September 2019 Reading Review

A rather good reading month, as it turned out (despite the initial craziness of back-to-school). I’m having (and enjoying) a big focus on the TBR pile right now (hopefully, this will continue until the end of the year), and also an ongoing craze on NF… I’m loving it all. 

  • Total books read:        12 (including 2 x halfway-through-DNFs)
  • Total pages read:        2,886 (av. 240)
  • NF: 9 (75% of total)      
  • F: 3 (25% of total)
  • TBR: 9.
  • Total % TBR for year to date: 54%. <takes a bow>
  • Library: 3 (including 1x ILL).  
  • POC author/topic(s): 1. (Oh dear.)   
  • Male to Female: 5 males + 5 females + 2 of mixed genders.
  • DNFs (new for this month): 2. (I’m getting better at this.) 
  • Oldest title: 1951. 
  • Longest title (re: page count): 340pp.
  • Shortest title (re: page count) (excluding DNFs): 122pp.

Here’s what I read in September:

Now that October is here (and September, to me, has to have been the longest month in the entire year), I’m looking forward to some gradually cooling temperatures, slightly fewer daylight hours, and the steady routine of the university semester. 

Plus – I have this horde of books from the recent FoL Book Sale. <rubs hands with glee>

Parable of the Sower – Octavia E. Butler (1993)

Image of book cover for Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower.

Following on with the POC reading theme and wanting some dystopian world to read about, I picked up Parable of the Sower (no “The”?) by Octavia E. Butler. Written as the first of a two-book series, this sci fi novel was published in 1993, and received a lot of critical acclaim including being selected as the 1994 NYT Notable Book of the Year (along with other lit awards). 

So – all signs pointed to a good read (as was an earlier of another Butler book) and I’m happy to report it was – enough so that now I’m searching for the second title (Parable of the Talents). (My library doesn’t seem to have that title but I’m probably going to have to take advantage of their great interlibrary loan program since I haven’t seen it on the shelves yet.)

(Random aside: In fact, there was also supposed to be a third title to make it in a trilogy, but it seems that Butler had serious writer’s block about this, and although she started this third novel a few times, it never materialized into a finished product. (However, I totally get and respect the writer’s block problem. No problem with that. 🙂 ))

The plot for this particular spec fic/sci fi read revolves around a young woman (variously called “girl” and “woman”) called Lauren Oya Olamina, who lives in the U.S. (or what used to be that nation) during the 2020s.

(This is not so far into the future as to be unbelievable and was one of the many points that really sold the novel to me. I love it when people invent worlds just a squidge off-center from real life as it is right now. Plus – I love that Butler is sensitive to the vocabulary she uses to describe her characters.)

Back to the book: Lauren has been living with her mum and dad and sibling in a small community, gated and walled to protect them from the marauding aggressive outsiders who surround them, trying to survive in the external extremely dog-eat-dog world caused by governmental collapse and all other economic and societal systems. 

As the troubles start to move closer to her small community, Lauren starts to seriously plan to move north to keep in front of these dangerous gangs. But how to do that?

Another new wrinkle has the introduction of new street drug called “pyro.” Pyro had the effect of making the act of setting a fire akin to the experience of really good s*x for its users, and so, of course, to “chase the dragon,” lots of these outside marauders end up being quickly addicted to it, making life difficult and challenging for everyone else. 

Along with this increasingly unpredictable situation is the fact that Lauren also possesses hyper-empathy, a human condition thought up by Butler which gives the individual the ability to feel the pain (and other sensations) from people she witnesses. Thus, if someone close to her vicinity gets hurt, both that person and Lauren experience the same amount of pain even if Lauren was only a spectator at the incident…

This can make it tricky for Lauren to be really effective when someone is very hurt as both she and the patient may be incapacitated at the same time – another complication to consider for both her and any future travelers in the group on her already-precarious northward journey.

Fully aware that the future task (and all its dangers) will be easier if she can get a small group together, she invites the brother of a neighbor along to add power in numbers. Planning continues apace, but when the pyro vandals burn down her own home (and others) which ends up killing most of her family (and that of her friend) one night, the goal to migrate north to safety gets moved up sooner than originally planned. It’s too dangerous to stay where she is right now…

Another great twist for this fast-moving plot is that there is also a vast shortage of water, so it’s an expensive but necessary product and has to be used carefully. This situation doesn’t help the pyro problem (not enough water to put out the frequent fires, people dealing with scarcity and all its related issues), and so the whole situation starts to get a little incendiary for all. (See what I did there? 🙂 )

With nothing for which to stay, the small group starts to journey north to reach Washington or Oregon where it rains more, pyro is not yet a “thing”, and life is (hopefully) not quite so difficult.

