Angels in America

51vmgruhwl._sl500_Angels in America by Tony Kushner

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: contemporary literature/plays

I read it as an: audiobook (audio play?)

Narrator: National Theatre Broadway cast

Source: public library

Length: 06:53:00

Published by: Random House Audio (14 May 2019)

A two-part play, Angels in America focuses on gender identity, social justice, and AIDS in the time of the Reagan Republican counter-revolution. It features various storylines of several people living in NYC, primarily Prior Walter, Joe Pitt, his wife Harper, Roy Cohn, and Belize. Each person is struggling to make sense of themselves, often hiding who they really are, and the miseries and fears that go along with denying your true self. 

This was a brutal read. It was set in the 80s, my childhood, so when it was actually happening, I was too young to understand or care about issues like AIDS, the gay community, or why it is so important not to cover up your identity. I also wouldn’t have understood why that was sometimes the only way people could survive. Although it was a painful story to hear, I am so glad I did. My favorite character was Belize, so quick to tell you just what he thinks but at the same time also quick to care for another person, even if that person just royally offended or insulted him. We need more people like Belize in the world.

I have never listened to a play on audiobook before, though I’ve certainly been to several live performances. I didn’t know what I would think of the experience, but it was fantastic! The cast was amazing, of course, and the way the narration and stage directions were delivered made it really easy to follow. I would definitely listen to more plays on audiobook. 

Catch-Up Round: Book Club edition

122943In the Country of the Young  by Lisa Carey (WEBSITE, TWITTER, FACEBOOK)

Her Grace’s rating:  4.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: magical realism/ ghost story

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 286 pp

Published by: Perennial (1 Oct 2000)

In the late 1800s during Ireland’s Potato Famine, hundreds of Irish immigrated to America and Canada on ‘famine ships.’ One ship, the Tir na Nog, ran aground off the coast of Maine and most aboard died, including a young girl, Aisling. In modern times, artist Oisin MacDara lives an almost hermit life in the woods of Tiranogue Island. He rarely has any contact with other people and the islanders have come to accept him on his own terms. On Samhain night, Oisin lights a candle and leaves his door open, as tradition dictates, and from the mist comes a girl. Oisin had been able to see ghosts and spirits in his youth, but lost the ability when his twin sister died. In all the years since, Oisin has tried to figure out how to bring his Sight back. Now, it seems he is able to See spirits once more, or at least one spirit, who enters his life on Samhain night.

Carey’s novel is a delight. It is atmospheric and gothic, full of Irish myth and tradition. Readers get a sense of disbelief at first when Aisling wanders in out of the shadows, and, very slowly, come to realise the girl is the same as the one who died on the famine ship. As Aisling’s stay with Oisin becomes longer, she begins to grow at an astronomical rate, catching up to her adult self and gaining the experiences she missed out on in life. Oisin reluctantly takes on the role of provider, by turns pleased for and interested in the companionship and resenting her presence in his quiet, solitary life. With the help of an open-minded and trusting neighbor, Deirdre, Oisin is able to give Aisling a lifetime of experiences in what he knows will be the limited time available to her.

The character development here was extraordinary. I loved seeing Aisling’s growth and how she changed from a scared little girl into a self-confident young woman. Oisin, too, changed and grew to accept love and help from others. I identified with him a lot since I am also a very solitary person and don’t trust easily. 

Various themes of loss, mental illness, sexuality, and inflexible social customs made for some very rich discussion during this particular book club meeting.

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • It’s the same as day turning to night. Your life is like the day, and after death comes, it’s all different – not worse or better, just different – because, as at night, the world no longer looks the same. It’s why twilight is the holy time, when day and night come together, and the living and the dead can meet one another on the road.
  • “It’s wrong to spend your life afraid, Oisin,” she said. “No matter what you see.”
  • What that night became for her was the moment she stepped away from all her definitions and into herself. Suddenly it no longer mattered who she was, only that she was. She stopped editing her thoughts and analyzing her actions. When she looked in the mirror, her brown eyes were tired or angry, often amused, but no longer plain. Beneath the fears and posing, she had been there all along.
  • Doesn’t he know that every minute counts? That waiting is often the same as missing a lifetime?
  • My mom says if you wait for people to read your mind, most of them will hear only your silence. … Which is why I have to tell you something,” Gabe says. … “When I’m old enough to have my first love, I’m going to remember you. Is that okay?”

