September 21st, 2016
“All men are created equal, unless we decide you are not a man.”
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead fits squarely into a categorization I would refer to as “novels of pain” — a subheading I would also attribute to books such as A Little Life and Beloved.
I will begin by acknowledging that this is the first novel I’ve read by Whitehead and, therefore, I can offer no significant comparison to his larger body of work.
The story opens with Cora, a slave on the Randall plantation, and her dramatic tale of escape. She meets Caesar, another slave who grew up under different circumstances in Virginia, and he is the impetus for her decision. Whitehead successfully crafts a story that is both plot and character-driven, delving into Cora’s generational past and examining her multi-tiered motivation for escape. The dangers they encounter along the way kept the plot fluid and mobile.
There are multiple POVs and that, at first, was offputting to me. I wanted to stick with Cora’s story. When the narrative made a jerky and sudden transition to Ridgeway’s POV, I put the book down for a couple of days. When I picked it back up, and discerned the true purpose of Whitehead’s introduction of the character, I was utterly engrossed. His quick transitions took a bit of getting used to as I continued, but they didn’t take me away from the overall story.
Whitehead offers some interesting divergences from a more traditional slave narrative in that he includes the POV of both a slave catcher and a grave robber. Additionally, he intersperses a bit of magical realism by realizing the Underground Railroad as an actual railroad, complete with unique trains, the decor in each station ranging from elaborate to pitiful, and including at every stop a host of interesting characters acting as station agents along the way. (Here, I can see why people were so quick to liken it to Gulliver’s Travels.)
I cried, predictably and unexpectedly, over moments so brief they didn’t even last a paragraph. That is how the writing struck me — lashing out when I had just calmed myself. It utterly destroyed me when one of the older escaped slaves is trying to learn to read in the South Carolina schoolhouse and Cora and the children get frustrated with him, he begins to cry, then he hastily wipes his eyes. Cora even recounts the moment later when she realizes the extent of her own ignorance in the Valentine schoolhouse.
The turns of phrase in this book are excellent as Whitehead examines, and re-examines, the violent history of slavery America — holding a microscope so closely to our collective consciousness, that you may have to take a moment to look away, to collect yourself, and then continue. But you must continue, because this book is important.
Overall Rating: 5/5
Recommended For: purveyors of pseudo-realistic American history, people who can stomach atrocities, those who know we can’t look away from our past.
April 14th, 2016
I am a committed and monogamous book reader. I pick up one book at a time and devote myself fully to it.
In the past, I have trudged through every book I picked up, determined to reach the conclusion because it simply HAS to be worth the time I put in. Right?
Well, as it turns out, that is not always the case. So, I have started putting them down. Although I remain committed to only one story, my DNF pile is growing. Admittedly, it is comprised mostly of YA that has failed to hold my attention — but still, there exist books compelling enough to propel me toward an ending without producing any profound feelings or considerations on my behalf (beyond, perhaps, boredom or vague annoyance).
Thus, I have compiled a brief list of lukewarm books that I’ve still read to completion, so far this year, complete with (very brief) summaries / ratings of each.
||The Ramblers by Aidan Donnelly Rowley
Summary: Privileged white girls in New York have some serious first world problems, mostly involving relationships. They need things like life coaches and green juice to supplement their shared penthouse and Ivy League educations. Both of them have jobs they happen to love. One of the boys they like is a photographer who is trying to find his way after inventing an app that transposes poetry quotes over Instagram images, the other is a rich, older hotel entrepreneur who’s finally ready to settle down. There’s a fleeting connection to birds. I was not impressed.
Rating: 2/5 — plus one star because the cover is really pretty
||Hunger Makes me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein
Summary: Carrie Brownstein’s (Sleater-Kinney guitarist / Portlandia creator) memoir. This memoir was very much of a place and time that I narrowly missed due to the year of my birth. I liked the writing, but I did not connect to the subject matter (more music history / personal musical journey, less Portlandia).
