Category Archives: Review

We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

eightyearsinpowerI was thrilled when I received an Advance Reader’s Copy of We Were Eight Years in Power from Random House because I love LOVE loved Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and even included it in my list of 5 favorite reads from 2016! Coates has a wonderful style of writing that will leave you breathless (intentionally so as the author mentions in one part of this collection) and I will continue to gobble down his pieces.

We Were Eight Years in Power is a collection of 9 pieces that Coates has written for The Atlantic in the past 9 years, thus if you’ve been following Coates’s online articles, you’ve likely read some or all of these pieces before (they’re all still available online too). Before each piece begins, Coates ties each of the pieces to where he was personally, blending in some of the memoir style exemplified in Between the World and Me, and where America was socially, culturally, economically, and politically. This means that he often connects his pieces to the Obama administration (pre- and post-) and mentions how it influenced his articles, even if not explicitly stated in the features.  I often found the justifications and positioning of when the pieces were written to be more interesting than the earlier pieces in the collection, probably because I found myself more interested in Coates and his reflections than Bill Cosby’s weird and harmful conservatism regarding the black community (something I hadn’t read about before now). It would have been nice if the dates that the pieces were originally published had been included next to their titles, in order to help the reader position when it occurred; this would also help this book stand 20 years from now if something happened that wasn’t common or accepted knowledge at the time of first publication (such as the widespread depths of Cosby’s transgressions, which Coates does acknowledge in the introduction for that piece, but would be missing for things uncovered in the future).

The collection includes pieces about (1) Bill Cosby, (2) Michelle Obama, (3) The Civil War, (4) Malcolm X, (5) Fear of a Black President, which is commentary on how Obama talked about race during his first presidential term, (6) The Case for Reparations, a viral piece that’s widely assigned on my college campus according to my undergrads, (7) Mass Incarceration, (8) My President was Black, a feature on Obama and reflections on his presidency, and (9) White Supremacy and Trump, a piece that serves as the epilogue and also recently went viral under the title The First White President.

The pieces become progressively longer as the reader progresses through the collection, presumably aligning with the growth of Coates’s readership and The Atlantic assuming that their digital readers would stay along for the ride and full length of the pieces. In my opinion, Coates’s writing strengthens throughout the collection, building upon his years of writing experience. In the introductions, Coates also corrects some errors that were in the previous publications of pieces or properly acknowledges sources that were neglected in the original publications.

At times, We Were Eight Years in Power could feel like reading an accessible textbook, but a textbook nevertheless. The readings are dense and cannot be pored over in one sitting. I really liked the collection, but if someone were completely unfamiliar with Coates, this would not be the first piece of his I recommended. Instead, I would thrust Between the World and Me into their hands and emphatically encourage them to read it immediately. It’s a bit more accessible and shorter and, within this collection, Coates perfectly sums up Between the World and Me with this description of his mindset at the time of writing, “I imagined of crafting a singular essay, in the same fashion (as James Baldwin), meant to be read in a few hours but to haunt for years.”

I recommend We Were Eight Years in Power to people already familiar with Coates and who haven’t read each of these pieces online yet. If you’re not familiar with Coates, make Between the World and Me the next book that you read.

We Were Eight Years in Power will be released at physical and digital U.S. bookstores on October 3, 2017! 
Disclaimer: I was provided with a digital copy of this book for free from Random House Publishing Group – Random House One World via NetGalley. All opinions expressed in the review are my own and have not been influenced by Random House or NetGalley.

 

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Mini Review: Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris

squirrelseekschipmunkI scooped this up from a library $1/book sale, having no idea about the contents, but knowing I mildly enjoyed Sedaris and had an affinity for squirrels and chipmunks and woodland creatures. I thought this would be more like Sedaris’s other works instead of aged up woodland tales that were vulgar and not humorous. The only thing this collection of vile mini stories has going for it is that it was a very quick read and I finished it in only 4 bus rides.

The best story within the collection was The Grieving Owl, which was the very last in the collection. I’m not sure I would’ve even liked the story if it had been featured in a collection I actually enjoyed though.

I clearly don’t recommend reading this. I feel kind of sorry for whoever picks this up from my nearest Little Free Library under the same guise that compelled me to read the collection.

Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel

lastnightinmontrealI’m slowly making my way through reading other works by the authors who dominated the list of my 5 favorite reads of 2016: I’m currently reading an ARC of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s newest collection, We Were 8 Years in Power; I scooped up Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, in a bookshop last week; and I finally tackled Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel despite snagging it in February.

