The Hate U Give–Angie Thomas

the hate u give

The best book recommendations come from those close to you.  My oldest daughter, studying to be a high school English teacher, told me this book was a must.  Bahni Turpin’s narration added a further rich layer to my experience of Thomas’ story.

Starr watched her best friend die on the sidewalk when she was ten.  At sixteen she holds her friend, Khalil, as he dies from multiple gunshot wounds at the hands of a police officer making a routine traffic stop.  Starr moves between the world of the neighborhood, Garden Heights, and the suburbs where she attends school and where her uncle, a detective, and her aunt, a surgeon, live in a gated community.  Starr’s mother works at a clinic in the neighborhood.  Her father, a former member of the Kings, for whom he did time, owns a neighborhood grocery store.  They are committed to Garden Heights, despite the tragedies their daughter has endured.  Starr becomes the star witness testifying in front of a grand jury deciding whether the officer who killed Khalil would be charged.  As she processes her feelings about the murder, she is awakened as an activist and is forced to bring her two worlds, the neighborhood and the surburb, together.

The Hate U Give is powerful.  Starr’s story boldly tackles issues that have become taboo in too many circles.  Thomas’ characters are not political cartoons.  They are as complex and frustrating and sympathetic and unforgettable.  My daughter was right. This one is a must.

Finished 2/18


Little Fires Everywhere–Celeste Ng

little fires everywhere

Stress and Netflix took me from reading for awhile, but my reading muscles are working overtime to catch up–traditional reading and audio reading.

I absolutely loved Everything I Never Told You.  Some of its passages took my breath away.  Little Fires Everywhere returns Ng’s interesting female characters for a  deep dive into what it means to be a woman–with women in middle age, adolescence, and infancy dominating the plot.  Mia Warren is a thirty-something single mother and artist who has traveled the country with her teenage daughter, Pearl.  Their address changes each time Mia finishes a project and needs new inspiration, but Mia has promised Pearl this time, in Shaker Heights, Ohio, they will stay. They rent an apartment in the Richardson’s “Winslow House,” and Pearl is soon a regular fixture in the Richardson household.  Two sons, two daughters, Mr. Richardson a lawyer, Mrs. Richardson a journalist for the local paper.  Moody is an artsy moody type.  Trip is a star athlete.  Lexi is popular and smart, soon Yale-bound.  The youngest, Iggy, is the rebel constantly drawing the ire of her mother, who had converted hear fear for the preemie Iggy into ongoing critique.  Mrs. Richardson expresses satisfaction with her orderly symmetrical life, but allows moments of curiosity about her potential career if she had left Shaker Heights.

Soon Pearl is following Lexi and Iggy is trailing Mia, whom Mrs. Richardson has coopted into cooking and cleaning the Richardson home.  Mia’s confidence and relentless pursuit of her art and nonchalance about the accumulation of status and material objects strike Mrs. Richardson to her core and leads her to investigate Mia’s mysterious roots.  Her journalistic investigative spirit blinds her to the goings on in her own home, particularly her daughters’ struggles toward adulthood.  Add in a custody battle between a rich white couple and a poor Chinese single mother and Ng’s mix of mothers, daughters, sexuality, and women’s selfhood is complete.

Jennifer Lim’s narration alongside Ng’s smooth prose makes this an easy listen.

Finished 2/17/18

I Love Dick–Chris Kraus



I fell in love with the Amazon Prime series starring Kevin Bacon and Katherine Hahn.  Each episode left me slightly uncomfortable and seen.  When the season ended and Katherine Hahn (Chris) was walking away from Kevin Bacon (Dick) with blood streaming down her leg, I needed to know what happened next, what was missing, as something is always missing in the transition from text to screen.