Rating: 3/5 — I wanted to like it more.
||The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin
Summary: Very Star-Trek-esque in that a human arrives on another planet in an attempt to gain the trust of the alien lifeforms and wants them to join a federation of planets. The alien planet is really cold — both the environment and the hospitality. The aliens can choose and change their gender, an obvious social commentary. Le Guin’s writing style did not particularly endear her world to me. Some of the details were confusing and the passage of time moved (arguably) too quickly.
Rating: 3/5 — Because I love exploratory sci-fi and I would probably read something else by her.
April 8th, 2016
I’d heard about Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton on Book Riot’s podcast; then, my local bookstore had the (strikingly beautiful!) cover art on prominent display.
And yet, I knew nothing of Margaret Cavendish when I picked up this book. Nor did I have any expectations regarding Dutton’s writing style or really the genre of the book itself.
The novel is a merging of literary and historical fiction that unravels the tale of 17th-century Duchess, Margaret Cavendish. She was a feminist before the word possessed any meaning. She was the first (and only, I believe) woman to be invited to the Royal Society of London. She dressed with ostentation that outshone anyone else of the time — 8 foot trains, topless ballgowns, small patches on her face shaped like moons and stars. She was whimsical and thoughtful and learned, despite never attending a university. She published eccentric novels and plays — works of philosophy, penning the first science fiction / fantasy novel written by a woman and a score of feminist plays. She wrote in a time when women did not have careers.
Dutton provides us with a portrait of Margaret’s rise — from shy child to bold . Of course, Margaret is both insulated and constrained by her rank. She forms connections that would elude any layperson, yet she must abide by the strict customs of her class — lest gossip destroy her. And it almost does, several times.
Dutton also illuminates the Duke and Duchess’ flaws. They are real people who fought and disagreed, but who also never halted in their support of one another — even with Margaret couldn’t get pregnant, even when her husband is exiled during Cromwell’s Puritan regime. Their devotion and kindness to each other seems to transcend their time period — it was an unconventional, much like everything Margaret did.
Dutton’s novel, though short, was an all-engrossing read. The language is vivid and poetic. The pacing, perfection. Her short, staccato paragraphs left me more satisfied than any long-winded description. There is none of the tedium sometimes associated with historical fiction, but a sense of place is still sufficiently maintained throughout.
The beginning of the book provides us with insight into how Margaret views herself — “Queen of the Tree-People.” Then, a shift occurs, she becomes an object of speculation, a celebrity of sorts, and we begin to observe how she is viewed from the outside.
She climbs the wooden staircase, takes her place in the box. And like ripples in a summer pond, lines of faces slowly turn—from the gallery, the pit—she watches the ripple spread.
The Duchess of Newcastle becomes a tabloid celebrity, when such a thing was still being invented, and it seems to have been invented entirely for her.
The question that gnawed at me from beginning to end was Margaret’s pseudo-obsession with fame. I suppose I never really considered fame as an important construct in 17-century England, but of course it was. So, was she a modern woman, a feminist fighting to champion her sex — or was she simply attempting to garner a reputation that would outlive her?
Margaret the First is intimate and glorious and tantalizing and I want to read and re-read it several times over. I also think I may have to embark on further investigation of Margaret Cavendish.
Overall Rating: 4/5
Recommended For: anyone who has struggled with finding their place in the world, lovers of poetic prose and literary fiction
March 21st, 2016
I haven’t gotten outside as much as I’d like to since moving back to San Francisco. California offers a host of hiking and backpacking options, but I’ve remained primarily indoors over the last couple of months. Partly, this is due to finances and the weather, but also, I was scared. I hadn’t climbed so much as a steep hill in months. I was afraid to challenge myself and fail at it.
I admit that, when it comes to the outdoors, I am more Henry David Thoreau than Sir Edmund Hilary. I am not competitive or fast, I am an ambler, a wanderer who aims to meander through nature, experience it wholly, then attempt to recapture it in words. I want to write the whole world into a notebook I can re-read and experience every thistle, pine cone, ocean wave and grain of sand over and over again. But, in order to accomplish this, there must first be the challenge.
