book review: Three Plays by Lisa B. Thompson

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UNDERGROUND, MONROE, & THE MAMALOGUES: THREE PLAYS by Lisa B. Thompson
★★★★☆
Northwestern University Press, August 15, 2020

 

This is a brilliant collection of three plays from scholar and playwright Lisa B. Thompson, each of which navigates issues of racism and trauma as they particularly pertain to the Black middle class.  Each play is distinct both in style and subject, but all thematically cohere into a sharp, savvy collection that makes for fantastic reading, though I imagine seeing any of these come to life on the stage with the right actors would be an even more entrancing experience.

Underground – 5 stars

Originally performed in 2017, Underground is the standout play from this collection, which focuses on the tension between two friends, two middle-aged, middle class Black men who had both been activists for the Black Panther movement, but who have drifted apart in life and in ideologies.  This play is razor-sharp and startlingly prescient; reading it amid the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement was a rather humbling experience, to be reminded so starkly that the movement’s catalysts have been decades, centuries in the making.  This exchange in particular drove home a relevant piece of discourse that’s been in the news a lot lately:

MASON: Wait. This is not just sensational journalism. They are out here bombing shit, man.
KYLE: Things. Not people. Statues of long dead white men can’t die again.

Monroe – 5 stars

Set in 1940s Lousiana, Monroe follows the impact of a lynching on a small-town community, including one young woman, the victim’s sister, who believes herself to be pregnant like the Virgin Mary.  Monroe has a sort of mystical, fable-like quality to it which makes it stand apart from the other two plays in this collection, but it’s all the more resonant for its examination of the timelessness of anti-Black violence in America.

The Mamalogues – 2 stars

This one’s tricky, because here’s the thing; I was never going to like this play.  I don’t like books (and films, and plays, and stories, more broadly) about motherhood and that’s what this is.  Three Black middle class single mothers compare their lived experiences in this sort of vignette-style play.  When you’re already disinterested in motherhood as a theme and there’s no actual narrative to sustain the play, it’s not fun reading.  But that criticism is very much on me so I won’t hold it against this collection too much.  Lisa B. Thompson is a brilliant writer and this is worth the price of admission for the first two plays alone.

Thank you to Netgalley and Northwestern University Press for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: Hysteria by Jessica Gross

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HYSTERIA by Jessica Gross
★★★★☆
Unnamed Press, August 18, 2020

 

Hysteria belongs to a Marmite subset of literary fiction that I like to call ‘books about disaster women’.  (Other disaster women books include, for example: The Pisces, My Year of Rest and RelaxationAlmost Love.)  These books tend to feature young women in their 20s-30s who have abrasive personalities and make poor decisions and have a lot of casual sex usually for the wrong reasons.  If you do not enjoy disaster women books, you will not like Hysteria, it’s important to get that out of the way.  This will not be the book to change your mind and embrace this whole subgenre if it’s something you’ve henceforth found uninteresting or repulsive.

But with that said, if you do enjoy disaster women books, it’s a damn good one.  In Hysteria we follow an unnamed narrator living in Brooklyn, who goes into her local bar one day and discovers a new bartender has just started working there; she becomes compelled by him and starts to believe that he is none other than Sigmund Freud.

Hysteria is short, punchy, and shocking.  The way Jessica Gross juxtaposes the narrator’s meditations on sexual desire and meditations on daughterhood are uncomfortable to the extreme – I’m trying to avoid using the word oedipal in this review as I know that isn’t an enticing prospect for most people – but what works is that Gross’s writing never tips into gratuitousness.  It isn’t provocative for the sake of being provocative; she actually does have incisive points to make as she simultaneously celebrates and interrogates the narrator’s lasciviousness.  Not a book for everyone but highly recommended to those who it appeals to.

Thank you to Unnamed Press for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.


You can preorder a copy of Hysteria from the publisher here (not an affiliate link).

book review: The Everlasting by Katy Simpson Smith | BookBrowse

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THE EVERLASTING by Katy Simpson Smith
★★★★☆
2020, Harper

 

Broad and ambitious in scope, The Everlasting endeavors to capture the history and spirit of Rome across generations. It opens with an epigraph from the poem “Adonais” by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

“Go thou to Rome—at once the Paradise,
The grave, the city, and the wilderness.”

The plot begins in 2015 with a section titled “The Wilderness,” which introduces us to Tom, an American field biologist studying a group of crustaceans called ostracods. Though still married, Tom spends his days alone while his wife is back in California with their daughter, and reflects on the failed state of their marriage. This novel is dense at times, and Tom’s sections offer little reprieve; the crumbling marriage and allure of an enigmatic Italian woman a sort of clichéd setup that doesn’t feel like it quite earns its length, or the reader’s investment. This section does, however, establish the novel’s central theme: desire and temptation, and whether succumbing to temptation is inherently immoral.

You can read my full review HERE and a piece I wrote about books set across huge spans of time HERE.


