Monday, April 20, 2020

Catching Up: Great Fiction Reads

I have gotten really behind with my book reviews, and it's hanging over my head! So in this post and the upcoming ones, I will attempt to catch up with what I've read in the past several months. First, a fiction roundup!

The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood

Judging from some of the reviews on Goodreads, many readers believe that this sequel to The Handmaid's Tale was unnecessary, similar to what they said about To Kill a Mockingbird. A writer always takes a huge risk writing a sequel to a beloved, highly acclaimed novel. Even when they write a different type of book (e.g., JK Rowling writing A Casual Vacancy after Harry Potter), they are skewered in the reviews because it was not what readers expected. I find that reaction to be tiresome!

I actually really liked The Testaments and found it to be a suitable conclusion to The Handmaid's Tale, and it complemented the Hulu series well. The story takes place 15 years after the founding of Gilead, and it is told from the perspectives of three different people, including Aunt Lydia. If you prefer endings that are unresolved, stay away from The Testaments. If you'd like to see a resolution for Offred and others, and get some hope, read this sequel.

Sweet Bean Paste, Durian Sukegawa

I loved this sweet story of Sentaro, an ex-con who runs a doriyaki shop, and Tokue, a woman who has Hansen's disease, otherwise known as leprosy. Although I lived in Japan in the late 1980s, I was not aware that people with leprosy were isolated in sanitoriums and not allowed to mingle with the public until 1996. Japan was one of the last developed countries to quarantine leprosy patients for life. Tokue was wise and resilient in spite of lingering discrimination and prejudice, and Sentaro's life was so much richer for his relationship with her. She shared her friendship so freely in spite of the way people treated her. I discovered recently that this book has been made into a movie (available on Kanopy), which I look forward to watching.

On the Come Up, Angie Thomas

I love Angie Thomas, author of The Hate U Give, especially after having her seen her in person when she was promoting this novel. On the Come Up is about Starr Carter, who has a true gift for rap, taking after her dad who was gunned down in the streets. She traverses a world of gang violence and school, where she feels like she can never get ahead. She's damned if she tells her truth through rap, and she's damned if she doesn't. Generally not drawn to rap because of the misogny in much of it, I now have a much greater appreciation for the art of hip hop. It is poetry, and rappers are gifted artists, even if I don't always like what they are saying. I will read everything Angie Thomas writes.

Women of Juarez, Sam Hawken

After seeing the gripping play "La Ruta" at the Artist's Repertory Theater in November, I was determined to read more about the missing and dead women of Ciudad Juarez. That's how I found The Dead Women of Juarez, a gut-wrenching, dark story narrated by a washed-up addict American boxer Kelly Courter who is love with a Mexican woman, Paloma, and gets wrapped up in organized crime and drug dealing. It's difficult to read, violent, and sad, but I would expect nothing less given that it's about the feminicide in Ciudad Juarez, one of Central America's great tragedies of this century. This book stuck with me for a very long time.

A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Backman

It took me a while to appreciate Ove and like him as a character. I don't have a lot of patience for curmudgeons who only like things to be done a certain way and who can't abide change. I appreciated the way Backman gradually peeled the layers back on Ove's character, so we could understand what contributed to his difficult personality. In the end, I was cheering for him along with all the other readers.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Erika L. Sanchez

As a Mexican-American girl, Julia feels that she can never measure up to her sister Olga, now dead. She does not feel loved by her grief-stricken, stressed-out parents, and as an adolescent, she's actually not very lovable at times. As she unravels the love-hate relationship she had with her "perfect" sister Olga, she also unravels the truth of Olga's life. She wasn't as perfect as everyone thought.

I chose this book as the first in a series of "Voices from the Margins" for a book group I led. This is a strong young adult novel about contemporary Mexican-American girlhood and an easy read.

Before We Were Yours, Lisa Wingate

Before We Were Yours is based on the Tennessee Children's Home Society, a horrible case in which director Georgia Tann kidnapped and sold children. Always fascinated by historical cases like this, I was gripped by this story.

