Toni Morrison: God Help the Child (2015)

I’m so annoyed with myself. I have three or four unread books by Toni Morrison on my piles but instead of reading those, I went and bought her latest, God Help the Child. That wouldn’t be a problem if this was a good book but it’s not. It’s so flawed, it could be a beginner’s novel. And the style? Well, when you pick a Toni Morrison novel, you expect it to be challenging. You don’t expect it to be bland mainstream, with descriptions like “the sky was baby-blue”. Honestly, what went wrong?

The book’s premise had so much promise. The blurb said it’s a book about the way parents damage their children and the repercussions this has later in their life, but somehow that’s not really what it is about. The book doesn’t really take this theme seriously. Maybe because it’s about so many other topics— race, skin color, trust, self-esteem, child abuse.

When the main character Bride is born, her mother rejects her immediately because of her black skin. Nobody in Bride’s family is this blue-black. In fact, they are so light, some of them did pass as white. Her mother, too, could, if she wanted, pass as white. Bride’s father is so shocked that he leaves her mother. He can’t imagine that two rather fair African-Americans could be the parents of such a black child. Of course, he suspects she was unfaithful.

Bride grows up as an outsider and only later, in her twenties, is she able to embrace her skin color and discover her beauty. She even learns how to underline it by wearing only white. At the age of twenty-two, she’s a successful executive at a cosmetic company, ready to launch her own beauty line. While she’s still fighting for her mother’s love, she’s also happy about her success and her beautiful lover, Booker, until the day she tells him something and he leaves her without an explanation.

The reader learns that Booker’s reaction has something to do with Bride’s idea of helping a woman who was convicted for child abuse.

I will stop here as the book basically is about why Bride does what she does and why this makes Booker flee. Both reasons are tied to the protagonists’ childhood.

For such a slim novel – under 180 pages – it has just too many themes. While some are really well done, especially all those linked to colorism, others didn’t get the depth they would have deserved. It isn’t fully explored what being rejected by her mother really meant for Bride. She does something cruel to gain her mother’s love and this affects her, but there doesn’t seem any real and deep damage. This struck me as odd.

What also struck me as odd was the number of child molesters we come across in this book. This too is such a serious problem, but it just didn’t get the careful treatment it would have deserved.

I’m really disappointed and wish I hadn’t bothered with this book. At the same time, I find colorism such an important topic, that I liked the book for that.

I’m glad this wasn’t my first Toni Morrison. It would have been my last. I’d rather read some bestseller than something that is written like a mainstream novel but saddled with heavy, carelessly treated themes. Don’t read this unless you’re a Toni Morrison fan and want to read everything she’s ever written. That said, I think she’s a terrific author and I’ll be reading more of her. Let’s just hope this was a one-off.

Have you read Toni Morrison? Which of her novels do you consider must-reads?

Literature and War Readalong September 30 2016: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Billy Lynn's Halftime Walk

Next up in the Literature and War Readalong 2016 is Ben Fountain’s novel on the war in Iraq Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Billy Lynn is Ben Fountain’s first novel. Before that he was mostly known as a short story writer. Many of his stories were published in prestigious magazines and received prizes (the O.Henry and Pushcart among others). A lot of people who already read this novel, told me how much they liked it. If I’m not mistaken, the book is set in the States and not in Iraq. It’s neither a war zone story, nor a home front story but a story of soldiers who are back home to celebrate a victory, before they will be shipped out again.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain,  307 pages, US 2012, War in Iraq

Here are the first sentences

The men of Bravo are not cold. It’s a chilly and windwhipped Thanksgiving Day with sleet and freezing rain forecast for late afternoon, but Bravo is nicely blazed on Jack and Cokes thanks to the epic crawl of game-day traffic and limo’s mini bar. Five drinks in forty minutes is probably pushing it, but Billy needs some refreshment after the hotel lobby, where over caffeinated tag teams of grateful citizens trampolined right down the middle of his hangover.

Here’s the blurb:

His whole nation is celebrating what is the worst day of his life

Nineteen-year-old Billy Lynn is home from Iraq. And he’s a hero. Billy and the rest of Bravo Company were filmed defeating Iraqi insurgents in a ferocious firefight. Now Bravo’s three minutes of extreme bravery is a YouTube sensation and the Bush Administration has sent them on a nationwide Victory Tour.