While I absolutely adore Mandel’s writing style (she has some of the prettiest prose I’ve ever stumbled across), this book was not as breathtaking as Station Eleven. I fell in love with several sentences throughout the novel, but the story as a whole simply didn’t move me in the same way. All of that said, it was still an interesting novel that I pored through incredibly quickly and didn’t find myself bored along the way… but if I was going to recommend one of Mandel’s works to you, I would forcefully push Station Eleven into your lap and leave Last Night in Montreal on the bookshelf for you to pick up on your own when the winds call you that way.

Is this review a little harsh for me actually enjoying the book? Yes! I think I just have a hard time comparing it to Mandel’s other riveting work, but this was still good. In the same way that Station Eleven weaves around narrators and individual lives, Last Night in Montreal largely shifts between four narrators and weaves in and out of the present and when a big event happened in the lives of one of the narrators.

Our main narrator, Eli, is perturbed when his girlfriend Lilia, another one of our narrators, abruptly disappears. But disappearing has been one of the only constants in her life since she was about seven years old and abducted from her home by her father. The private investigator attempting to track Lilia’s whereabouts is one of our other narrators, as is his daughter, Michaela, who is nearly the same age as Lilia. The main portions of the tale revolve around getting us to understand the nature of Lilia’s abduction, why she can’t seem to stay in one place, Eli’s grappling with Lilia being a loose thread, yet more connected to her purpose than the stationary Eli who talks about creating great things, but never seems to actually create anything, and Michaela who is attempting to understand her father’s motivations and the dissolution of her own family system. I was able to predict one of the bigger mysteries and felt like Mandel could’ve used her beautiful words to paint a more colorful picture instead of leaving the reader with a muted, vague, somewhat empty canvas of an explanation for one of the bigger questions in the novel, but I enjoyed the ride anyway. 

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

norwegianwoodOof — I wanted to love my first time reading Murakami, an author beloved by many of my friends, but Norwegian Wood simply didn’t stand up to my expectations. Initially, I really enjoyed the story and writing style until I hit the 70 page mark and my affection took a nosedive, likely because of the introduction of a character (Midori) that I couldn’t stand at all.

Norwegian Wood follows about a year in the life of a college student, Toru, in Japan, as he weaves through the tangled web of love, sex, and adolescence. I’ve read and enjoyed many similar stories before and didn’t think I would mind reading another iteration, but I couldn’t jive with this. The entire novel was wrought with symbolism, which I’m guessing is true to Murakami’s style and also something that I might be able to better stomach for a storyline I appreciated more. Instead, so many of the pages were dominated by my least favorite character in the novel, Midori, trying hard to be a sensitive dream girl with #DeepFeelings, when it actuality it appears like a costume that most readers will probably see through. I’ve liked unlikable characters in other novels that I’ve read, but I found Midori so grating and rolled my eyes each time she was involved in a dialogue exchange. Midori isn’t actually a manic pixie dream girl, but she reads like someone who desperately wants to fulfill that role for a lover, becoming the sad, one-dimensional, but still cute girlfriend with #feelings and #emotions. Can you tell I use #hashtags when I’m mocking something? It’s almost become my way of conveying ~sarcasm via the internet~.

The story did manage to suck me back in once Midori disappeared, but I found myself rolling my eyes as soon as she was reintroduced around page 220. I did really like the other characters (Toru, Naoko, and Reiko), but I just couldn’t get over hating Midori to be able to enjoy the book. If you can, power to you, but the inclusion of Midori made my entire view of Norwegian Wood be reduced to a superficial attempt at depicting sadness, depression, and the ~deep feelings~ associated with them. 

All of that considered, I might give Murakami another shot, if someone can convince me to read another of his books that isn’t the massive tome that is 1Q84.

How to Behave in a Crowd by Camille Bordas

howtobehaveinacrowdHow to Behave in a Crowd is a novel about a family with a set of precocious, “exceptional”, excelling siblings, ranging in age from around 10 to mid-20s. The Mazal family and their attributes is very reminiscent of the Glass family, of Salinger lore — a group of siblings that are just so smart and specialized in their studies, but floundering in a world that requires more skill sets than pure intellect. Everyone’s a little too smart, everyone’s a little too annoyed with the rest of society, everyone is a little too much of a self imposed shut in because they think their intellect is too “alienating.” While this could put off a lot of readers, I still found How to Behave in a Crowd entertaining and I silently laughed to myself several times with sentences that perfectly set me up to be caught off guard. 

All of the children are prodigies in academia or musical performance, except for the youngest and the narrator Isidore/Dory, who seems to have more emotional and social ability than the others. While his siblings often discount Isidore’s statements, it also seems like they wish for his social adeptness in the same way that Isidore wants to be as academically excellent as each of his siblings.

