book review: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

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FRESHWATER by Akwaeke Emezi
★★★★★
Grove Press, February 13, 2018

 

It’s hard to talk about something that has no precedent. Freshwater is utterly unique, and the result is breathtaking. It’s a dark, sensual, and thoughtful novel about a young woman coming to terms with and accepting the multiple identities that define her.

The details of Ada’s life – raised in Nigeria, relocated to the U.S. for college – are only an elemental framework for what is ultimately an introspective story. The majority of this book is narrated by a chorus of Ada’s selves – conceptualized as Nigerian ogbanje – until a traumatic assault in college causes two of these selves to take shape, as Asụghara and Saint Vincent.

What I found so stimulating about this novel is that it challenged a lot of my conceptions about health and identity, particularly in how these are often so heavily informed by western culture. The perceived objectivity of psychology is something I’ve always found comforting and taken for granted, but with this book, I’m reminded of the significance of the relationship between culture and identity. Steeped in Igbo folklore, Freshwater chronicles Ada’s journey (and Emezi’s, as the book is informed by a lot of autobiographical elements) in a way that’s challenging, unexpected, and beautiful.

Emezi’s prose is so assured and lyrical it’s hard to believe this is a debut. This is an author to watch and a novel that absolutely everyone should read.

Thank you to Netgalley, Grove Press, and Akwaeke Emezi for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

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Get To Know Me Tag

I wasn’t tagged for this, but I was bored, so I’m going to do the Get to Know Me Tag which I copied from Callum.  I also contemplated queueing this so I wouldn’t have 2 posts in one day… but then I realized I do not care that much about my blogging schedule lol.

FAVORITE COLOR AND DO YOU HAVE A BOOK IN THAT COLOR?

Red.  I know it just asked for one, but I couldn’t resist.

DESCRIBE YOURSELF IN 3 BOOK CHARACTERS

Sansa Stark from A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin (often underestimated for being quiet; idealistic; perceptive), Esther Greenwood from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (often directionless and apathetic), and Francis Abernathy from The Secret History by Donna Tartt (melodramatic [dyed] ginger hypochondriac).

HYPED BOOKS YAY OR NAY? IF YAY, WHAT WAS THE MOST HYPED BOOK YOU EVER READ? IF NAY, WHAT WAS THE MOST HYPED BOOK YOU DECIDED NOT TO READ?

Sure, I read a lot of hyped books and bestsellers.  The Girl on the Train is probably the most hyped book I’ve read… it was okay, not my favorite book ever but I didn’t hate it.

RECOMMEND ONE BOOK PER SEASON. SPRING. SUMMER. FALL. WINTER.

SpringTell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rivka Brunt.  For no particular reason other than that is an excellent bildungsroman, and coming of age/transitional books make me think of spring.

SummerCastle of Water by Dane Huckelbridge.  It’s set on a deserted island in the middle of the South Pacific, so, a very good beach read.

FallThe Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater.  This is one of the few books I can think of that almost needs to be read in a particular season.  The atmosphere of gloomy Irish November is so vivid in this book, so reading it during that time of year only enhances the experience.

Winter.  Elmet by Fiona Mozley.  It’s about a family living in rural Yorkshire, and it doesn’t entirely take place in the winter, but this book has a very wintry soul.

NAME ONE BOOK THAT WRECKED YOU EMOTIONALLY

35294274I’ll copy Callum’s answer and say Jo Cox: More in Common by Brendan Cox, which I recently read and reviewed.  It’s a biography of Jo, a British Labour MP who was brutally murdered in 2016, written by her husband.  It’s such a touching look at Jo’s life and everything she was able to achieve, both on a personal and a political level.  She seems to have been a truly beautiful soul, and I cried a lot on a plane listening to this audiobook, thinking about what a brilliant person was lost to a horrible and senseless act of violence.

NAME ONE BOOK YOU WOULD RECOMMEND WITH TEA AND COOKIES?

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The English Wife by Lauren Willig, because it has an excellent wintry Victorian vibe so you’ll probably need some tea to keep warm while reading it.

 

 

WHAT IS YOUR GUILTY PLEASURE BOOK?

35356382I don’t have a lot of guilty pleasures simply because I rarely feel guilt over enjoying the things I enjoy, even if they’re embarrassing.  But I’ll say something like The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor – it’s the kind of book that initially got a lot of hype from a few bloggers with ARCs – me included – then when it was released there were a lot of people, including several of my friends, who read it and went ‘what, that was it??’ which I totally understand on an intellectual level.  There was absolutely nothing groundbreaking about this book, but as it was good creepy entertainment, I can’t help but to like it.

