When I see a book about a female botanist in the nineteenth century, I expect one of two storylines: either “woman fights sexism to pursue her dreams”...moreWhen I see a book about a female botanist in the nineteenth century, I expect one of two storylines: either “woman fights sexism to pursue her dreams” or “unconventional woman finds fulfillment in romance”--or both. This book flirts with both narratives but settles down with neither, and is better for it.
The Signature of All Things is a big, ambitious book, beginning with the world-spanning exploits of one Henry Whittaker, thief turned botanist, in the late 1700s, before moving on to his daughter Alma about 50 pages in. Alma grows up fantastically wealthy and encouraged to follow scientific pursuits, falls in love with a local publisher, and you think you know where this is going.... but then, well, it doesn’t go that way, and a third of the way through the book she’s 48 years old, and then the real story begins.
One of the difficulties with this novel is that there’s no real driving plot--or rather, Alma’s life is the plot, though there are some significant time-skips--but it consistently defied my expectations and kept my interest. It’s a book about the Enlightenment, with a lot of research and discovery and expanding of horizons, and I came away impressed with Gilbert’s respect for science. Alma is someone whose intellectual life is as important to her (perhaps more so) than her emotional life, and most authors would have a hard time writing about that sort of character in a positive and believable way--which makes sense; writing a good novel almost always requires an author to be intensely interested in feelings. But Gilbert balances the science and emotion well, and even has me looking at mosses (Alma’s specialty) with new eyes. Her writing style itself draws the reader in, energetic and engaging and far more polished than I expected from someone best known for a mega-bestselling mid-life-crisis memoir (judge me all you like for that).
But too often in this 499-page book I felt Gilbert was perhaps getting carried away with her writing. Whole sections go on far longer than necessary (the Tahiti episode, for instance); at least 50 pages could have been cut without harming the story. Worse, the books feels weighted more toward narrative summary than scenes, which means we’re being told a lot about the characters and their activities rather than being in the story with them watching events unfold. I’ve noticed this problem in a number of recent novels, and I don’t know whether it originates with authorial lack of confidence or just the desire to cram in everything about a character’s life, but it results in a less engaging and memorable story. When Gilbert gets into the scenes, it’s excellent; the solar system dance tells us more about Alma’s childhood than all the summary preceding it, and lingers far longer in the reader’s mind besides.
The biggest problem with all the summarizing is that it distances the reader from the characters. Alma is well-developed and believable, and I enjoyed her story, but my investment came more from curiosity to know what would happen next than any emotional connection to her (and for all the science, this is still a novel, so emotional connections are to be desired). The secondary characters are colorful and often intriguing, but suffer from being described more than shown. Prudence, in particular, is potentially fascinating but gets too little page time, leaving her relationship with Alma not quite believable (they grow up together from the age of 10, without access to other children, and maintain a polite distance the entire time?). Ambrose works because we see his relationship with Alma develop as she experiences it. Retta is bizarre--in fact, all Gilbert’s women have extreme personalities of one sort or another, and by the time Retta was introduced my suspension of disbelief was breaking. Henry is a mess of contradictions not really explained by the 50 pages spent on his backstory, though beginning with his adventures rather than Alma’s childhood was an astute choice. For the most part I believed in these people, but by zooming out too often Gilbert kept me from truly knowing them.
Overall, then, I found this a worthy novel but not a great one, though it has great potential that a firmer editor might have captured. Not having read Gilbert before, it was a pleasant surprise and an enjoyable read, and I admire its bold choices. I just wish it had been a bit more focused.(less)
A compelling, well-written collection of stories about unhappy people. This is Okparanta’s first book, and she’s certainly an author to watch.
This boo...moreA compelling, well-written collection of stories about unhappy people. This is Okparanta’s first book, and she’s certainly an author to watch.
This book contains 10 bite-sized (average length 20 pages) short stories starring contemporary Nigerian women, who struggle with family pressures, societal expectations and unhealthy relationships. The word that comes to mind when thinking about the subject matter is brave; the stories are unabashedly feminist, not in an easy sort of way but in their unstinting look at the forces that shape women’s lives.
