This is a family memoir, and links several story pieces together more cohesively than almost any novel I've re...moreThis book is so wonderful. I loved this!
This is a family memoir, and links several story pieces together more cohesively than almost any novel I've read in ages. It's beautifully done. Partly it is about the author's growing up in Haiti at her uncle's house, before moving to the U.S. at twelve to be with her parents (c. 1980). And partly it is a chronicle of the year that her father and uncle died, and in which she gave birth to her first child (c. 2004). Each of these pieces is a worthwhile story in itself, but there is a darker pull that drew her to write about it all together, which is explained outright in the book's description: the circumstances of her uncle's death in the custody of U.S. Homeland Security.
It's impossible to discuss the book without eventually addressing what happened to Joseph Dantica. But first I feel the need to point out that the content of this book is just about 10% injustice, 5% history lesson, and 85% love, love, love. Edwidge Danticat loves her family so much, and she tells us so many things about the comfort and fun and happiness of belonging to them, it makes us care a lot and understand a lot about them personally. After reading this book, I love her family, and I'm, you know, a stranger to them.
The structural outline of this book is crazy and fun. She jumps back and forth through loops in the timeline every which way, and sometimes branches off into folktales or someone else's memory from decades back. It's a total ramble that she's totally in control of. Her childhood recollections are vivid, even when the circumstances are stark. Haiti at that time was, of course, a poor and often dangerous country, but Edwidge seems to have missed the "worst" of the violence and poverty that would affect her neighbors. Her uncle remembered the U.S. occupation of his childhood, and in his final days he was driven away by rebels from his neighborhood. But in between he and his wife ran a church and school, and helped to raise several young people (only one of them their own child) in what I keep wanting to say appeared to be a happy childhood, although there are plenty of tough stories here. But it isn't evoked in a way that is bleak. It's life. The author seemed to enjoy and be awed by her family as a little girl, with a warm care that the reader begins to share.
However, there is an edge, an imbalance that it seems she can barely glance at. Though waiting comfortably, the author and her brother still waited for eight years — until she was twelve — to be able to join her parents after they moved to New York City. That's a long time. That's a whole childhood. Her parents had two more children in those years, and managed only one visit back home (their immigration story is an interesting time capsule) before Edwidge and her brother were finally allowed to go. And then, snap, they were gone. Exhilarating; wrenching.
For the record: this kind of thing blows my mind, and I would dearly love to read a whole book just about that, if the author would write one. (FWIW it appears she came nearest to it in Breath, Eyes, Memory and in a lesser-known YA novel, both of which I plan to read.) Edwidge's own transition to post-immigration life is not covered in depth in this book, which made me sad because I have a lot of feelings, and it's just something I care to hear about. Our New York City contains so many millions of immigrant tales, and not of the "Ellis Island" kind but the "people who got here yesterday" kind. I think everybody who lives here should care about them, and I find it really important, but I acknowledge it was not essential to the rest of this book right here, only me.
Instead, the timeline mostly advances to her adulthood in 2004, when she learns (on the same day, no less) that her father is dying of a pulmonary disease, and also that she's pregnant. And then, when her uncle comes to visit… In the beginning of the book, she says, "This is an attempt at cohesiveness, and at re-creating a few wondrous and terrible months when their lives and mine intersected in startling ways, forcing me to look forward and back at the same time." I loved this introduction, and I feel I understand her all the more for it and her own meaning for the book.
There are all kinds of ways to dwell on how horrible the way that her uncle Joseph died was. I don't really want to lay them all out in a review here, because it's sad, and for most the facts will speak for themselves. The main reason I won't go into it, though, is that the author herself refrains. She shows the restraint of an artist in cataloging the injustices he experienced after being detained by immigration at the airport in Miami, and she leaves many of the more emotional messages inferred, unsaid. While you could write a whole book about those few days, she doesn't. Because of how well she has permitted us to know these people in the book that she did choose to write, we are able to understand them deeply as this very fucked-up thing goes on, and worry for their fears and feelings ourselves.