FAVORITE DESSERT AND A BOOK THAT REMINDS YOU OF THAT

25614298Anything with dark chocolate… I think I have to go with tiramisu though.  Preferably good Italian tiramisu.  American tiramisu usually makes me sad.  For the book I’ll say In altre parole/In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri, her memoir about her experience with the Italian language and living in Italy, which was the most unnervingly #relatable memoir I’ve ever read – I literally saw so many of my own experiences reflected in her own story.  But anyway, it’s a book about Italy, hence the connection.

ARE YOU A PROCRASTINATOR? WHAT BOOK HAVE YOU BEEN PROCRASTINATING READING?

10357575I am such a procrastinator.  Both in my life and with reading.  There are so many, but I’ll go with 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami which has been on my shelf pretty much since the day it was published.  Murakami’s writing is never even particularly dense, so I’m sure it won’t even take me that long once I get around to it, but the 1000+ page count is intimidating.

 

Tagging whoever wants to do it!

The Unique Blogger Award

I was nominated for the Unique Blogger Award by the wonderful Steph who you all should really go follow if you aren’t already.

The Rules:

  • Share the link of the blogger who has shown love to you by nominating you
  • Answer the questions
  • In the spirit of sharing love and solidarity with our blogging family, nominate 8-13 people for the same award
  • Ask them 3 questions

Steph’s Questions:

What is the lock screen and home screen on your phone? (I’m just curious)

Ok…. listen…… there is something you all should know about me and that is the fact that I am unapologetic Colin Farrell trash.

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(My home screen is just one of the boring default iPhone ones, I don’t like a busy home screen.)

What’s something you were really into/obsessed with when you were a kid?

Horses.  I was That Horse Girl for a decade from ages 7-17.  I worked at a barn in exchange for free riding lessons, so I spent most of my time around horses.  My horse Tommy was a white Arabian and he was very pretty:

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What was the best birthday you’ve had?

I don’t know if this is actually The Best, but my 20th birthday comes to mind.  I was at school in New Orleans, and the weather was gorgeous (around 80 and sunny which even for New Orleans is good for March) and there was some basketball thing going on in the city (lol I am clearly not a sports person because I still don’t really know what it was aside from ‘some basketball thing’) BUT that meant that there were all these free concerts going on, so two of my friends and I took the streetcar downtown and saw The Black Keys for free.

My Questions:

  • Where’s the farthest place from home that you’ve traveled to?
  • What is your favorite fictional relationship?  Either romantic or platonic.
  • What is one food that your town/state/country is known for, and do you like it?

Tagging:

Hannah — Inside My Library MindSarahKristinChelseaHadeer

book review: I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death by Maggie O’Farrell

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I AM, I AM, I AM: SEVENTEEN BRUSHES WITH DEATH by Maggie O’Farrell
★★★★☆
Knopf, February 6, 2018

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death is Maggie O’Farrell’s memoir, told in seventeen chapters, each a different vignette about an isolated event in her life which could have resulted in her death. Each chapter is titled with a different body part: Neck, Cerebellum, Lungs, etc., each chapter heading illustrated with a simple but brilliant anatomical drawing that corresponds with the narrative.

The brushes with death themselves range in severity. They cover everything from O’Farrell getting tested for the HIV virus, a fairly common procedure, to having a machete held to her neck on a South American vacation. They also range in emotional poignancy for the reader. For me, nothing else was able to capture the undiluted fear and horror of the very first anecdote, the first chapter entitled Neck – I’m torn between thinking it was a brilliant opening and wondering whether O’Farrell should have saved her best story for later. But I’m sure individual reactions to each chapter will vary. One thing O’Farrell really succeeds at is reminding the reader just how common near-death experiences are, how maybe you’ve come closer than you realize in your own life. I’m sure anecdotes that some readers will find particularly frightening will leave others cold – it really all depends on our own experiences and perceptions.

This narrative isn’t linear – for example, in one chapter O’Farrell will be 25, and in the next she’ll be 8. I loved the unpredictability that this lent the book’s composition. It’s clear from the very fact that this is a memoir that O’Farrell survived each event, but I still thought she did an excellent job keeping the tension high throughout. And then there’s the prose itself, which is gorgeous and lyrical. I’ve actually never read any of O’Farrell’s fiction, but I’m very interested after reading this.

