Sula

Sula, Sula, Sula.

Oh, Sula.

My heart ached reading Toni Morrison’s second novel.

In it, I saw shades of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye (a personal favorite) and the melodrama of Douglas Sirk. Centered around the lives of two little girls in 1930s Ohio, Sula explores the power of friendship, betrayal, and perception. Upstanding, obedient Nel and wild child Sula have the kind of friendship that seems to only exist between children. They are inseparable. They complete each other. They are a force. And soon, they are bonded even more closely by a terrible secret.

Not content to stay in their aptly named home, The Bottom, grownup Sula makes a break for it as soon as she can. When she finally returns, Nel is married with kids of her own and their happy reunion is marred by a betrayal that threatens to end their friendship forever.

Having read Beloved and The Bluest Eye in high school, I almost wonder if Sula might be the better introduction to Toni Morrison. Less epic than Beloved, quicker than The Bluest Eye, I could see how Sula would be more palatable. But then as soon as I think that, I remember the weight of it and feel baffled that any high schooler reads any Morrison at all.

She’s one of those rare authors who just feels prolific in everything she creates. Sula is a short book, but in just 174 pages, Morrison is talking about all of America and the black experience and what it means to be a woman and the very nature of good and evil. I am bowled over by her scope.

I was easily sucked in by her beautiful writing, too. The beauty just brought the whole world alive for me, even with the smallest details, like:

“When Eva spoke at last it was with two voices. Like two people were talking at the same time, saying the same thing, one a fraction of a second behind the other.”

or:

“Then summer came. A summer limp with the weight of blossomed things. . . . And the boys. The beautiful, beautiful boys who dotted the landscape like jewels, split the air with their shouts in the field, and thickened the river with their shining wet backs. Even their footsteps left a smell of smoke behind.”

But what struck me the most wasn’t any one phrase or passage, but a thought.

It occurred to me midway through the book how essential race is to any piece of realistic fiction about African Americans. I know, I know—not exactly earth shattering stuff. But in that thought, I was hit by another and I think it was the first time I really understood the privilege I have. A book that reflects my experience has the luxury of ignoring race if it wants to. Morrison doesn’t have that luxury. For a book to attempt to reflect her experiences but to leave out race would be to cut out a part of her. It’s one of those forces with the power to shape everything. And while I know this, I don’t think it had ever completely sunk in before.

With that, I already had my first concrete sign of my experiment doing its job. Hearing different voices had me not just thinking, but opening up my mind to something I thought I already knew.

Though I wouldn’t put it on the same level as Beloved, Sula was too quick and too satisfying not to recommend. It had me looking forward to reading the entire rest of her bibliography. Whether it’s your first Morrison or your fifth, it’s worth it.

Happy Birthday, Reviews for No One!

Almost a full week late, but I still wanted to take a minute to celebrate this blog’s first birthday.

I can’t believe I’ve kept this thing going for a whole year already. I even kept to my schedule (not that it was ever a rigorous one, but still). I feel like I read more than ever and that reading came back into being part of who I am in a way it hadn’t been for a long time.

I was a born book lover. Some of my earliest memories? I remember being annoyed with other kids by age 6 for not reading well enough. And hiding encyclopedias under my pillow because I thought I’d get smarter that way. And the day I was taken aside by the librarian and shown where the chapter books were ahead of everyone else in my class.

But I lost some of that on the way through school. By college, I stopped reading for fun almost completely. It wasn’t until I was commuting to work by train that I fell back into a rhythm, and it wasn’t until this blog that I felt like my books were part of me again.

Reviews for No One is a real achievement for me.

It’s the first time I ever tried to take my blogging even a little bit seriously. I’m still finding my voice, and I’m still working on making enough time to write and revise, but I’m really proud of what I’ve done here so far. Even if all I’ve done is find part of me.

As always, I’ll keep reading and I’ll keep trying to make things interesting for you. And hopefully I’ll keep getting better at both.

Happy reading!

-S

The Intuitionist

My appetite for mystery is what led me to The Intuitionist. Hungry for another mystery, I gobbled up Flavorwire’s list of 50 Essential Mystery Novels That Everyone Should Read. Colson Whitehead’s neo-noir tale sounded so deliciously different, the book soon skyrocketed to the top of my to-read list despite the fact that no one else I knew had ever heard of it.

I imagined it to be a high-minded unraveling of a complicated world that would still keep me rapt in the story, eager to turn each page.

My expectations were wildly off base.

