Silver Sparrow

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

publication date: 2011
pages: 340
ISBN: 978-1-56512-990-0

This taut and sparkling novel focused on an interesting plot: the daughters of a bigamist in 1980s Atlanta. The book began with Dana, a young girl whose Daddy has two wives and two daughters. As Dana navigated being part of her father’s “secret family,” the book explored issues of identity, loyalty, family, and belonging.

Tayari Jones took a compelling plot and told it very well. The introduction and conclusion were well-handled, with just the right amount of intrigue and satisfaction, and the perfect touches of foreshadowing. Also, the climax was one of the best I have read in a while, with impeccable pacing and suspense.

What made this book so exceptional was its infusion of suspenseful plot with pithy explanations of relatable themes. From almost page one, I was wondering about and fretting over what was going to happen next. But meanwhile, Jones filled her pages with rewarding descriptions and observations, such as:

Everyone knows that [being pregnant] is the hardest thing that you can ever tell a man, even if he’s your husband, and my father was someone else’s husband. All you can do is give him the news and let him decide if he is going to leave or if he is going to stay.

Jones also was very funny. For example, this description of a newly befriended teenage boy, which I laughed at but still don’t quite understand:

Mike was Seventeen magazine in the face, but watching him walk away in his Levi’s, I kept thinking “Jack and Diane.”

One theme that I particularly enjoyed was the exploration of the dual lives that teenage girls, and all teenagers, experience. Jones doesn’t shy from the fact that young girls mess around, have sex, and get high just as much as young boys but are still thought of as Daddy’s Little Girl.

One of the few missteps made by Jones was her use of anachronistic terms and phrases. For example, in a portion of the story set in the 1960s, young girls and their families frankly talked about pregnancy and rape, and even used those terms. Now, granted, I was not alive in the 1960s, but people I know who were still don’t talk about those issues sixty years later, and when they do, they use terms like “expecting” and “domestic issues.” Also, some of the descriptions of 1980s Atlanta seemed more like 2010s Atlanta, when the book was written, such as gas pumps with credit card readers and a pre-pay requirement.

I’m torn between give this book a 4/6 or a 5/6. It is absolutely worth reading and I would recommend it to diverse readers, from those who enjoyed The Help to those who enjoyed Dean Koontz-esque suspense. However, I could imagine someone, somewhere not enjoying it. With all that said, I think I will give it a

5/6: seek this book out

other reviews:

Washington Post
Paste Magazine
Denver Post

One Thousand White Women

One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus

publication date: 1998
pages: 434
ISBN: 978-0-312-18008-9

Here’s another book brought to my attention by the “Request-a-Review” feature. One Thousand White Women was a novel of historical fiction, which chronicled the journey of May Dodd and her life with the Cheyenne Indians in 1875. Written largely as May’s journal entries, the book began with May banished to a mental institution for creating a family with a man out of wedlock. While there, she was discovered by a government doctor, who promised her freedom from the institution if she took part in the United States’ secretive, new “Brides for Indians” program. As a member of the program of one thousand white women, May would be an ambassador of the United States living within the Cheyenne Tribe and would be required to marry a Cheyenne husband and bear his children for two years. May agreed to be a member of the program, largely to escape the hellish mental facility.

The plot was based on an event that actually happened, wherein a Cheyenne chief requested one thousand white women to live with the tribe to foster peace between the Cheyenne and the United States. In real life, the request was met with shock, disgust, and a resounding “NO,” but Fergus explored what life would have been like for the women who agreed to the program. Fergus took an inventive idea and crafted a penetrating plot that made the book a worthwhile read.

The plot was engaging, thought-provoking, and well-executed by Fergus, but it isn’t the only satisfying aspect of the book. Fergus used the plot to explore themes such as the relationship between the federal government and the Indian tribes at that time and the role of women in pre-Industrial American society. Fergus discussed Cheyenne society so thoroughly that I keenly felt its absence in contemporary culture. As a small example, here is a great anecdote from the book:

At [May's Father's] and Mother’s endless dinner parties [Father] is fond of giving credit to his and his wealthy guests’ great good fortunes by toasting the Sac Chief Black Hawk, who once said that “land cannot be sold. Nothing can be sold but for those things that can be carried away” – a notion that Father found enormously quaint and amusing.

Fergus also excelled at creating a voice for his characters, especially May Dodd. Dodd’s narration encapsulated an 1870s American woman, from the word choice and diction, to her dialogue and values. In fact, because the book was so steeped in May’s voice, there were times I couldn’t separate the author’s views from May’s, as a 19th century woman. This became problematic for me when Dodd’s viewpoint ran counter to my sensibilities. For example, May held condescending feelings for the Cheyenne and American blacks. Her primary description of people of color was “a proud and noble race.” She also fixated on motherhood and thought of motherhood and child-raising as the highest goal for any person or civilization. If Fergus was merely weaving these historical viewpoints into Dodd’s narration, he did a masterful job. I was left wondering, however, if these were some of his values that he worked into the story.