 

5730888The Unit  by Ninni Holmqvist 

Her Grace’s rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: dystopian 

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 268 pp

Published by: Other Press (9 June 2009)

In this dystopian society, when people reach a certain age (50 for women, 60 for men), and have no family or an irreplaceable skill, they are sent to live in ‘reserve banks’, like retirement homes. It is not optional and everyone goes if they didn’t have children in their life. Dorrit Weger dutifully checks into the Second Reserve Bank Unit on her 50th birthday. From there, she makes new friends among the other residents, engages in experiments with new drugs and therapies, and eventually begins making donations as needed and required to the outside community. She and her fellow residents are there to provide their organs to people who need them and who have been deemed of more value to society. 

This was fascinating, if somewhat derivative of many other dystopian novels. As with many books dealing with the lives of women in the future, this society has decided that people who have never had children are ‘dispensable’ and are therefore a perfect group upon which to experiment with new drugs or psychological therapies, forcing them to donate organs to indispensable recipients until they make their final donation, usually their heart or lungs. It is terrifying because I can see something like this happening. What was the most disturbing of all was how quickly the Unit’s residents accepted their fate and even managed to convince themselves that it was for the good. 

It was also just…sad…since Dorrit only found love for the first time once she entered the Unit and it would necessarily be cut short by the practices they are enduring. While I do NOT think one has to have a great love to have a great life or to be complete, it is sad when someone wants that and only finds it at the end of her life. 

There is a lot of material to unpack about what makes a life or a person worthwhile and fulfilled. Why is having children the be all and end all of a person’s worth? It takes no skill at all to have a baby. I always look side-eye at anyone who says having their children was their greatest accomplishment. Really? I LOVE my child but having her took no particular skill on my part. I’m prouder of the things I’ve written, dragged out of my brain by sheer determination, persistence, and force of will, because those things took a lot of effort. Saying this does not mean I am not proud of my daughter. I am proud – of HER accomplishments and the person she is becoming, not of simply having her. See the difference? And who is to say what I accomplish is somehow more important than, say, my friends who have chosen to remain childless? It’s not like we aren’t overpopulated as it is. Humans are like cockroaches. We’re all over the fucking place. It’s just a scary thing to think that people might one day be valued on their ability to reproduce rather than on their actual ability to contribute. 

This was another excellent book for a book club. There were so many things to consider from ethics, love, the value of a human life, and spirit. We had a very lively discussion for this one!

There were many lines that I highlighted while reading this, but the one below sums up everything perfectly for me:

  • “People who read books,” he went on, “tend to be dispensable. Extremely.”

History Rhymes: The Function and Importance of Historical Fantasy*

Within every issue of Historical Novels Review one section of reviews is labeled “Historical Fantasy,” where readers find books like Guy Gavriel Kay’s that introduce magical or supernatural elements into their historical framework. Tolkien is perhaps the most famous writer to have brought the realms of myth and magic into solidly historical contexts. Certainly, one result of this blending of history and fantasy is greater entertainment — escape, if you will. On this subject, Tolkien, in his essay “On Fairy Stories” wrote:

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. (Tolkien, 1947)

Most of us enjoy escaping through fiction and agree with Tolkien’s embrace of it as a virtue of reading. But, along with providing marvelous exits out of the everyday world, historical fantasy also appeals to so many readers because it is a particularly rich and effective medium to explore current social issues.

