Friday, June 22, 2018

#28 [2018/CBR10] "The Power" by Naomi Alderman

The Power (2017) by Naomi Alderman is another book recommended by President Obama. Again, I had no idea what it was about going into it, but I'm really glad I read it. Not only does it give me something to talk about with Obama if I ever happen to run into him [very likely], but I thought it was interesting and thought-provoking.

The Power begins five thousand years in the future. Neil Armon just wrote a book and is getting feedback from a fictional Naomi Alderman. They live in a world that is matriarchal and women have the more powerful roles. Neil's draft is an imagining of how women came to be in the superior position. His book begins in our present day, where, around the world, young women are developing a "skein" near their collarbone that allows them the power to electrically shock with their hands. Reactions very drastically between people and countries as men and women confront this new ability. There is fighting between adolescent girls, and there are attacks on men and boys. "Already there are parents telling their boys not to go out alone, not to stray too far." The most violent uprisings occur in Moldova where there is a large amount of sex trafficking of women.

There are five or six characters that tell the story from different perspectives and show what is going on throughout the world. Allie is an American girl who was abused by her foster father. She kills him and goes on to start a new feminist religion based on her powers. Roxy is the daughter of an English mafia head. She is incredibly powerful and eventually travels to the United States and befriends Allie. The two make a very strong partnership.

Margot Cleary is an American politician when the skein is woken in her by her daughter, Jocelyn. "Younger girls awaken it in older women. This is the Devil working in the world, passing from hand to hand as Eve passed the apple to Adam." At first Margot hides her power because it is not acceptable, but as the skein becomes more accepted, Margot becomes Governor and uses her power to help girls control their power as well as make herself more successful.

Tunde is an African journalist who makes his name documenting the emergence of the skein and it's effect on politics and populations throughout the world. He is, probably, the most sympathetic character in the book. He is both hurt and saved by women throughout the book. "At first we did not speak our hurt because it was not manly. Now we do not speak it because we are afraid and ashamed and alone without hope, each of us alone. It is hard to know when the first became the second."

I have a lot of thoughts about this book. First, it was fascinating to explore a world where women had a physical advantage. This is especially true when it came to sex. Women could use their skein to make sex more fun and exciting if used gently, or they could literally torture or kill a man if they chose. Women can also force men to get erections, which can become incredibly painful. The skein suddenly puts men in a position where they have to trust women not to physically hurt them. I imagine this perspective could be eye-opening to many.

Second, this book is not a fairy tale of how great a world we would have if women were in charge. Instead, it says that people will do whatever they can to use their power and to get power. The women in this story are not necessarily evil, but they are shaped by their backgrounds and their needs. When they gain power, they use that power to their own advantage and try to get more. Even if they started out with good intentions, bad results occur. I don't like power and I often did not like these characters. This book quickly became very painful to read.

Finally, Alderman really made me think about nature versus nurture. Would women really turn out to be so power hungry and violent? Personally, I don't think things would turn out just like this, but human nature and power may be more significant than gender differences. I'm glad I read this one and would recommend it.

"You can't be the one that hurts and the one that comforts."

Monday, June 18, 2018

#27 [2018/CBR10] "Anything is Possible" by Elizabeth Strout

Anything is Possible (2017) is another book I picked up on President Obama's recommendation. I remember reading Olive Kittredge (2008) many years ago--it must have been right after it was published. At the time I was impressed by the writing, but the details are fuzzy. Anything is Possible is similar in construction: a novel composed of interconnected short stories. However, these stories take place in a small, Midwestern farming community instead of a small town in Maine.

Lucy Barton is the primary connection in these short stories. Everyone in the book is related to her, knows her, and/or has an opinion about her. Growing up, the Barton family was dirt poor, and the children were abused. Lucy managed to break out of town, go to college, move to Manhattan and become a writer. She has just published a new book and is on a publicity tour.

Strout tells the story of Lucy's brother and sister, left behind in town with varying degrees of problems and resentment. We also learned about the dairy farm owner who became a janitor after his farm was burned to the ground. He saw Lucy stay after school every day and knew she was in some kind of trouble. Lucy's cousin was even worse off growing up, but he manages to pull himself out of poverty and become a successful businessman. There are other characters, less connected to Lucy, who fill the book. Their stories are often painful, tragic, and disturbing, but they all feel real.

