Monday, May 21, 2018

An American Marriage

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (2018)

I just read Tayari Jones for the first time earlier this year. I had been wanting to read Silver Sparrow for quite a while and finally got around to it, coincidentally, right around the time her newest novel was released. I loved how Jones wrote about her characters and their relationships so I was eager to try An American Marriage. Plus, who wouldn't be enticed by that gorgeous cover?

The marriage is between Celestial and Roy, who have only been married for a short time when Roy is arrested for a crime they both know he didn't commit. He is sentenced to twelve years in prison. While he is gone, Celestial continues building her artistic career making realistic dolls she calls poupées. But the length of his incarceration may be too much on a fledgling marriage, despite how much Roy and Celestial clearly care for each other. Chapters alternate viewpoints between the two characters, joined later by chapters from the perspective of Celestial's long-time friend Andre.

I loved the characters in this book, how realistic and flawed they were and how painful it was to see the strain on their relationship. Worse was the fact that it was so unnecessary, Roy having been falsely accused of this crime. His life had been going so well, and I don't have to explain what a setback prison is to someone just getting started on a career and marriage. Both Celestial and Roy had promising futures and were hoping to start a family and it was incredibly painful to see it all come tumbling down.

Celestial was an independent and strong woman, and Roy appreciated that about her. I remember thinking at one point while reading that none of the men in this book deserved her, but I do have to say that Roy was actually a really good guy. Several times he reflected on his behavior toward Celestial and admitted that he should have acted a different way. He owns up to his mistakes and honestly sets a pretty high bar for himself. Some of this comes through in conversations he has with his biological father, who he coincidentally meets in prison, and some is just through his own thoughts.

Jones's writing is straightforward and conversational, allowing the focus to be on the characters and what is happening rather than the way she is telling it. This makes it so easy to become immersed in the story, which I did as soon as I began and I easily read the whole book in just a few days. If you haven't read this author before I highly recommend giving her a try.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Immortalists

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin (2018)

This book has been super popular for a while now and I haven't even read any of the reviews (which are apparently mixed), but I was very drawn in by the premise. Four young siblings visit a fortune teller who reveals the dates of their deaths, and the novel follows them through their lives. That was all I knew - it's intriguing, but would the story live up to this idea?

The novel begins with a chapter introducing us to the siblings when they were between the ages of 7 and 13. In descending age, they are Varya, Daniel, Klara, and Simon. One of them heard from a friend that a mysterious woman told her family when her grandmother would die, and it gave them all an opportunity to say goodbye to her and be prepared. The kids were intrigued and I think it was Daniel who convinced the others that they needed to visit this woman. They tracked her down and she took them into her apartment one by one and told them what they wanted to know.

The next four sections follow each of the siblings. First, Simon, who leaves home at the age of 16 for San Francisco in 1978 where he becomes a dancer. Then Klara, who follows her passion to be a magician. In the third section we learn that Daniel is a doctor who works for the military. Finally, Varya is a scientist studying longevity. Although they don't discuss their dates and sometimes seem to forget that visit altogether, it becomes clear that the choices they make - and their ultimate fates - are influenced by that information.

Although it's this idea that holds the story together, much of the pleasure is in reading about the lives of the siblings and becoming immersed in their worlds. And they're all so different. Simon's story is of a young man finally free of his family, who finds the gay community in San Francisco and revels it in. He originally goes there with Klara, who is driven to pursue magic, refining her art and finding a partner in life and business in a man named Raj. She struggles between her artistic vision and the kind of performance that will earn them a living. Daniel was most elusive character to me. We meet adult Daniel when he has been suspended from his job. He evaluates people going into the military to determine whether or not they are fit to serve. He does his job honestly, but it's clear his superiors want as many people approved to serve as possible. This event, combined with a visit from someone investigating the death of one of his siblings, sets him off in a downward spiral. Throughout most of the book we don't hear a lot about Varya; but it is her story that I think will stick with me. She works in a lab performing longevity experiments on monkeys, but it is clear she is also trying to control every little variable in her own life too. She's obsessed with cleanliness and order to an unhealthy degree, and holds secrets she has kept buried for quite a long time.

You could be the kind of person who believes in fate and read this book and think, yes, the woman was right. The dates of their deaths were predetermined. Or you could be a skeptic and think that they made sure - consciously or unconsciously - that they'd die on the dates they held in their heads. It really gives one a lot to think about.

(Side note: I love the cover. If I'm going to be honest, that was part of what made me want to read it.)

In the end, it absolutely lived up to my expectations. I think it would be great to discuss with a book group too, because you can really spend a lot of time going in circles about destiny and causation and how much control you really have over the trajectory of your life. Fascinating.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Wedding Date

The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory (2018), narrated by Janina Edwards

Drew Nichols is in town for his ex-girlfriend's wedding, and his date has cancelled, leaving him to attend alone. But then he gets stuck in an elevator with a stranger, Alexa Monroe, who agrees to pose as his fake girlfriend for the weekend. They have a great time together, after which they both return to their normal lives - his as a pediatric surgeon, and hers as chief of staff to the mayor of Berkley. The weekend stays with them though, and soon they're traveling back and forth most weekends to see each other. But is it just a bit of fun, or something more?

