Monday, May 29, 2017

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas | Review

I was about 150 pages into The Hate U Give (THUG) by Angie Thomas when a thought struck me: How many contemporary YA books had I read with a black protagonist? The mental list ran stunningly short, complicated by the realization that I had read significantly more historical fiction about young black teens than I have about today's. As well as significantly more literature about Latino, East Asian and Middle Eastern teens than black ones. This ended up framing a lot of how I kept reading THUG, with that constant question in the back of my mind if I could really accurately review a book that described a world I was only just getting to see.

So I will preface the remainder of this review with the reminder that as a non-black reader (and more specifically, a non-African American reader), there is a lot about THUG that is not really "about me". There's the added fact that as a "part-time" American (that is... someone who spent some of her childhood in the US, but grew up in predominantly Asian-American, Latino, and Jewish environments and has since lived her entire adult life in not-US), there are racial nuances from the past few years that I have only encountered secondhand or from stories. It ultimately means that there are multiple dimensions to THUG that I feel I cannot critically speak for.

But I can say what I thought of the book in spite of these limitations. Simply put: It was good.

My familiarity with American black culture is, as I've already mentioned, fairly limited: a handful of books, certain columnists and bloggers, several films by black women, and so on. This may seem like an unnecessary bit of information, but it actually became strikingly obvious once I started THUG: much of the slang was unfamiliar to me. After all, I'm not an African American teen, I'm an Israeli twenty-something who hasn't lived in the US in over a decade. This meant that it took me about two chapters to get into the rhythm of the writing, after which I was in.

Because again: THUG is a good book. It's sharp, it's timely (perhaps too timely, but I'll get to that in a moment), it's almost disturbingly nuanced, and it's wonderfully written. The book practically pulses - from the moment I got into the rhythm, there was simply no question as to whether I'd set the book down or keep reading. (Not-a-spoiler alert: I kept reading and finished the book just after midnight. Worth it.) Starr is a stellar YA narrator: mostly focused on herself, yes, but reflective enough and more importantly communicative enough that we grasp the world around her intuitively.

But what, you might ask, is THUG really about? Why is it "timely"? Why is it so buzzed right now?

THUG is about police violence, "Black Lives Matter", black culture and experiences, and more broadly what it means to be black in the modern US. Does that all sound a bit much? A bit grand, a bit heavy for a contemporary YA novel? It shouldn't - THUG isn't a difficult book. As someone who reads a lot of essays by young black writers about these issues, I can't even say that there was all that much new to THUG either. But... that doesn't mean it was fresh. And it doesn't mean it wasn't done very well.

THUG centers on Starr Carter, 16-years old and caught between her two worlds: her black "ghetto" neighborhood and her mostly-white prep school (complete with a white boyfriend and a white former-best-friend, as well as an Asian-American still-friend). The novel kicks off with Starr's old best friend Khalil getting fatally shot by a police officer... with Starr as the sole witness. From there, THUG explores many of the issues that inevitably emerge from these sorts of police shootings: media manipulations, the framing of the police officer as a "good guy" who just "wanted to get home safely to his family", Starr's problematic role as sole witness, the vilification of Khalil as a "drugdealer thug" who deserves what he got, the grand jury trial, protests, and so on.

THUG doesn't shy away from the complexities of this problem. While there is a distinct YA feel to the surrounding drama that Starr faces in her life (specifically her sense of belonging "between two worlds", boyfriend issues, friend issues, etc.), Thomas pulls no punches when it comes to addressing how deeply wrong many of the post-shooting narratives become. Starr frequently wonders to herself how it can be that the entire shooting has been reframed in such a way as to make the victim - an unarmed teenager who was simply driving home after a party - the villain who is on trial, while the perpetrator - an adult, trained police officer who shot an unarmed teenager three times - is cast as the victim. This refrain is of course familiar to anyone who has engaged with the Black Lives Matter movement, but that does not take away from its power in-text. In general, Starr emerges as a sort of proxy for many social justice ideas and concepts, but not in a way that crowds out any plot. Nor does it ever feel preachy. Starr is simply a sharp girl who rejects the social injustices around her and makes much of that rejection clear.

