and sibling–and the Sobel family is hungry.

Francie dresses in tennis skirts and ankle socks and weighs her grams of allotted carrots and iceberg lettuce. Her semi-estranged husband Tate prefers a packed fridge and hidden donuts. Daughters Enid, ten, and Vivvy, almost thirteen, are subtler versions of their parents, measuring their summer vacation by meals had or meals skipped. But at summer’s end, secrets both old and new emerge and Francie disappears, leaving the family teetering on the brink.

Told from alternating points of view by the four living Sobels, Pretend We Are Lovely is a sharp and darkly funny story of forgiveness, family secrets, and the losses we inherit. At its core is the ever-complicated and deeply-devoted bond of sisterhood as the girls, left mostly to their own devices, must navigate their way through school, find comfort in each other, and learn the difference between food and nourishment.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Source: the library

Why I’m excited: I love stories about family secrets and I especially love compassionate and funny stories about mental illness. I hope this book fits the bill for both.

There Your Heart Lies by Mary Gordon

9780307907943From the award-winning novelist Mary Gordon, here is a book whose twentieth-century wisdom can help us understand the difficulties we face in the twenty-first: There Your Heart Lies is a deeply moving novel about an American woman’s experiences during the Spanish Civil War, the lessons she learned, and how her story will shape her granddaughter’s path.

Marian cut herself off from her wealthy, conservative Irish Catholic family when she volunteered during the Spanish Civil War–an experience she has always kept to herself. Now in her nineties, she shares her Rhode Island cottage with her granddaughter, Amelia, a young woman of good heart but with only a vague notion of life’s purpose. Their daily existence is intertwined with Marian’s secret past: the blow to her youthful idealism when she witnessed the brutalities on both sides of Franco’s war and the romance that left her trapped in Spain in perilous circumstances for nearly a decade. When Marian is diagnosed with cancer, she finally speaks about what happened to her during those years–personal and ethical challenges nearly unthinkable to Amelia’s millennial generation, as well as the unexpected gifts of true love and true friendship.

Marian’s story compels Amelia to make her own journey to Spain, to reconcile her grandmother’s past with her own uncertain future. With their exquisite female bond at its core, this novel, which explores how character is forged in a particular moment in history and passed down through the generations, is especially relevant in our own time. It is a call to arms–a call to speak honestly about evil when it is before us, and to speak equally about goodness.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Source: the library

Why I’m excited: I’ll admit that I saw the mention of the Spanish Civil War and got tunnel vision–I’m really interested in that period in history and I’m curious as to how the novel will handle it. I find the blurb wordy and heavy-handed (especially with the weird reference to the “millennial generation”) but I’m willing to take a chance on this one since sometimes blurbs are misleading. I have a good feeling!

The Fall of Lisa Bellow by Susan Perabo

9781476761466What happens to the girl left behind?

When a masked gunman enters a local sandwich shop in broad daylight, Meredith Oliver suddenly finds herself on the filthy floor, cowering face-to-face with her nemesis, Lisa Bellow–the most popular girl in her eighth-grade class. Lying there, Meredith is utterly convinced she is going to die. Then the gunman orders Lisa Bellow to stand and come with him, leaving Meredith behind.

As the community stages vigils and searches, Meredith’s mother, Claire, toggles between jubilation that her daughter is alive and the grievous knowledge that she is irreparably changed. Her daughter is here, but not–and Claire grows desperate to reach Meredith. But Meredith is in a place where Claire can’t go, following Lisa Bellow where no one else can.

The Fall of Lisa Bellow is gripping and original, a hair-raising exploration of the ripple effects of an unthinkable crime and a dark, beautifully rendered illustration of how one family, broken by tragedy, searches for healing.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Source: the library

Why I’m excited: I like literary fiction that has a thriller tinge (as well as full-on literary thrillers in the vein of Gillian Flynn), and this book seems to have that suspenseful edge to it. I’m not sure how big a role gun violence will play in this book (other than the reference to the masked gunman), but that element also seems timely.


See books here that you’ve already read or that are on your to-read list? Let me know in the comments and feel free to link to your own book reviews and  blog posts!

Review: HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi

Monday Reviews

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (imprint of Penguin Random House)

publication date: June 7, 2016

9781101947135Some books are so flawless they skate through my memory, leaving a pleasant aura in their wake but not much else. Homegoing is not one of those books: it’s flawed, frightening, ambitious, and hopeful, and best of all, it sticks with you.

