Doc: A Novel

8911226Doc: A Novel by Mary Doria Russell

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Mark Bramhall

Source: library

Length: 16:38:00

Publisher: Random House Audio

Year: 2011

This historical fiction novel focuses on the life of John Henry “Doc” Holliday from his early years, before he was famous for his role in the gunfight at the OK Corral. He was born to be a Southern gentleman, but he moved to Texas in hopes that the hot, dry air would ease the tuberculosis that was already ravaging his lungs. When the job market proved to be less than he had hoped, he started professionally playing poker. At the urging of Kate Harony, the Classically trained Hungarian whore he lives with, Doc and Kate move to Dodge City, KS and start fresh. And Doc becomes friends with a young man named Morgan Earp and his brothers Wyatt and James and the rest, as they say, is history. Or is it?

This book! I read this book just to check off the “Read a Western” box on the Read Harder challenge, and it was the only one immediately available that sounded remotely interesting. I’m not a fan of westerns. I did not expect to enjoy it all that much, it was just something to get through. I had no idea that I would discover the book that is probably my favorite book of 2019! This novel was just absolutely delightful. Doc Holliday was not the man he is portrayed by history, at least not according to Mary Doria Russell. He was a quiet, mild mannered, Southern gentleman who loved playing the piano, reading Classical literature, and speaking Latin. He was born with a cleft palate, and he was one of the first babies the have his fixed. He was fiercely loyal and did not seek out fame or notoriety. This Doc Holliday was a person I genuinely cared about.

The narrator, Mark Bramhall, delivered a superb performance. He shifts seamlessly from Doc’s slow Georgia drawl to the sharper twang of the Texas cowboys to the cheerful Irish brogue of the local town drunk. He gives dry wit a biting edge that made me laugh out loud more than once, and imbued his voice with such sadness or nostalgia at times that only the coldest person would remain untouched. I hope he narrates other books, because I definitely want to hear his voice again.

There was almost nothing I didn’t love about this book. Some of my favorite scenes were when Doc fixed Wyatt’s teeth and gave him dentures to replace his missing teeth. Wyatt was so happy to see his own smile, it was heartbreaking. He had to practice saying his S’s and TH’s and he was determined to get it right, which was also somehow endearing. Doc was proud of his work and delighted to be able to give a person back some of their self confidence and health, which he vigorously defended later to Kate when she was nagging him about how dentistry doesn’t pay any money. I also loved the scene near the end when Doc was playing The Emperor piano concerto. That whole scene made my face leak on my drive to work. I want to buy this for my own collection. I would listen to it again, or eyeball read it. It was enthralling.

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Rereading Mordred

I have a paper due tonight, 3000-4000 words. I started writing it yesterday, which is the absolute earliest I could find time to sit my butt down and start writing. It is quite possibly the worst thing I have intentionally submitted in my entire academic career. I am sharing it here because I feel it is important to show that everyone, even people who write for a living, blow it sometimes. 

Rereading Mordred

Once upon a time in literature, a boy pulled a sword from a stone and Arthurian literature was born. However, there is no one genesis of the Arthur legend. Correspondingly, various changes take place throughout the canon, from the way the knights’ armour looks to the way the characters themselves are portrayed. A character who has undergone a great deal of change over time is Mordred. From various medieval texts to J.R.R. Tolkien’s interpretation, Mordred’s competence, approach to leadership, and relationship with Gwenhwyfar are woven together to create a highly complex, often misunderstood character. Read More »

Medusa the Mean

12052534Medusa the Mean (GoddessGirls #8) by Joan Holub

I read it as a: paperback

Source: our own collection

Length: 240 pp

Publisher: Aladdin

Year: 2012

In Medusa the Mean, there are only two things Medusa really wants – to be immortal like her sisters and the popular girls and for Poseidon to like her. To achieve these dreams, Medusa decides she needs The Immortalizer, a magical necklace she saw advertised in a magazine. The problem is that it doesn’t seem to work, of course. In the course of trying to become immortal, Medusa is also trying to find the perfect wedding gift for Zeus and Hera’s upcoming wedding, try to figure out how to bond with the kindergarten buddy she’d been saddled with, and make sense of the weird visit to the Grey Ladies she’d been forced to attend. And, since this is for pre-teens, there is plenty of angst and wondering about why she kinda likes Dionysus when her crush is on Poseidon.