If I had to point to the novel's biggest flaw, there is no doubt in my mind that it will require footnotes in the future. Not simply for subtle (and sometimes not subtle) references to real-world victims of police shootings, but also for the way it's a story thrumming with modern culture. Starr does more than just talk about social media in the abstract - she specifically references certain websites and their unique social justice subcultures (Tumblr, mainly, though Black Twitter gets a few shout-outs too). While not inherently a bad thing (I have no problem with stories that embrace current technological trends, nor stories that are ostensibly "ripped from the headlines" or in other words culturally relevant), it gave me the feeling that the book will feel a tad bit dated in just a few years, which would just be a shame... This is the sort of book that should become part of the young adult literary canon, not simply as a "social justice" text, but also as an intelligent novel about what it means to be sixteen.

There are other minor quibbles too. I felt the book stumbled somewhat in its sidelining of Starr's friend Maya, whose Asian-ness only becomes relevant to Starr when it overlaps with her own experiences. For a novel that spends so much time drawing clear class-based racial lines (emphasizing the impact class differences have for black people), it felt odd that Thomas did not address the different ways class and race intersect for non-black marginalized groups. THUG would eventually recognize that Maya faces bias and bigotry herself, despite "belonging" to this "white world", but it felt oddly one-dimensional for a novel that lives and breathes in three. Obviously, this need not have been the focus of the novel - Thomas is specifically writing and examining black lives - but I found myself wishing it had been developed just a tiny bit more. This applies to Starr's occasionally binary thinking in regards to race/class as well, but these points are ultimately not the focus.

These issues are exceedingly irrelevant in the face of a novel that does two things remarkably well: THUG tells a story in rapid-fire, pulsing, engaging, and thoroughly enjoyable prose, and it tells a powerful story that has cultural importance in more ways than one. As I said early in this review, I cannot speak for black teens, but I have seen how most readers have responded. Regardless of race or background, readers remain enthralled by the stellar writing and meaningful story. That is not to say all readers: some have taken issue with Starr's frustrated dismissal of "white people", though these reviewers frequently neglect to recognize the in-text examination of system racism and the ways in which that impacts things like microaggressions or racist commentary. And I also cannot shake the feeling at times that THUG is a book meant to appeal to well-meaning non-black readers who want to boost their social-justice credibility, largely because its reviewers are overwhelmingly white (or at least non-black), though this too does not diminish from the power of a book that clearly stems from the author's personal experiences (in part, at least).

THUG is one of the most highly-hyped books of the past year. Well-deserved for a well-written book.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere by Anna Gavalda | Review

I read Anna Gavalda's French Leave way back in 2011, having picked up that slim novella at a Border's going-out-of-business sale (a tragic day for my childhood nostalgia of the bookstore giant, a great day for collecting lots of books for little money). I wasn't all that impressed with the book, to be honest, finding it somewhat boring and fragmented in a not-exactly-enjoyable way. Even so, I would end up buying Gavalda's I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere (translated from French by Karen L. Marker) in 2014, during the first-ever WITMonth. And then it languished on my shelves for three years.

The truth is, I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere (hereby shortened to stories or this collection because the title is way too long) is a pretty great book. This short story collection was an exciting shift for me after a series of fairly disappointing single-author collections (in which style kept suffocating innovation or intrigue), largely because it is both delightfully short and wonderfully varied. Gavalda has a distinct enough style in each of the stories, but she plays around with different explorations of similar themes. Most of the stories are written in fairly conversational styles, but they managed to sound different and their topics varied widely enough that it didn't feel like I was rereading the same story again and again (as I had occasionally felt with Gail Hareven's most recent short story collection People Fail).

The stories range from young adult antics, to sexual escapades, to lost loves, to public tragedies, to rape, to anxiety, and more. While some of the stories made me roll my eyes (see: young adult antics), others had me on the edge of my seat, and others still had me crying softly for five minutes after the story ended. Enough of the stories wormed their way into my brain, touching me emotionally in a way that not all short stories are able to. Some just made me laugh.

