Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

I came across The Joy Luck Club while researching novels for my Classics Club list. I wanted to make sure to include authors from different cultures, and Amy Tan's name kept popping up while I was searching for non-white authors. I was vaguely familiar with the movie version of this book, so I decided to put it on my list. Initially, I didn't own a copy of it, but I happened to run across a used one on a trip to Book Barn (best used bookstore ever) last month. I decided it was fate and picked it up.

The plot of the novel revolves around four Chinese mothers and daughters living in San Francisco in the 1980s. The mothers are all friends and gather regularly for meetings of the Joy Luck Club, where they gossip, eat, and play Mah Jong. At the start of the story, one of the mothers, Suyuan Woo, has recently passed away. Her daughter, June Woo, is taking her spot at the Mah Jong table for the first time. As she joins her mother's friends, she thinks back on her mother's life and ponders how well she really knew her. From here, the book becomes a series of vignettes with each mother and daughter taking a turn telling stories about their lives and their relationships with each other.

The chapters featuring stories from the mothers mostly take place in pre-1949 China and focus on their childhoods. Each of the characters have varied upbringings, but all go through very difficult times. Many of their life experiences center around cultural Chinese events. For example, one is promised in marriage by a matchmaker to a boy at age two and delivered to his rather hostile family at age twelve. Another lives with her mother, who is a disgraced third concubine to a rich, elderly man. All of the women end up fleeing to America as Japan invades their country, in search of better lives for themselves and their children, and all must then adjust to living in a country vastly different from their own.

The chapters featuring the daughter characters are set in two different time periods. Each daughter has a vignette focused on their childhood in the 1950s-60s and another focused on their current lives in the 1980s. The daughters face different challenges from their mothers. They don't suffer under the crushing yoke of strict Chinese customs or the fear and terror of a war. Instead, they struggle to find the balance between their Chinese heritage and their American environment. Their experiences and upbringing are so different from their parents' that they struggle to understand each other. The issues taking center stage in their lives, like failing marriages or lack of motivation, are very difficult for their mothers to understand. As a result, the relationships between the pairs are often tense.

Underlying all the differences, however, there is a deep and indescribable bond. Each story in the novel works to show that although circumstances may vary wildly between parents and their children, love remains a constant and family is forever. Eventually, the reader comes to realize that the emotions the characters experience throughout their lives are the same, even if they way they arrive at those emotions are different. The mothers and daughters have more in common than they think, and in the moments when the mothers and daughters open up to each other, walls are broken down and understanding is reached. The Joy Luck Club is a very thoughtful exploration of the difficult relationship that exists between mothers and daughters, and a look at how Chinese and Chinese-American are vastly different things.

I really enjoyed this novel, and most of that enjoyment came from the fact that Amy Tan is a wonderful storyteller. Each vignette is easy to read and written in a way that is thought-provoking and beautiful. While I liked all the stories, the ones told from the perspectives of the mother characters were my favorites. These women radiated a quiet kind of strength and determination that I was immediately drawn to. I was very engaged in seeing how they pushed past their struggles to make their way to a new country. I also really liked how much I learned about China from their chapters. Tan does an excellent job integrating different aspects of Chinese culture into the text, including examples of religious practices, food, and family life.

The chapters from the daughter characters were strong in their depiction of the different emotions and insecurities that exist between mothers and daughters. This relationship is tricky when parents and their children grow up in the same country, but it becomes especially difficult when parents and children grow up in different places. It was interesting to watch the daughters try to match their Chinese sides with their American sides and try to please their mothers while remaining true to themselves.

One aspect of the novel that I felt could have been a bit stronger was the connection between all the stories. Aside from the first and last vignette, the chapters didn't relate to each other. The characters barely even interacted with each other across the stories, despite all being friends. Going into my reading, I assumed the the Joy Luck Club would be the thread that tied everything together, but the club only meets once, in the very first chapter. As a result, reading this felt more like reading a collection of short stories set in the same universe rather than a novel. This lack of connection didn't mean that the stories were bad at all, but it did make the reading experience a bit choppy. Without a true narrative to follow in my head, I kept getting the characters confused and forgetting which daughter belonged to which mother. It was also tough to remember which character had which backstory, as the stories didn't have an organizational pattern that I could identify aside from alternating a block of mother stories with a block of daughter stories. I had to keep turning to the front page of the book, which helpfully listed each mother and daughter pair for me to keep everyone straight. I still enjoyed the writing, but having to do this continually was a little annoying.