During the final hours of the tour Billy will mix with the rich and powerful, endure the politics and praise of his fellow Americans – and fall in love. He’ll face hard truths about life and death, family and friendship, honour and duty.

Tomorrow he must go back to war.

*******

The discussion starts on Friday, 30 September 2016.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2016, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Literature and War Readalong May 31 2016: The Hunters by James Salter

The Hunters

James Salter’s The Hunters is this month’s Literature and War Readalong title. It’s the first novel about the Korean war that we’re reading in the read along. I’ve been keen on reading James Salter for ages as he’s always mentioned as one of the greatest US writers. Published in 1956, The Hunters was Salter’s first novel. Until the publication of this novel, Salter was a career officer and pilot in the US Air Force. He served during the Korean war where he flew over 100 combat missions. This was certainly the reason why he chose to write about a fighter pilot in his first novel. The novel has been made into a movie starring Robert Mitchum and Robert Wagner. James Salter died last June in Sag Harbor, New York.

Here are the first sentences:

A winter night, black and frozen, was moving over Japan, over the choppy waters to the east, over the rugged floating islands, all the cities and towns, the small houses, the bitter streets.

Cleve stood at the window, looking out. Dusk had arrived, and he felt a numb lethargy. Full animation had not yet returned to him. It seemed that everybody had gone somewhere while he had been asleep. The room was empty.

He leaned forward slightly and allowed the pane to touch the tip of his nose. It was cold but benign. A circle of condensation formed quickly about the spot. He exhaled a few times through his mouth and made it larger. After a while he stepped back from the window. He hesitated, and then traced the letters C M C in the damp translucence.

 

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join:

The Hunters by James Salter, 233 pages, US 1957, War in Korea

Here’s the blurb:

Captain Cleve Connell arrives in Korea with a single goal: to become an ace, one of that elite fraternity of jet pilots who have downed five MIGs. But as his fellow airmen rack up kill after kill – sometimes under dubious circumstances – Cleve’s luck runs bad. Other pilots question his guts. Cleve comes to question himself. And then in one icy instant 40,000 feet above the Yalu River, his luck changes forever. Filled with courage and despair, eerie beauty and corrosive rivalry, James Salter’s luminous first novel is a landmark masterpiece in the literature of war.

*******

The discussion starts on Tuesday, 31 May 2016.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2016, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Elizabeth Strout: My Name is Lucy Barton (2016)

My Name is Lucy Barton

What a beautiful novel. I can hardly believe I haven’t read anything by Elizabeth Strout before. If someone can write a book like this, then surely, her other books must be outstanding too.

Lucy Barton looks back on a time in her life when she spent nine weeks in hospital suffering from a strange illness. Back then, she was married, had two small kids, and was an aspiring author. Lucy comes from a dirt poor family. However, it’s not only poverty she suffered from but cultural deprivation. They had no books, no TV, no radio. Little Lucy was profoundly lonely and that was, she thinks, the reason why she was drawn to books and reading and later to writing. She left her hometown Amgash, Illinois and moved to New York. During her time at the hospital, she often lies away at night and looks at the illuminated Chrysler building. It’s like a beacon. Looking at it helps her ward off feelings of loneliness, gives her hope. One day, she wakes up and finds her mother whom she hasn’t seen in years, next to her bed. Her mother stays five days and watches over her. During these five days, Lucy discovers how profoundly she loves this distant woman and how much it comforts her to know she’s close. The narrative moves back and forth in time. From the hospital room to her childhood and from there to a future with a second husband and a stunning career as a writer.

At times, the novel reminded me of Jenny Offill’s book Dept. of Speculation, but My Name is Lucy Barton is so much warmer, so much more emotional. I absolutely loved it. It explores so many topics. Families, the relationship between mothers and daughters, poverty, loneliness, the artist’s life, New York,  . . .

The voice is very endearing. It’s hard to imagine, this is an accomplished writer talking, the narrator sounds much more like a naïve girl. A very loving one, a girl who tries to find beauty and goodness in everything. It’s endearing and a bit frightening. Another writer would have chosen to throw disaster at her, but not so Elizabeth Trout. She has her character navigate the choppy waters of chance encounters, friendships, marriage and family relationships, without ever being wrecked and going under. There’s heartache, sadness, and loneliness, but Lucy’s always able to see something good and move on. She’s a true survivor. Her childhood sounds horrific. Her parents were abusive, the poverty was brutal. But Lucy survived and everything she’s given, seems like a gift. She stayed true to herself and remained kind and caring and humble.

