book review: Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

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LOST CHILDREN ARCHIVE by Valeria Luiselli
★★★☆☆
Knopf, 2019

 

I think the books that fall into the ‘admired it, didn’t like it’ camp are some of the hardest to review, and that’s exactly how I felt about Lost Children Archive. I think this is objectively a very good book. Valeria Luiselli sets out to do something incredibly ambitious, mixing media forms and offering a wealth of commentary on migration and displacement. But all that said, it left me feeling rather uninspired.

This book and its main narrator are unapologetically aloof, and I think that was the main problem for me. Luiselli leans heavily on intertextuality to spin this story, and I was reminded of two other books I’ve read recently: The Friend by Sigrid Nunez and Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li. Incidentally, the female narrators in all three of these novels are nameless, and all three of their narratives are mired in literary references. But I felt like Nunez’s and Li’s narrators were using these references to cultivate a sense of self – I felt like I was gaining an understanding of who they were through this technique. In contrast, I never got a sense of who the narrator of Lost Children Archive was supposed to be – the intertextuality here read as generic and often soulless intellectualism. And it’s frustrating because at one point the narrator says “reading others’ words, inhabiting their minds for a while, has always been an entry point to my own thoughts,” which really resonated with me as a reader, but I ultimately found her own thoughts to pale next to those of the authors she quoted.

But none of this is to say that Luiselli isn’t a good writer. Her prose is incredibly well-crafted, and it’s hard not to admire her technical skill. And thematically, this book is quite the feat: Luiselli examines the U.S.’s current border crisis through the eyes of a family taking a cross-country road trip, whose marriage is disintegrating due to the husband and wife engaging in two passion projects whose ideologies and practicalities conflict.

About three-quarters of the way through the novel, the perspective shifts to the narrator’s son, and while I preferred this section (as this is where the plot actually started advancing), I wasn’t convinced by his mature narrative voice, and at this point the weird mythologizing of the ‘lost children’ started grating. This is largely a narrative about voicelessness, which doesn’t attempt to give voice to the migrant children as much as highlight their absence in the narrative, and while I respected what Luiselli was trying to do, it fell a bit flat for me.

So ultimately, a mixed bag. I’m glad I read this, I think it deserves to be longlisted for the Women’s Prize and I won’t be upset when it probably makes the shortlist, but while I admired it and found it punctuated by moments of utter brilliance, on the whole it was a bit of a chore to get through.


You can pick up a copy of Lost Children Archive here on Book Depository.

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book review: If, Then by Kate Hope Day

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IF, THEN by Kate Hope Day
★★★☆☆
Random House, March 12, 2019

 

If, Then is a quiet, speculative novel about four neighbors living in suburban Oregon. Ginny and Mark are an unhappily married couple, Samara is a young woman coping with the recent death of her mother, and Cass is a young mom who’s had to sacrifice her academic ambitions for motherhood. Gradually the novel introduces the possibility of parallel realities which have begun to overlap, as each character starts to see visions of an alternate version of themselves. Throughout the course of the short novel we study each of these characters and unearth the decisions each of them made which prevented their other self’s reality from coming to fruition.

While I enjoyed this from start to finish and found the ending in particular to be utterly brilliant, I ultimately think I was hoping for more from this novel’s speculative angle. Suburban life is chronicled convincingly, and each character is constructed carefully, but I don’t think this digs deep enough to be the kind of character-driven novel it’s trying to be. This could have been offset by the concept of parallel realities playing a larger role, but instead, that element is more of a vehicle used by the author to explore the novel’s central concept: if I had done this instead of that, then what would have happened as a result? Still, it’s a quick and thought-provoking read, and though it’s underdeveloped in places I think some of the ideas it raises are interesting enough to make up for that. 3.5 stars.

Thank you to Netgalley and Random House for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

You can pick up a copy of If, Then here on Book Depository.

book review: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

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AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE by Tayari Jones
★★★☆☆
Algonquin Books, 2018

 

I think this is a good book, if an unbalanced one. I felt like I was getting whiplash from the amount of times I veered from admiration to frustration and then back again. An American Marriage chronicles the doomed romance of Roy and Celestial: the two have a passionate (if slightly tempestuous) relationship, but only a year and a half into their marriage Roy is sentenced to 12 years in prison for a crime they both know he didn’t commit.

The first section of this book is, in my opinion, the most compelling. We watch Roy and Celestial’s marriage crumble through a series of letters they send one another while Roy is in prison. It’s hard not to be moved by the situation’s tragedy at this point: there’s never any question that Roy and Celestial love one another, but torn apart by circumstances outside of their control, the cracks that begin to form are unavoidable. Roy and Celestial aren’t particularly likable characters, and their relationship isn’t necessarily one we find ourselves rooting for, but I do have to admire the way Tayari Jones allows her protagonists to be imperfect.

