Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Caroline: Little House, Revisited

Caroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller (2017)

As you may know, I'm fairly obsessed with Laura Ingalls Wilder. I've read the Little House books over and over, and a couple of years ago I read Pioneer Girl, Laura Ingalls Wilder's annotated autobiography. As much as I enjoy the Little House books, I know they're fiction and children's books and I want to know more about that family and their experiences. I have two related books on my TBR Pile Challenge this year. One is a biography of Wilder called Prairie Fires, and one is this fictional work told from the view of Ma, Caroline Ingalls. This challenge is made up of a list of books I've been putting off, so it may seem strange that I keep putting off books on a subject I claim to be obsessed with. Prairie Fires is very long, and I always delay long books. With Caroline, I was just concerned that it wouldn't live up to what I wanted it to be, especially since I didn't hear much from the reviews and the Goodreads rating is fairly low. I needn't have worried: it was everything I wanted it to be.

The story begins in Pepin, Wisconsin or what I have come to think of as "the Big Woods." Caroline is pregnant, and the family is about to set off on a long journey to Kansas, where they will stake a claim in what as known as Indian Territory. It's a hard journey, fraught with danger, and there were a few times the family was lucky to escape with their lives. When they finally arrive, they need to build the house they will live in, plant some crops, and do all the many things needed to start their new lives. All this while Caroline battles nausea and grows more physically cumbersome as her pregnancy advances. And always the dread that her female relatives who helped deliver Mary and Laura are in Wisconsin and she will have to have the baby alone.

From the very beginning, I was completely immersed in this story. I read most of it in two days over a long weekend, finishing the last bit on the third day immediately after work. Miller's writing is richly detailed, bringing this story to life in a way the children's versions couldn't. Oh, I had always imagined the details in my mind, but this novel painted a rich portrait that filled in the gaps in my imagination. It also made Caroline into a fully realized person for the first time - in the Little House books Ma was always capable and resourceful, but I loved seeing the inner life that Miller has imagined for her. Her fears about their journey and their new life and the impending birth of their daughter Carrie, and how she always portrayed on a strong demeanor despite her fears so as not to worry the girls. Her feelings about her husband and the girls. In Little House, Laura always felt she was never as good as Mary, but in this book Caroline takes notice of the way in which Mary shows off how virtuous she is as though she's being good not for the sake of being good, but so she will gain approval from the adults. I loved that.

One of the themes of the Little House books is independence, and the stories are carefully crafted to show the family taking care of themselves without help from anyone else, which is factually inaccurate. (They got help from the government, friends, and family pretty regularly. Everyone did - nobody could survive frontier conditions alone.) But the details of this book reveal just how strong and capable Caroline and Charles had to be to get through the obstacles that faced them every day. Making a meal while traveling in a covered wagon was a huge pain and they were all so tired from their journey, but you have to eat. And the time they were caught in a horrible rainstorm, and Charles had to go out in it to build a makeshift lean-to along the side of the wagon for the horses, and then came in soaking wet without a fire to hang his clothes in front of. Their lives were perpetually inconvenient and uncomfortable, even when they finally made it to Kansas, and for the first time I saw just how strong and capable these people were. You don't get that from children's books.

This is not to say that I loved everything about Caroline and Charles. They were products of their time and sometimes their attitudes frustrated me. Caroline was deathly afraid of the Indians and just wanted them to be gone, complaining that they were all over the place. I wanted to yell at her "This is their land and you're stealing it!" and ask what she thought it would be like, moving to a place that was literally called "Indian Territory." The way she viewed these people who were being pushed off their own land, visibly hungry, was awful. But I'm glad Miller left it in there, because I don't like to pretend that people were different than they actually were. I'm totally fine with creating fiction in which people have what we think of as "progressive" views, but this is fiction about a real person who existed and who felt this way and I'm glad in this instance she remained true to her character, even though I was annoyed at her ignorance.

Although this book was written for adults, it retained the feelings of positivity I remember from the Little House books. Despite their hardships, Caroline and Charles did everything they could to cast a positive light on their lives and appreciate what they had. In this way, it feels like a wonderful compliment to the books I've loved my whole life, adding more to the story that I've always wanted more of.

Even if you're not obsessed with this family, this is a great historical novel in itself. It's richly descriptive and character-driven, filled with insights about pioneer life and the role of women at that time. Here's a paragraph in which she considers her work and that of her husband:

"Always, the scale of Charles's work dwarfed her own. In the time it took him to build a wall or plant an acre, she might knit a sock or churn a pound of butter. One task was no less vital than the other; he could not build or plant barefoot and hungry. Charles knew that as well as she did and never failed to thank her for a new shirt or a good meal. But to have a hand in fashioning something that would not be consumed, worn out, outgrown--something as grand as a house? To be able to lean against that solid wall for years to come and know that she had helped put it there? Caroline thrilled at the thought."