The construction of this book is unique. The short stories from different perspectives allow the reader to see more of the town and what's going on in it than if the story were focused on one person. At the same time, Strout keeps so much information to herself that I felt I never got closure or a real understanding of any one situation. We never learn what Lucy Barton's book is about and only get glimpses into the sordid reality of each character's life.

Relationships and family seem to be the focus of these stories, and many of these relationships are very dysfunctional. There is abuse, cheating, and judgment from all of the characters, but Strout gives them all reasons for who they are and why they act and react as they do. I was impressed by how Strout managed to craft all these different threads into a greater understanding of a community. There is no doubt it's well written, and would probably be a great book for a book club. There is so much to think about and discuss.

Unfortunately, I also found it difficult to read. There was so much pain and suffering and so little light that I found it depressing. Looking back, some stories may have ended with some happiness, but the reader only hears about this from afar. The focus is on broken people struggling to live and understand each other. There is also very little closure in any of the stories. I felt that Strout just jumped from one depressing thing to the next without any catharsis. The emotional toll piled on. I realize this makes her stories more realistic, but I was glad when I finished the book.

"We're all just a mess, Angelina, trying as hard as we can, we love imperfectly, Angelina, but it's okay."

"It caused Annie to tremble inside; the skin of the sausage was shame. Her family was encased in shame."

Sunday, June 17, 2018

#26 [2018/CBR10] "Fifty Shades of Grey" by E.L. James

I am facing my fortieth birthday by setting out a number of different goals. One of these is to read 50 Books That Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40. I realize this list is pretty arbitrary, and nothing says that more than their inclusion of Fifty Shades of Grey (2011) by E.L. James. However, I am impressed by most of the other choices and I'm definitely a completist. I figured, at the very least, Fifty Shades would be a quick and easy read.

I had such low expectations coming into this book that I can honestly say it wasn't as godawful as I was expecting. Sure, the writing was bad and the story line was unbelievable and boring, but every once in a while Anastasia did something amusing or it was kind of sexy. I doubt anyone in America is ignorant of the basic plot at this point. Anastasia is an ordinary girl about to graduate from college when she meets Christian Grey, an unbelievably sexy, rich, powerful man who is immediately obsessed with her. He's into BDSM and she is not (at first). They have a lot of sex.

Many things about this book irritated me exceedingly: E.L. James does not understand what a subconscious is; characters are constantly smirking and rolling their eyes; and Anastasia Grey is often portrayed as a child. I also got really tired of all the talk about Christian's BDSM contract. I think it was supposed to be some kind of foreplay, because it served no other purpose--even Anastasia knew it was unenforceable. In addition, the relationship between Christian and Anna has no substance. Christian Grey explains to Anna why he is obsessed with her by saying, "you disarm me totally, Miss Steele. Your innocence. It cuts through all the crap." What?

I really don't have anything else to add about this book, but I do have two questions. The first is: why was this book so popular? I was surprised when a friend of mine, who would not go near erotica on her own and usually reads pretty good literature, told me she'd read this book. And she seemed surprised when I hadn't. I guess the simple answer is that it was the perfect combination of female fantasy and light erotica that made it acceptable enough to go mainstream. Maybe it helped that Anastasia was ridiculously innocent, which made her story more relatable and acceptable to the more prudish women.

My second question is why was this book chosen for the 50 Books Every Woman Should Read list? The blurb on the list says that despite its bad writing, the book became an international sensation "reminding the world once again that women can enjoy sex--and enjoy reading about it." I guess that could be true? But has it changed anything? I've heard anecdotal stories of sales of handcuffs increasing because of Fifty Shades of Grey, but what about women enjoying increased pleasure and power in the bedroom? Personally, I think this book is a horrible model for women's sexuality. Even if you forget all the stalking and controlling behavior, Anastasia is a virgin who has never had an orgasm. She is wholly reliant on Christian for any sexual pleasure she has ever had or will have. The editors must have just thrown this book in because it's so popular, hoping that some of the millions who've read it would be encouraged to read some of the other books on the list.

Friday, June 15, 2018

#25 [2018/CBR10] "Exit West" by Mohsin Hamid

I found Exit West by Mohsin Hamid through two different sources. First, it was on President Obama's 2017 recommended reading list. This was already more than enough incentive for me to start reading, but it was also on NPR's Best Books of 2017, which has become one of my favorite sources for finding new books. Before I began reading, I only had the vague notion that this was a story about refugees, which seems especially relevant in today's world. I was expecting a humanizing story of the danger and struggle refugees have as they run from violence and war--looking for a safe place for their family.