More than one study shows that the genres of science fiction and fantasy promote deeper empathy in readers who are introduced to the genre at a young age. One study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology quantifiably demonstrates how reading books like Harry Potter increases tolerance and reduces prejudice (Vezzali, et al., 2015). Vezzali explains that the fantasy genres are “especially effective in assuaging negative attitudes [toward social issues] because the genre typically doesn’t feature actual populations and thus avoids potential defensiveness and sensitivities around political correctness” (quoted in Stetka, 2014). Writing fantasy grants authors the creative room to explore sensitive or controversial contemporary issues without triggering readers’ preset ideas and biases. Combine fantasy with the distancing effect overall of any historically set fiction and readers find a potent mix for examining controversy without building mental barriers.

Exploring this mind-opening aspect of historical fantasy with several writers of the genre seemed particularly worthwhile amidst our current social debates. I therefore approached Guy Gavriel Kay, Judith Starkston, Juliet Marillier, Marie Brennan and Roshani Chokshi to get their views on writing historical fantasy that addresses current social issues.  The resulting conversations offer an insider’s view of these authors’ approaches regarding emotional engagement with social issues.

When asked how writing historical fantasy allows him to bring current social issues to his readers’ awareness, author Guy Gavriel Kay (A Brightness Long Ago, Berkley Books 2019) explained, 

I have argued for the universalizing effect of deploying the fantastic. Stories and themes from history cannot be read as specific only to a given time and place. Beyond this, I find it important to explore both the “strangeness” of the past and the ways in which people and lives can offer a startling familiarity at times. Among other things, this can erode an a-historical sense that what we are living through is new. Usually it isn’t.  As has been said, history may not repeat, but it rhymes.

Through historical fantasy, authors highlight issues that continue to concern modern society as well as help readers learn more about a topic. However, as author Judith Starkston (Priestess of Ishana, Bronze Age Books 2018) noted, “Combining history and fantasy has to be done with care.” She explained that being able to lift readers out of the regular world is liberating for both author and reader. Starkston believes when readers experience a book that draws them into its own world, they tend to leave behind the locked, preconceived notions of how things are and how they ought to be. Incorporating fantastical elements into historical events or people lets us 

accept unusual solutions as entirely normal. When I talk about the historic queen who is the model for my main character, people are incredulous that a woman held such power and influence across the ancient Near Eastern world. We harbor a false notion of history as gradually progressive. Things are supposedly better now and worse in the past, but that isn’t accurate.

Starkston added that the best way to accomplish this blend of magic with historical accuracy is to adopt “fantastical elements that arise from the beliefs and practices of the period. That the Hittites practiced so many rites we would call magical made this especially easy for me—I had only to extend their scope.” Fidelity to history even within the magical creates believable historical fantasy. Incorporating elements of reality that lend themselves well to the use of magic helps to carry readers over the threshold of disbelief and encourages new patterns of thought, precisely the area in which historical fantasy excels.

Juliet Marillier (The Harp of Kings, Ace 2019) also takes a similar approach in her own writing. She stated that her writing has three main purposes: “to teach, to heal and to entertain … Real life challenges (tyranny, cruelty, conflict, flood, famine) might become the dragon, the monster, the fearful place in the dark wood.” Using real life examples of illness or emotional damage brings such topics front and center while at the same time fostering empathy and an awareness of their causes. The capacity to heal in particular has found a vibrant ally in Marillier. Many of her books deal with themes touching on violence, repression, PTSD, or other issues that Marillier draws from historical fact as well as current events. She highlighted the vital role literature plays: 

Storytelling is a powerful tool for helping the troubled (and for helping others understand and support them.). Many other issues relevant to contemporary society find a place in my books – notably, women dealing with domestic violence or other forms of repression. The voice of those characters, whose stories come from long ago and are touched by the uncanny, still seem to ring true for today’s reader. 

Seeing in works of historical fantasy topics that are relevant to contemporary society strikes a chord with readers who may be struggling to make sense of the world and the current events. Ultimately, it can help bring about hope and healing.