I actually liked this one quite a lot. I’ve enjoyed the others well enough, though I think most are too involved with crushes and getting crushes and who likes whom, and hetero-normative reinforcement. But this one, though it had its share of crushes, focused a lot more on things like why Medusa was so mean. She was one of a set of triplets, but her parents treated her like she didn’t exist. Her sisters were born immortal but not Medusa. She was bullied in her hometown and had no friends. She is excluded from everything and to protect herself from being hurt, she starts shutting people out and being mean to keep them away. Which is completely normal, and really fucking sad. This is a great example of why you treat people nicely and try not to be a dick, because it can have real repercussions for people when you aren’t.

When we were reading this together, there were many times when my daughter said she felt really bad for Medusa. So did I. It opened up a dialogue of why kindness matters, and why maybe some people behave like they do. I’ve always told her that people who are mean didn’t get enough hugs when they were children. This is why we read literature, because it teaches and reinforces empathy. I don’t like all of the GoddessGirl books very much, but this one was definitely a win.

Star Trek: Prey: The Hall of Heroes

29430792Star Trek: Prey: The Hall of Heroes by John Jackson Miller

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 387 pp

Publisher: Pocket Books

Year: 2016

The final installment in Miller’s Klingon trilogy was a great read. In this, Korgh’s plotting of nearly 100 years is unraveling around him and he scrambles to keep his plans intact. Starfleet is working closely with an old enemy, Ardra, to find the truthweavers, the illusionists who are responsible for misleading the Unsung as well as a variety of other races. They have also brought the Kinshaya to the brink of war with the Klingon Empire because of Shift, an Orion woman now working with the Breen. Enterprise, Titan, and Aventine and their crews are all working to track the Unsung as well as Korgh’s Phantom Wing, of course not knowing about Korgh’s involvement in any of it. Worf and Kahless are working with the Unsung to help them understand the Klingon way, an act that ultimately brings about redemption in ways none of them anticipate.

This was a fantastic finale to this trilogy. There was a ton of action – space battles! Chases! Hand to hand combat! There was intrigue – Korgh did it! No, Shift did it! Wait, is that Ardra? Maybe she did it! The plot throughout the trilogy was pleasingly complex but not overly convoluted, which I think is a difficult balance to strike. Miller managed it beautifully.

I really loved the theme of honor in this one. It was woven throughout the trilogy, of course, but it came through strongest in this final novel. Is honor something you can really take away from a person? Can you earn it? If someone says you are without honor, can you still act honorably? Is honor something that is innate, regardless of dogma or inculturation? How do you learn about honor if no one is there who can teach you? These issues and more are up to Worf and Kahless to decide as they try to guide the Unsung on a new path to redeem themselves for their past acts.

I had kind of hoped that Sarken would stay with Worf, but the resolution to that was perfect and appropriate. And the last line of the book was killer! I loved it.

On a side note, I eyeball read this but I might pick up the audiobook versions just to show S&S/Pocket Books that there IS a market for full-length Star Trek audiobooks. I’m glad they are starting to get their act together and put out the newer ones but I really wish they’d go back and do some of the older ones in an unabridged edition. If the need a narrator, I volunteer as tribute!

Star Trek: Prey: The Jackal’s Trick

29865636Star Trek: Prey: The Jackal’s Trick by John Jackson Miller

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 384 pp

Publisher: Simon and Schuster

Year: 2016

The second installment in JJM’s Klingon trilogy. The action picked up right where it left off in the previous book. Korgh has taken control of the ancient House of Kruge and, in rather Trump like fashion, is now taking every opportunity to attack the longtime allies of the Klingon Empire and weaken its ties to the Federation. Someone claiming to actually BE Kruge is whipping the Unsung into a froth of rage against traditional Klingons who haven’t been discommendated. And it’s all linked to an old Enterprise foe from nearly 20 years ago who was never what she appeared to be.