The plot then follows the ragged group as it gains members (and loses some) and treads along the miles of abandoned highways in their efforts to reach their own promised land up north. And how does it end…? You’ll need to read it to see! 🙂

(You know, this novel reminded me in some ways of the poor old Joads in Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” (1939) which describes a similar quest to reach the promised lands of California. I’ve read Grapes quite a few times, but it was mostly during grad school and that was a LONG time ago. Maybe I should refresh my memory to see if there are more overlapping homages to Grapes or other books in this Butler title…)

An excellent read, whether you dig sci fi or not… This might also be a really good book for someone not familiar with spec fiction in which to dip. There’s no robots, no Star Wars, no dragons. Just a good solid narrative arc that really made me care about the characters and pulled me in as a reader for a couple of days. Recommend this.

For another Octavia E. Butler read, try Kindred (review).

The New Moon’s Arms – Nalo Hopkinson (2007)

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Having frequently heard of Nalo Hopkinson as a sci fi/speculative fiction author, and since I was in the mood for that sort of read, I checked out this title from the library. (I’d also been looking for a good fiction read by a POC author as well, so this ticked that box very nicely as well.)

So, not quite sure what to expect since Hopkinson was a completely new author to me, the first chapter got off to rather a rough start. OMG. It was so confusing – people change names for no apparent reason, there’s magical realism (which I wasn’t expecting), and there are animals who might (or might not) be mermaids/merpeople in disguise. 

So, taking a deep breath and really liking how Hopkinson writes, I soldiered on and interestingly it all got sorted out by the end of the second chapter. So – heed this warning. That first chapter is worth sticking with as the plot sorts itself out in the end. (And I must admit – the fault may have been mine, but just in case…) 

To the book itself: The narrative arc follows a redemption story, really, with a pretty unlikable and prickly character (she who changes names in the first chapter) and what happens when she takes in a child she finds on the beach of her Caribbean (or similar) island. 

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Nalo Hopkinson. (Picture credit.)

Calamity (also called Chastity at certain parts) is dealing with two big situations at the moment. One is the death of her father (from whom she’s been estranged since her teenaged years) and the other is that whenever she has a hot flash due to menopause, her finger tips tingle and her long-lost childhood ability of finding lost things comes alive. The things found range from a blue and white plate from her childhood to an entire grove of cashew trees that materializes one day outside her house to the mysterious beach child with sea shells in his/her hair… 

At the same time as all this is going on, Chastity/Calamity’s also becoming more involved with the issue of the group of particular rare seals who live on one corner of her island home. She makes friends with a seal researcher and so throughout this narrative, there’s this collision (of sorts) between the roles and importance of science and myth, of magical realism and reality, of things unexplained by rational logic. 

Interestingly, there are collisions of other sorts as well: the protagonist has ongoing tussles with her relatives over various points; the arrival of the beach child causes concern for all when Calamity/Chastity decides to look after him/her; there’s discord between the protagonist and her father; there is the struggle at that point where the sea overlaps with the land, with science and magic… This turned out to be such a thoughtful read for me, so it was much than “just” magical realism/spec fiction. 

I’m not typically that huge a fan of magical realism, but this is mostly a straightforward drama with sprinkles of magic through in along the way, so I found it more palatable than I thought it was going to be. (I had it categorized as a broccoli book, but it was actually much better than that perception.)

In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed this read and thought that this was really a well-written book. One of the Goodread reviewers described the writing as almost liquid in a way, and that’s exactly how I viewed it. It’s a smooth read, like a stream running through rocks and roots – there are obstacles to face, but how they are handled by the characters runs really fluidly. 

This turned out to be really good read and I ended up completing it in two days (which is fast for me). I’m also convinced enough to look around and see what other library titles by Hopkinson are available. She’s that good. 

If you’re not familiar with Hopkinson, I recommend taking her work for a spin. It’s a deceptively easy read that will leave you with lots to think about. 