In part 2, the novel’s momentum comes to a screeching halt. While the first hundred pages take place over five years, the next two hundred take place over a couple of days. So what was shaping up to be a rather pacy read becomes a bit of a slog at this point, and an oddly melodramatic one. And while Tayari Jones offers some wonderful and incisive commentary throughout about race, marriage, and parenthood, I did feel like the element of racial injustice in the US legal system was a bit underdeveloped. Instead the novel’s premise ultimately felt like a rather perfunctory backdrop which was being used to explore the strain a marriage undergoes while the partners are forced to separate. Certainly an interesting theme, but after several hundred pages of this I was hoping for a bit more depth in other areas which instead felt a bit contrived and simplistic.

But I will say, what I admired the most about this novel was how equitable it was. I didn’t feel like Tayari Jones was trying to manipulate the reader into taking either Roy or Celestial’s side, and I felt like she was very cognizant of the fact that there are no easy answers in a situation as convoluted as this one. So ultimately I’m just a bit torn – this was at times exhilarating and at times boring; sometimes incredibly perceptive and sometimes underdeveloped. I think this is a worthwhile read and a worthwhile addition to the Women’s Prize 2019 longlist, but ultimately it wasn’t as impactful as I thought it would end up being when I first picked it up. Still, it’s a quick and thought-provoking read and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.

You can pick up a copy of An American Marriage here on Book Depository.

book review: The Heavens by Sandra Newman

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THE HEAVENS by Sandra Newman
★★★☆☆
Grove Atlantic, February 12, 2019

The Heavens is essentially Sandra Newman’s novelized meditation on the Great Man Theory – the idea that history has been shaped by a few influential individuals. Kate, a young woman living in New York City in the early 2000s, believes she’s one such person, as she has dreams which propel her into a past timeline where she lives as a mistress in Elizabethan England. When she wakes up, she begins to notice that details about her life have changed overnight, and as she becomes increasingly convinced that her dreams are affecting her reality, her boyfriend Ben becomes concerned about her mental health.

It’s particularly difficult to talk about the plot of this book when it’s ever-shifting. At the start of the novel Kate and Ben live in a New York that resembles our own, except that we aren’t at war and we’ve elected a green party president named Chen, until one day she wakes up and is informed by her concerned friends that Gore is president, and has been president all along, doesn’t she remember? Newman excels at playing with this inherently tenuous atmosphere; whether it’s Kate’s mental stability or the fabric of the universe that’s really on the verge of collapse, there’s a palpable fragility at play while you turn these pages, never sure which details are going to shift from one page to the next.

But despite its clever construction, this doesn’t completely work from start to finish. Kate’s dream narrative is noticeably weaker than that of the present, and the depiction of 1590s England feels almost caricaturish. It also plays with many different lofty ideas and doesn’t always follow through with seamless execution; certain plot threads feel abandoned and under-examined, and I thought the resolution undermined a lot of what came before it. But, I haven’t completely made up my mind about this book and I’m sure to be mulling it over for days to come, so I’m very curious to see how others will receive this wildly unconventional tale of love and fate and time travel.

Thank you to Netgalley and Grove Atlantic for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review. Follow my blog with Bloglovin.

You can pick up a copy of The Heavens here on Book Depository.

short story reviews: Edna O’Brien and Julia O’Faolain

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PARADISE by Edna O’Brien
★★★★☆
Faber & Faber, 2019
originally published in 2013

 

Originally published in 2013, Paradise is a short, feverish story about an unnamed woman on holiday with her rich partner, who hires an instructor to teach her how to swim. What I took away from this story was an allegory about the self-congratulation of the rich when they take someone poor under their tutelage; performing in a proscribed manner is expected, developing your own ideas and aspirations is dangerous – and the metaphor is executed with searing prose and beautiful imagery. This was a great introduction to Edna O’Brien and I’m really looking forward to reading more of her work.


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DAUGHTERS OF PASSION by Julia O’Faolain
★★★☆☆
Faber & Faber, 2019
originally published in 1982

 

I really wanted to love this but I think I just ultimately wanted more from it. The premise is genius: an Irish woman in prison half-delusional from a hunger strike looks back on a friendship that led to her involvement with the IRA. It’s just very bare-bones and doesn’t dig as deep as it needs to into the relationship between Maggy and Dizzy, the relationship that propels the main conflict in this story but which reads like a quick sketch that hasn’t been colored in yet. That said, I did enjoy Julia O’Faolain’s writing and would happily read more from her… but I’d be lying if I said I weren’t a little disappointed, as this was the short story from Faber’s 90th anniversary collection that was I was the most looking forward to.

book review: This Will Only Hurt a Little by Busy Philipps

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THIS WILL ONLY HURT A LITTLE by Busy Philipps
★★★☆☆
Touchstone, 2018

 

I was surprised by how much I ended up enjoying this book. I never reach for celebrity memoirs, less out of literary snobbery and more because the celebrities I’m invested in do not usually write memoirs. But I am a fan of Busy Philipps so I thought why not, let’s give it a try.

