Is it weird I occasionally love a sad story? I used to hesitate recommending books that left a tear in my eye, thinking something must be inherently wrong with me if I sometimes enjoyed a drama or tragedy that pulled on my heartstrings.
However, over the past few years I’ve realized that these types of stories serve as a catharsis – something for me to fix my emotions on and connect with in a deep way, similar to a moving piece of art or a compelling film. Can you think of a better feeling than being completely immersed in a character’s story, whether it’s happy or sad? Although I love comedic and light hearted stories just as much, often they don’t move me or motivate me as much as stories with gravitas do. Thus, sad stories continue to reign my reading stacks!
This summer I ran through a series of serious-minded stories, and most of them were fantastic reads. Here are a few I recommmend (have your Kleenex handy):
I realized this weekend that I am incredibly behind on my “Make America Read Again” posts. I have read for about 25 states, yet haven’t reviewed most of them. Mea culpa, y’all! Balancing work and play isn’t always easy, especially when you’re spending the month of October on the whole30 diet and your whole life is meal prep and clean up and label reading…but that’s for another post. Let me start to catch up by reviewing two more Mid-west state books for Ohio and Illinois!
(Note: this book review is my Mississippi pick for my Make America Read Again challenge. to read the full list of books this year, click here. I also was given this advanced copy of the book in exchange for an honest review via NetGalley and Scribner publishing, thank you to both for the honor and opportunity.)
Before moving to Atlanta, Charles and I experienced a season of life that we dubbed “the Nomadic years.” Between the two of us, we spent the past decade bouncing between Greenville, Charleston, Boston, Los Angeles, and Birmingham. We both took a strange sort of pride in our amalgamation of home-bases, of being from a little bit of everywhere (but of course, always claiming Alabama as our true home). We were used to constantly shifting, adapting, and never committing to one city or friend group because after all, a few months or a year later, we would be moving on again.
So now that we’ve moved to Atlanta, we sometimes struggle with the realization that this city of Coca-Cola and Chick-Fil-A will most likely be our home for the next several decades. How does one establish the adult-version of home??!
It took us several months to adjust to this new way of life – of driving to work instead of walking or taking the subway, of oppressively hot summers and laughably nonexistent winters, of strangers who stop to talk to you just to talk and not to ask for money or favors. It wasn’t until this summer that we truly started forming real roots in this town, reaching out to old friends from high school and college who are now based within “the ATL,” or branching out into new social circles. But once we did, our summer plans exploded into dinner dates, weekend volunteering, and day trips across the state line. Every weekend since June has been absolutely packed, y’all. And we didn’t even take a big vacation!
So, suffice it to say my plans for the “summer of writing” were completely dashed. C’est la vie, it was still worth it.
However, Charles and I were getting a bit run down with all the excitement- the only “home-cooked” meal we had for weeks was the occasional random salad we threw together, our laundry basket was overflowing, and our cats (d’Artagnan and Gilbert, named after literary characters naturally) were feeling rather ignored. So we spent this Labor Day weekend regrouping and resetting our lives.
And of course I made time for a whole lot of reading :).
Review: Sing, Unburied Sing!
Y’all, this latest novel by Jesmyn Ward (out tomorrow!) was such a deeply compelling read. This was the first story by Jesmyn Ward I had ever read, though I’ve seen her in several interviews and already knew she was an intellectual, articulate creative. Plus she is a Southerner and her story settings are in the South, so I already knew her work fit right into my wheelhouse. The opening pages proved my gut right – Ward is incredibly gifted at transporting you into her Mississippi.
The sky has turned the color of sandy red clay: orange cream. The heat of the day at its heaviest: the insects awoken from their winter slumber. I cannot bear the world.
Ward’s novel is a Mississippi Delta-styled Odyssey, as twelve-year-old Joseph sets out on a roadtrip with his less-than-stellar mother Leonie, his toddler sister Kayla, and Leonie’s best friend Misty. They are heading up to Parchman to pick up JoJo and Kayla’s white father (Leonie’s boyfriend) Michael from jail, where he has spent the past three years serving time for drug dealing. Meanwhile, JoJo and Kayla’s grandparents (and their true parental figures) as the grandmother is suffering from her bout of cancer. Naturally, several disasters ensue.