On the whole, however, I enjoyed The Joy Luck Club and I am glad to have read it. One of my favorite aspects of reading is learning about other times and places, and this novel provides that in abundance. Its exploration of mother/daughter relationships was similarly engaging and it made me think about the relationship I have with my own mom, and what tough times she might have gone through growing up that I don't understand. Any book that makes you want to call your mom is probably a good one, right? This was a thoughtful, easy read and a nice inclusion for my Classics Club list.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#20 on my list): 42/100 

Total Books Read in 2019: 18

Saturday, March 16, 2019

A Heart in a Body in the World by Deb Caletti

I first came across A Heart in a Body in the World by Deb Caletti in a book store display when it was first released towards the end of last year. The pretty cover grabbed my attention first, and then the summary on the inside flap sealed the deal. The story sounded promising, so I picked it up and put it on my shelf. A few months later, I started seeing A Heart pop up in YouTube book review videos. It was getting rave reviews from people with similar tastes to mine, so I decided that now was the time to read it. I'm trying to read some newer releases while they are still popular this year. I did it with On the Come Up earlier this month and enjoyed being up to date, so this was my second effort to stay on trend with what other readers are currently into. I'm glad to say that I was not disappointed with this choice.

The story follows high school senior Annabelle Agnelli. Annabelle lives in Seattle and is on the verge of turning 18 and graduating. Right away, her inner dialogue reveals that she is suffering from PTSD from a terrible event in her past, but as she refuses to think about the event in detail, the reader doesn't know what it is that has happened to her. Almost immediately after the first chapter starts, she has a panic attack and breaks into a run. She is a cross country runner with a few marathons under her belt, so she keeps up the running for hours in an effort to clear her head. Eventually she arrives at a decision. She's going to keep running until she hits Washington D.C. She is going to run across the entire United States.

Her decision to do this is rash and unplanned. Her grief and trauma over the terrible thing that happened to her is palpable, and this idea of running springs out of her broken heart. It is clear she blames herself for the situation, and the grief and shame of it are eating her alive. Her mother and brother, although initially alarmed by her decision, decide to support her mission and begin forming more concrete plans for her. Her little brother Malcolm maps out her route and secures accommodations along the way. Her mother provides emotional support through frequent texts and calls. Her grandfather follows behind her in an RV, providing food and shelter throughout her run. Even her friends get in on the plan, setting up a GoFundMe account to finance her journey and securing interviews with colleges and newspapers along the way. Soon, Annabelle has a huge support system and thousands of people following her steps.

However, despite this extensive support system, Annabelle's journey is an intensely personal and often lonely one. She runs across hundreds of miles of empty fields and desolate stretches of back roads, all the while trying to process and come to terms with what has happened to her. Her experience is intricately linked with a political hot topic, but she has no desire to become the face of a new movement. Her heart is too broken and she is too raw for that. Reluctantly, she grants a few interviews and begins speaking at venues as she gets deeper into her trip. These opportunities help her begin to piece her life back together and spread awareness about an important issue. A Heart in a Body in the World is the story of how one girl moves on from an unthinkable tragedy by taking on an impossibly difficult task; it is the story of how grief can change us and move us to accomplish the impossible.

I really enjoyed this novel, and the aspect that stood out the most for me was its structure. Since Annabelle actively tries to stop herself from thinking about her past, readers remain in the dark about what exactly happened to her for most of the novel. What we focus on instead are her feelings; exploring the depths of Annabelle's pain and how her life was irrevocably changed by this mysterious event allows readers to get to know her character before being distracted by the sad events of her backstory. This backwards process kept the story engaging and allowed me to dive deeper into how the aftermath of a tragedy works. Deb Caletti does a nice job of giving bits and pieces of information about the event along the way, and when the full picture of what happened finally emerges, it makes the situation even more poignant. We already know how crushed Annabelle will be by it, so we care all the more. It was very well-crafted storytelling.