The Intuitionist is more allegory than mystery, more Ralph Ellison than Agatha Christie.

The story takes place in a sort of steampunk, pre-civil rights New York (although it’s never named). There, elevators are not only regulated by the government, but are well-recognized symbols of social mobility—after all, the elevators make the tall, glittering cities of the future possible. Lila Mae Watson is the city’s first black female inspector. She’s also an Intuitionist, a school of inspection looked down upon by the Empiricist majority for the way it relies on psychic sensations rather than tools for its inspections. When one of the elevators Lila’s given her seal of approval suddenly plummets, she becomes determined to figure out who set her up and why.

If this little synopsis has your head spinning, don’t worry—you’re not alone. There’s a lot going on in the world that author Colson Whitehead has built, but it’s really not difficult to fall into.

Slick city streets, dark underbelly politics, and nefarious thugs all have their roles to play while Whitehead toys with concepts of racial identity. He uses the characters’ discussion of “verticality” to force the reader into thinking about the social strata and how racism has shaped it. He then wraps this blatant allegory of the black experience in a dark, noir style that’s more Raymond Chandler than Toni Morrison.

Unfortunately for me, I would generally rather watch noir than read it. There’s an iciness to the language, something almost mechanical, which leaves me feeling detached. Here, it absolutely works to match our aloof protagonist, but I felt like I was being kept at arm’s length in a way that worked against what Whitehead was trying to achieve.

I wanted to feel like I was with Lila every step of they way, not just watching her from afar as in passages like this:

“Her place was as she left it: raped. She pulled her suitcase from under the bed and packed again, this time for a much longer stay. . . . She lingered in the doorway. She thought she had forgotten something. Hadn’t. She did not possess any lucky rabbit’s feet or childhood dolls to ward off the monsters of the adult world. Just clothes.”

It’s hard for me to explain why I don’t connect with this passage. It should be tense, I should feel Lila’s anxiety or her fear, but I just don’t. The text just couldn’t take me there.

Yet I can’t fully blame Whitehead for this failure. My expectations were sky high for this book, I went in with the wrong mindset, and I was ill prepared for the in-your-face nature of its themes.

“White people’s reality is built on that things appear to be—that’s the business of Empiricism. They judge them on how they appear when held up to the light.”

Had I come into the book more prepared, my experience might have been slightly different. I needed an emotional connection to the story, and an allegory was not the place for me to look. As it stands, I still appreciate everything The Intuitionist is trying to accomplish, but when I couldn’t care about it, I realized I didn’t care for it.

The Terror

The Terror by Dan Simmons

Dan Simmons’s The Terror introduces the reader to a nightmare—a deadly combination of horror, fiction, and (most unsettlingly) reality. In 1845, 148 men led by Captain Sir John Franklin departed England on two ships, the Terror and the Erebus, in search of the Northwest Passage.

The expedition was a complete failure.

Navigating treacherous ice floes in the far north, dealing with months of endless winter and endless night, and limited supplies all seem to spell a recipe for disaster on their own. But in The Terror, Simmons wonders, what if there was something even worse than that?

What if there was something out there in the infinite darkness?

Meticulously researched, The Terror brings both the historical reality of the expedition and the terrifying fiction to life. Chapters alternate between the perspectives of major (and minor) players—including Captain Sir John Franklin himself—and fluctuate back and forth through time. The first chapter, narrated by Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, captain of the Terror, opens by pinpointing their location on their voyage and subsequently, our location in the story:

Lat. 70°-05’ N., Long. 98°-23’ W.
October, 1847

Beginning with these unassailable facts, Simmons brings a sense of authenticity to the novel. He even provides maps tracing the ships’ unfortunate route in the front matter so we can follow along on the journey, even peek ahead if we so choose. But in this very same chapter, Simmons yanks the rug from under us when he has Captain Crozier inspect some damage to the ship’s reinforced hull:

Something, Francis Crozier suspects, has dug down through these tons of snow and tunneled through the iron-hard slabs of ice to get at the hull of the ship. . . . And now it’s banging and clawing to get in.

Crozier knows that there’s only one thing on earth with that much power, deadly persistence, and malevolent intelligence. The monster on the ice is trying to get at them from below.

Clearly, this is not going to be a simple case of man vs. the elements.

I think what surprised me most was getting an introduction to this seemingly supernatural element so early on in the story. Numerous times Simmons would build suspense throughout a chapter until my heart was racing and my hand rose to my mouth in shock only for me to realize there were still hundreds of pages left—we weren’t even close to the climax.

