February 2018 Reading Review

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It’s just finishing up the second month of the year and the Spring semester, and everything is going quite swimmingly. 🙂 I’m not teaching that extra class this semester, and it has made a world of difference in terms of work load, stress, etc., so I’m happy that I made the executive decision to not take that on again.

It’s the start of Spring here in West Texas which can mean temperatures from the low 20s to the high 80s, so it’s dressing in layers here for most of the time. Keeps things interesting, let me tell you!

To the books read during February:

So to the numbers:

Total number of books read in February: 8

Total number of pages read: 1,823 pages (av. 228).

Fiction/Non-Fiction: 3 fiction / 4 non-fiction; 0 play. 1 DNF.

Diversity: 6 POC. (Hat tip to Black History Month.) 3 books by women.

Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): 4 library book, 2 owned book and 1 e-book.

Guilty admission: I ended up DNF-ing Roxanne Gay’s memoir, Hunger. (I just couldn’t click with it, but I did read 150 pages, so not a total loss.)

Plans for March: Read lots. Read widely. 🙂

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Strength in What Remains – Tracy Kidder (2000)

Kidder_tracySubtitle: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness.

So, this title was quite an astonishing read for me, in that the guy who is the focus of this story went through such an amazing and never-ending amount of crud and STILL didn’t get a bad attitude towards the other humans.

Here’s a summary of the story if you are not familiar with it already: Deo (full name: Deogratias) was a young man in Burundi who survived a civil war and the related genocide only to end up at JFK in New York carrying two suitcases and $200 in his pocket. He knew no one, had no contacts, no place to stay, no nothing, and yet somehow, through a combination of factors, he ends up in one piece and a medical school graduate.

I know, right? Rather puts your own life into perspective…

Kidder, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, found out about Deo’s story after he (Kidder) had penned his earlier NF, Mountains Beyond Mountains, about Dr. Paul Farmer who formed a non-profit to tackle public health nightmare situations in Haiti (and beyond). Kidder tracked down Deo’s awe-inspiring story whilst he was tracing Farmer’s since both Farmer and Deo ended up working together on some health projects.

deoDeo, born to a small farmer and his wife, grew up in the forests and mountains of Burundi, living a fairly typical agricultural childhood for his country until the civil war and unrest arrived. Having to run for his life when the murderous rebels surround his region, Dec finds himself alone and with no money or help as he crosses the Burundian landscape trying his hardest to avoid being killed in the genocide that was taking his country by storm. (The descriptions of what he sees and what he goes through have to be read to be believed. Warning: they are harrowing.)

After surviving months on the run, hiding in forests and just a few steps ahead of the rebel groups, Deo’s good fortune puts him on one of the few remaining aeroplane rides out of the unstable country, and Deo arrives in New York with not much, really, apart from his attitude and his ability to make friends along the way.

The young immigrant scrapes a living delivering groceries 12 hours a day, and living in Central Park or co-squatting in unlivable vacant buildings, but as you can read, by an amazing series of coincidences and people who know people, Deo ends up at Columbia University, followed by medical school. The “how” of all this is proof that good people live out in the world, even if they’re not obvious to you.

So, this was a true rags-to-riches story for this young African person, and as you can probably surmise, it’s a great story with an almost fairy-tale ending, so you’d think that Kidder, an award-winning author, would be the perfect match to tell this narrative.

And you know, he was until about two-thirds of the way through, when suddenly, for no reason really, Kidder starts injecting himself into the story taking it on a very philosophical track of meaning and forgiveness. All very valid, but TBH, Kidder really got in the way of Deo’s story, and I’m wondering if perhaps Kidder was trying to meet a publisher’s page number goal of some kind, because if he had stopped at an earlier finishing point, this book would have been outstanding.

It was almost as though this was two different books all smashed into one: one a fairly straightforward chronological narrative and the other more of an esoteric take on the morality side of things. I’m not sure why Kidder did this — I can only speculate — but it did not do the book justice, as by the time I’d reached the end and turned the last page, I was very ready to finish up the read.

