Privilege Meet Tragedy

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson could have easily been renamed Privilege Meet Tragedy, but it wouldn’t have been as flashy.  I received an electronic uncorrected copy of this debut novel for an honest review from NetGalley. I gave it 3 stars on Goodreads. At times I thought it could be a bit slow and verbose, but the book gives you exactly what the description says it’s going to give you – a look into the lives of wealthy teenagers who experienced a tragedy earlier in life.

I’ve mentioned how I didn’t care for Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng on this blog before; however the comparisons of this novel to it are not unfounded. Both novels exercise the use of multiple points of view in order to tell a story where only certain people hold certain information. However, unlike Ng, I thought that Johnson did a better job creating differing voices for her characters and placing useful breaks within the story to switch narration. This makes the novel easy to understand and allows the reader to gain several perspectives.

Also unlike Ng, there is no mystery in this book. After the first part of the book, the reader knows what tragedy happened while the kids were in middle school, and all the circumstances that lead up to that event. At first I enjoyed the directness of the plot layout but as the kids moved to high school, there was not a cohesive story to follow. I don’t always think it’s necessary to have a firm storyline in novels. The Interestings, A Little Life, and Water for Elephants (more on this later) are all books I enjoy that don’t have clear plot driven stories. However the blurb for this book leads the reader to believe they will get a plot driven storyline from the book.

In an idyllic community of wealthy California families, new teacher Molly Nicoll becomes intrigued by the hidden lives of her privileged students. Unknown to Molly, a middle school tragedy in which they were all complicit continues to reverberate for her kids: Nick, the brilliant scam artist; Emma, the gifted dancer and party girl; Dave, the B student who strives to meet his parents expectations; Calista, the hippie outcast who hides her intelligence for reasons of her own. Theirs is a world in which every action may become public postable, shareable, indelible. With the rare talent that transforms teenage dramas into compelling and urgent fiction, Lindsey Lee Johnson makes vivid a modern adolescence lived in the gleam of the virtual, but rich with the sorrow, passion, and beauty of life in any time, and at any age.

This blurb was interesting, which caused me to request the copy in the first place. I think my true issue with this novel is that Johnson tries to incorporate so many different characters, that there’s not adequate time to develop each of the individual perspectives. This distances the reader from the characters, and I came out of reading the novel feeling indifferent to each student’s plight.

Even though I just pointed out a lot of things that didn’t excite me about this book, I’m going to tell you now why I think you should still pick it up. Since I work with college students, I wasn’t really surprised by some of the actual events that happened in the book. However, I think a lot of people will be surprised with the challenges these kids face, especially when those teenage problems intersect with access to large sums of money. The stakes become higher and sometimes the consequences are more devastating.  I think that this was the point that Johnson was trying to explore in her novel. For her debut, that was a tall task, and ultimately I think that she was successful in proving that point.

Until Next Time World…

Very Food Insecure

I read All You Can Eat: How Hungry Is America? by Joel Berg in college. I’m not sure what made me pick up this book, but it changed the way I looked at my country and how it treats its least served populations. In this book, Berg writes about a report done on hunger in America that chooses to label people on the brink of starvation as “very food insecure”, failing to use the word starvation or starving at all. Based on this definition the protagonists in White Hunger are very, very food insecure.

White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen takes place in the late 1800s during a great famine in Finland. The book tells the story of a family trying to make their way to Russia in hope of food to survive the famine through the perspective of 4 narrators. The senator, the daughter, the mother, and the son all tell their stories that are interconnected to one great struggle. White Hunger was my fourth #manbookering read, and for a while it was my favorite. It’s not often that I read a book set in place before the western industrial revolution. That in combination of knowing almost nothing about Finland, made this book easy to engage with and hard to put down.

This book was gripping to me, because it didn’t sugarcoat the realities that these famines had on families, and particularly communities. In one of the first chapters, the family has to leave their dying father behind because he is too sick to travel and there isn’t enough food for the healthy individuals. The children are too young to really know what was going on, but are still upset about leaving their father. The mother is portrayed as strong, doing all she can to protect and provide for her family.

