Review: Braiding Sweetgrass

Braiding Sweetgrass, the latest from plant biologist and professor Robin Wall Kimmerer, has been on bestseller lists (and my personal TBR pile) for quite some time. And now I understand why: this book really has something for everyone.

Not since “Boys in a Boat” have I read a book where, each time I talk to someone about it, I end up talking about something different. My nerdy cousin loved Kimmerer’s descriptions of plant biology. My friend loved the relatable, simple anecdotes from Kimmerer’s life that she uses to communicate critical messages. Environmentalists and activists are using this book to spread awareness about the history of land abuse that Kimmerer outlines in the later chapters. And me? Well I loved all of that, but was especially drawn to Kimmerer’s detailing of traditional Native American cultural beliefs and practices.

And what’s really great about this book is that, even if all those things aren’t for you, Kimmerer’s writing makes it easy and interesting to learn about all these things (and more). Most importantly, I think she has written a book that simultaneously provides a dire warning and a hopeful how-to guide for getting back to a healthy relationship between humans and nature, which is something we desperately need.

Did you read it? Let me know what YOU loved about the book in the comments below!

Ready to read it? Get the book from an independent publisher by going to my affiliate bookstore at bookshop.org!

Hamnet – To Read or Not To Read?

Definitely “To Read.” There really is no question on this one. Maggie O’Farrell has done such a brilliant job in Hamnet of reimagining the life of Shakespeare and his family. I dove into this one because, as a book nerd, I was excited at the idea of a historical fiction novel based on Shakespeare, but to be honest this book is so well written, and the narrative so enticing, that I wouldn’t have been able to put it down even if it had no historical context or connection to anything. It’s just an incredible story.

However, knowing that this is a historical novel based loosely on Shakespeare added a whole extra layer of intrigue when reading Hamnet. Though it is entirely a work of fiction, I still felt like O’Farrell developed the characters in such a way that gave dignity and life to historical figures who, especially in the cases of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, and his wife, Agnes, have largely been criticized or ignored. I really enjoyed listening to Maggie O’Farrell speak to this in the New York Times Book Review Podcast, and would highly encourage anyone who finishes the book to check out the interview, to better understand O’Farrell’s reasons for making the decisions she did when writing Hamnet.

This is probably my favorite book of the year so far, so I really hope you’ll read it. When you do, be sure to let me know what you think in the comments section below!

Related Links

Use my bookshop page to find the book from an independent bookstore or publisher HERE

Listen to the New York Book Review Review Podcast with Maggie O’Farrell HERE

The Tiger’s Wife

I’ve been meaning to join an official book club for a while now, because obviously I love discussing books, and Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife is the book that has finally made me pull the trigger on that.

In other words, this is a novel I need to talk through – from the unique structure to the heavy symbolism to genre blending and cultural influences… I just have so many questions. And while some readers might find it frustrating to leave a book with questions unanswered, I personally love being asked to think critically about the various meanings hidden throughout a story.

And though I think it is certainly possible to read too much into “hidden meanings” and symbolism, Obreht’s novel blends just the right amount of clarity and ambiguity. The narrative follows three distinct, yet related stories, two of which read like local legends or fables with hints of magical realism, cultural influence, and regional history, and which shed light on the third strand of the narrative about the death of the protagonist’s grandfather.

Serendipitously, I saw that an Instagram influencer I enjoy, @fictionmatters, selected this as her July book club pick. I’ll be joining in on the discussion and may just have to come back for a part 2 to this book review! 😀

Related Links:

Get the book from an independent bookstore or publisher.

Join the Fiction Matters Patreon to become part of the book club. The Tiger’s Wife is her July pick!

Read more book reviews.

James Baldwin, “Go Tell It On The Mountain”

Having only read If Beale Street Could Talk, I’ve been eager to get to more of Baldwin’s work for a long time, and was excited to pull Go Tell It On The Mountain off the shelf. And while I have to admit that while I found Beale Street a bit more riveting of a narrative, the thematic complexity of Go Tell It On The Mountain is unmatched.