Since I first picked up Homegoing two weeks ago, I have not gone a day without thinking about it, struggling with it, and marveling at it. Yaa Gyasi has achieved something remarkable here, and this book is everything I want literary fiction to be.

The story spans over 300 years, exploring the lives and bloodlines of two half-sisters–each unaware of the other’s existence–born near the Gold Coast. One sister achieves a life of relative privilege as the “wife” (read: glorified mistress) of a British slave trader, while the other is sold into slavery in the fledgling United States. Evil and suffering taint both branches of the family, including those left in Ghana, who must slowly reckon with their complacency and cooperation in the transatlantic slave trade.

The novel sags in the middle, especially because of its unusual structure: each chapter is told from the perspective of one member of one generation (alternating between branches of the family), and just as you expect to settle into one story, you are jolted to the next. Some of these stories are more riveting than others: standout chapters belong to Quey Collins, a half-British, half-Fante boy forced to choose between British colonial expectations and happiness; Kojo Freeman, a free black man in the 1850s whose life is upended by the Fugitive Slave Act; Willie Black, a gifted singer who trades the Jim Crow South for the subtler segregation of New York City in the early 1900s; and Marjorie Agyekum, who struggles with her Ghanaian-American identity, unable to assimilate into whiteness but equally barred from assimilating into American blackness.

Between these standout chapters, I occasionally found myself bored, and I was also sometimes irritated by the borderline deus ex machina resolutions of certain character arcs. But these are minor quibbles compared with the enormous payoff of Gyasi’s risk-taking: a novel that reckons with the cost of slavery to both sides of the Atlantic.

Gyasi pulls off this historical epic because she grounds it intimately in present-day discussions of race. Homegoing clarifies the connection between the enslavement, torture, and rape of black people 300 years ago and today’s racism, mass incarceration, and police brutality; it also illuminates the less-considered legacy of those who cooperated with the British and were both rewarded and condemned as a result.

All that, and it’s still a damn good story–Homegoing is not Metamucil for guilty (white) readers, but rather a literary banquet as complex as the African diaspora itself.

Through fiction, Gyasi achieves something history textbooks rarely do: she finds the lives in our facts and the questions in our answers. She finds nuance in the blunt horrors of American racism and absolution in the lives of modern-day Ghanaians. Homegoing is a debut of the highest order, and Gyasi is a writer to watch. 4/5 stars.

My copy of Homegoing came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Review: HOUSE OF NAMES by Colm Tóibín

Monday Reviews

House of Names by Colm Tóibín

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

publisher: Scribner Book Company (imprint of Simon & Schuster)

publication date: May 9, 2017

A disclosure is in order: I didn’t finish this book and don’t plan to. As much as I’d have liked to write a regular Monday Reads review, I can’t do that on only 1/3 of a book, and I’m going to have to give you my bitter and half-baked observations instead. Consider yourself forewarned.

As my not finishing it implies, I really, really did not like this book.

Did. Not. Like.

Since House of Names is a retelling of the Ancient Greek story of Iphigenia, who is sacrificed to the gods by her father Agamemnon (causing her mother Clytemnestra to exact terrible revenge), I knew that horror and dread would be on the menu, but I didn’t anticipate the brutal extreme to which Tóibín steers this already brutal story. He pulls no punches from the original myth and seemingly adds punches of his own. And while I don’t mind books that are difficult to read, there’s a difference between difficult and tortuous. Every moment I spent with these astonishingly cruel characters was torture.

Compounding my discomfort with the material was Tóibín’s prose, the bluntness of which displaced me even further from characters I already despised. Perhaps this prose style would work better in a more familiar (read: modern) context, but because House of Names is set in Ancient Greece–a setting as alien to me as Middle Earth–all the words left unsaid obscured Tóibín’s meaning instead of clarifying it.

The story of Iphigenia’s sacrifice is full of interesting questions, the most pressing of which is What motivates a father to kill his own daughter? I imagine that there are a lot of equally interesting answers to be found, from feminist critiques to breathtaking thrillers, but all Tóibín seemed to bring to the table was, well, because humans are terrible and stupid! And that’s not good enough.