I wondered how on earth he could keep this momentum going for 700+ pages. Where could the story be going? But I was never disappointed. Through an expertly woven combination of conflicts (man v. nature, man v. man, man v. monster), I was never bored. I was shocked that the book just didn’t drag. It wasn’t exactly a nonstop thrill ride, but it ebbed and flowed, pulling the reader ever closer to the inevitable conclusion—whatever that seemed to be at the time.

But The Terror wasn’t without its flaws, either. The book is a white man’s world with little room for anyone else. I’ll be the first to admit that this clearly seems due to Simmons’s desire for historical accuracy and to keep all perspectives among those aboard the ships. Still, the women and people of color that are depicted don’t get the fairest shake.

An old flame of Crozier’s, Sophia Cracroft, isn’t condemned for her role in Crozier’s past, but she certainly isn’t sympathetic or fully fleshed out, either. She plays but a small part, though, as she can only appear in the story through Crozier’s memories, and who knows how much of what he remembers can be trusted.

Lady Silence, however, features a bit more prominently and represents the only real major female presence as well as the only non-white character. She’s Inuit, and though Simmons has clearly done his research on their early 20th-century culture, it’s not quite enough to save her either from tokenism or mystical stereotyping. Chapters from Silence’s perspective really could have helped here, even if they were rare. I’m not sure I’d call her portrayal offensive, but I’m sad to admit I did ultimately find it disappointing. Simmons is clearly a talented writer—it’s just a shame he didn’t put any of those skills to use for this character.

But neither of these issues detract from the overall work. The Terror is a solid piece of historical fiction as well as horror. It is perfectly suited to short wintery days and long icy nights. I went in to the book knowing little of the real Franklin Expedition so history buffs may have a slightly different experience, but to them I say, suspend your disbelief. Just let yourself fall into the nightmare Simmons weaves. I think it might be my favorite horror novel I’ve ever read. And I think my favorite part about it is that when you boil it down, it’s less about the horrors outside your door and more about the horrors within.

2015: The Year Ahead

Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ruth Ozeki, Colson Whitehead

Now that we’ve taken a look at the past, let’s look to the future!

I’ve set a few goals for myself in the upcoming months. Obviously, I want to make this blog the best it can be. I want to reach people, and I want to have something to say.

In reviewing the books I read this year, I thought I’d check my diversity. How many books had I read that were written by women?

If you set comic books aside and look solely at novels (because let’s face it–if you want to read classic comics, you’re going to have a really tough time finding one penned by a woman), I had a perfect 50/50 split.

10 books by men. 10 books by women.

Considering how easy it still is to read nothing but men without even trying (ahem literary canon, I’m lookin’ at you), I’m pretty happy with myself. But there was another problem…

Out of 26 reads, only one was by a person of color. That’s only about 4% and that is embarrassing to me. We live in a vibrant, diverse world and there is absolutely no reason why I shouldn’t strive to make what I read reflect that.

And so, I have another goal in mind for my reading this year: make sure that at least 75% of the books I read are written by people of color.

I started curating a list and honestly? I’m incredibly excited about everything on it. I’m still picking titles that appeal to me, some of which have been on my list for some time, so it’s really not much work to take the extra step. And really, if it’s so easy what reason is there not to do it? Who wouldn’t want to hear other voices? I think it’ll make my reading experience a lot more interesting, and I think I’ll be better for it.

I originally thought about aiming for 100%, but I got sucked in by Dan Simmons’s The Terror right after Christmas so 75% seemed like the next best thing. Achievable, but still lofty enough not to be completely devoid of effort on my part and definitely a massive improvement over last year.

I’m probably looking forward to Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist the most, followed closely by Alfredo Corchado’s Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent into Darkness and Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah. Hopefully you are, too. With any luck, I’ll be able to recommend something magical that I wouldn’t have otherwise found this year.

So here’s to a more diverse (and a more interesting) 2015!

Happy reading!

2014: Year in Review

IMG_9409

This was a busy year for me and my books. I read more and wrote more and shared a bit of both here with you. I’d been meaning to get more purposeful with my blogging for years, and this is the first time I’ve ever actually been able to commit to that goal long enough to do it.

I learned a lot–I’m still learning. I’m not sure how to personalize this site they way I want. I’m not sure how to best expand my repertoire of posts. I’m not sure if my reviews strike the right tone. I mean, if you think about it, it’s pretty daunting to try and review something 10, 30, or even 100 years old. What can I say that hasn’t been said?

