Wednesday, November 19, 2014

An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay

I'm struggling. It's usually so easy for me to recommend books I love to friends and family. Generally there's a nice plot hook to reel them in, or it's a specific genre they love or something. But here I am with An Untamed State, feeling strongly that everyone should read it, but running up against a basic plot summary: Woman is kidnapped while visiting her parents in Haiti. She's held prisoner and raped repeatedly for thirteen days.

Even Chef blanched when I told him to read it. "That sounds so painful," he said.

He's not wrong. I read a good chunk of this book with tears streaming down my cheeks. It's not exactly a fun read. But.

But but but but.

There's so much to unpack in this novel. My plot summarizing skills--limited to begin with--don't make a dent. Yes, it's about a kidnapping and rape. Rape isn't easy to read about, or at least it shouldn't be. I can't remember it ever being handled precisely like this. I've been trying to think of how I've read it in the past, and surprisingly I had trouble coming up with specific examples. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I suppose. I hated that book. But I read it so long ago I can't remember many specifics, except the rapes didn't seem to be all that well done, and there were an awful lot of shopping lists. Otherwise it seems rape is used as a tool to describe men--we see how awful this character is because he's a rapist. Or this man is spurred into action because someone he cares about is raped (I may be thinking of movies here more than books, honestly). But I don't remember many cases where the focus stays with the woman (or man) who is raped.

It's oddly refreshing.

Mireille Duval Jameson is visiting her parents in Haiti with her husband Michael and son Christophe when she is kidnapped for ransom. Her father is rich, which is an inadequate word to describe the economic divides in play in Haiti. Imagine the most gut-wrenching poverty you can, and then imagine the most extravagant wealth. Then stick them right next to each other. This juxtaposition is disturbing in real life, and is something Mireille can never quite forget. Roxane Gay, daughter of Haitian immigrants herself, clearly struggles with the reality of such luxury existing next door to this kind of poverty. It's a--pardon the pun--richer story for it. Even while the kidnappers are committing these brutal acts, we're never quite allowed to forget their humanity. Gay manages to give both the reader and Mireille herself flashes of who these men are that make you almost pity them. But she does it in a way that never ever excuses the horrible things they're doing, if that makes sense. At one point, the leader of the kidnappers, a man called the Commander, tells Mireille a story about his father, who had been a chauffeur for a wealthy family. He would sometimes drive his children around in his employer's Mercedes.
They would roll slowly past the presidential palace and head high into the hills where the wealthy lived. His father often said, "Look how these people live. Never forget what they choose to deny you."
I rolled my eyes. "My father grew up in a shack with a dirt floor, never had a moment to himself, shared that tiny place with his parents and twelve siblings. You are not the only man to grow up wanting or hungry or angry. My father earned everything he has."
And let's talk about Mireille. I love this character. She's smart, she's tough--even as she's broken down by her kidnappers, even as her father refuses to pay her ransom, she still fights back, but in a totally human, believable way. One thing I brought up to Chef when I was trying to convince him to read this was that it was refreshing to read a book in which a brutalized woman doesn't recover by, like, becoming an assassin. This is not a vengeance book. It's not really a spoiler to say that Mireille does get away from her captors (she says as much on the first page). The structure of the book is really interesting; Mireille tells most of the story, sometimes from a distance after the fact, as a sort of fairy tale, sometimes with an immediacy in the moment. There are also many flashbacks showing her relationship with her husband Michael. Honestly, this is one of the most romantic books I've read in a long time. Michael and Mireille, again, are so damn human. They both screw up, badly (as does every other character in the book), but they love each other so much and I just had so many feelings reading about them, oh man. Michael is an American and it's painful to witness his helplessness as his wife is held for ransom. It's painful to watch him try to deal with the very changed woman who returns to him. It's painful to watch him fuck up again and again.

But I think ultimately this is a hopeful book. It's not an uplifting book, it doesn't all work out. Shit goes down, some things-people-relationships can't be put back together the same once they've been broken. It's just one hard truth in a book full of hard truths. But we also see things get better. People, relationships that have fallen apart can pull back together, if in new ways. Mireille's refrain throughout the book is that she hasn't been broken. Sometimes she forgets that, but we all see that it's true.

There's so much more I could write about--her fractured relationship with her parents. Her relationship with her in-laws, particularly Michael's mother Lorraine. Mireille and her sister. Michael and his parents. Motherhood and poverty and patriarchy and there's just so damn much, and so well done. No wonder my awful summary wasn't enticing. This isn't a book you can sum up. This is a book that embraces complexity. (I'll just say that from now on, I'm sure that'll work. Ugh.)

