An Extraordinary Author Produces a Very Ordinary Book

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After reading the fabulous Snow Child, I fell in love with Eowyn Ivey and wanted to immediately read everything she’d written only to find out it was one of the most fabulous debut novels in ages. So, when I heard that her second novel was now out I rushed to read it. See if this sounds like me:

  • Older man, younger woman couple
  • Historical setting
  • Military  men are involved
  • Epistolary format with diary entries and letters
  • Natural history and nature study
  • Museum and archive work involved

It should have been a perfect fit with my reading tastes. Except….except….except…. It wasn’t. Well, for starters, aspirin is given and it wasn’t on the market yet. Yeah. But the aspirin thing is not a big part of the story–it’s just a sign of an editor not doing one of the jobs they were supposed to do–fact checking.

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The Story

The good stuff

Allen and Sophie Forrester are a happily and newly married Army couple. He is colonel given the task of scouting and exploring the Wolverine (i.e. the Copper) River in Alaska. The story of the expedition is mostly very compelling. This author is a very gifted storyteller.I really liked that part of the story. I also enjoyed, for the most part, the modern day story of the Great-Nephew donating Colonel Forresters diaries to a small museum in Alaska. I enjoy anything to do with first-hand account of histories and diaries are a huge part of that. Archives and museums a are favorite of mine.

I really enjoyed the ending of Allen and Sophie’s story. It reminded me very much of Hoosier author Gene Stratton Porter’s life and work.

 

See the maps from the book–and of the real journey that inspired the story.

 

So what bugged me?

In a word: Sophie. I’ve never met a character so vapid, yet able to hold some really modern views. I will say that Sophie say she got slightly more tolerable after she took up photography. Maybe she was boring because she was bored and stupid because her life was stupid and without purpose not that dear Allen was away.Maybe the raven took the stupid out of her and flew away with it? It was  a relief that she grew to more than she was in the beginning.

The whole story of the raven was just too much for me in both Sophie’s part of the story and in the story of the expedition. But it wasn’t badly told. It’s just not my thing. I’m not into animals becoming people or the spirit world–too much fantasy, but that is just a matter of reading preference, not a criticism of how it was written.

Then there was  pet peeve with so much fiction today–diversity for diversity’s sake. Diversity hammered into the story with one of those big mallets with which the coyote used to try to kill the roadrunner. Beep-Beep. Why in the world the museum guy’s sexuality needed to be introduced is beyond me. Naturally the great-nephew who donates the Colonels diaries is a elderly Trump-sort who has an epiphany and repents of his wish that everyone would just shut up about sex and sexuality. Hammering something like this into a story where it has no place bugs me no end!

Now, don’t misunderstand. Had Colonel Forrester been gay–that WOULD have added to the story. If Sophie had fallen in love with the hired girl over their shared passion for photography that would have been an interesting way to get the subject into the story. But this little exchange was just trite and silly. It sounded like a PC-mandate for publication. Both turned into pompous windbags for a while so I started to tune them out. Thankfully I payed attention again and caught the wonderful ending to their story.

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Another element was tiresome and beaten over the head like the proverbial dead horse. That was the now seemingly-mandatory-for-publication disparaging of the Christian faith or church attendance or praying. Sophie has no regard for church or for the Christian faith, though her mother was a part of the social justice-minded Quakers. Nor does her “hired girl,” though in her case it is more understandable. She’s an apparently lapsed Irish Catholic with a large number of siblings due to her mother being a faithful Catholic. (And, what woman of any faith at that time had much of a choice over how many kids they had to bear?) It’s not so likely, though,  for a proper young school teacher of the 1880s as Sophie was. After all, teachers had morals written into their contracts even in the early 20th Century. It really didn’t matter to me if this fit the characters or not–its just so utterly predictable in today’s fiction.

And, just as naturally, the one missionary who is a blip of a sound byte in the story was unfaithful to his wife and many children with a “native woman.” And the poor wife proclaims that their prayers must not have been good enough…right. The Colonel wasn’t much for religion either, but did have the dead guy laid out in  the Russian Orthodox Church. Now, had it been a Baptist Church you can bet he’d have skipped it.This just seemed ridiculous in places.