Actually, I partly take back something I said in my last review — judging by this book, maybe it is possible to write a natural-sounding narrative based on the account of a formal government report. This author, of course, had benefit of interviewing personal contacts (her cousin and their lawyer) who were present during portions of the events, but overall the story sounds measured and real, including the parts that were clearly primarily based on details gleaned from the Freedom of Information Act. It's well done and hard to do.
I believe this is the first book by Edwidge Danticat that I've read, though I've certainly read something before, because I've known her name since she showed up in my curriculum in a memoir class my first semester of college. That was several years before the events of this one, so I do not know what we read. A short essay, I think? About her hair, maybe, and perhaps one of her brothers? But I clearly don't remember. I'm eager to know her better, and I love so much that she lets us.(less)
I don't remember much about this one, but I think it's really interesting to write about the post-college ick of life. While this is a "romantic"-ish...moreI don't remember much about this one, but I think it's really interesting to write about the post-college ick of life. While this is a "romantic"-ish comedy, it's also about that, and I think I'd appreciate that all the more with a revisit.
I read this originally out of a copy of the collection that everyone seems to have, which I don't any more. I read it more than once, but it was defin...moreI read this originally out of a copy of the collection that everyone seems to have, which I don't any more. I read it more than once, but it was definitely more than ten years ago.(less)
From what I remember, this was a really well-balanced book with the right amounts of celebrity anecdotes (e.g. Ethel Merman being insane), crazed show...moreFrom what I remember, this was a really well-balanced book with the right amounts of celebrity anecdotes (e.g. Ethel Merman being insane), crazed show-must-go-on last-minute creative-genius anecdotes (e.g. "Comedy Tonight"), insider narratives on how the shows almost went (e.g. the original "Being Alive"), plus hard-to-come-by details about his generally reserved personal life (spoilers: he is a cranky pants, sometimes with rather young boyfriends). It's also made a useful reference book during the occasional post-theater debate, if you're in the right company to have them. With all the enthusiasm of Finishing the Hatters recently, I'd expect the same audience would love this. (If they don't already have it.)
I definitely did love it years ago when I read it, but I was mainly doing so through the happy-colored lenses of "I wonder if Stephen Sondheim and I would be friends? DUH OF COURSE WE WOULD BE FRIENDS! We're so alike!" (Hindsight: um, no, we would not really be friends; we are not really alike!)
I remember spending a lot of time reading this in the house of my high school's theater, during a stagecraft class where there was never anything to do. I thought I'd get to hang out with theater people, but no cigar. Hung out with Steve instead. (And sometimes Tennessee.)(less)
I love the concept behind this, and most of all, I love the Katherine Paterson piece in the beginning, which I've reread several times. It is perfect...moreI love the concept behind this, and most of all, I love the Katherine Paterson piece in the beginning, which I've reread several times. It is perfect that this is a thing.
I think I wasn't as invested in every single piece, overall? But that's okay. Maybe someday I will revisit them all.(less)
This was so wonderful, please love this book with me.
I'm having a soft spot lately for YA that the author sets back in the decade they grew up in. (T...moreThis was so wonderful, please love this book with me.
I'm having a soft spot lately for YA that the author sets back in the decade they grew up in. (The other one coming to mind is In Zanesville, which opened a door to a bunch of memoir-novels for me.) This book is definitely fiction, but it is set in 1987 and written with the details of the world the author lived with as a kid.
There are so many pieces to this story: June is grieving her uncle Finn. June's family is dealing with their feelings about him dying of AIDS. They have this painting he made for them which may be worth a lot of money, but it's complicated. June begins a secret friendship with Finn's boyfriend. And June's older sister is going through some crisis that is throwing everything way off.
