June 15, 2019

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng - Shadowcon Book Reviews


Oh man, what an amazing book!

It's been a while since I've read a book that, from the opening pages I've known was going into my favorites list, but Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere definitely qualified as that for me from about page 6. There is so much care and attention to detail packed into this slim volume, a dense emotional story made up of  completely-developed portraits of many characters.

The Richardsons are natives to Shaker Heights, wealthy and self-described liberal and good people, but when Mia and her daughter Pearl arrive, new to town and unused to how planned everything is, they shake up the order of things and cause vast ripple effects that leads the Richardson family matriarch, Elena, into an obsession-driven tailspin from which vast consequences follow. This book is not subtle in its messages--while the character studies here are breathtaking, the actual plot involves a custody battle court case over if a white affluent family, the McCulloughs, are going to be able to adopt a Chinese baby whose birth mother wants back. It's a means for the book to discuss and demonstrate how preaching tolerance and practicing surface-level liberal ideals isn't enough. Indeed, Elena's mantra regarding this case, that the case itself is null and void because we shouldn't see race at all, is illustrative of how performative and self-serving this surface-level tolerance is. Ng does a great job at not turning this argument, Elena, or the Richardson family as a whole into a strawman to take down; the Richardson children, Moody, Lexie, and Izzy, are all beautifully developed throughout the narrative, interacting with Pearl and Mia in bitingly human ways. Each gets their own character arc throughout the book too, and that childhood innocence and wonder at the world is clear and present throughout.

Mia's backstory and how this has shaped her into the nomadic person that she is was itself a huge treat to read, emotionally gripping and occasionally tear-jerking. Her narrative is nicely contrasted by Elena's, the two mothers' backgrounds and ideologies being similar but the one not tamped down by social conformism and thus able to keep that spirit alive, while the other settled for control and order over active engagement and development of self. It's a great contrast because it highlights the pitfalls of white suburbia and only orbiting the actual activism to make the world a better place; donating to charities, throwing your money into fundraisers, writing checks out to other people who have worked hard, been through more, and have more to offer than you will ever be able to because you're safe behind your white picket fence, that these aren't bad ways to be a member of a community but rather that they can only impact the world so much, that it's easy to "not see race" when your proposed default is just you and your own contexts. In contrast to that, Mia's life, her choices and the medium she chooses to put her passion into, photography and studio art, are hands-on; she's been through hell and back, has had first-hand experience with the very issues that the Richardson family is discussing. And how that resolves and the feelings the book leaves you with was just so strong and immensely heartbreaking.

While reading this, I was constantly reminded of To Kill a Mockingbird. This feels very much like a modern-day Harper Lee tale in the best way. The trial and the messages about race are similar, and the characters and the way they're handled here, seeing so much of this through the teenager's eyes, it all feels like a spiritual successor to that great American classic. Where Little Fires differs, though, is that it's not afraid to delve purposefully and unapologetically into different characters' lives besides Pearl's. For much of the story, we follow Elana's journey as she investigates Mia and her history. Watching Elana's righteous attitude gradually give way to this selfish, bullying person, seeing that mask of justice and progressive values slip and you just see exactly what kind of self-centered woman she really is, it truly is a remarkable visage and vision realized in this book.

The Richardson children, teens, really, are fleshed out too. Lexie and Lizzy are impacted differently by Pearl's and Mia's character, the former intrigued at this more tender persona, the latter seeing a life completely alien to her own, yet fully formed and something she desperately wants to have and work for. Moody and Trip, the least developed of the characters, do still have their own great moments, and the teens in general serve as a good foil to their parents and to a larger degree the town Shaker Heights itself. Indeed, Lizzy's actions at the beginning of the book, burning her parent's house down, serves as a microcosm of what the book is ultimately about, of how harmful that sense of order and planning can be, how it's worth taking risks and staying true to yourself, instead of giving in and settling for a passive life while telling yourself you're still doing good in the world. Messages that, yes, have been said and illustrated before, but not nearly as compellingly as these characters did, not nearly with as much propulsion as Ng's writing displayed.

