There There by Tommy Orange

36692478There There is a relentlessly paced multigenerational story about violence and recovery, memory and identity, and the beauty and despair woven into the history of a nation and its people. It tells the story of twelve characters, each of whom have private reasons for traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow. Jacquie Red Feather is newly sober and trying to make it back to the family she left behind in shame. Dene Oxendene is pulling his life back together after his uncle’s death and has come to work at the powwow to honor his uncle’s memory. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield has come to watch her nephew Orvil, who has taught himself traditional Indian dance through YouTube videos and has come to the powwow to dance in public for the very first time. There will be glorious communion, and a spectacle of sacred tradition and pageantry. And there will be sacrifice, and heroism, and unspeakable loss.

Review:

Trigger warnings for alcoholism, domestic violence, rape, and violence in general.

This is my second read for The BookTube Prize and it did not go as well as the first.

The good:

  • There There is an own voices story about urban Native Americans and the issues they face, from the trigger warnings above to loss of culture and traditions. It’s an important story that I’m so happy to see being told, and to such acclaim.
  • The introduction and interlude, essays about being Native American today, are powerful and affecting.
  • The story is told via many narrators, allowing for windows into many different Native experiences.

The not-so-good:

  • None of the narrators are particularly fleshed out. We learn who they are, what demons they may be fighting, and how they are related to the pow wow. But that’s it. I never felt connected with the characters as people, only as a set of circumstances.
  • …when I could remember them. My edition of the book has a detailed cast list in the front, with a paragraph for each main character. This made me suspicious – the book should make each character memorable enough for this not to be a problem. A list of names and one line description, sure, but paragraphs?
  • I am not a fan of the writing. It’s going for punchy more than lyrical, but I found it choppy and plodding.
  • The voice changes from first person to third and back again, which I found interesting at first. I was particularly intrigued by one chapter in the second person – what is Orange trying to say by making us, the reader, this particular character? But I don’t see any rhyme or reason to which character gets what treatment. The author Q&A at the end confirms my suspicion, as Orange says, “The final POV for each chapter in some cases wasn’t decided until the end of writing the book.” And that second person POV character becomes third again later. I would have liked more intention in the choices.
  • When it comes down to it I didn’t particularly care about any of the characters. You can tell that they’re all coming together for the pow wow, and that something big will happen.
  • At the end this big thing happens, but that’s it. No exploration of it while it’s happening, no aftermath.
  • The biggest detractor for me was that I had to fight to get through this book. I seriously considered DNFing at 85%, and definitely would have done so earlier if I weren’t reading it for the BookTube Prize. Not to mention it put me in a reading slump. Gah.

It’s an important story and I’m glad Orange is telling it, but the method of telling wasn’t for me.

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

35412372Ada begins her life in the south of Nigeria as a troubled baby and a source of deep concern to her family. Her parents, Saul and Saachi, successfully prayed her into existence, but as she grows into a volatile and splintered child, it becomes clear that something went terribly awry. When Ada comes of age and moves to America for college, the group of selves within her grows in power and agency. A traumatic assault leads to a crystallization of her alternate selves: Asụghara and Saint Vincent. As Ada fades into the background of her own mind and these selves–now protective, now hedonistic–move into control, Ada’s life spirals in a dark and dangerous direction.

Review:

Trigger warnings for abuse, rape, self-harm, self-destructive behavior, disordered eating, and suicidal thoughts and actions.

I went into Freshwater, my first read for the semifinal round of The BookTube Prize, with little information. My friends loved it but were cagey in their reviews.

I’m going to join their ranks.

The good:

  • The writing is beautiful in a lyric, understated way.
  • I enjoy watching all these personalities, Ada and the spirits, rub against each other and unsettle each other. Many take turns as narrators, allowing the narrative to slip backwards or forwards in time in a seamless way. I’ve read a bunch of books that do this poorly, but it’s a great device when used well, like here.
  • It took me a while to get into the story, especially as I felt the narrators out. But once I did, wow. I read the last 40% in one sitting because I couldn’t put it down.
  • We see the legacy of abuse and how trauma experienced as a child can shape you.
  • Ada shares traits with the author, and it feels like a deeply personal story.
  • Emezi slowly cracked open my mind so a reality that I never imagined could pour in. They patched me up when they were done, and I’m a better person for it.

The not-so-good:

  • Nothing major or of particular note.

I am more than excited to read more of Emezi’s writing. They have a YA fantasy coming out this fall and more books in the pipeline – I can’t wait.

