Roxane Gay: An Untamed State

Roxane Gay is a powerful new literary voice whose short stories and essays have already earned her an enthusiastic audience. In An Untamed State, she delivers an assured debut about a woman kidnapped for ransom, her captivity as her father refuses to pay and her husband fights for her release over thirteen days, and her struggle to come to terms with the ordeal in its aftermath.

Mireille Duval Jameson is living a fairy tale. The strong-willed youngest daughter of one of Haiti’s richest sons, she has an adoring husband, a precocious infant son, by all appearances a perfect life. The fairy tale ends one day when Mireille is kidnapped in broad daylight by a gang of heavily armed men, in front of her father’s Port au Prince estate. Held captive by a man who calls himself The Commander, Mireille waits for her father to pay her ransom. As it becomes clear her father intends to resist the kidnappers, Mireille must endure the torments of a man who resents everything she represents.

An Untamed State is a novel of privilege in the face of crushing poverty, and of the lawless anger that corrupt governments produce. It is the story of a willful woman attempting to find her way back to the person she once was, and of how redemption is found in the most unexpected of places. An Untamed State establishes Roxane Gay as a writer of prodigious, arresting talent.

I am sitting here watching the snow fall and I just have absolutely no idea what to even say about the book I just read. I was so not prepared for a story of this magnitude.

Let me start by telling you straight out that this is a book about rape. Roxane Gay does not hold back, either. The descriptions are very very vivid. Mireille is kidnapped and held in the most horrid conditions for 13 days–tortured and raped in an attempt to break her will. The result is devastating PTSD and a broken family.

But this isn’t just a story about a kidnapping. Roxane Gay highlights the challenges in interracial marriage, and she forces us to look at privilege in the face of terrible poverty.

Your heart will be in your throat the entire time. I hated to put this down for fear that if I did, Mireille wouldn’t make it to the next page. It’s THAT kind of story. The main character might die if you put it down even for a few minutes.

She also writes extensively about privilege and wealth, culture and poverty. Mirelle’s father grew so rich and callous that he was too scared to risk his lifestyle, and love is nothing without the money to back it. You can nearly smell the shit he feels he is smearing underneath his feet as he walks, and that attitude destroys him and his family.

Don’t put it down. It’s too important that you not miss a single bit of Roxane Gay’s message.

(The only reason this book didn’t receive a full five Book Dragons from me is because of just how many trigger points there could be in the story. I can’t put it on my MUST READS list because not everyone could read this. Otherwise, this book is brilliant. Just please be careful if you are sensitive to rape, sexual assault, or kidnapping. There is a great deal of violence in this novel.)

 

DiversityBingo2017:  Black Main Character Own Voices

BUY HERE:

This post contains affiliate links.

WWW Wednesday 1/25/2017

What are you currently reading?

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (Not sure if I’m going to review this. I think it will take another read before I understand it enough to do it justice in a write up.)

For Study:  The Norton Anthology of American Literature by Nina Baym

 

What did you just finish reading? (As always, click on the link below to see what I thought!)

The Mortifications by Derek Palacio

Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

 

What do you think you’ll read next? 

The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Derek Palacio: The Mortifications

Derek Palacio’s stunning, mythic novel marks the arrival of a fresh voice and a new chapter in the history of 21st century Cuban-American literature.

In 1980, a rural Cuban family is torn apart during the Mariel Boatlift. Uxbal Encarnación—father, husband, political insurgent—refuses to leave behind the revolutionary ideals and lush tomato farms of his sun-soaked homeland. His wife Soledad takes young Isabel and Ulises hostage and flees with them to America, leaving behind Uxbal for the promise of a better life. But instead of settling with fellow Cuban immigrants in Miami’s familiar heat, Soledad pushes further north into the stark, wintry landscape of Hartford, Connecticut. There, in the long shadow of their estranged patriarch, now just a distant memory, the exiled mother and her children begin a process of growth and transformation.