Although this book is set in a time period long ago, food insecurity is a real thing that people in developed AND developing countries. In the US, 48.1 million people live in food insecure households.* In Australia, 2 million people rely on food relieve services.** 1 out of 8 Canadian families struggle to put food on the table.***  When I was in college, I was passionate about food security and homelessness in the US. I once walked around for 10 minutes Washington, DC to buy the particular kind of food a homeless individual wanted. (Please note this was stupid, and I didn’t eat dinner that night.) But I think the more comfortable I’ve gotten in my life and my privileges the more I’ve forgotten about the number of starving people around the world. This book was a good reminder about how many people don’t have the luxury to forget.

*- US Hunger

** – Australian Hunger 

*** – Canadian Hunger

And The Winner Is…

Yesterday, they announced the winners of the first Man Booker International Prize for a single work fiction translated into English to The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith. For those of you who do not know, the prize of $72,000 is split equally between the author and the translator. It wasn’t a great surprise that Kang walked away with this prize, being a favorite among the shadow jury of the award, and in many reading circles. Now that manbookering is officially over for a few months before the long-list is released for the original award, let’s see how I did with the list.

  1. Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan — finished 3 stars
  2. The Four Books by Yan Lianke — finished 4 stars 
  3. A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk — currently reading
  4. The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante — been on loan forever to start the first book in the series
  5. The Vegetarian by Han Kang — finished 2.5 stars
  6. Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila — finished 2 stars 
  7. Death by Water by Kenzaburō Ōe – waiting to read more of his collection of works 
  8. Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal — finished 4 stars 
  9. Ladivine by Marie NDiaye — in my possession, reading this week
  10. A Cup of Rage by Raduan Nassar* — finished 2 stars
  11. A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler* — unavailable in the US currently
  12. White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen* — finished 4 stars 
  13. A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa* — sitting on my bookshelf 

I’m going to say – 8 out of 12* really isn’t that bad. I also can’t help that I don’t live in the UK.

Until Next Time World…

Read Harder Challenge 2016

I haven’t talked about the challenges I’m doing this year, because it’s all about reading more not necessarily completing the challenge. I do have to say I’ve done a pretty good job on this Read Harder challenge. Only 10 more books to go. 

Also – my apologies for the lack of posts. It’s hard to work, read, AND blog. I seem to be able to only master 2 of those at a time…and work always has to be one of them. 

My Hopes for the Blog

Right now I’m in the middle of reading Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. This book is a collection of essays on feminism, gender, race, and politics. Knowing my interests, I think that my readership could guess that I would probably be interested in a lot of these essays. I wasn’t really sure what to expect out of the book, but so far it’s been pretty amazing. Gay mixes her vast knowledge of fiction and nonfiction in order to create parallels to society and social norms. So far in the book, she has successfully intertwined literature, film, television, and general pop culture to create a narrative about her experiences in the United States. Even though I haven’t finished the book, and will surely devote a post to reviewing it, it’s made me stop and think about my intentions for this blog and what I want people to get out of it.

When I started blogging I wanted to be really intentional about a couple of things. I want this to be a space where I can write about books in a different kind of way. I want to paint the fictional (and non fiction) books that I read in a specific light focused on human connection and interaction. At the basis of all stories, I think there’s a commentary about our society and how we interact with others. I want to focus on highlighting those ideas and finding what books can teach us, good or bad, about ourselves.

Within this desire, I also realize that people are extremely busy. With the increase of accessibility to the internet, the widespread use of smart phones, and an almost constant inundation of information, I often find myself wanting to gather facts in the quickest amount of time, so I can move on to the next thing. Because of this, I had the idea of making each of my blog posts around 500 words. I’ve found this exercise to be one of the most challenging, yet rewarding parts of blogging so far. Finding the right words to get across my point in the most concise way is helping me become a better communicator. I have to decide what’s really important for a reader to know about this book or topic, and therefore I feel like my writing is really accessible and easier to digest.

After writing my review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, I realized that a lot of my readers might not have context on race relations in the United States. I began created a series of pages under The Issues. On these pages, I hope to link my readers to more resources and information on different salient identities so we can all be better informed and better to each other.

I’m writing this post, because I hope that people who stumble across my blog will feel as though they’re engaging in some valuable dialogue about society. I hope to make connections in a similar manner to Gay, mixing my love of literature and life to bring awareness to certain biases that we may hold. I hope that my readers will challenge me on my thought processes and give me recommendations for ways to expand my world view, because we’re all in it together.