I signed up for a Trail Mavens trip on Angel Island. I have been on Trail Mavens trips previously (this was actually my fourth), so there was a level of perceived comfort that cushioned the fear of the unknown. I had also never been to Angel Island, but it was on my Bay Area Bucket List, and I knew we’d have to backpack in — so I was excited at the chance to utilize my (highly underutilized, of late) backpacking gear.
We went through the proper packing protocol, distributed group gear, then left on the ferry from Tiburon to Angel Island. Upon arrival, we hiked approximately 2 miles in to the campsite — a fairly developed site that provided us with privacy, potable water and trash cans. We had a fabulous view of the entire East Bay and the Bay Bridge. Sail boats dotted the water, dipping and swerving with determination as they faced the aggressive ocean breezes. They tipped so far over, almost touching the water’s edge, but never sinking. Perhaps, in my next life, I could be a sail boat.
We also almost immediately spotted a hummingbird. I love hummingbirds and see them so rarely in California, in stark contrast to Texas, and even Mexico, where they continually dot the sky — I perceive them as a definite sign of good luck.
During the day, we hiked to the summit of Mt. Livermore (with day packs, no heavy gear) and watched the fog roll in to entirely obscure our vision, but not our ascent. We sat in silence and quiet meditation — together, each listening to the breeze and our own breath.
At night, we cooked a Mexican-themed backpacker bowl (rehydrated beans, rice, avocado, bell pepper and cheese) on two camp stoves. Sidenote: I love Trail Mavens’ commitment to excellent backpacking meals and the prioritization of always bringing booze.
Since Angel Island prohibits campfires and burning, we participated in a vigorous session of jumping jacks before stripping down to one layer and zipping ourselves in for the night. I made it through six pages of White for Witching before my eyes began to close on their own. I always enjoy sleeping outside, with the notable exception of increased urination due to staying properly hydrated.
The second day brought intermittent rain, sideways swiping our faces as we hiked away from camp. But, I really enjoyed exploring the abandoned (see also: potentially haunted) buildings. The juxtaposition of backpack-toting women set against the backdrop of a distant city and the more proximal addition of both wild flora and deserted buildings gave me a very dystopian vibe — shades of Station Eleven.
We rode the ferry and walked back through Tiburon in the same sideswiping rain. Suffice to say, I was very glad to change into warm, dry sweatpants and go to bed early. However, this experience provided me with a bit of a reset, a reminder of where I want my priorities to be, and encouragement to seek out my own adventures.
March 2nd, 2016
Inongo vi Makomè’s Natives (translated by Michael Ugarte) is a book I picked up because of the cover, and kept because of the description. I am reading a lot of literature in translation lately, and Natives happens to fit into that niche obsession. It’s also one of the few African novels to be translated from Spanish to English. So interesting! The added beauty of reading books and authors that haven’t been widely translated into English is a wide-eyed sense of discovery. And, while I’m not sure how this novel received as little publicity as it did, I’m glad I got to read it as a blank slate.
Natives is a startling novel that deals with racial stereotypes, the idea of charity, classism, colonialism, immigration and sex. In its most basic form, Natives is a novel about two middle-aged, under-sexed women, who are successful in their careers, but not the bedroom. Montse suggests to her friend, Roser, that they seek out an African immigrant to pleasure them. Although Roser resists, Montse (who is also the more financially and socially successful of the two) is insistent and picks up a homeless man from Mali, living on the streets without papers, named Bambara Keita. The women convince him to become their personal prostitute, exchanging his “services” for money and essentially pimping him out for their own pleasure.
Although the back of the novel describes it as a “satire,” I found it hard to read it as anything other than alarming realism. Satire is often funny because the scenarios are unlikely to ever truly take place – in Natives the story is too viable, too real. Rich women taking a virile African lover because they have money and he doesn’t, because they have power that he doesn’t, because he is already dehumanized and they can prey upon him, because the rich and powerful always have control over those who have nothing.