But I must have said something right because the next morning there was a new bookmark in the book, forty pages in.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Audio book round-up

In my old life of managing a coffee shop, I'd get up at 4:55 everyday. I dressed in the dark, brushed my teeth, etc, and was out the door by 5:15, at work by 5:25. I never thought I'd say this, but--those were the days.

These days I can sleep all the way until 6:20. I can drink a cup of coffee, maybe eat some oatmeal, turn on a light to see if my clothes match...and then I spend 35-45 minutes in the car getting to work. It's not a super stressful drive (at least, it won't be if it ever stops snowing), but it is very. dull. Which makes it extra embarrassing how long it took me to finally try audio books. I guess I was thinking I'd have to buy every book I listened to. I forgot for a minute that my city has one of the best public library systems in the country and that we're home to the headquarters of OverDrive, a company that specializes in getting e- and audio books out to book stores and libraries. No purchase necessary. Score.

My first foray into the wonderful world of audio books was written by BJ Novak.
Yes, that BJ Novak.

Turns out he studied creative writing at Harvard and in between writing for The Office and acting in The Office (and whatever else he was up to during this period in his life, which I'm totally not Googling right now), he was writing down the ideas that eventually turned into this short story collection.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt (in which I am long-winded)

I wasn't in a hurry to read this book. 
It's silly, really; I loved Donna Tartt's The Secret History, and everyone's been raving about this book since it came out. I guess the description just left me cold. I mean, boy loses his mother, boy feels alienated, boy has some weird connection to a painting that leads him into criminal society somehow....(I'm paraphrasing from the book jacket here, if it wasn't obvious). It just didn't sound like something I needed to run out and read immediately. But then I got not one but two copies for Christmas, so I figured what the hell. 
This is why I should never read dust jackets. This one was definitely a fail. Because this book? This book, guys. It's nothing like the dry coming-of-age novel that stupid blurb would like us to believe it to be. Stupid blurbs, with their nefarious, blurb-y plots!
In fact, this book is both gorgeously written and brilliantly plotted, and populated with some of the most memorable characters I've ever read. I finished the novel over a week ago and I can't stop thinking about it. I kind of want to live in this book.
I'll back up. I know I usually skip the plot summaries, but I just want to see if I can right some of that terrible blurb's wrongs. Mild spoilers ahead. 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Summer and Bird, by Katherine Catmull

The first review I wrote of Summer and Bird got eaten by crappy coffee shop internet. That's okay. It was pretty crappy writing. I'm out of practice. But this is my first book of 2014, a book I waited over a year to read, so long that my reserve at the library expired before I could actually get my hands on the book. Lucky thing Christmas came up when it did. I need to write about this book because that always helps set things in my mind and I don't want to forget this one. So here goes: take two.

Summer and Bird are sisters, just twelve and nine years old, respectively, when they wake up one morning to find their parents gone. (My sister and I used to pretend our parents were gone. It sounded so glamorous when we were little, to imagine fending for ourselves. Of course, if we'd ever woken up to find ourselves abandoned, we'd have been every bit as scared and confused as Summer and Bird.) They follow the few clues left to them--or they think they follow them, because they aren't very clear--and find themselves in the land of Down, where they wind up on separate journeys, following separate paths. Beyond that I don't want to get too specific, but I will say I've never read a book that felt quite like this one before. It reads like a fairy tale, both lyrical and unflinching. It's a book that resists simplicity--as one character puts it, "Nothing important means just one thing." 

And none of the characters are just one thing--in fact, all are pulled in at least a few directions. Bird, the youngest, is torn between guilt over the role she may have played in her parents' disappearance, and her ambitions to break away from her family and rise above them. Summer has her own guilt, and is torn between feeling responsible for her younger sister at the same time as she resents her for being the seemingly special one. Even their parents are torn, their mother between her true self and the life she's built with her family; their father between his wife and his children. I just love this. It feels like my whole life these days is about being pulled in different directions. Is my first responsibility to my friends or my family (or, shocker, to myself)? Is it more satisfying to feel capable and responsible and ADULT, or to say "fuck it" to the mess and the laundry and just feed my soul with books and writing and art and occasionally too much bourbon? I don't for a second think these are the biggest problems facing anyone in the world. I mean, come on, I am privileged to be having these dilemmas. But they're still issues I'm grappling with, and I so, so appreciated Catmull's ability to show so many sides of the same story, with compassion and understanding for all the characters. 

Because these are characters who do wrong. They all make some bad decisions throughout the book--they're not just unwise but occasionally selfish, veering into morally sketchy-as-hell. But they aren't demonized for it. Just when you think you've got a character figured out, Catmull switches things up and you're looking at the picture from another frame. Nothing important means just one thing. 

So if you want to read a really lovely book--seriously, prepare for some gorgeous brain-pictures here, people--that's also creepy and epic and funny and sad...this one's a good bet. Happy 2014.