I had a professor in college, Mary Moroni, who taught Melville and Emerson, and who the once famous Norman O. Brown – her mentor – called the finest mind of her generation; a diminutive, cherubic woman in her early thirties with a resemblance to a Raphaelesque putto that was not incidental (her parents had immigrated from Urbino); a scholar of staggering erudition who quotes as easily from the Eddas and Hannah Arendt as she did from Moby-Dick; a lesbian, which I only mention because she did, often; a lecturer whose turns of phrase were sharp as a German paring knife, could score the brain’s gray matter and carve out new grooves along which old thoughts would reroute, as on that February morning two weeks after Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, when, during a class on life under early American capitalism, Mary, clearly interrupted by her own tantalizing thought, looked up from the floor at which she usually gazed as she spoke – her left hand characteristically buried in the pocket of the loose-fitting slacks that were her mainstay – looked up and remarked almost offhandedly that America had begin as a colony and that a colony it remained, that is, a place still defined by its plunder, where enrichment was paramount and civil order always an afterthought. Homeland Elegies, Ayad Akhtar, Little Brown and Company 2020
I should have seen it coming with such a first sentence. With some books you feel bad about not clicking with it; this has such positive reviews, it’s such an eye-opener etc. etc., so why am I not latching onto and never letting go?
Well, for starters the summary and the story don’t have a lot in common. There are so many descriptions of everything and everyone (the author seems to know that he does this, but still keeps doing it). And there’s much more descriptions of women’s vulvas than expected.
“Life as an American Muslim from 9/11 to Trump”. Sorta, but much more. And before as well, but not after. And very much, maybe all of it, about the author’s life. Even though there is a disclaimer about every character being fictional.
This offers insights about the (American) Muslim diaspora and ideas about the Islam which were new to me and explain some things, but there’s no clear line or plot wherever. Are these independent stories or a chronological build up? Trump might be mentioned on five of the three-hundred pages, was this a marketing decision? And why the sex diary?
But it’s “unputdownable” and by a Pulitzer-winning author, so I probably just don’t understand.
Today will be different.Today Will Be Different, Maria Semple, Little, Brown & Company 2016
Maria Semple did it before: the frazzle, the alien character in a grand, wealthy world. This time it’s not a side-character, but the main. And that gets a bit exhausting after a while.
Because what’s happening, really? Our protagonist tries to be better, for at least one day. It doesn’t work the way she wants to, but only part of that is because of reasons outside of her control.
Unlike with Bernadette (I’m just going to continue comparing here) – there is no direction here, no pay-off, not even a crooked compass. It’s Ducks with better punctuation, but with even less consideration for the person we have to feel something more than annoyance for. There are crumbs of motivation behind her behaviour, but never enough to create even a biscotti from. Instead, you just don’t care about any of the people involved.
Maybe this is Semple’s thing. Maybe I’m not finely-enough-tuned to a traumatised person’s inner-workings, maybe it was the wrong book at the wrong time.
And just like the author of Today Will Be Different I’ll let the reader decide.
I strain to listen for boots on the pavement.
Looking back after having finished this novel I realise how naive and privileged it is of me to have thought “well sometimes she’s exaggerating a bit”. Something about how we are doomed to repeat history if we don’t learn from it, etc.
In this case the lesson is ‘Do not imprison innocent people for the sole reason that their religion, skin colour and/or ancestral background is different from yours’. Shown in the Second World War, the States did it with Japanese Americans, and Samira Ahmed does it a few decades later with American Muslims. Because in Internment a president – very alike of the one the USA has right now – comes in power, and he’s much more effective in getting his racist ideas turned into actions. American Muslims are put into camps on American soil.
And just like before, there are plenty euphemisms going around. None can cover up that the camp is surrounded by barb wire, that every guard has a weapon and that any sign or sound of protest is violently taken down. Here comes my conclusion from the first paragraph in: isn’t this put down all a bit too extremely? I should know better. We all should.
It’s good that the novel is less than 300 pages, because there’s no escaping the terror the characters are put through. Not just the mental and physical torture; also the shock of seeing how fast people get used to it. Again, as we should know.
All this makes for a bitter pill that as many as possible of us should swallow.
Internment, Samira Ahmed, Little, Brown & Company 2019
Ari was hiding out in the Middle Ages.
This is a retelling of the King Arthur myth, but a lot more queer for everyone involved. It’s also a Young Adult novel, and Arthur in this case is a teenage girl (and this isn’t the only thing that’s flipped). Just in case you thought you couldn’t be surprised by that myth any more.
Capetta and McCarthy keep up the tempo, until they suddenly don’t. The evil overlords, dubious witch and wizard, the romances and family-relationships are so abruptly put on hold that I almost felt like I shouldn’t bother with the rest of the short novel. But before all that you get an entertainment park-like novel with a lot of roller-coasters and themed exhibitions.
This combined with the gender-flip, the amount of queer characters without it being turned into a fuss and/or characterisation, makes Once & Future appealing to both the fantasy/sci-fi crowd as those that will vacuum up everything related to the King Arthur myth.
Once & Future, Amy Rose Capetta & Cori McCarthy, Little, Brown, and Company 2019
Every city is a ghost.
Oh man, sometimes I’m just lucky to have a book. The first book of the series blew me away, this one -the second- easily caught up.
There’s a few new characters, a new creep and new surroundings added. But the fun, speed and adventure is still here, and I breezed through the pages once more. It’s the roaring twenties and thirties, the eye for detail without having it drag down the story.
This time there is a mysterious sleeping sickness, Diviners (and imposters) popping up around the place and terrifying metro stations. But with fun, different kind of female characters, and pizazz. I just hope I can repeat myself for the third book.
The Diviners: Lair of Dreams, Libba Bray, Little, Brown and Company 2015
In a town house at a fashionable address on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, every lamp blazes.
Yay, finally! It feels like this book has been on my list for at least five years, but because it’s 2016 and the book was published in 2012, that’s not possible. Anyway, it felt like a long time. And now I finally read it.
First of all, for ‘YA’ it’s a big novel, over 500 pages. Secondly: there’s no love triangle. Adjust to that, and add Roaring Twenties, diverse characters with diverse motivations, and a scary edge that keeps it just teen friendly enough.
Something bad is happening, and it isn’t impeding economical doom. Luckily the main characters all have some kind of power, they just have to stay alive long enough to understand it and the reason for having it.
It’s the first book of a four book series, but luckily Bray doesn’t go for huge, annoying cliffhangers to invite you to hang on. The story itself manages to do that.
The Diviners, Libba Bray, Little, Brown and Company 2012
The scene in the Garvin High School cafetaria, known as the Commons, is being described as “grim” by investigators who are working to identify the victims of a shooting spree that erupted Friday morning.
This was much more intense than I expected from a YA book. Of course, a high school shooting isn’t a happy subject, but the way this was handled, severely impressed me. Not just the characterizations, but also because there was absolutely no sugar-coating or cover ups.
The high school shooter is Valerie’s boyfriend. Several people are killed before she can intervene, only to watch him kill himself. And no-one saw it coming. But then a hate list is found, full of names, and people wonder if Valerie was in on it, if she’s a danger as well, if she’s the reason he did all this.
No-one trusts her, no-one can look at her, and Valerie is seriously doubting everything. Jennifer Brown brings all of it almost brutally close, no easy cop outs or pleasing solutions. Besides being about how horrible and destructive shootings are, it’s especially about people.
Hate List, Jennifer Brown, Little Brown and Company 2010