A heinous example of this was Dodd’s recounting of a gathering of Cheyenne where they drank whiskey. It became a complete bacchanal, crowded with rape, assault, and pedophilia. Dodd described it thus:

Throngs of drunk savages, men and women, jostled me as I pushed by. Naked couples copulated on the ground like animals.

Now was this just an urban white woman’s experience, viewed through the lens of her culture, of the Cheyenne drunk on whiskey? Or does Fergus actually believe that a majority of Cheyenne people responded to whiskey in this way? I’m not sure.

Notwithstanding any missteps, the book is an absorbing read.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews (this book is very popular in book clubs, I’m told):

Book Club Queen
The Eclectic Book Worm
News Herald book club

Girls to the Front

Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus

publication date: 2010
pages: 367 (including back matter)
ISBN: 978-0-06-180636-0

For anyone unfamiliar with the Riot Grrrl movement, it is, according to Wikipedia:

an underground feminist punk rock movement that originally started in the early 1990s, in Washington, D.C., and the greater Pacific Northwest . . . . In addition to a music scene and genre, riot grrrl is a subculture involving a DIY ethic, zines, art, political action, and activism.

That definition was about as much as I knew about Riot Grrrl, so I decided to read this book and learn a little more about the movement.

Sara Marcus obviously felt very passionate about the movement and spent time collecting and investigating it. Her bibliography included hours of interviews, Riot Grrrl zines, many books and essays, and more. However, this passion did not translate into a cohesive or informative story. Marcus related several anecdotes and events, but with no coherent theme or objective. In fact, the first morsel of a theme that I spotted was in the Acknowledgments at the back of the book.

There were many problems with Marcus’s storytelling of Riot Grrrl beyond the lack of coherence. It was bogged-down in name-dropping, for example. There were several pages about Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, who were barely tangentially related to Riot Grrrl. Many passages also contained Marcus’s rants and raves about things with no appreciable connection to Riot Grrrl or to each other. At one point, Marcus sent up the song “Right Here, Right Now” by Jesus Jones. Marcus snarked:

True youth rebellion is always elsewhere, and verily, ’tis better that way, without the chaos and collateral damage and inconvenient principles that always seem to mar such movements in close-up.

If you’re wondering what this idea has to do with a mediocre 1990s pop song, I am too.

One thing Marcus was competent at was accurately portraying her subjects and the Riot Grrrl movement. This meant that the portrayal was not always favorable. There’s this story where members of Riot Grrrl punish some “jerky boys” at a concert:

And once, at a huge alienating jock-filled Fugazi/Slant 6 show at the University of Maryland where some jerky boys booed Erika’s onstage announcement about Riot Grrrl, the girls went into the women’s bathroom and inked WRITE RAPIST’S NAMES HERE on the wall; one girl from the college asked to borrow Erika’s marker and wrote a name up on the wall right away.

I would recommend this book only if you have a burning interest in this topic.

2/6: many problems

A.V. Club
L.A. Times
bitchmedia

Fever Pitch

Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby

publication date: 1992
pages: 247
ISBN: 0-575-05315-1

As someone who has not watched a lot of soccer (or “football”) and has never watched British football and, in fact, cannot even name a single current football player, I don’t know if I’m the best person to review this book. Fever Pitch was Nick Hornby’s first published book, and it followed his obsession with Arsenal, a British football team, from the late 1960s to the date of the book’s publication, 1992.

There was so much about this book I didn’t understand. The British idioms alone had me frequently checking Google. I’m still not quite sure what a “scouser” is. Additionally, there were elementary football references that I didn’t appreciate. Hornby often mentioned “Hillsborough,” a 1989 disaster wherein an overcrowded football stadium resulted in a crushing mob and the death of 96 people. I kept expecting Hornby to explain the situation but he never really did, presumably because he expected his reader to know what Hillsborough was. I eventually looked it up on Wikipedia after the fifth mention. Finally, there were dozens and dozens of obscure football tidbits that I didn’t even bother to research. Here’s a sample sentence:

I experienced the big things – the pain of loss (Wembley ’68 and ’72), joy (the Double year), thwarted ambition (the European Cup quarter-final against Ajax), love (Charlie George) and ennui (most Saturdays, really) – only at Highbury.