This may sound a bit mushy, but it’s actually not. The tentative way in which the narrator tries to describe her life, her feelings, gives it great authenticity. At times, it feels like listening to someone talking.

It’s a fantastic book. For readers and for writers. I loved the many complex characters. Some appear only very briefly, like the writer Sarah Payne, who is extremely important for Lucy. It’s Sarah who tells her, that author’s shouldn’t be too concerned with plot as every writer only has one story that he will tell again and again. In Lucy’s case, that story is about trauma. While I’ve seen many authors write about PTSD or childhood trauma, I’ve hardly ever seen anyone, touching this subject in such a delicate way. From war trauma to abuse to AIDS, and 9/11, there’s so much suffering, but it’s like it’s presented behind a thick layer of fabric. Here and there something flares up but it’s never allowed to occupy too much space. It’s pushed back by deep and authentic experience and emotions.

I’ll leave you with a longer quote to give you an impression of the writing. The narrator is talking about her sister, Vicky, and then, as she always does, moves on:

How Vicky managed to this day I don’t know. We were not as close as you might expect; we were equally friendless and equally scorned, and we eyed each other with the same suspicion with which we eyed the rest of the world. There are times now, and my life has changed so completely, that I think back on the early years and I find myself thinking: It was not that bad. Perhaps it was not. But there are times, too—unexpected—when walking down a sunny sidewalk, or watching the top of a tree bend in the wind, or seeing a November sky close down over the East River, I am suddenly filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep that a sound might escape from my mouth, and I will step into the nearest clothing store and talk with a stranger about the shape of sweaters newly arrived. This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can’t possibly be true. But when I see others walking with confidence down the sidewalk, as though they are free completely from terror, I realize I don’t know how others are. So much of life seems speculation.

I hope that I managed to capture the beauty of this book. It’s such a stunning novel. I can’t wait to read more by Elizabeth Strout.

Literature and War Readalong October 31 2014: Phoenix and Ashes by Mercedes Lackey

Phoenix and Ashes

Admittedly, this was a bit of an experimental choice for the Literature and War Readalong, but since this year is mostly dedicated to WWI, I thought some diversity would be nice. So why not read a fantasy novel dealing with the aftermath of the war?

Mercedes Lackey is one of the most prolific fantasy writers and has a huge following. Phoenix and Ashes is part of the Elemental Masters series. The books in the series are all fairy tale retellings, set in the early 1900s. Phoenix and Ashes is based on Cinderella. There are ten volumes in the series so far. If you’d like to find out more about Mercedes Lackey— here’s the link to her website.

Here are the first sentences

Her eyes were so sore and swollen from weeping that she thought she should have no tears left at all. She was so tired that she couldn’t keep her mind focused on anything; it flitted from one thought to another, no matter how she tried to concentrate.

One kept recurring, in a  never-ending refrain of lament. What am I doing here? I should be at Oxford.

Eleanor Robinson rested her aching head against the cold, wet glass of the tiny window in the twilight gloom of her attic bedroom. With an effort, she closed her sore, tired eyes, as her shoulders hunched inside an old woollen shawl. The bleak December weather had turned rotten and rainy, utterly un-Christmas-like. Not that she cared about Christmas.

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

Phoenix and Ashes by Mercedes Lackey (US 2004) WWI, Fantasy, 468 pages

In this dark and atmospheric rendition of the Cinderella fairy tale, an intelligent young Englishwoman is made into a virtual slave by her evil stepmother. Her only hope of rescue comes in the shape of a scarred World War I pilot of noble blood, whose own powers over the elements are about to be needed more than ever.

“A dark tale full of the pain and devastation of war…and a couple of wounded protagonists worth routing for.”

 

*******

The discussion starts on Friday, 31 October 2014.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Alexis M. Smith: Glaciers (2012)

Glaciers

The books I enjoy the most connect me to something inside of me which is elusive and hard to reach because it deals with those fleeting feelings that are hard to put into words, those emotions which escape before we can describe them. Glaciers is a book like that. It has a dreamlike quality but at the same time the descriptions are crispy-fresh, delicate but with sharp contours; the writing is cool but never cold, fragrant but not overpowering.

I hadn’t heard of Alexis M Smith before reading the review of Glaciers on Litlove’s blog (here). Smith is one of the Tin House New Voices and since Tin House is the only magazine I read regularly I was particularly keen to discover this author.