In a dark moment, Caroline wants to cry in anger but has no privacy and doesn't dare go outside because of the Indians. She holds it all inside while watching Charles make bullets:

"Again and again she watched the thin silver stream of liquid lead flow into the bullet mold, then pop out a moment later, hard and shining. If only she could do just that--pour all her scalding thoughts into a tight, smooth ball capable of piercing the very thing she was most frightened of."

I found everything about this book captivating, and I desperately want it to be series. If I could read about all the adventures and journeys of this family through Sarah Miller's vivid storytelling, well. But as Caroline would say, I should be grateful for what I have, and I'm very grateful for this book.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Bowlaway

Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken (2019)

The story begins in the early 1900s when Bertha Truitt is found unconscious in a cemetery in a town where nobody knows her. She won't tell anyone about her past, saying only "I'm here now." She stays in the town- the fictional town of Salford, Massachusetts- and opens a candlepin bowling alley. As if her mysterious origins weren't scandalous enough, she also marries the doctor who first attended her, a black man named Leviticus Sprague. They build an octagonal house, have a kid, and the story continues long after their deaths, but stays focused on the bowling alley and those who continue to run it.

Filled with secrets, lies, longings, and lives of dissatisfaction, this story is just as quirky as you'd expect from Elizabeth McCracken. For someone who's been living in Texas for a long time now, it's clear that she'll never get New England out of her system and Bowlaway is filled with elements specific to the region, from candlepin bowling itself to the Great Molasses Flood. She also skirts the paranormal with a little spontaneous human combustion and a mysterious creature known locally as the Salford Devil.

Had this come from a different author, I would have been turned off by a book about bowling and never picked it up, but I will always and forever read everything that Elizabeth McCracken writes. As it turns out, it's only kind of about bowling, but mostly about all the people who are bowling and running the bowling alley. It wasn't terribly long and covered an extensive timespan, yet somehow I still felt like I got a good feel for all the characters, which is the most important part of any book for me.

Spanning about 80 years, we see a number of characters die during the story, many before their time, so it was actually pretty sad if you think about it. But tempered with McCracken's trademark humor and wit, it didn't feel nearly as depressing as it could have had it been written by someone else.

This is only her third novel, after The Giant's House (1996) and Niagara Falls All Over Again (2001) but she has also written short stories and a memoir and excels in all of those forms. Honestly, she's one of those authors who could write literally anything and I'd read it and probably love it.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (2012)

Clay Jennings is a former tech worker looking for a job, and stumbles across an unusual bookstore that seems to be hiring. It's open 24 hours a day and he has the overnight 10-6 shift. Business is slow, but Clay soon learns that the primary business here isn't selling books, it's lending them out from a part of the store he thinks of as the Waybacklist. It's a tall skinny room with very tall ladders and it comes with a particular clientele. Although the owner, Mr. Penumbra, makes Clay promise not to look at the books, eventually he does and that is where the real mystery begins.

The story turns into something very different than one about a cozy mysterious bookstore and its eccentric mysterious owner. There's a real mystery here, with codes and secret societies, and it's kind of a fun adventure. Clay has a rich, successful friend Neel who he bonded with in sixth grade over a fantasy series they both loved, and that series and its author figured into the story as well.

But this wasn't about the love of books and bookstores and that's where the disappointed lay for me. Technology enters into it a bit, and things went in a direction that that did not give me the happy bookstore feels I was looking for. It's not Robin Sloan's fault that it wasn't the book I wanted it to be, and I still enjoyed reading it, but I liked his other book, Sourdough, quite a bit more. Still, he's a talented author and gifted storyteller and I'll likely read whatever novel he publishes next.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

On the Come Up

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas (2019)

So I went to see Angie Thomas speak last week (!) and the ticket price included a copy of her new book. This is great news because I had gotten on the library hold list kind of late and would have had a long wait. Anyway, she was SO great and if you ever get a chance to see her you should definitely do so. She was funny and interesting and had some great stories and she even rapped a bit.

But let's talk about the book! It takes place about a year after the events of The Hate U Give, but it's not a sequel. It simply takes place in the same neighborhood and you do see how people are affected, but the characters from the two books don't even know each other. (As Angie Thomas pointed out last week, "Not all black people know each other.") Anyhow, our protagonist is a high school girl named Brianna who wants to make it as a rapper. She goes to the Ring to have a rap battle with this guy named Milez who already has some notoriety for his song "Swagarific" and she beats him handily. She then releases a song called "On the Come Up" which goes viral, but gives all the wrong impressions about her and there are some unanticipated consequences.

