Monday, January 30, 2017

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

One of my top five! And it's only January!

This book is soooooo good, you guys. It's eye opening and tragic and heartwarming and epic and so many other things.

Yaa Gyasi (last name sounds like "Jesse") is a Stanford graduate, born in Ghana and raised in America. On a visit to Ghana, while researching her book, she saw the Cape Coast Castle. This is one of many forts in Africa used by European traders. It is also the genesis of Gyasi's fictional story, which begins in the late 18th century with two half sisters. Effia's fate leads her to the upper parts of the castle, where traders live and keep their African wives. Essie's fate leads her to the dungeons below, where slaves are held before leaving Africa on ships to the Americas.
The Cape Coast Castle
Gyasi alternates her chapters between the two family lines, advancing generation by generation, until she's covered 8 generations, two continents, and over 200 years. She takes us to villages in Ghana, where a woman's "first blood" dictates when and where she will spend the rest of her life; to the plantations of the American south, where families are split up and sold for labor; to Harlem, New York, where racial tensions permeate daily life. Despite the heavy subject matter, there's something easy about Gyasi's writing that makes the reading palatable and exciting.

Homegoing not only examines slavery and racial identity (both in Ghana and America), it also explores family, intuition, religion, and fate. I loved hearing about the Ghanian views of life events in terms of spirituality, how Gyasi describes a churning body of water as having demons in the depths, waiting to call people to them. Do people drown, or are they summoned by those other worldly entities? Are seemingly random thoughts the result of an arbitrary synapse firing, or is there a more deep seated reason that surpasses space and time that causes us to think about something? A shadow of our past, or even our ancestral past, perhaps? Is a dream just a dream? Or is it our forefathers calling to us, warning us, wishing us home? Do we have full control over our own fate? How much of what we are is the result of pure luck?

One other note, I "read" the audiobook and the narrator, Dominic Hoffman, was wonderful. He could sound African, southern, Californian, male, or female. Although I had trouble understanding a lot of the names (and this might be a book you'll want to flip back and forth with the names and places and times), I really felt the audiobook format enhanced the story.

As this is Gyasi's first novel, I look forward to what she writes next. Highly recommend.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Circle by Dave Eggers

"Individually, you don't know what you're doing collectively."

This is Mae's ex-boyfriend's synopsis of the new company she works for. But what does he know? She is working for the most lucrative tech company on the market and he just makes chandeliers. The Circle has made its success in streamlining internet applications by rolling them into one interface based on a user's actual identity. "True You," as it's called, has ushered in a new age of internet transparency.

The Circle employs young, innovative people and encourages employees to linger after hours and on weekends for the many parties and social groups it sponsors. A feeling of community is fostered through the use of social media, which is heavily encouraged and tracked by ranking employees according to their level of online activity. In order for people to fully immerse themselves in this culture, and in line with the "True You" philosophy, employees accept that everything about a person is public information, because, after all,

"Privacy is theft." Have you ever thought that by not sharing an experience, you are depriving another person of that experience as well?


"Secrets inspire speculation." Isn't it better to know the truth than speculate something worse about someone?

And if you feel you can't share with others because you are going through a painful experience, remember this, "Pain experienced in public in view of loving millions was no longer pain, it was communion."

Uh, yeah. I'm totally not creeped out by this company at all. I would absolutely want to work there, just like Mae. And there would be no alarm bells screaming in my head or anything tingling my spidey senses about the amount of control such a company was exerting over me. Of course, if Mae had these reservations and quit, we wouldn't have much of a book. We also wouldn't have the many comical moments where Mae is given a talking to for not participating in events she didn't even know were occurring, or for hurting someone's feelings by not responding to their online comments to her. And of course, we wouldn't get to meet her ex-boyfriend, Mercer, who is one of the few rational people we meet:

"Listen 20 years ago it wasn't so cool to have a calculator watch, right? And spending all day inside playing with your calculator watch sent a clear message that you weren't doing so well socially. And judgments like "like", and "dislike", and "smiles", and "frowns" were limited to junior high. Someone would write a note and it would say, "Do you like unicorns and stickers?" and you'd say, "Yeah, I like unicorns and stickers! Smile!"  That kind of thing, but now it's not just junior high kids who do it. It's everyone. And it seems to me sometimes I've entered some inverted zone, some mirror world where the dorkiest shit in the world is completely dominant. The world has dorkified itself!"