However, there was much about the book I did understand. Hornby was a funny, engaging writer who attempted to impart something about humanity but realized that football could only take him so far. In Hornby’s words, “in some ways, football isn’t a very good metaphor for life at all.” As Hornby reflected on his own life, he was able to discover insights about the modern experience:

The white south of England middle-class Englishman and woman is the most rootless creature on Earth; we would rather belong to any other community in the world. Yorkshiremen, Lancastrians, Scots, the Irish, blacks, the rich, the poor, even Americans and Australians have something they can sit in pubs and bars and weep about, songs to sing, things they can grab for and squeeze hard when they feel like it, but we have nothing, or at least nothing we want. Hence the phenomenon of mock-belonging, whereby pasts and backgrounds are manufactured and massaged in order to provide some kind of acceptable cultural identity.

Hornby also discussed his own conflicted relationship with the object of his obsession and his own past in funny and relatable passages.

One of the most interesting portions of the book was its discussion of the more sordid aspects of football. For example, he discussed some of the apparent racism found in football, such as the first time he went to a game and fans threw bananas on the field:

Those who have seen John Barnes, this beautiful, elegant man, play football, or give an interview, or even simply walk out on to a pitch, and have also stood next to the grunting, overweight, orang-utans who do things like throw bananas and make monkey noises, will appreciate the dazzling irony of all this.

Hornby admittedly had an intense love-hate relationship with football and his frank but decidedly subjective views were interesting.

This book started Hornby’s writing career and was very well-received. I imagine that any Arsenal fan would enjoy it. And maybe anyone who is a fan of anything would enjoy it, too. For all I know, any British person would find it clever and relatable. However, I can only really recommend this to someone who loves sports. And maybe only someone who loves soccer. And maybe only specifically British soccer.

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews of the book:

guthikonda
Dappered
The Sports Book Review

Can’t and Won’t

Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis

publication date: 2014
pages: 304
ISBN: 978-0374118587

If I were to write this review in the style of Lydia Davis’s new book Can’t and Won’t, it would look something like this:

A Review of a Book That I Read

I sit here at my laptop; the cheap laptop that I purchased some years ago while I was drunk in an electronics store with my boyfriend who I had been with for many months after we drank several higher-priced beers, and I thoughtfully write this review. My fingers and thumbs tap the hard black keyboard, which has white writing on it – the writing is in the shape of the letters or symbols that appear on screen as I hit the keys.

My mind ponders this book, which is a collection of stories and observations. I am inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt because I always give books the benefit of the doubt, even if they don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. However, I can’t do that with this book because as I read it, as my eyes moved from left to right over the off-white pages in the act of reading, my brain was screaming at me to stop reading, to stop my eyes’ movement, to sleep, to dream, to never wake again; or at the very least to read something else.

I reflect on what others would optimistically call the content of Can’t and Won’t. The author, who I don’t know but I’m sure is personally known by a great number of people, seemed to think of this book as a repository for any wisp of an idea that flew through her mind, much as a good book would be a repository for fully-developed good ideas that the author culled and deliberately chose. Much of this book doubles as a dream journal, with Davis soberly relaying the plots of her dreams, including the two dreams where she went to the bank, which was different but she knew it was a bank, you know how it is in dreams; the dream where she walked through a hallway with a white dog; and the dream where she had a bodyguard.

Perhaps the most maddening portion of this very maddening book, was when Davis spent 15 pages, which was one of the longest passages, and when I say that I don’t mean a hallway but rather an assemblage of words in a book, stating her observations about some cows, in a way that I can only describe as Randy Newmanesque:

They are motionless until they move again, one foot and then another – fore, hind, fore, hind – and stop in another place, motionless again. . . .

They are often like a math problem: 2 cows lying down in the snow, plus 1 cow standing up looking at the hill, equals 3 cows.

Or: 1 cow lying down in the snow, plus 2 cows on their feet looking this way across the road, equals 3 cows.

Today, they are all three lying down. . . .

At dusk, when our light is on indoors, they can’t be seen, though they are there in the field across the road. If we turn off the light and look out into the dusk, gradually they can be seen again.

Like 17 vacuum cleaners sitting on a showroom floor after the 18th vacuum cleaner has just been purchased, this book sucked.

2/6: many problems

New York Times
Christian Science Monitor
The Boston Globe

Vampires in the Lemon Grove

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

publication date: 2013
pages: 243
ISBN: 978-0-307-95723-8

Vampires in the Lemon Grove is a collection of short stories published by Karen Russell, the author of Swamplandia! In this collection, Russell explores the strength of humanity and her vivid imagination by presenting eight stories from diverse points-of-view.