Summarizing this book isn’t doing it any justice. Not much happens. It’s pure slice of life writing. The book describes a day in the life of library worker Isabelle.  She was born in Alaska, dreams of going to Amsterdam but lives in Portland of which she says

“Walking home, she thinks Amsterdam must be a lot like Portland. A slick fog of a city in the winter, drenched in itself. In the spring and summer; leafy undulating green, humming with bicycles, breeze-borne seeds whirling by like galaxies. And in the early glorious days of fall, she thinks, looking around her, chill mist in the mornings, bright sunshine and halos of gold and amber for every tree.”

We follow her through a whole day, see her small rituals at work, her love for vintage clothes and postcards, her dreamlike states in which she imagines another life for herself and for other people. She’s in love with Stoke but he doesn’t seem to love her back. She meets her best friend Leo and they spend an evening at a party with quirky artists and actors and they all tell each other stories.

In a few flashbacks we learn about Isabelle’s past, her family, her passions, her fears. In only one day Isabelle experiences more emotions than many people in months. There is happiness and love, despair and disappointment, hope and elation, fun and routine. And stories, stories, stories.

I’ve read similar stories but what really makes Glaciers stand out is the writing. Smith uses almost no conjunctions, the sentences are stripped of anything superfluous but it still feels colourful, albeit in a gauzy kind of way. It’s the bookish equivalent of cherry blossoms. Am I making any sense? Be it as it may,  I really hope many of you are going to read this little marvel and will enjoy it as much as I did.

Rachel Klein: The Moth Diaries (2002)

The Moth Diaries

Did you like being an adolescent? Looking back I can’t say it was much fun. I would even say it was pretty awful. A whole lot of insecurities, suffering and drama. When I studied cultural anthropology some years later we read Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, which was her first publication. At the time when she wrote it, cultural anthropology was seen as a means to better understand Western culture and society. When she went to Samoa Mead’s wish was to investigate adolescence in another culture and to see how much of what girls in the US went through was rooted in the culture. Pretty much everything that is experienced as awful when growing up in the US or Europe was missing in Samoa. While her research was later criticized for being to idealizing, it still contains a lot of valuable information. Maybe Samoa wasn’t the idyllic paradise she saw in it but the young Samoan girls decidedly didn’t suffer like many girls did and still do in Western societies.

The Moth Diaries depicts adolescence in its most dysfunctional forms. Obsessions, anorexia, self-inflicted wounds, suicide. It is an intense and intriguing book, a painful story told by an unreliable narrator, in form of diary entries. The microcosm of a boarding school, set in an old Gothic looking building adds further depth to the story.

Her psychiatrist later tells the narrator that she suffered from “borderline personality disorder complicated by depression and psychosis”.  The prologue tells us that she has left this behind. But is she really cured, is she really better? What prize did she pay for that? And was everything she experienced and witnesses just the output of a vivid imagination?

The narrator’s father has committed suicide. Her mother cannot deal with an adolescent and sends her to boarding school where the narrator forms a close relationship with another girl, Lucy. Returning after a longer holiday break, the narrator must realize that her best friend is more interested in the new girl Ernessa. Ernessa is pale and mysterious, she never eats or sleeps and the narrator is convinced that she is a vampire.

What is interesting in the way this is told is how the book manages to show that when you are alone during an important phase of your life, isolated even, and you are surrounded by suffering that you don’t understand, you may end up interpreting facts in a fantastical way. Or, to say it differently, you may have a psychotic episode.

While books like Twilight and The Vampire Diaries, tell a normal college story spiced up with vampires, The Moth Diaries does exactly the opposite. What really goes on in this boarding school, the obsessive dieting that turns into self-inflicted starvation, the claustrophobic friendships that turn into erotic relationships, the mobbing, all this is much more painful than the vampires populating contemporary high school dramas could ever be. Whether or not Ernessa is a vampire, is ultimately not that important.

What made me feel particularly uncomfortable is how the grown-ups deal with the girls in this book. With the exception of one or two teachers, they are all dysfunctional and abusive.

The Moth Diaries is an eerie and uncanny depiction of adolescence with a very Gothic feel. It is full of  inconvenient emotions, told by a narrator who is confused but at the same time extremely wise and insightful. One could call The Moth Diaries a contemporary and female version of The Catcher in the Rye. I found it painfully poignant.

The Moth Diaries has been made into a movie. Has anyone seen it?