The dialogue about life and other people is what really makes this novel shine. Two of the Mazal siblings are in the midst of completing PhD programs and I found their strings of consciousness quite amusing, since I’m partially through my own PhD studies at the moment. In the same way that you’ll have a favorite Glass if you read Salinger’s collection, you’ll have a favorite in the Mazal family too. I think my favorite Mazal is Aurore, which isn’t too surprising given that my favorite Glass is Franny.

At times I wondered if How to Behave in a Crowd may have been better as a short story because most of the pages seem to be dazzling examples of the author waving her pretty pen and witty commentary without actually moving the plot anywhere. The novel is kind of like a great conversation you’re really engaged in while it’s happening, but you can’t remember any of the specific details the next day, but just how you felt while having it. That’s not a bad thing necessarily, I simply mean that a lot of the writing seemed superfluous and unnecessary for the story at large. I still enjoyed the paths it took me along anyway.

Some of my favorite quotes were:

“I have an opinion on everyone who seems to have a good time being a teenager.” – Aurore (p. 152)

“She was good at turning everything you said into yet another example of how complicated she was.” (p. 208) Isidore on Denise.

“One only cried if one expected something from the world and was disappointed.” (p. 83)

Disclaimer: I was provided with a digital copy of this book for free from Penguin via First to Read. All opinions expressed in the review are my own and have not been influenced by Penguin or First to Read.

Not Quite a Genius by Nate Dern

notquiteageniusNate Dern, a comedian who has spent time at UCB and Funny or Die, wrote this compilation that is a blend of memoir and fictional, sometimes absurdist, pieces. I’m not gonna lie, it took me a while to warm up to this collection, in the same way it takes an audience member to warm up to a stand up comedian spewing jokes on a stage. Before stumbling across this book, I had never heard of Nate Dern and wasn’t familiar with any of his comedy bits. This also meant that his humor wasn’t easy for me to access initially because I was completely unfamiliar with his style. Reading Not Quite a Genius was the opposite of my experience reading Simon Rich’s The Last Girlfriend on Earth, a collection that is somewhat similar in style, but from a writer I was familiar with and thus was more easily able to dive into his kookier bits that may have been inaccessible otherwise. In the same way that an audience member must be warmed up at a comedy gig, it took me a few chapters to habituate to the writer’s humor and style, but once I did, I laughed to myself multiple times.  

For me, the collection picked up about a third of the way through… or that was how many pages it took to successfully warm me up to Dern’s humor. I thought the funniest bits were when Dern shifted more into humorous memoir territory (the first chapter is brilliant as he details his gawky young adult years). While the fictional bits were less my speed, I giggled several times while reading the “Bruce Lee Novelty Plate” and “How Many Farts Measure a Life” chapters.

That said, some of the funny bits just didn’t come across for me in print at all. In my head, I could imagine the fictional scenarios having more ~umph~ if I were hearing them performed live, but I experienced a disconnect while I was reading (specifically the chapter “I Like All Types of Music and My Sense of Humor Is So Random”). That’s the thing about these types of compilations: while this chapter was a swing and a miss in print for me, it might be a grand slam for a different reader. For any reader seeking a comedic collection, there will be a piece in Not Quite a Genius that is a grand slam for you. If you’re already a fan of Dern’s comedy, you’ll probably witness several grand slams. 

Not Quite a Genius will be released at physical and digital U.S. bookstores on August 8, 2017! 

Disclaimer: I was provided with a digital copy of this book for free from Simon & Schuster via NetGalley. All opinions expressed in the review are my own and have not been influenced by Simon & Schuster or NetGalley.

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

Screen Shot 2017-07-23 at 1.43.58 PMThis book had me feeling some type of way: I had a nightmare the first night that I started reading the book AND it was the first book to make me cry in quite some time, so maybe my liquid emotions and anxiety dreams can speak for my feelings about the book? They’ll have to do.

We Are Okay, a novel that weaves a tangle of grief/becoming an orphan, desperately wishing for familial closeness that is lacking and desiring the loving families of your closest friends, was riveting in its details of the narrator, Marin, coming to terms with her new life and losses. While the story was beautifully constructed, I marveled at how well LaCour described Marin’s basic daily life, giving space to the minute actions and emotions one does as they navigate new life circumstances. The book hit close to home for me and rattled a lot of closed doors that live inside my body. Chapters 26 and 27 wrecked me in the best way. We Are Okay was good. Would the novel be good to someone who didn’t strongly identify with its contents? I don’t know. Would it hurt as much to read for someone who didn’t strongly identify? Hopefully not.

We Are Okay was gentle and brutal and beautiful simultaneously. I hope you give it a shot.

“I wonder if there’s a secret current that connects people who have lost something. Not in the way that everyone loses something, but in the way that undoes your life, undoes your self, so that when you look at your face it isn’t yours anymore.” (p. 68)
“The most innocent things can call back the most terrible.” (p. 65)