Finally, there was my biggest pet peeve  with so much of historical fiction today–characters holding too many modern views. At the time of the Colonel’s expedition, the country was currently fighting with various Native American Tribes. Hence the term, whether it is right or wrong,  “Indian Wars.” Wounded Knee had yet to occur. The Trail of Tears was simply a government edict.  There was remarkably little sympathy for the Native Americans or for Native Alaskans in the 19th Century. The “enlightened view” of the day was to “civilize” them by sending them off to government schools for indoctrination. As much as we would like to re-write history, we cannot. What was done to the Tribes and Alaskan Natives is a terrible injustice worthy of war crimes trials and we should and must hang our heads in shame. But it wasn’t seen that way back then.You just can’t change that, no matter how desirable it would be to do so.

 

The Verdict

3 stars. The story should have been fabulous, but it just wasn’t.  It is simply an average book hyped and spun to seem fabulous because the The Snow Child was an extraordinary achievement. I want to hope that the author was pushed hard to get a second book out as soon as possible. Happily most readers won’t notice the things I found objectionable–they are more about the state of historical fiction today.

In spite of the problems I had with this one, I still love the Snow Child and I’m still anxiously looking forward to more books from Eowyn Ivey.

 

 

To The Bright Edge of the World: A Novel by Eowyn Ivey

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As Good as They Say It Is: Underground Railroad

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What if the underground railway had been a real railroad? That’s the teaser on the back of this award-winning new novel. Usually when Oprah loves a book it is too filled with sorrow and abuse for me to deal with, but this one? WOW! This is an award-winner that deserves even more accolades

Fed up with life under an abusive master, two slaves, Cora and Caesar, take off for freedom via the underground railroad. On their travels thru different states they encounter just about every solution to the “freedom” issue ever put out for discussion. This is without doubt one of the most fascinating fiction journeys ever. Every word, every story, felt real.

I first listened to the parts of the book dramatized on BBC4’s Book at Bedtime program, then listened to it all on the audio book version from the library. Few books have held my attention as well or have made me stop and think so much. Many times it was a punch to the gut, other times it delivered tears, sorrow and more.

In years to come, when students read the literature of slavery, after they read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the will read The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.

Rating: 4.5 Stars–Not to Be Missed– Just Read it!

Review: Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

 

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Had I realized when I started that this was by the author of Little Bee, I might have groaned and put it aside. (You can read my review of Little Bee here ). It had all the elements of a story I’d love: World War II London, young people with varied backgrounds in love with each other–so I started listening to it and passed my week’s commute satisfied enough.

The Story:

Mary and her friend Hilda are somewhat upper class–nothing too grad, but Mary’s father is a Conservative M.P. aiming for the Cabinet. Mummy is very socially conscious–the type of socially conscious that means she knows whether to use the Georgian or the Victorian silver service at her tea for the Cabinet Ministers’ wives. Her butler uses the pewter salver for Mary, the silver for Papa. That sort.

Tom and Hugh share a flat. It was not immediately apparent that Tom was a Grammar School boy. Hugh I believe attended a Public (i.e. Private) School. The war has started and it is about to change from Phony War to Blitz. Of course they will be in it.

Mary meets Tom after volunteering herself to the War Office and being assigned an inner city school teaching post. Tom is a civil servant in the Ministry of Education who coordinates this position. Double date soon ensues with Hilda dragged along for Hugh, but that’s getting ahead of the story.

Zachery is a “Negro” child and his father is a performer in an on-going Minstrel (blackface) show at a theater. The father is an American, the mother is “gone.”

The story takes us thru each person’s war. It was engaging enough that I didn’t mind listening to it and felts for Hugh and Zachery at least. Mary and Hilda came off as Bright Young Things (which they’d have been in the 20s) helping with the 1926 General Strike (ditto), but then the war hit for real and the you-kn0w-what got real.

What I Liked:

An enjoyable story. He did a great job of presenting the immediacy of war and the senseless tragedy’s that occur. He pointed out something Britain is coming to terms with today–that “Black” Britons were not terribly welcome as evacuees or in voluntary war service like the Land Girls (recent news story on this).

