We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

we are okay

This is a sad but sweet, young adult novel that was recommended to me by my daughter.  It is the tale of Marin, named after the county in California from which she came, who is stranded, alone, in a dorm room in NY, during Christmas break.  As she anxiously awaits a visit from her friend, Mabel, the memories of her recent, tragic life events come back to her in waves, and she is forced to reconcile what she thought were the circumstances of her life with what was real.

This is a story in which sensuality is very striking.  The cold, stark setting really creates a mood for the whole book.  Descriptions of the freezing snow create a palpably silent backdrop for the awkwardness between the two old friends.  The cold blowing onto their faces as they trek through the snow freezes any attempt at conversation between them.  And when they finally break through, they start to feel the heat come back on – and warmth starts to emanate from one character to the other.  They are in a shop in which Mabel picks up bells, and the reader can almost hear the tinkling of those bells as if we are in that store with them.  Light is used also, contrasted with darkness, such as the stark darkness on a beach on a moonless night, when one’s eyes cannot adjust to the darkness and one has to give up trying to see.  It’s a beautiful way to pull the reader in to each scene.

What initially appears as a simply melancholic book ultimately reveals itself to be a complicated and intimate tale that leaves one thinking about it for days after closing its covers.

 

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

the hate u give

Knowing she’d rather have stayed home watching reruns of Fresh Prince on her laptop, Starr isn’t even sure why she’s agreed to accompany Kenya to the party at which she’s found herself.  But while she is wandering around (Kenya of course has dumped her), she finds Khalil, her old best friend, whom she has not seen in months.  They slip into old comfortable conversation when suddenly gunshots ring out.  She and Khalil run for what she believes will be safety – not knowing that this moment will affect the rest of her life.

This story is a young adult novel, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, about the murder of a black boy by a white police officer.  The story invites the reader to step into the life of this friend of the victim, Starr, whose life is already complicated as she is grappling with having to straddle two different communities – the poor neighborhood in which she lives and the affluent school she attends.  Her two worlds require two different personae and this is a lot to juggle for a young woman of 16 years.

As the events unfold, it becomes clearer that Starr is the only witness to the murder that has occurred and it is up to her to come forward and testify.  And here is the difficulty: history has taught us that this is hard – and we’ve seen this again and again particularly in the past few years.  While police have incredibly difficult jobs to do and we owe them a debt of gratitude for what they do every day, there are always a few that take their power too far or have too low a threshold for fear of “other” and assume that the “other” is going to do something harmful to them first.  This is the case in this story, and this is often the narrative in these cases where there is a wrongful death.  There is a presumption of guilt based on race and circumstances when that is an unfair presumption.

There is a lot of humanity to this story.   There is circumstance and perspective on the drug dealing issue and how and why some people get involved – which some might feel is obvious but others might not appreciate.  There is also the recurrent theme of a person’s right to presumption of innocence, and right to life and liberty and so on even if he might be a drug dealer.  This is a serious point.  On the other hand, I do think that dehumanizing the cop that shot the victim by referring to him by only his badge number almost throughout does not serve a purpose.  I think that creates its own bias and one sided perspective and I think presenting the other side would have only made the story stronger.

In any case, I do think this is an important book for most people to read, but especially young readers.  Definitely a must read!

 

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

 

unbearable lightness

This is the whimsical, weird, and sometimes wieldy love story of Tomas and Tereza, set mostly in Prague during the Russian invasion.  They meet while Tomas is visiting the small town where Tereza is working at a small inn, when she serves him his dinner.  After a bit of flirting, and circumstances that Tereza interprets as prescient, Tereza appears with her large suitcase at Tomas’s door and so they begin their lives together.

What is sometimes the charm of this story and sometimes the bane of the story is the perpetual tangent.  Most authors will backtrack to fill in context and background about the characters, and we see that here as well.  Occasionally, Kundera manages to create a lyrical lightness when he does this in this story.  Alternatively, while many authors will thread in an occasional plot line that seems disconnected but then ties in later unexpectedly, this book is plagued with so many tangents that do not tie in anywhere.  I feel as though this makes the book unnecessarily harder to read.

I will say that each of the characters is unique and colorfully drawn.  In choosing a third person narrator, Kundera provides almost a side door entrance into the minds of each of the characters and lets us know what each is thinking in his own, idiosyncratic way.  One fascinating character is Sabina, who is Tomas’s mistress.  She is an artist, very independent, and has her own lovers.  Through her, Kundera waxes very philosophical on what is light and what is heavy in life.   Through her we also see some of the consequences of the Communist regime changes, and she is the one character who manages to be free in her life choices and be free of the Communists ultimately.

I think this is another of those books I would have liked to read in an English class, during which I might’ve digested more of the symbolism with others who were smarter than I and who were more familiar with the historical context than I.  I might’ve benefitted from that and appreciated the book more.  As it was, I did enjoy some of the writing, the creativity, and philosophical musings of the author, even while I found it occasionally onerous and hard to get through.