Each one of these things is important, but the main thread is certainly June's grief for her uncle. He was her person, who understood her and loved her really well. So what this loss does is help us readers understand who she is. She's fourteen, and hasn't grown into teenagerdom yet — she feels the feelings but still reacts like a young kid. She is in that era where she is starting to understand how strong her feelings are, but not understand that other people also feel them. To her, they are private and nervous and unique, and when someone suggests that they may understand what she feels, she cannot bear to be known so raw. And she can't bear that such big feelings might be common.
She craves adult love but doesn't have a role for it, yet. Part of June's healing her grief for Finn comes from exposing the uncomfortable idea that she was perhaps too in love with her uncle, and this discomfort highlights the way that maturity corrupts really honest feelings had in youth. She wanted Finn to love her more than anyone, and there is a dark innocence there. I thought this was wonderful, because I could completely understand where it was coming from. When I was June's age, I would sometimes fall asleep squeezing my pillow tight, imagining that someone was embracing me back with a deep, appreciative love. And in my imagination, more often than picturing a boyfriend holding me, being in love with me, I would just picture someone who loved me. An imaginary person who loved me more than anyone. I think this is exactly how people transition the need to be loved from childhood longings into adult ones — being gutted by the need to be so special to someone.
This innocence becomes ridiculously complicated once Finn's boyfriend Toby shows up in June's life. She never knew of him before (which gets explained in pieces throughout the novel), but Finn wanted them to help each other grieve after he was gone, so they get in touch. And not coincidentally, Toby is also ill with AIDS, and his clock is ticking. This thread could've gotten really saccharine, but it's way better than that, because Toby is sort of a dingbat? I don't know. He is a wonderful guy and makes poor decisions constantly, so you never really know where this is going. I don't think he's ever known a child before. He wants her to hide their meetings from her parents, he gets her smoking, he gets her drunk, he drives around without a license, he asks her to drive. It all… makes sense, in a way, but is completely wrong. He's fine really, but much in the same way that June feels the need to keep her love for her uncle wrapped up and private… this is a too easily corruptible idea, and it is clearly going to blow up eventually.
And I was gobsmacked by the way that it did. You're wrong if you think you can imagine how this book will end.
But, so, all of June's relationships get thrown up in the air. Who has the right to love someone the most? How do we fit people into hierarchies in our hearts? There are so many feelings about inclusion and secrets and types of love that June has to rip open and confront, and it is really super important for her to do it. One of the things that makes this an interesting coming of age story is in seeing her having to deal with the resistance she gets from adults. It would be easier if they didn't have to confront all those things she is dredging up, actually. But June cannot grow up if they don't.
The presence of AIDS in the story is an interesting one. June's family experiences a ton of fear and discomfort over it. They still worry about catching it, from kisses, from cups. They wonder if Toby can be tried as a murderer. They are embarrassed by the notoriety, and horrified by the loss. It just seems like bad luck, to them, that Finn had to live this way and be in the path of the disease. There is a really quietly sad scene where they're just watching the news as a family, and a story comes on explaining that the AZT drug will be released to the public soon, and they all have to turn the tv off and leave the room and can't talk about it. They feel bitterness and loss in equal measure.
Some things are incredibly important to the story but unfold so slowly, it almost feels like spoilers to talk about how they unwind. There is a painting of June and her sister that Finn painted just before he died, which somehow unfurls and then ties up like six threads in the story, the more we find out about it. (It is also where the book's title comes from, and was maybe my favorite part of the whole thing.) And the very relationship between June and her sister that is depicted there, which is this hard-to-figure-out gamut from antagonists to allies, develops sad and scary edges that eventually demand June's attention, demand our attention.
Also just need to shout out how squeeingly brilliant it was to invent a potential boyfriend-ish for June (who spends much of her time pretending that she is in the Middle Ages) who comes on to her by asking her to play DnD.