Each struggles and flourishes in their own way: Isabel, spiritually hungry and desperate for higher purpose, finds herself tethered to death and the dying in uncanny ways. Ulises is bookish and awkwardly tall, like his father, whose memory haunts and shapes the boy’s thoughts and desires. Presiding over them both is Soledad. Once consumed by her love for her husband, she begins a tempestuous new relationship with a Dutch tobacco farmer. But just as the Encarnacións begin to cultivate their strange new way of life, Cuba calls them back. Uxbal is alive, and waiting.

Breathtaking, soulful, and profound, The Mortifications is an intoxicating family saga and a timely, urgent expression of longing for one’s true homeland.

I can’t believe it is only January 5th (when I’m writing this), and I am already sick of reading books by men.

I really wanted to like this. I don’t think I’ve read anything by a Cuban author previously, and there was some intriguing chatter about Palacio. It began well too, I finished the first quarter pretty quickly. Unfortunately, it didn’t stay this way, and I lost interest by the midway mark. I tried to keep going for a bit, but it just got progressively worse and I had to put it down. My grimace just got bigger and bigger and it just wasn’t worth continuing.

Soledad and Isabel were both solid, interesting characters. The mother, escaping Cuba during the boatlift, builds a successful life in New England for her children. Isabel, her daughter, is maybe the most complex character in the book, becomes The Death Torch–a novice nun who “helps” dying patients find peace on their way into the afterlife. I found the two main men in the story to be sort of flat and dull.

Unfortunately, this is a man’s literary fiction–and so that is the perspective we mostly get. The Mortifications is more about bland sexual relations than actual human relationships. And wow is there a LOT of sex in this book. Maybe I shouldn’t call it bland–just unrealistic. The kind of sex that if I read one of the scenes to you without telling you who wrote it, you would still know it was written by a man. I found it to be quite Oedipal and stomach churning. It wasn’t sexy at all, just wrong.

I stopped a little after the halfway point, but I have a feeling the second half of the book was going to turn even nastier. The letter leading up to it was a gaslighting mess, hinting at a direction I did not want to go.

I hate that this is such a big no, since it is a POC author and has diverse characters. But I just can’t recommend this. I am still very much interested in reading books by Cuban and/or Cuban-American authors, so if anyone has recommendations, I’d love to read them. I’m going to search for some myself, too. There are great ones out there–let’s go find them.

Blogging for Books and Tim Duggan Books provided a copy for an unbiased review. This post contains affiliate links.

BUY HERE:

Zoraida Córdova: Labyrinth Lost

Nothing says Happy Birthday like summoning the spirits of your dead relatives.

I fall to my knees. Shattered glass, melted candles and the outline of scorched feathers are all that surround me. Every single person who was in my house – my entire family — is gone.

Alex is a bruja, the most powerful witch in a generation…and she hates magic. At her Deathday celebration, Alex performs a spell to rid herself of her power. But it backfires. Her whole family vanishes into thin air, leaving her alone with Nova, a brujo boy she can’t trust. A boy whose intentions are as dark as the strange markings on his skin.

The only way to get her family back is to travel with Nova to Los Lagos, a land in-between, as dark as Limbo and as strange as Wonderland…

Beautiful Creatures meets Daughter of Smoke and Bone with an infusion of Latin American tradition in this highly original fantasy adventure.

I’ve seen this book EVERYWHERE lately–it’s touted as the MUST READ for 2016. Now that I’ve read it, I can see why! A multiracial, bisexual main character who is also a witch? YES PLEASE.

There’s no skirting around that bisexuality, either. There are two love interests, though one is certainly stronger than the other, and Alex’s sexuality is never in question. It’s completely normalized and it’s WONDERFUL. More of this please!

The world of Los Lagos is incredibly beautiful–fans of Alice in Wonderland are going to find this book familiar, except instead of a bland British background you’ll see a vibrant canvas reminiscent of Day of the Dead celebrations and Afro-Caribbean influences.  Cordova’s worldbuilding is as magical as the magic of the brujas, which is interwoven through families, and blessed by the gods.