Kraus’ book, not a novel, not memoir, is even more chaotic than the Amazon Prime series.  Kraus divides the book into two parts–“Scenes from a Marriage” and “Every Letter is a Love Letter.”  In the opening pages, Chris falls in love with Dick over dinner and explains why she begins writing him letters.  “What sex is better than drugs, what art is better than sex?  Better than means stepping out into complete intensity….It’s about not giving a fuck, or seeing all the consequences looming and doing something anyway.”  And she does.  She is 40, her most recent film has been rejected, she has not had sex with her husband for over a year, and she steps into an epistolary relationship with Dick and herself.  She loses herself in lust, in her sexuality.  From her sexuality she rediscovers her intellectual power.  She moves from writing about her desire for Dick to her analysis of paintings, reflections of desire of other women, the plight of all women.  As she speaks to herself via Dick, her diary, she asks “Who gets to speak and why?….is the only question.”  Through a Dick projected onto an authoritative art figure, Chris finds her voice.  Towards the end of the book, Chris turns to schizophrenia and semiotics.  In a neat loop back to the beginning of her affair with herself via Dick, she writes, “I think desire isn’t lack, it’s surplus energy—a claustrophobia inside your skin.”  Once Chris began writing, her desire flowed despite rejection from its muse, despite her own flights of hesitation.  Her desire led her to create something new, even while she writes that “no matter where you go, someone else has been before.”

Having read the book on which the Amazon Prime series was based, I’m left hoping for a second season that moves beyond her desire for Dick into her discovery of herself.  The broken, rejected Chris walking away from Dick is not the end of Chris’ story. I hope it will not be the end of the series.

Finished 10/1/17

Submission–Michele Houellebecq


The author is a French novelist, poet, and literary critic, which says much.

Submission is set in 2022 Paris during election season. The narrator, Francois, teaches at the Sorbonne IV, not as prestigious as III, but still the Sorbonne, and still a good place to meet young female students, with whom he has relationships that generally last one academic year.  He has no connection to his parents, lives alone, dabbles in writing articles about the subject of his doctoral dissertation, a 19th-century author, but has given up a serious research agenda.  His sexual drive is waning, as is his appetite for nearly everything in life.

Life in 2022 seems much like life in 2017 until page 21, when Francois first mentions the Muslim Brotherhood. From that point forward, Francois’ struggles with his midlife ennui alternate with academic rivalries and French political troubles.  These political troubles see nativists allying with a new Islamic party led by a charismatic Parisian Muslim and an election in which the socialists and the new Islamic party ally to oust the sitting party.

The novel is satirical, but it is difficult in the age of Trump to read, particularly as a middle-aged female academic. When the Islamic party comes to power, they take over the Sorbonne and release all of the female academics.  They reform education, step one being to eliminate coeducation and move to limit girls’ education to domestic arts and to move them out of the system just before puberty.  Male academics who can be bought with three times the salary and promises of young wives (up to three based on their newly inflated salaries) readily sell out their female colleagues and the cultural ideals they presumably upheld.  Partisan politics disappear as the charismatic new leader moves to unite Europe and move its center back to the south, not in a renewed caliphate, but in a revived and expanded Roman Empire.  Medieval Europe, again frighteningly non-satirical given recent debates in medievalist circles about the field’s implications in white supremacist movements, is upheld as a time of European strength brought down by the rise of secularism and the belief in the value of the individual stemming from Christianity’s insistence on the incarnation.

The novel is bleak, but in today’s political environment, not outlandish. Satire, to be safe enough to garner a laugh or at least a smile, needs to be at least in part unlikely.  In the time between 2015, the novel’s first publication, and 2017, Submission may have lost its ability to be counted as satire.  I found reading it uncomfortable to the point of nearly stopping at several points.  I persisted because I was curious to see if Houellebecq would give western culture a win.  I persist in reading the news each day for the same reasons.

Finished 7/27/17

Italian Shoes–Henning Mankell


When the squirrels inside my head are most busy, I usually turn to murder/thrillers. The plots are familiar, the devices like a three-day old pair of jeans.  Increasingly I worry that my analog brain adjusting to a digital world has become short-wired, unable to sustain attention on anything deeper than a genre thriller. Italian Shoes was the beginning of an antidote.

