Turtles All the Way Down

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green9780525555360

publication date: 2017
pages: 304
ISBN: 978-0525555360

Reading John Green can be frustrating. Not because I don’t enjoy it, but because I do. I enjoy everything of his, including Turtles All the Way Down, I’ve read. But, every line, every teary ending, seems calculated to make me feel exactly as I’m made to feel, and that’s annoying.

Turtles All the Way Down, like every John Green book, followed a teenage protagonist as she navigated school and the adults in her world. The book also introduced a love interest and, of course, an adventure. What made this book different, besides the updated cultural references — Green mentioned Wikipedia, dick pics, and mass incarceration, just to name a few — is the main character, Aza Holmes, and her narrative. Aza had anxiety and OCD. Green wrote her as a response to the fictional characters — Sherlock Holmes being perhaps the most famous — that romanticize the kind of obsessive mental thought processes that can characterize mental illness. For example, Aza made this observation while her mind was uncontrollably whirring around:

Madness, in my admittedly limited experience, is accompanied by no superpowers; being mentally unwell doesn’t make you loftily intelligent anymore than having the flu does. So I know I should’ve been a brilliant detective or whatever, but in actuality I was one of the least observant people I’d ever met. I was aware of absolutely nothing outside myself on the drive to Daisy’s apartment building and then to my house.

Aza’s inner monologue sometimes made for very intense reading. The narrative would become a fractured consciousness stream when Aza was having a particularly bad thought spiral. However, in general, the writing was what I’ve come to expect from Green: pithy and accurate sayings about life that are simply itching to be Pinterest memes. Green stuck with this format, I assume, because he is so good at it. The book was full of quotable lines:

Anybody can look at you. It’s quite rare to find someone who sees the same world you see.

And:

Wealth is careless — so around it, you must be careful.

And:

You don’t get to be in anything else — in friendship or in anger or in hope. All you can be in is love.

This book was just classic John Green. If you like him, you’ll like Turtles All the Way Down. If you’ve never read him, imagine a precocious and often accurate teenager lecturing you about life while also asking you to check your privilege from time to time.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

New York Times
Los Angeles Review Of Books
Slate

The Thief and the Dogs

The Thief and the Dogs by Naguib Mahfouz9780385264624

publication date: 1984
pages: 108
ISBN: 9774240340

This Egyptian novella, though first published in 1961, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988, after being translated into English from the Arabic in 1984. The author, Naguib Mahfouz, worked for the Egyptian civil service and used this book to present the story of a convicted thief’s descent into madness.

The book had a very noir quality, with the action mostly occurring at night and with the main character, Said, constantly prowling the streets of Cairo. While Said roamed, the book included his bitter and obsessive inner monologue:

The bars have shut down and only the side streets are open, where plots are hatched. From time to time he has to cross over a hole in the pavement set there like a snare and the wheels of tramcars growl and shriek like abuse. Confused cries seem to seep from the curbside garbage. (I swear I hate you all). Houses of temptation, their windows beckoning even when eyeless, walls scowling where plaster has fallen.

Mahfouz’s writing had a compelling poetry and directness. Here was an example from a scene where Said was attempting to break into and burglarize the home of an enemy:

When [Said] was sure the street was empty he dodged into the hedge, forcing his way in amidst the jasmine and violets, and stood motionless: If there was a dog in the house – other than its owner, of course – it would now fill the universe with barking.

Another example of Mahfouz’s writing style was this line of absolution:

But the dawn shed dewy compassion giving momentary solace for the loss of everything, even the two banknotes, and he surrendered to it.

Another aspect of Mahfouz’s writing that I enjoyed was his ability to write in aphorisms. For example, here was Said attempting to explain the traitorous nature of a former mentor:

But what’s truly ridiculous is that the distinguished teacher of the accused is a treacherous scoundrel. You may well be astonished at this fact. It can happen, however, that the cord carrying current to a lamp is dirty, speckled with fly shit.

The book included innumerable details of Egyptian life. The author inserted specific Cairene streets and depicted the Egyptian characters’ dress, food, jobs, and religion. It also was very universal. Mahfouz presented a convincing portrait of a man with an increasingly tenuous grip on reality.

At times, however, the book was slow. This was quite a feat, considering it was only 108 pages. The dullness came from the book’s repetition and its proselytizing characters. There also was not much of a plot: newly freed convict wanders urban streets as the reader wonders how much of the book’s action is taking place within the main character’s head.

With that said, I would definitely recommend the book. It’s a classic and a quick read.