Little Fires Everywhere is definitely going on my favorites shelf. It's such a well-crafted and emotionally empathetic read; all the characters, antagonistic or otherwise, are all rich and fully formed people, and the messages and themes the narrative wants to explore--race, class, performative tolerance versus active inclusion--are explored with deft care, getting at the roots of these ideas without jackhammering the ground in order to do so. Read this if you're a person who loves to spend time with characters and have your emotions displayed in full view to those around you.

June 11, 2019

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles - Shadowcon Book Reviews


This has been on my reading list for a while. I was expecting a mystery, maybe a modern-feeling drama. I was not expecting at all what Amor Towles had in store in A Gentleman in Moscow. But first, here's the Goodreads summary:
From the New York Times bestselling author of Rules of Civility--a transporting novel about a man who is ordered to spend the rest of his life inside a luxury hotel. In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, and is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel's doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him entry into a much larger world of emotional discovery. Brimming with humor, a glittering cast of characters, and one beautifully rendered scene after another, this singular novel casts a spell as it relates the count's endeavor to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a man of purpose.
This story has probably the most characterful writing style I've had the pleasure of reading in a good long while. Amor Towles transports the reader to 1920s Moscow (and through the first half of the 20th Century throughout), not only in setting but in his way of writing. This reads like something out of the 1930s; the prose is bedecked with asides, languid and un-rushed sentences, and rich descriptions of food and setting, character introspection, and a surprising amount of comedy.

Count Alexander Rostev, imprisoned for life by the Bolsheviks to the Metropol Hotel, infuses this narrative with his personality and wit, the Hotel feeling as lived-in and wide as any fictional world. Rostev's scheming is thrown into full gear in the last hundred pages which is a delight, but the preceding 350 pages has the reader engaged fully through his charm and the book's unhurried mosey through time. Russia transforms a lot in the 20th Century, but being able to have that be an influential but background context for a statutory life makes it somehow all the richer. The events, people, settings, and relationships that surround and involve Rostev are engaging and deeply satisfying to read about, even if they don't all converge in some massive narrative climax. Indeed, the premise that's described on the back cover really only kicks into gear in the second half of the book, and while this might frustrate me in other circumstances, the first half of the book so richly developed Rostev, his circumstances, and the Hotel's settings that I kind of felt like it earned that delayed start to the actual plot and conflict. The secondary characters are lively, and the Count's observations of the world read with an obvious and welcome homage to Russian literature, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Turgenev. The book makes explicit mention of all of these authors and ties itself apologetically to its Russian influences, and did so in a way that didn't feel all too obtrusive, thanks in part to Towles' writing style, by far the highlight of this literary journey.

Indeed, "literary" is the word I'd use to sum up this book, and that's not at all bad! This is poised to be a modern classic, already having a tv series based on it, but I can also totally see this being enjoyed with a glass of whisky or being taught in insufferably stuffy hot college English classrooms. I loved it, mostly because it didn't hide that its focus wasn't really on conventional character or plot development but instead on the Count's changing views of the world and Russia, his devotion to his daughter, and to the story's interest in time and how ideologies, pedagogues, and national allegiance are ultimately subservient to time's relentless march forward, that personhood and personal development should be our focus in order to be well-rounded individuals. It's a moral that isn't preached by the story but instead baked into the actions of the book's characters and the contexts of the setting. The Hotel serves as a kind of constant in the face of this changing Russian landscape, and the perspectives that this allows the book to show the reader are impressive indeed.

Pace is the principle weakness; by the middle of the story I was tempted to put it down. The beginning and end are great, though. The book moves through roughly 40 years within its pages, and while for the most part it keeps its dips into the Count's life substantive, there are times where either the jump forward in time feels too abrupt or ends up feeling meaningless in the face of what the story is about. Not demerits that make the book bad by any means, but again if pace and subservience to plot are must-haves for you in a story, this will probably fall short for you.