Also well-crafted was the description of Annabelle's guilt and shame surrounding the situation. She blames herself for everything that happened, despite knowing logically that she shouldn't feel that way. I could see a lot of myself in her reactions and I know I would probably process things in a similar way to her. She refers to the perpetrator of the crime at the center of this novel as "The Taker," and she blames herself for being polite to him, for ignoring her internal feelings of discomfort around him, for enjoying attentions from him, and for bringing him into her circle of friends. She feels guilty for surviving him while others didn't. Caletti is clear about how these reactions are drilled into women from a young age, how we are supposed to be nice to everyone and to put the comfort of others (often men) before our own in an effort to avoid seeming difficult. It definitely gave me pause as I recognized some of those same tendencies in myself.

A Heart in a Body in the World is certainly a very strong and moving young adult novel. It isn't perfect; some of the metaphors are a bit too obvious, and some of the sections of running in the middle felt long. There is also a romance included for Annabelle that I could have done without. However, overall this was a tremendous read, and I'm glad to have picked it up. A word of warning though, it is a real downer for most of the pages. Anyone struggling emotionally or feeling depressed might get sucked down further with this book. Save it for a time when you are feeling more or less normal. That's the one thing I wish I had done differently during my reading experience. I was having a down kind of week and this really didn't help. I still came out loving the book though, so it all worked out in the end. 

Challenge Tally
Finally in 2019: 8/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 17

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Neuromancer by William Gibson

I first came across Neuromancer while I was researching classic science fiction novels for my Classics Club list. I hadn't really heard of it before, but I noticed right away that it had an impressive pedigree. It was the first science fiction novel ever to win all three of the genre's major awards: the Nebula, the Hugo, and the Philip K. Dick. It is also considered the archetypal cyberpunk work, and is credited with bringing this gritty, technological subgenre into the mainstream. So, even though it was published more recently than most of the other books on my list (1984), I decided to consider it a classic for my purposes and give it a go.

The plot centers around Henry Case, a washed up computer hacker living in a futuristic, crime-ridden city in Japan. His glory days of jacking into cyberspace and hacking advanced systems are long over; he crossed the wrong man and was abruptly kicked out of the business. Now he scrapes by committing low-level crimes around the city and drugging himself into oblivion. This changes, however, when he is approached by a mysterious man named Armitage who wants to recruit him for a hacking job.

Armitage is extremely vague on the details of what he wants him to do, and doesn't give him a choice as to whether he wants in on the scheme or not. Using a mixture of physical violence and threats, he forces him onto his team, which also includes a street samurai with high-tech silver lenses for eyes named Molly, a digital version of a long-dead hacker named Flatline, and a thief that can create holographic projections named Peter. Each member of the team was included against their will, and each have special skills that will be required in the course of the job. It's not exactly a chummy team, in other words, but it is a talented one.

Eventually, Case comes to realize that the job he is on has to do with freeing up an Artificial Intelligence program named Wintermute from the protective constraints placed on it. There are strict protocols in this world for how much an AI is allowed to do, and Case's job will be to liberate Wintermute so that it can do whatever it wants. What, exactly, it wants to do is anyone's guess, but Case doesn't have much time to wonder about the implications of his act. The timing of the job is tight, and involves lots of action, technological sneakiness, and teamwork. Figuring out exactly how to pull everything off properly and come out of the job alive is a near-impossible feat, but he has no choice but to try. Neuromancer is the story of this attempt.

I really liked this book, but it was absolutely bonkers. Gibson's writing drops you directly into his futuristic world, with very little background to help you put events into the proper context. The action starts up right away, and you have to just figure things out as you go. The current political structure, social order, and technological advances of his universe are left largely unexplained, with only short references throughout the text to help you get a sense of the setting. This had the effect of making everything feel quick and urgent, like I was rushing to fill in the missing details as I read. As a big fan of science fiction, I think I did okay interpreting the world, but readers unused to cyberpunk tropes might struggle a little.