4/6: worth reading

Other reviews:

Knoji.com
D.M. Miller blog
Curled Up blog

A House Of My Own

A House Of My Own: Stories From My Life by Sandra Cisneros9780385351331

publication date: 2015
pages: 400
ISBN: 9780385351331

The person who recommended this book to me absolutely loved it. She spoke about the deep connection she felt to the book: as though she was reading her own memoir, as well as the author’s. A House Of My Own did not spark the same joy in me. I thought it was just fine, but not necessarily anything I would recommend to someone else.

A House Of My Own was a collection of essays, written over decades by the author, Sandra Cisneros. Cisneros is a Mexican-American writer, most famous perhaps for her book The House On Mango Street. Much of A House Of My Own revolved around houses: Cisneros’s, her parents’, her friends’, strangers’. Cisneros also spent a lot of time discussing was it’s like to be a daughter, a Mexican-American, and a writer; sometimes she delved into those topics simultaneously.

The essays were presented largely chronologically and the book got better as Cisneros’s writing became more mature. The book became tighter and more consistent. However, I still often found the writing repetitive, uninteresting, or even puzzling. The essays repeated the same themes, anecdotes, and witticisms. Also, I found Cisneros’s myopic view of the world hard to relate to. For example, she accompanied a friend to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting “out of curiosity.” While there, she heard “testimonies of incredible pain, of humiliations that would knock out anyone.” After listening to people pour their heart out as a step in their journey of recovery, what does Cisneros take away from the meeting? That she needs to move, that she needs a new house.

Almost all the stories, even those that were about other things, were about Cisneros. It’s her memoir, after all. I just didn’t find Cisneros, or Cisneros’s ideas, that interesting. I was probably not the target audience: I have no desire to own my own home, I don’t think of writing in grand terms, and I’ve never read any of Cisneros’s other books.

However, there was some absolutely beautiful writing. In a passage about the musician Astor Piazzolla, Cisneros described his music like this:

I think Piazzolla’s music demands you dance alone, preferably under the stars. After I’ve written the there’s no one about to make me feel silly, I like a glass of wine as plush as the menstrual wall, a cigar like the kind my grandfather El Coronel smoked, and Piazzolla.

Her writing was also sprinkled with insights, such as these sentences, about the death of her father:

Whenever anyone discusses death they talk about the inevitable loss, but no one ever mentions the inevitable gain. How when you lose a loved one, you suddenly have a spirit ally, an energy on the other side. . .

Although the book did not impact me in any striking way, it certainly had some rich writing and delightful passages. Also, I know of at least one person who thoroughly loved it. Therefore, I think A House Of My Own was:

4/6: worth reading

Other reviews:

Latino Book Review
Harvard Review
Dallas News

So How Long Have You Been Native?

So How Long Have You Been Native? by Alexis C. Bunten41oq9wztmil-_sx326_bo1204203200_

publication date: 2015
pages: 251
ISBN: 978-0-8032-3462

In this book, the author presented her experience working in the Alaska tourism sector as a tour guide for a Native Alaskan company, which explicitly showcased the Indian heritage of the town of Sitka, Alaska. The author, an anthropologist, wanted to faithfully represent what life was like as an Alaska Native tour guide. She recounted her participation, and the experiences of her co-workers, while providing historical, psychological, and academic context. Beyond retelling what happened to the author, the book dealt with many topics, including native identity, labor politics, psychology, capitalism, and history. Although I don’t know this for sure, I believe the book began as Bunten’s dissertation and then was expanded to book length.

Bunten’s writing, as an attempt to faithfully recreate her encounters, was very detailed. Generally, I found the details interesting and enlightening, as in this passage about cruise ship tactics:

. . . cruise lines have a history of doing whatever it takes to make local communities comply with their demands by preying on undiversified economies that come to depend upon the tourist dollars cruise ships bring. In 1993, Whittier, Alaska, the only cruise ship port inside the famed Prince William Sound, introduced a one-dollar per passenger head tax. Rather than pay the head tax, Princess Cruises diverted its ships from Whittier to Seward, Alaska, where there was no head tax. Princess Cruises only agreed to return to Whittier in 2004, two years after the city repealed the head tax.

However, I could see how some readers would find all the details to be repetitive, unnecessary, or dull, as in this passage about what Bunten and her co-workers did after their initial job training:

After job training officially ended, we each checked out from the back office a Tlingit [Indian]-style button vest and a rain jacket with Tribal Tours’ logo to wear over the black slacks and polo shirts purchased with our own money. . . Although the uniform physically marked our identities as Tribal Tours’ workers, it also represented a shift in our thinking about our responsibilities as workers.

Even through the repetitive and sometimes clunky writing style, Bunten introduced lots of interesting and insightful facts and passages. She also did not shy from calling things out as she saw them, from the Russian and American genocides of native Indians to the shady behavior of a co-worker. This made for a usually engaging read.