First I need to mention that I've never been into rap or hip hop, but I can totally appreciate the skill. When Bri competed freestyle, it was sort of mind-boggling to me that people just make up these rhymes as they go. You're writing and performing at the same time and that takes an amazing amount of talent. This book has already been optioned as movie and I think it's going to be great just because of all the music that will be in it. But also, I know sometimes the songs talk about guns and violence and whatnot, but I kind of assumed we know it's just talk, right? Well, in Bri's song when she talks about having guns people take it seriously. This was interesting because I've always assumed there's a certain amount of fiction in songs - the artists try to create an image for themselves, like sounding touch, but we're not supposed to take it literally. That wasn't true here. People took it literally.

Another thing that added to Bri's notoriety was an incident with the security guards at school, in which they threw her down on the ground and cuffed her and it was captured on video. It was very unjust, and that story unfolded throughout the novel as well.

While this all was going on, Bri's mom Jay was in a rough spot. She lost her job at the church where she worked (which was related to the riots that happened during The Hate U Give) and the family was really struggling to stay afloat. Bri's older brother Trey had a job, but he didn't make much money, and Jay forbade Bri to get a job because she wanted her to focus on school.

One of the things I really liked about The Hate U Give was Star's parents because they were such well-developed characters, which is unusual in teen books. I loved Bri's mother too - she is definitely flawed, but she's such a strong, determined woman who has overcome drug addiction and is trying to really provide for her family. They're struggling though, and her relationship with Bri hasn't been the same since she left the kids to live with their grandparents all those years ago.

There was a lot to like here. Bri wanted more than anything to be a rapper, and was starting to gain local fame, but of course that comes with responsibility and a lot of complicated decisions. Her Aunt Pooh was acting as her manager, but then an actual professional manager wanted to take her on, but he had plans for her that she was not super on-board with. (Oh, and he was also manager for her father, a famous rapper who died young. I told you there's a lot going on in this story!) Plus, there were teenager-y things happening with her best friends, Malik and Sonny, and she was starting to have feeling for this boy Curtis who she had always sort of ignored before.

Ultimately, this is a story about a teenager finding her voice and learning about who she is and what's important to her. There's a whole cast of well-developed characters surrounding her and I enjoyed their stories just as much as hers. These are all realistic, flawed people who are just living their lives as best they know how, but of course making lots of mistakes along the way. It all felt real, and I found myself really excited for Bri and her future. I was super impressed with Angie Thomas's first novel, and this one is every bit as good.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Becoming

Becoming by Michelle Obama (2018), narrated by Michelle Obama

Former First Lady Michelle Obama's memoir is currently the most requested book in my library system. It seems like everyone is reading it. I was considering it and kept waffling on whether or not I wanted to read it, but then a friend mentioned how much she was enjoying the audiobook so I decided to try that version.

Obama begins with her childhood, describing her family and her life growing up on the South Side of Chicago, before moving on to college, law school, and her early career. It was then that she met Barack Obama, at the time a law student who came to work at her firm as an intern. It didn't take long for them to begin a relationship. She takes us through major changes in her life, from getting married and having children to becoming First Lady of the United States, and straight through until they left the White House.

Reading about her family and early career was interesting, but what I found most fascinating was how she fit her life around Barack being President. For one thing, she had to give up her job. Her career had taken some turns anyway, but she was really going from one great job opportunity to another. At one point she talked about the huge pay cut she had to take to leave the law firm she was working for to go to another job that she thought would be more fulfilling. She said her salary was going from 120k to 60k. (That was in the 90s, when I was making around 24k. These numbers were kind of staggering to me.) At any rate, this is an ambitious successful woman who at one point had to choose to give it up for a life she definitely didn't expect.

Life in the White House was a tightly-controlled situation, and nobody in the family could really live a normal life. She mentions how she liked to sometimes drink her tea out on the balcony on a nice day, but it meant the crowds had to be cleared from that whole side of the house, and she didn't want to do that to tourists who came all the way to D.C. to see the White House. A few months after they moved on, Michelle and Barack decided to spend some time together and made a trip to NY for dinner and a show. They got to the restaurant and everyone who arrived after them had to go through security, and then the show they went to see started 40 minutes late because of all the extra security precautions that had to be taken. It felt like a huge nuisance and the media criticized them for the cost, so they didn't do that again. But really, they just wanted to spend some time together outside of the White House! She said that it was so difficult to go outside of the family quarters in the White House that they weren't even walking very much and they both started spending a ton of time in their gym to make up for it.

Things were difficult for the kids too. Malia had to attend her prom with the secret service in tow, and when it was time to visit colleges Michelle wasn't able to go with her because having the whole First Lady motorcade there was such a huge inconvenience for everybody. Michelle ended up sending her assistant instead. And one time the girls just wanted to go out for ice cream with some friends, but they couldn't because it was impossible to arrange spur-of-the-moment plans to go out. It was a bummer to hear how many normal things they couldn't do because of all the security requirements.

