Monday, September 4, 2017

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood Born a Crime is Trevor Noah's memoir of his childhood in South Africa. He was born during apartheid when miscegenation laws were still on the books in South Africa, making his conception - his mother is Black and his father is White - literally a crime. Given that Noah was born during apartheid, I expected stories of violence and sadness. I wasn't expecting to laugh as much as I did. There is some violence and sadness but I laughed more than anything else. Noah tends to see the positive side of life and the absurdity of it. At least that is how he comes across in this book.

In addition to providing plenty of laughs, Noah uses his childhood to comment on issues relating to race, gender, poverty, and family. Even though he was talking about his childhood in South Africa, he could have been talking about ghettos in America. I heartily recommend this.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile

Queen Sugar 

A year or so ago I heard that a new show was coming to Oprah’s channel OWN called Queen Sugar. It stared Rutina Wesley, who I have admired since True Blood. There’s a lot I like about the show so I thought I’d check out the source material: Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile. As it turned out, the book and TV show share a title, character names, a couple plot points, and that’s about it. 

***Warning: I really wanted to discuss this book and you can't really discuss a book without spoiling it a little, so beware there are some slight spoilers ahead. ***

Natalie Baszile's Queen Sugar begins with a woman named Charlotte “Charley” Bordelon and her daughter Micah driving from California to Louisiana. Charlie’s father Ernest has inexplicably left her an 800-acre sugarcane farm. Why Charlie’s father left her the farm is unclear. On the television show the father leaves his farm to his three children. There it makes some sense in that although his children have chosen different career paths, they at least grew up in Louisiana and have some familiarity with farming life. In contrast, the Charley in the book grew up in Los Angeles, is an art teacher, and knows absolutely nothing about farming. Further, Ernest ties the farm up in a trust so Charley can’t sell it. If she doesn’t farm the land successfully, then Charley will lose the farm. Frankly it seemed like a screwed up inheritance to leave a daughter who by all description was a very good and caring daughter, but I guess Baszile had to get Charley to Louisiana somehow.

There is so much going on in Queen Sugar, too much really. It hints at a range of issues, introduces several plot points, and then never follows through. One of those issues is race in the south. Charley is an African-American woman trying to farm sugarcane in the south – something that has traditionally been the province of men, especially White men. In the beginning of the novel there is very much a sense of Charley making waves in rural Louisiana merely by being an African-American woman. There are a couple White male characters early in the story who are completely disrespectful and dismissive of Charley. It is suggested that they are out to destroy her in part because they want her land and in part because they don't think she belongs in their farming world. Then those characters disappear and we don't get anything more on that plot point. There are other hints at race issues. For instance, Charley’s daughter Micah wants to enter a baking contest but her great-grandmother remarks that it is only the rich White women that ever win. Micah doesn’t win but then it isn’t clear that she should have.

In large print on the back cover of my copy of Queen Sugar it says the novel is an “intimate story of mother-daughter reinvention, endurance, and hop amid the complexities of the contemporary South.” I have no idea who wrote that description but I don’t think they read the same book I did. For starters there isn’t much of a mother-daughter story. There are several mothers and daughters: Charley and Micah, Lorna and Charley, and Miss Honey and Violet – but none of those take center stage.

The relationship between Charley and Micah is particularly frustrating. In an early chapter of the book Charley and Micah are driving to their new farm. Eleven-year-old Micah is not happy with the move, which is understandable. Charley is playing with her wedding ring, something she does when she’s anxious. Micah asked to see it so Charley gives the ring to her daughter who throws it out the window of their moving car. Micah suffers no consequences for actions. Charley and Micah don’t even really talk about it. Throughout the book Micah repeatedly engages in rude and destructive behavior. Her behavior is partly excused as preteen hormones, which I didn’t buy as an adequate reason, but even if that was the sole reason for her behavior, her behavior needed to be addressed. I was waiting for a confrontation or conversation between Micah and Charley in which both vented about their frustrations. That confrontation never happened.