Marie Brennan (Turning Darkness into Light, Tor Books 2019) and Roshani Chokshi (The Gilded Wolves, Wednesday Books 2019) both discussed the importance of historical fantasy mirroring reality at least tangentially in order to create a believable and relevant world. Brennan stated that historical fantasy “has the advantage of being able to come at a topic from a slantwise angle. It lets us show how various problems have played out in the past—which encourages the reader to think about how things have and haven’t changed, or what alternatives might look like.” Holding up a mirror of our world through the lens of historical fantasy does, indeed, allow authors to look at our own world, society, or beliefs in new ways. By doing so, Brennan goes on to say, showing a world “in the context of a society that’s not the one we currently live in, it can slip its points in under the radar, instead of having to come at them directly.” Chokshi’s position also meshes with Brennan’s in that she finds that historical fantasy “allows me to take an issue and breathe life into it by tangling it up with a character’s emotional stakes and placing it beneath a lens of magic. A story is nothing if it evokes no feeling. I want to make my readers feel even as they’re thinking, and hopefully that inspires my audience to research an issue further.” Inspiring feelings and igniting curiosity in a topic seems to be a unifying goal for these authors, even if they know their role is not to solve the questions their works may pose. Rather, they seek to “make it a present question in the minds of my readers,” as Chokshi explains. This is an important point because authors have the platform to effect change and influence society. Consider the changes that were inspired by novels such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, or Beloved. What we read has a definite impact on what we think, and authors have the power to influence societies. 

Other influential authors, including Zen Cho (The True Queen, Ace 2019), Mary Robinette Kowal (The Fated Sky, Tor 2018), and Nalo Hopkinson (The Salt Roads, Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy 2015), impact the way readers think by incorporating an abundance of diversity in their novels. Their novels have a focus on the strength of women, the second-class role of women and people of color, sexism, and narratives of freedom, highlighted beautifully by fantasy/speculative elements. On her website, Cho states that she writes in the genres she does because “It’s as good a form for understanding the world as any other” (Cho, 2019). Kowal, in a blog post, makes an excellent point: homogeneity in historical literature is a choice, for the fact is that Europe and the UK had a “wide range of classes and abilities/disabilities. … People of color were throughout the UK and Europe and had been basically since people started to travel, which means always” (Robinette, 2012). Hopkinson draws on the deep traditions and narratives of the people brought as slaves to what is now Haiti, exploring various themes of freedom, linked by elements which bind women across the world: blood, sweat, tears, birth fluids, and sex. On her website, Hopkinson states that certain genres “…allow us to step outside our known reality and examine that reality from a different perspective. They do so by creating imaginary worlds as lenses through which we can view our world” (Hopkinson, 2019). 

Historical fantasy holds a striking place in literature through its universalizing effect to allow readers to internalize new views on social issues and to understand the ways in which history “rhymes.”
References

Hopkinson, Nalo. “FAQ.” Nalo Hopkinson, Author, 2019.

Kowal, Mary Robinette. “Don’t blame the homogeneity of your novel on historical accuracy. That’s your choice, as an author.” Mary Robinette Kowal, 2012.

Kowal, Mary Robinette. “About the Lady Astronaut series.” Mary Robinette Kowal, 2019.

Stetka, Bret. “Why Everyone Should Read Harry Potter.” Scientific American, 9 Sept 2014. 

Tolkien, JRR. “On Fairy Stories.” In Essays Presented to Charles Williams, compiled by CW Lewis, Oxford University Press, 1947.

Vezzali, Loris, et al. “The Greatest Magic of Harry Potter: Reducing Prejudice.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 45, 2015, pp. 105-121.

*Originally published in Historical Novels Review, issue 90, Nov 2019.

Ghost Wall

43660486Ghost Wall: A Novel* by Sarah Moss

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Christine Hewett

Source: my own collection

Length: 03:48:00

Publisher: Macmillan Audio

Year: 2019

Ghost Wall is the story of Silvie and the two weeks in which her father, an amateur ancient historian, drags her and her mother into the woods of north England to live as ancient Britons. They join a group of anthropology students who are also there to reenact living the lives of simpler times and try to understand how the “bog bodies” came to be so. The group forages for food, hunts and fishes, all using Bronze Age tools. When they erect a “ghost wall”, the spiritual barrier made of stakes topped with ancestral skulls intended to ward off enemies, the group taps into a deep-seated, primal connection to their distant ancestors as well as a desire to deeply understand their motivations. What follows is a deeply unsettling narrative of abuse and sacrifice. 