This book is the epitome of a dysfunctional family novel, and Ward does not hesitate to bring in the dark and grisly for this realistic portrayal of life in the South. The opening chapter includes a rather ghastly description of JoJo slaying a goat with his grandfather for their weekly meal prep. When reading this book, the writing causes you to use all five senses – whether you want to or not, you and those characters are smelling and seeing and hearing the same things.
“I washed my hands every day, Jojo. But that damn blood ain’t never come out.”
Every theme you can think of for a typical Southern novel comes into play in this book – race relations, poverty, religion and superstition, substance abuse, family dynamics, and agriculture come sharply into focus in turn. And yet each issue is brought to the reader’s attention with such grace and subtlety, you hardly understand what Ward accomplished until about thirty pages later. And she handles some of the more volatile subjects with such care and reality, it’s truly a work of art.
The majority of the book is a character study, but an added layer to this story is the theme of ghosts, both literal and figurative. Evoking the style of Toni Morrison, spirits do haunt several of the characters; but other family members are merely are haunted by their past. Part of this novel is about the ability to move from the past, to forgive yourself as well as others, to learn from your mistakes – or the failure to do these things. Mostly, Ward displays a deep and unabiding empathy for her characters; for their intrinsic humanness, for their custom combinations of vice and virtue.
Frankly, this novel ripped me apart a bit, and I think the ghosts of JoJo and Kayle and Pap are going to stay with me for quite some time.
This book is going to be big, y’all. Read it, read it, read it. (With tissues). Again, it’s being released TOMORROW!
Rating: 5/5 Stars, if not more
Read if: You love Southern Fiction, family-driven novels, you’re a human with a soul
Now that I’m back to the blogging world, what books did you read over the holiday weekend? Do y’all have any suggestions on books to read that are set in New Mexico or South Dakota? I’m still struggling to find books for a few states…
(Psst, this book review is my Massachusetts pick for my Make America Read Again challenge. to read the full list of books this year, click here.)
For those of you who don’t know, my husband is a legit super genius patent lawyer extraordinaire. Not that I am biased or anything.
He and I have gone to school together since we were in middle school, and he has always aced every test, paper, quiz, and presentation. He was one of two people in our graduating college class to have a perfect 4.0, and the only one in his major (Chemistry) to accomplish this GPA, considered one of the most difficult programs in the country. He broke the record for the highest Organic Chemistry test scores from our school and won the adoration of our professor (who would write notes on his test like, “You have an incredible future in Chemistry”, smiley face included), and he had only taken that class FOR FUN with me, while I was forced to take it for my pre-med curriculum.
PS: I impressed exactly no one with my Orgo grade, but I got really good at doodling the chemical structure for TNT over and over.
So when he got accepted into Harvard for the Organic Chemistry PhD programs, no one was surprised. What we were surprised to discover, however, was the incredibly toxic and manipulative environment of the department. That’s why this book, Chemistry, by Weike Wang, resonated so deeply with me.
Y’all ever get a case of the Sunday Scaries? This week it hit me like a Mack Truck; I’m not sure if it was because of my extra-fun Saturday spent in South Carolina, the fact that work has been extra-stressful lately, that I’ve been reading too many “dark” books lately (Charles made me promise that my next read would be “happy” after I spent several days tearing up at virtually everything, and then gave him a summary of the past five books I’ve read, all of which were about less-than-sunny subjects), or that I’m simply in summer mode, but I definitely felt some kind of way when I woke up this Sunday morning…and it wasn’t my normal chipper self but instead, moody and whiny.
SOOO I’m going to make this post short and sweet so I can bury my head in a good (CHEERFUL) book and pretend like I don’t have to spend all day tomorrow staring at teeth ;).
So remember how last week’s book review was light and frothy? Well. This week’s book for Michigan is the exact opposite. Instead, it’s a story of an intense high school friendship, the lure of addiction, and the spiraling effect of small events in life. This book swept me back to my own high school years, the (mostly) pre-Facebook and smart phone and economic collapse era, the years of locker room rumors and AP testing and field parties that, despite your best intentions, shape a part of your adulthood in ways you don’t always realize until much later.