 

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What I Did Not Like:

While we almost get a glimpse inside Hugh, he’s the only one, the rest were cardboard. Mary was the kind of girl who likes to stir things up to get attention. She did care for Zachery I believe, but it really was about herself. Especially the lunch out. We can’t change the attitudes people held in the past. She was taking a huge risk and I imagine her father would have come down on her like a buzz bomb if he’d had time off to deal with her! Hilda was just dull and I kept wondering why she wanted an self-centered idiot like Mary for a friend.

There were lapses into ridiculously over-the-top language–not many–just enough that it irritated. I gag at symbolism and metaphors unless superbly done. These were just trite–the “Negro” turned white by the dust–really? I imagine there were a few people who found minstrel shows offensive in that era, but given that Amos and Andy, a “Negro” comedy on American radio was voiced by white actors and that even Bing Crosby appeared in 3 movies, including Holiday Inn and White Christmas (since removed in some editions) in blackface, I’m not thinking most people found it “demeaning” as Mary did. I think she sincerely did find it that way though after coming to know Zachery and his father–this was the only “credit” I could give her.

And, hair spray wasn’t invented yet. Sorry. No spray in salons then.

Rating:

Overall it was a “good read” so 3.5 stars–the random tragedies of war were done so well I couldn’t give it less than that.

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Review: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, audio version

 

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In the immediate aftermath of Willie Lincolns death, Abraham Lincoln, presiding over both a country and house divided by the Civil War and by his wife’s mental iillness, becomes nearly unhinged with grief. He visits his sons temporary grave in the Carroll Mausoleum at a local cemetery (his body to be taken back to Illinois when the Lincolns, presumably, return after the presidency). This is the second child the Lincoln’s have lost–son Eddie died many years earlier. Son Robert is off at Harvard with a paid substitute fighting in the war in his place. Youngest son Tad, is left with the grieving parents.

While Lincoln’s maniacal grief and his visit to Willie’s tomb are the overt subject of this book, it is really more about society in general and about different views of morality and religion, heaven and hell. The “souls” buried around Willie come to life telling their story. From the unfortunate man who died about to consummate his marriage to an extremely abused Mulatto girl, to all other types of people in between–this is a story populated with the dead. They tell their stories of living, dying and accepting their death and their decent or ascent into the afterlife.

 

What I Loved

Regardless of any opinion on the story, this is an extremely creative approach to story telling–especially when done for the audio version. Just as there are numerous characters and quotes from even more sources than characters, each is individually voiced. A quote is read by one one performer, it’s attribution by another. This makes for an extremely engaging performance out of something that could have been very awkward.

Saunders writing is well deserving of its many accolades. The story is vivid to the point of the reader becoming effortlessly emersed in the world of the book. The portrayal of Lincoln’s visit to Willie, of removing his coffin from the tomb and opening it, nearly put me in tears. It was so vividly and emotionally told. The recounting, though occasionally disturbing (and rightfully so in this case) of the lives of slaves and the vehemence of hatred of some of the Southerners really brought the era and war to life. It made me have an even great distaste in my mouth and ache in my heart for each Confederate flag I see in the course of a day out where I live. It was unsettling–as it should be.

The creativity of the storytelling and the masterful use of language on the whole will earn this book a few major awards, I am sure.

 

What I Disliked

 

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” (Ecc. 1:9 KJV)

I disliked the story itself, though. Why it was necessary to bludgeon readers with modern day political correctness I do not know. There is nothing new about homosexuality, about discrimination in any form, about rape, about prostitution, about drinking, about drug addiction, about pedophilia. An abundance of the world’s population goes an entire lifetime without any of these touching them (many live out their lives in total ignorance–for good or bad–of any of these things), yet this is the bulk of what the ghosts or souls tell us about. The abundance of profanity used to differences in class or sexual attitudes was really overwhelming. Profane adjectives and sex talk by ghosts has a very limited appeal to me. I’m sure this was well-intentioned as a way to make the reader feel the same pull of injustice in today’s world as we feel toward the horror of slavery in past times. But it was grossly overdone.