Until Next Time World…

April Wrap Up

Yet another month down, and summer is just around the corner. I’m looking forward to warming days and no students around. This should be the first summer that I really get to relax and rejuvenate…and I am so ready. April is my birth month, and I was hoping to get a lot of good reading down. Although I feel like I had a book in my hand most days, I think I read some pretty serious novels over the course of the month which ultimately did not leave me with a high book total. I should be reading 12 books a month, but if I can get through 10 – I’m a happy camper. And as always, my favorite books of the month are highlighted in red.

  1. White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen
  2. Just One Day by Gayle Forman
  3. Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach
  4. The Four Books by Yan Lianke
  5. Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King
  6. Just One Year by Gayle Forman
  7. The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner
  8. Just One Night by Gayle Forman*
  9. The Vegetarian by Han Kang
  10. The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson
  11. The Heart (or Mend the Living) by Maylis de Kerangal

 

I’m not sure what May has in store for me. I’ve built up quite a TBR pile at my house, which makes my earlier rant about the affordability of buying books seem laughable. After I finish these next two library books, I’m going to start on these pile I’ve accumulated through friends and family.

Until Next Time World…

*You are not a book; you’re basically a short story.

On Being

I recently took the plunge and requested a book for review purposes. I was first altered to The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson from some random clicking around Goodreads, my favorite way to waste time. At the time (and frankly until I wrote this post), I thought the book was already published, but just unattainable to me. Disappointed, I tabled my quest for the book and moved on to other things. As I mentioned in an earlier review, I read Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin about a gender non-conforming teen, Riley, who was struggling to fit in at their high school. I really enjoyed the book and wanted to read more about trans* teens. I was poking around on NetGalley the other day, and I stumbled across The Art of Being Normal again. Needless to say, I requested a copy and dug right into the goodness.

Now that you’ve heard the uninteresting fable about how I actually received the arc, let’s talk about the novel. This novel is written in the alternating point of view of two characters, David and Leo. David is struggling with wanting to identify as female, hiding this from their parents but being open with friends. Leo comes from a dangerous, low income area. They have a twin sister, little sister, and an absentee mother. We know that Leo attends therapy and is transferring to a school in an affluent neighborhood, but that’s all the reader gets from the onset.

At the heart of this novel, and all YA novels, is the story of a couple of teenagers trying to figure out life in the bodies and environments in which they’ve been born. There’s an air of mystery surrounding the book, and particularly Leo’s character, which is revealed almost half way through the book, to no surprise to me given the general topic. There’s also the story of friendship that builds between Leo and David, not organically but by great effort, as a lot of close relationships do. Even though this novel’s focus is on trans* identity, it just doesn’t focus on that, it focuses on how humans live life.

There were a number of things I liked about the book that I think help its approach-ability for someone new to the topic of transitioning or gender identity. One of the first things is David’s lack of knowledge about the topic. There’s a lot of focus on how David feels and how he desperately wants to escape his body, but he’s slightly clueless as to how transitioning actually works. Although he’s done some informal research on the matter and read news articles, the language he uses in the book is sometimes wrong and awkward. I appreciated this, because it helps remind the reader that he is in fact 14. It allows it to be okay to start somewhere on your quest for knowledge; even knowledge that intimately has the ability to affect your happiness.

Another thing that was really great in this book was the environmental development. While at times I think that Williamson could have worked harder at developing Leo and David, particularly David, as characters – their settings were highly developed. It was easy for me to imagine Eden Park high school, Leo’s neighborhood in Cloverdale, and the Tripton-on-Sea inn where they spend a weekend. These environments help give life to the characters, making them feel like people you might one day meet.

Although I have a lot of positive things to say about this book and its content, I ranked it 3 stars. It’s a solidly enjoyable book that’s neither light nor heavy, which is an accomplishment given the topic and some of the events that take place. However, there are parts in the book that are simply boring. Leo is a much more developed character than David, which makes the chapters narrated by David seem to drag on and on. There are also a series of minor characters (David’s two best friends, Leo’s family) that aren’t developed at all and seem to only hold the place for some filler dialogue.

Given all of the legislative nonsense that has been occurring in the United States, this book is an encouraging read that definitely humanizes the trans* experience for people who might not have been exposed to it yet. I’d recommend it for anyone who is curious about this topic.

Until Next Time World…

 

A Man Booker Update

I haven’t updated here on my Man Booker International award journey in a while, but I’ve been plugging away. A couple of weeks ago the short list was announced. (In fact it was announced on my birthday!) Although I hadn’t made as much of a dent in the long list as I liked, I was pleasantly surprised/concerned the books I hadn’t read didn’t seem to make the list. This is a good thing, because it gave me time to read the non-short list books first. It was a bad thing, because I still felt as though I had a long way to go before I could speak intelligently about the award. 