Bailey’s Cafe – Gloria Naylor (1992)

naylor1A recent find at our local FoL Spring Book Sale, this was a really good read and was actually just what I was looking for when I picked it up. I’ve heard a lot of talk about Naylor’s more famous book, “The Women of Brewster Place” (1982) and had originally gone looking for that title, but when I couldn’t find that one, this title popped up and into my grubby mitts and for once, I actually read a book that I had bought the same weekend that I had bought it. (A lot of times, I may purchase a book and then read anything BUT that title, but this weekend, there was the perfect overlap between my reading goals and the titles available. Dosen’t happen very often, but when it does, it’s simply magic.)

I’d been looking for a fairly comfortable domestic book written by a POC* author, and so although it wasn’t necessarily my first title choice, it ended up being a fantastic read all the same. I had wanted to read about several characters who perhaps lived in a community where their lives overlapped at times – similar to what I call a “tapestry” book where there are multiple characters (the different colored threads in a piece of fabric) whose individual lives overlap and interweave to create a multi-colored picture that’s richer for the overlap. (Similar to a tapestry in my mind.)

38550903nayl_20010701_01867.jpgI had heard of Naylor as the author of “The Women of Brewster Place”, but going along the shelves, I could only find this title. However, no worries. Everything that I had read about the Brewster Place novel had been good, so I considered this to be a low-risk proposition to pick up another title.

Additionally, it also met the criteria for another ongoing foci that I have right now of reading more POC authors and POC topics. I have a tendency to revert to Northern European authors and titles, presumably because they are more likely to come to mind, but after having had such a good experience reading authors of African-American descent in February’s Black History Month, I am determined to keep that awareness up throughout the remainder of the year until the pattern becomes something ingrained and one that I don’t have to particularly think about.

So, Naylor it was and I opened this title, “Bailey’s Café” late on Saturday night. After being unable to put it down for any long time between then and Sunday evening, I turned the last page with a contented sigh. It had been a great read.

But – pray. What is it about, I hear you ask? It’s a plot that revolves around a hole-in-the-wall café in an unspecified town and via the proprietor of the café, we are introduced to some of the regulars who come in for a (bad) cup of coffee and a (good) piece of pie or similar. It’s an idiosyncratic place with no menu and set food on particular days regardless of what you’re actually like to eat. It’s a home away from home for some of these characters and through the eyes of the café owner, we meet each of these memorable personalities with the common meeting place of the restaurant.

It’s a fairly straightforward read, with no chicanery in playing with time or other narrative structures. However, just because it’s a straightforward read in that sense doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s boring and predictable as each character is different and has a story (as you might guess) and towards the end there is some magical realism (but don’t let that scare you off).

There’s a transgender woman, someone who runs a brothel (except it’s much more than that to the people who live within its walls), and several other characters who have had (or currently lead) non-conformist lives, but Naylor’s storytelling carries no judgement for these people. The café is an accepting place for its customers, and as each person enters the building, the café owner (through whose eyes we see everyone) describes his take on each life and tells us some of the background of his customers, while at the same time, telling us about his own life with wife Nadine.

It’s very well done, and if you’re looking for a good solid read about some believable characters living fairly typical lives (but who fall outside the “norms”) then you’ll dig this read. I’m definitely going to scour around for Naylor’s other work after reading this book. (First one: The Women of Brewster Place…)

Naylor is a great author and has been recognized with a litany of literary awards, including being a recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships and “The Women of Brewster Place” won the National Book Award in 1983. She died in September 2016.

* Note: “POC” is an acronym which refers to “People of Color” meaning any person who is not white. POC individuals may come from any country in any part of the world, but they have a different life experience than the typical white/caucasian person which informs their work.

For a review of another Glora Naylor read, try: Mama Day (published in 1988).

Getting some culture: two plays…

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Since we’re lucky enough to live in a town with a big university presence, this means that we are also able to take advantage of some of the cultural offerings that come our way, and we recently went to two plays, both about some under-appreciated women which was a good touch as it’s Women’s History Month.

The first one was a one-woman play called “The Other Mozart” (written and performed by Sylvia Milo), and focused on the true story of Nannerl Mozart, Mozart’s older sister who was also a prodigy with music, but due to her gender and the times, didn’t receive all the attention that her younger brother did.

The solo actor was the sister in question, and so the play was presented through her eyes and thus the audience could track her musical life as she is recognized for her musical talents, but then slowly overtaken and eclipsed by the younger Mozart. I think this is probably a really good play, but the university sound system was very muffled and so it was pretty hard to keep up with what was going on.