Drew is not the boyfriend type. In fact, he almost always breaks off relationships just when they're getting good. Unfortunately for him, Alexa learns this from some of his exes and tries to preemptively get out of the relationship (is it even a relationship?) before she gets hurt. This is the main point of tension in the story: Drew's reputation as a commitment-phobe vs. their need to be together. There are other, more minor, tensions as well. Alexa is black and Drew is white, and it takes him a bit to realize she would really like to know if she's going to be the only black person at events they attend together. (Oh, not to mention some of the stupid things some of his white acquaintances say to her!) Plus Drew doesn't understand the importance of the youth-at-risk program Alexa is trying to get started because he doesn't realize that some kids really have more privilege than others based on circumstances entirely beyond their control, like race. He's also a terrible communicator. To be honest, he's kind of a jerk? I mean, he's a bit insensitive and more than a bit oblivious.

He's basically a good guy though, and he makes Alexa happy. I do think she's too good for him, but that didn't detract from my enjoyment of their story. And I found their relationship believable. Their problems weren't based on ridiculous neuroses but realistic problems like poor communication and not knowing what each other actually wants out of the relationship.

I liked the arc of their relationship, but one of my favorite things about the story was all the food Drew and Alexa consumed together. Crackers and cheese, tacos, burritos, doughnuts. So many meals and snacks! I always love female characters who have actual appetites like real people and Alexa did not let me down. She didn't try to make herself fit what she thought Drew would like - make no mistake, she was very aware of his type and that she didn't seem to fit, aware of every spare bit of flesh on her body, but that didn't stop her from eating a big dinner.

All in all, it was fun, entertaining, and satisfying. I was invested in Drew and Alexa, their careers, their friendships, and of course their relationship. I listened to the audio version, narrated by Janina Edwards, who did a great job. I've never listened to her before, but I would again. Speaking of which, there is apparently a sequel to this book which stars Drew's friend Carlos, a minor but very endearing character in The Wedding Date. It's not out until fall of 2018 by which time I will have forgotten that it exists and will get excited about it all over again.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Pro

Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights by Katha Pollitt (2014)

A former coworker, with whom I enjoyed many feminist rants, recommended this book to me a couple of years ago and I put it on my list. Recently I was inspired to finally pick it up after reading a novel in which a character has an abortion, and starting the second season of The Handmaid's Tale.

I've always been pro-choice, from the time I learned that abortion was a thing that existed and that some people thought it shouldn't be allowed. In my case, my position has a lot to do with the fact that I've never been interested in having children (again, from the moment I learned about pregnancy and childbirth I wanted nothing to do with it.) But I know many women who do have children and are still pro-choice and, as Pollitt points out in her book, the majority of women who have abortions already have children.

Pollitt is preaching to the choir, but she lays out her reasoning for maintaining legalized abortion in a way that it would be hard to argue with. (Obviously people will try to, but they won't win on logic.) One of the reasons I no longer engage in debate on this topic is that anti-choice people believe that abortion is murder. I do not. And I don't see any way to get past that fundamental difference. However, Pollitt shows that people who claim to think abortion is murder usually feel that you can make an exception in the case of rape or incest. In which case....it's not murder? You're still removing the embryo that could have grown into a baby, right? But as Pollitt shows, the issue is not so much that people think abortion is murder, but that they think it should be allowed only in circumstances in which they approve. From here, she easily builds her case that it is not about the embryo at all but about controlling women. I've always kind of thought that, but never considered it as comprehensively as she does here.

For instance, middle-class mothers have been pressured to stay home with their children, and shamed for placing importance on their careers and putting their kids in daycare. Meanwhile, poor mothers - many of whom, not coincidentally, are women of color - were under the opposite sort of pressure, being criticized for being on welfare and at home with their kids and expected instead to go to work and spend most of their meager paycheck on child care. This kind of hypocrisy is highlighted again and again throughout the book.

She touches on a lot of issues - women's sexuality, poverty, race - and makes thorough and well-crafted arguments. Ultimately, she wants pro-choice people to stop making excuses. Stop coming up with worst-case scenario situations to justify why abortion needs to remain legal, stop defending Planned Parenthood based on the other services they provide, and just come out and say that we should trust women to make decisions about their own bodies, in any situation.

This book isn't going to sway the minds of the most stalwart anti-choicers, but those are a very small percentage of the population. (Chapter 2: "What Do Americans Think About Abortion?" goes into the numbers in great detail.) It could, however, convince those who approve in some situations but not others that it's ok to get off their high horse and put some trust in responsible adults to make their own decisions. For the rest of us, she's connected the dots and solidifying arguments that could come in quite usefully the next time we decide to open a conversation about abortion, and getting us fired up about protecting our rights.