But Mae continues to drink the kool-aid. It wasn't until Mae is confronted by her superiors at work for breaking the law that things go from "okay, maybe she's a bit oblivious and naive" to "I'm hitting the I want to believe button." In order to show her commitment to the company's ideals, Mae agrees to be a test-user for a new product, See Change, a small, easily worn camera. The idea, initially marketed to politicians to show their constituents they have nothing to hide, begins a movement in which people "go transparent," a movement started in part by Mae's agreement to beta test the system. Her every move and word recorded for the world to follow, Mae's life drastically changes as she raises in rank with The Circle, but struggles to maintain relationships with those closest to her.

Let's get real, here. The themes in this book aren't new, and the parallels and metaphors obvious. I felt there wasn't a realistic amount of dissent to the blatant privacy and civil violations occurring. And I found it unlikely that so few seemed to see the ramifications of where things were headed.

For these reasons, I read the book as a satire of the proliferation of things like reality TV and government and commercial encroachment on privacy rights. It's too over the top to be taken more seriously than that. And while I think Eggers' reality, as envisioned by The Circle, is literally unrealistic, the book gets you thinking about things:  Why do we keep secrets? Is there ever a legitimate reason to deceive? Will putting everything in the open remove the stigma of things done behind closed doors? Will full transparency and accountability reduce crime and corruption? Will it make us happier?

While I can't say Eggers changed my answers to any of these questions, at least he got me thinking about why the answers were what they were. And I enjoyed his characters, like Mercer, who were comically eloquent. It was definitely a fun read, and one I looked forward to whenever I put the book down. So a solid, "like" from me 😀

NOTE: If this book sounds intriguing, read it before the movie comes out later this year (starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson). There is also a great episode of Black Mirror that handles similar themes (really, just check out all of the Black Mirror episodes on Netflix, while you're at it).

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Redeployment by Phil Klay

I accidentally read this book. Is that possible? I realized a few hours in that it wasn't autobiographical, but rather a collection of fictional short stories and had a decision to I stay or do I go? It's not that it isn't well written and interesting, I just don't have much interest in reading fictional war accounts. It's not my favorite genre, but non-fiction IS. So if it's a non-fictional war story, I'm hooked! Get the difference?


Redeployment is broken up into 12 stories, told from various perspectives of Marines deployed in Iraq during Operation Iraqi freedom. As you can imagine, some stories are funny, some sad, some both. Klay himself was a marine deployed in Iraq and spent years researching his characters before publishing. So he knows what he's writing about. A lot of the positive press on this book has been about the accurate portrayal of life for Marines in Iraq.

So was I hooked? I hate to say I wasn't, because I know this book is good. And it's probably more a mental thing for me, knowing the stories weren't actually true. But I have a feeling they are representative, and if you want an idea of what Marines experienced during this time, this just might be the book to read.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Columbine by Dave Cullen

What is Columbine to you?  Before April 20th, 1999, Columbine was simply a school to most people, if not the flower for which it was named. After the devastating shooting that took 13 lives and terrorized hundreds more, Columbine was a symbol of mass murder and disaster. Maybe you have heard of Columbine, maybe you haven't. But whatever Columbine was to you before reading this book, will surely change.

Columbine is a media driven narrative. As the events of the Columbine shooting unfolded, that narrative wasn't completely wrong, but it was incomplete at best. Stories portrayed the shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as members of a group known as the Trench Coat Mafia (true). They were painted as bullied outcasts (true), out to get the jocks and preps who victimized them (not true). Cullen explores where these stories originated and their veracity. He gives an overarching perspective of Harris and Klebold that provides much needed context for the events that occurred on April 20th and helps correct the media narrative.