Michelle says that Barack was treated like some sort of precious gem. She understood why, of course, but said it felt like a throwback to a time when households revolved around the man, which was the opposite of what she was trying to teach her daughters. That was such an interesting perspective that I hadn't thought of, but of course Sasha and Malia were so young when they moved to the White House that probably a lot of the weird things about their lives seemed normal.

There were so many interesting little stories throughout the book. For instance, when Barack first won the presidency, the Bush family made a huge effort to make the transition as seamless as possible. They made sure there were binders of information regarding the household, including social calendars and that sort of thing, and apparently went beyond what was usually done for these transitions. They were also very gracious hosts when the Obamas first visited. The Bush daughters gave Sasha and Malia their own tour, showing them the fun parts of the White House. It was really very touching.

Also, did you know that the President's family gets billed for food, toilet paper, and expenses from when they have guests visit? I had no idea. I really had very little knowledge of how things worked behind the scenes at the White House so it was pretty eye-opening in that way.

The audiobook was 19 hours long (!) which concerned me because I generally stick to books that are around 8-9 hours if I can help it. The only other audiobooks I've listened to that were so long were in the Harry Potter series. But it wasn't a slog to get through, as I had feared. It was an interesting story that was very well narrated by Michelle Obama, who could probably do this as a career if she wanted to. (I've also listened to Barack narrate his own memoir and as much as I hate to say anything negative about him, it's a good thing he had another career to fall back on.) All in all I'm glad I read this and, more than anything, it made me really miss the Obamas. They were a pretty cool First Family!

Monday, February 4, 2019

Sing, Unburied, Sing

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (2017)

I like to think I'm being thematic by reading this book at the beginning of Black History Month, but the fact is that I've been wanting to read Jesmyn Ward for years. Salvage the Bones was a Big Deal when it came out, but there are dogs in it, pit bulls, and I think maybe bad things happen to them? It put me off a bit. But then this book came out and everyone raved about it and I didn't get around to reading this one either for a while and now it's made its way onto my 2019 TBR Pile Challenge list. And now may go back and read Salvage the Bones too, even though it may rip my heart out. I think maybe that's just what her books do.

The story takes place in Ward's home state of Mississippi. Jojo is a thirteen-year-old boy, fiercely protective of his younger sister Kayla, who also lives with his grandparents and his mother, when she's around. He calls his mother Leonie and his grandparents, Mam and Pop, are more like his parents. His white father, Michael, is in prison. But he's getting out and Leonie packs up the kids and her friend Misty to go on a road trip to pick him up.

Things don't go terribly well. Kayla throws up all over the car, for starters, which makes everyone miserable. Leonie thinks she can heal her with plants, but Jojo doesn't trust her. They spend the night at Michael's lawyer's house where the adults all get high together while Jojo watches over the sick Kayla.

I've mentioned that Jojo's father is white, and this is significant because Michael's father, Big Joseph, is extremely racist and will not accept that his son is in a relationship with a black woman. There's also some family history here that I won't get into but it shows even more what kind of person Big Joseph is.

I can't believe I've gotten this far without mentioning the ghosts. Leonie's brother Given, who was killed at a young age, appears to her when she is high, which is part of the reason she keeps doing it. Pop (who by the way was possibly my favorite character) told Jojo stories about his time in Parchman, the same prison Michael is being released from. Some of these stories are about a boy named Richie, who was Jojo's age then, and how Pop tried to look for him at the prison. On the car trip, Richie appeared to Jojo and talked with him along the way. I don't know if I should use the word "ghost" to describe these appearances of dead people, but since they are dead people appearing to (some of) the living, that's basically what they are.

Leonie is not the mothering type, her awareness pretty centered on Michael. The kids were always frigging hungry in this book and she didn't think to feed them, or, it was almost as if she didn't want them to eat. Michael was her priority, and getting high. I kind of hated her for how she treated her kids, but also really felt for her in some ways. Losing her brother was horrible, and being in love with a guy whose family hated her (for no good reason) was also terrible, and her mother was dying. It's no excuse to treat your kids the way she did, but I do think she actually felt a bit of affection towards them. She just screwed up early and now they don't go to her for comfort or really even trust her. I have such mixed feelings about her but I can say for sure that she felt real.

All the characters did, even the ones who appeared just as ghosts. The perspective switched between Jojo, Leonie, and Richie so you get a much more full story than you would if it was just from one of them. Everything about this book felt real, in a raw and gritty way. It wasn't an action-packed story, but had a lot of momentum that just propelled me through. The chapters were short and that made it go faster too. It only took me a few days to read but I imagine I'll be thinking about it for much longer.