September 10, 2018

July/August Reading Recap

I got a lot of good reading done this summer. Here's a recap of what I read in July and August:

THE LEAVERS by Lisa Ko: Deming is eleven when his mother disappears. Polly has worked hard to build a life for the two of them in New York City since since immigrating from China, and she's always dreaming of more, so it's possible she's left him to take a job she talked about in Florida. Months pass in the crowded apartment where Deming lives with Polly's boyfriend's family, but his mother doesn't return, and nobody will tell him anything. Then one day Deming is taken upstate by a white couple who say they're his new parents. He's given an American name and grows up in a town where he's the only Asian kid, never quite sure where he belongs. Years later, he receives some information about what happened to his mother, and Polly's complicated story is revealed.

This novel is riveting from start to finish. It's not just the mystery of Polly's disappearance that kept me reading, but the carefully detailed portrayals that made these characters into real people I wanted to learn everything about. There's nothing easy or cliche in the unfolding plot. Deming and Polly go through a lot, sometimes because of events outside their control and sometimes as a result of their own choices. Ko brings every scene and setting to life with unexpected, often funny observations and incredible writing. This is an impressive debut, and I'll be eager to read more from her.

THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI by Helene Wecker: At the turn of the twentieth century, the Golem is brought to life on a steamship traveling from Prussia to America, but her master soon dies, leaving her without the purpose she was created for. In New York City's Little Syria, the Jinni is released from a flask after a thousand years of confinement and is horrified to discover he's now trapped in human form. Both the Golem and the Jinni are newcomers not only to bustling New York but to the odd world of humanity. They're each fortunate to find sympathetic humans willing to help conceal their supernatural identities, and they've started becoming part of the community in their own enclaves of the city by the time they meet each other.

I love this premise, and Wecker develops it marvelously. The Golem and the Jinni are wonderful, complicated protagonists faced with sympathetically human problems as well as unique issues arising from their situations and powers. Wecker uses her storytelling talents to also spin out fascinating backstories and conflicts for a surprising number of other characters, which adds more layers to the historical and cultural settings and enriches the plot. As the pieces of the story converge, the danger and suspense grows, and the way everything connects at the end is exciting and satisfying. I'm looking forward to spending more time with the characters in the sequel, expected next year.

STAY WITH ME by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀: After years of marriage, Yejide has not become pregnant. Interfering family members decide the only solution is for her husband, Akin, to take a second wife, though the two of them agreed at the start of their relationship that they weren't interested in polygamy. Yejide turns to solutions of her own, seeking out a mystic who promises to work miracles. To her delight, she becomes pregnant immediately, but Akin isn't pleased to hear the news, and nobody else reacts as she expects, either. The road to a happy outcome is long and confusing, and there's far more sadness in store for Yejide and Akin as the years pass.

I found this novel very compelling, but it wasn't anything like I expected, which only made it more interesting. Though the introduction of a second wife sets the events in motion, a fairly small portion of the plot involves the two women dealing with each other. This is mainly Yejide and Akin's story, and it careens through surprising plot developments and shocking reveals. It's a horrifically sad story much of the time, though there is joy and humor mixed in with the tragedy. I felt great sympathy for these characters, who are also wonderfully frustrating people. I'm looking forward to more from Adébáyọ̀.

THE DOG STARS by Peter Heller: Nine years after an apocalyptic flu killed most of the population, Hig has carved out a life for himself and his beloved old dog, Jasper. They live at the airport where Hig kept his small plane in the time before, and Hig still flies frequently to scout and gather supplies, with Jasper as his copilot. For human companionship, Hig has a not-quite-friendship with his one neighbor, Bangley, a gun expert who keeps the airport safe by shooting the occasional intruder. Hig passes the days with Jasper flying, hunting, fishing, and remembering his wife, who died in the pandemic, until another round of loss shakes up his quiet world.

I liked this book, but I was surprised at how few plot events it contains. It's a very character-focused, interior story, with a lot of details about the regular activities that fill Hig's days. I found Hig a great character to spend time with, though it took me a little while to acclimate to his narrative style, which doesn't bother with quotation marks or all the usual commas. He's dryly funny, philosophical, and compassionate to a fault. I especially enjoyed the relationship dynamic with Bangley, who remains a mystery to Hig after all these years and finally reveals his layers during the course of this story. This novel builds slowly, so it's not going to work for everyone seeking a post-apocalyptic thrill, but it kept me engaged throughout.

IN THE SHADOW OF 10,000 HILLS by Jennifer Haupt: Rachel, a white woman in New York City, is in a period of both grief and hope in her life when she finds a clue to the possible whereabouts of her father, Henry, who disappeared decades earlier. On the back of his most successful photograph, a picture of a young black woman in Atlanta during the civil rights movement, Rachel discovers evidence that Henry had an ongoing connection with the photo's subject. Lillian now lives in Rwanda, where she cares for children orphaned in the long civil war. Henry spent years in Rwanda with her, but he left after the genocide, and Lillian doesn't know where he is either. Still, she's reluctant to respond to Rachel's inquiries about her father, because she believes they'll all be better off if the secrets of the past stay hidden.

Haupt drew on her time as a journalist in Rwanda to bring the novel's main setting to life and detail the horrors that many of the characters experienced before, during, and after the 1994 genocide. This aspect of the story is fascinating and effective, and as you'd expect, this is an upsetting book in which everyone is struggling with loss of some kind. I felt for these characters, who were generally well developed but at times had reactions to events that didn't seem fully set up. While I enjoyed the family mystery overall, it didn't always mesh well with the more serious backdrop, and the reveal of the many secrets could have been tightened and smoothed out.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Jennifer Down considers the consequences of researching trauma: "I want to make something that feels real, to capture the emotional temperature of the era and places I'm writing about. Research is critical for verisimilitude. But there is something demented in making yourself read this stuff."


Christopher Gronlund said...

So happy you reviewed THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI! It's been on my to-read list, but not on the PHYSICAL or even digital to-read list. Just in that state of, "I wanna read this!"

It sounds wonderful :)

I'm wrapping up AHAB'S RETURN, by Jeffrey Ford right now...probably done tonight. So...THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI may have to cut in line for reading...

Lisa Eckstein said...

AHAB'S RETURN sounds intriguing! I hope you enjoy THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI. It's also one I'd been meaning to read ever since it came out, and I was finally prompted when another friend read and recommended it.

KT Sweet said...

Lisa, I appreciate your thoughtful reviews. They inspire me to read the books without giving too much away.

Lisa Eckstein said...

Thank you, KT! I try hard to describe the books in a useful but not spoilery way.

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