Review: Travel Light, Move Fast by Alexandra Fuller

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My Interest

I’ve enjoyed all of Fuller’s memoirs of her family’s life in Rhodesia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi due to my own stay in Malawi and visit to Zimbabwe. Her Colonial with a capital “C” mother, her wild father, disowned by his British family, are the sort of people I tend to love–their belief in Rhodesia and all it stood for aside. She has become a “must-read” author for me.

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Zambia–where the family now lives

The Story

Having had a childhood lived in unusual circumstances marks a person, but having such a childhood and having it in the middle of a war, can do real damage. Fuller’s growing up could be called Glass Castle meets Out of Africa. Part abuse, part wild ride, part fantastic adventure. In this installment of her family memoirs, she begins in Budapest with her father’s death while there on holiday. This time the author is narrating the audio version and she voices her mother EXACTLY the way I imagined her, which was very exciting for me.

Having very seriously contemplated staying on in Malawi, I always find the daily life parts of her memoirs to be the best and that continued in this volume. That the author is only about 7  years younger than me makes it all the more relatable. But this time the cracks are showing. The end of Dad is too much–and for the author, there is more in store after that [no spoilers].

Her eccentric parents, who “survive magnificently,” have aged and their daughters, “squaddies [i.e. G.I.s/soldiers] before they were sisters” are in their 50s and time has not helped the wounds of their childhood. The mother whose leaving the house checklist once went something like “Uzi, bullets, lipstick, sunglasses” is still her indomitable Memsiab self, surrounded by her beloved troop of dogs and cats, and after 50+ years of marriage, she and her husband still “do not bore each other” and still do not try to possess each other.

I adore her parents in spite of it all, in spite of a war to keep Africans from ruling their own country. They are backbone of the Empire sorts who let nothing defeat them. These are not the stuffy folks who inhabit the Cricket and Tennis Club, or who run the local Anglican Church and hold the Gymkhanas. These are the real settlers. Give them land, sufficient booze, dogs, books, and an old Land Rover and they will survive. The booze is the key. And cigarettes. Lots and lots of cigarettes–or those “anti-mad” pills Mum gets from the Indian chemist. It IS a rough life.

Her mother with her books and animals has transformed herself time and again and is now a very successful fish farmer, having educated herself for her new role. She may have lost the war, but she’s won the battle–the family survived. Her very Mitford U-ish speech adds to the whole picture of one who can “Keep Buggering On” as Churchill said, quite beautifully even in a war, even after burying three babies. In this book, even she has reached her limit. I could completely relate to her rant about being sick of people telling her she’s strong and that she’d love to just fall apart.

The author’s father, who can hunt from a moving Land Rover, probably could still have played a rugby match at 70, and like any good Colonial Bwana could drink everyone under the table, could also live on beans on toast, alcohol, and tobacco. Like my own father, I’m sure Tim Fuller could have taken the Lord’s name in vain as any figure of speech. (They also saw eye-to-eye on missionaries). He could light a cigarette, fire an Uzi, and keep driving the Land Rover even with a hunting guide on the roof. That’s a manly man. He loved his wife, his family, and his life. [He also loathed “online f—ing banking” to which I say “hear, hear” especially on the passwords.]

It is the sisters though who are doing the worst. Vanessa has been in a clinic in South Africa, both are divorced, Vanessa is remarried, and the author is in a new relationship. No one in the family is at all happy about the books–and, honestly? Who can blame them? While I have loved reading them, I can see it from their side: Why are you telling our secrets? Why is it all reduced to your perspective, your way of seeing it?  The fissures are deep and will rend the family with Dad’s passing.

My Thoughts

The author, though, became whining somewhere along the way. [No spoilers but I am NOT disregarding something I cannot reveal without spoiling part of the book–ok?] The end of the book was a lot New Agey, naval gaze-y, word salad-ish moaning. [Tiny spoiler] That her new relationship wasn’t going to be the love of the ages was about as obvious as Meghan’s “love” for poor, dim Harry. That one she needed to walk it off–follow her Dad’s advice and have a party. Alcohol, her parents believe, lets one suffer successfully. She should have done that and had a splendid and necessary hangover, then reloaded and got back in the war of life.