One could spend hours and hours unpacking the racial, gendered, and religious power dynamics that play out between characters in this novel – it’s the kind of book that makes you want a class or a reading group to discuss it with, the kind that prompts me to look up podcasts and articles that analyze it.

And the fact that this is a semi-autobiographical novel makes it even more troubling, painful, and powerful. The fact that it was Baldwin’s first novel makes it even more impressive.

Finally, I want to mention that although, as I’ve mentioned earlier, this wasn’t quite as spell-binding as Beale Street (I found it a little slow at times), I also want to mention that this narrative develops in a way that is really unexpected and yet, realistic. With Go Tell It On The Mountain, Baldwin once again uses his craft to offer an insightful perspective of race, religion, gender, sexuality, and class in America.

Get the book through a local or independent publisher, HERE.

The Memorable Mrs. Dalloway

I’ve been meaning to read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway for ages, and I seem to recall starting several times before putting it down a few pages in. So I was very surprised to see my handwriting in the margins throughout my copy of the book. Apparently, I had read it cover to cover, and apparently, it was all over my head in those days – judging from the notes themselves (high school me wrote down a lot of “huh?” and “umm?”), and also from the fact that I didn’t remember much about the book at all.

So as I went through this time, I had two questions in mind. First, was this book really, in fact, as memorable as a “classic” is supposed to be? And (secondly) if so, why didn’t I remember it?

And I definitely got both answers.

What this book as memorable as a “classic” is supposed to be? Yes. A resounding yes. In particular, I thought it was memorable for two main reasons. First, this book is amazing because it was clearly so ahead of its time in it’s depiction of certain subject matter, like the disturbing depiction of PTSD and negligent practices used to treat it, or the dynamics of class relations in a post-WWI society.

Secondly, I’ll never forget the fresh, modernist style employed in Woolf’s writing. I’ve heard her compared to James Joyce for her use of stream-of-consciousness, but I think that Woolf doesn’t go quite as far as Joyce, and for me it was easier to follow. Mrs. Dalloway, specifically, has a cinematic quality that I haven’t encountered in a novel before (one minute, you’re behind the camera, following a character through the park, then you pass another character on the sidewalk and turn the camera to follow them… until gradually you have an idea of all the characters, all the critical places, the ways their lives intersect). And Woolf’s fantastic style leads me to my second question.

So then, why didn’t I remember it? Well, quite simply, this is not an easy read. It was over my teenage reading level (if its being compared to Joyce, you know it’s not a piece of cake to read). Following this narrative takes a lot more focus and effort than most contemporary best-sellers, and even more than other classics written in the same era. But also, as I mentioned before, Woolf takes on some very heavy and complex themes in this book (e.g. PTSD, class, love, death, time, etc.) and she does it with extreme subtly – there are no grandiose speeches that clarify character perspectives, there are no overt demonstrations of character transformation. The reader has to read closely to pick up on these themes and Woolf’s messages related to each.

All in all, this is a lovely piece of literature and it’s no wonder to me now why it is considered by so many to be an essential work within the Western literary cannon. The last thing I’ll say is that I was inspired to read this book after learning of the A.A. Knopf publishing house’s #howhaveinotreadthis book club. In February, Mrs. Dalloway was their book club pick, and the month’s book club host was Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hours (my next read!), and you can still find the book club discussion on youtube!

Resources:
Buy the books (Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours).
#HowHaveINotReadThis Book Club discussion of Mrs. Dalloway.

Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

I’m so late to the game in getting to Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel, Homegoing. And I have to admit, it was not at all what I expected.

In a panel earlier this week, I heard an editor from a prestigious publishing house say that, when it comes to positioning a book, the publishing industry tends to pigeonhole writers into certain categories and that often, their race or heritage plays a role in creating that (often quite biased and racist) definition. I can’t help but thinkin about these comments in relation to Homegoing, given all the reviews that assert “[Toni Morrison’s] influence is palpable” (Vogue) and that Gyasi is “Carrying on in the tradition of her foremothers – like Toni Morrison […]”.