Verdict

4 Stars and, in spite of my own dislikes, I highly recommend it for the originality of the storytelling.

 

Review: I Almost Forgot You by Terry McMillan

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I fell in love with Terry McMillan’s writing with her best-seller Waiting to Exhale and then with How Stella Got Her Groove back. Then life went on. I got into reading mostly non-fiction for a many years. The last 8  years I’ve had 2.5 hours in the car on weekdays so fiction has become a lifeline. This week I became very happily reacquainted with Ms. McMillan’s work thru her newest novel, I Almost Forgot About You.

The Story

Georgia Young, a few minor changes aside, could be me. She’s mid-50s, in a romantic wasteland and bored silly with her perfectly respectable profession as an Optometrist. Her nest is empty, she has delightful, exhausting grandchildren, and a mother who still loves her, nice co-workers, decent neighbors and two long-time close friends. But lately she’s wanted to make some changes. So, she starts by making a list of the men she loved and thinks she’ll look them up on Facebook and tell then Thank You for the part they once played in her happiness. She also decides to sell her house and take a long train journey to think what to do after optometry. If you are saying that’s a really good set-up for a really good novel, you’re right!

What I Loved

I loved the warmth of this book. The love of mothers and daughters and the love that grows between old friends. I loved that nobody got raped or molested or robbed. I even loved the swearing and the sex talk because it was totally natural–it occurred either in Georgia’s own thoughts or with her oldest friends since college. Maybe your friends don’t cuss, and that’s ok, but some people do. This was just natural.

What I Didn’t Like

In truth–not much. I loved the story. But could they have included the recipe for those take out Salt and Pepper Prawns or for Georgia’s stuffed avocados?

I Almost Forgot About You by Terry McMillan.

Now all rise for the Shoop-shoop song (i.e. Exhale)–this book made me want to  re-read and re-watch Waiting to Exhale–her biggest seller.

Review: Heavenly Horse Stories

 

I’ve posted before about my childhood love of horses! I was fortunate that for most of my childhood we owned or had ready access to horses. So, when I saw this little book come up for review in a professional publication I contribute to, I grabbed it. I wrote the professional review and sent it off. Today I’m offering a personal review.

Review

Rebecca Ondov has a wealth of experience leading trail rides and doing other work with horses. Her newest book, Heavenly Horse Stories, is part memoir, part devotional. Each story has a related scripture and prayer. The stories range from the edge-of-your-seat terrifying fall on her horse Czar to the sweeter story of being out with horses and seeing 22 rainbows in one glance! While this can be read straight thru as a good collection of out West horse stories, I liked it best as a daily devotional. It called to mind all the horses in my life. Heavenly Horse Stories by Rebecca Ondov.

Verdict

Four Stars

A Few of Rebecca Ondov’s Other Books

 

Horse Book and Diary for Girls

 

 

Links to buy these books (I do not get any money from this!) Great Horse Stories for Girls and My Horse Diary for Girls (Note: Amazon does not seem to carry this–I’ve linked elsewhere)

 

Illustrated Horse Story Gift Book

Also a lovely gift-edition of other horse stories, beautifully published with paintings of horses.

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Photo Source

I can’t think of a single horse lover too jaded about religion to not enjoy this author’s books. If they aren’t into devotions or the Christian faith they will still thoroughly enjoy the first-hand accounts of horses, mules, trail riding, the great American West, outdoor life, and the joy that animals bring to our lives. Below is a video from  the author’s YouTube channel that gives you a little taste of this life.

 

 

 

Do you have a favorite horse book, film or memory? Leave me a comment with your story or a link to your post. I love to hear what others enjoy–especially when it relates to animals.

 

Review: Selection Day by Aravind Adiga: Reading Around the World: India

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Cricket is a sport no American understands unless, like the late William F. Buckley or Ted and Bobby Kennedy, they were forced to attend a British public (private) school. So, it’s no surprise that a book on cricket was hidden under a cover design that mimics other recent successful diverse or international novels while the rest of the world was given cricket on the cover.