But I’m doing my best to try and keep things interesting. Though I’m not sure how many of you I’m reaching, either. Another goal for 2015, I think.

Originally, I made it my goal with this site to review everything I read as I read it, and I’m sorry to say I failed there. Sometimes a book took me too long and sometimes I wasn’t sure what to say about it. Sometimes I forgot or I wanted to rewrite an older review instead. And sometimes I was just too excited about the newest book to have enough interest to go back.

Thus what you saw on the blog in 2014 is an incomplete list.

Here’s the full review of everything I read (and in some ways, a preview of what’s to come) from January to December:

  1. The Likeness by Tana French
  2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  3. Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander
  4. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
  5. I Feel Bad About My Neck (and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman) by Nora Ephron
  6. Love Dishonor Marry Die Cherish Perish a novel by David Rakoff
  7. Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira
  8. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  9. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  10. Buffy the Vampire Slayer 1 & 2 by Joss Whedon and Brian K. Vaughn
  11. The Good Girl by Mary Kubica
  12. The Giver by Lois Lowry
  13. Locke & Key: Vol. 1 & 2 by Joe Hill
  14. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Vol. 1 by Alan Moore
  15. Boss by Mike Royko
  16. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy (My only re-read of the year.)
  17. Hell House by Richard Matheson
  18. Ultimates 1 by Mark Millar
  19. Faithful Place by Tana French
  20. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis
  21. Persuasion by Jane Austen
  22. House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski
  23. Kingdom Come by Mark Waid
  24. Ultimates 2: Vol. 1 by Mark Millar
  25. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
  26. Captain America: Man Out of Time by Mark Waid

Not too shabby. Well, not for me, anyway.

The comics are a recent interest and it seems I really took off with it this year. I’m still really struggling with how to review them. The art is every bit as essential as the text and sometimes I feel like I lack the vocabulary to explain how I feel about a work. I’ve been reading more, but maybe it’s time to seek out reviews, too, huh?

The point is, thanks for taking this ride with me. I’m hoping to work harder, read more, and write better in 2015. I hope you’ll stick with me.

Happy (Belated) New Year, readers!

Persuasion

Does everyone introduced to Jane Austen invariably compare everything she writes back to Pride and Prejudice? I’m sure some don’t, but the task felt impossible to me. Austen’s last book, Persuasion was only the second of her works I’d ever read (after P&P of course). While I certainly enjoyed it, it must be said that our heroine Anne Elliot is no Elizabeth Bennett. Our hero Frederick Wentworth no Mr. Darcy.

When Anne was 19, she fell in love with a dashing young naval officer, Frederick Wentworth. Frederick proposes and Anne happily accepts until she breaks the news to her status-obsessed family who disapprove of Wentworth’s low rank. Heartbroken, Anne ends the relationship and when the novel picks up, it’s eight years later and Anne’s still single and fast approaching 19th-century spinsterhood. Her feelings for Wentworth stay buried deep until news comes that he’s back in town and she’s forced to confront him along with her old feelings.

Themes of persuasion (obviously) and repression run throughout the book, as do examinations of class and social constructs, but the same can be said of most of Austen’s work. I’m perhaps selling her a little short here, but these just weren’t the most interesting angles for me.

I was freely carried away by the story the same way I am when watching a romantic comedy–where I become enraptured in the tale and the question isn’t if our couple will be together, but simply when. That’s where my enjoyment came from. With every turn of the page, I knew I was just a little bit closer to the payoff, to the love story’s triumphant conclusion.

In movies, all the great rom-com’s share one essential quality: charisma. The two leads have chemistry and a spark together, as well as their own individual charm. When there’s no spark and when the performances fall flat, so does the story, no matter how well it’s written. In a way, this ended up being my main issue with Persuasion.

When Anne represses her true feelings she does so willingly as an act of self-preservation so there’s none of Elizabeth’s firey wit. Instead, Anne is prim, introspective, and even has a bit of a hang-dog mentality that kept her from endearing herself to me in quite the same way Elizabeth did. I still felt for her and was wholeheartedly on her side, but it was harder to see anything of myself in her.

Similarly, Wentworth lacked Darcy’s air of mystery. His intentions and emotions were still hard to read, but this ended up frustrating me more than intriguing me. I wouldn’t call him a poor love interest by any means, but something was missing for him to really make an impression on me.