So, as much as I wanted to marvel at the ruthless beauty of paragraphs like this (told from the perspective of the furious and grieving Clytemnestra), I was left feeling poisoned by them instead:

I was ready as [Agamemnon] was not, the hero home in glorious victory, the blood of his daughter on his hands, but his hands washed now as though free of all stain, his hands white, his arms outstretched to embrace his friends, his face all smiles, the great soldier who would soon, he believed, hold up a cup in celebration and put rich food into his mouth. His gaping mouth! Relieved that he was home!

Because House of Names contains nothing but horrible people doing horrible things, there isn’t a scrap of hope or interest to hold onto, just suffering that goes on and on and on with no promise of catharsis.

And there are better uses of my time.

No rating / did not finish.

My copy of House of Names came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Listening to music while reading: Can you? Should you?

listening-to-music-in-a-bed-picjumbo-com
image source: picjumbo.com

I’m a wannabe multitasker. I know I shouldn’t, and I’ve made great strides in breaking the habit over the years, since I know I feel way more effective when I’m doing only one thing at a time. But some things are harder to do one at a time than others, and reading is one of them.

Maybe it’s that reading is a quiet task in a loud and busy world, or maybe it’s that I’m so used to using music to tune out my surroundings while writing that I’ve tricked my brain into thinking reading is the same way. It’s not, though. Good music can get me in the headspace to write a difficult essay or short story, but it definitely interrupts the things I love most about reading: its solitude, its focus, its ability to transport me far away from my real life.

And yet, time and time again, I catch myself picking out a Spotify playlist when I sit down to read, which I usually have to turn it off after a few minutes. Sometimes I’ll get so absorbed in picking out music that I end up giving up on reading!

It’s true that some music is so near and dear to me that I don’t find it distracting: I’m particularly fond of Dessa‘s Castor the Twin and Cécile McLorin Salvant‘s Womanchild when I need to put something on to distract me from my downstairs neighbor’s crying baby or noisy road construction. But a peaceful afternoon of reading is definitely not a great time to enjoy a brand-new artist or album, and that’s usually what I catch myself trying to do.

So I’d like to throw this out there to other bookworms. When you carve out reading time, does music help or hinder your mood and ability to focus? If it does, what do you listen to? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Review: ALL THE RIVERS by Dorit Rabinyan

Monday Reviews

All the Rivers by Dorit Rabinyan (translated by Jessica Cohen)

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

publisher: Random House

publication date: April 25, 2017

9780375508295There is a difference between stories that end unhappily and stories for which there can be no happy ending. All the Rivers falls in the latter category. It is the story of an Israeli woman, Liat, and the Palestinian man she falls in love with, Hilmi, while both are living in New York City in 2002. If that seems like a simple setup, it’s because it is; charged politics do the heavy lifting here, and Liat and Hilmi aren’t so much characters as sketches.

At first, this grates. I’m not fond of mouthpiece books, and from the beginning this book has all the tell-tale signs. But there’s a subtler undercurrent here too, a promise of the thing that made me pick up the book in the first place: a love story that is at once tender and sweet, visceral and scathing.

Liat narrates, and narrate is the appropriate word here, since we don’t get much of a sense of Liat other than that she’s Israeli, and that she’s telling the story. Ostensibly she’s working in New York as a Hebrew/English translator; I’m not totally sure, since the details are breezed over and somewhat irrelevant. What matters is lust, and love, and being Middle Eastern in New York City in 2002.

All the Rivers is at its best when it is describing sensation. Rabinyan (with the aid of translator Jessica Cohen) seems to have infinite new combinations of words to describe homesickness, good food, and erotic encounters; she adds less fresh fuel to political conversations, which is perhaps the point: the conflict between Israel and Palestine drags on and on without changes or answers. It’s not that I didn’t care about those politics; I did while I was reading, and still do. It’s that every moment between Liat and Hilmi was so searing that  arguments over borders and binational identity–and there are many of these, between Liat and Hilmi, and between Liat and other characters as well–seemed ponderous in comparison.

I’m not sure if All the Rivers left me feeling particularly enlightened, although that’s the book’s marketing angle in the United States. It did leave me deeply sad in a way I can’t fully explain. This book ends (almost) how you’d expect, but Liat’s narrative folds in on itself so often that I found myself second-guessing my conclusions, my dread and disappointment so intense that I felt shaky after turning the last page.