You know, it’s often said that Indians have two real religions, the cinema – Bollywood – and cricket. It’s the equivalent of sort of baseball, basketball, football and Christmas put together. The question is not why cricket. The question is how you can escape cricket in India.                      (Aravind Adiga on NPR)

One of the strangest legacies of British colonialism is cricket. Many countries in the British Commonwealth (i.e. former Empire) play cricket–though Canada isn’t one of them. India has made cricket, as the quote above says, into a religion–a national obsession, like hockey in Canada or the NBA in America. Never mind in the bygone days of the Raj, Indians would only have been allowed into the Cricket Club as waiters or cleaners. Today it is truly their game.

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The Good

Happily, you don’t have to understand a thing about cricket to read the book. Other than understanding that it goes on for ever and that a Century is a good thing to earn for your team, you can just lalalala thru any action. The focus isn’t so much on the game as on the behind-the-scenes.

Radha and Maju Kumar are the sons of an itinerant chutney salesman living in a poor area of Mumbai, India. Cricket is the fast track to prosperity for all of them and their father has raised them to be the best. (Think NBA straight from high school and you have an idea how this will go.) His peculiar methods of “training” his sons include examining their genitalia and regulating their diet. Both boys have done little in life except go to school and then practice cricket. “Selection Day” is like the NFL or NBA draft. Since no one has the insanity of college-to-pros that the USA has, the selection is for “junior” teams. So imagine being drafted in Middle School for, say, the Junior Detroit Pistons, or the Junior Dallas Cowboys. You get the idea.

The talent is there. Getting selected is another story–a story of corruption. (Think inner city basketball players being recruited by excellent suburban schools and helped to move). The Chutney Salesman (the father) goes all out to get his sons into sponsorship that will lead to selection. But Tommy Sir, as he’s known, isn’t the most scrupulous guy around. He sponsors the boys then, in a way, pits them against each other. The result is ugly.

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I found the story of corruption in cricket very interesting. I’ve read a few things on cricket for one of my novels and found that not everyone likes the way televised cricket especially is going. It can be played in “pajamas” as the newly allowed bright-colored uniforms are mockingly called (like tennis, once upon a Wimbledon, cricket has historically been played in long white trousers and white shirts with team blazers, caps and tennis-style sweaters only betraying team colors). Critics say it’s being made over into baseball for television. In fact, baseball, is teased about in the story.

Oh, my Darling, my Cricket. Phixed and Phucked (p. 143)

But with two teenage boys and an odd father, you know there’s more to the story. In addition to Radha’s desire to study chemistry and be a CSI investigator like those on his favorite imported t.v. show, there are is the story of another boy. Enter wealthier, suburban cricketer, J.A. His life is worlds away from that of the brothers–in more ways than just economically. The coming-of-age part of the story centers around his homosexuality and the sexual coming-of-age of the brothers–especially Manthu.

The Bad

After about midway I found the novel disappointing in many ways. Coming-of-age stories are a favorite of mine and this one, with the added element of taboo sexual preference should have been interesting. Sadly, this part of the story didn’t go well. J.A. is not the most likable of characters. Exploration of sexuality is a normal and expected part of growing up. J.A. though was spoiled and manipulative. I disliked the boys’ father, loathed Tommy Sir and didn’t really like the way this part of the story went.

Conclusion

I enjoyed the look into Indiana life and into the country’s obsession for cricket. I love any book that shows normal, daily life in another country and this part of the book did not disappoint. I could feel, smell, taste India the way Adiga portrayed it. It makes me want to visit the country even more. I will definitely read more from this author.

Verdict: Three Stars

You can read a transcript of the author’s NPR interview here.

Review: Wildwater Walking Club Back on Track by Claire Cook

Author Claire Cook

Claire Cook is a role model of mine. She’s an author who writes best selling books, but who didn’t start writing till after she was a Mom of teens. She wrote her first book in her minivan while waiting for her kiddo at early-morning swim team practice. Her book Never Too Late: Your Road Map to Reinvention helped give me the courage to start writing again, too. Then there’s her book The Wildwater Walking Club (book one now). I loved it. Loved it so much, in fact, that I contacted the publisher and did a give-away on my old blog. I’ve recommended the book far and wide. Finally, Claire is part of what is hopefully a trend of successful authors turning to self-publishing. In short, she really inspires me!