I found the end of the book [in spite of what I won’t spoil] annoying. It bordered on minor-league narcissism–“Me, me, me–my, my, my–mine, mine, mine]. A girl raised to be a stalwart Rhodesian, able to take what life sends you for Queen and Empire (well, Commonwealth) or just because you won’t take it off any bastard, shouldn’t have grown into such a whiner. It almost spoils the excellence of her writing. I’m very much like her parents when it comes to freaking out over everything. I’d have had to tell her to get over herself and carry on! I wanted to say, “Look, the did the correct first aid, loaded all the guns, loaded you into that station wagon and drove you through a war to the hospital–remember? They CARED.”

The author’s falling apart and her self-absorption [part of which WAS 100% understandable — no spoilers] and the family’s dislike of her books, brings to mind Madeline L’Engle’s Crosswicks Diaries. L’Engle’s children dismissed them as “fiction.” I don’t think that is the case here, but I could see the annoyance so clearly, and equally clearly hear the author’s belief that she was right and saw things right. That was a bit hard to take.

Now? Who’s for a cup of tea and who’s for a g & t? In spite of my feelings on the end, this book is a good read. Need an ashtray? Here–have a dog, or would you prefer a cat?

My Verdict

3.5 Stars

I couldn’t give it a full 4 stars due to the whiney parts.

 

Travel Light, Move Fast by Alexandra Fuller.

 

Alexandra Fuller’s previous books that I have read:

Review: Travelers: A Novel by Helon Habila

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I learned of this book from City of Asylum Books

Remember: Regardless of which online retailer I link to in my posts, I do not make any money off your clicks. They are simply included for your convenience. Today I am linking to an Indie bookseller–the one that introduced me to this novel.

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My Interest

Our world is experiencing an unprecedented flux of refugees. Border policies, immigration laws, and related policy topics are at the forefront of national debates. All varieties of exclusionist Nationalism are rearing their ugly heads all over the place.  Another book, a nonfiction title, Afropean: Notes From Black Europe by Johny Pitts, also caught my eye as I followed the rabbit trail through the internet that led me to this novel. I will review that book another time–if I am able to get a copy through the library.

The Story

Leaving America with his wife so she can do accept a prestigious fellowship in Berlin, a Nigerian graduate student finds life in today’s Europe to be an interesting mix of nationalities–all seeking to better their lives in affluent, well-educated Northern European countries. The various characters that cycle through the story come from different countries–mostly African nations struggling with poverty. Some have been refugees, others have arrived as students. All come from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds. The refugee experience, whether intentional or from lapsing out of legal status, is what they have in common.

My Thoughts

When Malawi was mentioned I knew I’d read this book. Zambia came up as well as other countries with which I was familiar.  I found the stories poignant, but not cloying. The characters were mostly very believable. One was a bit pc but it made me stop and wonder, if, just if, perhaps things truly have changed enough for that character’s story to be based on reality. The narrative was woven like a tapestry–the different people and experiences overlapping in a way that I enjoyed. The ways people adapted, the places they made into homes, those were the human side of things that we often forget and which the book made so real.

My Verdict

4 Stars

Travelers: A Novel by Helon Habila

I will definitely read more of this author’s work.

Review: The Dry: A Novel by Jane Harper

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My Interest

This book started the chain in the book meme Six Degrees of Separation a few months back and I thought then that it sounded interesting. I also have a friend who lives in a rural community in the Australian state in which the story is set and that is affected in turns by draught and truly town-wrecking floods. So when I was going through my TBR looking for available audiobooks a few weeks back, I requested this one. I’m so glad I did!

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The Story

A grizzly murder brings up old secrets forcing local boy-turned-federal-agent Aaron Falk to return home to investigate. Oh, and that old murder? Falk was suspect for a while! You know how small towns work–no one has forgotten. Was the husband jealous? Did he come home to something unexpected? Was it the girl’s father? Was she being abused? This story moves at the speed of whitewater rapids! Is a gun more dangerous than a cigarette lighter? So many who-what-where-why’s in this one!