I only have one real criticism of this book. More than once, Alex refers to Nova as having “bipolar eyes.” What do “bipolar eyes” look like? That is not an acceptable descriptor, even if you WERE speaking about someone with a mental illness–and nowhere in the rest of the book, that I could find, is Nova described as having Bipolar Disorder. It shocked me that in a book as amazingly diverse as this, that such a harmful word choice was used.

Aside from that issue, though, I loved the book. Is it enough for me to tell you not to read it? No, definitely not. Labyrinth Lost is an incredible story with incredible diversity. Teens should be able to see this much bisexual representation is EVERY popular YA novel. But it was enough of an issue for me to keep it from my 5 book dragon list MUST READ list. I hope she leaves that descriptor out of the sequel.

DiversityBingo2017:  OV Latinx MC

BUY HERE:

This post contains affiliate links.

Aldous Huxley: Brave New World

Far in the future, the World Controllers have created the ideal society. Through clever use of genetic engineering, brainwashing and recreational sex and drugs, all its members are happy consumers. Bernard Marx seems alone harbouring an ill-defined longing to break free. A visit to one of the few remaining Savage Reservations, where the old, imperfect life still continues, may be the cure for his distress…

Huxley’s ingenious fantasy of the future sheds a blazing light on the present and is considered to be his most enduring masterpiece.

A friend of mine tweeted recently that we were living Brave New World. I hadn’t read it yet, but coincidentally (or not), I’d just ordered it from ThriftBooks. Well, I suppose I better move it up the list, then.

Aldous Huxley certainly wastes no time in horrifying the reader. From the very first chapter, I read slack-jawed in terror about the “utopia” he had created for us. There are definite similarities to what we are seeing today. I don’t know that we are there yet, but we should certainly be wary. It is alarming, for sure.

As far as the book goes–this is going to have to be a twofer. I will need to reread it again. I understood the overall themes and concepts, but I didn’t connect with any of the characters. Maybe it was just too abstract for me.

I have two observations to make:

The first, is just about utopias in general. In every other utopia I’ve read–The Giver, for example–the drug use is hidden. The leaders don’t want society to know they must have drugs to suppress their natural urges, go on with the utopian lifestyle, etc. The drug is always hidden in vitamins, or the water, or something. Here, it is relished, open, necessary. Not taking high doses of soma is frowned upon. You SHOULD be an addict. But don’t take TOO much. Don’t take 20, or you will die. Take a lot, but just enough. Have fun, all of the time. Be high, all of the time.

Second, the caste system–bred into the new embryos, then taught while the children sleep. HOW CREEPY IS THAT?! This is the part that really resonates to today’s world, because while we don’t have a utopian system built for this yet…we have a societal structure that is already this way. Parents teaching children without realizing some of the toxic things that are getting in. I don’t want to get full on conspiratorial but…I think you could see how it could go downhill fast.

Brave New World is a book that would be burnt first if ever such a thing were to happen. If literature starts disappearing, hide your copies. Read it now, while you still can. It should be read, by everyone. And read it more than once, so you know you truly understand what is happening.

bookdragonbookdragonbookdragon

BUY HERE:

 This post contains affiliate links.

WWW Wednesday 1/18/2017

A couple of quick housekeeping notes:  I updated my About Page to show my new mission and goals for this year. I also included my rating system.

I’m also participating in a few challenges for 2017:  Read Around the World (continuing), Beat The Backlist, and DiversityBingo2017. You should check those out and join us!

One more thing:  I did a post about Carve the Mark yesterday. I’d appreciate it if you took the time to read what I wrote, and then go check out some of the threads on twitter. There’s a lot being said and all of it is very thoughtful and important to the book community.

What are you currently reading?

A History of Glitter and Blood by Hannah Moskowitz

For Study:  The Norton Anthology of American Literature by Nina Baym

 

What did you just finish reading? (As always, click on the link below to see what I thought!)