Columbine is a case study in sociopathy. Cullen meticulously deconstructs not only the events of April 20th, but the days, months, and even years leading to "judgement day," as the pair called it. In addition to using media coverage and police reports, because the boys wrote extensively in journals and left behind a trove of tape recorded material, Cullen is able to examine the boys' own words and actions. Drawing heavily from research by FBI Agent and clinical psychologist Dwayne Fuselier, Cullen shows that despite their penchant for violence, the boys were different psychologically. And it is this psychological perspective that is one of the most interesting things about this book. The discussion of sociopathy was intriguing and disturbing. To say Eric Harris is a psychopath because he meets a series of criteria is one thing, but to show how he bragged about manipulating others as a cover-up for his depravity was eye-opening.

Columbine is not what it seemed to be. What didn't come out in the media (at least not during the initial media storm) was the full extent of what the boys planned. They didn't see themselves as "just" school shooters. In fact, they made fun of school shooters. Their intentions were much more grandiose and included a plan that was formulated more than a year in advance. The bulk of the bloodshed would actually be achieved through the use of bombs, in an event that they hoped would surpass Timothy McVeigh's body count from the Oklahoma City bombing. They placed bombs on school grounds, but they didn't detonate as planned.

Columbine is healing. Cullen doesn't just focus on the shooters. He also talks about the victims and how they deal with the aftermath, both physically and mentally. While he only focuses on a few victims, he gives a range of reactions and perspectives, ultimately ending with the school itself. Particularly how each year's students have reacted and evolved to the events of 1999.

So whatever Columbine means to you, this thorough, well-researched narrative gives understanding to the misunderstood. It sheds light on the darkness created by an event that changed a suburban school from just another school to a symbol of terror. You'll learn Columbine is many things at once; a school, a flower, a book, a nightmare, a memory, and so much more than what you thought it was.

NOTE: One perspective that is missing from the book is that of the Harris and Klebold parents. They didn't give interviews and pretty much stayed out of the media for years. Here is an interview I found from Dylan Klebold's mother, Sue.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Well, I guess I owe Ms. Ng congratulations for writing a book that has seemed to appeal to so many people. Because despite the positive reviews and internet hype, I wanted to poke out my eyes with spoons after reading "Amazon's Best Book of the Year for 2014." You can go ahead and clutch your literary equivalent of pearls in your hands. I remain steadfast in my assessment. This book made me want to scream when I finished it. THESE ARE THE MOST ANNOYING PEOPLE I'VE EVER ENCOUNTERED AND I DON'T CARE ABOUT THEIR LIVES!

EXHIBIT 1: The narrator. Her voice is melodic and lyrical in the most boring way possible. She's wistful, thoughtful, insightful, on the verge of tears with every word. Her female characters sound weak and fragile. Her male characters, clueless, with a chip on their shoulder. And the one that takes the cake? Her voice for James, our not-cool cool father, who sounds like an SNL caricature. BUT SHES NOT BEING FUNNY. 

EXHIBIT 2: The aforementioned James. He has a wife who loves him, three kids he seems to love, a job as a professor...nothing overtly horrible here about his life. And he's cheating on his wife. Yeah yeah, his daughter died (not a spoiler), I get that. But I call bullshit if that's the driving force to his infidelity. This coming from a man who refused Chinese food in childhood and never spoke Chinese as an adult. But he finds the only other Chinese person in town who reminded him of his lost heritage with her cha siu bao, oh, and her loins. The irony isn't lost on me. I'm sure a high school student could write an essay about the reasons for this, but IDGAF! His wife become estranged with her mother because she chose him over any white guy. She post-poned her education and dream of being a doctor to raise his children. Yes, there was...the incident...which is reason enough for him to disconnect emotionally and physically. But still, it grated on me.

EXHIBIT 3: Lydia. the one person we'd like a perspective from and it's nearly non-existent, like her limp, soft boiled soul. And when we hear from her, it's about how she has no friends or how she tries to make friends but they politely rebuff her. Her evil mother dotes on her and her horrible father shows a constant interest in her life. When she gets gifts, they're NOT THE GIFTS SHE WANTS! Even when she gets the gift she wants, it's NOT WITH THE RIGHT INTENTION! Except she doesn't yell about anything, she just solemnly thinks these things. Because no one in this book outwardly emotes and their inward thoughts sound like pillows. I just want to smack her until she turns into someone I'm actually sad is dead. 

