Review: GINNY MOON by Benjamin Ludwig

Monday Reviews

Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig

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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.

Review: HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi

Monday Reviews

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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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: ALL THE RIVERS by Dorit Rabinyan

Monday Reviews

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

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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.

Review: HISTORY OF WOLVES by Emily Fridlund

Monday Reviews

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

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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.