It’s funny how much we love stories about people in love who aren’t supposed to be in love, from Romeo and Juliet to Titanic. It’s also funny how being in love can make reading about love so painful that it’s almost unbearable. I can confidently say that my own partner is nothing like Hilmi, and I am fairly certain I’m nothing like Liat, but I found myself casting my real-life relationship into the mold of this fictional one over and over. Every bitter fight between Liat and Hilmi was a fight I’ve experienced, or fear I will experience. And every threat of loss, of an ending for this couple, felt like it was threatening me, my own ability to love and be loved. It hurt in the way that I go to literature to be hurt: a hurt that expands, purges, and understands.

Rabinyan has accomplished something that, to me, is more complex and powerful than All the Rivers’s Very Important Book marketing can get at. Love is messy, love stories are messy, and attempting to impose politics upon lovers is impossible; it’s not surprising that Rabinyan doesn’t fully succeed. But in a way, that failure is its own success. I set this book down wishing that its unhappiness sprang only from the careless way people sometimes love each other, and not from a terrible political mess bigger than all of us: these characters, this author, and myself as a reader.

“How enviable, how infuriating, how hateful we look to them from that vantage point,” Liat laments. She is describing how the prosperity of Israel looks to Palestinians on the other side of the fence, but I felt something else. How enviable, how infuriating, how hateful, indeed, to love without restriction or complication. Someday we should all be so lucky. 4/5 stars.

 My copy of All the Rivers came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Books can change the world: 3 places you can donate books and money to help people in prison

Because everyone deserves access to the power of books.

Online book culture is full of memes, selfies, and funny stories celebrating our shared love of reading; we all know how wonderful it feels when we read a good book and when we recommend a good book to others. That’s why when I give to charity, I often try and support book-related organizations. Reading changes lives, but it’s a need that’s often neglected when we think about charitable giving.

Charitable giving also seems to miss the importance of supporting people in prisons. Prison is an incredibly isolating and alienating experience, and however you feel about the criminal justice system, I hope we can agree that people in prison deserve the amazing, transformative power of books just as much as we do on the outside. (I also hope you think critically about what it means when a society locks millions of people in a box for years at a time, especially for nonviolent crimes, but that’s a post for another day.)

So, inspired by Twitter user @prisonculture‘s birthday wish–book donations to Liberation Library, which provides books to youth in prison–I thought I’d put together a list of organizations I really love that are doing this work.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I’ve chosen to highlight three organizations (including Liberation Library) that work to put books in the hands of people in prison around the United States. These are all places I’ve either donated to already or plan to support in the future.

1. Liberation Library

  • Website: www.liberationlib.com
  • Location: Chicago, IL
  • Target population: Youth in prison
  • Mission statement: “Liberation Library provides books to youth in prison to encourage imagination, self-determination and connection to the outside worlds of their choosing. We believe access to books is a right, not a privilege. We believe books and relationships empower young people to change the criminal justice system.” –from their About page.
  • How it works: Twice a month, Liberation Library packs packages with books, notes, and even birthday cards for youth in prison. Your donations go primarily towards purchasing books and postage.
  • Ways to help:
    • Purchase books through their Amazon wishlist,
    • Donate money,
    • Volunteer to help pack books at their Chicago location.

2. Minnesota Women’s Prison Book Project

  • Website: www.wpbp.org
  • Location: Minneapolis, MN
  • Target population: Women and transgender people in prison
  • Mission statement: “Since 1994, the Women’s Prison Book Project (WPBP) has provided women and transgender persons in prison with free reading materials covering a wide range of topics from law and education (dictionaries, GED, etc.) to fiction, politics, history, and women’s health. We are an all-volunteer, grassroots organization. We seek to build connections with those behind the walls, and to educate those of us on the outside about the realities of prison and the justice system.” –from their About page.
  • How it works: The Minnesota Women’s Prison Book Project fields requests from prisoners in several prisons around the country and matches books from their “library” to send back. They also have a Midwest Trans Prisoner Penpal Project.
  • Ways to help:
    • Purchase frequently-requested books from their wishlist (via Boneshaker Books, a local indie bookstore),
    • Donate money,
    • Donate your used softcover books, especially dictionaries (guidelines here),
    • Volunteer to help pack books every Sunday afternoon at Boneshaker Books.