The very explicit sexual scenes, paired with a smattering of sexual stereotypes, dip into the satirical and then swiftly back out when the descriptive and messy reality of sexual encounters between the three lovers are revealed.
Sex work is not illegal in Barcelona and Montse insists several times to the reluctant Roser that what they are doing is not necessarily illegal, but there is definitely an implication of it being wrong. They treat Bambara Keita as someone beneath them, making him use the servant elevator, forcing him to walk behind them, not speaking to him in public. He takes this treatment as part of the deal, he can afford food and his own apartment now, but it does not justify the women’s actions toward him. The women, in turn, justify their treatment of Bambara Keita as charity.
Montse asserts: “But you know very well we live in a culture where charity is everywhere. We invented it and put it into practice the moment we took over the world.”
And Bambara Keita, wisely, observes in turn: “‘I come look for life. Africa now not good place for make life. No work for young people, lots of poor.’ … He knew that in the culture of charity that prevailed in the West, the needy had to use those kinds of words to achieve their ends.”
So, we begin to wonder, who is truly in control of this exchange?
Racism and stereotypes come up throughout the novel, but one of the instances that stood out to me was when the women ask Bambara Keita to get an STD test due to their concerns he may have AIDS. He agrees, but then asks the same of them citing his own worry for his health. Roser is outright offended that he would dare to ask a thing of her.
Makomè comments, “We seldom accept that we might do exactly what we accuse others of doing.”
The women encourage Bambara Keita to get aggressive with them, then they coddle him with motherly affection (bordering on racism) and buy him things. They don’t hurt him or force him to stay, but without them he has no papers, he has no freedom, he has no other options aside from the street or returning home to Mali in shame. He has become enslaved without the manacles.
Since Natives was translated, I was on high alert for any narrative inconsistencies. I did find a few editorial errors (misspellings, repeated words, punctuation missteps), unintentionally, but the tone of the story was very direct, as were the characters — so I found the narration to be mostly correlative. The prose itself has a special kind of beauty (which I attribute to both the author and the translator) and overall is a work I think needs to be more widely read.
Overall Rating: 4/5
Recommended For: I’d have to REALLY know a person before I recommended this book
February 22nd, 2016
Sometimes you read a book and realize that, perhaps, it’s the greatest novel you’ve ever read – or, perhaps, it’s an indictment of every novel you’ve ever read – or, perhaps, it’s not a novel at all.
“The only real things in a novel are the sequences of letters, words, and sentences that make it up, and the paper on which they’re printed.”
Álvaro Enrigue has penned a magnificent scrapbook of history and, at its core, we are forced to examine the evolution of language, nomenclature and the unstoppable force of history. We must question: what could have been, and then apply the answer to our consideration of what will come. The interconnectivity of seemingly disparate parts create the whole.
Enrigue inserts himself into the narrative to remind us this book is not about tennis, or Caravaggio, or Cortes. He writes in vignettes, in epistles, in screenplay, with biting insight, quite a lot of sex and complementary humor. To a historical purist, this novel may provide more questions than answers. However, it is the overwhelming lack of purity that thrusts this novel into the unknown and pushes the boundaries of what we conceive of when we think “novel.” We cannot know what the novel will evolve into, but Enrigue might.
I found myself immensely engaged in this book. I was constantly consulting Google to look up pictures of Lake Pátzcuaro and featherworking and what exactly an “arse-fanner” is and if there were Renaissance tattooists and who exactly was Malinche (known also as Malinalli, Malintzin or Doña Marina) – my Internet history is a patchwork of random thoughts jutting out from the novel itself, my own addition to the timeline. As Enrigue himself said, progress is not linear, but neither is it circular. We are more a line with other lines coming off of it. I comprehend that concept more fully now.
This book requires a re-read, mostly likely, before I can fully process or comprehend its importance. As with many Spanish-speaking authors, Enrigue has toyed with the traditional, teasing it out with humor and a lack of true realism, to make something wholly original. I think this book specifically appeals to readers who want to try something different – it’s definitely not for everyone.
Overall Rating: 5/5
Recommended For: I’m not entirely sure.