Since I last wrote about the award, I’ve managed to finish two more books, both on the short list. The Vegetarian by Han Kang and the The Four Books by Yan Lianke were both interesting and fast paced reads, to a certain extent. In comparison to the three books I previously read off the list, I completely understand how these two books made it on the short list. I’ll post my thoughts on these novels in a different post, but in general The Four Books was amazing. The narration was fantastic and immersive and relevant to Chinese culture. The Vegetarian was also very culturally relevant, but almost to the point where I feel a lot of the story was lost on my lack of understanding about the Korean culture. 

Right now, I’m almost half way through The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal. This book has gotten increased attention and some outcry from not being included on the short list for the MBI award. Although I’m not finished, I can see why people gravitated to this novel. It’s a interesting tale of the process of organ donation and is affects on all who are involved (family members of the donor, doctors/nurses, family members of the recipients). I’ve liked what I’ve read so far, and the book has such a large social commentary that I’m sure to post a review in the near future.

Until Next Time World…

On Love and Chance Encounters

I’m a sucker for a good love story. I really am. Every since my partner brought home “If I Stay” from Redbox, I’ve instantly been a Gayle Forman fan as well. Although I haven’t found all of her stories to be the best thing I’ve ever read, they’re enjoyable and usually have a good romantic element.

I read Just One Day, Just One Year, and Just One Night over the past week, which means I’ve now read all of Gayle Forman’s YA novels. In all of her novels there’s some aspect of romance, and they all seem to be coming of age tales. (But hey – what YA novel isn’t a coming of age tale in some way.) Just One Day covers the story of Allyson or “Lulu” and Willem, college age youth, who meet randomly and spend a magical day in Paris only to be separated. It then follows Allyson as she comes to grips with that day and herself. Just One Year follows Willem where he looks for the mysterious girl “Lulu” who he left and tries to repair his broken relationships and come to grips with his family. Just One Night is the culmination of these two novels, when Willem and Allyson are reunited.

Now that I’ve gotten that short synopsis out of the way, on to the real topic of conversation today – love in entertainment. As someone who is currently in a relationship, but has spent most of my adult life single, I’ve found love and how to find a frequent topic of conversation. From Beyonce’s new docu-video “Lemonade” to the pleathora of dating “Bachelor”-esq dating shows, entertainment attempts to show us how to be in love and have relationships. In Forman’s novels love always propels the protagonist into a coming of age story where the love interest is essential to opening up the door for self-discovery. What I appreciate about this narrative is that there is self-discovery; it’s not just about the love. Forman writes complex characters who have hopes and dreams, fears and tribulations. These characters are brought alive by those who they love, but it’s not in an overt way, which I appreciation. However, I do find discomfort on what that tells us (or more specifically younger readers) about love and what it does to you.

So maybe I’m cynical and not looking for the best out of love, but I’m not so sure that love usually opens up the avenue for self-discover or self-reflection. This is partly a reflection on my own relationships and love, but I think that love is more often than not a trial. Being a fiercely independent person, it’s sometimes hard for me to successfully blend my life with another human’s. It’s hard work to figure out how to live with another person, where you’ll each go to college; who’s job search is more important; what city or town will you try to reside in; and a million more things that are supposed to be easy. I find it hopeful and ebullient to see this young characters find their love support them through the most difficult times (I mean….in Sisters in Sanity, she’s literally in some sort of psychiatric prison), but sometimes it just seems like an unrealistic example of how a relationship goes. I won’t even touch on the point that these are teenagers having these relationships. Sometimes when I come home from work, it’s hard for my partner to even understand the type of day I had, let alone rearrange his entire life to support a whim of mine (major or minor).

While I think Forman does a tip-top job making these contemporary romances have some meat to them, I still think that it’s a little shallow on showing the challenges of real relationships and their effects on the couple. Love is hard. Love when you’ve known someone for a long time is hard. Love when you first meet someone and you don’t live in the same state is hard. I wish that I read more YA books that had that message, because I think it’s a message that young adults really do need to learn.

As I wrap up this long post/rant, I encourage you to pick up a Gayle Forman book. Each story has it’s own twist, and hopefully your heart will be warmed as you follow the characters discovering themselves. And she writes awesome dialogue.

Until Next Time World…