That, and I had the ill-fortune to have a tall guy with a big bobble-head sit right in front, and it was uncanny how his head movements would match mine at almost every turn. So – good play. Bad venue. I’d still go and see this play, but only in a smaller theater with a good non-karaoke-based sound system.

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The other play was a completely different experience (thankfully). This was also a one-woman play, but in a much more intimate setting which made it easy to hear what the actor was saying and thus keep up with the action.

Called “If a door opens: a journey with Francis Perkins”, it was written and performed by a regional actor called Charlotte Keefe and focused on the life and times of said Francis Perkins, who was one of the earliest female Secretary of Labors in the twentieth century. She worked with presidents and others to help secure the 40-hour work week, social security benefits, and generally looked out for child and female workers at a time when they were over-used and under-paid.

Perkins also played a sentinel role in improving workplace safety standards as she was in NYC at the same time of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire and knew how to effectively work with politicians, unions, and others to pass new laws improving working conditions for everyone who was not a rich white man. 🙂

I was not familiar with Perkins (or the actress who played her), but by the time we came to the end of the play, I was astonished at just how much Perkins achieved at a time in the twentieth century when women were not encouraged or supported in their working lives if they upset the status quo.

I really enjoyed this experience, and recommend that if you see this play coming anywhere near you (whether with this actor or another), you take the hour or so to see it. Perkins was a firebrand whose mark still remains on the twenty-first century workforce.

And then later on this week, we’ve got tickets to listen to Ruth Reichl, former NYT food critic and best-selling author… Riches abound right now.

Minaret – Leila Aboulela (2005)

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When I was scanning a few book blogs the other day, I came across Minaret (Leila Aboulela) and picked it up from the library a few days later. I was intrigued by the topic, it was fairly short (matches my current summer levels of concentration), and it fit in well with my current focus on reading more POC authors. So, I picked it up last weekend, and then finished it on Sunday evening. (Quick read indeed.)

Aboulela is a Sudanese author, and this fictional narrative traces the spiritual (and literal) journey of Najwa, a Sudanese woman whose family is caught up in a big corruption government scandal, leading to them living in forced exile in London.

It’s an interesting story, but for some reason, I wasn’t too taken with it. Was it the writing? (It’s written in a very simplistic manner, but I’m not sure why that was the case. The protagonist was not a simple person, and her life was not straight-forward. Perhaps the simple style is used as a foil to reflect the complexity of her life? Not sure.)

Anyway, few contractions, few complex sentence structures, and pretty bare-bones descriptions… Not usually a big fan of that style, but I kept reading… (The reviews were so awesome, I thought that I was missing something, and perhaps this would all clear up by the end of the book…)

As the reader follows Najwa’s journey, both geographical and otherwise, we learn that she is a middle-aged woman whose rather coddled lifestyle is changed overnight when she is forced to move to England in exile, and live a life of servanthood for the other Sudanese ex-pats who are more wealthy.

This come-down is hard to take at first (naturally), but as the book progresses, Najwa learns how to live this new life. It’s helped by her attraction to the Islamic faith, although she was secular whilst she was in Sudan.

As the book progresses, readers follow her as she becomes a more religious and more devout Muslim woman. Interestingly, she ends up by the close of the story as being much more religiously conservative than she was at the start of the book. I think other reviewers have loved this title as it shows a woman becoming more focused on becoming a strict Muslim, and perhaps this is more typically depicted as a male journey? Not sure, but a lot of great reviews were blurbed on the cover. However, I was not quite as taken for a number of reasons, really.

First, there were some obvious proofreading errors which someone should have caught before it went to print (e.g. repeated or missing words etc.). With so much electronic editing help that is available now, there are few excuses to let this go to print without revisions. It became annoying after a while and was a distraction from the plot. (The author also goes on and on and on about how much the protagonist loves Boney M’s music. OK. We get it. Sigh.)

Second, the protagonist has some strange relationships with people. At first, I put this down to her forced relocation and the new culture and general life disruption, but then, as the story progresses, she ends up falling in love (sort of) with a nineteen year old son of her boss’ family, a young man who is decades younger than she is and who is a lot more radicalized than she is. Of course, problems arise…

I don’t know. It all got a bit confusing with regard to who is who and how they fit into the structure, so that, at times, I just gave an impatient sigh and then checked with a heavy heart how many more pages until the end…

Add to that the fact that the novel plays with time, and you’ve got one lost reader.

