Authors

Jan 18, 2016

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

Book cover for THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS by Isabel Wilkerson
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In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I urge you to read The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. This book, more than any other I’ve read, provides historical context for the state of relations between blacks and whites in America today. There’s a reason it won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2010, just as there’s a reason Wilkerson won a Pulitzer Prize in journalism in 1994.

Wilkerson chronicles the massive, though perhaps little-known, migrations of African Americans out of the southeastern region of the United States, between 1915 and 1970. While closely following the lives of three people, she more broadly discusses the stressful and dangerous circumstances under which millions of African Americans migrated. If you’ve ever wanted to understand institutionalized racism—or have ever been skeptical about the concept—this book is well worth your time.

Never forget that what was done yesterday influences what takes place today.

Quotes from The Warmth of Other Suns

People like Ida Mae had few options, and the landlords knew it. New arrivals often paid twice the rent charged the whites they had just replaced for worn-out and ill-kept housing. “The rents in the South Side Negro district were conspicuously the highest of all districts visited,” Abbott wrote. Dwellings that went for eight to twenty dollars a month to white families were bringing twelve to forty-five dollars a month from black families, those earning the least income and thus least able to afford a flat at any rent, in the early stages of the Migration. Thus began a pattern of overcharging and underinvestment in black neighborhoods that would lay the foundation for decades of economic disparities in the urban North.

Like other mass migrations, it was not a haphazard unfurling of lost souls but a calculable and fairly ordered resettlement of people along the most direct route to what they perceived as freedom, based on railroad and bus lines. The migration streams were so predictable that by the end of the Migration, and, to a lesser degree, even now, one can tell where a black northerner’s family was from just by the city the person grew up in—a good portion of blacks in Detroit, for instance, having roots in Tennessee, Alabama, western Georgia, or the Florida panhandle because the historic rail lines connected those places during the Migration years.

[The Illinois Central Railroad] carried so many southern blacks north that Chicago would go from 1.58 percent black at the start of the twentieth century to one-third black by the time the flow of people finally began to slow in 1970. Detroit’s black population would skyrocket from 1.4 percent to 44 percent during the era of the Migration.

The children, having emerged from one-room schoolhouses with their southern English, were often labeled retarded by northern school officials, regardless of their native abilities. Segregation was not the law, but northerners would find creative ways to segregate the migrant children from the white children when so inclined.

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Oct 1, 2013

Above All Things by Tanis Rideout

Book cover for ABOVE ALL THINGS by Tanis Rideout
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Above All Things follows the mountaineers of Britain’s 1924 Mount Everest expedition. In particular, it’s about the relationships between the men who dared to climb in conditions unfit for humans and about the people they left behind, back closer to sea level. If you don’t know much about this expedition or George Mallory, I urge you to read about them after you’ve read this book. It’ll be more fun that way.

Everest As Uncharted Territory

The Mount Everest of decades past had more in common with the deep, dark unknown of the ocean or the fiery belly of a volcano than with the rest of the earth that we know, inhabit, and call home. Today, Everest remains deadly and somewhat alien, but it’s not so unknown. Expensive commercial packages that include trained guides, state-of-the-art equipment, and an ample supply of food and oxygen enable novices to make the dangerous climb. This has turned Everest into a crowded, trash-ridden, feces-covered place. Each year, thousands ascend for bragging rights, meandering among those who remain, frozen in place, if not in time.

What Mount Everest looks like today

Overcrowded Everest. More pictures on National Geographic.

It’s hard to imagine such crowding—and, frankly, such comfort—when reading Tanis Rideout’s Above All Things. In 1924, Everest is uncharted territory, an untamed beast. Rideout forces you to consider how scary and desolate the uncharted part must have been. Mountaineer George Mallory and the others don’t only have to survive the mountain’s bitter cold with inferior equipment. They also have to climb with no map to guide them. Being first has its drawbacks. Worse, some who climb already have failed attempts haunting them. Rideout brilliantly communicates the climbers’ anxieties, leaving you with a sort of claustrophobic panic as each character’s life depends on watches, compasses, and gut feelings.

Above All Things is detail-oriented, and Rideout does much to place readers in the time period and draw attention to the expedition’s primitive equipment.

George woke with his feet numb from a small drift of snow that had gathered in the tent near them. The flap had come undone in the night and the canvas rumbled and snapped, almost tore apart as the wind ripped at the material. The roar of it was deafening, but they weren’t snowbound. Not yet.

As a fan of stories about people struggling to survive—perhaps I’m a sadist?—I expected to enjoy following the mountaineers every snowy step of the way. But I didn’t expect to care about them so deeply.

