There There

by Tommy Orange
First sentence: “There was an Indian head, the head of an Indian, the drawing of the head of a headdressed, long-haired Indian depicted drawn by an unknown artist in 1939, broadcast until the late 1970s to American TVs everywhere after all the shows ran out.”
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Content: There is violence, a rape (though I think it was just talked about) and a lot of f-bombs. It’s in the fiction section of the bookstore.

This book, in a series of short chapters, each focusing on a different character, depicts what life is like for the Native Peoples’ population in Oakland, California. It’s contemporary, but there’s also a bit of historical fiction for context, and it culminates in a huge powwow in Oakland. The overall plot is that there are some kids who, because they need the money and because it’s an easy target, decide to rob the powwow of the cash prize. But, mostly, it’s just a picture of what life is like for the remnants of the tribes that have settled in Oakland.

Most of the Native Peoples fiction I’ve read (admittedly: not a lot) has been centered on the reservation, and I think Orange wanted to remind people (read: white readers) that Native Peoples exist elsewhere too. That, and I think he felt his story — that of the Urban Native — hasn’t been told. There was a lot of inner conflict between feeling “not Indian enough” and feeling lost without a tribe or traditions to fall back on. Orange is exploring what it means to be “Indian”, and the perception (possibly foisted upon them by white culture) that you’re only “Indian” if you’re on the reservation or dressed up in traditional clothes.

I hesitate to say I “liked” this. The more accurate word would be “challenged”. I feel for the characters; their lives are not easy and the systemic racism and oppression of them isn’t helping. I appreciate Orange for exploring all the stereotypes of Native culture, and for giving readers a fuller picture of what Native life — both urban and on the reservation — is like It’s very much a “white people are terrible” book; but it’s an honest sentiment, and one that I think is important. And it’s always good to get an own-voices view of things.

So, while I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, I did find it worthwhile to read.

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Circe

by Madeline Miller
First sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.”
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Content: There is a lot of violence, a rape scene, and some references to sex. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore, but I’d give it to an interested high schooler.

I am not overly familiar with Circe’s myth. As one of our customers said, when I mentioned that I was reading this book, “she’s the one who turned men into pigs, right?” That’s pretty much all I knew.

So, I was taken with Miller’s re-imagining of this myth. (And since I didn’t have anything to compare it to, I was a blank slate.) Circe was an interesting character (if a bit annoying at times), and I really loved her slow growth arc, how she went from being a clueless daughter of the god Helios to a witch to a woman with a confidence in her own abilities. I liked the details that Miller put in; you could tell she’s a scholar of the mythology, and she handled the huge cast of characters extremely well. It was a bit slow in the middle, when Circe was exiled to her island, but nothing much else was going on, but once Odysseus showed up, it picked back up again.

All of this to say: I really enjoyed this one a lot!

Audio book: The Bookshop of Yesterdays

by Amy Meyerson
Read by Ann Marie Gideon
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is some mention of sex, and swearing, including f-bombs. It’s in the fiction section of the bookstore.

Miranda Brooks is happy with her life. She has a good job teaching history to 8th graders in Philadelphia. She has a good boyfriend she just moved in with. She doesn’t want to shake things up.

Then she gets a package in the mail — a copy of the Tempest, her estranged uncle’s favorite play — and a note that said uncle has just passed away. Suddenly, she’s off on a plane to LA, the land of her youth, to follow the clues her uncle laid out, to find out the mystery of her past, and how her once-beloved uncle was pushed out of her life.

In addition, Miranda is left sole ownership of the bookstore, Prospero Books, that she has fond memories of when she was a little girl. Through the quest her uncle set, and through the regulars at the bookshop, Miranda slowly finds meaning in what she assumed was a pretty good life.

Oh I enjoyed this one! The narrator was perfect, the story sufficiently bookish, with a side of mystery and romance. It hit all my happy buttons. Not sure it’s high literature, but it was definitely fun.

Eternal Life

by Dara Horn
First sentence: “Either everything matters, or everything is an outrageous waste of time.”
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Content: There is some swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the booktstore.

Rachel has lived for centuries. Way way back, in Roman-occupied territory, she made a deal with God: save her son (the child of her and her love) and she will give over her death. Which means: she’s lived a long, long time. She’s been married many times, and reinvented herself many times. She’s had dozens and dozens of children. And yet, she’s never looked older than eighteen.

And so, in this most recent iteration of her life, her granddaughter is a scientist who is trying to solve the “problem” of death, and her lover (who also fore-swore death) has shown back up, manipulating her children’s lives, and Rachel has realized (not for the first time) that what makes life bearable is knowing that it ends.