And while certainly Gyasi touches on similar subject matter to Toni Morrison, reviewers who have drawn comparisons to Alex Haley’s Roots or Chinua Achebe’s work feel more apt to me. But I would have added less-obvious comparisons to the list: the epic, intergenerational story that Gyasi has crafted so vividly and so artfully in Homegoing reminds me of Allende’s House of Spirits and even Ken Follet’s Century Trilogy (though of course, much shorter).

The reason I bother to parse out all these comparisons is because I think what Gyasi does so well in this novel (which I should say, I really enjoyed!) is create a thread between generations. And at the same time, she gives readers enough familiarity with each generation that those threads are easy to follow and you can’t help but care deeply for characters even when they appear only for a chapter or two. I found myself wondering how I could care so deeply for a character within a few short pages, and came to the conclusion that was because of this “thread” Gyasi weaves through the narrative. As with our personal ancestry or bloodlines, when we consider the events of generations past, we inherit some of their trauma and injustices, some of their pride and beliefs. It lives on within us and makes us care about that thread. I think that is an incredibly powerful and difficult message to demonstrate through literature but Gyasi, even in her debut novel, has proven herself up to the challenge.

Are you a fan of intergenerational narratives? Did you enjoy Gyasi’s 250-year-long thread? Let me know what you thought about Homegoing in the comments below.

Keep Reading:

Isabel Wilkerson’s fantastic review of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. Warning! Spoiler alert!

Finished Homegoing? Loved it? Ready for more? Try Yaa Gyasi’s latest novel: Transcendent Kingdom

Get the book.

“These Violent Delights” is More Violence than Delight

I don’t usually struggle with violence (gore, yes) – and I’ve read books a LOT more violent than Micah Nemerever’s These Violent Delights. And in fact, there are many books that deal with extensive physical/sexual abuse, neglect, and violence that I cherish deeply (Kindred; Educated; Pillars of the Earth; the list could go on endlessly). But I really struggled with the specific kind of violence in These Violent Delights, in which two young lovers decide to tie their fates together by committing a pre-meditated, violent crime.

In an afterward of the book, Nemerever acknowledges the influence of the Columbine shooting on this narrative, as well as the ensuing hysteria around teenage angst, disconnect, and desensitization to violence. Themes that, I would argue, are very important and worth addressing. And certainly these themes are addressed in the book, as well as the complex, dangerous nature of controlling relationships. However, these topics are addressed through the extensive thoughts of the two protagonists (and I do mean extensive – I would estimate that almost 90 percent of this novel is dedicated to character development and interiority), but spending several hundred pages deep in the thoughts and nuances of two angsty teenagers is not only a little exhausting, but when their angst leads to extreme and inexplicable violence without sufficiently changing them, it’s upsetting.

I’ve already mentioned that I don’t typically mind violence and I don’t mind being upset. I don’t mind extensive character development or interiority. But I do think all of these things need to pay off through some kind of illumination or revelation for the reader. That is, extensive violence and extensive interiority both need to be earned, warranted. Yet, when we come to the end of this book (no spoilers, don’t worry) I feel that the level of character transformation and revelation are too subtle to warrant the level of violence and extensive narration required to get there. That is, I didn’t feel any different about the characters, their mental health, or their actions after 450 pages as I did after 50.

All in all, this isn’t a book I would recommend to most readers simply given the slow pace and high level of violence, nor would I suggest it to my most literary friends (even those not deterred by “slow” or “violent) because while the narrative touches on important themes, I’m not convinced there is a needle in this haystack worth searching for.