 

The Book

All of that to say I can’t give this book a great review. Three stars would be stretching it, I’m afraid. I hate saying that. But, honestly? It was like reading a guide to a river cruise–or listening to your aunt and uncle at dinner the night they got back from their cruise.

Noreen,  Tess and Rosie are neighbors at that awkward age–of being ready for a change now that kids–or the chance of having them–is over and their parents are either dead or not yet impaired enough to need constant care. So, their solution? Take a river cruise in France. Ideas for the art teacher with a grant (Tess), for the lavender farm owner (Rosie) and for the career changer (Noreen) are bound to come up on a cruise! The premise is really good, but….

The Parts I Liked

I liked that Noreen was moving on after her buy-out and I especially loved that her boyfriend, Rick, was struggling because it was an accurate description of what happens to so many people after a buy-out, an early retirement or even after being fired. I liked the fixation he developed with Pokeman Go! –like someone who becomes too invested in watching all X-seasons of a show rather than getting up trying again for a new job. That was good. But…..

I loved Noreen starting her Health Counseling Coach training with a real mix of believable emotions. But…..

The Bad

In addition to the cruise catalog stuff, the same three ladies who were fun and real in the first book were, well,…..blah this time around. Not bad, just not the bubbly,  fun group they were in book one. In the first outing, these were ladies anyone would enjoy having as friends and neighbors, but now they just didn’t have an spark. This was hard because I really liked them in book one.

Then there was Joy. Joy was just a bad idea. Joy should have been cut. That whole story line was too childish for words. Joy alone took an entire star away from the book’s rating.

Finally if I’d heard the phrase “How should/could/would that look” one more time I’d have thrown the Kindle across the room. UGH. Even a rank beginner of a counselor should have more than one phrase like that.

Verdict

Because I admire Claire Cook I’m giving it 3 stars. In my rating system that means not a bad book, just an average one. Every one has off days and if you write long enough you have an off book. I’m hoping this is the “off” book and that the series perks up and finds its old vitality in book three.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

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“…nostalgia is a luxury….”

The Good

In the future, kids in school will be reading Zadie Smith like we read Jane Austen. She is amazing in the way she perfectly captures the rhythm and tempo–the Swing, of her chosen subject– the immigrants of the poor areas of London. This time it is two brown girls, both mixed-race (“half-caste” in the language of Colonialism that still peppers the everyday speech of the Estates [British for Projects]). Both are in love with dance–the dancing of old musicals, especially. A local dance class is the catalyst for their early friendship to take root and grow. Along the way, it becomes apparent, that only the “other girl”–Tracey truly has a gift for dancing.

But the narrator has a mother who sees the world differently–she is not defeated by poverty. She struggles to “make something of herself” and does–becoming a member of Parliament. It is her take on life that resonates so strongly with me. I, too, live in a very poor environment, albeit a rural one. But so many things about her mothering have gone thru my own brain repeatedly. How many times have I thought, or even said aloud, something like this to my own daughter about someone she’s gone to school with about the limited horizons of those around us in our depressed rural county:

“…she’s been raised a certain way and the present is all she has. You’ve been raised in another way–don’t forget that….you know where you came from and where you are going…..”

But what really got me in this story was the merciless, and so deserved, send-up of oh-so-earnest (and so quickly bored) (and so politically naive) celebrities out do-gooding in the third world. And the way she stunningly shows the necessary, unsung, local heroes who often risk their very lives to make these dreams “work.” I snorted with laughter as the  “President for Life” was mentioned. I adored the work-arounds created by Fern to keep the girls in their marvelous  Loomy Academy. (Interestingly, the real Life President of the real East African country, Malawi, started his own namesake academy–which  People magazine once profiled as the Eton of Africa, but from which girls were dropped for becoming pregnant even when there was no consent given to the conception.)

Fern’s brilliant accommodations of local culture keep the school going. He deals with the insane things the First World Celebrity wants to impose–like a culturally insensitive and locally unacceptable Sexual Health Clinic at the school. He also had to deal with the inevitable local jealousies and the withdrawal of what few services the government offered. The Superstar could pay for them instead. Fallout that a “noted activist” would never want to know about–or cope with.