That being said, the world I imagined was slick and dirty. The cities in Neuromancer are full of crime and drugs, the people are enhanced with plastic surgeries and technological implants, and the internet has become a real place that the savvy can wander around in. Space travel is commonplace, robot drones prowl the streets, and, somehow, samurais and ninjas are available for hire. It's a world that feels dangerous, like too much is possible. This serves as an excellent backdrop to a plot concerning high-tech capers and the possibility of an AI obtaining unchecked abilities.

The plot itself was fast-paced and engaging. It is full of weird, quirky things that definitely made me pause, reread, and think a bunch of times. I enjoyed trying to dig down into all the unanswered questions and figure out why things were happening and who was ultimately behind them. The supporting characters were very unique and fun to try and visualize. I was especially fond of Molly, with her samurai skills and silver lenses for eyes. She kicked a lot of butt and remained deliciously inscrutable. The only character that I thought wasn't particularly interesting was the protagonist, Case. Since Neuromancer is so plot-driven, and the action picks up right away, I felt like his characterization was a little bland. This wasn't enough of a problem to affect my overall enjoyment of the novel though. It was still a good time.

Neuromancer is book one of the Sprawl Trilogy, and after I finished reading it, I ordered the other novels right away. I'm really interested to see what happens next in this world, disorienting and crazy as it is. Ultimately, I'm very glad that I chose to include this book on my Classics Club list. It's one of those reads that feels foundational to the genre. I could recognize a lot of the ideas in it from other sci-fi I've gotten into over the years, so I feel good about labeling it as a classic. This read was definitely a success for me! 

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#50 on my list): 41/100 

Total Books Read in 2019: 16

Monday, March 4, 2019

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

After reading and loving The Hate U Give as part of my Finally in 2019 Challenge, I knew that I wanted to check out Angie Thomas's second novel, On the Come Up. This book was just released a couple of months ago, and I actually pre-ordered it ahead of time, so it was already sitting on my shelf. I decided to try something different and sit down to read it while it was new, instead of being years behind the times (you know, like I normally am). Interested to see if I would enjoy this novel as much as her last one, I dove in.

On the Come Up takes place in the same fictional inner-city as The Hate U Give, Garden Heights. The city is still plagued with drugs, violence, and gangs, but now they have the added turmoil of dealing with a stronger police presence after the events of the officer-involved shooting from the first book. The setting is where the connections between the two novels end. While some of the characters will vaguely reference the events of the The Hate U Give, this novel focuses on a completely different set of characters and story.

This novel focuses on sixteen-year-old Bri Jackson, an aspiring rapper trying to make it in Garden Heights's underground rap scene. Aside from her natural talent at writing lyrics and performing, Bri has her lineage going for her. Her father was a popular rapper in the neighborhood too, until he was shot and killed by a rival gang when Bri was a little kid. She hopes to carry on his legacy while making a name for herself and finding her own place in the music industry. At the beginning of the novel, she starts to make that name by performing well in a rap battle. Her rhymes attract the attention of her dad's ex-manager, and he begins to show some interest in representing her.

Unfortunately, it's tough for Bri to take a measured approach to building a music career. Her home situation is in turmoil. Her mother, a recovering drug addict, has recently lost her job and is having difficulty finding another one. Her older brother, Trey, is trying to help provide for the family, but despite having a psychology degree, he is only able to find work at a local pizza place. Bri has to deal with not having enough food in the house, the constant threat of eviction, and losing access to heat and power as the bills start to pile up.

Things at her magnet high school are similarly not going well. Bri has a fiery personality; she is quick to anger and jump to conclusions. Her eye-rolling and snarky comments have gotten her labeled as "aggressive" at school, and she frequently winds up in the principal's office, despite not having done much wrong. Things come to a breaking point when she gets involved in an altercation with a pair of school security guards that ends with her being wrestled to the ground and handcuffed after refusing to submit to a backpack search. Her friends use this incident as a rallying point to begin protesting the unequal disciplinary treatment that black and brown students at the school seem to receive in relation to their white peers. Bri, however, does not want to become the face of this movement, which brings her into conflict with some of her friends.