The chilling “Story! Story!” is perhaps the strongest in the collection, with suspense and just the right amount of foreshadowing leading up to its powerful, inevitable, and yet startling conclusion. “America” and “Grace” are also excellent: in the former, a teacher attempts to get a visa and join her lesbian lover in the U.S., while the latter focuses on a budding romance between a divorced American professor and a young Nigerian student. Interestingly, the only romances in the book with any hope of success seem to be between women; those featuring a man and a woman turn out to be emotionally damaging if not physically abusive. “Wahala!” skillfully depicts a woman trapped by her husband’s and mother’s desire for her to have a child. I was somewhat less convinced by the abusive relationships in “Shelter” and “Tumours and Butterflies,” which seem perhaps too simplistic, but both stories succeed in other areas: the first deals with the shabby way immigrants are often treated when seeking services in the U.S., while the second paints a complex picture of a mother and daughter torn apart by the mother’s loyalty to her abusive husband. The only noticeably weak story is “Designs,” which is also the only one with a male protagonist, and which seems uncertain just what it’s trying to accomplish.
I can’t help but compare this to Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck, also a collection of stories about Igbo women in Nigeria and the U.S. Adichie’s stories are more technically proficient, the writing more polished, but I think I like Okparanta’s better. These stories feel heartfelt, never devolving into a recitation of gripes, and their protagonists have to struggle more; they come from a lower rung on the socioeconomic ladder and a place of less self-assurance. My biggest reservation about this book is that the character development doesn’t quite match up to the intensity of the subject matter; most of the protagonists feel similar, both in obvious ways (they're all teachers, except the few who are children) and in their somewhat amorphous personalities.
Overall though, this is a very promising collection. The writing is good, the descriptions vivid; the author has a strong sense of pacing and tension. If Okparanta writes a novel I will certainly want to read it.(less)
I read Tan's The Hundred Secret Senses years ago and loved it; I quite enjoyed The Bonesetter's Daughter as well. I'm one of the few people on the pla...moreI read Tan's The Hundred Secret Senses years ago and loved it; I quite enjoyed The Bonesetter's Daughter as well. I'm one of the few people on the planet who didn't much like The Joy Luck Club, but it was Tan's first novel and my reaction had more to do with the way she chose to tell the story than her talent as a writer. Also, I love historical fiction and reading about China. All of which is to say, I had high expectations for this book.
Unfortunately, it tanked. The book begins with some moderately interesting information about the protagonist's childhood, before launching into a long and detailed description of the high-class brothel in which she grew up, and that's representative of the following 200 pages. If brothels were an unexplored setting in literature, this might work, but they aren't and Tan isn't doing anything here that hasn't been done before. I've already read Memoirs of a Geisha, and its other (better) imitators, such as The Painter from Shanghai; this novel just feels derivative and flat, its characters more recycled than human, its plot lost in tedious description.
I heard an interview with Tan about this book, in which the primary topic was her extensive research, and she talked about spending a lot of time tracking down small details: for instance, when her characters traveled from Shanghai to San Francisco, would the ship have had rails? I applaud her commitment to accuracy, but that preoccupation shows. The setting is here but the life is missing. I finally yielded at page 215, because the story yet to evoke any interest in me and reading it had become a chore. The topic of early-20th-century Asian courtesans, as imagined by modern American writers, is pretty well exhausted at this point. Or at least, this book lacks the depth and vibrancy to make that ground worth revisiting. I hope for better from Tan's next novel. (less)
The book description was intriguing, but I was not prepared for how much I would love reading Fangirl. It is one of those rare stories that just made...moreThe book description was intriguing, but I was not prepared for how much I would love reading Fangirl. It is one of those rare stories that just made me smile, when I wasn’t marveling at how well the author gets it.