October Mourning:  A Song for Matthew Shepard by Leslea Newman

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

 

What do you think you’ll read next? 

All of Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X

Lesléa Newman: October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard

A masterful poetic exploration of the impact of Matthew Shepard’s murder on the world.

On the night of October 6, 1998, a gay twenty-one-year-old college student named Matthew Shepard was lured from a Wyoming bar by two young men, savagely beaten, tied to a remote fence, and left to die. Gay Awareness Week was beginning at the University of Wyoming, and the keynote speaker was Lesléa Newman, discussing her book Heather Has Two Mommies. Shaken, the author addressed the large audience that gathered, but she remained haunted by Matthew’s murder. October Mourning, a novel in verse, is her deeply felt response to the events of that tragic day. Using her poetic imagination, the author creates fictitious monologues from various points of view, including the fence Matthew was tied to, the stars that watched over him, the deer that kept him company, and Matthew himself. More than a decade later, this stunning cycle of sixty-eight poems serves as an illumination for readers too young to remember, and as a powerful, enduring tribute to Matthew Shepard’s life.

It’s official. This book has broken me. I knew when I picked it up that it would be sad but WOW I did not know that I would cry all the way through it.

I was 12 when Matthew Shepard was killed in a horrific hate crime in Wyoming. I vaguely remember it but until college it really didn’t register with me what had actually happened. I remember now, the anniversary being celebrated on campus and hearing the story. It was my first real understanding of what a hate crime was–outside of the history books, I mean. These things still happen? What kind of world did I live in? Back then the world seemed so big, but so much gentler. I never could have imagined a 2016 like we’ve had.

Newman took the stories and testimonies from the town of Laramie and turned them into a heart wrenching book of poetry. In it, she allows us to witness Matthew Shepard’s last night, and the following days of grief. She honors his memory by showing us just how bright his light was, and just how cruelly it was darkened.

A book like this is going to be hurtful to some people, so protect your heart if you need to. I can’t label this a MUST READ because it could be extremely triggering. But for those who can read it, read it as a way to bring awareness to the terrifying life of being LGBTQIA+ and being out. Hate crimes are an all too real thing in this world, and getting worse. We need this message shared until every LGBTQIA+ person is safe to live without fear of violence.

If you are LGBTQIA+ and need to talk to someone, please reach out to The Trevor Project. They are there for you 24/7. 866-488-7386.

BUY HERE:

This post contains affiliate links.

Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man

First published in 1952 and immediately hailed as a masterpiece, Invisible Man is one of those rare novels that have changed the shape of American literature. For not only does Ralph Ellison’s nightmare journey across the racial divide tell unparalleled truths about the nature of bigotry and its effects on the minds of both victims and perpetrators, it gives us an entirely new model of what a novel can be.

As he journeys from the Deep South to the streets and basements of Harlem, from a horrifying “battle royal” where black men are reduced to fighting animals, to a Communist rally where they are elevated to the status of trophies, Ralph Ellison’s nameless protagonist ushers readers into a parallel universe that throws our own into harsh and even hilarious relief. Suspenseful and sardonic, narrated in a voice that takes in the symphonic range of the American language, black and white, Invisible Man is one of the most audacious and dazzling novels of our century.

I found this book, on one hand, extremely boring. I kept putting it down every few paragraphs. The Prologue was lovely, and I copied much of it into my reading journal, but after that I really struggled to hold my attention to the story.

However, on the other hand, Invisible Man was eerily familiar. Even though it was published in the 40s, all of this could have happened today. Switch The Brotherhood with the Black Lives Matter movement and it all becomes recognizable, especially the second half of the book. I realize there are some big differences, since The Brotherhood was based on a communist organization, but there are also some parallels too–a factional group fighting for their beliefs, recruiting members, training people to serve their cause. Some of the things that happened just gave me so many chills. This is a big part of why it’s such a hard, heavy book–these are hard, heavy times and we are seeing all of these hard, heavy themes in our own current events every day.