I loved reading this. The experiences while reading Towles' words are ones to be savored, as much a part of the book's identity as its story and vivid characters. Having a main character in this day and age that isn't morally gray or obviously villainous is a nice change of pace; the Count is polite, upbeat, and deft, an inviting character and focal point around which a delightful story is constructed.

June 1, 2019

Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive by Julia Serano - Shadowcon Book Reviews


This was definitely a breath of fresh air for me. Julia Serano really didn't hold anything back in Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movement More Inclusive. Her critique of radical feminist spaces and the potential pitfalls of and flaws in things like top-down activism, oppression olympics, callout culture, and so forth, were welcome, but even more welcoming was that she also provided much-needed solutions or counter-narratives of activism to these critiques. The second half of the book was the stronger portion I think, and that's probably because she outlined a lot of great actions and rethinkings we as activists could use and implement into our social justices and activists corners. For a more comprehensive understanding of the premise, here's the Goodreads summary:
While many feminist and queer movements are designed to challenge sexism, they often simultaneously police gender and sexuality--sometimes just as fiercely as the straight, male-centric mainstream does. Some feminists vocally condemn other feminists because of how they dress, for their sexual partners or practices, or because they are seen as different and therefore less valued. Among LGBTQ activists, there is a long history of lesbians and gay men dismissing bisexuals, transgender people, and other gender and sexual minorities. In each case, exclusion is based on the premise that certain ways of being gendered or sexual are more legitimate, natural, or righteous than others. As a trans woman, bisexual, and femme activist, Julia Serano has spent much of the last ten years challenging various forms of exclusion within feminist and queer/LGBTQ movements. In Excluded, she chronicles many of these instances of exclusion and argues that marginalizing others often stems from a handful of assumptions that are routinely made about gender and sexuality. These false assumptions infect theories, activism, organizations, and communities--and worse, they enable people to vigorously protest certain forms of sexism while simultaneously ignoring and even perpetuating others. Serano advocates for a new approach to fighting sexism that avoids these pitfalls and offers new ways of thinking about gender, sexuality, and sexism that foster inclusivity.
Specifically, what got my attention a whole lot was her critique of gender essentialism and gender constructionism, how the two take direct oppositional stances to one another but as a result invalidate significantly marginalized groups of people like trans people, disabled people, and so forth; and her solution to this is to embrace both biological history and scientific fact and socialization as causes for and a means by which to combat gender binaries and understand how we as humans fit into a heterogenous biological and social schema. I like her more general argument too of not shying away from concepts or systems of understanding that might have at one point or perhaps still currently are coopted by oppressive systems--biology, science, marked and unmarked bodies and signifiers, problematic discourse, etc--how these things in and of themselves can be used in myriad of ways to better understand our malleable nature. It was just a nice blending of social justice and science, something that I'm not used to seeing by more radical or even mainstream feminists.

The second big move she makes that stuck with me was her insistence that cross-identity coalitions have to be formed in order to better combat various oppressors and institutions. Her "bottom-up" approach, which begins from an assumption that everyone in a heterogenous group--disabled people, queer people, trans people, etc.--are all there because we want to fight for a more just and equitable world and also overturn oppressive tactics that we have in myriad ways been subjected to; rather than play oppression olympics as it's called, that is, see which one of us is the most oppressed or conversely which one of us has the most to gain from this coalition leaving all others out in the cold, we should instead acknowledge the commonalities between our persons, resonate with the oppressions that have been experienced by others. Most importantly, rather than treating oppression and the tactics deployed in practicing it as monolithic and applicable to only one group of people, we should instead recognize how similar we are in the obstacles we face, even if we encounter those obstacles in different ways or contexts. This right here is a great move, because it underscores commonality and encourages unification while still respecting difference and heterogeneity within our coalitions, instead of just making coalitions premised on an us-versus-the-world paradigm.