Cath is starting college at the University of Nebraska, but she’s not your typical freshman. She’s nerdy and awkward and comes with bucketloads of social anxiety, and she’d much rather stay in her dorm room writing fanfiction than get drunk at a frat party. She’s always depended on her twin sister for her social life, but Wren wants to have the hard-partying college experience and has refused to room with Cath, who gets stuck with an intimidating older student. Many of the elements here are common to coming-of-age stories--there’s first love and family drama--but Fangirl is also about writing, and being a fan, and it encapsulates the experience of being a social misfit in college. Or at least, one experience of it: having a lot in common with Cath, I had to reconcile myself early on to the fact that there are differences (major differences) between her freshman experience and mine--but those are details; on an emotional level I found this story to be real and true.
This is a character-driven book, so I’ll start with the characters. Cath is fantastically-realized, quirky, and fun, and there’s so much that I love about Rowell’s portrayal of her, but here’s the most important thing: it’s okay to be like Cath. Cath has a lot going for her--she’s smart, witty, loyal and caring--and growing up means growing in her own direction, learning to handle new relationships and thrive in a new environment, not changing who she is. Cath doesn’t get a makeover or become a wild child or give up fanfiction. She’s a nerd, without having to be either the genius type or a super-sexy babe. And she’s completely believable; even where I would have had the opposite reaction, her feelings and behavior always rang true to her character.
But the other characters are great too, wholly authentic and often endearing. The book is largely driven by dialogue, and while Rowell’s prose is nothing special, the dialogue sparkles. It brings the characters to life and it’s often humorous, but it’s also so exactly the way people talk to one another, I think I’ve had some of these conversations. The romance is genuinely sweet, with characters who seem like a good fit for one another, and I loved that Cath’s hangups about physical affection don’t just disappear once she’s in a relationship; it’s something she has to work on.
Then too, the book is a celebration of the intense relationships we develop with fictional characters and worlds. Cath is a fan of Simon Snow, a stand-in for Harry Potter: and she's a big-name fan, with thousands of people following her writing. I loved the way Cath’s writing is treated: it’s taken seriously, as a major aspect of her life and a talent to be proud of--even by her writing professor, a novelist herself who sees Cath's potential but can’t stand the thought of fanfiction. (They have multiple conversations about this, as the professor becomes something of a mentor for Cath. I’m telling you, this book is nerd heaven!) My biggest criticism of the book is that it could have just referred to Harry Potter by name and been less campy; this might have caused problems with the inclusion of snippets from the “Simon Snow” books and a few lengthy chunks of Cath’s fanfiction, but these are largely extraneous to the story anyway. However, Rowell does a great job with the fanfiction excerpts, which are polished while still sounding like something an 18-year-old girl would write.
In the end, there are so many scenes and little moments in this book that struck a chord with me. I love that Cath attends a big state university--there are so few novels set in college, and most of them seem to be about people quoting poetry at one another at small liberal arts colleges; I loved reading about the kind of school I attended, with a huge campus, where people work part-time and aren’t necessarily academically-oriented. I loved Cath’s realization that she comes from a mostly rural state where her experience growing up in Omaha isn’t the norm; I had that too. And the clashing assumptions about sex between Cath and her roommate. And Cath’s arguing with her boyfriend about whether or not his chivalry is respectful. And her heightened awareness of her safety on campus at night (even though physical danger is not a part of this story): I too have dialed 911 on my cell phone just in case. I could go on, but you get the picture.
This book isn’t great literature, but it’s a fun, funny and true-to-life story of an experience I haven’t seen fictionalized before, and for that I love it. Recommended to anyone who’s been weird in college, or anyone who sees that in their future. I wish I could have read it when I was 17.(less)
I’ve been procrastinating on this review because it’s so hard to explain why a book is great or important. But when I come across one that is I have t...moreI’ve been procrastinating on this review because it’s so hard to explain why a book is great or important. But when I come across one that is I have to share it with people.... so.
This is a work of narrative nonfiction, following an extended family and their friends for about 17 years. The subjects are impoverished Puerto Rican-Americans and the setting is the Bronx (and upstate New York) from the mid-1980s through the beginning of the 21st century. Despite claims to the contrary, it does not read like a novel--novels are constructed of scenes following narrative arcs, and Random Family is built of facts and details following the vagaries of real people’s lives--but the story is as compelling as a work of fiction. It’s hard to put down even though it’s depressing.