There are a couple of things holding me back from giving this the full 5 stars, however. Seventeen is a lot of brushes with death, and some of these anecdotes begin to feel redundant. Horrifying as each experience must have been, did we really need three separate chapters about almost drowning?

I also felt like there was more description than interpretation to this memoir. Again, I adored O’Farrell’s writing, and she captured each of these events from her life vividly and beautifully. But besides the obvious – each chapter describing a near-death experience – there wasn’t a whole lot of thematic cohesion to this collection. At times I finished a chapter wondering what exactly O’Farrell had been trying to say with it. Not that I wanted a clear-cut moral necessarily, just a bit more insight. Certain chapters felt like an essay that was missing a conclusion.

That said, I mostly found this collection intelligent, well-written, and thought-provoking, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.

Thank you to Penguin First to Read, Knopf, and Maggie O’Farrell for an advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: Himself by Jess Kidd

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HIMSELF by Jess Kidd
★★★☆☆
Atria Books, 2017

I had two very conflicting instincts about approaching this book: a contemporary mystery set in small-town Ireland sounds ridiculously relevant to my literary interests, and magical realism is something I try to avoid at all costs. Still, I thought I’d give it a shot and hope my love of Irish lit would prevail. Instead I think my dislike of magical realism won out.

Here’s what I don’t like about this genre. (I realize this is a blanket statement and that there are exceptions – I can even think of some myself. But, just talking generally.) I feel like a lot of magical realism arbitrarily includes magical or supernatural elements to force a certain tone or atmosphere onto the story, but rather than being integrated into the framework of the narrative, these elements feel more like awkward accessories.

What I mean is: in Himself, the main character, Mahoney, sees dead people. There are ghosts on almost every page of this book, and there’s an air of mysticism about the fictional town of Mulderrig. Consequently, I want to call this book ‘creepy’ or ‘eerie’ or even ‘whimsical,’ but, was it really any of those things? It was sort of a hollow story. Mahoney, orphaned from a young age, returns to his hometown at the age of 26 to find out the truth of what happened to his mother. A lot of tedium and forgettable characters ensue, and the story lacked an engaging emotional core to draw you in. I just didn’t care, and the ghosts didn’t do it any favors, because they didn’t really do anything – even the ones that I thought would play a larger role in the narrative ultimately did not – so I guess they’re just there to make the book seem creepier than it actually is.

So, why 3 stars? It’s more like 2.5 rounded up, but, Jess Kidd’s prose is stunning. This book was beautifully, brilliantly written, and when it’s so clearly a case of ‘it’s not you, it’s me,’ I feel compelled to be generous in my rating. If you like mysteries and contemporary Irish lit as much as I do but you are kinder to magical realism, there’s a good chance you’ll love this. Maybe you’ll get more out of the ghosts than I did.

book review: The Queen of Hearts by Kimmery Martin

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THE QUEEN OF HEARTS by Kimmery Martin
★★★☆☆
Berkley, February 13, 2018

The Queen of Hearts is the story of Zadie and Emma, two friends who have been inseparable since they were teenagers. Now they’re each happily married with children, successful in their careers as doctors, and still as close as ever. But when a figure from their past resurfaces in their lives, a charming surgeon called Nick Xenokostas, the two are forced to confront events from their third year of medical school that they’ve long since put behind them.

My feelings about this book are extremely mixed. I’ve never seen Grey’s Anatomy, but I get the impression that this is basically Grey’s Anatomy in book form – a sort of melodramatic, over the top but engaging medical drama, which relies on entertainment value to compensate for its narrative faults.

My main criticism is how the alternating point of views of Zadie and Emma were written. Neither of them had individual voices, at all – occasionally my mind would wander for a minute, I’d come back to the book and think I was in a Zadie chapter, and then I’d read the sentence “Zadie said to me,” before realizing oops, I was actually in an Emma chapter. That’s not to say that Zadie and Emma were two iterations of the same person – the differences between them are clearly highlighted – they just happened to have the exact same narrative voice. It’s an easy trap to fall into when you have two alternating first-person perspectives, so I wish Kimmery Martin had varied their vocabulary or syntax of speech slightly, especially given the differences in their upbringings.

There was also a lot about Zadie’s character that never quite rang true for me. We’re told so often how charismatic she is, how people naturally gravitate toward her, but none of that charisma is reflected in Zadie’s narration. To me, Zadie always struck me as competent, intelligent, and caring, but none of these things in abundance – she just seemed like a very average sort of person. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It just didn’t quite add up with what we’re told about her.