The writing is gorgeous, too. I was highlighting constantly, so I could save some of my favorite quotes on my computer after I returned the book to the library. I'm really glad I read this, and I recommend it to everybody who has ever had a feeling.(less)
You can tell when you read this that it's a heavyweight of short stories. Its flow is smooth and strong and evocative, and tight with realism that put...moreYou can tell when you read this that it's a heavyweight of short stories. Its flow is smooth and strong and evocative, and tight with realism that puts you in the room. The characters surprised me as they opened up into people. And I did like reading it. It has a high artistic plane, though, that didn't really excite me as it seems to usually do for other people.
I knew this was a story about a jazz musician on drugs, but really it is about brothers, from the perspective of the musician's much older brother whose life is very, very well together except when it isn't. He's a schoolteacher with a nice family who's tried to look after his brother all his life. But he still lives in the projects in Harlem, his baby girl has just died, and his brother has just gone to jail. He wants to believe he is better, but it's lonely up there. It's relatable, and a really interesting place to tell the story from. Sonny the musician is wonderful, sweet and vulnerable and not hard at all like I expected to find; he's soft and hurt. The drug abuse is almost incidental to the goings on, and I think that actually bothered me.
I like when the relationship and back story are the most important in a story, but there was missing the other big thing to weigh them against. They said it was big, critical, doomed, but didn't make a case why. Ultimately there is a connection made through music, and a great scene is written about it. I think a lot of readers find this very beautiful, the description of the emotions that music renders, what jazz feels like, how it transcends and connects this brother to brother. I could see how well it works. But still, for me, it almost didn't.(less)
The more I thought about this after I read it, the better I liked it. That isn't a typical pattern for me, but I love when it happens.
It's written in...moreThe more I thought about this after I read it, the better I liked it. That isn't a typical pattern for me, but I love when it happens.
It's written in a very distant third-person voice. Nothing you learn about Paul comes from him. His actions are very, very guarded. When the plot takes the turn 2/3 of the way in, and Paul has actually gone and done something, and something entirely unexpected, it's surprisingly riveting. It's such a huge mistake, an he had my heart for it.
This story gets read a lot as being about repressed sexuality, which it might be, but it really just reads to me like it is about repression in general. I don't really care why Paul and his town reject each other, I just see how difficult the situation is. The people around Paul almost want him to fall, even though he's just a young teenager. And he is constantly poised to try and prove how much he doesn't care, how much better off he is without them. (Even though he is still right there, not away from them at all.) He's just lying, all around.
His swings through depression are awful and sad. His night in the rain, after he follows the singer, and decides he can't go home, but doesn't have anywhere else to go, so he does go home but spends the night in the freaking basement, it's terrible.
It seems to also be read as being about money, which he makes a grasp for at the end, and it seems like it's what makes him happy, and that his trouble starts when he runs out of it. I don't think that's right, though: I think it's about the artificiality he is obsessed with. He loves the controlled perfection of theater. He goes to a hotel, for goodness sake, and what is more artificial (and stagey) than that. The means he's using are artificial, the way he's acting is artificial, and of course, all of this feels like it sets him free from what he's trying to escape. But escapes don't work like that.
Unfortunately, I knew how it ended before I read it, because I added it to Goodreads first, which shows it included in the (view spoiler)["Suicide" (hide spoiler)] book group right up on the top of the page. DOH. Hate that.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Well, I do really like winning Early Reviewers books. Unfortunately, I really didn't like reading this one.
These essays are almost unbearably dry. Not...moreWell, I do really like winning Early Reviewers books. Unfortunately, I really didn't like reading this one.
These essays are almost unbearably dry. Not like Hugh Laurie is dry, but like Prohibition was dry. It reads a little like someone writing a college paper. (How to fill up another half a page? Let me restate my themes.) Other times the level of detail is like reading someone's journal. You always think you want to read someone's journal, but really, it's boring.
