Thursday, June 25, 2020

What I've Read Recently // May 2020

What I've Read Recently: A monthly roundup of the books I completed across several genres with summaries, reviews, and links.

After a slow reading month in April, I finished 8 books in May. I always list the books below in the order that I read them but they rarely line up (if ever) in the order that I enjoyed them. The month started strong, took a dip, and finished solidly. There are a lot of GREAT books in this month's post. Six of the eight rated were 8 or higher on a scale of 1-10. I hope you'll take the time to read through all of the summaries. And I really hope you take the time to pick up a couple and read them yourself.

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (Contemporary Lit & Fiction)

Adapted from Goodreads:
Toni Morrison's first novel tells the story of black, eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove. In the autumn of 1941, the year the marigolds in the Breedloves' garden do not bloom. Pecola's life does change- in painful, devastating ways.
What I thought: 8.5/10
Obviously, this book is full of beautiful writing. Morrison has a gift of language that is breathtaking. There is a deeper and parallel commentary occurring in these pages in nearly every passage. I experienced this textured storytelling in a way that felt similar to Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (Reviewed for October 2019). These two novels read both brutally and beautifully. There are countless examples of this figurative writing throughout the text. One that comes to mind is the description of the delivery of the Breedloves' new, yet torn, sofa and all that it signifies. This passage perfectly captured the circular trap of powerlessness, racism, and poverty --even though the words on the page, at the surface, seemed to be about a piece of furniture. Another striking example for me was the haunting symbolism in the "See Jane Run" segments throughout the novel. As Pecola's psyche deteriorates, so goes the cadence and completeness of the primer excerpt that opens the chapters. The bottom line is that this book is stunning and heartbreaking. While it was published in 1970, it speaks clearly to the realities of 2020 (living in a racist society, the systemic and racist hierarchy of beauty and value, violence, the treatment of black women during pregnancy/labor, colorism, institutionalized cycles of poverty, AND...). You should definitely read it.

The Rest of the Story by Sarah Dessen (Teen & YA)

Adapted from Goodreads:
Emma Saylor doesn’t remember a lot about her mother, who died when she was ten. But she does remember the stories her mom told her about North Lake (where she grew up) that went on forever, with cold, clear water and mossy trees at the edges. Emma hasn't been there or seen her mother's family since she was a little girl. How will her life evolve as a result of spending a few weeks in North Lake?
What I thought: 5/10
Emma Saylor is our protagonist. Her dad and everyone in her current teenaged life call her Emma. We quickly learn that her deceased mother used to call her Saylor. Emma doesn't have a lot of memories of being called Saylor. Emma is upper-middle class. She is careful to not upset or challenge her dignified (live-in) paternal grandmother or her quiet and predictable dentist dad. Through a series of events, Emma's dad has no other option than to ask his mother-in-law (who he has not been in touch with for a very long time) to let Emma come stay with her (surrounded by Emma's barely-remembered aunts, uncles, cousins, and childhood friends) in the blue-collar community of North Lake where her mother was raised. Emma's parents actually met as teenagers at the lake. See the lake is split between blue-collar/year-round North Lake (Emma's mom's family) and affluent/seasonal Lake North (where her dad summered with his upperclass family). Emma has been primarily raised to fit the stereotype of a "Lake North Girl." She shows up to grandma's house and is immediately referred to as "Saylor." What follows is her swift transformation into a hard-working, uncomfortable with entitlement, not-afraid-to-get-dirty, cousin/granddaughter --a solid "North Lake Girl." Are you on the edge of your seat to know what happens next? I'm embarrassed to have spent so many words on this thin book.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins (Spanish American Lit, Psychological Thriller)

Adapted from Goodreads:
Lydia Quixano Pérez lives in the Mexican city of Acapulco. She runs a bookstore. She has an eight-year-old son, Luca, the love of her life, and a wonderful husband who is a journalist. Something beyond horrific happens and Lydia and Luca are forced to flee. Lydia and Luca soon find themselves miles and worlds away from their comfortable middle-class existence. Instantly transformed into migrants, Lydia and Luca ride la bestia—trains that make their way north toward the United States, which is the only place they might find safety. As they join the countless people trying to reach el norte, Lydia soon sees that everyone is running from something. But what exactly are they running to?
What I thought: 8/10 (Listened on Audible)
I had reservations about giving my attention to this book. Oprah chose it as her (January 2020?) book club selection and the criticisms came swiftly. Here's the problem: While the book is primarily about undocumented immigration, the US-Mexico border crisis, and violence in South America, it has been written by a nonimmigrant and non-Mexican. I read it (listened to it) anyway. Since then (and embarrassingly recently) I am making a concerted effort to educate myself about systemic racism. A small component of how this ubiquitous racism operates lies in the publishing/media world of which books get printed, marketed, and purchased. There are lots of books about this topic already written by Latin American authors who I should have/could have given my time and attention. I found American Dirt to be compelling and sweeping. I was captivated, horrified, and informed by the story. I loved the writing and the voice of the narrator (Yareli Arizmendi) in my Audible version. It's my responsibility (and all of our responsibility) to know more and to try to understand how to witness and address our border crisis. To this end, I've committed to begin by reading Latinx authors on the subject in both fiction and nonfiction. If you have a recommendation of a book you found important, I'd love to hear it. If not, there are eight books recommended HERE as a place to begin.

Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts (Coming of Age Fiction)

Adapted from Goodreads:
Seventeen years old, seven months pregnant, and broke, Novalee Nation is abandoned by her boyfriend at a Walmart in Oklahoma on their way to California. Stranded in an unfamiliar small town, Novalee builds a life with the help of some amazing people she meets along the way.
What I thought: 8.5/10
If you've seen the movie but haven't read the book, do yourself a favor and pick this one up! This story overflows with heartache, hardship, and struggle --all balanced beautifully with love, kindness, and generosity. The characters are vivid, original, and layered. I think you'll fall in love with more than a few --just like I did! Sister Hubbard, Moses Whitecotton, and Benny Goodluck come into Novalee's life on her first day and they grow to root her into her new life with every page.

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes (Historical Fiction)

Adapted from Goodreads:
Based on a true story, the Baileyville Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky face danger and challenge in the rural mountain terrain and work in the gossip and distain of town fold who would punish them for their unconventional ways.
What I thought: 8/10
Books? Libraries? Women fighting for a place in the world that they get to define? I'm IN! This is a beautiful story of courage, friendship, and fierce independence. I found it to be funny, moving, and spirited. A friendship like Alice and Margery's is one for the times. Izzy, Beth, and Sophia each have so much to offer and I loved following their journeys through these pages. These characters and the men in their lives came to life in the reading and I was thoroughly entertained.

The Secrets She Keeps by Michael Robotham (Psychological Thriller)

Adapted from Goodreads:
A psychological thriller about the unlikely friendship between two pregnant women that asks: how far would you go to create the perfect family? Agatha is pregnant and works part-time stocking shelves at a grocery store in a ritzy London suburb. Meghan is the effortlessly chic customer whose elegant lifestyle dazzles her. They meet and then...
What I thought: 7/10
I thought this book was really very good. I did compare it to the other books read this month --and that is a lot to live up to. As far as thrillers go, the pacing and twists were exciting and compelling. Not everyone was who they appeared to be from the outside --in hindsight, I'm not sure I can recall a single character who didn't have at least one surprise. This is the perfect book for a weekend away.

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray (Contemporary Fiction)

Adapted from Goodreads:
A dazzling debut novel about mothers and daughters, identity and family, and how the relationships that sustain you can also be the ones that consume you. The Butler family has had their share of trials—as sisters Althea, Viola, and Lillian can attest—but nothing prepared them for the literal trial that will upend their lives.
What I thought: 8.5/10 (Listened on Libby)
"As a mother, I am my father's daughter. And I hate everything about him." -Althea Butler.
This book gets under your skin and agitates. Gray writes her characters to life --every moment of their pain drips into your heart through her passages. Listening to the story in the distinct voices of the narrators January LaVoy (Viola), Adenrele Ojo (Althea), Bahni Turpin (Lillian), and Dominic Hoffman (Proctor) added depth and nuance. Centered around the struggle to connect and forgive within families, this novel also speaks to racial inequities of the justice system, the will and strength of women of color, abuse, and addiction. This is a great story!

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell (Psychological Fiction)

Adapted from Goodreads:
Exploring the psychological dynamics of the relationship between a precocious yet naïve teenage girl and her magnetic and manipulative teacher, My Dark Vanessa is a brilliant, all-consuming read. Vanessa is 15. Her English teacher, Jacob Strane, is 42. Jumping between memories of her sophomore year of boarding school in 2000 and the present, 17 years later, this novel explores victimhood, trauma, consent, and societal complicity.
What I thought: 8.5/10
This was a book I needed to take little "breaks" from. The content is disturbing, thought-provoking, complex, and crushing. It is beautifully written, achingly painful, and further opens the conversation around topics of sexual violence that have been historically oversimplified. I had a hard time putting Vanessa away from my thoughts after I had finished the book. To read about what happened in 2000 is heartbreaking on its own (but not to Vanessa who refuses to name Strane a predator). As the reader, to also confront the reality of Vanessa's subsequent and enduring understanding/definition of what love looks and feels like through her life after Strane (harsh, punishing, and superficial) evokes sympathy and sadness. However, Vanessa is unwilling to consider herself a victim. She ignores the truth that his abuse has left a residue over her being that contaminates nearly every aspect of her life --only she has to believe that this poison is somehow a perfume --because if she doesn't, then she has no power at all.

~ Pin for Later ~

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