Exit West was a humanizing portrait of two refugees, but it was also not at all what I expected. It is one of the few books that I might get much more out of if I read it again. I was very impressed by Hamid's writing. It is very clear, simple, and unemotional--even in the most dramatic of scenes. It made me think about refugees in a different way, and it is definitely worth reading.

I came into this book knowing almost nothing about the plot and with very few expectations. It was a good way to read the book, and I don't want to ruin it for anyone else--so it's best to skip the rest of this review if you're interested in reading the book.

Exit West begins in an unnamed country in a predominantly Muslim country. There is rebellion and violence, but the worst of it has not yet reached the city of our protagonists. Saeed and Nadia are normal college students. They meet in class and quickly fall for each other in a sweet and relatable way. Saeed is the more religious of the two--even though he doesn't wear a full beard and she does wear a robe. But it isn't long before the rebellion makes its way to their home. It was chilling when their mobile phones stop working without warning, and the two are suddenly unable to talk to each other. Beyond losing basic communication, there is suddenly danger everywhere and tragedy strikes them personally, more than once.

As the danger increases, Saeed and Nadia decide that they need to flee the country--leaving everything they know behind. There are rumors that there are doors that open to countries of safety and opportunity. Risking everything, they pay a contact for passage through one of these doors. If the rebels discover Saeed and Nadia are trying to get away, they will be killed. Eventually Saeed and Nadia are led to one of these doors and they find themselves in Mykonos, Greece.

I have to interject here that it took me a little while to understand what was going on with the "doors" in this story. At first, I thought Hamid was being fanciful because he didn't want to describe the travel of Saeed and Nadia. I found it kind of irritating because wouldn't perilous travel be a large part of their story? I didn't realize that Hamid had actually gone off in a completely different direction, and that he was imagining what the world would be like if there were doors that simply opened to other countries--creating porous boundaries between the oppressed and the affluent, the endangered and the privileged.

After some struggle, Nadia befriends a woman in Mykonos who shows her a new door. Saeed and Nadia decide to see what's beyond. They end up in a mansion in London, England, with new refugees showing up every day. As the number of doors increase, the number of refugees increase, and the reaction against them grows. Violence and the threat of violence increases, reaching a crisis point. England eventually grows towards tolerance of this new reality. Some kind of equanimity is found when the country sets up programs that puts refugees to work building housing for themselves on the outskirts of London.

But despite the relative stability, Saeed and Nadia decide to move on when they discover another door. They end up in Marin, California, building a shack of tin on the hillside. The two continue to grow and learn about themselves as the entire world adjusts to a world without basic boundaries.

Saeed and Nadia are believable and understandable characters with considerable depth. I cared about them as they moved throughout the world. In addition, the surprise (to me) twist of the fantastical doors forces the Western reader to consider the plight of refugees in a different way. I'm afraid that I'm having a hard time describing this book, and it is much better than I am making it sound. This review does not do credit to such an interesting and original book.

"We are all migrants through time."

Saturday, May 26, 2018

#24 [2018/CBR10] "Fear of Flying" by Erica Jong

I had not heard of Fear of Flying (1973) by Erica Jong before I saw it on my list of 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40. I subsequently learned that Jong's book was controversial for its racy sex; that it involves the sexual escapades of the protagonist in Europe; and it was important in second-wave feminism. Once I began reading, though, it was not what I expected. I found the protagonist grating at times, and the plot felt rambling. But it also grew on me as I read. Jong is very smart and witty, and I ended up highlighting many passages in this book.

The novel begins with Isadora Wing sitting on an airplane with her husband Bennett, on the way to a psychoanalyst's conference in Vienna. Isadora has had psychoanalysts helping her work through her problems since she was thirteen, and Bennett is one as well. Isadora is restless and feeling trapped. She says she is in pursuit of the "zipless fuck"--the kind of sex you can have with a stranger on a train. When she meets yet another psychoanalyst, Adrian, at the conference, she is finally tempted to forego her marriage vows and take off with him. The book follows Isadora on her European vacation, with flashbacks to other significant relationships of her life as she tries to figure out what she wants. One flashback relationship was with her crazy, first husband, Brian, who almost succeeded in bringing Isadora down with him. The man that followed, Charlie, was a much calmer, but irritating personality who left her in Europe.

In some ways, Erica Jong's writing reminds me of Lena Dunham and Girls. Jong is a well-educated New Yorker from artsy parents. Her book seems to be intensely personal and sometimes feels narcissistic (which is what initially turned me off from the character of Isadora). However, Jong is also honest and brave in discussing Isadora's thoughts and struggles, even as it pushes conventional boundaries on women and sex.

I found myself going back and forth as I read this book. I was sometimes irritated by Jong's persistent focus on psychoanalysis, and Isadora was often unlikable. The men she fell for were mostly unappealing to me, so it was difficult to relate to her. However, more often than not, Jong would throw in a sentence or two, or change the subject to something that resonated with me. One of Isadora's primary battles was her wish for independence warring with her need to have a man to feel safe. Isadora could not live without a man. I think I am on the other side of that equation: giving up my independence is terrifying.

Fear of Flying is definitely worth reading, it is a feminist classic after all, and I'm glad I read it. However, I'm not sure I'd recommend it to everyone. At times it felt dated and the plot is more thoughtful than fast paced. I'll end this review with a small number of my favorite passages.

"Even if you loved your husband, there came that inevitable year when fucking him turned as bland as Velveeta cheese: filling, fattening even, but no thrill to the taste buds, no bittersweet edge, no danger." (7)

"Until women started writing books there was only one side of the story." (22)

"Damned clever, I thought, how men had made life so intolerable for single women that most would gladly embrace even bad marriages instead." (77)

"But who was the man I really wanted? All I knew was that I had been desperately searching for him from the age of sixteen on." (90)

"I languished in utter frustration, thinking that the subjects I knew about were 'trivial' and 'feminine'--while the subjects I knew nothing of were 'profound' and 'masculine.'" (114)

"I would become servile, cloying, saccharinely sweet: the whole package of lies that passes in the world as femininity." (123)

"What was I supposed to do? If I fought him off like an ordinary rapist, I'd offend him." (236)

"Because if no man loves me, I have no identity." (269)

Friday, May 18, 2018

#23 [2018/CBR10] "Before We Were Yours" by Lisa Wingate

I saw Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate on NPR's Best Books of 2017. I'd never read anything by Wingate before and wasn't sure what to expect. On the whole, it was an interesting page turner.

Loosely based on real events, Before We Were Yours, alternates between two story lines. Avery Stafford is a present-day federal prosecutor who has recently moved back to Aiken, South Carolina. She is there to help her father, a famous Senator from a long line of prestigious politicians, who is suffering from cancer. She's left her fiance temporarily behind on the East Coast, and she is dealing with the expectation that she may have to take her father's spot. She is under a lot of pressure to perform as a potential candidate for public office as well as to let her mother and mother-in-law organize a beautiful wedding.

The other story line occurs in 1939 with 12-year-old Rill Foss. Rill and her three younger sisters and younger brother are taken by police from the shanty boat where she lives with her parents. Her parents were at the hospital because her mother almost died giving birth to twins. Rill and her siblings are taken to Georgia Tann, who runs the Tennessee Children's Home Society. Georgia Tann is a real, historical figure who stole thousands of children, mistreated them horribly, and then "sold" them in adoptions--some to very famous and influential families who could not have children on their own.

It's not too hard to figure out how these two stories intertwine. Avery meets an old woman, May Crandall, in a nursing home at a political event. The woman recognizes Avery's bracelet, and Avery is almost immediately enthralled by her, coming back by her room to learn more. When she sees that May has a picture of a woman that looks very similar to her grandmother, she starts looking for answers.

Rill Foss, only twelve years old, is desperately trying to keep her younger siblings safe when they end up at the children's home run by a horrible, mean woman and her child abusing cousin. All Rill wants is to be back on the shanty boat with her mother and family. She only slowly comes to understand that her parents are not coming for them, but there's nothing she can do. Rill's story is especially heartbreaking. Children torn from their parents, being mistreated and taken from each other is a harrowing story, and Wingate told it well.