Many historical fiction novels are heavy on information, but light on character depth. Rideout avoids this by telling the story through the characters’ relationships. Every success or failure the mountaineers experience on Everest is influenced by their sometimes close, sometimes strained relationships with one another, or by their memories—and vivid hallucinations as the air thins—of friends, family, and lost loves half a world away.

Even now he felt torn. Part of him hated being separated from Ruth and the children. And another part hated himself for being so damn sentimental. It was weak. Still, there was the luxury of freedom this far from home. He felt different away from Ruth, away from everyday life, and he was never quite sure which person he was, which he wanted to be.

Rideout gives voice to those left behind, too, with some chapters dedicated to the first-person perspective of Ruth Mallory, George’s wife. Ruth, who is listless and forlorn in George’s absence, is not always fun to read; she is a woman with no identity outside of her husband and, to a lesser extent, her children. However, having read Rideout’s closing notes about Ruth, I think Ruth may be accurately portrayed here and simply a product of her time and status. Her life is small and dull, but the characters that surround her—men and other women from her and George’s rather incongruous life together—mostly make up for it. And though Ruth can be frustrating, she adds to George’s complexity and to the narrative overall.

The final third of the book is where Rideout really finds her pacing. You grow more and more nervous the closer the team makes it to the summit. With each mistake or sacrifice, you want them to turn back, but they don’t. They’re blinded by it—whatever Everest is to them. In George Mallory’s famous, actual words, they have to climb “because it’s there.”

Above All Things left me with the hollow sweetness that comes from finishing a good book, and I’ve since thought a lot about the expedition and Rideout’s interpretations of the people who went on it. I’m not sure I’ll ever understand the impetus behind wanting to conquer mountains, but I do have a greater appreciation for those who first climbed Everest. After all, you can’t help but be in awe of people who argue over the “sportsmanship” of using oxygen to survive.

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Quotes from Above All Things

Their hands described reckless adventure, sailing over longitudes and latitudes, past here there be monsters and the arched backs of the sea serpents painted on the blue of the Indian Ocean, and into the port of Bombay.

“It’s just that the bad turns make for better stories. No one wants to hear about the hike you took where nothing happened.”

“Then the coolie’s hands thawed,” he went on. “I don’t know which was worse. The freezing or the thawing.” Both were terrible reminders that the body was nothing but pulpy meat, easily ruptured, broken, frozen, thawed. That was the worst of it, knowing the myriad ways a body could be destroyed.

Aug 1, 2013

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Book cover for THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green
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In The Fault in Our Stars, Hazel Lancaster and Augustus Waters are two smart, sassy teenagers who have managed to stay one half-step ahead of the Grim Reaper. After meeting at a cancer support group, they quickly form a strong bond. Through each other, they experience a world beyond illness.

A Book About Teens (Who Don’t Act Like Teens) That Teens Will Like

If you don’t know who the Green brothers are, you’re missing out. Simply put, they’re good people who are trying to make the world a better place. I regularly direct young adults to the Crash Course channel on YouTube, where John and Hank Green make subjects like history, chemistry, and literature fun and accessible for the masses. I listen to their podcast. You could say I have a major nerd crush on the Greens and their efforts. Unfortunately, that’s problematic when it comes to reading John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.

In my experience, it’s almost as difficult to read books by the people you like as it is to read books by the people you don’t like. I’ve avoided Green’s young adult novels for years now because I’ve always thought, “How could his writing not disappoint? I expect too much.” But I couldn’t ignore all the positive reviews and five-star ratings for The Fault in Our Stars. I gave in and read the book. I’m glad I did, if for no other reason than it was past time I tried one of Green’s novels. I would be lying, though, if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed, as I always feared I would be.

Don’t get me wrong. There are positive things I can say about this book. For one, Green manages to take on the heart and soul of a teenage girl to write her first-person perspective in a believable way, which is a difficult enough task for grown women, let alone grown men. (Hazel’s friend, Kaitlyn, doesn’t manage to escape stereotyping, though, which is probably why she disappears from the film adaptation of this book.) Then, considering The Fault in Our Stars is about young people with cancer, it can be surprisingly funny, at least if you enjoy dark humor.

Osteosarcoma sometimes takes a limb to check you out. Then, if it likes you, it takes the rest.

The plot isn’t full of surprises. It’s small and obvious enough that anything beyond a summary is likely to give away major plot points. And The Fault in Our Stars won’t be a thought-provoking commentary on death for most adults. However, the scope of the plot and its themes seem appropriate for Green’s intended teenage audience. I can imagine it’s helped some young people examine or even cope with cancer and death, which makes the book special and important in its own way.

As with all writing, though, The Fault in Our Stars has its flaws. Most of its issues are minor, probably a matter of opinion, but I struggled to accept the dialogue—a surprise, given that the dialogue was what I had assumed I would enjoy most from Green.