Julia Serano's message is similar to Madhavi Menon's book Indifference to Difference, but Serano pushes it one step further by grounding her theory and rethinking in praxis, setting out concrete examples of what she's critiquing and also the means by which we can in the real world enact what she proposes. It's a good move because, like Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha in her book Care Work, Serano doesn't rely much at all on academic theory or position herself as a rhetorician talking down to the masses but instead makes her arguments in an active-activist way, saying to the reader that you too can do this with your own coalitions and social justice groups. I think this kind of writing is really needed more when talking about this type of subject and critiquing it.

The book does get a bit boring at times. Serano defines practically every buzzword she uses from activism to feminism to transsexual to tokenism, and a whole lot more. From an introductory angle, this is perfectly fine, but if you're more of a savvy reader of this stuff, it can get grating. I found myself skimming a bunch, especially in the last few chapters where her argument kind of got a bit circular and repetitive; by the end I didn't really feel she needed to keep defining her terms, especially since she has a whole chapter in the beginning devoted to doing just that. Some of her personal anecdotes come off a bit shallow, or not doing as much work as I think her argument wanted them to do, and the writing voice is uneven at times--the rigor and call-to-action stance the book takes is nullified somewhat by a more bubbly approach to looking at this activism that rears its head sometimes. These aren't major problems (unless you really need consistent voice in every single essay of a collection), but they're worth noting; I think I'd've finished the book sooner if these were tamped down a bit more, as I would have been more engaged throughout.

Overall, this is a nice collection of essays and a good introductory or intermediate read about activism, feminist and queer spaces, and how those spaces should be inclusive rather than exclusive (I mean, duh, it's kind of implied in the title). I definitely found this to be a stronger book than Whipping Girl which she wrote first, and as someone who is trying to make his activism more grounded and impactful on the real world, I got a good chunk of inspiration from this. Also, follow Julia Serano on twitter, she's so wholesome!!

May 25, 2019

Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha - Shadowcon Book Reviews


I've been meaning to read more nonfiction material lately, and, ever since I got this job at my local community college's disability resource center, also brush up on my disability activism and disability theory knowledge. This book, Care Work by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, seemed like a great place to start! Disability memoirs have always had a profound impact on me, being a disabled person myself, and have continued to surprise me in how relatable they are, how easily they put into words feelings and thoughts I've had for decades but have rarely been able to articulate myself. This one's no exception. Here's the Goodreads summary:
In this collection of essays, Lambda Literary Award-winning writer and longtime activist and performance artist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha explores the politics and realities of disability justice, a movement that centers the lives and leadership of sick and disabled queer, trans, Black, and brown people, with knowledge and gifts for all. Care Work is a mapping of access as radical love, a celebration of the work that sick and disabled queer/people of color are doing to find each other and to build power and community, and a tool kit for everyone who wants to build radically resilient, sustainable communities of liberation where no one is left behind. Powerful and passionate, Care Work is a crucial and necessary call to arms.
What struck me immediately about this book in a gleeful way was how Leah's approach to disability activism, her "disability justice" and care work, was just to say fuck it to the academic disability theory rhetoric and put her words and ideas on a more practical and forward-moving level. This book reads more like a blog post than an academic treatise and that's all for the better in my opinion. As someone who is disabled and has read many disability theory essays and books, I found this refreshingly honest and bare-bones in its tone and how it argued its ideas. Leah all but abandons the language and phraseology that so many academic textbooks flock to and instead just says here's my disability, or here's what's fucked up about ableism and how insidious it is in the world, and here's how we as members of and activists in disabled community and culture are attempting to change it. There's a sense of urgency in this, a call to action and a demand to make the talk of disability studies more into an active performance, an active activist space if you will. And that type of writing really made this thing shine for me.