This week was not exactly a stellar start to the summer, now was it? Between the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and yesterday’s London attacks, the world isn’t looking so sunny. I’m currently bed-ridden with a bout of a lovely strep throat/cold combo, and although usually I enjoy any excuse to read all day in bed, it’s been more difficult to concentrate on any book of depth while nursing a fever, aching limbs, and grieving and angry for a city I was lucky enough to call (for a short time) my home. Why does this keep happening? What can we do to put a stop to this violence? I’m way too hazy from my cough medicine to answer these questions with any semblance of wisdom, though no one else seems to be able to answer these questions either. The scariest part to me is how each attack becomes less and less shocking – we are becoming desensitized and grow jaded with the well-meaning Facebook flag pictures and the “Praying for London” tweets. I think I’m undergoing a short term version of a funk.
“Rich People Problem” books are my go-to for whenever I’m having a rough week, when I just finished a rough semester in school, or whenever I need a palate-cleanser after reading an intense or depressing story. So this weekend I needed something light and frothy, perhaps even downright superficial, to give me a temporary reprieve from the real world. Fortunately, the novel Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan (published in 2013) fit at least two of these three characteristics, and took me to a completely different part of the world without having to leave my couch.
What’s it All About?
The international bestselling novel is the first in a trilogy (the sequel, China Rich Girlfriend, was published in 2015, and the finale Rich People Problems was just released this past month) and centers around 29-year-old Economy professor and ABC (American Born Chinese) Rachel Chu and her dashingly charming boyfriend, Nick Young. Nick is heading back to his home country of Singapore for his best friend’s upcoming nuptials, and he invites Rachel along as part of a summer-long tour of Asia. What Rachel doesn’t know is that her low-key PhD lover is actually a favorite grandson of one of the richest Singapore families…in other words, she’s about to be immersed in the world of some Crazy Rich Asians.
As she is interrogated and judged by various friends and family of the Singapore elite, Rachel begins to question her relationship with Nick and her place in his life. Will they survive the pressure?
At first, I honestly thought I was going to loathe this book. The opening chapters that are narrated by Nick’s more sartorial-focused family members include an endless number of designer brand name-dropping and Michelin-star restaurant references that made me cringe and roll my eyes. There’s a reason why I’ve never been tempted to watch the Kardashian’s or Real Housewives shows; even for me there are limits to how basic I’m willing to go (though I’ll never say no to a SoulCycle class or a glass of bubbly, so I’m still pretty far gone on the Yuppy spectrum).
…eventually though, I realized that the whole point of the book was to gently satirize this culture (although the author himself seems to genuinely love a good Gucci loafer, as much as he talks about them in the book). I blame the cough-medicine-induced haze on my delayed reading comprehension. Then I started really enjoying myself and got immersed in the world of Asian elite society, the clash between Mainland Chinese and Overseas Chinese, as well as the New Money versus Old Money tensions that are scarily similar to American society except on a grander scale – in Kwan’s depiction of Singapore, those that make a mere four million a year are absolute paupers.
I also surprisingly found myself gleaning little tiny peeks into Singapore and Chinese culture – the rituals and traditions, the mouth-watering cuisine that sounds like a mix of Indian, Asian, and European cuisine (I have been craving satay and coconut rice and laksa and chili crab for several days now, as well as many other dishes that I don’t even fully understand). Also, did you know that Singapore actually gives dividends to its citizens when the economy is doing well? This island, and really this area of the world, holds so many secrets I was completely unaware of until this book. Unsurprisingly, I am now desperate to plan a trip to this part of the world.
Read this book if…
At its heart, this novel is a rom-com, albeit one sprinkled with designer dress names and private-jet trips to Indonesia and Australia. I do think Mr. Kwan brings a perceptive eye to this genre, so if you’re looking for a fun summer read with hints of character development and sly humor, while understanding that this book is definitely NOT going to change your life, this is a good pick. It will definitely make you smile on those rough days, if also feel a bit gross about how materialistic we all are.
(P.S. For those of you in the London area, you can offer to help victims in the London attacks via the Facebook Safety Check app, which has volunteer resources. If anyone knows how those of us in the United States or other countries can help, please comment below.)