I lived in Malawi–the country Madonna claims to love. And, like in Madonna’s life, Aimee, the glittering rock star in Swing Time, “adopts” a baby–a baby who isn’t even an orphan –just sold by her parents, with the paperwork backdated. (Note–I also adopted internationally. I had to go thru over a year of rigorous background checks and real court proceedings. It is very difficult to do it legally but it does get done if you are patient). Money Talks.

I loved Lamin’s story–for I was Aimee at one point. Lamin who couldn’t be blamed for being a total opportunist and grabbing the brass ring of a long and successful life when it was within reach. Lamin who would earn more in a year at just about any job in either New York or London than he’d earn in four or five years at home. He’d be like the others and send home spare change that would keep his flocks of nieces and nephews in school and fed, would get his grandmother to a real hospital with real expatriate doctors and real medications. I understood all of this too well.

The whole outrageousness of working for a superstar (and though they were mere lawyers, not rock stars, I’ve lived a lot of this life!) was perfectly told. From the roles of the various assistants to the hatchet woman Judy, to the Nanny living apart from her own children, to the fake photographic exhibit it all rings too, too true. I loved this part of the story.

“…when you are poor, every stage has to be thought through….with wealth you get to be thoughtless….”

This part of the story should be read by every potential Peace Corps Volunteer (I was one), every potential missionary, every noted activist and anyone else with aspirations of doing good for the poor anywhere.  Local reality must be considered. Villagers are not First World liberals. Sustainability is nearly impossible.

 

The Bad

While Ms Smith is an incredible author who brings her reader into the world, this book lost me in places. I still don’t know if the narrator had a name. I’m totally lost on the “where were their parents?” scene at the end of the book. I felt the book didn’t so much as conclude as unravel–maybe that was the point since both girls’ lives unraveled? For all the incredible story telling, the end left me saying “So were they….?” “Was he….?” “What about….?”

 

One other note

I was also disappointed that, though it was a only one sentence, we had to know that the gay couple who helped our narrator, of course, had an elderly neighbors who disapproved of them and left religious pamphlets for them. Yeah. Cliche of the day. And a tired one at that. Because gentrified parts of Harlem are chock full of fundamentalist Christians, said no one ever. An elderly neighbor disapproves of a radical social change–maybe even is scared by it or by what is happening in her neighborhood? Gee, imagine. Let’s condemn her. It was a discordant (and unnecessarily petty) note in n an otherwise interesting book. [Yes, people, you may flame me.]

 

Final Verdict

 

In spite of its flaws, I’d recommend this book to anyone, but especially to those interested in good works among the poor or in a third world country. Zadie Smith knows the culture and tells it the way it really is. She makes the culture and mores of poverty clear. I love that about her work. I love that she truly has an ear for the voices of poverty as well as for a evoking the boredom, the tension, the stench of many of the places where the poor must live. She truly understands the hopelessness rife in such communities as well as  the ostracization of anyone who thinks hope can be kept alive or a better life can be earned. She knows, too, that the poor can love their children deeply–even when not coping with life. This is is gift to all of us. But, due to the mess at the end I’m giving it 3.5 stars. NW was far better. White Teeth was better, but this is still a worthwhile and readable book.

 

Reading Across the USA: Florida

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As Hot As It Is You Ought To Thank Me came to mind the minute I stepped out of the AC and onto the back porch this morning. I wilted just taking the few steps over to the car!

Nanci Kincaid’s book tells the story of an lackluster parenting, small town living, an unlikely friend for a 13-year old girl and HEAT. Soul-sucking, swampy, Florida heat in a neighborhood with no air conditioning. The star of the book, 13 year old Berry, is in that time between tomboy-hood and woman-hood. The heat prickles, her parents and brothers rankle and then the chain gang arrives…

Pick this one up–it’s well worth it. You’ll want to pour yourself a quart jar of iced tea first. It won’t disappoint. Don’t be surprised though if you find yourself sweating profusely even with the AC on full blast. The setting is just that vivid.

As Hot As It Is You Ought To Thank Me by Nanci Kincaid.

This post was originally published July 25, 2016 under a different title.