February 9th, 2016
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki was, in a word, unexpected.
I picked it up because a remaindered copy was on sale at my local bookstore and I liked the cover art, plus I had a vague understanding that it was about Japan.
The story itself involves the lives of two different characters and takes place in two different times: Ruth, a novelist (who is both the novelist of this story, and not) living in Whaletown, Canada and Nao (pronounced: now) a bullied teenager who lives in Tokyo, Japan. The diary and Ruth’s reality exist about a decade apart.
Ruth, living in a secluded part of Canada, finds Nao’s diary, along with some other letters and a watch, washed up in a plastic bag on the beach. Immediately, Ruth begins to piece together the elements within the bag, weaving a living tapestry of a Japanese teen, despite Nao’s story being told an ocean away, and in the past tense — something Ruth (and the reader) often forget. Nao’s story is so personal, witty and intimate that I found it impossible to not like her. Ruth’s story is more reserved, withdrawn, as she delves deeper into the mystery of the teen’s timeline.
“A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”
In what appeared to be an epistolary novel, interspersed with present time commentary, A Tale for the Time Being is actually realistic fiction with some magical realism elements and lots of philosophy. There are also postmodern, metafictional elements (which I wasn’t expecting at all), such as footnotes, appendices and the novelist herself who is trying to write a memoir and is, but also isn’t, writing the story we are currently reading. There’s intellectual discourse on ocean flows, gyres, indigenous / nonindigenous species, Zen Buddhism and a smattering of quantum physics toward the end (which I admittedly skimmed).
If you have patience, it’s all immensely interesting.
Patience is essential for a book whose most persistent theme is time and appreciating the here and now (Nao, get it?). The symbolism for time is heavy without feeling oppressive. First, Nao’s diary is bound in the hardcover of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu or In Search of Lost Time, there is also the blunt discussion of suicide (wasting the now), Altzheimer’s (losing one’s memory and therefore sense of time), the constant resurgence of both crows and cats (animals with attachments to archetypal mysticism and the crossing of planes — just a personal note: I think there’s only one cat in the story) and, finally, a kamikaze’s (sky soldier) watch which needs constant tending, winding, much like one’s own life.
“Life is fleeting. Don’t waste a single moment of your precious life. Wake up now! And now! And now!”
In the end, the lives of the women overlap, blur together, as Ozeki toys with our understanding of time, letting past and present wrap together in a slowly revolving gyre that skirts both reality and illusion.
Overall Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended For: Man Booker followers, anyone wanting to wake up
February 1st, 2016
I read Harry Potter as an adult. I read it while I was living in South Korea and, somehow, my days were longer, stretched thin like gossamer, and words poured more easily into me. I read a lot that year, but Harry Potter lingered in a way that the others did not.
I didn’t read the books as they came out. I was determinedly reading whatever could attain the most AR points, pointedly ignoring anything that was on a reading level beneath my own.
I lived almost entirely in my own head, but constantly strove to learn new words and achieve, achieve, achieve. As a child who believed she could find Narnia in the back of her father’s wardrobe, I can now say, that skipping Harry Potter was a mistake.
But, I made up for it eventually. And with rather interesting results.
What new can be said about Harry Potter? Probably nothing. But I would like to outline my own take on the novels just for posterity’s sake.
The Philosopher’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets: Less than extraordinary, to me. Perhaps because I found the youthful Harry unrelateable. Perhaps it’s because I have been a teacher and having a student like Harry, who is so often deliberately getting himself into trouble, would inspire Snape-like feelings in me. I found myself identifying far more with the Hogwarts educators than the wayward youngsters.
The Prisoner of Azkaban: Shit starts to get real, siriusly.
The Goblet of Fire: I watched the movie directly after finishing this one. It’s still one of my favorites (movie and book) because of the Yule Ball, the other wizarding academies and Harry’s unintended entry into the competition forcing him to really accept his role as “hero.”
The Order of the Pheonix: The one with all the angst. I really disliked Harry in this book, he behaves rather selfishly throughout and I found myself enjoying the subplots more than what was happening with him.