It’s a hard book to review and rate. I didn’t really “like” it, but I definitely see the importance of the literature. I’m adding it to on my ongoing list of books that should be read in schools, because I think kids would benefit from teacher-led group conversation on such a heavy theme.

bookdragonbookdragonbookdragon

DiversityBingo2017:  OwnVoices

BUY HERE:

Robin Talley: Lies We Tell Ourselves

In 1959 Virginia, the lives of two girls on opposite sides of the battle for civil rights will be changed forever.

Sarah Dunbar is one of the first black students to attend the previously all-white Jefferson High School. An honors student at her old school, she is put into remedial classes, spit on and tormented daily.

Linda Hairston is the daughter of one of the town’s most vocal opponents of school integration. She has been taught all her life that the races should be kept separate but equal.

Forced to work together on a school project, Sarah and Linda must confront harsh truths about race, power and how they really feel about one another.

Boldly realistic and emotionally compelling, Lies We Tell Ourselves is a brave and stunning novel about finding truth amid the lies, and finding your voice even when others are determined to silence it.

I have SO many feelings about this book. And that makes sense–it’s a book written to evoke extremely strong feelings. It’s a book I may need to sit on for a few days before I fully comprehend everything I just read. Which means by the time you read this, I will have edited this review 100 times at least.

Lies We Tell Ourselves is written in dual POV:  Sarah, a senior POC moving to a previously whites-only school that is being desegregated; and Linda, a white Southern Belle who is diabolically opposed to desegregation. These two spiral around each other tighter and tighter as the year goes on.

My feelings on this book are so much like reading Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things. Dual POV (except SGT had three). One white, one POC; written by a white author. Why is this necessary? Tolley very obviously did her research here. But that is not enough. There is no way a white author could ever put herself in the true voice of a POC in the middle of desegregation. There’s so much pain and abuse and complicated human experience that a white person–ie myself trying to write this review–could absolutely never appropriately put into words. This is why Own Voices is crucial.

In fact I actually had this on my Own Voices list. It is. Sort of. But for a completely different reason. And so I would very much hesitate to call this OV in the future–the author is white, and this is a story about the Civil Rights Movement.

There is an obscene amount of racist slurs in Lies We Tell Ourselves. Part of my brain (that old part that hadn’t been exposed to diversity and humanity still pops up way too often) says “Well, Haley, this is a book about desegregation in Virginia. Of COURSE there are going to be racial slurs. Of COURSE people are going to do hateful, horrible things.” I’m also disgusted, ashamed, and I want to protect all of my friends from what is said here.

This is also the epitome of the Oppressor/Oppressed romance trope. It’s gross. Linda is a racist. Even when she “changes her mind” she still only changes her mind about Sarah, not desegregation. Sarah is different, she’s special. And Sarah is constantly having to convince herself that Linda has changed, or that she can be changed, right up until the end of the story. It’s just so disgustingly problematic.

There are some good things about this book:  Queer characters, a diverse cast of POC, girls standing up to abusive parents–really just ladies figuring out what they want in general and going for it. Unfortunately all that is overshadowed by the major problems that this book has. I am really just striking out lately, it seems.

WWW Wednesday 1/11/2017

 

A couple of quick housekeeping notes:  I updated my About Page to show my new mission and goals for this year. I also included my rating system.

I’m also participating in a few challenges for 2017:  Read Around the World (continuing), Beat The Backlist, and DiversityBingo2017. You should check those out and join us!

 

What are you currently reading?

Huntress by Malinda Lo

For Study:  The Norton Anthology of American Literature by Nina Baym

 

What did you just finish reading? (As always, click on the link below to see what I thought!)

Say Uncle by Kay Ryan

The World’s Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarne

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

 

What do you think you’ll read next? 

The Fifth Petal by Brunonia Barry

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

All of Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai