Saturday, February 3, 2018

Bookish Tweets and Book Reviews

Okay I take that back. I put thought and effort into my reviews and really do hope that whoever reads them gets something out of them. If anyone has decided to take a chance on a book based on what I wrote about it, I'm honored. Below are my most recently written book reviews.

PymPym by Mat Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Interesting book that made for a quick read. It is filled with Mat Johson's trademark humor regardless of the seriousness of topic at hand. The plot revolves around a recently fired African American Literature professor. Why was he fired? Because his primary focus was on examining a novel by Edgar Allan Poe, the only full length novel written by the brilliant but definitely not African American author. The name of the book is The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. I had never heard of Poe's lone novel before reading Johnson's Pym. The narrator studies and teaches this book to his detriment because he believes it holds the key to understanding White-Black race relations. After being fired, the professor and his also unemployed best friend (who has his own obsession with a painter of landscapes, specifically, with finding the precise physical vantage point that each of his paintings are based on) end up on a quest that takes them along with the narrator's cousin and ex-girlfriend and her current husband among others to Antarctica. It is on this frozen terrain that they discover a lost race of creatures representing Whiteness. This means its opposite, a tropical island representing Blackness that Poe also wrote about in his novel, is possibly out there as well. When the world as we know it seemingly comes to an end, the narrator and his motley crew perhaps being the lone survivors of Armageddon only to have become slaves of the primitive creatures in Antarctica, the search is on for whatever paradises (whether man-made or otherwise) may still exist. That's about as well as I can describe Pym's quirky plot. Best to read this enjoyable book for yourself.

View all my reviews The MothersThe Mothers by Brit Bennett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Exceptional novel. Brit Bennett writes with a steady hand as she immerses us into the minds and lives of three people. Nadia and Aubrey are the best of friends. Luke is the man they both love, at different times as well as simultaneously. He is the man who would have made a mother out of Nadia had they chosen to parent, and the one who eventually makes a wife and mother of Aubrey. He is the first love of both of them, but choices of course need to be made and not everybody can get a happily ever after out of such a situation. Or maybe not anyone. Luke's mother is the first lady of the church that plays a prominent role in the lives of all characters in this book. To varying degrees, her son and the women who love him succeed and fail at obtaining her approval. Nadia and Aubrey are both abandoned and motherless. Aubrey's mother chooses an awful man over being in the lives of her daughters. Yet Aubrey proves to be the character who is the best at maintaining loyalty, possessing an innocence that remains untouched no matter how ill she is treated. Nadia's mother chooses the release of death, and in so doing fills her daughter with undeserved guilt and a restless soul, forever on the look-out for whatever clues and remembrances may have been left behind. Both girls are haunted to womanhood by maternal abandonment. Nadia at least still has a father willing to be there for her, but the hurt caused by her mother's unexplained suicide pushes her away from those who love her. And so she is not a particularly dutiful daughter. And after both her child and relationship with Luke are aborted, relationships with the men who follow are destined to fail. But it is Nadia's betrayal of Aubrey that is at the heart of this novel. The mothers in Bennett's novel do the best they can, are hurt and betrayed by callous men and by each other, and some of them manage to persevere while others do not. I was very much absorbed by this book, in part because it examines central themes that I dive into in my novel Matters of Convenience, in much larger part because it is a wonderfully written book by an author who is off to an impressive start.

View all my reviews The Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This novel is a grand literary achievement, well deserving of its accolades and the Pulitzer Prize. It is a story of American slavery, and of daring to dream of freedom. It depicts the shackles that physically held people in bondage as well as mentally chaining them to the inescapable past. Slaves who did not have their spirits broken by enforced servitude had one chance to claim a life worth living. They could run and hope to make it to the underground railroad. Colson Whitehead makes the interesting choice of depicting it as an actual railroad running beneath the ground, giving the story somewhat of a science fiction feel. But for the most part the narrative is a gritty, realistic one. A woman named Cora is at its center. She escapes bondage much as her mother, who was never heard from again, did before her. Freedom is fleeting. Just as Cora has grown comfortable and believes she has found a permanent place for herself, she ends up imprisoned in an attic, hiding until found and recaptured. Once again she escapes and this time she finds a utopia, a community of black people living prosperously and independently. But paradise found is only a sweet respite until it is lost. A slave catcher named Ridgeway relentlessly pursues Cora even after the man who hired him to find her has died. His determination to return Cora to bondage is a match for her desire to live on her own terms rather than those dictated by a barbaric society. Yet he can hold Cora captive to no greater degree than one can grasp the wind. Once again she is on the run, riding the subterranean rails towards a future that is beyond the reach of slavery. The story is told at a pulse quickening pace, with quiet moments interspersed that resemble freedom and present the possibility of Cora choosing a lifelong home, until she finds herself being hunted again. We hope for Cora's fate to be merciful, knowing that the railroad's journey to a better tomorrow is mighty long, continuing in certain ways to this very day.

View all my reviews The SelloutThe Sellout by Paul Beatty
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Sellout is a tricky book to review. Is it brilliant satire or biting social commentary delivered with excessively over the top weirdness? I can easily see why one might lean one way or the other. It wasn't until after reading this book that I read the author's bio and learned that he started out as a spoken word poet who launched his career by killing it at Nuyorican Poets Cafe. This came as no surprise given the style of Beatty's prose. Nearly every sentence is a rambling, poetic, rapid fire joke with multiple punch lines delivered. I have never listened to an audio book, only read ink on paper novels. But The Sellout is definitely a novel that seems written to be listened to as much if not more than it was written to be read silently to yourself. The wacky plot involves a black man who was home schooled by his social scientist father, with every lesson being about racial identity. After his father is murdered by cops, the son inherits the family farm along with acquiring settlement money. Not that they live in farm country. Where they live is in a California town that has literally been erased from the map. So in addition to providing his neighbors with incredible fruit, stellar weed, and crisis counseling in times of mental emergencies, the narrator is also on a mission to bring the town back into existence. Or rather, into recognition that it's still there. He is friends with the last living cast member of the Little Rascals, a man named Hominy who voluntarily insists on being the narrator's slave. Yes you read that right, and no I don't have an explanation for motive beyond this book is satirical with every line meant to be taken with a grain of salt. Or perhaps a boulder of salt. In addition to being a slave owner, the narrator also decides to attempt to bring racial segregation back to their town one location at a time, starting with a city bus. If what I'm describing sounds bizarre, you've got the right idea. Beatty hits readers with every cultural reference under the sun along the way. The Sellout seemed to me less of a story than someone showing off how witty he can be on the topic of our national obsession with race. There is a bit of a romantic subplot involving the driver of the aforementioned bus that's barely worth mentioning, except to make it clear in this review that while throwing everything out there, Beatty did not forget the kitchen sink. I enjoyed this book, yet reached a point where I was mainly reading to accomplish the feat of finishing what had been started. I suppose I personally prefer my satire in shorter doses. I suppose that as much as I love expertly delivered, thought provoking spoken word poetry, I look forward to a different form of artistic experience when reading a novel. I'm going to round up from the 3.5 stars that goodreads won't allow me to give and select 4 stars as my rating while fully appreciating why it would be a 5 star read to others, and why awards such as the Man Booker Prize would be bestowed upon it. I don't know if I'll read another Paul Beatty book, but I'd love to listen to him read from his work or just hear him talk about whatever comes to mind.

View all my reviews

Matters of Convenience