Queen Sugar is mostly Charley’s story but her half-brother Ralph Angel figures heavily into the story as well, arguably to the book’s detriment. I’m not sure what Baszile was trying to say with this character or what she wanted readers to feel about him. He has a sad backstory. Ernest (Ralph Angel and Charley’s father) got his high school girlfriend (that is Ralph Angel’s mother) pregnant and then pretty much abandoned Ralph Angel and his mother. There is a strong suggestion that Ralph Angel’s mother suffered from a mental illness but no specifics are provided (why I don’t know). At some point in his teens Ralph Angel moved to California to live with his father, who by then had married and had a second child. Ernest was a much better father the second time around, doting on baby Charley. Ralph Angel couldn’t help but be jealous. He began acting out and was eventually kicked out of his father’s house and sent to live with his grandmother in Louisiana. So super sad, right? Fast forward two decades later, and Ralph Angel is still that jealous, angry kid.

The situation in California was not entirely Ralph Angel’s fault. His father and stepmother could have done better but then so could have Ralph Angel. That ends up being the story of Ralph Angel’s life. The world could have done better by him, but Ralph Angel could have also done better. Instead he spends most of his time getting high, blowing jobs, blowing relationships, and being angry at and jealous of his half-sister. He feels like she has everything while he has nothing. Never mind that just like Ralph Angel, Charley tragically lost her spouse and is now a single parent looking for a new start. On the television show I also find the Ralph Angel character frustrating at times (but not nearly as frustrating as the character in the book). On the show the character is younger so I can excuse some of his behavior as youthful stupidity. In the book however, Ralph Angel is a man in forties with a kid. He was just too old to be acting the way he did.

I kept waiting for Ralph Angel’s moment of redemption. In the beginning he seemed like a good father making bad decisions but trying to do better. For a short while it looks like he might do better then it all goes down hill. Again, some of what goes wrong isn’t his fault, but a lot of it is Ralph Angel acting like an entitled prick who never takes responsibility for any of his actions. He is constantly focused on what he thinks is owed to him. And in the end, Charley ends up feeling bad because she hasn’t done more to help him. That actually made me angry because she could not have done more. Even if she had somehow found been able to find a way, there is only so much one can do for a person who is unwilling to change. Sometimes life just isn’t fair and all you can do is forget about other people's business and mind your own. Ralph Angel was always too focused on Charley and everyone else.

I want to end on something I did like about this book – the description of sugarcane farming. Moby Dick is one of my favorite books. (Stay with me, there’s a point coming.) Part of what I love about Heman Melville’s classic is the thing most people hate about it – the long interludes about the whaling industry. I’m never going to read a nonfiction book about whaling, but teach me about whaling while telling me an adventure story and I’m in. I like learning about stuff when I read, even better when it is mixed in with my fiction. It’s like two books for the price and time of one. So it is no surprise that I enjoyed the parts of Queen Sugar that delved into the complexities of sugarcane farming. As Charley learned about planting and harvesting sugarcane, I learned.

Queen Sugar is Natalie Baszile’s first book and I think it showed. It was a good, though not great, first book. I would read another one by her. She obviously has lots of ideas and I think with more practice her stories will get better.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending  Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending is simple and sensational. It is full of beautiful writing. I have a page full of quotes in my book journal to prove it.

First there is Tony and his two school friends. Then the enigmatic and philosophical Adrian enters the picture, turning the trio of friends into a quad. Tony's life follows the usual course, hitting the typical highlights: high school (or the British equivalent), college, marriage, mortgage, kid, divorce, retirement. During college he meets a girl. It doesn't end well. There's bitterness and anger, and then life continues.

It wasn't the story itself that got me; it was the language. This book is the reason I  prefer to buy books instead of borrowing them. I can write and underline in a book I own, marking favorite passages I want to revisit and re-experience. The Sense of an Ending was full of underline worthy quotes. Here are some of my favorites.

"This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn't turn out to be like Literature." (pg. 16)

"What was the point of having a situation worthy of fiction if the protagonist didn't behave as he would have done in a book." (pg. 17)

"History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation." (pg. 18)

"History...[I]t's more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated." (pg. 61)

"...to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life." (pg. 104)

"...that when we are young and sensitive, we are also at our most hurtful." (pg. 108)

Friday, July 21, 2017

Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood

Cocaine Blues (Phryne Fisher, #1)  Cocaine Blues is a mystery set in in late 1920s/ early 1930s Australia (so maybe it is a historical mystery). Phryne (pronounced fry-knee) was born poor in Australia. Thanks to the Great War several people in Phryne's extended family die, resulting in Phryne's father elevation to a title and wealth. And just like that, Phryne and her family are removed to London. Now an adult, Phryne has grown bored with flower arranging and whatever else wealthy women do with their time. When family friends ask her to check on their daughter back in Australia, Phryne welcomes the change of scenery.