All of these factors make Bri feel more determined than ever to make it in the rap industry. She sees it as the only way out for her and her family and is prepared to do anything to make it happen. In response to the incident at her school, she pens and records a song called "On the Come Up," which she means to serve as an anthem for herself and for others that feel oppressed and labeled by society as "thugs." However, some of her lyrics include references to guns and violence that the white community vilifies her for once the song takes off. As Bri works to try and rise in the music scene, she must try to balance her determination to achieve her dream with the social issues in her community, the racism she encounters all around her, and the personal issues going on in her family.

This book was excellent, and one of the main reasons for that was the strength of Thomas's writing. Bri's character was very well-written. She felt like a real teenager with a clear voice and opinion. Her use of slang, pop culture references, and dramatic moments felt very natural and brought the narration to life. In truth, Bri was not an easy character for me to like. I often felt frustrated reading about the decisions she made, because they seemed so short-sighted and sometimes dangerous to me, but they were definitely the kind of decisions a teenager with her personality in her situation would make, so I can't fault them. Even though I frequently disagreed with her point of view on things, I could understand where she was coming from, so I could still enjoy her story. She wasn't perfect, none of the characters were, and that made the story feel very genuine. The one drawback in felt in this area was that I'm not sure how much Bri changed by the end of the novel. She goes through a lot over the course of the story, but her personality remains mostly the same. I would have liked to see her mature a little bit more, but this feeling wasn't enough to prevent me from liking the writing.

 Similarly, the social justice issues Thomas explored were realistic and handled well. The issue of black and brown students facing harsher disciplinary measures at school than their white peers is absolutely something that happens, and I enjoyed seeing the book address that. I also enjoyed the discussion on rap lyrics and responsibility. This wasn't a topic I paid much attention to before reading, but there is quite a lot of food for thought there. Bri writes a song that references guns and violence, even though she is not personally involved with either of those things. Does this make her a liar, irresponsible, or is it just her artistic license? Furthermore, can these lyrics incite violence in the real world? If they do, is Bri responsible? Rap has long been blamed for the ills of the black community, and this novel helps to examine that question and reveal how unfair the concept is.

The vicious cycle of poverty, gang involvement, and drugs was also explored in this novel. These three elements have become horrifically entwined in Bri's life. Her father was shot and killed in a gang-related incident. The grief from this experience was at the root of why her mother turned to drugs. Her mother's dependence on drugs led her on a path to poverty for herself and her children. It's a terrible cycle that touches every part of Bri's life. After reading about these seemingly insurmountable problems, it becomes easy to understand why she is willing to make risky decisions throughout the novel to break free of all the problems and drama. It's a raw and powerful read that doesn't hold back on the reality of these tough issues.

Ultimately, I did not like On the Come Up quite as much as The Hate U Give. There were a few plot elements that didn't add up for me. For example, Bri's mom seemed remarkably oblivious to nearly everything Bri was doing, and when she did find out the extent of sneaking around she was doing for her music, she didn't care enough. Also, the ending felt too convenient when compared to the messiness and imperfections of the situations in the rest of the book. However, it was still an excellent read. Thomas is definitely an author to keep on your radar, and her voice is very important in the young adult literary community. She has the knowledge, ability, and bravery to discuss important racial and social justice issues head on, and we need more of these stories out in the world. These characters and situations can help build bridges between different groups and broaden our understanding of the world. This was a moving read that I would definitely recommend to all teens and adults.

Challenge Tally
Finally in 2019: 7/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 15

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

When it comes to the classics, I struggle with modern and postmodern fiction. I really wish that I  liked novels from those time periods, but truthfully, I just don't enjoy the weirdness and confusion that reading them entails. I like to get lost in a book when I read and just drift with the story. Modern classics don't give readers that luxury. They are often puzzles full of surreal moments that keep their audience guessing about what's real and what's not. It's just not my cup of tea. Despite this, I was sure to put a handful of modern classics on my Classics Club list, including Pale Fire. I always want to challenge myself as a reader, so I refuse to give up on them entirely. Besides, reading a 20th Century classic is usually a Back to the Classics Challenge category (like it is this year), so reading a more modern classic every now and then keeps me covered there.

I came across Pale Fire through my husband, who is a big Nabokov fan. I read Nabokov's most famous novel, Lolita, years ago and was both impressed and nauseated by it. It was a weird mix of emotions to feel while reading. I was interested to see if this novel would serve up another unique experience. It didn't take me long to realize that, yes, Pale Fire is certainly a unique book, but in a completely different way from Lolita. Honestly, I have no idea what I just read. Let me try to explain.