Henning Mankell is best known for his own murder series featuring Kurt Wallender, and this is how I became acquainted with him. Italian Shoes is not part of this series and seems to be part of his own later-life contemplation.  It is also a wonderful example of spare Swedish prose.

Frederik Welin was in love once, and he fled from it. His relationship with his parents, like most of ours, was complicated and involves his move from their working class to his professional class as a doctor.  When the novel begins, he has been in hiding even from his profession for quite some time.  He lives on an island inherited from this grandparents with an aging dog and cat and an anthill that has taken over part of the living room, which he doesn’t use.  To remind himself he is alive, he breaks a hole in the ice and bathes each morning.  His primary human contact is with his mail carrier, a hypochondriac who uses him as an informal primary physician.  Frederik’s life has stalled, which is symbolized by an old fishing boat he began renovating that is now rotting in his shed.

His life jerks forward and backward when the woman from whom he fled shows up, Harriet, crossing the ice with her walker. She is clearly ill and, as he soon discovers, dying.  The dying have little to lose and often are ready to set matters right.  Harriet’s anger at being abandoned pushes Frederik’s stasis and soon he is peeling back layers of emotion and questioning why he has run from most of what brought him joy.

The title, Italian Shoes, hints at the way Mankell approaches his prose.  Italian shoes are works of art, handcrafted from seasoned leather and requiring patience and a fine eye.  If you have the patience, this novel will offer up much to appreciate.

You Should Have Known–Jean Hanff Korelitz


This is the type of novel whose plot sounds intriguing, but whose cover suggests reconsideration. Dark background, varying typefaces, and a logo for a reading group guide.  Grace is a therapist living in New York in the flat in which she was raised with her talented young son and her generous and good-looking husband, a pediatric oncologist.  She has also just finished a self-help book written in her very few spare hours, with the same title as this novel.  Her talk show circuit is shaping up nicely and she is daring to believe it is true—that all those stolen writing moments might actually help women who choose men whose flaws they see and choose to ignore.  The circuit is put on hold when Grace finds herself embroiled in a scandal that reveals she is one of those women.

Grace is a sympathetic character, but Korelitz drags out her recognition of her own vulnerability to the point that I nearly stopped reading in frustration.

This is the type of novel that is good for a quick read, but at over 400 pages, it does not get the pass I would normally give to this type of novel. It is not a bad read, but I am not sure the time invested is worth the pay off.


Broken Verses–Kamila Shamsie


This novel has a slow start, but the premise is lovely. Aasmani is a young woman struggling with loss.  Her mother was a feminist activist living “in sin” with Pakistan’s greatest poet, who was brutally murdered presumably by government agents.  One day she walked out to the sea and never returned, presumed dead by all by Aasmani, who by turns rages against her mother leaving her over and over as a child and then that final day, and who hopes and believes that she is still alive somewhere, perhaps looking for the Poet, whose body was beaten nearly beyond recognition, and whose identification was confirmed by a distant relative who had not seen him in years.  Aasmani struggles, also, against any expectation that she might follow in either of their footsteps, and she frustrates her family, her very stable father, stepmother, and sister, by underperforming in mediocre jobs at which she never stays long.

She is just started in one of these mediocre jobs for a television station when she is caught up in a mystery that gives her hope that the Poet, at least, may still be alive. Her mother’s friend, Shehnaz, has returned to acting and brings with her letters written in the code.  Aasmani’s mother and the Poet created the code to correspond during those times when one or both needed to leave the country for a time—and only they and Aasmani knew it.  The letters purport to be from the Poet, who has been kept prisoner for years.  Aasmani decodes the letters and begins to trust Shehnaz’s son, Ed, who delivers the letters to her and allows her to share her doubts and hopes about the letters.

Shamsie creates an intriguing portrait of Karachi and characters set in Pakistan who are like all of us in their griefs and hopes, but different in their political/personal realities. The fraught mother/daughter relationship takes center stage rather than the political oppression of women or the political corruption and turmoil in which they live.  Those items, so often given the spotlight, are context.  Broken Verses is a worthwhile read, if not a quick one.