Busy states early on in her book that she’s a natural-born storyteller, that she knows when to embellish and when to omit details to keep her audience compelled, and I have to agree. What this book lacks (which I’ll get to in a moment), she makes up for with an immense skill at honing in on what exactly makes an anecdote worth sharing. Whether it was dislocating her knee after being trampled at a school concert by eighth grade boys moshing to Nirvana, or confronting the creator of Modern Family years after he made a rude comment about Busy winning a Critics Choice Award for Cougar Town, she knows how to keep her reader hooked. As I’ve talked about before, I’m not the best audiobook listener, but I don’t think my mind wandered once while listening to this, and I managed to finish it in a week (which is probably a record for me with audiobooks). Even the least exciting of anecdotes were far from boring, because Busy manages to convince you that the stakes are always much, much higher than they actually are (with an occasional tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement that maybe she was a bit melodramatic given the circumstances, but in the moment the minor calamity did feel like the end of the world).

But the introspection didn’t go much further than that, which is my biggest issue with this book. The writing itself wasn’t great but I assume that’s par for the course with this kind of memoir, so I won’t dwell on that. What bothered me more was the constant self-absorption and how it was never met with adequate reflection. Though she certainly faced hardships and I don’t want to dismiss that, for the most part Busy Philipps has lived a rather privileged life, which she really only acknowledges once toward the end of the book, when she wonders why she’s dreading going on a paid Disney cruise that her mother arranged when so many people would kill for that opportunity. There’s a weird kind of dissonance between the persona that Busy has crafted on Instagram (being down to earth and relatable) and the extravagant life that she lives in Hollywood, and it’s never really addressed. I mean, of course celebrities aren’t our friends, of course the lives of the rich and famous are never going to be perfect reflections of our own; it’s just the lack of awareness of that fact throughout this memoir that grated. I don’t think for a second that Busy is ungrateful for the life she leads, but I do think her gratitude is something that never fully translated to this text.

Ultimately I’d really only recommend this one to fans of Busy, or to anyone who really enjoys celebrity memoirs in general. I don’t see this book winning Busy many fans who hadn’t already been familiar with her work and her persona, but for those of us who enjoy her, it certainly didn’t fail to entertain. It just… didn’t do much else. And though I consistently enjoyed it, I ended it feeling vaguely dissatisfied as its anecdotal nature left many questions unanswered (did Busy stay close to Michelle after Heath’s death, how is her relationship with Marc after counseling, did Busy look back on her teenage abortion when she was pregnant with her daughters, how did the people and the stories she talked about early on come to shape her later in life). But it was a fun, entertaining read, and sometimes that’s all you can ask of a book. 3.5 stars

book review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

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THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas
★★★☆☆
HarperCollins, 2017

 

It was fine.

I’ll start with what I liked: this book is as important as everyone says it is. It’s an unflinching look at police brutality, told through the eyes of a teenage girl who witnessed the senseless murder of her friend who was pulled over by a cop for a broken taillight. This happens in the second chapter and the majority of the book deals with the aftermath; the guilt Starr feels over surviving the incident and not being there for her friend in the months leading up to it, the tension that exists between her home life (where she lives in a very poor black neighborhood) and her school life (where she attends a private school on a scholarship, which is attended mostly by rich white students). Starr’s narrative voice was wonderfully authentic and this book just provides such a necessary perspective on the racism and violence that run rampant in this country. Having finally read this, I can say I’m genuinely thrilled that this book has become such a cultural phenomenon as well as a commercial success.

But in the interest of giving you the full picture, let’s move onto what I didn’t like. It was overly long and I found the dialogue and the ‘cute’ domestic moments particularly inane. Moments like this caused more than a few eye rolls: “He grins and he feeds her a grape, and I just can’t. The cuteness is too much. Yeah, they’re my parents, but they’re my OTP. Seriously.” I get that when you’re dealing with such a serious topic (especially in YA) you do need moments of levity if you don’t want your book to be a nearly-500-page misery fest, but all of the humor felt shoehorned in. There were so many discussions of Harry Potter and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and meanwhile nothing was actually happening and I didn’t feel bored, necessarily, because YA contemporary reads so quickly, but I did feel a bit cheated whenever the main narrative got derailed for these fan-service moments.

My other main issue was that I would have loved to have seen some more nuance. It’s hard to talk about this in detail without getting into spoilers, but as an example, one of the subplots shows how over the course of the novel Starr comes to realize that one of her best white friends is racist, and I thought this would be a good opportunity for the author to explore the subtle ways that racism can manifest in even well-meaning white allies, but instead the execution was a bit heavy-handed. The kind of racist remarks this girl made toward Starr were… not subtle in ANY way, which made me wonder why she was even friends with her in the first place. And the fact that Starr’s white boyfriend could basically do no wrong added to this kind of weird dichotomy that white people are all either Good or Evil? When in reality the grey area between those two extremes is so much more realistic and would have been a good focal point for this part of the narrative.

But anyway. This is a book for teenagers, first and foremost, and I’m happy that it has been received so well among teenagers, and among adults who read more YA than I do. I hope you don’t take this review and rating as me being dismissive of this book’s themes and its cultural impact; I’m just afraid that it didn’t totally work for me personally. Which is fine, not every book is going to work for every reader. I’m very glad The Hate U Give has found its readers.