Within hours of setting foot in Melbourne, Phryne stops a woman from stabbing the man who wronged her. From there Phryne finds herself involved in one mystery after another. She uncovers the identity of an illegal abortionist who has been butchering women, breaks up a cocaine ring, and enjoys the company of handsome Russian dancer. She is intelligent, fearless, and always fabulously dressed. Cocaine Blues is the first in a series with dozens of volumes, which means plenty more adventures for Phryne Fisher, lady detective.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Shiny Broken Pieces by Sona Charaipotra & Dhonielle Clayton

Shiny Broken Pieces (Tiny Pretty Things, #2)  Shiny Broken Pieces picks up the fall semester after Tiny Pretty Things ended. Gigi is recovering mentally and physically after being pushed in front of a car. Bette has been suspended from school and struggling to clear her name and get back in everybody's good graces. June's difficulties with food have taken full of control of her life. And Cassie is back. It is their final year at ballet boarding school. What amounts to their final exam is also their final chance to prove they deserve a spot in the ballet company. There are only two spots open in the company. Who will it be?

In Tiny Pretty Things readers got the story from the perspectives of three fiercely ambitious girls vying for the best roles while dealing with the ups and downs of life. Sometimes those who didn't get what they wanted when they wanted took out their anger and frustrations on others. There was bullying and nasty pranks, culminating with one ballerina ending the night in a hospital. In Shiny Broken Pieces the ballerinas are dealing with the repercussions of their (and other's) actions. The bullied want revenge. The bullies begin to see how much they hurt others. All of them contemplate how everything that has happened could affect the potential careers they want so desperately and have worked so hard for. Not each realizes it right away, but each is in danger of losing everything. Gigi an Cassie in particular have to figure out which is more important to them - getting revenge or ballet.

I loved this! There's ballet, boarding school, a diverse set of characters, and extremely ambitious young women - this series is basically catnip for me. The authors wrapped up the story well and I get why it is a duology, but oh how I wish there were more books to read!

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad   Cora is a slave on a Georgia cotton plantation. It is as horrible as it sounds, violent and vile in every imaginable way. In addition to the cruelties of slavery, Cora is also an outcast among her fellow slaves. In short, her life is horrible. One day Caesar, one of the newer slaves to the plantation, asks Cora to run away with him. As first she says no. The punishment for a runaway attempt is not only death, but the most painful death the sadistic slave masters can think of. Caesar urges her to reconsider and eventually Cora decides to run.

I had high hopes for this, what with all the awards and nominations for awards this book has received. Unfortunately it didn't quite live up to the hype. For starters there is the idea of the railroad itself. Here the underground railroad isn't just a metaphor, it is an actual train or at least a single train car. Anytime someone mentions this book they mention this so I was really looking forward to seeing how Whitehead was going to flesh this out. Unfortunately there wasn't very much meat on this bone. How the railroad was built, by whom, or how people got involved with it was never explained. So making the underground railroad an actual train instead of it simply being a metaphor didn't really add much to the story.

Cora's journey is epic. In epics I think you either need a really strong main character to connect to, a character whose joy and pain you feel bodily with each word of the story. Or alternatively, the main character can be less important than the journey itself. In this case the character is more of a device used to flesh out the events surrounding the main character. In The Underground Railroad I didn't exactly get one or the other. Cora isn't the strongest of characters. I felt the story in one respect because it is about slavery and that alone elicits strong feelings but Cora herself felt too removed and too distant from the story even though she was its main character. As for her journey, Cora visits different states, each of which is dealing the population of slaves and free Black people differently. Whitehead uses these different states to touch on various actual historical events (Nat Turner rebellion and the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, and more) but it didn't quite explore them enough.

I'm not sure if I liked this book or not. There were aspects of it I definitely liked. There were many great ideas but in the end it fell a little flat for me. I am glad I read it, so that's something.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey

Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse, #1) Leviathan Wakes is book one in The Expanse series written by James S.A. Corey, which is the pen name of the writing duo consisting of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. (Query: Why do authors use pen names when everyone already knows their real names? This is a legitimate question. I really want to understand the reasoning behind this choice) The story is a mash up the science fiction and mystery genres set against the back drop of space. I loved it! 