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

book review: Saint X by Alexis Schaitkin | BookBrowse

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SAINT X by Alexis Schaitkin
★★★★☆
2020, Celadon

 

In the opening pages of her debut novel, Alexis Schaitkin introduces the reader to an idyllic beach scene, where mostly American tourists are lounging around on the fictional island of Saint X. Within a few pages idyll turns to tragedy as the 18-year-old daughter of the Thomas family, Alison, goes missing, and days later turns up dead. Two men are charged with her murder, but both are acquitted, and the mystery goes unsolved. Years later, we follow Alison’s younger sister, Claire, who was only seven years old at the time of Alison’s death. Now living in New York, Claire has a chance encounter that brings her into contact with Clive Richardson, one of the two men that had been charged with killing Alison. Believing their encounter to be an act of fate, Claire latches onto her connection with Clive in an attempt to discover what really happened to her sister.

You can read my full review HERE and a piece I wrote about Caribbean immigration to the US HERE.


You can pick up a copy of Saint X here on Book Depository.

book review: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

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GIRL, WOMAN, OTHER by Bernardine Evaristo
★★★★☆
2019, Grove Atlantic

 

Girl, Woman, Other is effectively a collection of interconnected short stories, divided into groups of three: each trio of stories is about a group of characters (mostly black women) directly related to one another, though in the end you start to see a fuller picture of how everything is linked.  It’s easy to see why this one won the Booker: it’s stylistically innovative, topical, skillfully structured.  And indeed it’s a very impressive book, but I did have a few more nagging issues with it than I had expected to.

I thought a few too many of the stories followed a similar trajectory to really justify including all of them: the Shirley/Winsome/Penelope trio of stories I found especially weak, and while the narrative relevance of this section becomes apparent later on, it still dragged the middle of this book down.  This book also had one of those situations that I consider a pro and a con simultaneously; Evaristo’s writing is sharp, perceptive, articulate, to the point where at times characters spoke on history’s various iterations of feminism with such an eloquence that they felt like mouthpieces for the author rather than convincing characters in their own right.

That said, these were mostly minor issues in the grand scheme of things.  I did find Evaristo’s writing to be mesmerizing, and this book’s main strength I think is her ability to convincingly draw characters from different generations and give equal weight to their unique struggles.  This book has nuance in abundance; it has so much to say about what it means to be a black woman living in the UK, and none of that could be distilled down for this review without losing a lot of its heft.  Absolutely worth reading and a very worthy Booker winner.


Women’s Prize 2020 reviewsDominicana | Fleishman is in Trouble | Girl | Girl, Woman, Other | How We Disappeared | Red at the BoneWeather


You can pick up a copy of Girl, Woman, Other here on Book Depository.

book review: Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

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RED AT THE BONE by Jacqueline Woodson
★★★★☆
Riverhead, 2019

 

In Red at the Bone, a quick, engrossing, fairly plotless read, Jacqueline Woodson dissects the anatomy of a family.  She’s able to skillfully distill a collection of lives down to their bare essentials, without anything feeling rushed or underdeveloped, a feat in a book that’s scarcely 200 pages.  The novel is narrated by a handful of characters and centers on Melody, a teenage girl preparing for her coming of age ceremony in her family’s home in Brooklyn.  The narrative then weaves in and out of the past and present, in short, readable chapters, all pervaded by a sense of nostalgia and melancholy.

At times I found Woodson’s writing a tad overwrought (here I will cite the most obvious offender: WHY do authors feel compelled to have characters narrate their own births – has anyone else noticed that this is a growing trend?!).  However, on the whole I found that subjects were navigated with deftness and subtlety – the chapter in particular which introduces a major world event I found positively gutting.

The downside of short, punchy books like this is that they never tend to leave much of a lasting impression on me, and I doubt Red at the Bone will be an exception in the long run, but I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with it.


Women’s Prize 2020 reviewsDominicana | Fleishman is in TroubleGirl | Girl, Woman, Other | How We Disappeared | Red at the Bone | Weather


You can pick up a copy of Red at the Bone here on Book Depository.

book review: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee

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HOW WE DISAPPEARED by Jing-Jing Lee
★★★★☆
Hanover Square Press, 2019

 

Set in Singapore, How We Disappeared centers on Wang Di, an elderly woman who survived Japanese occupation during WWII by being forced into serving as a comfort woman.  We follow her present-day narrative as well as seeing flashbacks to the war, which comprise the bulk of this novel.  Meanwhile we also follow Kevin, a teenage boy whose grandmother has just made a shocking confession on her death bed, which propels Kevin to dig into his family history.

I found this to be an occasionally frustrating and messy yet ultimately satisfying read.  Its main strength was Jing-Jing Lee’s skill at immersing the reader, and the chapters set during WWII really came to life.  I do think a bit too much of the narrative focused on Kevin – not to the detriment of Wang Di’s narrative, as I felt that her sections were properly fleshed out – it’s more that Kevin himself added very little as a character.  I tend to prefer historical fiction that doesn’t have a past/present framing, and this was no exception; I kept wishing it would stay in the 1940s.  That said, I do feel that Jing-Jing Lee ultimately justified this narrative decision with the way the story wrapped up, even if it wouldn’t have been my first choice of how to tell it.