The Vanishing Half: An Example of Effortlessness

After finishing Brit Bennet’s The Vanishing Half, I’m totally struck by how effortless this story felt. This novel follows several generations of a single family through many cities and across decades, as they grapple with secrets and struggles, and yet I was never once lost or bored. If that’s not good story-telling I don’t know what is. And what’s even more, Brit Bennet does something even more impressive: she laces this gripping narrative with truly profound messages and themes, in such a subtle way that they never beat the reader over the head, but leave us reflecting long after the last page.

The Vanishing Half centers around two twin sisters, Desiree and Stella, who unexpectedly part ways in their teen years. For years, the cause of that separation remains a mystery to everyone but Stella, until Desiree’s daughter (Jude) accidentally uncovers her secret. But at the same time, she complicates so many key themes of the book: the meaning of family, race in America, and the power of secrets (among others). Along the way, Bennet introduces a truly diverse cast of characters, each as convincing and relatable as the next, and most with their own difficult backstory and desires (e.g. a gentle, loyal bounty-hunter who falls for Desiree; a loving, transgender friend who becomes Jude’s boyfriend, etc.). One feels, while reading that no character is denied the humanity and space on the page that they deserve. And the speed to which we flip page after page attests to Bennet’s effortless writing.

If you’re just looking for a good read, this is it. But if you’re looking for a thought-provoking book that will inspire great reflection and conversation, this is also it. Brit Bennet has truly created an effortless, beautiful piece of art with this novel and, in my opinion, deserves all the praise and accolades going her way.

Get the book.

Learning to Read with George Saunders

This time two years ago, I was wrapping up the finishing touches on my thesis to complete my Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction. At the time, I thought I’d gained a deeper knowledge of what it takes to effectively write a story (a novel, a screenplay, a poem, etc.). But from a distance of two years, I look back now and think that what I really gained, was the ability to read a story more effectively.

Now, I think there is a lot of overlap between what it takes to read well and what it takes to write well, but I also think writing well is dependent on reading well. And what George Saunders does in his newest book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is help readers read better. By dissecting stories from four Russian authors, he helps us to better understand the ways a good story works. What is it about a story that compels us to keep reading? And yes, through that close reading, Saunders is subtly teaching us about writing, too – about plot, characterization, story structure.

At times, Saunders offers some insightful writerly advice based on his own journey, practices, and studies. But for me, the value of this book is really that it forces us to slow down, to read more closely, and to consider the work we’re doing as we read. And in that sense, I think Saunders achieves his goal of providing “a master class in writing, reading, and life.”

Review: “Luster”, by Raven Leilani

I have a hard time not finishing books. In theory, I’m in favor of putting a book down if it doesn’t work for you, but in practice I usually finish. And I finish because 99% of the time, I find that something memorable comes from a novel, be that a lesson in craft, an unforgettable scene, a fresh character or a important message, something.

At first, despite Leilani’s effortless writing style, I wasn’t sure about the cool, remote voice and I felt myself struggling to relate to any character in the book. In fact, I was cringing at the protagonist’s every move or decision (Don’t do that in the office. Don’t text back.) and most of the time I couldn’t sympathize with her as she struggled with the consequences of her actions. I should also note here that I’m not typically drawn in by romance or promiscuity (you won’t find me up late, reading page after page to see if he’ll call her back)…if that’s you, you’ll be sold on page 1.

And yet. Gradually, I was drawn into the weird relationships that Leilani creates in her novel (brief synopsis: twenty-something moves in with the family of her lover, a forty-something in an open marriage), and the ways that subtle shifts in those relationships speak VOLUMES about so many huge themes and motifs: family, power, sex, love, race, and especially, art.

Over the past few weeks, I find myself thinking about this novel so much more than I ever would have anticipated when reading those first few pages, and what I find myself thinking about is art and artists. As Leilani’s characters slowly learn to understand each other an themselves – an understanding that manifests itself in the protagonist’s many paintings – Luster forces the reader to (re)evaluate the purpose of art and perhaps more than anything, what it means to to see oneself as an artist.

This book pulled me in and kept me reading. And I’m so glad I did, because it’s stuck with me for weeks. If that’s not a good story, I don’t know what is.

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