The Half-Blood Prince: It’s been a while since a book made me ugly cry like that. It actually gives me goosebumps just reliving the ending.
The Deathly Hallows: Easily the most well written story in the series, and just dark enough. I did, however, feel as though the ending was a bit rushed after weeks and weeks of Horcrux hunting. Or maybe I just didn’t want it to end — that’s probably more accurate.
The books mature in a way that few stories can accomplish — something that, I think, truly showcases JK Rowling’s masterful storytelling. In all the ways that the first book felt young, the final book felt almost shockingly adult.
These books provided me with a wholly developed magical world that I could happily imagine myself into as easily as Narnia or Middle Earth. Perhaps more so, as the journey begins in London, somewhere more realistically accessible than The Shire.
The saga of Harry Potter wove itself into my being; the adventure of an epic hero on par with Bilbo Baggins and Luke Skywalker. I identified as a Ravenclaw. I wanted to be a Muggle Studies professor. And then, I visited Harry Potter World this past summer and was offered the unique chance to live out scenes from my imagination. I bought a wand, I cast spells, I drank butterbeer, I got motion sick on a broom (no Quidditch for me).
Then, Alan Rickman died. I watched via the Internet as someone left a lily at the Potions door and others raised their wands together in silent tribute. It seems silly, but Snape was one of my favorite characters and it struck me that his role would never be reprised by one of my favorite actors. We mourned him in real life as we mourned Dumbledore in the novels.
Then, I got a Snape tribute tattoo. I’d been thinking about it for a while — how to permanently showcase the effect these books had on my life, my imagination, and how they saved me from mentally breaking down at several points in my adult life. I got it because it’s real for us. I got it because tattoos fill me with endorphins. I got it because I’m a huge geek and I want to start conversations with fellow geeks.
Now the transformation is both whole and complete.
January 18th, 2016
Sometimes when I finish reading a book, I am hesitant to begin another one immediately because I feel like I am cheating on the former. It’s silly, but I am a very monogamous book reader.
Carry On by Rainbow Rowell was one of those books.
I didn’t want it to end and immediately wanted to discuss it, with ANYone, but I was banished to a cone of silence because no one else I know has read it. Instead, I trolled Goodreads reviews and re-read my favorite parts over the next day or so. I rarely re-read parts of books — but I was curious to re-examine my own emotional attachments to the characters and Rowell’s development of her magical world.
I also wanted to determine why I wanted to re-read it forever. I’m still not 100% sure.
I don’t read a lot of YA — this is beneficial in that it helps me avoid the inherent hype of a new novel, but I rarely have anyone to discuss YA with, which is another reason I avoid it. I read Fangirl by Rowell last year and, much to my surprise, I greatly enjoyed it. I’d read Rowell’s other books and had experienced very little prolonged interest in the characters, but I latched onto Cath in Fangirl because she so closely exemplified myself at that age.
So, Carry On was a book based in part on Cath’s fanfiction which was based on a fictional Harry Potter-like story she was obsessed with in Fangirl. To clarify, this is a book, based on a fanfiction of a fictional book, inside of another fictional novel written by Rowell in our plane of existence (super meta).
The thing is, when I was reading Fangirl, I, like many readers, didn’t really care about Simon and Baz. Cath’s obsession with building on a quirky, magical world, to me, only served as a plot device to further her relationship with Levi and develop her character. Carry On has little to no connection to Cath’s story, and instead reads as the original story she was perhaps basing her own fanfiction on.
The book doesn’t take itself too seriously, and I followed suit. Simon, the “Chosen One,” goes to a magical school and has a vampire roommate, Baz, who’s naturally perceived as “evil” and Simon’s obvious nemesis — they also have complicated feelings toward one another. Penelope is Simon’s quirky, smart, and driven bff, Agatha is his friend / sort-of girlfriend. The book boils down to the fantasy side-story of the politics and goings-ons in the World of Mages and the more character driven story-line of Simon, Baz, Agatha and Penelope (plus, the gay wizard romance — let’s admit, the main draw of Rowell’s novel is her adorable romantic plots, and this one is no exception).