I would recommend this book to anyone who has ever felt frustrated by working in a service industry. I would also, of course, recommend it to anyone who has an interest in native studies or labor politics. So How Long Have You Been Native? was a compelling read that presented an important perspective.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews of the book:

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
Tribal College
Anchorage Daily News

Norweigan Wood

Norweigan Wood by Haruki Murakami, translated by Jay Rubin9780375704024

publication date: 1987 (translation: 2000)
pages: 296
ISBN: 296-0-375-70402-7

In this coming-of-age story, university student Toru Watanabe attempted to maintain a recent relationship with Naoko, his best friend’s ex-girlfriend, while meeting unusual new people, including a talkative and unconventional young woman, Midori. Watanabe navigated these relationships against a backdrop of 1960s student protests and a rash of suicides among young people.

Norweigan Wood was incredibly popular in Japan after it was published in 1989. Young people were drawn to Murakami’s western-centric language — the title comes from the name of a Beatles song — and his grappling with heady themes while writing from the point of view of a young protagonist. The book was also well-received in America, especially after it was translated into English.

Murakami used what may have seemed like a straightforward love story to explore numerous weighty themes. Murakami examined the circular and repetitive nature of time, which never quite moves the way we want it to. He also discussed sex, and the myriad forms it uses to manifest itself. Probably the most pervasive theme, however, was the specter of death. Murakami suggested that death was mainly experienced by the living:

The shadow of death slowly, slowly eats away at the region of life, and before you know it everything is dark and you can’t see, and the people around you think of you as more dead than alive.

Murakami also imbued his love story with a tension throughout the book. The tension was often a vague feeling of dread, as in this passage, where Watanabe was taking public transportation to visit Naoko:

The bus would enter cedar forest, come out to a village, then go back into forest. It would stop at a village to let people off, but no one ever got on. Forty minutes after leaving the city, the bus reached a mountain pass with a wide-open view. The driver stopped the bus and announced that we would be waiting there for five or six minutes . . . Eventually another bus came climbing up from the other side of the pass and stopped next to ours . . .
It was not immediately clear to me why our bus had had to wait for the other one, but a short way down the other side of the mountain the road narrowed suddenly. Two big buses could never have passed each other on the road, and in fact passing ordinary cars coming in the other direction required a good deal of maneuvering with one or the other vehicle having to back up and squeeze into the overhang of a curve.

Beyond setting an effective tone, there were so many times that something in the narrative was pleasingly relatable. I was often reminded of something a friend had recently said, or something I’d thought while drifting off to sleep. This introspective passage, for example:

At five-thirty I closed my book, went outside, and ate a light supper. How many Sundays — how many hundreds of Sundays like this — lay ahead of me? “Quiet, peaceful, and lonely,” I said aloud to myself. On Sundays, I didn’t wind my spring.

Although there was a lot I liked about the book, I often found it tiresome or maddening. It was sometimes repetitive, and the prose could be dull or inconsistent — although that might be the fault of the translator.

Perhaps most importantly, I don’t gain a lot of satisfaction anymore from coming-of-age stories with a man who is finding his way in the world with the help of lessons learned from the women around him. I’m tired of reading sentences like this:

The power she exerted was a subtle thing, but it called forth deep resonances . . . It was a kind of childhood longing that had always remained — and would forever remain — unfulfilled.

Or:

I felt as drawn to her as ever, perhaps more than before, but the thought of what she had lost in the meantime also gave me cause for regret. Never again would she have that self-centered beauty that seems to take its own, independent course in adolescent girls and no one else.

Or, my favorite:

[Falling in love with two women happens] all the time in this great big world of ours. It’s like taking a boat out on a beautiful lake on a beautiful day and thinking both the sky and lake are beautiful.

I suppose it wasn’t Murakami’s fault I’ve read variations on those lines dozens of times. Doesn’t make it less annoying or less inaccurate, though. Although the book was inconsistent, there were enough potent passages to make it:

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

New York Times
The Guardian 
The Ooh Tray blog

Inside a Silver Box

Inside a Silver Box by Walter Mosley9780765375223

publication date: 2016
pages: 306
ISBN: 978-0765375223

In this work of speculative fiction, Mosley introduced the Silver Box, a god-like sentient machine that was a prison for its god-like creator and archenemy, Inglo. The Silver Box and its prisoner, after much clashing, ended up on Earth, and the enemy escaped his prison. In order to save the world, two humans – Ronnie, a black ex-convict, and Lorraine, a privileged white woman – were thrown together by the Box to recapture Inglo. Although the book presented this story, it was much more existential than plot-driven.