This was a fun and action packed novel. I could read it just on its surface but, rather unlike the first in this Klingon trilogy, it seemed a bit deeper, dealing much more closely with complex themes of honor and duty. Worf really gets put through the wringer in this one and he’s not done yet. I have hopes for a thing to happen with him in the final novel in the trilogy that began in this novel. A good thing about being so far behind on my Trek reading is that I don’t have to wait for the next one to come out to find out if I’m right! A thoroughly enjoyable read! ‘Qapla!

One random thing – that cover. Who the fuck is the Klingon demon supposed to be on the front, and why is he apparently punching himself in the face? It doesn’t fit in with the story, other but than one small and fairly irrelevant scene with Geordi and Tuvok, and doesn’t matter much to the overarching plot. That’s just the weirdest cover image I’ve seen in a while.

A Bollywood Affair

40098577A Bollywood Affair by Sonali Dev

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Priya Ayyar

Source: Hoopla Digital

Length: 10:23:00

Publisher: Blackstone Audio

Year: 2014

Mili was a 4 year old child bride in an arranged marriage and grew up doing everything she could to become the ideal wife for her husband, an officer in the Indian Air Force, a man she’d never met but who she knew would come for her one day. She went to college because an officer’s wife should be educated, and her studies take her to a post-grad program in America. Meanwhile, her husband’s brother, Samir, famous Bollywood director and notorious playboy, finds himself with a serious case of writer’s block on his next script. When his brother gets in a bad accident and it comes out that his marriage to Mili hadn’t been annulled when they were children as they had thought, he sends Samir to America to get Mili to sign the annulment papers since he himself was bedridden and unable to do it himself. While there, Samir finds himself unexpectedly bewitched by Mili and her onyx eyes. His writer’s block miraculously cured, he devotes his time to writing and to Mili, who was injured and needs help because she’s a klutz and has no one to help. Sam sets himself up as her new neighbor and naturally, drama ensues.

I am not a reader of romance. I read this because it checks the box for one of the 2018 Read Harder tasks. I enjoyed it well enough, I laughed out loud a couple times, but I confess that I find the whole romance genre baffling. Two people meet, they have drama of some kind, they have a big fight for some reason, there is a separation, then they get over it and end up happily ever after. Maybe sometimes the man is an alpha male asshole, maybe sometimes he’s a sensitive beta. Maybe the lady is a shy little wallflower, maybe she’s a spitfire. Maybe it’s a lesbian couple, maybe it’s two men, maybe it’s some other combination on the gender spectrum. But the formula always seems to be the same. I just…it’s boring to know how it will end before you even start reading. Do people read romance just for the sex? This is NOT a rant against this book or Sonali Dev in any way, I just truly don’t understand the appeal, I guess.

As far as romance books go, this one was fine. I liked Mili, she had dreams and did what she needed to carry them out. She had gumption and ambition and learned how to speak her mind. She was a loyal friend. All are qualities I admire and value. Samir was a spoiled brat but he also was loyal to his brother, anyway. He turned out nice enough. I’m not sure what else to say about it, really. It was a fun and fast read, but nothing surprised me or anything. It seemed to follow the formula I was expecting to the letter.

I do definitely want all the Indian food now, though. The descriptions of food, festivals, clothing, and locations were all really vivid and rich, which I loved. Made me want to travel.

Star Trek: Prey: Hell’s Heart

29865635Star Trek: Prey: Hell’s Heart by John Jackson Miller

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 383 pp

Publisher: Simon and Schuster

Year: 2016

In this first entry into John Jackson Miller’s Klingon trilogy, the Enterprise-E is helping Admiral Riker and the crew of Titan bring Klingon nobles to the former site of the battle of Gamaral, where the House of Kruge once fought against the Empire and, it turns out, suffered a humiliating defeat. The crews of the two starships are working together to conduct a ceremony for the nobles, each of whom is a legitimate heir to the House but rather than fight for their right of inheritance, they opted to share the rule of the House and keep peace. When they get to Gamaral, assassins in black strike and annihilate the entire House, with only one survivor. In the slaughter, Worf and the Emperor Kahless are kidnapped and taken to the assassins’ stronghold, hidden on a planet deep in a nebula. To understand the assassins’ motives and escape, Worf and Picard discover a surprising link to a prior Enterprise first officer, Spock.