The book was… okay. As far as musings about eternal life and what it means goes, it’s not bad. And I did finish it, so it wasn’t horrible. It just wasn’t great. It was interesting, but not compelling, and the ending was just there. Maybe I expected something more exciting (it’s about what it means to not die, after all), but really, it wasn’t all that.

Audio book: Where the Crawdad’s Sing

by Delia Owens
Read by Cassandra Campbell
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is some talk about sex, as well as off-screen sex; domestic abuse, and an attempted rape scene. There is also some mild language. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

My co-workers have been raving about this for months, and I just hadn’t gotten around to reading it. A long drive home from Texas seemed just the time to give it ago.

It’s nominally the story of Kya, a girl who grew up in the marshes of North Carolina. Her father was an abusive drunk, and her mother and siblings all abandoned her to her father when she was seven. She basically raised herself, especially after her father left three years later. With some help from the African American community, she basically figured things out on her own. She did have one friend, Tate, who taught her to read and encouraged her in her scientific studies — she was basically self-educated, but also highly observant — of the marshlands. And then Tate left to go to college and didn’t come back.

It’s also a bit of a murder mystery. The bright young star in town, Chase Andrews, is found dead by the fire tower. And all signs point to Kya as the murderer. The question was: did she do it, or was she framed?

It’s a gorgeously written book, full of details about the natural world, and the narrator was marvelous. I was spellbound most of the way through the book. But I think I was more invested in the murder mystery part of that, because it was left without a tidy resolution. (Ah, adult fiction being so true to life.) I liked the characters, but it really was Owens’ storytelling that drew me in (and the narrator’s reading!) and kept me hooked in this book.

A really excellent read.

The Girls at 17 Swann Street

by Yara Zgheib
First sentence: “I call it the Van Gogh bedroom.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is frank discussion of eating disorders and some mild swearing. If the girls were younger, it’d be a Teen book, but because they’re in their 20s, it lands in Adult Fiction. It’d be appropriate for teenagers, though.

Anna has moved to St. Louis from Paris because her husband, Matthias, got a job here. She was a ballerina, but injured herself and has been off dancing for a while. And when she moved to the states, she couldn’t find a dancing job. One thing led to another, and it soon turned out that the only thing that Anna really could control was her eating. And control it she did, right down to 88 pounds.

Which is why she ended up at 17 Swann Street, a treatment house for those with eating disorders, primarily anorexia and bulimia.

The book follows Anna through six weeks of treatment, while we find out how she ended up at 17 Swann Street through flashbacks. We get to know some of the other patients, but only through Anna’s eyes, as well as Anna’s personal struggles with body image and food.

I liked this book, but I didn’t love it. Partially was visual: there was just too many italics. I know it’s a little thing, but I got tired of reading in italics and felt that they were unnecessary. But, beyond that, I felt that this was kind of clinical, and I was kept at an arm’s distance from really feeling like I was involved in it. Maybe it was me (I have my issues with food, but not a full-blown eating disorder), but I just didn’t connect with Anna or her story. I felt it was all a bit too… pat, for lack of another word.

It’s not a bad book — I finished it, after all — but it’s not the best I’ve read either.

Friday Black

by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
First sentence: “Fela, the headless girl, walked toward Emmanuel.”
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Content: It’s violent and there is some strong language, including a lot of f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore. 

I picked this one up after hearing the author on the New York Times Book Review Podcast. I’m not usually a short story sort of person — and this one took me a while to get through — but it sounded fascinating enough that I felt compelled to pick it up. 

It’s a set of mostly unconnected short stories (though there are three about working in retail that take place in the same store) about what it’s like to be black in America. It’s nominally speculative fiction: the shoppers in the title story are forms of zombies, made that way by consumer greed, literally killing each other on the way to get the Product They Need. Or, in the final story, “Through the Flash”, Adjei-Brenyah imagines a future where technology and climate change has stuck us all in this terrible time loop, doomed forever to repeat the same day and the effects that would have on people, for good and ill. 

But my favorite story — “favorite” meaning “the one that suck with me the most” is “Zimmer Land”, an “amusement” park where white people get to pay for the opportunity to extract “justice”: stop a terrorist, solve a bomb threat, or stop a “thug” from invading their streets. If, by the end, you haven’t realized that it’s a pretty damning telling of the way white people deal with crises, whether real or perceived, then I think you read it wrong. 

I didn’t get all the stories — part of my problem with short stories, usually — but that could be because I’m a white person, and I just don’t understand black life or experience. Even so, I found this to be incredibly powerful. He’s definitely a voice in fiction I’ll be watching out for more from.