Russell clearly spent time researching, honing, and crafting her stories. They are peppered with minor facts, such as massage techniques, silkworm biology, and Antarctic geography. Additionally, the often-fantastical settings of the stories are richly and vividly conveyed. After I put the book down, the thing my mind would turn to most in reflection was the settings of the stories. Perhaps the most indelible such setting was found in “Reeling for the Empire,” a story of Japanese young women tricked into producing silk by being turned into silkworms themselves. The setting was a factory cave and in one sentence Russell tells you almost everything you need to know:

One of the consequences of our captivity here in Nowhere Mill, and of the darkness that pools on the factory floor, and of the polar fur that covers our faces, blanking us all into sisters, is that anybody can be anyone she likes in the past.

However, Russell’s intense research and near-universal success at invoking atmosphere was not always enough to create a successful story. In fact, the breadth of the varying narrators and characters’ knowledge about obscure topics sometimes made a story forced or inorganic, as if Russell spent more time researching her subject matter than thinking about her characters or plots. Additionally, many of the stories were just fun ideas she probably should have left as ideas. For instance, “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” was a list of rules for those who want to travel to Antarctica to watch Team Whale beat Team Krill in the Food Chain Games. Kind of an amusing idea but am I really going to enjoy reading ten pages about that?

Russell’s dialogue was also inconsistent. There was a great scene in “The New Veterans” where two adult sisters fight about the responsibilities they shared during their mother’s illness and death. The sisters are petty, ordinary, and a little mean and the dialogue conveys a sense that they’ve had this argument before. But, notwithstanding that excellent bit, much of Russell’s dialogue is contrived.

Some of the stories I would read as quickly as I could just so they would be finished, but others would contain these nuggets of literary gold that I would write down, ponder, and summon to my mind much later. For example, this line from “Reeling for the Empire,”

Regret is a pilgrimage back to the place where I was free to choose.

Or this one from “The Seagull Army descends on Strong Beach, 1979:”

That summer Nal was fourteen and looking for excuses to have extreme feelings about himself.

The stories are not all great, but the good ones are just good enough to be worth reading the whole book.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews of the collection:

npr
New York Times
A.V. Club

The Warmth of Other Suns

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

publication date: 2010
pages: 623 (including back matter)
ISBN: 978-0-679-44432-9

In The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson documented the Great Migration, or the movement of black Americans from the South to Northern cities from 1915 to 1970. This movement, though relatively unknown, was profound. For example, according to Wilkerson,

In Chicago alone, the black population rocketed from 44,103 (just under three percent of the population) at the start of the Migration to more than one million at the end of it. By the turn of the twenty-first century, blacks made up a third of the city’s residents, with more blacks living in Chicago than in the entire state of Mississippi.

To support her book, Wilkerson used surveys and studies, both old and new; census data; and in-depth interviews with three subjects who made the journey from the South to the North themselves. Wilkerson presented her book as a story about the three subjects, but within a broader framework of movement and change.

This book was packed with wonderful information. Wilkerson was clearly passionate and knowledgeable about the material. The book’s discussion was comprehensive. Wilkerson examined everything from white flight and the courting of black labor by northern industry to race riots and being black in Las Vegas. She explored several topics I’d never thought of, such as the shift in attitude of white Southerners after the Civil War and during Jim Crow:

The planter class, which had entrusted its wives and daughters to male slaves when the masters went off to fight the Civil War, was now in near hysterics over the slightest interaction between white women and black men.

Although Wilkerson was good at presenting research and data, she also excelled at more personal storytelling. She included several anecdotes about recognizable people whose families were part of the Great Migration, such as Ray Charles, Jesse Owens, and Michelle Obama. Also, her exceptional analysis of her three main case studies, Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, was somehow both reverent and uncompromising. By the end of the book, I felt like I knew these people. Her discussion at that point had turned less from the broad sketch of the Great Migration to a detailed portrait of her aging migrants. She surprisingly spent her last chapters presenting the indignities and dignity that can be found in old age.

For how good the book was, it was not without flaw. Conspicuously, it suffered from a fault that is seemingly written into every nonfiction writer’s contract: repetitiveness. I don’t know if nonfiction books are usually written as separate articles or thesis papers, or if editors just don’t think readers can keep up, but they are repetitive. Likewise, the chapters had inconsistent formats and typography. More troubling, two or three of her statistics seemed unsound. For example, this statement, which supposedly showed that Southern black migrants had more education than the northern white population:

In Philadelphia, for instance, some thirty-nine percent of the blacks who had migrated from towns or cities had graduated from high school, compared with thirty-three percent of the native whites.

I find that statistic troubling because it didn’t demonstrate as much as she claimed. What if only 1% of Southern blacks moving to Philadelphia migrated from towns or cities and the rest of the migrants hadn’t graduated high school? That would mean 1/3 of a percent of the migrating people graduated from high school, which would support an opposite conclusion than Wilkerson’s.

Those data-based issues were few and far between. Largely, The Warmth of Other Suns is a rich and informative book.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews of the book:

New York Times
AARP
LA Times