This was a fun, if pretty dark, first entry in this trilogy. I would say “new trilogy,” but I’m super far behind on my Trek books and it’s a couple years old now. This was some sweet, sweet brain candy, though, much needed. I’m mentally exhausted and a good Star Trek novel is just what I wanted to read. I don’t often care much about the Klingons – they have never been my favorite aliens – but I do love Worf and the story was fun. This one wasn’t one of those Trek books that makes you think or that discusses social issues or anything. It was just a straightforward romp through space, and that’s totally fine with me. I’m jumping right into the next one, which is a benefit of being so behind on my reading. I don’t have to wait for the next instalment!

Bluebird, Bluebird

40605488Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: JD Jackson

Source: my own Audible collection

Length: 9:25:00

Publisher: Hachette Audio

Year: 2017

Darren Mathews is a black Texas Ranger who is on suspension. While he is called home to Lark, TX, he begins digging around in the deaths of two people – a black lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman, found in the same bayou two days apart. Darren starts investigating, even though he is suspended, in an attempt to head off the racial tensions building in the tiny town.

This is the first book of Locke’s I’ve read. Her prose is rich and evokes a great deal of authenticity regarding race relations in tiny, backwoods Southern towns. I had to keep reminding myself that this novel was set in modern times, not 50 years or more ago. The details of the crimes were complex and believable within the scope of the story. I really found her writing to be relevant for many issues society still, sadly, deals with today. She showed how racism is deeply ingrained in both the white and black communities, which is so sad on every level.

That said, I didn’t actually like this book much. I had a hard time connecting with any of the characters. I didn’t like how Darren would use his badge to manipulate people to get what he wanted from them. I didn’t find most of the people terribly sympathetic, even the victims or the victims’ loved ones. I was mostly bored with the crime plot and it dragged too much for me. I like plenty of detail and don’t mind slow pacing but this was too slow. I can easily see why this book got so many 4 and 5 star reviews, because it really was well written and deals with important issues. It just wasn’t for me.

The Long Road to Empathy: The Tragedy of Oedipal Love in The Story of Kullervo and The Kalevala

In 1911, J.R.R. Tolkien read The Kalevala, collected by Elias Lonnrot and translated by W.F. Kirby. Tolkien later crafted his own variant, condensing the plot and emphasizing the grimness of the narrative. Throughout both versions of Kullervo’s story, there is a sense of inevitability and doom which is highlighted in several scenes. A pivotal scene is Kullervo’s rape of his sister, which Tolkien made darker by enhancing details leading up to it, highlighting the narrative’s sense of inevitability, and ultimately creating a character who is more empathetic.

Examining the different rape scenes and events leading up to them is a multifaceted task. A striking difference in Tolkien’s version is that Kullvero and his sister were raised together. They were twins and “dear to one another from their first hours…” (Tolkien 7). This bond is absent in The Kalevala. Tolkien also gives the sister a name. In literature, names imbue power, agency, and identity. The fact that Wanona has a name at all, and that it means “weeping,” strongly foreshadows a future tragedy. While naming Wanona allowed her a voice, Tolkien later emphasizes Kullervo’s inevitable encounter with her, thus negating her ability to choose for herself. Tolkien was drawn to the bleakness of the story and may have given her a name to underscore the tale’s relentless sense of doom.

A further element relating to the later rape is the curse of Ilmarinen’s wife. In The Kalevala, Ilmarinen’s wife curses Kullervo with death out of revenge. She begs the god Ukko to use his best crossbow, take a bolt of copper, and “Shoot it quickly through the arm-pits,/ Shoot it that it split the shoulders./ Thus let Kalervo’s son perish,/ Shoot thou dead this wicked creature…” (Runo 33, lines 263-276). Ilmarinen’s wife is angry, afraid, and asks the gods to kill Kullervo for murdering her. There is no sense of prophecy in her words, but her formal tone suggests that her curse catalyzes Kullervo’s fated death. Although vague enough to allow for the possibility of fate or events of chance causing his death, later events support the argument that her curse was successful, rendering foreshadowing irrelevant.