Overall, I liked all the characters and thought they were quite well-rounded. They made me giggle and, as much as I hate to admit it, I got REALLY wrapped up in shipping Simon / Baz. As a reader, I could have used more scenes of tension and perhaps a bit more introspection on behalf of Simon. Baz knew what he wanted.
One thing I think Rowell did very well was developing her world in one novel. She referenced things that had happened to the characters in previous years and built on that without having actually written a prequel / sequel. Also, despite disliking Agatha’s character, I did like the ending Rowell created for her. I also appreciated the character diversity Rowell strove for.
One thing I will acknowledge is that Carry On might not have been as successful without Harry Potter blazing the initial trail. As a culture, we have already accepted the existence of a magical wizard college that “Normals” can’t see. We have accepted the inherent controversy that comes with seeking power within said magical world. Perhaps, without this implied acceptance, Carry On would not have tugged at my heartstrings the way it did.
That said, this is not the Harry Potter series. It is it’s own story. And, while the first third of the novel is a little slower than the rest (I didn’t find it unenjoyable, it’s just slower, more character-building) — the last third of the novel is just…. yeah. And, with the overwhelming amount of novels that provide us with unhappy endings, sometimes my favorite novels are ones where the characters are put through the ringer and left still standing at the end. Better for it all.
This book is adorable. Read it immediately. Then tell me, so we can talk about it.
Overall Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended For: Fellow geeks, anyone willing to get lost in a magical world, Harry Potter / Rainbow Rowell fans
January 13th, 2016
I first saw The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli featured prominently at a local bookstore. Then, a friend described it to me as their “favorite book of 2015.” Naturally, I had to check it out.
However, days later, I still feel about The Story of My Teeth the way I do when I wander out of some ultra modern art exhibit made of gum, a dirty urinal, and an excess of stranger’s clipped fingernails. I walk outside, blink the light from my eyes, and think, “What the eff did I just witness?”
The book starts strong with a narrator named Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, or Highway, who first works as a guard at the local Jumex factory, then becomes a late in life auctioneer. I loved Highway’s voice, his hyperbolic spin on the world around him (thus making him a successful auctioneer, a seller of stories) and his endless procession of advice bearing “uncles.”
My uncle, Solon Sánchez Fuentes, a salesman dealing in quality Italian ties, used to say that beauty, power, and early success fade away, and they’re a heavy burden for those who possess them, because the prospect of their loss is a threat few can endure.
The novel, lacking a substantive plot, instead remixes storytelling into something new where Luiselli layers story upon story upon story until we are witnessing the evolution of some sort of postmodern meta-story.
Halfway through the book, the narrative takes a very surreal turn with some horrifying talking clowns in an actual art exhibit much like the one I described above. Highway finds himself having an existential conversation with his estranged son via an animated clown art installation (yes, this is where the book lost my interest a little). The extreme dip into surrealism, followed by the epilogue that essentially punctures the dream Luiselli has spent the entire novel concocting, left me slightly unsatisfied. There is also much name dropping (Dostoyevsky, Woolf, etc.) and much that I feel my ex-MFA compatriots would have drooled over.
My interest was piqued once more at the end when Luiselli explains the process she took in writing The Story of My Teeth. Luiselli wrote the novel in chapbook installments that she sent to Mexico City, where the actual Jumex workers read them, provided feedback via recordings and, in turn, helped shape the course of her novel. Jumex really does sponsor the art gallery that features so prominently in the book. Luiselli even provides photographic proof of the clowns (which I could have done without, so frightening). With this revelation, her novel again finds entirely new ground in collaborative story-telling.
I understand the importance of this novel as a work to be studied, but it was work to read. Enjoyable work, but definitely not a “light” read. Such is the risk in reading experimental fiction, I suppose.
End of review.
Recommended for: fans of postmodern literary fiction and anyone interested in the Mexican literary scene (her sense of place in Mexico City is wonderful)