 

We are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

completely beside ourselves

As Rosemary is looking back and recounting the story of her childhood, she tells of her sister being taken away and her brother later running away of his own accord – and we feel the trauma in her heart right from the start.  What we don’t hear until later, however, is that Rosemary’s “sister” is a chimpanzee named Fern, and her brother has been traumatized by the way in which he perceived Fern has been treated by their parents.  Rosemary and Fern have been the subjects of psychological studies, conducted by Rosemary’s father and a team of graduate students, who have examined the learning capabilities of chimps in terms of language and behavior compared to humans.  What they fail to study and to take into account, is the long-term consequences that this will have on Rosemary, Fern and on Rosemary’s brother, Lowell, that last the rest of their complicated lives.

This story is extremely interesting, but it is told in an unfortunately fragmented way, starting “in the middle” as the author says more than once, which may have not been the best strategy, as it happens.  There are many skips and recalls, many memories and pieces.  Often this works in books, but here it feels like only that – like skips and pieces.  The whole picture becomes sacrificed in some way, and the story line is somewhat blurred.

On the whole, however, it is a unique idea for a novel and it does hold one’s attention.  It is fascinating to contemplate the idea of a girl and a chimp growing up as twins, but there are innumerable and predictable obstacles that would clearly preclude anyone in their right mind from actually doing this to a real child – one would at least hope!

I’d love to hear what others think about this one!

Bed and Breakfast by Lois Battle

bed and breakfast

This was a sweet story about Josie, the owner of a bed and breakfast, whose Christmas holiday is off to a crazy start with her friend having a heart attack in the middle a bridge game in her home.  This reminder of the vulnerability of life triggers her to invite her estranged daughters to come home for Christmas, much to their surprise, and it invites a lot of nostalgia mixed with emotional eruptions.

I think I’d describe this book as benign;  it’s a decent read, quick, keeps one’s interest, the characters are likable, the writing is passable – but there is nothing imaginative about it.  I did not learn anything new from it.  There was nothing culturally unusual about it.

I do find stories about relationships interesting – mother/daughter, wife/husband, generational conflicts, etc.  This touches on some of this.  But I found that some of this is left undone, or kept at the surface.  There is never a deep unpacking of the deeper relationship or feelings.  There is never the huge explosion that there should be when emotions run so high.

I was left wanting just a little bit more.  And in this case, that was not a good thing…

 

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

the sympathizer

This is yet another one of those extraordinarily-well-written, even Pulitzer-Prize-winning books that I did not enjoy reading at all.  The writing is clever, with wit and imagery and drama; but sadly, the main character, who narrates the story, is remarkably unlikeable.  He gleans a bit of sympathy as he begins his story about his violent exodus from Vietnam to the U.S. at the end of the war, and as he recounts stories from his youth, having been bullied because of his being of mixed race.  But, at least for me, that is where my sympathy for him ends.  As he continues to recount his prior experience in the U.S. as a student there and as he continues to track his workings as a double agent for North Vietnam during his experience in California in the 1970’s, it feels at least to me, like a story with a great deal of pain with little to be gained for it – for both the main character and the reader.

I was hoping to learn a little more about the backstory of Vietnam – and there was some of that here.  There was some sympathy for the idealism of the Communist North Vietnamese and the disillusionment of the South Vietnamese who felt used and then abandoned by the US.  The most powerful part of the story, for me, was when the protagonist is hired to be a guide to a director about a movie about the Vietnam war.  He is miserable, because he is unable to convince the director to give more than minimal, stereotypical, awful roles to the Vietnamese actors in the movie, when he was hoping to bring some real humanity to their roles.  This theme is recurrent throughout the story – that is, prejudice against Asians – and our main character is treated with even more disdain than most, because he is not even pure bred Asian.

Again, the writing in the book is absolutely impressive and I can understand the Pulitzer Prize.  But what is missing here is heart, and that is what I look for in a book as well.  Academically fancy without empathy does not carry me with you!

 

Journey to Munich by Jacqueline Winspear

journey to munich

In this installment of the adventures of Maisey Dobbs, psychologist and detective, we find Maisey back in London in 1938, still reeling from the loss of her husband but trying to get back into her life.  Feeling like she needs to do something to help someone else – and possibly that she has nothing to lose – she accepts an assignment to go undercover as the daughter of a British businessman held prisoner by the Germans and now being released to her only.  To complicate her mission, she is also asked to bring back from Germany the one young woman Maisie holds most responsible for her husband’s death.  How will she accomplish both of these feats, especially under the careful watch of the Nazi government?

This book series is part detective novel/part historical fiction, with lots of human sensibility to warm up the mix.  Especially in this book, the kindness and forgiveness that Maisie shows, whether toward the man she is asked to bring home or toward the young woman who she is asked to find, shines so particularly bright compared to the darkness of the Nazi regime.  It is interesting that the timing of the story is actually just prior to the German invasion of Austria – really at the beginning of everything – but still she describes the feeling of foreboding, the pall of darkness that pervades the otherwise lively city.  The hope that Maisie clings to is in stark contrast to the evil that is lurking, that has been set into motion.

This is really not a “Holocaust” book per se, and while it is set in the time and place of the Holocaust it does not take the same emotional toll as those books do.  So if you’re planning your reading based on this, don’t worry that you’ll be taken through the same emotional rigors of that.  There is suspense and sadness, but not to the same extent as you would with other books from this period.

I do recommend this book heartily!  Happy reading!