I’ll say that again: this book is really depressing. The author keeps political opinions out of it, but essentially it’s a book about what it’s like to be poor, and why people who are born to poverty find it difficult or impossible to escape. I’m a little ashamed to admit that by the end I didn’t have much admiration for any of the principals--they make a lot of mistakes, to put it lightly; they’re terrible at relationships; worst of all, they all damage their children in serious ways, even when trying their best--but I did feel that I understood them, as much as one can simply by reading a book whose subject matter is far removed from one’s personal experience. Would I do any better if I’d grown up with everything people face in this book: neglectful, drug-addicted or simply incompetent parents, child molestation, drug dealers on every street corner, role models who were dealers themselves (if male) or single mothers in unstable and often abusive relationships (if female), overcrowded apartments with an endless parade of people crashing in the living room because they had nowhere else to go, and so on? I can’t say with any confidence that I would. What this book does magnificently is dig deep into the characters’ lives, allowing the details to build up to form a complete picture--there isn’t one simple cause for anything. Lack of money is part of the problem but the damage done by broken families and terrible societal influences can’t be ignored either, and it’s all mixed up together.
Which isn’t to say that people don’t try to improve themselves--we see that here. And to some extent they succeed. But it isn’t easy. What really struck me is how the decisions people make as teenagers have such terrible long-term consequences: even the “good” girls are getting pregnant in their mid-teens, while the boys are building up a criminal record and often landing themselves with long prison sentences to boot. In the middle-class world teenagers make bad decisions too, but parents or society tend to shield them from the worst of the consequences. The kids in this book don’t have that safety net, nor anyone who can credibly demand that they do better.
I don’t mean to say the book is all doom and gloom, because there are happy events too, but what stands out the most is just how much people who start with nothing have to struggle for the things many of us take for granted. This book puts you inside their world and makes sense of it. And it does a great job of bringing their personalities to life and of telling a fluid story, though not one with a neat beginning or end. The writing flows smoothly and the descriptions bring people and places to life in a few words. It’s all told in a neutral, non-judgmental tone, the author clearly working to present her subjects to us on their own terms, without value judgments. And she succeeds at it.
The author’s complete absence from the book is weird, especially since she states in the acknowledgements that she was present for most of the scenes recorded--surely, for her to be included in these events and convince people to open up to her to the extent that they did, she must have become an important person in their lives? But while it may not be entirely honest, I understand the purpose of erasing herself from the narrative: the point is not to filter her subjects through privileged eyes or distract us with her opinions but to present the stories that matter here as directly as possible.
So, this an important book, one you should certainly read if you work with impoverished people (I know I’ve met women like Coco), or, you know, vote, or have opinions about social programs. Or if you just live in the U.S. Almost everybody who didn’t grow up in this kind of situation would likely benefit from such an intimate, detailed look into the lives of people who weren’t born with the privileges we take for granted. I certainly did.(less)
This is a cute teen romance that will hold a lot of appeal for adults who came of age in the 80s. I previously loved Rowell's Fangirl, and I didn't lo...moreThis is a cute teen romance that will hold a lot of appeal for adults who came of age in the 80s. I previously loved Rowell's Fangirl, and I didn't love this--perhaps predictably, since the romance was not why Fangirl stood out to me and is the whole point of this book--but it's a fast read and a perfectly decent choice if YA romance is your thing.
To its credit, Eleanor & Park is an unusual teen romance. Eleanor is overweight, dresses bizarrely, and has a terrible home life. Park is biracial and isn't comfortable with the traditionally masculine mold his father wants him to follow; he even realizes he likes wearing eyeliner. They bond over music and comic books, but the relationship doesn't go smoothly, mostly because of the serious issues Eleanor has to deal with. The book is divided into lots of short chapters and jumps back and forth between the two protagonists' points-of-view, but we get to know Eleanor much better than Park; she's a well-developed and realistic character, while he spends most of his time thinking about her and is as much dream-boyfriend as developed character. Meanwhile, this is Eleanor and Park's show, and most of the other characters are fairly flat, particularly the siblings and classmates.