Humans have colonized Mars and an asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter. Sufficient enough amount of time has passed that generations have been born and grown up on the asteroids and on Mars. Martians and belters think of themselves as separate and distinct from Earth. Not in the sense of being a different species, but in the sense of being citizens of different nations. This is especially true of the belters who because of growing up in the lower gravity of asteroids tend to be taller and thinner and have larger heads than humans from the inner planets of Earth and Mars. 

In one sense Leviathan is a story about global politics and scarce resources. Instead of Earth bound nation-states the superpowers are planet Earth and planet Mars. Earth has the things humans need to live - namely air, water, and soil where things can grow. Mars has the superior military force but its people live in domes because Mars's atmosphere is not yet suitable for human life outside of a dome. Belters are the poor colonials caught in the middle and at mercy of the inner planets. They depend entirely on Earth for oxygen, water, food – basically everything humans need to live. With a press of a button or maybe it is the turn of a knob, Earth can ration the amount of oxygen Belters breathe.

The story is told primarily from the points of view of two men: Jim Holden and Detective Miller. Miller has been assigned a missing persons case. He is tasked with finding a missing woman named Julie Mao. Julie left her wealthy family on Earth to live and work among the Belters. Her parents want her back home on Earth. Meanwhile Holden, a former soldier, works on a commercial vessel hauling water around in space. That he works on a water hauler is apt in part because the law of space is not unlike the law of the sea – if there is a distress signal and your ship is the closest then you are duty bound to come to the aid of the distressed ship if you are able. So when the Scopuli sends out a distress call, Holden and his shipmates go to help only to witness a disaster. In alternating chapters Miller searches for a missing girl while Holden and his crew try to figure out what secret is worth killing over and who was willing to do the killing. Eventually Miller's and Holden's stories intersect in an interesting way.

Effortlessly Diverse as It Is Entertaining  

In December 2015 The Expanse, a science fiction series, began airing on the SyFy channel. I originally bought this book with the intention of reading it before the show started but that never happened. One of things I noticed immediately on the show was its racially and ethnically diverse cast.  I wondered if that was due to a conscientious casting director. It is not, or at least that is not the only reason for the diverse cast. Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck imagined a future that includes not only White people but also Asian people and Black people and all kinds of other people. Even better, the characters of color read like fully realized people. Personally in my experience, and I realize other people's experiences may differ, science fiction seems to assume a world where diversity means a mixture of blonds and brunettes or if there is a person of color in the story, there is only the one. It was incredibly refreshing to find something different in Leviathan Wakes. Yes and thank you people writing as James S. A. Corey.

Trying New Things: Hard Science Fiction 

I have a confession. I like the idea of science but am not particularly good at it. While I don’t purposely avoid it, it is not something I seek out either. When I read a book that for one reason or another has a lot of science (or complex math) my brain might initially try to decipher the science but eventually my eyes glaze over and my brain treats the science as magic and therefore as something that will never truly makes sense to me. What can I say other than I studied social sciences and humanities in college and graduate school, not the physical sciences. Admittedly part of this laziness on my part. Part of is not having the necessary background knowledge and taking time to acquire the background knowledge would take me completely out of the story. So I accept the science as magic and quickly move on. 

Leviathan Wakes is what people refer to as hard science, meaning a lot of the science in the book is real. I knew that going to it but read it anyway. Surprisingly I didn't mind the science. I was constantly looking stuff up to get a better understanding of things like gravity and its effect on the human body and what the deal is with asteroids. Overall the science was manageable. It was even interesting. Before reading Leviathan Wakes I thought of space the way I think of Antarctica – an exotic locale that looks pretty in pictures but that I will probably never visit and will spend little time thinking about. This book made me actually interested in space and the planets in a way that I have never been particularly interested. Not that I will ever go to space but I’m interested in learning more about it.

Yes It Is Really that Good 

My copy of Leviathan Wakes is an oversized paperback, really the size of a hardback only with a soft cover, and is 561 pages long. Between the length of the book and the hard science, I expected to spend at least two weeks reading it.  Instead I tore through it in about a week and the only reason it took that long was because there were two or three days when I wasn’t able to get any (or almost no) reading done at all due to other obligations. Getting through a 500+ page book in a week is a sign of good book in my opinion. Luckily it is part of a series. So I have more books to read. Also, The Expanse the television series based on the books is fantastic too. I am eagerly looking forward to season three.