My mother was so good, she was too good. Some people would say that kind of goodness needed to be locked up. She was a cup of sugar. But sweetness is always looking for Mr. Bad and Mr. Bad can pick out Miss Sweet in any crowd-- just like magnets. Mr. Bad was the refrigerator and Miss Sweet was the 'Florida Loves Oranges' magnet sticking to the door.
Hello from Salt Lake City. I've been here for a conference the past few days, but have fit in some reading and running. I'm trying to make my way through at least most of the 2018 longlist for the National Book Award. I finally got a kindle version of Jennifer Clement's most recent novel, Gun Love. This book is entirely well deserving of the longlist honor. To be honest, I have a feeling Gun Love will end up as a 2018 finalist (the topic is just so timely). The book is a devastating story of childhood in the midst of America's gun violence epidemic. Pearl, a young girl with a single mom, lives in a trailer park riddled by gun violence. She survives off a steady diet of powdered milk and cigarettes. Pearl's neighbors collect guns in one of the empty trailers where she does her math homework (they sell these firearms in Mexico for a profit). Before reading Gun Love, I knew very little about firearm trafficking (aka gunrunning). Between the years of 2009 and 2014, more than 70% of confiscated guns in Mexico came from the United States. Clement tells the story of firearm trafficking from the perspective of a child, which is obviously heartbreaking. Gun Love is a beautiful novel, written in poetic prose. Some goodreads users seem to think the language is "pretentious." I think it's just beautiful. Well done, Jennifer Clement. I'll be rooting for you when finalists are announced next month.
I did a google search for the term "crawdad." Turns out it's just another word for crawfish/crayfish. These "mini lobsters," also known as mudbugs or yabbies in the US, are known to Germans as "Sumpfkrebs" (swamp crab). I've never had crawfish, but research suggests you can include them in lots of runner-friendly dishes, such as risotto, pasta, and cornbread. In Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens tells the story of Kya Clark, known to her small North Carolina community as "Marsh Girl."
Where the Crawdads Sing currently has a rating of 4.56 on goodreads (which, with over 4,000 ratings, is as good as it gets for contemporary fiction). Did the book live up to its wildly high ratings? Well, it reminded me of Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See. When a new book reminds me of a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, that's usually a good thing...except for the fact that I didn't love All the Light We Cannot See (don't hate me?). Both novels are lyrical AF and go on for entire pages describing shiny shells, smooth sand, fragile marsh grass, and nibbling crustaceans. Yikes, I wish I cared more. Remember the repetitive symbolism with whelks and mollusks in All the Light? Yeah-- same stuff here. The main character literally communicates with gulls for paragraphs on end. You can skip entire pages and still not miss important plot/ character developments. I understand that some people enjoy this type of novel.
Where the Crawdads Sing is part coming of age story, part murder mystery, and part nature field guide. There's even some poetry in here. For me, the novel glows brightest in its descriptions of the interplay between Kya's scientific studies and sexual awakening. There are some hilarious passages describing Kya's (almost obsessive) interest in the mating habits of insects.
Was this book "beautifully written?" Yes. Was it one of my favorite books of the year? Far from it. But don't trust me too much. As we know, I gave All the Light 3/5 stars and it won the Pulitzer.
I bought this book at my new favorite book store, Books are Magic, in Brooklyn. My love for Magers and Quinn in Minneapolis has not faded, nor has my adoration for Content Bookstore in Northfield...but I'm beyond impressed with every aspect of Books are Magic. The indie selection is so smart/ interesting and the store hosts an event EVERY SINGLE NIGHT OF THE WEEK. If I didn't live in Minneapolis (I love Minneapolis--not leaving yet), I would live as close as possible to Books are Magic so that I could get lost in there when I feel vaguely anxious about the rest of my life.
My love for the store has grown since last week because the book I bought is SO GOOD. I don't know how to describe Putney and still make people want to read it-- the premise of the novel is disturbing, to say the least. An eleven year old girl, Daphne, falls in love with a famous, thirty year old man. This creepy dude grooms her for several years and then rapes her when she is thirteen. I'm aware this probably doesn't sound like a book anyone would want to read, but trust me when I say that Zinovieff's writing is genius. The story is told from three points of view (perpetrator, victim, and witness) and every aspect of the plot is finely tuned to our current political moment (#metoo). Ultimately, this is a story about a child's love for the man who abuses her.
If you need a little more encouragement to pick up Putney: Sofka Zinovieff is just a really cool lady. She splits her time between London and Athens and has a PhD in sociology. Zinovieff has two young daughters and I could tell that they were, at least in part, an inspiration for this novel. Please read this book and let me know what you think. And, if you haven't, visit Books are Magic.
The fiction longlist for the National Book Award was announced Friday. There are ten great books on the list (Tayari Jones' American Marriage, Lauren Groff's Florida...just to name a few). Rounding out the list is a collection of short stories that I recently borrowed from Carleton's library: Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires. I read the collection in a day-- it's quick and super smart. Most of the stories focus on the trauma of being the only black person in a particular space (school, yoga class, etc). Primarily, Thompson-Spires focuses on the experiences of black children and young adults at PWIs.