The problem lies in how Hazel and Augustus are meant to be more mature than average teenagers because of their experiences. It’s a reasonable enough notion, but how this is executed in dialogue doesn’t work for me. Both characters are prone to world-weary, existential, lengthy monologues that are awkward and contrived.

Teenagers, no matter how mature, do not sound like well-rehearsed Moth storytellers or TED Talk presenters—neither do adults, for that matter. No one is poetic on the fly. Sure, readers don’t want the “ums” and “uhs” and the disjointed mayhem of real speech, but it never feels right to read perfectly formed sentences, either.

Everything gets especially ridiculous when Hazel and Augustus interact with each other, as they do during much of the book. I’ll just leave this quote from Augustus here:

“I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things. I’m in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you.”

Prince is judging you.

I can almost taste the cheese.

Augustus comes with the additional flaw of being less “wise beyond his years” than self-aware to the point of absurdity.

“I’m just kidding, Dad. I like the freaking Encouragements. I really do. I just can’t admit it because I’m a teenager.”

“Hazel Grace, you are the only teenager in America who prefers reading poetry to writing it.”

Hashtag ThingsTeenagersWouldNeverSay.

Hazel manages to avoid the worst of the dialogue problems, but Augustus is full of this stuff, to the point that I disliked his character. I wish I could say otherwise.

The Fault in Our Stars is far from unreadable, and obviously many people adore it, but I don’t think it’s the best young adult book around, and I suspect John Green can and will produce better work in the future. For the time being, I’ll stick to watching and recommending his videos.

Buy The Fault in Our Stars from Amazon or iTunes
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Quotes from The Fault in Our Stars

Mom reached up to this shelf above my bed and grabbed Bluie, the blue stuffed bear I’d had since I was, like, one–back when it was socially acceptable to name one’s friends after their hue.

People talk about the courage of cancer patients, and I do not deny that courage. I had been poked and stabbed and poisoned for years, and still I trod on. But make no mistake: In that moment, I would have been very, very happy to die.

“Some tourists think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but in truth it is a city of freedom. And in freedom, most people find sin.”

Jul 1, 2013

Earth by David Brin

Book cover for EARTH by David Brin
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It’s the year 2038, and Earth ain’t doin’ so well. The planet is overheated and overpopulated. Economies have failed; income inequality is rampant. And somewhere, deep inside the earth, a technological innovation has gone awry as an artificial black hole may eat the planet from the inside out.

Hard Sci-Fi in a Nutshell

Earth was published in 1990, and it’s set in 2038. This dates the book occasionally, but, as with all aging science fiction, it’s interesting to see what the author was and wasn’t able to predict about our present. (Let’s all hope Brin’s completely wrong about future catastrophes involving black holes, though.) Old predictions about our present and future, however, no matter how intriguing or impressive, don’t necessarily breathe life into a story. When it comes to spirit, Earth is pretty much all “head” and no “heart.”

Brin is a scientist himself—according to his website, he’s even cowritten “NASA-funded studies with California Space Institute, regarding robotics & space station design” (so, like, wow)—and like many scientists who dabble in fiction, he journeys into the hard sci-fi genre, attempting to create plots that are theoretically possible, even if improbable.

This sort of writing isn’t for everyone, and it’s why there’s hardly any heart to Earth. It’s also why hard science fiction can sometimes seem preachy as an author tries to teach readers a lesson. It’s a genre where good characterization is frequently sacrificed at an altar of science, projected or pseudo. Earth does have its preachy moments—it would just about have to, given the book title—but it’s the characters who suffer most as Brin molds them from stereotypes (or obvious stereotype reversals) and dedicates the content of their thoughts and dialogue to awkward infodumps.

In my experience, these are expected shortcomings of the hard sci-fi genre, but Brin’s Earth faces a much more common problem seen in works from all genres of fiction: there are too many characters and subplots, and most prove to have no purpose. To me, this is unacceptable in a book that is seven hundred pages long. I can’t quite shake the feeling that Earth wasted a bit of my time, and that was with considerable skim-reading.

So what did I enjoy about Earth? I can answer that easily. Between some of the book’s chapters, you find nonfiction-styled excerpts that are about the state of the planet and society during various periods in (future) history. It comes as no surprise that Brin is better suited to nonfiction, and these bits and pieces turn out to be a much more interesting conduit for his predictions. If I could have read the entire story through a filter of these fictional articles and transcripts, my feelings about this book would likely be very different. As it is, though, these works were what kept me tolerating the rest of the book.

Whether you will like Earth or not depends upon how important quality characterization is to you and how much clichés—surprise, there are aliens—and a deus ex machina ending will bother you. As to that ending, I must quote a Goodreads reviewer’s comical thoughts:

Just be prepared to be disappointed by the ending. Just make up your own, and pretend like the written ending isn’t real.