This slim novel (or rather, in my case, short audiobook) highlights how taut prose can tell just as good a story as any giant epic doorstopper of a novel any day. This was an excellent read. Told from the point of view of Sylvie, the young woman whose father, Bill, is the amateur historian, we learn fragments of life about ancient Britons based on what she has learned in turn from her father. More importantly, we learn that her father is an abusive bag of dicks and has convinced her that people only hit the things they care about. Sylvie has a quick wit and salty attitude, which we only see in her internal dialogue; she never really says what she’s thinking for fear of what her father will do to her if she does. However, once they join up with the students and professor of the anthropology group, she begins to envision a different life for herself which includes going to university, having her own money, making her own decisions, living away from home and even away from England. She is afraid, however, to voice her interests since she has learned they will probably be thwarted. 

The anthropology students are an interesting group, ranging from barely engaged in the reenactment to ready to go back in time and embrace prehistoric life. Jim Slade, The Prof, as their instructor is called, leads the group overall, though Sylvie’s dad is the unacknowledged ruler since everyone tip toes around him. The students – Dan, Pete, and Molly – are by turns helpful and dismissive, indifferent and supportive. Molly in particular shines here and is a great example of a strong woman and role model. 

Sylvie’s father uses his love of history as a justification to abuse his family as well as to try to go back to some ephemeral time of British purity. Anyone who actually knows history knows there is no such thing for really any culture, let alone British culture. He names his daughter after a goddess – Sulevia – claiming she is a British goddess when in reality she is Roman in origin. You can’t “take back” a country when it was never pure or yours to begin with. There is a lot to unpack here with regard to cultural or racial purity, cultural and historical ignorance, and the ways in which humans have used history and a connection to past events, imperfectly understood, to justify and rationalize current cruelty and brutality. I could go on a long political rant about this, but suffice to say GOP/Trump.

I think this book makes a terrific argument for why we need to study and understand history. Yes, there is the old wheeze about people who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. More than that, though, is the message that those who imperfectly understand history (not that there is really a perfect way to understand it) can twist it to do awful things on both large and small scales. Bill uses history to justify abusing his wife and daughter; politicians use it as a way to whip up their base with the idea of “making __ country great again”, the implication being that it wasn’t just fine the way it was before, with all the people from all different places living there. Racism. 

It also touches on the vital issue of domestic abuse, shame, and fear associated with it. Sylvie is ashamed and afraid because her dad beats her with his belt. Her mother is useless in protecting her, and while I tend not to understand that mentality – I think I’d kill anyone who hurt my daughter – I am also not a long-time victim of abuse. I don’t know how it must wear you down and make you think it is normal. That is important to try to understand. It is something I have to work on because I felt anger and disgust at Sylvie’s mom for not protecting her, and it isn’t probably fair of me. 

In short, I loved this book. It was deceptively nuanced and complex. Highly recommended.

 

*Amazon affiliate link.

 

Girls Burn Brighter

34275212Girls Burn Brighter: A Novel by Balli Kaur Jaswal

I read it as a: hardback

Source: my own collection

Length: 307 pp

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Year: 2018

**This review will very much have all the spoilers. Consider yourselves warned.**

In Girls Burn Brighter, two young women form a strong friendship through the harshest adversities. Poornima is the daughter of a sari weaver. Her family is fairly poor but they have enough to eat and to hire Savitha to help with weaving after Poornima’s mother dies. Savitha is from a poor family, so poor they have to resort to digging through the landfill for food. When the two women meet, they form a deep bond, one of those once in a lifetime friendships. When Poornima’s father begins arranging her marriage, Savitha encourages her to hold out for a man who is young and kind with a bunch of good sisters. A match is finally made and Poornima’s marriage is set. Then, a cruel act drives Savitha away on the eve of Poornima’s marriage and each woman embarks on a new part of life, alone. Eventually, another horrific act drives Poornima away from her marriage and off to seek Savitha, a journey that takes her from her home village to Mumbai to Dubai and eventually to Seattle.