Emma, on the other hand, I absolutely loved. She too is initially presented as competent and intelligent, but there is so much more going on beneath the surface which is gradually uncovered throughout the course of the story. I thought her narrative arc was brilliant and sad and so realistic – she’s the kind of character who’s so human that you don’t like the bits of yourself that you see reflected in her. That was extremely well done.

I think I’m going to have to go with 3 stars, though… I did quite like this overall – it was a quick, entertaining, and at times emotional read – but the occasionally sophomoric writing and amateur construction of Zadie’s character dragged it down for me. (Not to mention the way Zadie’s three-year-old daughter talked… god, I have never encountered a more annoying toddler either in real life or in literature.) I would recommend it though, especially if you’re interested in stories which examine female friendships.

One last note – this book is very heavy on the medical side of the medical drama, so if you can’t stomach graphic descriptions of medical procedures, this is definitely not the book for you.

Thank you to Netgalley, Berkley, and Kimmery Martin for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

wrap up: January 2018

Hi guys!  Before I get to my usual monthly books read post, I wanted to start this post with a sort of life update.  Apologies in advance for the length of this post.

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I’ve spent the past two and a half weeks in Houston for work – I’m finally home, I got in at 3 am last night.  If you’ve been following me on social media you will know: I hated Houston.  It was probably my least favorite place I have ever been.  So, if you love Houston, you may want to skip this section.  I thought it was an industrial, soulless, horrible concrete wasteland.  Nothing is open when it says it’s going to be; nothing is open on weekends, period; it’s one of the worst ever cities to be a vegetarian; I felt genuinely unsafe walking around on the streets even in broad daylight because it was so desolate and barren; the extent of the homelessness problem is absolutely inexcusable… it was just.  Bad.

This is Houston in all its glory.

But anyway, I keep alluding to the work aspect of the trip, but I realized I haven’t properly explained that, and I don’t even know if there’s any interest, but oh well, I will explain anyway.  I work for an international book distributor.  Our services are twofold: (1) we represent certain U.S. publishers to international clients – when clients order directly from the publishers we get a commission for facilitating that connection, and (2) we provide a book order service, where international customers can order any book from any publisher through us, and we will ship it to them directly.  I’ve been working for this company for about 4 years, and while certain elements of the job have been the bane of my existence (i.e., carrying boxes up 3 flights of stairs) I really love other aspects of it.  Recently my boss sold this business to a company based out of Houston.  The good news is that I’m able to keep my job and work remotely (I was even given a free laptop on this trip!), but in the meantime, someone had to go down to Houston to help train the people who would be taking over the daily operations, and because of my knowledge of the software we use to receive inventory, that person was me.  So, it was a really exhausting trip.  Everyone in the office down there was so nice and welcoming, and I thankfully did get a lot done, but I’ve been kind of running on empty these last few weeks.

Just a few more pictures from the trip.

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This is the only good picture I managed to take of Houston – I’m into the strong southern gothic vibes.

The Museum of Fine Arts was actually pretty great.

Pictures I wasn’t supposed to take of the Rothko Chapel and the Cy Twombly gallery.

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The Fabiola Project.

Anyway, after one of the most hellish days of traveling of my entire life, I’m home!!!  Thanks for tuning into this month’s edition of: Rachel complains about Houston.  Hopefully I will never have to go back there.

Now onto the books!

The fact that I was able to read 7 books this month is actually pretty impressive, given how busy and stressed and miserable I’ve been.

  • The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzie Lee ★★★☆☆ + review
  • Elmet by Fiona Mozley ★★★★★ + review
  • Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon ★★★★★ + review
  • The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware ★★☆☆☆ + review
  • The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams ★★★★★ + mini review
  • The Queen of Hearts by Kimmery Martin ★★★☆☆ + review
  • Jo Cox: More in Common by Brendan Cox ★★★★★ + review

Best: Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon
Runner up: Jo Cox: More in Common by Brendan Cox
Worst: The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

JANUARY TOTAL: 7
YEARLY TOTAL: 7

Currently reading: I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell (it’s great – it’s just taking me longer than usual to read because I despise reading on Adobe Digital Editions), Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (ugh), and Himself by Jess Kidd (completely undecided how I feel about this).

Anyway, just know that I am very, very, very behind on replying to comments and reading posts on here.  I’m going to do my best to get caught up today, but if there’s anything you want me to see, you should go ahead and link me so I won’t miss it.

So how was everyone’s January?  Best book you read?  I’ve been very out of the loop, so comment and let me know!