I did find one of the main characters, Avery Stafford, to be supremely annoying. This was one of these southern books I felt really lacked understanding or awareness of race (like The Help). For example, one scene takes place in a slave cabin...and the characters (and presumably, the author) didn't seem to see any parallels between all the Black children that were kidnapped and sold...a far bigger scandal than the Tennessee Children's Home Society. This lack of awareness tainted the book for me.

The Satapur Moonstone, Sujata Massey

The Satapur Moonstone is another great book by one of my favorite authors, Sujata Massey! The second in her Perveen Minstry series, The Satapur Moonstone follows up The Widows of Malabar Hill. As Bombay's only woman lawyer, Perveen is given special access to women in purdah. Set in 1922, this adventure takes Perveen up into the remote mountains, where she acts as a liaison between the royal family, beset by tragedy, and the British agent there. I read everything Massey writes, whether it takes place in Japan or India, and I'm never disappointed! Minstry is a strong, independent, and bright professional woman in a man's world, and she bristles against British colonial rule and patriarchal traditionalism while knowing she must be careful to not be too obvious about her views, lest she lose clients. I look forward to the next book in the series.

The Great Alone, Kristin Hannah

Compulsively readable, The Great Alone is about a family who ventures off to the wilds of Alaska, completely unprepared, and once there, is forced to face the demons of PTSD, domestic violence, and mental illness. I really enjoy Kristin Hannah's writing, and this book was hard to put down. It reminded me of Jon Krauker's Into the Wild...a man who doesn't fit into the Lower 48, seeking his fortunes and answers in the wilds of Alaska. Not an easy book to read, though, because of the domestic violence.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson

Most people know Shirley Jackson for her short story, "The Lottery," like me. From what I've read about Jackson, she was a fascinating, quirky person. This short novel fits that description as well. It's the story of two sisters, Mary Catherine and Constance, who appear to be agoraphobic and highly unusual. Their family has been struck by great tragedy. Jackson brilliantly unravels the mystery, one layer at a time. Spooky, mysterious, weird...another book group choice by my friend Katie. This is a great example of why I like being in a book group...I had never even heard of this book, and Katie had read it as a y oung person. I liked it!

My oldest son, Christopher, just watched Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House" on Netflix, and liked it. Adding it to my list!

The Sun Is Also a Star, Nicola Yoon

The Sun Is Also a Star was another young adult read I chose for the "Voices from the Margins" book group, and all of us enjoyed this day in the life of a Jamaican-American girl, Natasha, whose family was due to be deported. She meets a romantic, idealistic Korean-American boy, Daniel, whose views of the world sharply contrasted with her own science- and reality-focused beliefs. As children of immigrants, both Daniel and Natasha are far more American than their parents, and certainly far more American than Jamaican or Korean.

This is the kind of book that makes you almost cringe at the number of coincidences...but outside of that, I loved it. It reminded me a bit of The Fault in Our Stars, but the immigrant even more interesting.

“I don't believe in love."
"It's not a religion," he says. "It exists whether you believe in it or not.”
― Nicola Yoon, The Sun Is Also a Star

The Power, Naomi Alderman

This book blew my mind. The Power is a dystopian novel, imagining what it would be like if women had a course of power running through their collarbone, capable of great strength and power. I read it for my book group, and it produced an outstanding discussion.

Some found the book to be highly disturbing (there is a great deal of violence), and all of us found it incredibly creative and thought-provoking.

As women, we would like to think that if we were in power, the world would be a more compassionate, gentle, and civilized place. This book turns that theory on its heel...but as I argued in our book group, the women who were most likely to use their power for harm were the ones who had been horribly abused by men or male power structures. So it's not an apple-to-apple comparison. The book lays bare the broad, damaging effects of the patriarchy, and does it in sometimes subtle, sometimes overwhelming ways. This book will stick with me for a very long time, much like The Handmaid's Tale. It's actually an antithesis to The Handmaid's Tale.

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