The title itself made me nervous when I first started reading and began to understand more about the plot (I rarely read more than the blurb when I pick a book, and I never read reviews before I read a book, so I stay spoiler-free). I had worried that someone was going to get burnt to death because she’s a girl. However, I liked that it served more as a discussion on the strength of women even through adversity. After Poornima’s husband and MIL burnt her with oil, she realized she was supposed to fade into obscurity and invisibility. Instead, her inner light burnt brighter and she was more her own person, and managed to carve out a life for herself, even if it wasn’t what she might have wanted. It was her own and she took no shit from anyone. Savitha had a brighter light at first, which was utterly extinguished by her rape and subsequent capture by the brothel owners, but she eventually remembered it and saved herself.

I think that the relationship each woman had with her own father was a major factor in how each handled her circumstances. Savitha had a good and loving relationship with her father, and when she encountered abuse and horrors, she was unprepared to deal with it. Conversely, Poornima hated her father, who was an abusive drunk, and when horrible things happened to her, she adapted and survived and did what she needed to in order to get out. She never seemed surprised or terribly hurt when people were awful, which is terrible in itself. It seems like a fucked up way of learning how to deal with real life, like some kind of Grey’s Anatomy version of parenting – preparation through emotional, mental, and physical abuse and neglect.

Girls Burn Brighter was a shocking novel to read on multiple levels. Strangely, I was startled when I realized it was set in the current time. There were references to some years, one of them being 2001, and I was simply amazed, I assume because of my ignorance about the culture, that it was in a modern setting. It just felt like something that would have happened in an earlier time, the crushing poverty, the cruelty, effectively selling your children into slavery. Things like that aren’t supposed to happen now. But of course they do, which is a central theme of the novel. The way Poornima and Savitha were handled in this novel was really eye-opening for me, not because I am unaware that women deal with things like domestic abuse, rape, or sex trafficking every day, but because the story put a face to these issues. Why else read but to gain a deeper understanding, empathy, and compassion for people whose situations in life are totally incomprehensible to us?  I can’t fathom being drugged and taken to a brothel, being forcibly addicted to heroine, then forced to go through withdrawal, then sold into sex trafficking. But it happens. I can’t imagine living like Poornima or Savitha, having an arranged marriage, having a man who is so insecure with his masculinity that he feels it necessary to scar me for life by holding me down and pouring boiling oil on my face. But it happens. Actually, the conflict between Poornima and her husband, when she suggests she isn’t barren but perhaps he is, reminds me of the story Margaret Atwood tells about her male friend and the group of women: She asked him why men are afraid of women and he says it’s because men are afraid women will laugh at them. She asked a group of women why they are afraid of men and they said it’s because they’re afraid the men will kill them. There was so much of that woven throughout this narrative, of small, insecure men feeling threatened by women and so they hurt them to keep them under control or in terror.

Mohan might have been a somewhat sympathetic character since I think he didn’t want to be a part of his father’s “empire.” But since he didn’t actually do anything to stop it, and helped to bring girls to America to further the empire, I found him simply to be pathetic rather than sympathetic. He was a revolting figure, who oddly added rather a lot to the story. He was conflicted about what was happening, but too weak to stand up and do what was right. He wanted to study literature but was too weak to say so, and so studied it in secret on his own time. His small kindnesses to the women made him that much worse, because at least no one expected his brother or father to be kind at all.

The unrelenting brutality Poornima and Savitha endured really underscored how this is just the way it is for so many people, especially women, in so many parts of the world. It wasn’t so gratuitous that it was overdone, but it was an exhausting read. The end didn’t help, and I can see that it might be deeply unsatisfying to some readers. Personally, I thought it was perfect, because how could that particular scene be written ideally? I don’t think it can be, but the promise of it has to be enough. I do think Savitha was opening the door, and I do think it was ultimately a hopeful ending. The story at the beginning, with the old woman tending the trees that she called her daughters, seems to me to be foreshadowing of the end, that the women are strong enough to endure anything. Same with the owl’s story and how, if two people want to be together, they’ll find a way to do it. Poornima’s and Savitha’s friendship transcends anything they had endured, and for them not to find each other is not to be considered. I do choose to be hopeful at the end of the story.

