What I’ve Been Reading Lately

Hello! Guess what. I quit my job to read novels full time.

Just kidding! Gotcha.

However, I did some time off work in order to prepare for the arrival of bébé numéro deux. As a tremendously awesome consequence, (which almost-but-not-quite makes up for the unbearable HUGENESS of my life right now), I have more time to read.

Here’s what that looks like…

lahens_moonbathI was very excited to see an English translation of Yanick Lahens’ Bain de lune, English title Moonbath, published by Deep Vellum in August. Since I’ve written a full review soon to be published elsewhere, I’m not going to dish too much here, but it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that this book gets my thumbs up. Read it, y’all.

In other review reading…

I received a copy of Megan Stielstra’s The Wrong Way to Save Your Life (HarperCollins, August 2017), and I have mixed feelings. Her writing is really quite wonderful. And, in a way, I couldn’t put the book down, simply because it flows so well and because her tone is a delight. I may even pick up her other collections. But as essays, I found them a bit disappointing.

I think what Stielstra is doing here is memoir, but she almost seems afraid to really dive into the genre and all it has to offer. It’s almost as if writing interesting and probing stories about one’s life is no longer enough to hold attention in this age of constant commentary (unfortunately, that may be true). So, rather than really tell her personal stories, she uses her own life as a vague reference point, making somewhat shaky links to what’s going on in the current socio-economic-political sphere. As essays — which is a different genre than memoir — they fall a little flat. I think part of this could be ascribed to the fact that she is writing largely from the verge of this massive event in American history. From the edge of the huge volcanic shift, rather than the pit. She starts out by saying that she doesn’t know who will win the 2016 election, that there is an overwhelming climate of fear. But within the context of all that has happened over the last year, unfortunately, it simply feels a bit stale to talk about being a white girl discovering what it means to be privileged in the 90s. That is absolutely not the fault of her writing — which is masterful — but rather a fault of timing.

Quick take? Maybe borrow it from someone. Bonus points for digging up your Ani Difranco cd’s in the process.

chang_three soulsI had talked about Janie Chang’s Dragon Springs Road in my last reading update and I liked it so much I was compelled to check out her first novel, Three Souls, as well. Having read them both, it is very clear that Chang is thoroughly in her element, dealing with massive cultural shifts in Chinese history. Here, we have one of my favorite plot devices — encountering a character/narrator after their own death — as Leiyin, hanging out in limbo with her threes souls (yang, yin, and hun) and haunting her loved ones, tells the story of her untimely death and recounts the tumultuous events of her life, a reflection of the political upheaval brought about by civil war. It’s a solid first novel, and filled with very attention-keeping intrigue, though I think the author’s talent for character development definitely shines through more in her second book.

mbue_behold the dreamersI had the great fortune to meet Imbolo Mbue while hosting a couple of events for the Blue Metropolis festival this spring, where she won the “Des mots pour changer” prize. She was a delight to chat with and I finally got around to reading her debut novel Behold the Dreamers. May I say, what a fantastic book. I imagine the most frequent comparison it gets is to Adichie’s Americanah but honestly, I liked this novel better. It has less raw cynicism and more heart and there’s an immense strength in that. I was also struck by the way in which it so intelligently framed the lives of an African immigrant family living in New York, not solely around racism, or questions of belonging and class, but rather around this monumentally tense moment in American history, being the 2008 Financial Crisis, showing how greatly and thoroughly fucked everyone in the country suddenly became, on all sides of the political/racial/economic spectrum. Every single character (with perhaps the exception of the shady immigration attorney) is portrayed sympathetically. The American Dream is taken to task, but the the dreamers themselves (both Wall Street tycoons and their drivers) are shown to have strength of character. If there has EVER been a moment to read a complicated immigrating-to-America narrative, this is it people. Get to it!

ng_everything i never told youAnd most recently, in anticipation of her new book, Little Fires Everywhere (which came out a few days ago), I picked up and greatly enjoyed Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You. Greatly, like I started reading it before bed one evening and finished it up the next day before dinner. Again, themes of immigration and identity are brought to the fore, but in such a complicated and nuanced way. (In fact, race in particular is SO nuanced, that it’s only toward the end of the book that the interracial couple takes a look at their life together and goes, “Now, wait just a minute…do you think these huge tensions in our marriage might in any way be related to huge racial tensions occurring in our society right now? Hmm…I wonder…”)

A Chinese-American immigrant who dedicates himself to the study of the cowboy narrative, a dissatisfied housewife who burdens her child with unfulfilled dreams, two siblings pathologically ignored by their parents, and their sister who occupies the starring role in the family. This is the quietly dysfunctional Lee family, living in a small university town in Ohio in the 1970s. The whole novel revolves around the aftermath of middle child Lydia’s death, when her body is discovered in the nearby lake, and how the family chooses to come to terms with the immensity of their loss, as well as their various forms of guilt.

As we know, any book starting out with the death or disappearance of a young female character is going to be a page-turner. That is its de facto genre. And honestly, my personal opinion of this particular conceit is that it walks the line between highly intelligent narrative structuring and cheap sleight of hand. You’re always going to keep reading, because you always want to know what the heck happened to the girl. But here, it’s necessary for the girl to start out gone, because the girl is the not so much the linchpin but more like the pin in a grenade. When she goes, her entire family explodes, and that slow explosion is what the book is about.

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