In Kullervo, the curse foreshadows a coming tragedy. Tolkien writes,

Woe thou Sari Kampa’s offspring

Thou has trod the ways of thralldom

And the trackless waste of exile

But thy end shall be more awful

…a fate of woe [and] horror

Worse than anguish in Anuntu.

Men … shall shudder when they hear them

Thy fate and end of terror. (31-32)

Immediately obvious is the phrase “thy end shall be more awful,” which provides the prophesying that The Kalevala lacks. Kullervo has been a slave and an exile but his death will be worse than these things. Moreover, the idea that fate plays a role is highlighted by the repeated use of the term. The wife implies that Kullervo is destined for a bad death, though it is unclear whether her words are the catalyst to this or merely foreshadow it.

Both narratives feature the Blue Lady of the Forest. In The Kalevala, the Lady does not warn Kullervo away from entering the forest. On the contrary, she steers him directly toward it. “Through the forest must thou journey,/ By the river thou must travel,/ …/ Till you reach a wooded mountain,/ Then march on beneath the mountain,/ …/ By the riverside go further,/ Till three waterfalls rush foaming,/ When thou comest to a headland…  (Runo 34, lines 143-154). Her instructions do not appear prophetic, but since Kullervo meets his sister in the very forest the Lady directs him to, it raises the possibility that she sends him there intentionally. Failing to build anticipation, The Kalevala moves the story forward without detail. Tolkien gives ample attention to the woods and the Lady’s instructions, building tension. She says:

Thou must follow the river’s path and … thou wilt find a wooded mountain. Fare not towards it lest ill find thee. March on under the shadow often bending to the left when thou comest to another river and when thou hast followed its banks soon thou wilt strike a fair spot and a great glade and over a great leap a triple waterfall foaming. … continue pushing up the river toward its source: and the ground will slope against thee and the wood darken … stumble across bleak waste and then soon wilt thou see the blue of woods of Untamo rising afar off: and mayhap these thou hast not yet quite forgotten. (Tolkien 35)

Unlike Kirby, Tolkien creates a deeply shadowed forest, fostering a sense of foreboding. His Lady also warns specifically not to go to the wooded mountain because some unnamed tragedy will occur there. In the most interesting departure from The Kalevala, Tolkien’s Kullervo willfully disobeys the Lady’s instructions and goes into the forest where, of course, he meets his sister. The final comment from the Lady becomes relevant at this point, for in telling Kullervo that maybe he hasn’t quite forgotten the blue woods of Untamo, she is implying that he is back in the woods of his childhood where he and Wanona played. Being in once-familiar surroundings could make him remember Wanona when he sees her. That he remembers neither the woods nor his sister, thus missing a chance to avoid the tragedy, is a masterful way Tolkien emphasizes its bleakness.

The narrative culminates with the rape of Wanona. In Kirby’s translation, Kullervo encounters three maidens, all of whom reject him, and drags the third one into his sledge. She resists, but Kullervo shows her the riches he has in his coffers and she changes her mind: “…To a bride the money changed her,/ … Then he sported with the maiden,/ Wearied out the tin-adorned one…” (Runo 35, lines 169-186). Kirby’s translation overwrites the wife’s initial refusal and replaces consent with materialism. This is a very misogynistic approach, for she appears indifferent that she will be raped as long as he is rich. She is merely a nameless object with no identity, her agency illusory, who has no objections until she realizes that Kullervo is her brother. There is also no mention of the curse of Ilmanen’s wife, and Kullervo met the maidens by chance (Runo 35, line 133), implying that fate is irrelevant and the curse has no bearing.