Openly Straight

16100972Openly Straight by Bill Konigsburg

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Pete Cross

Source: my own collection

Length: 09:01:00

Publisher: Dreamscape Media

Year: 2017

Rafe is openly gay and lives with the full support of his parents and community in Boulder, CO. The problem, as he sees it, is that everyone sees his label first. He’s always the gay boy, the gay soccer player, the gay writer, never just Rafe. He finally decides he is tired of it and wants a fresh start, which he will get by moving across the country to an all-boys boarding school near Boston. Where he tells no one he is gay. He doesn’t go back in the closet, he argues, he just doesn’t advertise that he’s gay. Naturally, things get out of hand. One little white lie about not being gay snowballs into Rafe actively asking his family and friends in CO to pretend he’s straight. And then there’s Ben, the quiet, kind soccer teammate who Rafe can’t help but fall in love with, and who may or may not be discovering things about his own sexuality that he doesn’t want to confront.

This was a very interesting and quick read. Well, I listened to it on Audible, but still. I am straight and have never had to deal with coming out, so I can only imagine what it’s like for people always to be labeled as “the gay ____” of the group. I would hate that, and I really hope I have never done that to anyone. If I have, I apologize. It was inadvertent. Which is the point. Labels suck, and they are often placed unconsciously. This realization leads to the two best parts of the book. The first was the discussion in Rafe’s literature class when everyone was talking about tolerance. It really isn’t a very positive word, which is something I have said forever. To tolerate something – she is tolerable, I suppose – implies that it is just on this side of not making you vomit. You don’t actively hate it. You allow its presence but don’t welcome it. I tolerate the cat but I can’t fucking wait not to have a cat. So why do we say that tolerance is good in society? Wouldn’t something like acceptance or inclusion be infinitely better? I wouldn’t want someone just to “tolerate” me. Rather than being tolerant, let’s work on being accepting. Even better, let’s be inclusive. Accepting is better than tolerant, but it is still not perfect, since to accept something has an implication of resignation or surrender about it, that you may not like something but you know you can’t change it so you’re going to just let it go. It is better than tolerating something, but I think embracing or including a person or an idea or whatever is perhaps the best way to go about it.

The second part that I really liked, which may be a spoiler, I don’t know, so consider yourselves warned, is when Rafe realized that the “cameras” he was always so worried about were rarely actually focused on him. He realized that he had been staring at a guy in his group but he was thinking about himself and how concerns and realized what people think didn’t have anything to do with his own sense of worth or his own masculinity or identity. And then he had that lightbulb moment and realized that when others stare at him, it isn’t necessarily that they are judging him, but that they are thinking about themselves and reflecting on something utterly unrelated to him. I think a lot of people need to figure this out, that they aren’t the center of everything and that people aren’t always concerned with them. I know teens tend to have those imaginary audiences a lot, but I think many people never outgrow that. As my grandmother says, “you don’t worry so much about what people think about you if you knew how seldom they do.” It’s true – I think people think about themselves far more than anyone else and, for the most part, don’t care what other people do so long as it doesn’t affect them too much.

I’m a bit off YA at the moment, but this was still a very good book even though it wasn’t one of my favorites. The whole thing was just an interesting discussion and I am glad I read it. The writing style was easy and enjoyable, and apparently the author is local for me. Maybe one of these days I’ll see him at a book thing or something, which would be cool.

Persepolis

9516Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

I read it as a: paperback

Source: public library

Length: 153 pp

Publisher: Pantheon

Year: 2004

Persepolis is the graphic novel memoir of Satrapi’s early life in Iran. It begins when she was about 10 but gets more in depth when she is around 12-14. She takes her readers through the political upheaval and conflicts that took the region from a progressive nation to the fundamentalist regime most of us think of now, all through the eyes of a young girl who lived through it all.