And that’s a shame as the book should have ended up with much more powerful punch than it did. Instead of thinking “Wow. This is an amazing young man with an incredible story filled with hope and compassion,” I ended up going “finish up already, Kidder.”

So, I’d recommend that you read this story for the Deo true narrative, and when Kidder inserts himself in this unwarranted Yoda fashion, just stop your story there.

Deo’s story is breathtaking, but unfortunately, I ended up being annoyed with Kidder more than continue to be amazed at Deo. As any narrative NF writer should know, you don’t want to be part of the story unless you can’t help it. I think Kidder could have, but didn’t.

 

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts – Maxine Hong Kingston (1975)

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I picked this book up as part of my ongoing effort to read more diverse books and combining that with the evergreen goal of reading from my TBR. Plus – it also fit in a missing year on my Century of Books project as well. Check, check, and check.

I’d heard of this title, but wasn’t exactly sure what it was about much more than it was a creative autobiography of a Chinese immigrant to the U.S., and this is what the read was, in the end, but it was certainly a lot more than the run-of-the-mill story of someone’s life. A lot of libraries tend to classify this novel as “creative nonfiction.” (My issue with that is what is the final ratio of facts to fiction before it tips over into 100% fiction? Perhaps I’ll never know…)

On the surface, it’s a well-written autobiography of Hong Kingston, and there are strong overlaps between what Western historians would call “personal history” and the culture of being a Chinese person in America. However, this fairly straightforward personal history is filtered through a large lens of Chinese culture, myth, and folklore, and when I was done with the read, I was a bit dizzy with the whole ride. It was good, but it was a bit of a wild journey.

The narrative structure is divided into five pieces. (I’d say “chapters” but I think that these separations are more meaningful than the typical chapter in traditionally structured fiction pieces.) Throughout the reading, Hong Kingston smoothly blends the facts of her childhood, myths and talk-story of old China, and then combines the result with the Chinese diaspora experience in the US.

It’s very dreamy and surreal in many ways, and so the passage of time is flexible which means that you’re just not sure what is true and what is not.

(Side note: Thinking about it, I think that the argument of truth vs. fiction could be held for every autobiography as memory is not always accurate (even when it is).)

I’m actually finding it pretty difficult to review this in any helpful way for you, so I’ll just give you some pointers if you’re thinking about reading it. (It’s a very common text for freshmen lit survey classes in US campuses.)

  • Be prepared to go with the flow as it’s not a linear A-B-C narrative arc.
  • Be prepared for some magical realism type of writing.
  • Be prepared to enjoy a mĂ©lange of Chinese myth and family dynamics of a family who are fairly recent immigrants.
  • Familiarize yourself a bit with the Chinese Revolution history as it plays a major role in the background.
  • Be prepared for a litany of character names: Brave Orchid, No Name Woman, Fa Mu Lan, Sitting Ghost, and loads of others.
  • Finally, I would recommend that you read this novel in big chunks of time instead of a pick-up put-down manner.

So a pretty good read, but not as awesome as I thought it was going to be. (This may have been my fault as opposed to the book’s fault though.) Plus – it’s a title off the TBR pile. Hooray for that.

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)

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Wanting to read something that I couldn’t put down this Memorial Day weekend, I pulled “Americanah” off the library shelf, Scary Big Book though it is, and settled down on our new comfortable couch. Four and a half hours later, I emerged at the end of the book having been immersed in the world of two young Nigerians, Ifemelu and Obinze, as they traverse the uneven terrain of love and adulthood.

I was aware that Ngozi Adichie was an excellent writer (see review of We Should All Be Feminists here), but it’s been a while since I’ve managed to select a book that I couldn’t put down, and it’s been even longer since I’ve have had a few hours to devote solidly to an awesome read. Both of those opportunities came when I took the day off from work for the three-day weekend, and I have to say that although I’m only half-way through the year right now, there is no doubt that this title will make the Top Ten List at the end of the year.