Tolkien’s Kullervo, while grimmer, brings far more detail and emotional depth to the tale. Rather than having three separate maidens reject Kullervo, the same maiden rejects him thrice. She’s uninterested in his wealth, unlike her Kalevala counterpart. Kullervo loses his temper and takes her not into his sledge but away into “the depths of the woods” (Tolkien 36), the forbidden place. Not only does Kullervo fail to avoid the tragedy here, he fulfills it. Tolkien writes, “Yet was she fair and he loving with her, and the curse of the wife of Ilmarinen upon them both, so that not long did she resist him and they abode together in the wild…” (37). Professor Verlyn Flieger suggests that Tolkien means for this to be a seduction rather than a rape (Flieger). She interprets this passage such that they reach an accord and share a legitimate relationship. However, she does not account for the fact that Wanona is “…adread and sped like a wild thing through the woods…” (36). This is mortal terror, not accord. Women often have to choose survival through acquiescence; however, acquiescence should not be confused for consent. Additionally, Tolkien writes that “the curse of the wife of Ilmarinen [was] upon them both” (37), indicating that the wife’s curse includes Wanona, linking her fate irrevocably to his.

The defining difference between the two texts lies not in the disparity in length, emphasis on darkness, or even the rape itself. It is Kullervo’s reaction and how he acts afterward. Kullervo responds with horror in The Kalevala, saying he had outraged his mother’s child, presumably referring to his sister; however, he could actually be talking about himself considering that he makes self-centered references to the difficulties in his life ten times in that same stanza (Runo 35, lines 271-286). Tolkien’s Kullervo tries and fails to stop Wanona from throwing herself into the river. He hears her “last wail” (38), a haunting image juxtaposed against the beauty of the setting. Kullervo sits beside the waterfall for several hours “as a lump of rock” (39). Tolkien paints a picture of a deeply grieving man who only later understands Wanona’s final words. Tolkien writes, “… foreboding gnawed at his heart for something in the maiden’s last speech …and her bitter ending wakened old knowledge in his heart …he felt he would burst for grief and sorrow and heavy fear. Then red anger came to him…” (39). At this point, Kullervo goes into a rage, far too late to prevent the tragedy the Lady had warned him about. Tolkien’s Kullervo is now a much more believable figure than Kirby’s. His emotions are complex: he is grief-stricken, he loves Wanona as a woman, yet he feels terrible guilt about loving her and her death. In both versions, Kullervo is an unsympathetic figure up to this point. Tolkien’s Kullervo, though, learns to grieve for others and have empathy. It is only then that he can find “the death he sought for” (40).

Although all events lead to Kullervo’s suicide, Tolkien’s emphasis on the rape and the relentless pain in the story build a character who is far more realistic than the one in The Kalevala. Kirby’s translation describes a historically rich narrative but it is lacking in emotional depth. Tolkien’s Kullervo, though frequently repugnant, is ultimately more believable because of the various emphases Tolkien makes. Focusing more on the inevitability of Kullervo’s tragedy, as well as crafting a situation which he could have avoided at multiple points, allows Tolkien to refine the character, explore the concept of fate, and deeply examine how details of a story can influence narrative.

 

References

Flieger, Verlyn. “Tolkien’s Kullervo.” Tolkien and Tradition class lecture archives, Signum University, http://signum.coursearchives.s3.amazonaws.com/LITC5301_Tolkien-and-Tradition/LITC5301_Session08.mp4

The Kalevala, the Land of Heroes. Compiled by Elias Lonnrot, translated by W.F. Kirby, Project Gutenberg, 2010.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Story of Kullervo. Edited by Verlyn Flieger, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.

Little Fires Everywhere

34273236Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

I read it as a: hardback

Source: my own collection

Length: 338 pp

Publisher: Penguin Press

Year: 2017

Shaker Heights is a planned community near Cleveland, OH. All the houses are perfectly maintained, the yards perfectly manicured, the house colors all within code. The people who live there all follow the rules and look after each other and never have to worry about locking their doors. Everything and everyone has a plan and no one really deviates from it. Elena Richardson is a product of Shaker, born and bred, and she takes the place of rules, law, and order in her life very seriously. Mia Warren, Elena’s new tenant, flies in the face of everything Shaker, and Elena herself, stands for, living an itinerant and carefree life with her teenage daughter, Pearl. When family friends of the Richardsons find themselves in the middle of a contentious, racially charged adoption, secrets come out on all sides and have shattering consequences for everyone.

