If we had jazz, would we have survived differently? If we had known our story was a blues story with a refrain running through it, would we have lifte
If we had jazz, would we have survived differently? If we had known our story was a blues story with a refrain running through it, would we have lifted our heads, said to each other, This is memory again and again until the living made sense? Where would we be now if we had known there was a melody to our madness (1-2)?
If a novel and a poem had a child, it would be this book—brief, beautiful, and biting--both sad and celebratory. I read it in one sitting and it just made me hurt. The piece defies easy plot summary because it is more like a song, beginning in one place and moving back and forward in time. The singer or the composer of this song is the narrator, August, a woman in her 30’s, an academic who has recently returned home to help bury her father. A chance encounter with an old friend on the subway sends her thoughts back in time to Brooklyn in the 1970’s.
These memories involve everything from the feelings of dislocation, having just moved to Brooklyn from Tennessee with her father and brother, to watching the crazy and fascinating swirl of life happening on the street down below their apartment window. These memories also focus on August’s friendship with three other young women—Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi—that develops over time. It’s a female coming of age story where growing up is a combination of boldness and fear, possibility and limits, support and betrayal.
Fragmented but vivid, Woodson’s short bursts of prose create strong images that linger and haunt. I recommend this book highly and I’m eager to read her earlier book, Brown Girl Dreaming, that is sitting on my shelf waiting for me. ...more
During this last post-election month, I feel like my emotions are out of control and too close to the surface. Case in point, I was doing a first listDuring this last post-election month, I feel like my emotions are out of control and too close to the surface. Case in point, I was doing a first listen of my copy of the Hamilton Mix-Tape the other morning while making breakfast and basically was misty eyed during the whole first half. Songs about immigrants and rising up and writing your way out of bad circumstances hit close to home (and I’m a middle-aged white lady so I can only imagine how this CD resonates with other folks in my community).
What does all this have to do with The Sun is Also a Star? Everything. This young adult story of first love and poor timing by Nicola Yoon would have hit me hard as a teen but it hits me hard now as an adult, full of fear and hope in equal measure. It’s the story of Daniel and Natasha, both immigrants to New York, who meet by chance and by chance, I mean a million small decisions and accidents lead to their first interaction. Daniel is the second son of Korean immigrants and parental expectations weigh heavily on him. He is supposed to go to Yale and become a doctor though he dreams of becoming a poet. Natasha, originally from Jamaica, has lived in New York City for over a decade with her family. Though Natasha’s family originally came to accompany her dad while he established a theatre career, things did not work out as planned. Their visas expired, Natasha’s father’s career never happened, and now many years later, they are being deported. Natasha cannot believe she is being sent back to a country she feels she hardly knows.
On Natasha’s last day in the United States, she meets Daniel. He is on his way to an admissions interview with a representative from Yale; she is going to the USCIS (United States Citizen and Immigration Services) building in Manhattan to try to make a last-ditch effort to help her family stay in the U.S. I’ll leave the details of how they first cross paths for you to enjoy when you read this but it’s both mysterious and believable and because this is a love story told over the course of a day, they don’t continue to miss each other in A Next Stop Wonderland way.
Natasha and Daniel take turns telling the story but Yoon also interweaves other perspectives and histories—that show other stories of connection and disconnection spinning around them. This is a novel of love but it’s also about immigration, hopes and dashed dreams, family, isolation, the power of connection and kindness, and how the happiness of one couple can be rooted in the pain of another.
Needless to say, the end of the book made me cry, and I was better for it. ...more
I have mixed feelings about this novel but I blame it on the election. So, I picked up The Nix from my college’s library (No fines for faculty for ovI have mixed feelings about this novel but I blame it on the election. So, I picked up The Nix from my college’s library (No fines for faculty for overdue books! No fines! No fines!) back in late October after reading a couple of reviews and hearing the author on NPR (I can’t remember which program). It seemed like it could be a sprawling, intriguing mess, in the vein of The Goldfinch, which I enjoyed. However, it took me over a month to finish this, partly because I went through a period where I couldn’t read anything but New York Times and Washington Post articles and despairing Facebook posts by Dan Rather and Robert Reich. Then when I could pick up a book again, I was distracted by some YA fare, including the amazing The Sun is Also a Star.
On the surface, there was a lot to like about this novel, which reminded me of a mix of John Irving and Richard Russo, with a small pinch of Carl Hiassen absurdity. The main plot of this novel involves a 30-something English professor, Samuel Andreson-Anderson, who is still feeling the effects of his mom’s abandonment, which happened when he was a kid. He is uninspired by his work, unable to complete the novel he was commissioned to write several years ago and escapes by playing an online role-playing game, World of Elfscape. However, he discovers his mother’s whereabouts when she makes the national news by throwing rocks at a rising star in the Republican party, Sheldon Packer. The conservative governor from Wyoming, with presidential aspirations, is in Chicago, walking through Grant Park when Sam’s mom, Faye, “attacks” him. Suddenly, reporters are digging into the history of the “Packer Attacker” and saying things about Faye’s past that Samuel never knew. As far as he knew, his mother spent the 1960’s in Iowa, waiting for his father to come home from Vietnam and didn’t leave until 1988, when she walked out of the door of the family home and never returned. However, reporters discovered that Faye was arrested during the 1968 riots in Chicago.
The novel spends a fair amount of time with Samuel, as he reconnects with his mother but also attempts to discover the truth about her past in order to write a tell-all book, a way to get his publisher off his back. However, we also get Faye’s story/perspective; how she goes from small-town Iowa to Chicago and UIC (in all its late 60’s cement glory) and back again is the most compelling part of the book for me. There are some side characters—an entitled college sophomore who is miffed when Samuel accuses her of plagiarism as well as Samuel’s “online” friend, Pwnage, a genius player of World of Elfscape, who has become a hermit and is slowly neglecting all his bodily needs. There are also the twins, Bethany and Bishop, who grow up with Samuel in the 80’s, whose stories intertwine with his.
Again, when I look at most of the parts of this novel, I’m a fan. The early chapter where Laura Pottsdam and “habitual, perpetual cheater” (31) sits in Samuel’s office and tries to wiggle out from under her punishment is classic satire—complete with headings noting rhetorical moves and logical fallacies. The story of Samuel and Bishop’s friendship was riveting and complex. Additionally, I could have read a novel just about Faye. That said, this novel didn’t benefit from being read so slowly and in such fits and starts. I got annoyed at the side story involving Pwnage even though I see intellectually how it fits. There were parts that I appreciated with my brain and parts that I appreciated with my heart and the novel worked best when both organs were engaged—which luckily happened frequently in the back half.
This novel is worth reading but if you’re NOT a fan of sprawling multi-character stories with shifting senses of tone than you might want to keep walking. ...more