On the whole, this was a good book and definitely worth reading. However, there were parts that sometimes bothered me or took me out of the story. ***SPOILERS*** First, I felt that Wingate was weakest when writing love stories. She had Rill fall in love with Silas after one hour spent in his company. It was too fast and felt unnecessary. Although I liked Silas's character, I didn't buy the love story. Also, Avery fell pretty quickly for Trent Turner, a local real estate agent, who was helping her with her search. I liked Trent's character and could see them together, but I felt like the love triangle with Avery's fiance and Trent was unnecessary. It reminded me of The Notebook.

Second, I also didn't quite buy Avery's development as a character. Apparently, it was when Avery learned about her past, she realized that she needed to live for herself. She didn't have to become a Senator when she wasn't ready, or marry someone she wasn't in love with, just because it was expected of her. But the problem with this "development" was that Avery had these feelings at the beginning of the book, before she discovered anything about her family. Avery's epiphany at the end of the novel felt manufactured in order to lend more weight to the story. If Avery had been a debutante snob who was really invested in her family name and marrying the right man, her change at the end really would have meant something.

Finally, I felt bad for Camellia. Sure, pick the "ugly, difficult" dark-haired child to rape and kill, leaving the blond cherubs for adoption and a less difficult end. Something about this rubbed me the wrong way. I'm assuming this was not Wingate's intent, but there is the undercurrent that if Camellia had been prettier or better behaved, her fate would not have been as terrible. ***END SPOILERS***

It's horrifying that Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children's Home Society were able to cause so much pain and suffering for so many years. In the middle of reading this book, I did some quick internet research and discovered that, yes, the circumstances were at least as bad as detailed in Wingate's novel. Before We Were Yours is worth reading because of its sympathetic and compelling description of one dark corner of our history.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

#22 [2018/CBR10] "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng

I read Everything I Never Told You a couple of years ago, and I was surprisingly impressed by the writing and the characters in the novel. So when I saw that Celeste Ng had a new book out, Little Fires Everywhere, and it was on NPR's Best Books of 2017 List, I immediately put it on my to-read list.

The blurb on the book made me think that this book was only about the adoption of a young Chinese baby by a white couple. In reality, the book has a lot more going on. It takes place in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a wealthy, planned, suburban community. Mia and her high-school-aged daughter, Pearl, have just moved into the area. They are renting the upper-level apartment in a small house, so Pearl can take advantage of the good school system. Their landlord is Elena Richardson, a mother of four, who lives across town in a fancy house with her attorney husband, Bill, and four, beautiful, teenage children: Lexie, Trip, Moody, and Izzy.

The many characters of this novel each have their own story, and they quickly become intertwined. Mia is a peripatetic artist and photographer. She has moved, every six months or so, whenever she finishes a project, bringing her daughter along with her. When Pearl befriends Moody Richardson and begins to spend most of her time in the Richardson household, Mia agrees to do part-time housekeeping work at the Richardson's--in part to keep an eye on her daughter. In addition, Moody is in love with Pearl, and Pearl has a crush on Trip. Lexie is successful and self-centered and getting ready to go to college. Izzy is idealistic and discontented and the black sheep of the family. She understandably bonds with Mia. There is a ripple of jealousy from Elena Richardson towards Mia that informs some of her decisions.

In a community that is planned to be perfect, and is full of successful people, there is plenty of room for hypocrisy. Ng explores this theme with many of her characters. You may be wondering, as I was, what this story has to do with an interracial adoption. It turns out that one of Elena Richardson's oldest friends has been trying to start a family for years with heartbreaking results. They finally take custody of a Chinese baby girl who was abandoned at a fire station. They've had their new little girl for almost a year and are close to finalizing the adoption when the birth mother, Bebe Ling, comes forward, wanting her daughter back. Every person in the community has an opinion and tensions grow as news coverage skyrockets over the case. Ng does not tie everything in a bow at the end. Some characters don't find out the truth of their circumstances and we don't learn everyone's fate.

I enjoyed Little Fires Everywhere. The plot had a little bit of a mystery to it, and the characters were both challenging and sympathetic. I read this book very quickly, wondering what was going to happen next. However, because I read Everything I Never Told You first, I had very high expectations. When I compare the two books, Little Fires Everywhere started out a little bit slower. I also thought the characters were not quite as fleshed out and believable--although still very good when compared with most books. There were a couple moments in the book where I didn't buy or didn't understand why a character was acting in a certain way.

Finally, my last complaint was Ng's description of firefighters. They didn't ring true, and I found it distracting--a minor complaint--but something I still remember. On the whole, this was a good book with interesting characters and content. Definitely recommended.