EXHIBIT 4: Nath (Nathe? Nayth? who knows, it was an audiobook). Besides wondering wt actual f this guy's name was every time I heard it, I wanted to scratch a chalkboard every time he'd misunderstand a situation or make some snarky comment to anyone. Urgh.

Listen, I'm sure this is a good book in a lot of ways, especially for a debut novel, and I'm happy for Ng's success. Why would you listen to me? I didn't forgive James for cheating on his wife when his daughter died and his wife did...the thing. I also think carrots go great with peanut butter and bananas with sour cream. So who am I to judge? But when I read something that enables me to see the back of the inside of my head due to extreme eye rolling, I know it's just not for me.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Okay, guys. I'm going to tell you the biggest secret I've discovered so far for 2017...It will get you reading more books, faster than ever. Read on if you want your mind's...audiobooks.

mrw guy watch annoyed how i met your mother

Okay, so maybe I'm a late bloomer on this one. But for real, y'all, this is a game changer. Just like cell phones, Myspace, Facebook, insert-anything-technological-here-that-I-discovered-years-after-everyone-else was. But hey! I just used a gif.

Besides the few audiobooks I've heard on road trips, this was my first non-vacational audio book for my listening pleasure around the house, at work, in the car, at get the idea. So while one of my new year's goals is to have a book, and not my phone, in my hands more, I consider this an ideological, if not technical, win. And anyway, Big Little Lies isn't the newest book on the block (2014). But it's recently gained traction, with an HBO mini-series coming in a few months.

I also don't know if Caroline Lee is just a particularly good narrator, but she captures the tone and personality of each character in a mind boggling way. And since everyone has an Australian accent, well, there's that.

On its face, we have a book about "kinder moms," as they're called. Or mothers whose kids will be starting kindergarten at the local school. Our setting? A beach town in Australia, where stay-at-home-dads and working mothers are more of a novelty than the norm. At the very least, it's a label worthy of attachment when talking about someone. And oh, is there plenty of that. If you're not one to tolerate idle chatter, busybodies, and speculative gossip, there's also an erotic book club, schoolyard bullying, and a murder investigation.

But wait! Stop that eye roll and hear me out! This book isn't as annoying as it could be. Moriarty tackles cliches and neighborhood drama with humor and complexity. She unfolds her characters much in the way you would get to know someone. We get a superficial perspective at first, maybe learn a thing or two, and then move on to someone else's story. But as the book progresses, you get one more tidbit about someone that changes your opinion about them. Much as you might realize a first impression about someone was completely wrong.

That was my reaction, for instance, to Madelyn, an overly assertive, opinionated kinder mom with a flair for drama. At first, I wasn't sure if I'd be able to handle her, even on the printed page. She's the kind of person that makes her presence known whether you like it or not, and who relishes the awkwardness of confrontation. She ended up being one of my favorite characters, because despite her propensity for stilettos and online shopping, her wit and sarcasm are spot on, and her personality not as shallow as it seemed.

Like Madelyn, Moriarty's other characters are deliciously complex and fully developed. Even her supporting cast is written clearly and distinctly, so that you really have an idea of who you like, don't like, and even hate to like, by the time she's done with everything.

Another thing I liked about this book is how Moriarty so perfectly captures how our outward actions and appearances don't always reflect our intentions or inward thoughts. She'll have someone fret over a look received after what she thought was a friendly smile, or describe how people join a race for a cause, when the real cause is their own waistline. Her characters say things, but mean others, and do things that are misinterpreted. She creates cringeworthy situations with a surprising ease that will make you laugh, and probably relate with a little too well.

And at its heart, Big Little Lies has a message. Moriarty takes the topic of bullying and tackles it from so many perspectives: on the schoolyard, at home, verbal, physical, in kids, in adults. Her style is so casual, you might not realize, until something happens to someone, how much you cared about them. And the way she writes about domestic violence is heartbreaking and eye opening.

I've heard Moriarty isn't a one-hit wonder, too. Her other books, like What Alice Forgot and The Hypnotist's Love Story are probably worth checking out. And I think I eventually will. Who knows, maybe it will be sooner rather than later now that I've discovered AUDIOBOOKS!!!