Other good stuff: the dialogue is snappy and realistic, the family dynamics seem believable although often shunted to the sidelines, and the author hits the right notes with the awful adults in Eleanor's life, who are infuriating without being too over-the-top. And I appreciated that Eleanor takes her safety seriously and doesn't dither in a bad situation. On the other hand, a couple of the choices she makes at the end didn't make much sense to me; I had the same problem with Park's father's choice, which seems like weirdly irresponsible parenting. (view spoiler)[Many readers have taken issue with the way Eleanor cuts Park off at the end, which did seem odd to me, but I also wondered why she didn't try to stay with someone in Omaha (her father, for instance) rather than moving 6 hours away as Plan A. As for Park's father, I found it bizarre that he would allow his 16-year-old, who'd just gotten his license and barely driven unsupervised, to leave in the middle of the night to take Eleanor to an unfamiliar city 6 hours away. And to top it off, in a vehicle he knew Park had trouble driving! Sure, he seems to see this as a way to make Park prove his manliness, but I still can't credit it. I know kids' books are all about having their protagonists do things real kids wouldn't be allowed to, but this scenario is just too close to home for me to overlook. (hide spoiler)] Also, the 80s pop culture references are a bit overdone; my unfamiliarity with them rendered some of the conversations nearly incomprehensible.
Overall, a perfectly decent choice if you're looking for YA romance, particularly one with a genuinely sweet relationship that doesn't romanticize abuse. It didn't make me swoon, but not many authors can do that, so don't let me stop you from picking it up if it sounds like your thing. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
This book wants to be Jane Austen with magic. It's entertaining enough if you like Regency domestic dramas and are looking for a light read, but that'...moreThis book wants to be Jane Austen with magic. It's entertaining enough if you like Regency domestic dramas and are looking for a light read, but that's the best I can say for it.
Shades of Milk and Honey follows the typical Austenian marriage plot: two daughters of the landed gentry seek eligible husbands, people are mannerly and attend balls and dinner parties, etc. The book seems to be set in an alternate world, where magic is considered a ladylike accomplishment like painting or piano playing, although the existence of "glamour" does not seem to have altered the history or culture at all.
I was initially drawn in by the premise and the quasi-period tone, and this proved to be a quick read: just under 300 pages, and very easy reading despite the suggestion of 19th-century style. The plot is entertaining, though entirely predictable, and proved compelling enough for me to finish quickly. But in retrospect it was unsatisfying, borrowing far too heavily from Austen rather than breaking any new ground. Almost the entire cast consists of stripped-down copies of Austen characters: Jane, our protagonist, is a mixture of Elinor Dashwood and Fanny Price; her younger sister Melody is Marianne Dashwood with a liberal dose of Lydia Bennet; their parents are Mr. and Mrs. Bennet; there's a Mr. Wickham, a Lady Catherine de Bourgh, even a neighbor who reminded me of Harriet Smith.
And they spin through the expected scenes (walks in the garden, strawberry-picking, etc.) without spark or individuality; characters' relationships with each other are uniformly one-note and their interactions bland and repetitive. Jane is the only one with any depth, and she's too dense to be believed. This is a woman who can't even guess who her sister's secret lover is despite the fact that he visits the sister every day and both are acting besotted. In the end the book feels like fanfiction: you might read it because you like Austen, but there's no reason to be interested in Kowal's characters for their own sake. And the plot unravels at the end, with an action-heavy climax that feels out-of-place and melodramatic in a book that's otherwise stuck slavishly to Austenian tropes, followed by a hasty wrap-up. As for the romance, to the extent it works at all it's because the novel's structure makes it inevitable, not because there's any reason for the two to be attracted to each other or believable growth of affection between them.
As for the writing, it's readable, but very unsubtle and often abrupt. Kowal has a clunky tendency to repeat words several times within a couple of sentences, and to tell the readers what she's already shown. There are also some anachronisms in the language: for instance, Jane identifies another character as suffering from "depression," a term not used to refer to the psychological condition until the 1860s, and more importantly, one that rings jarringly modern for the Regency illusion the book tries to sustain.
The final verdict: Okay if you're into Austen fanfiction and looking for a beach read, but not a book I'd recommend.(less)