Heads of the Colored People is named after a collection of nineteenth century literary sketches by James McCune Smith (they were published in Frederick Douglas' newspaper, The North Star). These sketches focus on different aspects of the black working class in nineteenth century New York. Thompson Spires' short story collection describes a diverse set of black Americans in college, high school, church, and yoga classes. Most of these characters do not experience overt racism, but are exposed to daily microaggressions in predominantly white spaces. We meet a black English professor at a small liberal arts college, a black child with hyperhidrosis (excessive sweating), and the families of the only two black children at a private school. While Thompson Spires primarily focuses on how people of color experience race based discrimination in predominantly white spaces, she also reflects upon the sometimes strained relationships between the few black individuals in these spaces. In "The Body's Defenses Against Itself," Thompson Spires describes the competitive (and sometimes cruel) relationship between the only two black students in a 6th grade class.
This is a GREAT short story collection. I highly recommend. Finalists for the National Book Award will be announced October 10. I hope Thompson Spires is on that list.
Hello from New York. This is the best (and only) pretzel croissant I've ever had. I ate two this morning while reviewing Small Country. Unclear whether I will order a third.
Gael Faye was born in Burundi to a French father and a Rwandan mother. At age 13, he fled the small, war-torn country for France, where he has lived ever since. Small Country, published in France in 2016, was an immediate hit in Europe. This is Faye's first novel. He is also a very talented rapper. I've been listening to his stuff all afternoon (turns out I remember something from Carleton's French department). His most popular song shares the name of his book (Petit Pays).
Small Country is about how war steals childhood. Faye's main character, Gabriel, is a ten year old boy growing up in Burundi. Before violence breaks out, Gabriel lives a relatively peaceful childhood. He hangs out with friends at a neighborhood spot in Bujumbura and has a secret crush on his French pen-pal, Laure. When war bursts into Burundi from neighboring Rwanda, everything is broken, including Gabriel's innocence.
While I've read a fair number of books about Rwanda (special s/o to Clemantine Wamariya for The Girl Who Smiled Beads), I've yet to read anything about Burundi. This is a superb place to start. And listen to Faye's music too.
And I wonder what the sound of a heart breaking might be. And I think it might be quiet, unperceptively so, and not dramatic at all. Like the sound of an exhausted swallow falling gently to earth.
Last week Carleton's Class of 2022 arrived on campus (thrilling), I stumbled across a huge sunflower in Northfield (beautiful), and I finished Sarah Winman's newest novel, Tin Man (devastating). I've been thinking a lot about how to review/ rate this book. There is a noticeable discrepancy between (1) the objectively strong writing/ plot of Tin Man and (2) the extent to which I actually enjoyed reading it. I remember feeling this way about Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See: the writing felt objectively beautiful (if such a thing as objective beauty can exist), but I didn't quite enjoy reading it. Parts are almost too romantic, too heartbreaking, too deliberately crafted to break your heart and then put it back together. Like All the Light We Cannot See, Tin Man read like a very sad fairy tale for me. Perhaps it's just not my kind of novel. That said, it sure is a beautiful one. I can see why it's beloved by readers around the world.
Tin Man is a book about first love. Michael and Ellis are twelve year old boys when they meet and fall in love. As teenagers, they vacation in France for a week and daydream about a future together, living in "an old stone barn filled with junk and wine and paintings, surrounded by fields of wildflowers and bees." When Ellis falls in love with a woman years later, things get very sad and very complicated. Winman packs a lot into this short novel: she writes about physical abuse, the loss of a parent, emerging sexuality, and the AIDS epidemic. Tin Man is a quick read and absolute worth picking up. I look forward to seeing what Winman writes in the future.
In June 2009, twenty year old Edwin Rist performed in a concert at the London Royal Academy of Music. Later that night, he boarded a train to visit the British Museum of Natural History at Tring which holds one of the world's largest ornithological collections. Armed with a glass cutter and a large duffel bag, Rist broke into the museum and stole the skins of 299 tropical birds. By the time Rist was caught months later, more than half the skins had been sold (at exorbitant prices) to fly-tiers around the world. For those not familiar with the art of fly-tying (I had never heard of it), it is the process through which people craft artificial flies to catch fish. The world's best fly-tiers will go to extreme lengths to access rare, colorful feathers. The most beautiful flies sell for hundreds of dollars and are never used to catch fish.
As fly-tying continues to intrigue Americans, certain birds commonly used in fly tie patterns have become increasingly difficult to find. To this day, many patterns call for feathers of birds that are either endangered or extinct. It was this desire to access the world's most beautiful (and rare) feathers that drove Edwin Rist to break into the museum on that summer evening in 2009. The Feather Thief reads like a true crime novel. The first two sections move relatively quickly, but I found the last section pretty tough to get through. The book should be shorter than it is. That said-- fascinating topic. I learned a lot about pretty birds and the men (yes, mostly men) who are obsessed with pretty birds.