Generally, there is a problem with artistry. He dumps in quoted dictionary definitions more than once, in order to state, this describes me perfectly. Which may be accurate, but the problem is that there's nothing at all literary about that. Why write it? Why mention it if you don't want to say anything about it yourself? He also block quotes extensively from friends' emails, which just seems weird, in order to sort of back up what he's been saying. It's like he's challenging us: See?
The central story about his friend who has died is the nicest one, and I did like reading it. It even had a line that struck me: "With an inner shudder of tenderness, I recognized the squalid surroundings framed in the snapshot." Not all of the writing makes so much sense, though. Sometimes, even when he's explaining something, he states the obvious to a stultifying degree. "Our sadness was for a lost friend, or boyfriend, whose memory also had become intertwined with nostalgia for our youth, who was frozen in our minds in our teenage years in New York in the seventies and eighties." What is this, SEO?
A lot of this book is about his troubles and fears in his very bad neighborhood growing up, when the East Village (around Avenue C) was in terrible shape and filled with drug crime. I confess, I was impressed by the photos of blocks of rubbled apartment buildings in the area. I didn't imagine it so drastically. As a kid, he was mugged there about once a year, though he makes it sound like it was every day. I'm sure it was really scary every day, but something about his approach to explaining his feelings about this just makes you want to nitpick. Somehow what he's written sounds ignorant and defensive, as if we won't believe him -- which, makes a reader want to doubt him.
Also? The perspective is a little bit racist. Not every reader may agree with that, but I wasn't super comfortable. I recognize it is sensitive to describe facts involving race, like the environment in which you live and the descriptions of people who attacked you. I don't think it's wrong to write about or specify, but I suppose I just don't like the way Karlen does so. At best, he mentions non-white people at an arms-length separation, and at worst makes it sound like really it would be nicer for him if their culture didn't exist at all, because it scares or alienates him. They're not all gangsters of course, but he would just be more comfortable if they weren't all speaking other languages, or playing music with horns in it. How do they think that makes him feel?
There are some other really unflattering stories, like the one about his first girlfriend -- which I liked, until it got all stalkery -- and the one about being a surly tourist in Peru. The thing is, he tells these stories with some perspective, such as saying he made a mistake or had a bad attitude. But there isn't much more framing than that. He isn't acknowledging how that impacted anything, and so I'm figuring he's not too interested. For such a self-described artist, punk, and bohemian, this man sounds so unenlightened. Why do I feel more enlightened than him? He's the author of this book. What's wrong here?
There is a funny element wherein he reminisces at length about Homer's diner (in the 1980s), which used to be across from my school (in the 2000s). Meg and I discovered it during our sophomore year, I think, and spent a lot of lunch breaks there, and then when we came back junior year, it had closed over the summer and we felt like we'd let it die while school was out. I think it was junior year. See: if I was the author, I would write now about, why don't I remember what year it was? How funny that so many years go by and all I remember are the cheese blintzes that were the bad kind you could get frozen at the grocery store, but I don't remember what we were saying or what we were wearing. How many other cheese blintzes have I forgotten? I left my office and stumbled out into the rain to Sixth Avenue, driven to revisit the block where the restaurant had stood, not knowing what I was seeking, finding only an upscale bistro where once I had sat in my thrifted clothing. Memory makes you remember.
There's just many weirdly elementary conclusions of this kind. The opening piece almost did me in. Did you know the 1960s can be defined in many ways, but particularly by the Beatles? It's... true. In another one, the comparison, "as though they were lining Times Square temples devoted not to Apollo or Bacchus, but to Mars or Ares." To... the...? MARS AND ARES ARE THE SAME ONE. OMG seriously. "Where were the heathen pageants and orgiastic fertility dances?" I... it hurts.
However. Another star, because some of this is genuinely thoughtful, and Karlen cares about what he's saying. And because I like New York so much, I like the Village, I like the period and what details Karlen can offer of it. I like people's struggles with memory in general and NYC's constant, unsettled changes in particular. They're rich conflicts for a book. And I will be very happy to read another, different book about them, by somebody else, also. (less)