3. Prison Book Program

  • Website: www.prisonbookprogram.org
  • Location: Quincy, MA
  • Target population: General (anyone in prison can request books)
  • Mission statement: “Prison Book Program mails books to people in prison to support their educational, vocational and personal development and to help them avoid returning to prison after their release. We also aim to provide a quality volunteer experience that introduces citizens to issues surrounding the American prison system and the role of education in reforming it.” –from their Mission & Values page.
  • How it works: Prison Book Program is similar to the previous two organizations on this list, but they’re a larger and more general organization. People on the outside request books for loved ones on the inside by mail and books are then mailed directly to the prison.
  • Ways to help:

All of these organizations encourage you to get involved locally and often have lists of “sister” organizations. BookRiot also has an excellent list of prison book organizations.

What are your favorite book-related charities? Please share in the comments, and let’s share the love of books as far and wide as we can this year.

Review: HISTORY OF WOLVES by Emily Fridlund

Monday Reviews

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press

publication date: January 3, 2017

For me, the line between navel-gazing and specificity is drawn (perhaps counterintuitively) between the stories people tell about Ideas, and the stories people tell about People. Fridlund’s debut does not seem overly concerned with nature, or faith, or morality, though it touches on all three; instead, it is wholly preoccupied with its first-person narrator, Linda, and is the better for it. Linda’s story is as hyperreal as a museum, as if each word is cataloged, preserved, and polished, and it’s not a museum of winter, or summer, or Christian Science, or even the history of wolves. It’s something altogether more private and chilling, as functional and sharp as her Swiss Army Knife.

The capital-P People at the center of this novel–Linda especially–are not good, and often not even likable. They are, however, almost hypnotically sympathetic, and it makes the chronicle of the ways in which adults enact terrible harm on children all the more startling.

9780802125873Linda is a quiet, oddball teenager, the kind who could be called queer in the original sense of the word (and maybe the current one, too). She lives in the ruins of a commune with checked-out parents whom she’s not even sure are her parents; her high school history teacher is busted for child pornography and maybe for raping her classmate; a new family that seems mysteriously, intoxicatingly normal moves in across the lake. Linda starts babysitting the young son, Paul, for the young mother, Patra, and for awhile finds herself falling in a kind of love with both. But when it all goes bad, it goes bad fast, pushing Linda further down a path of obsession and isolation.

It’s a setup that seems either like a gritty YA novel or a gritty literary bildungsroman a la Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, but Fridlund skillfully threads the needle with the best of both genres. While the story is not self-consciously told out-of-sequence, it’s not as simple as point A to point B, and we check in frequently with an adult Linda, as if she were telling us her story over coffee or a beer. It keeps the story moving, and keeps it from feeling too awful to be real (something I occasionally felt about White Oleander). It never fully feels like fiction, so we are never fully immunized against its quiet horror.

At first I thought that Fridlund had an axe to grind: against the harshness of the Minnesota northwoods, maybe, or checked-out hippie parents, or pervert teachers, especially after a first chapter about all these things that was as blistering as I’ve ever read. I also thought Fridlund was setting me up for an explosion. What I got was a feeling more akin to locking myself out of my apartment: slow-motion anger and bitterness followed by exhaustion and resolve.

If that makes the book sound unpleasant, let me reframe: for a book that has received as much Important Book buzz as History of Wolves, I was expecting explicit, self-conscious traumas, but Fridlund has accomplished something much more devastating: an expansion of the kind of crazy story you see a few column inches of in a local paper. A teacher busted for child pornography, a former cult that’s rumored to burn children for fun, a completely avoidable family tragedy; I imagine Linda wouldn’t have been interviewed for any of these stories, but she’s been touched–and destroyed–by all of them. You start wondering what sorts of Lindas are behind every headline.

Like Linda, I was raised in the Minnesota northwoods. I spent more time outside than in, more time reading than talking, more time disdaining my peers than trying to understand them. For awhile, I also hopped from odd job to odd job. It’s not hard for me to imagine taking this kind of babysitting gig, and it’s not hard for me to imagine testifying about a family tragedy in court, since I’ve done it. It is hard to imagine a book that could cut me closer to the bone than this one. There is a sense of inevitability, of no escape.

It haunted me because I did escape this sort of life. I’m sure it will find a way to haunt you. History of Wolves is calamitous, and it is not to be missed. 5/5 stars.

My copy of History of Wolves came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.