So – it wasn’t that great a read for me in the end (in case you haven’t picked that up yet!). I think that some of the reviewers were tripping over themselves to like this book for politically correct reasons, because I ended up with quite a different opinion at the end.

So, just an OK read for me in the end. Meh.

The Limit – Ada Leverson (1911)

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Owing a review to the great Mike Walmer who had sent me a copy of Ada Leverson’s The Limit last weekend, I read this title. Mike is an excellent promoter of under-estimated and under-read authors, had sent an irresistible taste of this novel, and although I wasn’t familiar with either the title or the author, I plucked it off the pile at the end of last week. And what a fun read!

Leverson was a British writer who is known for her friendship with Oscar Wilde and as a turn-of-the-century witty novelist. Her friendship with Oscar Wilde was tested when he was accused of being gay (at the time, a crime) and when no hotel or inn would accept Wilde as a guest, Leverson and her husband opened up their home as a place to stay, a generous gesture which would lead to “serious challenges” for the Leversons’ other friendships in the future.

So – to the plot: Valentia and Romer are a happily married couple, but Valentia is slightly dismayed that Romer isn’t quite as interesting as she had hoped he would be. For excitement, she turns to Harry de Freyne, her dashing artist cousin, much to the consternation of others in her social circle. Daphne, Valentia’s younger sister, needs to find a husband and a visiting American millionaire seems to fit the bill for the family, but Daphne would much rather marry a young professional soldier. And then there’s Miss Luscombe, Mrs. Wyburn, Miss Westbury, and a young man covered in tattoos with a hobby of collecting theater programs.

So – tons of characters to keep track off, but as with any social commentary in the vein of Jane Austen, you get the hang of who is who and after whom, and by the midway point, you can clearly follow the various machinations of the social system in this small world.

I mentioned Jane Austen, and this narrative is reminiscent of her characters and their struggles to meet and marry the right people. I did at times get a tad confused, but a quick check of the back cover sorted that out in a jiffy. Lots of rather funny repartee between the characters, and loads of strong description of life in London at the fin-de-siècle, this was a quick and rather fun read.

Thank you to Mike!

Annie John – Jamaica Kincaid (1983)

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Since I’ve been digging more deeply into authors (and characters) of color, Jamaica Kincaid’s name has kept cropping up and so when I saw this title in a thrift shop the other day, I picked it up with interest. After struggling mightily with another book and finally admitting defeat, it was with somewhat relief that I picked this one up and found it to be a joy to read. I loved it and will definitely be picking up more of Kincaid in the future.

So – this was a fiction read, a bildungsroman (posh way of saying “coming of age”) that follows a young girl growing up on the Caribbean island of Antigua. It starts in the middle of her childhood and follows to her teens when there is a sudden change that happens to her that affects all her relationships, particularly that between herself and her mother. Previously adored, the teen protagonist now faces her mother with unexplainable rage and resentment, and the reader watches how this enigmatic development affects her life as she grows and changes. It’s pretty hard to watch but understandable for the most part as who, at some point during their teen years, wasn’t sorely embarrassed by one’s parents at one time or another for no particularly compelling reason?

So, as mentioned, protagonist Annie knows that this is how she feels, but doesn’t really understand why; with nothing to put her finger on, the closest that she is able to come to is describing it as “carrying the thimble that weighed worlds” deep down inside her. Who would understand that, she thinks sadly? No one, and her days go by with her repelling all that seemed perfectly fine until a few months ago with the arrival of that internal thimble.

Annie’s early to mid-teen years were deliriously happy with a mutually adoring relationship between her mother and herself, but once that dark feeling is established, things change for the worse and both of them are confused and frustrated by this sudden change. It’s never mentioned, but then neither of them has the right vocabulary to do that. (It’s fairly typical teenaged angst, but when you’re going through it, it’s a big deal, right?)

The narrative is structured as a series of eight chapters, each one describing a particular episode in Annie’s life (big and small) and spotlights the ebb and flow of school friends, confusion about this sudden dissatisfaction of almost everything in life, and no tools to impact it either way. I would think that anyone who was a teenager (or who knows a teenager) would be able to relate on some level, really.

The depths of the descriptions of the lushness of Annie’s life on Antigua reflect the depth of the introspection that is seen through the PoV of Annie. She is a ferocious and witty character with a fearless attitude to life. It’s equally frustrating and admirable at the same time, really.

This was a fabulous read on a rather endless plane journey, but the time passed really quickly (which underscores how good the read was). I loved loved loved this book.