The conversational, first-person will likely not be to every reader's taste. Neither will the sharp contrast between Gavalda's sly stories and the more emotionally daunting ones. To a certain degree, the uniformity of writing style compensates somewhat for the tone shifts between stories, but there remains an undercurrent of cynicism that seems to pervade every story, like Gavalda is highly aware of how her own voice is mixing with that of her characters. And while I hadn't really enjoyed it with French Leave, the brevity of these stories made sure that nothing got bogged down or too tangled. The stories don't feel especially long, but they're not quite brief either - that sweet spot of being "just right". For readers not opposed to conversational short-storytelling, this one is warmly recommended.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Hollow Heart by Viola Di Grado | Review

I won't lie: This book is creepy, uncomfortable, and I'm not sure I really enjoyed it. Is it good? Yeah, probably. That disturbing, chilling effect is clearly intentional, reflecting Viola Di Grado's talent as a writer (translated into English by Antony Shugar), but I'll say right off the bat: It's not enough.

Hollow Heart follows Dorotea, a young woman who has recently killed herself. Her foray into the afterlife is rather unremarkable - as her body rots away in the ground, she finds herself completely aware of everything. She's effectively "still alive", wandering around the real world, but now aware of all the other dead souls still walking around. In Di Grado's imagination, people do not really die when they die. They can still interact with the living world, move objects and haunt, but they are invisible to all but a few living souls.

For the suicidal Dorotea, this proves to be a shift in "life". She continues to go to work, invisible to the customers in the stationary store she works at, but her boss can somehow still see her. She makes new dead friends. She writes ambiguously imaginary postcards to other dead people who she knows or has stumbled across. She keeps a journal to track her decomposing body, in gruesome and detailed terms.

Unsurprisingly, Hollow Heart is an unsettling read. Dorotea's description of her rotting body is not flat, rather it's an odd blend of curious and ambivalent. For the reader, however, it can be downright unpleasant. I'll note that any readers with aversions to bugs may be especially disturbed by the graphic descriptions of changes the body goes through during decay. It's... well, it's rather horrifying. I won't pretend that I liked it very much.

It's more than the dry way Di Grado writers about death. It's the way the entire book seems seeped in melancholy, depression, and a lack of awareness. And of course, it's hard to resist the urge to compare this to Di Grado's previously published novel, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool. There too Di Grado focused a laser beam on a depressed young woman living with a depressed mother, and the impact this has on both. The two books end up feeling very similar to each other, as though Hollow Heart is an emotional continuation of 70% Acrylic 30% Wool, but with the creepiness turned up. Perhaps this was part of the problem - I already knew that Di Grado could write creepy, subversive novels (though I would argue that Hollow Heart is far more "normal" and "standard" than 70% Acrylic 30% Wool, which at least surprised me in several places), but this almost feels like a continuation of the same. There is an almost pathological interest in the grossness of death. If not for Hollow Heart's clear de-romanticization of death, taken together, it'd almost feel like these books are glamorizing mental illness. Hollow Heart at the very least does little to dispel it.

The writing is a little jerky, at times somewhat abruptly clunky, but it fits the narrative fairly well. Overall, it casts a sense of distance between reader and story, quite befitting a tale of suicide and the afterlife. It's got much of the punchiness that 70% Acrylic 30% Wool had, but little of the enjoyment that I felt from reading that novel (or the payoff from a strong ending). Hollow Heart left me feeling a little, well, hollow towards Di Grado as a writer. Cooler. While I'm still certainly intrigued by her talent, I find myself wishing she'd try a different angle in her next foray... or at least a different take on this same story. Perhaps a slightly more mature one.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

WITMonth to WITMonth: New releases!

A lot happens in a year. From August to August, we can identify a lot of great titles by women in translation (though not nearly as many as we'd like!), published in different countries, under different presses.

And so to make things just a bit easier for readers getting ready for WITMonth 2017, I've decided to compile a list of some of the books that I'm aware of... with, of course, a desire to add as many additional titles as possible! Publishers/translators/bloggers: If you know of any other titles published between August 2016 and August 2017, feel free to drop me a line and I will promptly add them to this list! Similarly, if you identify any error in my database, let me know and I'll make sure to fix it. This is definitely just the preliminary list, with many more eligible newly released books by women in translation just waiting to be added.

Please note that the list contains titles available in both the US and the UK! Some do not have the same release dates, so keep an eye out for your local publishers.

Link to the WITMonth 2017: New Releases database!