Ocha no Jikan (Tea Time) by Masuda Miri

41ZtGQ-YydL._SX349_BO1,204,203,200_(jacket copy loosely translated by me)

Thoughts cross your mind at tea time.
We say there’s a “turning point” in someone’s life,
but does anyone make a u-turn?
You puzzle over it while drinking coffee
and forget everything once you leave the cafe.
Tea time is when we contemplate these
deep, unexpected thoughts.
–Masuda Miri–

“What is that group of women so excited about?”
“Aw, they look like they’re on a first date.”
“I wonder what he’s doing on his laptop.”
Looking around at others, your thoughts turn back on yourself.
The extremely popular Masuda Miri gives us these new, tranquil manga essays.

Review:

I love that there’s an indie bookshop close to my new apartment. I can stop in before going to the supermarket, on the way back from the station, just for the heck of it – heaven! I spotted this book on the new release shelf and was smitten as I read the first few pages.

Masuda Miri is a mangaka and essayist best known for her comic strip Su-chan. Her books vary, some with more text and some with more comics, and this book is 100% manga.

Most of the 5-10 page pieces start with Masuda going to a cafe, meeting somebody there, and relating things she saw or thoughts she had while there. Some are pure fun – visiting a all-dessert buffet, a cafe that serves a picnic complete with checked cloth and basket at your table. One cafe serves their drinks on a tray that looks like grass, and despite the rain outside her mood is lifted. There are funny moments in the vein of observational comedy, things that we all do but don’t think about.

Masuda gets into some deeper stuff as well, like how lives diverge and change once you have kids. One of the most touching manga essays is her thoughts when she’s stuck on a train because someone completed suicide by jumping at the station ahead. Sadly this is not unusual in Japan, and the way she relates the experience is spare, eloquent, and moving.

I’m sad that Masuda’s work hasn’t been translated into English as far as I can tell, and at the same time I’m selfishly glad that I get to enjoy it in Japanese. It’s not profound, it’s not on the pulse of pop culture, but it was a fun, at times deep read that I’d like to share with more people.

Erstwhile by H.E. Trent (Jekh Saga #1)

31282859As an adamant opponent of Terran settlement on the planet Jekh, Owen McGarry made his family name synonymous with “traitor” on Earth. Nearly twenty years after Owen’s supposed death, his granddaughter Courtney wants to learn the truth—even if she has to travel to the far-flung colony to do it.

Court soon learns that not only was her grandfather right about the Jekhans, but that conditions on their world are far more hostile than she feared. Terran forces decimated the population of the resident human-alien hybrids, and the people who remain seem to be all out of fight. That is, except for the pair of men Court finds hiding in her basement.

Review:

I needed an off the wall romance to reset a brain beset by sad literary fiction, and this cover promises just that – a triad, in space! I didn’t need much beyond that, but Trent brings a bunch more.

The good:

  • Considered, in-depth world building. Trent has built an entire society complete with history, traditions, and -isms, for a lack of a better term. The beginning of the novel scratches the surface and things get deeper as you go on. At first I wasn’t sure Trent would go that deep, so I was happy to see she thought the world out completely.
  • The romance is okay and the plot works fine, but the characters are what keeps the story going. It’s not about watching the relationship evolve as much as it’s watching them recognize and overcome differences.
  • But above all, the themes discussed made the book for me. There’s a look at how first contact can go oh so wrong. Earth colonized the Jehkhan’s planet in a way that calls back to the treatment of Native Americans, yet isn’t a carbon copy. Intercultural relationships are examined in a way that feels true, and recalls moments (okay, fights) in my own international marriage. Along with the characterization it gave me a lot to chew on.
  • It read quickly and was just what I needed in the moment, always a plus.

The not-so-good:

  • Instalust quickly leads to more, and Court doesn’t examine some (spoilery) big steps as much as I would like.
  • After a bunch of characterization work the plot takes off like a rocket for the last chapters, coming out of nowhere and depositing us in a completely different place, a bit stunned and confused.

Erstwhile ended up being more intellectual than I would have thought from the cover and description but still provided the romantic escape I needed. I’m looking forward to getting into book two and seeing how the world deepens from here.

The Bells of Nagasaki by Takashi Nagai

translated by William Johnson

1030303On Thursday, August 9, 1945, at two minutes past eleven in the morning, Nagasaki was wiped out by a plutonium atomic bomb which exploded at a height of five hundred meters over the city. Among the wounded on that fateful day was the young doctor Takashi Nagai, professor of radiology at the University of Nagasaki. Nagai succeeded in gathering a tiny group of survivors — doctors, nurses, and students — and together they worked heroically for the wounded until they themselves collapsed from exhaustion and atomic sickness.

As he lay dying of leukemia, Dr. Nagai wrote The Bells of Nagasaki, vividly recounting what he had seen with his own eyes and heard from his associates.

Review:

Trigger warning for the horror of war with a medical bent.