Obviously, I’m not the only one to have noticed this book. It’s been awarded honors from across the world for writing excellence, including the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Fiction award, selected for the 10 Best Books of 2013 by the editors of the NYT Book Review, shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (UK), and given the 2013 Heartland Award for Fiction by the Chicago Tribune. Even if the book hadn’t won all these awards, I would be writing the same gushing review so please don’t think that I’ve been swayed by all these accolades. They are completely and wholeheartedly deserved by Ngozi Adichie.

To the book itself: the plot follows the lives of two young Nigerian people, Ifemelu and Obinze, as their paths interweave and separate over the years and across geopolitical lines. Both grew up together in the same time and at the same secondary school, but Nigeria (at that time) was under military rule which meant that a lot of its citizens wanted to leave for elsewhere and other opportunities. Ifemelu departs for the U.S. to attend university, leaving Nigeria with the plan that Obinze will join her once his visa is approved.

However, the visa process takes much longer, and as Ifemelu moves through her college, she becomes a successful blogger on the intersection of race and life (from her perspective as a “Non-American Black”) whilst Obinze struggles to make a life in England as an undocumented immigrant. So there is the dichotomy of gender, there is the dichotomy of race, there is the comparison of life choices and the role of luck, and then there is the question of what constitutes success in each person’s life. The novel has a lot going on, but it’s all occurring underneath the surface because the writing of the story is so strong that the characters’ lives remain the focus for the reader. It’s a slow-burn novel which sucks you in as the pages turn, and once finished, the book stays in your mind for days after. (It’s that good.)

If you’d like to spend the next few days in the company of two smart and very normal young people who are trying to work out which paths to follow in life, this read will give that to you. It’s been so long since I’ve jumped in with both feet to a great fictional read and been transformed into the lives of these characters that I have to admit that this was one of the best reading experiences I’ve had in a long time. Without resorting to hyperbole, I think that this was one of the best novels I’ve read in years, and I kick myself that I haven’t picked it up before now. Do yourself a favor, and choose this title soon. I bet you’ll thank me later.

The Devil’s Highway – Luis Alberto Urrea (2004)

book223This is a non-fiction recounting of a fatal trip attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border which ends, tragically, in the deaths of 14 Mexican nationals in a huge desert in Southern Arizona. This was a much more balanced read than I had expected. Urrea is a Mexican-American writer and he has immersed himself in other border-experience non-fiction books, and I was anticipating a very pro-immigrant/pro-border freedom type of narrative. However, as the book progresses and you get deeper into the story, you recognize that it’s such a complicated issue with so many moving parts to take into consideration that it would be short-sighted to boil it down into a black-and-white issue.

Urrea does not take the easy route here and so this ends up to be a balanced and careful look at the Yuma 14, as the case is called, where 26 Mexican nationals (plus two guides/coyotes) attempt to cross the Devil’s Highway near Tucson, one of the harshest and hottest environments in the world, completely unprepared and led by guides (or “coyotes” as they’re called) who pretty much took their money and run leaving the travelers without food, water or a map. Only 12 men survived the three-day journey.

What I really respected about this author was the fact that this is such a hot-button issue and yet he didn’t resort to the easy way of pointing fingers and laying blame. After reading this, I was sympathetic (or at least had a clearer understanding) of all the players involved: the coyotes who bring groups of people to the U.S. illegally; the walkers (border-crossers) who are desperate enough to pay large amounts of money to the coyotes (and their bosses), the men and women of the U.S. Border Patrol (who are mostly just doing their best in a tough situation), and the complexity of the politics on an international level. You also can’t ignore the role played by narco-traffic-ing (which is a whole other issue).

This look at the very human side of illegal border crossing was a rather harrowing and very fascinating journey for the reader – more especially for the walkers who attempted the journey. Urrea managed to put names to all the faces in the situation which really helped to suck me in as a reader. These were men who had wives and families who cared about them (coyotes included). It’s not a black and white issue and deserves a much more considered and detailed look than the politicos and general public allot it. (Interesting to read this at the same time as Congress is debating an immigration “reform” bill…)

Urrea’s non-fiction deserves a larger audience. He’s a great writer covering this huge complicated issue while maintaining his reporter’s neutrality. One good read.