If you can be satisfied with contemplating interesting scientific possibilities alone, you may find you’re able to overlook Earth‘s shortcomings. Some readers will no doubt love it.

If anything purely objective can be said of Brin’s writing, it’s probably that it’s a good example of what’s to be found in the hard science fiction genre. It plays well enough to its audience, but not everyone is part of that audience.

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Quotes from Earth

Apocalypses, apparently, are subject to fashion like everything else. What terrifies one generation can seem obsolete and trivial to the next.

One of life’s joys was to have friends who gave you reality checks…who would call you on your crap before it rose so high you drowned in it.

…worried governments suddenly began pouring forth reams–whole libraries–of information they’d been hoarding, stumbling over themselves to prove they weren’t responsible for the sudden outbreak of gravitational war.

Heft by Liz Moore

Book cover for HEFT by Liz Moore
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Liz Moore’s Heft is about weights both literal and figurative. It’s about people struggling to survive unfortunate circumstances and bad personal choices. What does one do when the weight of not fitting in, the weight of poverty, or the weight of loneliness sits too heavily? Heft explores how people try to hide pain from others, out of fear of rejection, and how sometimes—just sometimes—that fear isn’t necessary.

The Lies We Tell to Protect Ourselves

Heft is told from two first-person perspectives. There’s Arthur Opp, a former university teacher who, after years of emotional overeating, is morbidly obese and living in a depressing spiral of loneliness, clutter, and agoraphobia. Then there’s “Kel” Keller. Kel is a stressed out, poverty-stricken teenager who has drawn one of life’s shorter straws but hopes to make it big as a baseball player. Both Arthur and Kel are victims of circumstances beyond their control, sometimes as much as they are victims of their own bad choices. For a while, neither of them wants to face this reality. Life, of course, forces them to do so.

Arthur and Kel are connected by the tiny thread that is Charlene, Kel’s alcoholic mother and Arthur’s former student, long-time pen pal, and only love. Like Arthur, Charlene never quite “fits in” to life, and the two have always understood and loved each other through their awkward isolation. As the years pass, however, their relationship deteriorates until they are mere pen pals, safely lying to each other from a distance, even as their lives fall apart. Arthur lies about his employment and weight and spins tales about a busy social life. Charlene lies about her marriage and health and never mentions she has a son.

When the weight of illness becomes too much for Charlene, her lies are the first to unravel. As the truth comes out, Arthur is newly determined to take control of his life, even as Kel is just trying to hold on to the pieces of his.

Following Arthur and Kel as they discover Charlene’s secrets and learn how to cope with the truth—their own and hers—makes for a very good read. Nothing is easy in Heft. Each character is fighting his or her own fight, and you’re never quite sure if they’re going to come out on top. When they don’t, it’s heartbreaking.

The side characters of Heft are worthy of praise as well. Yolanda, the young woman who cleans Arthur’s house and becomes his one real-life friend, provides a nice side plot to the overall story that reveals a lot about Arthur’s personality. And Kel’s friend, the popular, pretty, and affluent Lindsay, is one of the best portrayals of a kindhearted teen girl I’ve seen in a while. (Popular, pretty girls are often portrayed as monsters in books.)

My sole complaint comes down to a matter of technique. Authors who write novels with two first-person perspectives are always taking a great risk. Unfortunately, both Arthur and Kel write ungrammatical, choppy fragments that sound awfully similar, and during the first few pages of Kel’s point of view, I was actually unaware that Moore had switched to a new character at all. The most obvious differences between the two characters’ narratives are in how Arthur, unlike Kel, rarely writes “and,” instead favoring ampersands (&), and how Kel has a tendency to curse, while Arthur does not. (Goodreads reviewer, Jill, has a great theory as to why this is.)

This technical flaw is a pity, as Moore does manage to juggle Arthur and Kel’s personalities—they are clearly two different characters with different ideas, hopes, fears, and so on—but I would have liked to have seen more than cosmetic differences their writing styles. It’s not something that will bother everyone, of course, and none of this is to say you shouldn’t read this book. You should.

Heft closes on a surprisingly positive note, begging for readers to believe in a brighter tomorrow for Arthur, Kel, and all others who believe they face uphill battles alone.

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Quotes from Heft

The whole thing smells like strawberries or the sick sweet plastic of a doll.

Normally I don’t skip ahead in my life but this is what Pells Landing does to a person: makes him dream of the future, of a huge rambling house and dogs named Angelo and Maxie and of having a baby boy and naming him after yourself. Of having a real job. Of richness, unbearable richness.

I have always loved aggrieved & unbeautiful women. I have always loved beautiful women too, but it is the unbeautiful ones that haunt me & find me & abide, whose images I see before me when I go to sleep.

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