July 1, 2016

May/June Reading Recap

I was too busy at the beginning of June to deal with book reviews, but now I've caught up on my past two months of reading. There's a ton of variety in this big list of books, and I hope you find something that piques your interest.

→ I'd encountered several rave reviews of HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi before putting it on my list of anticipated spring releases, and I continued hearing great things that got me reading as soon as the book was available. This novel is indeed as amazing as everyone says.

Effia is born in Fanteland (part of today's Ghana) in the middle of the eighteenth century, and when she grows into a beautiful woman, she's married off to a British colonizer to help her village prosper. Her new home is a castle on the Gold Coast where dungeons hold people captive before they're shipped across the Atlantic as slaves. Esi is born in Asanteland to the best warrior in the village, but her prosperous future is ripped away when she's captured during an attack and forced to march for days to the slave dungeon. Effia and Esi are half-sisters who never know of each other's existence. The novel follows their respective descendants through the generations, depicting the impact of slavery and its lasting repercussions in both the United States and Ghana.

We spend only one chapter with each character in the book, providing a snapshot of life on both sides of the Atlantic before we proceed to the next generation. With this structure, the novel presents an incredible range of experience across 250 years, but Gyasi writes with such care and efficiency that every character's story feels full and individual. All of the places and times are vividly portrayed, with the extensive historical research woven tightly into the narrative. As I read, I was always torn between slowing down to savor my deep investment in each life and hurrying to discover what the next chapter had in store.

HOMEGOING is an intense and fascinating read. I recommend it highly.

IMAGINE ME GONE by Adam Haslett also appeared on my spring releases list, and soon after the novel came out, my writing class happened to read one of his short stories. I was impressed by the strong writing in "Notes to My Biographer", a story dealing with mental illness through generations, so I quickly started the novel, which explores the same subject. Haslett is skilled at conveying the complicated emotions of a difficult family situation, and his characters are real and engaging.

IMAGINE ME GONE follows a family across decades, often jumping wide gaps of time to visit the big and small events that shape the characters' lives. The earliest event leads to all the others: After Margaret's fiance John is hospitalized with what's described as an "imbalance" in 1964, she makes the decision to proceed with the marriage. Margaret and John go on to have three children. The oldest, Michael, is an anxious, tightly wound child who remains a source of worry for the family as he grows into an odd and troubled adult. Michael's brother and sister find their own adulthoods overshadowed by his problems and their desire and obligation to help him attain a bit of happiness.

Each of the five family members narrates some of the chapters, and they all have their own storytelling style. The narrative takes on unusual forms in places, which helps the reader get deeper into the mental states of the characters. Every time the perspective switched, I was glad for the opportunity to get to know a character better. I cared about everyone in this novel, I felt their pain through the many hard scenes, and I kept hoping things might turn out okay for some of them. This is a rough and honest family story.

SPEAK by Louisa Hall had some buzz last year, and I'm glad I went back to discover the pleasure of this unusual and absorbing novel.

The story revolves around the themes of memory and artificial intelligence, and it's composed of multiple interconnected narratives. Through prison memoirs of a convicted inventor and chat transcripts presented as court evidence, we learn about the rise and fall of babybots, lifelike dolls with powerful AI that a generation of girls bonded with, causing disastrous effects. Two sets of letters chart the lives of a fictional couple involved in 1960s AI efforts and the real computer science pioneer Alan Turing. Finally, a diary from 1663 follows a young adventurer on her pilgrimage to America.

I quickly became caught up in each of the stories and enjoyed spotting all the ways they intersect. Though the book has a philosophical bent, each storyline possesses a compelling plot. My desire to understand the full story increased as the connections became clearer, so I was somewhat disappointed that so much was still unknown at the end. I'm not sure I grasped everything Hall was aiming for with this novel, but I still found it a worthwhile read.

→ I was curious about THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM by Victor LaValle because of a synchronicity with Matt Ruff's excellent LOVECRAFT COUNTRY: the books were published on the same day and both grapple with the racist work of H.P. Lovecraft. After I heard a great Fresh Air interview with LaValle, in which he reads the opening pages of his novella, I knew I wanted to read more.

LaValle's novella is a response to a specific Lovecraft story, "The Horror At Red Hook". In THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM, Tommy Tester hustles to make ends meet for himself and his ailing father in 1920s Harlem. He can barely play the guitar, but he finds it useful to carry a case and pass as a musician when he leaves Harlem for work that includes dealing in occult books. In the course of his travels, Tommy meets up with the two main characters from Lovecraft's bizarre story: Robert Suydam, a mysterious man who hires Tommy to play at a party, and Detective Malone, who is investigating Suydam's strange behavior. Suydam introduces Tommy to powerful magic that exposes them all to unimaginable horrors.

I was gripped by this novella and affected by the upsetting and scary things that happen to the characters. The way the story was told surprised me in places, because I expected the plot to more closely follow that of the Lovecraft story, and I wouldn't have anticipated what was kept and what was left out. I think a reader more familiar with Lovecraft's work might have gotten more out of the novella than I did, but I'm glad I read it, and I'll definitely be reading more of LaValle's novels.

LaValle and Ruff discuss their two books in this email conversation presented by The Barnes and Noble Review. It contains spoilers, especially for LaValle's story.

FLIGHT OF DREAMS by Ariel Lawhon takes place during the final flight of the airship Hindenburg, which crossed from Frankfurt to New Jersey in May 1937 and exploded before landing, killing a third of those aboard. Since the true cause of the disaster has never been determined, Lawhon imagined an explanation and created an engrossing novel starring the real-life passengers and crew.

The novel follows five main characters: the stewardess with a terrifying secret, a journalist intent on learning everyone's secrets, the navigator who's in love with the stewardess, the mysterious American, and a nervous but eager young cabin boy. During the four days of the flight, everyone is driven by desires and fears that bring them together and put them in conflict. The story moves quickly, with nonstop obstacles and intrigues, but along the way, the reader gets a full and fascinating picture of life aboard a zeppelin. The Hindenburg was the pride of the Nazis, and the party's power is never far from the minds of the characters, so the politics of the era drive the plot along with the timeless concerns of love and revenge.

The story is set up as a mystery, and I found it unsatisfying in that respect. I was expecting a twist and for more of the threads to contribute to the tragedy, so I was disappointed by the straightforward ending. But as historical fiction, this novel delivers a ton of great material while also being enjoyable to read, so on that basis, I'd recommend it to anyone interested in the Hindenburg.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At the Los Angeles Times, Laila Lalami explains how to procrastinate: "I'm genuinely surprised that I get anything done at all. In the last 10 years, I have somehow managed to publish three novels, in addition to dozens of stories, columns, reviews and essays. I have no explanation for this, except that perhaps the procrastination is not an impediment to my writing process, but an intimate part of it."

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