With most essay collections I'll generally be struck by one or two chapters of the book and leave feeling very satisfied. Here though, as with Eli Clare's work, most of the book has something of value and nuance and insight to say about either the disability resources offered on college campuses being inadequate and tokenizing at best (something that really struck a chord with me having been through that whole mess many times and now working in that office for my job), or how disability and survivorship have similar narratives in society that attempt to override their very existence, to how disability activism itself is draining and often paradoxically plagued with the same ableist expectations of its members and goals as mainstream queer/lgbt+ spaces often are. Leah moves through all of these examinations in stark detail and plain, bold, jarring writing that will often leave you taken away at how easily she phrases concepts that disability theorists like Warner, Snyder, Mitchell, Davis, etc. would take several pages to explain and even then only in the super abstract; here, nothing is abstract, everything is either from the heart or relates back to the harsh and lived world of the disabled queer black body, and it is all unapologetic and in your face, and it's great.

Like Clare's work, this reads as a memoir or a manifesto first and a guide to disability as a concept second. And so it runs the risk of alienating some of its readership in some places. Myself, I was continually thrown by how many labels she'd throw around in describing a person before even saying their name: queer, black, disabled, femme, activist, crazy, scholar, independent organizer--it got unintentionally hilarious after a while seeing how many labels she'd stick onto another person or herself. That's not a bad thing, but the way she stuck those phrases in verged on virtue signaling rather than making any meaningful statement about the person or their work.

But that's just phraseology; the real meat of the book, the call to action and to making disabled people visible and spaces universal in design and communities conscious in their ableism and then in their disability activism is outstanding. Of particular note are the chapters "Cripping the Apocalypse" wherein she discusses how queer communities and communities of color will talk a big game about curbing ableist behavior or making spaces accessible, but then quickly abandon any effort to follow through on those issues; "Care Webs" where she talks about taking care of and listening to other disabled people in disabled communities; and her manifesto-like list of wrong or incomplete actions to deal with suicide in her chapter "Two or Three Things I Know for Sure About Femmes and Suicide" that is very moving and powerful. This is a book that is definitely not for everyone, and even for me got a bit too spiritual* in how she saw herself and her fellow queer crip peers. But all in all it did spark in me a cathartic validation and a want to make my disability activism more concretely active and impactful. Definitely one to read if you're at all curious about disability, the disability activist scene, and its intersection with and impact on queer/lgbt+ communities and communities of color.

*I use "spiritual" in the sense that she does invoke godliness and omniscience at points and ascribes them to queer/black/disabled people. Powerful language for sure, it just felt kind of out of place with the rest of the work being so grounded.

May 18, 2019

The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe, trans. Lilit Thwaites - Shadowcon Book Reviews


I've held a lot of esteem for The Book Thief by Markus Zusak over the years; it used to by my all-time favorite book, it's still in the top 3 for sure, and in terms of WWII/Holocaust narratives in fiction, it's probably the most well-rounded I've read, so much so that most of the other young adult books that are in this period often feel to me like imitations of Book Thief. I definitely had that reaction with Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, and Iturbe's Librarian strikes a similar chord, but still manages to have its own unique voice besides. So going into this, I fully admit that my biases play a big factor in my enjoyment of these types of books. And that's okay; objectivism is pretty far gone at this point in criticism I think, and we all read more of what we already like, so whatever. I didn't exactly love this book, but it wasn't a sluggish, purposefully-thickly-worded tomb like Light We Cannot See was for me. This sits squarely in the middle of the pack (a very small pack, I admit) of books I've read about the Holocaust. Before I go any further, though, here's the Goodreads  summary:
Based on the experience of real-life Auschwitz prisoner Dita Kraus, this is the incredible story of a girl who risked her life to keep the magic of books alive during the Holocaust. Fourteen-year-old Dita is one of the many imprisoned by the Nazis at Auschwitz. Taken, along with her mother and father, from the TerezĂ­n ghetto in Prague, Dita is adjusting to the constant terror that is life in the camp. When Jewish leader Freddy Hirsch asks Dita to take charge of the eight precious volumes the prisoners have managed to sneak past the guards, she agrees. And so Dita becomes the librarian of Auschwitz.  Out of one of the darkest chapters of human history comes this extraordinary story of courage and hope.
 Right from the premise, this feels very Book Thief to me. Having it be based on a true story with real people also was a factor that didn't sit well with me. Why not just write a biography of this woman's experiences, or why don't I just read her own work on the subject? For a book like this to work, it has to craft its own enticing story or theme around those existing details. I believe Wiesel did this with his Night trilogy really well, as does Toni Morrison in her books that skirt so close to nonfiction sometimes but always remain firm in what story they're trying to tell. Finally, what caught me off guard was that this was a translation from another language into English. I'm all for translations, but I do worry that some of the nuances and the beauty will be lost for a lot of these types of books, and that's definitely the case here.