The plot seemed important to Mosley, but it also was a way for him to discuss many themes. One theme was the interconnectedness of all things, from the violent life of a criminal to the rarefied world of the elite. In this passage, Mosley described that link through the fledgling relationship between Ronnie and Lorraine:

“It’s kinda strange when we’re next to each other, isn’t it?” Lorraine asked.
“Yeah. It feels like the way I did when I was a kid and my mama would hold me.” [Ronnie said.]
“When I close my eyes,” Lorraine said, straining for the right words, “it’s like I’m floating in space and there’s a drummer playing just for me.” . . .
“We got the same blood,” he said. “I mean, probably everybody and everything in the world got the same blood, but somehow you’n me can feel it, ‘specially when we’re next to each other.”

A related theme that the book explored was how, as connected beings, we are all culpable for any bad things that happen. This theme manifested itself differently for the white Lorraine and the black Ronnie. In this passage, Lorraine was confronted with the consequences of her class:

[Ronnie said, “You] run down the street past poor, sick, uneducated, homeless, and hopeless people with yo’ fine ass and your pockets full’a money. I belonged in prison but that don’t make you innocent . . . . It’s easy to find guilt all up and down the streets. But how’s all that no-good shit gonna be there, and here you are so innocent that you don’t have nuthin’ to do with it?”
This thought wasn’t that alien to Lorraine. She had studied original sin and the various interpretations of social and socialist revolutions. She had written a term paper on the paradox of capital punishment. [And] she realized that all of this had been in her head, that she’d never had to answer for the crimes of her culture and her class; nor did she truly believe that she should be held responsible.

Later in the story, Mosley also explored the culpability of Ronnie’s class, to the extent that they were descended from slaves:

Slavery was a terrible thing, Ronnie remembered Jimmy Burkett saying when Ronnie was just a child. . . . But you know the slave play a part in it too.
What you mean? Little Ronnie asked.
In order to be a slave you have to believe that shit, Jimmy said. You got to say yes, sir, and yes, ma’am. If you don’t do that, if you refuse their dominion in your heart, then even though you might die you will never be their slave.

Inside a Silver Box used plot and dialogue to examine Mosley’s ideas about race, gender, class, and technology. It revealed an author who was empathetic and concerned with Americans’ realities.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

New York Journal Of Books
The Future Fire blog
Fantasy Literature blog

The Hate U Give

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas9780062498533

publication date: 2017
pages: 464
ISBN: 9780062498557

In this topical YA novel, author Angie Thomas explored issues of race and violence. The story involved Starr, a 16-year-old black woman who navigated between two worlds: her family and neighborhood, which were black, and her school and friends, which were white. Starr was forced to confront the inherent inequities of these worlds when she witnessed a white cop killing a young black man during a traffic stop. The title of the book came from a Tupac quote, where he explained that he believed Thug Life was an acronym for The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody.

Thomas explored several important themes in The Hate U Give. She explicitly discussed the militarization of police forces and the covert racism of society that leads to white on black violence. She also examined what it’s like to be a brown person in a sea of white faces, and what it’s like to be constantly assessing your own identity as “other,” as in this passage:

The ironic thing is though, at [majority white high school] Williamson I don’t have to “play it cool” – I’m cool by default because I’m one of the only black kids there. I have to earn coolness in [the black neighborhood of] Garden Heights, and that’s more difficult than buying retro Jordans on release day.
Funny how it works with white kids though. It’s dope to be black until it’s hard to be black.

Although the book covered weighty topics and themes, Thomas’s writing was often funny. For example:

The school year’s almost over, so everybody’s goof-off levels are at their highest, and white-kid goofing off is a category of its own. I’m sorry, but it is. Yesterday a sophomore rode down the stairs in the janitor’s garbage can. His dumb ass got a suspension and a concussion. Stupid.

Thomas also created very effective characters. Starr was intricately developed, as was her family and close friends. The book included scenes that showcased each of Thomas’s characters, beyond their importance to the plot.

The book had some flaws, however. The dialogue was inconsistent: sometimes it rang true and conveyed something about the characters or the book; other times it was simply a device to shoehorn in exposition that Thomas thought was important. Also, mot of the action or violence in the book was not effective. For example, the shooting of the young black man was written in a hurried and detached style and did not become urgent until relived by the traumatized Starr.

The Hate U Give was published as YA. It was written in a straightforward manner, with a young narrator who had parental problems and was exploring her nascent sexuality. It was also a funny and engaging read that also illuminated some of the most weighty and pressing topics of today.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

The Book Smugglers
Baltimore Times
Black and Bookish