I read outstanding books last month, mostly. I highly recommend two recently published novels, MAKE YOUR HOME AMONG STRANGERS and SAFEKEEPING, which I hope are on their way to wider recognition. The graphic memoir FUN HOME has already garnered much praise, and deservedly so. I was less impressed by the acclaimed older novel RABBIT, RUN. Read on for full reviews:
→ MAKE YOUR HOME AMONG STRANGERS by Jennine Capó Crucet: Lizet has left Miami and her Cuban immigrant parents to attend a prestigious college in upstate New York. She's completely out of her depth there and in serious academic trouble by Thanksgiving, when she makes a surprise trip home. Upon her return to Miami, she discovers that her mother, along with most of the city, is more interested in the arrival of a young Cuban boy, the only survivor from an ill-fated boatload of refugees. As the fate of this youngster (a fictionalized version of Elián González) turns into an ongoing news story, Lizet keeps running up against the ways she's grown apart from her family and the ways she doesn't fit in at school.
This novel pulled me in immediately with a strong narrative voice, and I remained engrossed throughout. Lizet is an excellent protagonist. At times her stubbornness is frustrating, and she possesses the impulsivity and arrogance of a teen on the verge of adulthood, but that same determination is just as often admirable, and I felt great sympathy for her fear and confusion as she faces new grownup challenges. The story is beautifully, powerfully written, and every character and situation is real and compelling.
Lizet and her family are a product of Crucet's imagination, but the author drew upon her own experiences as a first-generation college student. She published a fascinating essay in the New York Times about her real life challenges and another on realizing this story should be told. I'm glad it's out there.
→ Jessamyn Hope will be one of the guest speakers at Book Riot Live, so I looked at a sample of her debut novel, SAFEKEEPING. Within a couple of pages, I was invested, and I only grew more intrigued as the story took me deeper into the problems and pasts of the characters.
When Adam shows up in Israel to volunteer at a kibbutz, he's in bad condition. He's suffering alcohol withdrawal, he's fled New York City after committing a crime, and his only possession is a brooch, the treasured heirloom of his recently deceased grandfather. The brooch is what's brought him to the kibbutz, where he expects to find a woman his grandfather loved long ago, but the search is harder than he anticipated. As Adam hunts for the mystery woman, other people he encounters on the kibbutz are caught up in quests of their own. The collisions between the concerns of different characters and the gradual reveal of emotional backstories propels the story along and makes this a gripping read.
Historical and cultural details are skillfully woven through the novel without ever slowing down the story. I knew almost nothing about kibbutzim and was glad the book portrays this fictional, but probably representative, kibbutz from its founding in the 1930s up to the 1990s, when the main story is set and the community faces a financial crisis. The book also introduced me to several other pieces of history that came as surprises when they appeared in the story. The unexpected connections in this novel impressed me most. I loved watching how different pieces were set up and then fell into place, satisfyingly but not too tidily. Hope is a masterful storyteller, and I eagerly await more from her.
→ FUN HOME by Alison Bechdel is an engrossing graphic memoir that I'm glad I finally picked up. I don't often make reading time for comics, and I'm not usually interested in memoir, but I'd been curious about this book since I started hearing praise for it, particularly since I like Bechdel's Dykes to Watch Out For strip. Since I'll get the opportunity to attend the Fun Home musical on my trip to New York next month, I knew it was time to check out the book. It's just as good as everyone says.
In this memoir, Bechdel focuses on her complicated feelings about the life and death of her father, a difficult, demanding man who she nonetheless had a close relationship with throughout her childhood. Shortly after Bechdel came out as a lesbian, her mother divulged that her father also had homosexual relationships during their marriage, a shocking revelation that complicated young Alison's own self-discovery. A few months later, her father died in an accident that might have been suicide. The story revolves around this series of events and is told not chronologically but thematically, often circling back to look at the same moment from a different perspective.
Because the book is a comic, the look from another angle is sometimes literal, and a rich story emerges from the combination of pictures and text. Bechdel's drawings are wonderfully detailed and frequently incorporate reproductions of documents such as letters, diary entries, and pages from other books. Carefully structured chapters employ recurring motifs and literary allusions appropriate to Bechdel's bookish family, but she undercuts pretension with statements like "it was only one of many heavy-handed plot devices to befall my family". While this is a story full of sad events, there's a strong recognition of the humor present even at those times, as captured by the book's subtitle, "A Family Tragicomic".
I recommend this book even to those wary of the graphic format. If you've already enjoyed it, I recommend listening to the good discussion of the book on a recent episode of the Oh, Comics! podcast.
→ RABBIT, RUN by John Updike is about a man nicknamed Rabbit who repeatedly runs away from his life and responsibilities. Rabbit's wife, pregnant with their second child, annoys him, so he runs away. Then he takes up with a mistress, and when she becomes tiresome, he runs away from her, too. Despite all the running, the story rambles along rather slowly and uneventfully until the near the end, when something horrible happens.
Early on, I was captivated by the gorgeous writing, but that wasn't enough to hold my attention when little else in the story appealed to me. The person in the story I most wanted to run away from was Rabbit, with his immature, selfish behavior, but I was stuck following him, and he wasn't even doing anything interesting. When the story unexpectedly introduced other characters' viewpoints for a while, it was a welcome change, and when the horrible event happened, I was curious about the consequences, but I was bored for a big stretch in the middle that felt far longer than it was.
Another classic I can check off my list but didn't find worth reading.
Good Stuff Out There:
→ In the New York Times, Patricia Leigh Brown reports on libraries lending useful objects to patrons: "Libraries aren't just for books, or even e-books, anymore. They are for checking out cake pans (North Haven, Conn.), snowshoes (Biddeford, Me.), telescopes and microscopes (Ann Arbor, Mich.), American Girl dolls (Lewiston, Me.), fishing rods (Grand Rapids, Minn.), Frisbees and Wiffle balls (Mesa, Ariz.) and mobile hot spot devices (New York and Chicago)." (Thanks, Book Riot!)