Librarian is kind of a non-impactful book for me, which I say with a fair bit of sadness because clearly a book dealing with what this one deals with should be (and for many probably is) heartbreaking and also a showcase of human resilience in the face of genocide. But the writing here, or at least the translation, just felt so color-starved to me. There are platitudes thrown around, statistics shouted out, facts laid bare with regard to what the concentration camp is like and so forth, but none of it is given a whole lot of time to breathe. The writing style felt too elementary for the subject matter it was tackling, and that really impacted how much i got invested in the drama of this. The main character Dita doesn't have a whole lot of depth, and I'll be damned if she doesn't get more than half the page count in the book devoted to her, and even less devoted to her occupation as the camp librarian. So little time was spent on what the premise of the book promised that I kept being surprised by how long the page count was. There's not a whole lot in here pertaining to Dita and her relationship to books, books' power of knowledge and how that can be used as a weapon against oppression, what the threat of ideas and thoughts do to people bent on power and control, nothing like that. Sure, characters talk at one another about these things, but the work itself never exemplifies these themes in a narrative way; we never have Dita, empowered through the books she reads stand up to Mengele or even one of the other Nazi guards. Dita's journey through the book is so passive and lifeless. There's definitely a way to make a teenager's journey of guarding over and protecting books work and have her take charge in her own story; this wasn't it.

The rest of the work shifts rather haphazardly to different characters'' POVs, sometimes for only a single paragraph. It does give more weight to the setting and time period, as with these other voices inserted into this you really get a fuller view of how fucked up this entire operation was. The antagonist of the book is Josef Mengele. A bold choice for an antagonist, and one I was not at all prepared for when I began reading this. Seriously. if you want to sleep at night, don't google this guy. He's one of those people you read about and just pray he was insane, because thinking otherwise given what he did is just so frightening and sick. This is a guy whose own research assistant burned his research findings and journals sent to him because they weren't at all scientific and just pure sadism. And again, that research assistant was also a Nazi. In this book, Mengele does have presence and an ominous fear to him; it helps he's not around for a lot of it, making his scenes all the more chilling.

By far the strongest aspect of this was the pace. This is one of the most fast-paced books over 400 pages that I've read in a good long while. I've been on a coincidental big-book reading spree of late, and this one did go by the fastest. Not sure if that detracted from or benefitted the book as its brisk pace meant less time for it all to settle and impact me. But this book did move, and that was good to see. I also really was moved by the ending, one of the few points in the work that I think got the historical truth almost exactly right. When the camps are liberated by the Allies, the prisoners don't greet the British troops with applause; these people are furious that it took them this long to find and liberate them, and Dita herself is shell-shocked and so grief-stricken; she has no home, no family left, nothing to go back to. It's a somber moment, and her being taken in by her best friend and her family was made so palpable and moving because of it. Definitely a strong ending to a fairly mediocre book.

The Librarian of Auschwitz is fine. I wasn't moved by it as much as I wanted to be, and the characters weren't so much on journeys as they were in holding patterns throughout the story. I've seen this done better in other works of this type, and really I think it would've been more interesting to just read about the real people who were in the camp. The postscript where the author talks about going to Auschwitz and going on the guided tour, emailing Dita Kraus and conducting interviews with her and others, that's so much more engaging to me than the actual book that came out of it. Still, for what this was, a YA book about the Holocaust, I think it did fine with what it had. It just wasn't for me.