I loved this book so much. It was quiet and subversive and just about perfect. There are a lot of people worthy of sympathy: Mia is a free spirit and keeps moving to stoke her creative spirit. Pearl has never been able to make friends because they move every few months, so her refuge is in books and her own intelligence. Izzy, the youngest of the Richardson brood, is overlooked or criticized at every turn and struggles to find her voice through a series of increasingly irrational acts. These three were my favorite characters. I loathed Elena Richardson, even though she was a sympathetic figure in her own way as well. She was really the one who set in motion the whole devastating series of events, even though at first it appears to be Mia who did so.

There was just so much to unpack in this novel. It was subtle in its subversion, which is often the best kind. You are reading along and come across a scene and a few pages later you go, “Wait, what?” and have to go back to something. It hits you later and makes you think. Those are the best books. For me, this made me think about the various ways motherhood played a role in this narrative. I couldn’t stand Elena Richardson, but I wonder if she was a better mother than Mia Warren. Mia clearly loved Pearl with all her heart and would never make her feel inadequate or picked on and wouldn’t criticize everything she does the way Elena does Izzy. Elena treats Izzy differently than her other three children, constantly picking on her, being annoyed by her, criticizing her for every little thing. NOT OK. However, once we learn why she does that, it doesn’t make it ok but it does make it understandable. It makes me wonder how it might have changed Elena’s relationship with Izzy if she had told her why. Mia, on the other hand, has moved Pearl every few months. Pearl has no friends until they move to Shaker Heights, where they initially plan to stay forever. Mia might seem to love Pearl more fiercely and in a manner that I, at least, can relate to more easily, but she also may not have done the best thing for Pearl by moving her so much because she isn’t very good at making friends, doesn’t really know how to be a normal teenager. Mia kept a lot of important things from Pearl but, unlike Elena, she does tell her eventually. I wonder how it will affect their relationship, too.

Motherhood intersects with race when it comes to Bebe, the McCulloughs, and May Ling/Mirabelle. This was such a heartbreaking part of the story. On the one hand, I generally tend to believe that most people deserve second chances. Bebe had tried to do the right thing by her baby, May Ling, and when she couldn’t, she took her to a place she felt would be safe and where she could get her back when she was able to get on her feet again. The fact that she didn’t know at all about any resources available to help her wasn’t her fault. She didn’t speak English well at the time and she didn’t know what to ask or who to go to. When the McCulloughs tried to adopt the baby, renaming her Mirabelle, they highlighted the institutional racism they were inundated with. They had no idea about Asian culture or how to teach their adopted daughter about it. They made casual, cringe-worthy remarks about how she already likes rice and panda bears. Ugh. They didn’t even consider keeping her birth name and didn’t think it was wrong to change it until Izzy challenged them about it. They felt they were more suited to raise May Ling than Bebe because they’re rich and the wife will be a stay at home mother; the unsaid message is that it’s also because they’re white. The excuse they used in court is that Bebe left the baby at a fire department, terminating her parental rights, whereas they have been trying for years to have children to no avail, so clearly they want kids. At some point, May Ling becomes an object rather than a person, even if she is still a baby, and it seems like the McCulloughs just want a baby, any one will do. To me, that point is proven later when they end up trying to adopt another baby even after May Ling is gone. If I was so attached to a child (and I am, I am a mother myself), I don’t think I could bear to try to have another one if anything took that child away from me. It would feel like replacing the child with a new one.

Throughout the story, we wonder who should be a mother? What makes a mother? Can we choose our mothers? Can we have more than one mother? What makes a good mother or an unfit mother? Ng never answers the questions she raises about mothers and motherhood, and I like that ambiguity. She lets her readers think about them and come to their own conclusions about them. I’ve changed my own mind a bunch of times just since the beginning of this review…