But where I felt this book really excelled was Jing-Jing Lee’s descriptions of Wang Di’s life as a comfort woman, but then also in the depiction of the aftermath.  The shame and stigma attached to these young women after they returned home was a heartbreaking thing to reckon with, but I felt the book was strengthened by Lee’s willingness to confront this head-on.  I know that we in the book community collectively feel a bit of fatigue where WWII novels are concerned, but I felt that this one was a worthwhile read – impeccably researched and harrowing while still providing a strong and compelling narrative.  (If you’re going to read one book about sexual slavery off the Women’s Prize longlist, make it this one instead of Girl.)


You can pick up a copy of How We Disappeared here on Book Depository.


Women’s Prize 2020 reviewsDominicana | Fleishman is in Trouble | Girl | Girl, Woman, Other | How We Disappeared | Red at the Bone | Weather

book review: Long Bright River by Liz Moore

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LONG BRIGHT RIVER by Liz Moore
★★★★☆
Riverhead, January 2020

 

Long Bright River may be nearly 500 pages, but it reads as though it’s half the length, even though (paradoxically?) I wouldn’t describe it as a page-turner.  It’s definitely a slow-burner, and it takes its time setting the stage for its central mystery, instead focusing brilliantly on establishing the setting and the atmosphere of some of Philadelphia’s poorer neighborhoods; but there’s something so engrossing about it from the onset that it’s hard to put it down.

What drew me to Long Bright River, aside from my fondness for thrillers, is the focus on the opioid crisis, and this Moore handled spectacularly.  First off, if you haven’t read Dopesick by Beth Macy, what are you waiting for; second of all, I’m always so drawn to books which humanize drug addicts and treat their stories with respect and sensitivity (recommendations welcome!); Moore achieves this while also keeping up the momentum of the narrative.

Moore’s prose is another strength; this is the first novel of hers that I’ve read, but I’m definitely more likely to pick up something off her backlist now.  This book’s one failing for me is something that I find myself frequently lamenting in thrillers; a too-quick denouement and a too-neat resolution of character arcs.  But still, my opinion of Long Bright River is mostly favorable, and I think it’s very deserving of all the hype.


You can pick up a copy of Long Bright River here on Book Depository.

book review: Little Gods by Meng Jin | BookBrowse

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LITTLE GODS by Meng Jin
★★★★☆
Custom House, January 2020

 

Little Gods, Meng Jin’s intricate, emotionally intelligent debut, opens with a scene in which physicist Su Lan gives birth in Beijing in 1989. Through the eyes of a nurse working the night shift, we learn that inside the hospital, Su Lan is abandoned by her husband, while outside, the violence of the June 4th Tiananmen Square Massacre erupts around her. The narrative then skips forward 17 years to Su Lan’s death.

The novel unfolds in a non-linear fashion; in the opening chapters we’re introduced to a shadow of the woman that Su Lan becomes—a distant, hardworking single mother—before we delve into the past and begin to reconstruct her character.

You can read the rest of my review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I wrote about the Tienanmen Square Massacre HERE.


You can pick up a copy of Little Gods here on Book Depository.

book review: The Snow Collectors by Tina May Hall

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THE SNOW COLLECTORS by Tina May Hall
★★★★☆
Dzanc, February 12, 2020

 

The Snow Collectors, the arresting debut by Tina May Hall, is a tremendously interesting yet very uneven book.  Hall fuses gothic horror, mystery, and historical fiction into a bizarre yet intriguing blend (made more bizarre by the fact that it’s not a historical novel at all – it’s set in the present-day, or maybe the near-future).  It’s almost tongue-in-cheek at times in a way that weirdly reminded me of Northanger Abbey – the narrator comparing herself ironically to a gothic heroine – but the classic comparisons stop there as this is a much weirder book than a lazy Rebecca or Frankenstein comparison would convey.  Anyway, when it works, it’s brilliant, and when it falters, it does fall a bit flat.

I think the strongest element here is the snowy New England atmosphere, which is paying a deliberate homage to the arctic backdrop of the Franklin Expedition of 1845.  The protagonist, Henna, finds the body of a dead girl in her woods, and in investigating the crime as an amateur sleuth, she traces it back to the Franklin Expedition and more notably to John Franklin’s wife, the Lady Jane.  I did think these segments that focused on Jane were refreshing and interesting enough to mostly carry the novel.

Where this book never fully worked for me was in the contemporary murder mystery; it felt like an after-thought to the point where suspects were never properly introduced; I found the resolution obvious in the sense that it was the only resolution that had ever really been set up at all.  The present-day characters and their motivations also remain hazy to a frustrating extent, though Henna herself is a fascinating character.  All said, I did want a bit more from this, but I do also recommend checking it out if it appeals.  3.5 stars.

Thank you to Dzanc for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.


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