Ultimately, Persuasion is more of Jane Austen doing what Jane Austen does best: lambasting British society while telling a love story. But it didn’t stick with me the way Pride and Prejudice did and I didn’t encounter the same joy while reading it. I originally read the book a couple months ago and my memory is already hazy. I recall enjoying it, but not to what extent. Because of that, I don’t know if I can honestly recommend it as it didn’t make much of an impression on me.

I don’t mean to overstate my love of Pride and Prejudice either, though. I liked the book quite a bit, and it marked the first time I reread something I hated in high school only to end up completely changing my mind about it. But I wouldn’t put either of these books on any kind of favorites list.

I’m still eager to try reading more of Austen’s work, but only time will tell if any of it is capable of having a more profound impact on me.

Persuasion is a solid read and worth the time, but I wouldn’t bother bumping it to the top of your To Read list any time soon.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

The NPR Book Concierge is here! A new annual feature, it’s one of the best ways (I think) to find a contemporary read to give as a gift or get for yourself. Personally, I’ll be perusing everything in the “Mysteries” and “Seriously Good Writing” cross-section.

NPR’s Book Concierge

Use the filters below to explore some 250 titles NPR staff and critics loved this year. (You can also combine filters!)

How do you figure what books to gift? Any tried and true tricks to picking something your friends and family love?

House of Leaves

House of Leaves

What can I make of House of Leaves? Where to start? How to say enough without saying too much?

It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read before, and from the moment I picked it up, all I wanted to do was talk about it with someone, anyone. But everywhere I looked, even among my most literary friends, I couldn’t find a single person who’d read it. The compulsion to share this thing I’d discovered was overwhelming, but despite all that, I still have an almost impossible time putting my feelings into words.

At it’s core, most call House of Leaves a horror story. Some call it a love story. I call it a bit of both along with something else entirely. Something unnameable.

Before even the introduction, instead of a dedication the book begins with a warning:

“This is not for you.”

In this way, the book pulls us in with one hand and pushes us away with the other. If it’s not for us, then who is it for, we wonder?

There’s only one way to find out.

The book centers on three main characters: Zampanò, Johnny Truant, and Will Navidson.

Elderly, blind Zampanò spent his life writing a scholarly analysis of a 1993 documentary called The Navidson Record. In the documentary, Will Navidson realizes that the inside of his house is bigger than the outside and decides to tape his increasingly terrifying exploration of the anomaly. After Zampanò’s death, Johnny Truant discovers the pieces of the manuscript and becomes obsessed with completing Zampanò’s work, adding footnotes for clarity or, more frequently, to share his thoughts and discuss his life since discovering it. And if that weren’t enough, Johnny insists that The Navidson Record doesn’t even exist.

The process of reading this book was quite possibly the single most challenging and rewarding experience with a book I’ve ever had. Danielewski experiments not just with narrative construction, but with the very page layout itself. Some changes seem to be for coherence, while others are part of a masterful attempt to manipulate the reader’s emotions.

Example of the text’s shifting layout style

As the text jumped around the page and the footnotes became more entangled, I was struggling to keep up. I would read and re-read portions, searching for my place, feeling lost and bogged down.

But none of that was without purpose. Ultimately, Danielewski (or should I say Zampanò?) led me to the answer:

“In order to escape then, we have to remember we cannot ponder all paths but must decode only those necessary to get out. We must be quick and anything but exhaustive. Yet as Seneca warned in his Epistule morales 44, going too fast also incurs certain risks:

This is what happens when you hurry through a maze: the faster you go, the worse you are entangled.

. . .

Therefore anyone lost within must recognize that no one, not even a god or an Other, comprehends the entire maze and so therefore can never offer a definitive answer.”

It’s not meant to be possible to follow every thread in House of Leaves on a first reading. You can only go where it’s possible for you to follow. Some passages may feel inscrutable, others obvious.

That confusion and frustration? That’s how Danielewski wanted me to feel. I was just as lost as the characters, just as uncertain. My empathy for Will and Johnny was being thrust upon me. I had no choice because it was as if we were on this journey together.

More than this though, I felt that in reading House of Leaves, I was seeing for the first time what a writer could do with text, how differently a story could be told. It was thrilling and suspenseful and above all else emotional.

Though it certainly appeals to a specific kind of reader, I can’t recommend House of Leaves enough. It’s rocketed straight to the top of my list of my favorite books of all time. It’s something incredibly special that deserves all the energy it takes to get through it.