Pale Fire centers around a 999 line poem, its foreward, and its end notes. The poem, titled "Pale Fire," itself is written by a character named John Shade and it details different parts of his life. He discusses topics ranging from his childhood, to his wife, to his daughter. It's a relatively simple, beautifully written poem. The foreward, end notes, and index to the poem are written by a different character named Charles Kinbote. In the foreward, he informs the reader that John Shade was killed on the very day he finished writing his poem. Kinbote, who explains that he was both a fan and friend of Shade, was granted permission to publish this work, along with his notes on it. This is where things really go off the rails.

Kinbote's notes, which form the bulk of the novel, dissect the poem nearly line-by-line, providing additional details on Shade and commentary on the work itself. However, the further you read into his notes, the more you realize that Kinbote's writing seems to have absolutely nothing to do with the poem. Instead, he's twisting Shade's words to tell a story that he wants to tell--that of his distant homeland of Zembla and the escape of the Zemblan king during a political revolution. He cherry-picks words throughout the poem to draw specious connections between Shade's meaning and his own story. In reality, his notes have their own plot and purpose, and that plot has nothing to do with what Shade was trying to convey at all.

Alongside his story about Zembla, Kinbote also details the movements of the man who eventually kills Shade on the day he finishes writing the poem. He includes this man's location throughout the body of his notes, creating suspense as the notes (and the poem) near their conclusions. This man, named Jakob Gradus, is described as being dim-witted, bumbling, and filled with blind devotion to the extremist party that took over back in Zembla. His connection to Shade, and why he ends up killing him, form a central part of Kinbote's narrative.

I have definitely never read anything like this novel. Its unusual structure made the act of reading a bit of a challenge. Right away, I had to decide what order I wanted to read the parts in. In the foreward, Kinbote himself suggests reading his commentary first, then the poem, then his commentary again. I didn't want to do all that rereading though, so I started off reading the poem and the commentary simultaneously. It got annoying flipping back and forth all the time though, so after a little while, I switched to reading a canto of the poem, then reading the notes for it, then going back to read another canto, and continued in that pattern until I reached the end. Reading it either way would work, which was a weird concept to me--the idea of being able to read a book in several different orders and still have it make sense. It was weird, but very unique. I enjoyed the strangeness of it.

The mystery of Kinbote was the main aspect of this novel my mind focused on. All throughout the detailed commentary section, he states several things that cause the reader to doubt his sanity. His apparent obsession with Shade was my first indication that something was off. His relationship with him seemed to go far beyond being friends, as he describes peeking into Shade's windows to watch him write and detailing his belief that Shade's wife was evil and trying to keep them apart. He describes how he would take long walks with him and tell him all about Zembla, fully believing that Shade was going to transform this story into an epic poem. His notes about his home country of Zembla are equally suspicious. I couldn't tell if this was a place that really existed in the confines of this novel, or if it was a place that existed only in his head. It didn't take long before I began to question and examine every single thing he said, looking for the key that would tell me if he was nuts or if his story was based in reality. Of course, as we are limited to Kinbote's narration, the question remains cloudy. 

One thing that is not cloudy, however, is the excellence of Nabokov's writing. His prose is beautiful and easy to read. The fact that he is not a native English speaker never ceases to amaze me. While I don't generally enjoy novels that are a conceptual puzzle, the writing in Pale Fire is a joy to read, and made up for some of the weirdness for me. So ultimately, even though this is exactly the type of novel that I don't normally click with, I didn't have a bad time reading it. For me, this was at a 3/5 star level of enjoyment. If I was rating it based on its uniqueness, or its contribution to the development of postmodern literature, it would be a 5. I would most definitely recommend it to anyone interested in this genre of literature. In my case, I'm just happy that it didn't end of being torture (like Ulysses). I'm going to count this as a success for me. It's probably my favorite experimental/postmodern novel that I've tried so far.

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics 2019 (20th Century Classic) 4/12 Books Read
Classics Club (#7 on my list): 40/100 

Total Books Read in 2019: 14