The Bells of Nagasaki is a first-person account of the bombing of Nagasaki, which is often forgotten in the shadow of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Nagai is in a unique position to discuss an atomic bomb because he was researching radioactivity in a medical context. He had basically given himself leukemia by being exposed to radiation during his experiments.

Much like Hersey’s Hiroshima, we hear the accounts of many people at the time the bomb went off, many colleagues of Nagai. We see how fate/blind luck determined who lived and died. A professor hollowing out a dugout shelter survived, but two students hauling out the dirt were killed immediately. A medical student was trapped in the rubble of his classroom. Fires soon started, and he listened to his classmates being consumed alive by the flames, and resigned to that fate himself, before working free and escaping.

This plurality of experience at the start soon narrows down to Nagai and his fellow doctors and nurses who took it upon themselves to treat as many people as they could. Like many survivors they made their way to the villages surrounding the city, helping those affected before being bedridden with radiation sickness themselves.

Nagai isn’t afraid to talk about the illness from a medical standpoint. At one point he outlines how you die – if not immediately, days later in this manner. If not then, weeks later from this and that. Some explanations call on high school physics but I didn’t find it overly technical. Then again, I work in hospitals so your mileage may vary.

The introduction is by the translator and does a good job placing the book in context and telling us about the whole of Nagai’s life. At the end he goes on about how big a role religion played in his thinking, which worried me. Thankfully there’s almost no mention of his faith until page 102 of a 115 page work but wow, he gets preachy fast. If religion isn’t your thing know you can safely skip those pages without missing anything.

As a side note – I knocked on Hiroshima for having a strong Catholic element, but Nagasaki is the most Catholic city in all of Japan. It had secret churches and harbored people when the government actively prosecuted Catholics, so if there’s going to be a large Christian influence anywhere in the country, it’s here.

Overall I found the book interesting and a good read, a valuable account of the bombing Americans overlook. It appears to be out of print right now, so check with your local library if you’d like to give it a try.

Twice as Hard by Amber Bardan

33976005They caught me. Naked, shivering and dripping after a spontaneous swim in the forest. Two rugged men whose hard gazes captivated and scared me all at once.

They warned me. Told me I was on private property and I needed to obey the law…or I would be punished.

The idea of them both punishing me, pleasuring me, kept tormenting me. I couldn’t want them. I shouldn’t. But I did.

Review:

I knew I was getting into an erotic, possibly slightly taboo story, but I was not expecting the mind fuck – for the reader, not the heroine.

There are people out there who will enjoy it so I don’t want to give it away, but the first half of this book made me uneasy around issues of consent. And the heroine straight up lies in her inner monologue, compounding the problem. I love a good mind fuck when it’s directed at a character (see The Chateau by Tiffany Reisz) but this isn’t quite for me.

If you know what you’re getting into with BDSM kink you may want to try Twice as Hard, but proceed with caution.

In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki

Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker and Thomas J. Harper

34473This is an enchanting essay on aesthetics by one of the greatest Japanese novelists. Tanizaki’s eye ranges over architecture, jade, food, toilets, and combines an acute sense of the use of space in buildings, as well as perfect descriptions of lacquerware under candlelight and women in the darkness of the house of pleasure. The result is a classic description of the collision between the shadows of traditional Japanese interiors and the dazzling light of the modern age.

Review:

In Praise of Shadows was recommended to me as a grumpy old man talking about Japanese aesthetics, and it’s exactly that in a wonderful way.

The book was first published in 1933 and Tanizaki is fondly looking back at the 1880s or 90s – a time before electricity, when Japanese harnessed darkness and shadow as an aesthetic element. He laments that people no longer know what it’s like to sit in a room lit by candles, with darkness existing all around the edges. How that candlelight made the soup in a dark lacquer bowl a mystery, no visual clues as to its taste.

With lacquerware there is a beauty in that moment between removing removing the lid and lifting the bowl to the mouth when one gazes at the still, silent liquid in the dark depths of the bowl, its color hardly differing from that of the bowl itself. What lies within the darkness one cannot distinguish, but the palm sense the gentle movements of the liquid, vapor rises from within forming droplets on the rim, and the fragrance carried upon the vapor brings a delicate anticipation.

As you can tell the writing and translation are beautiful. I highlighted passages not only for the insights but for how elegantly they’re expressed.

In addition to the text there’s supporting text that does just what you want. The forward whets the appetite without giving anything away, and the afterward, written by Harper, places the book in the context of Tanizaki’s life and Japanese literature and illuminates themes I missed the first time around.

If you’re interested in Japanese thought and aesthetics In Praise of Shadows is made for you. Even if you’re not, the beautiful writing will still carry you away. I plan to revisit it many times, making it a five star read.