This was an incredible read. I know it’s been out for ages but I only now got around to reading it, and I’m so glad I did. On just a surface level, this is a terrific book to teach people about the basic history of the region and the more recent political issues that have resulted in the rise of such fundamentalism. On a deeper level, it shows readers what it was like to live through it, from being a child who doesn’t really understand what is happening, to a beloved family member being executed, to seeing your best friend’s body lying in rubble because her house got bombed. Yeah, that one hit me right in the feels. If anyone reads this and isn’t moved or doesn’t feel compassion, they’re just fundamentally broken. I think this should be required reading in all modern history classes for high school kids, to be honest.

The scene that did me in, and which makes this something that ought to be required reading for any high school kid, is summed up keenly by the below image. This was one time when graphic novels absolutely conveyed emotion better than prose. I needed no written words to know what she was feeling, because the image captured it. I was feeling it with her.

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Image from Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Born a Crime

33632445Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Trevor Noah

Source: my own collection

Length: 08:44:00

Publisher: Audible Audio

Year: 2016

Trevor Noah is known to most American audiences as the newest host and replacement for Jon Stewart on late night comedy. But this book chronicles his childhood in South Africa in the last few years of apartheid, through the years immediately after with their unrest and violence, and his own experiences with abuse. And yet, through it all, he kept his innate goodness and kind nature, despite seeing some horrific things. I don’t know that I could have come through as happily as he did.

I’m not generally a fan of memoirs, though I find that I’ve been reading more lately. So I don’t know, maybe I’m more of a fan of them than I thought. In any case, Noah managed to discuss some really heavy topics like apartheid, racism, domestic violence, and crushing poverty with genuine humor. I never thought I would have laughed out loud over eating “dog bones” because you’re too poor to buy better food, but goddamn the way he told it was hilarious. Maybe the best way to effect change is to make people laugh about a thing. I don’t know. But by turning it into something laughable, it kind of felt like it was a little disrespectful. But I am not the one who lived through it, so I also feel like I don’t really get a say in it. In any case, I enjoyed this book and I learned a lot about many things. I definitely recommend this whether you enjoy Trevor Noah as a comedian or not.

Underground Airlines

35051774Underground Airlines by Ben Winters

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: William DeMerritt

Source: my own collection

Length: 9:28:00

Publisher: Hatchette Audio

Year: 2016

The premise of this alt-history novel is WHAT IF America had never had a Civil War? What if slavery was enshrined in the Constitution? There are four states – the Hard Four – which still have slavery, a highly regulated system with a lot of checks and balances. People like to think that it is not the slavery of the 1800s or even “fifty years ago,” but those people are incorrect. And it’s fucking slavery. Enter Victor, a young man who had once been a slave himself and managed to escape. He maintains his freedom by working for a shady government official as a runaway slave catcher, a job he is very good at but which gives him a great deal of conflict. His newest case is to track down a runaway named Jackdaw who is thought to be headed to Indianapolis. Along the way, Victor encounters shades of his past that he had tried to escape or push down, and learns that even the shady people he reluctantly works for are not at all what they appear to be.

This was a horrifying book, mostly because I don’t think something like this is really that far from truth. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to envision an America that still has slavery, judging from the revolting news we see everyday. There is rampant racism and neonazis and white supremacists and other disgusting groups who would probably jump at a chance to live in a world Winters portrays here. The poverty wages that many, many people earn are hardly better than slavery in this country, and in many other countries, there are sweathouse jobs that I would argue do constitute slavery conditions. So yeah, this book was terrifying. It is too easy to see this as reality. Let’s keep books like this fiction.

For as horrifying as I found this book to be, I was actually kind of bored with it. I thought the pacing was uneven and the plot a bit disjointed. It made it hard for me to follow at times. The characters as well felt rather flat and were hard to connect with. The narrator did a great job, though, using a variety of voices to differentiate everyone, which made it more appealing to listen to. I would still recommend this book, but perhaps not as an audiobook. I think I might have been more interested if I had eyeball read it instead. Maybe. I still think the characters would have felt one-dimensional and the pacing would still be uneven.

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.