My Thoughts

My first thought was the sheer amazement that this multi-layered story was being told superbly by a debut author! With a rolling style of storytelling reminiscent to me of the flow of Gosford Park or Downton Abbey (i.e. Julian Fellowes), the story’s pace never slows, which occasionally gave me trouble as I was driving and listening to the audio version.

I especially liked the moments when Aaron was looking back at his teenage self and circle of friends. Hindsight may not make 20/20 vision, but it helps. His thought that “what if Ellie was abused–why didn’t I see it then,” shows as much about the self-centered nature of the teenage years as it does about the maturity of middle life. I also was really “got” by him putting down the shotgun, unable to kill rabbits (which are a menace in Australia and must be culled).  This is a man who has learned a few lessons. Then there was the fact that he made mistakes. Those make the story much more interesting anytime. For what it’s worth, I had a giggle at the small town cop doing a firearms inspection and telling the man he was “letting him off” even though when there was clearly no violation–so small town!

Overall I was left breathless from the pace and wanting to move directly on to a second Aaron Falk book. Thrillers are not my typical reading. Chief Inspector Gamach, Anne Perry’s William Monk, and even the Ladies of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency are my “breaks” throughout my commuting year. I’m happy to have a new author to go to when I need a break.

Now to quit giggling over “Pokies” for online poker players and “fireys” for firemen.

The Dry: A Novel by Jane Harper, was recently made into a movie.

 

Review: Dominicana: A Novel by Angie Cruz

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My Interest

Dominicana is one of my top picks from the new Fall 2019 book releases. Immigrant stories are always fascinating to me–whether real or fictional.  I also enjoy the idea of “Reading the World–” reading books from as many different countries as possible as the author of this blog A Year of Reading the World did (though not necessarily the same books). Finally, coming-of-age stories and older man/younger woman stories are always interesting. This book offers all of that.

Recently, I reviewed a book dealing with Castro’s take-over of Cuba, When We Left Cuba. Dominicana is set in the Dominican Republic at the time of the insurrection into which President Johnson, in the midst of ramping up American involvement in Vietnam, sent in U.S. Marines to “restore the peace,” i.e. secure American interests.

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The Story

Ana is married off to an older man who gets her in the United States. The deal is two-fold for her family in the D.R.: money from a land sale and an anchor for immigration to the USA and, hopefully, a better life. During the insurrection, her husband, Juan, returns to the D.R. to see to business matters. He leaves a younger man to look after pregnant Ana who then discovers a new freedom and joy in life that clashes with the values of her upbringing and her dreams of reuniting her family in the USA.

My Thoughts

The older man–younger woman [girl–she was 15] aspect was portrayed with a careful hand. Juan was typical of his time and place in that he had one set of standards for his wife and one for himself, but Ana does not seem surprised by anything, which was good.

Ana was very young, trying to make sense of her marriage to a controlling, older man while living in a very different world to the one in which she’d grown up. I thought she handled it all quite well.  As a coming-of-age and an immigrant story, the book works very well. Ana’s efforts to grow and educate herself rang true, as did her homesickness and longing for her siblings and parents.

I felt Juan, the husband, was not well developed–he seemed a caricature of a type of man, more than a believable person. I really did not see the need, though, to set the book right at the Audubon Ball Room. Yes, it was a very volatile time in the USA and in New York but Malcolm X’s was assassination as part of Ana’s “entry” to America seemed unnecessary. I thought the Marines entering D.R. was much more meaningful to the story.

I look forward to reading more from this author as well as reading her backlist. She is a great find.

My Verdict

3.5

Dominicana: A Novel by Angie Cruz

Review: The Traveling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa

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Oh my! Where do I begin to tell you how beautiful this book is? How do I convey that I was sitting there desperate to be at home with my kitties when this book ended [No spoilers].

The Story

“How could I ever leave him, having experienced that kind of love? I will never, ever, leave him.”

-Nana

Saturo, having lost his beloved cat at the same time he lost his parents, is now grown up and has had his van adopted by a stray cat who enjoys sleeping on it. When the cat is in an accident he calls upon the kindness of Saturo to help him get better. Thus begins a deep and authentic friendship between a young man and his cat.

“At that moment, we were without doubt the greatest travellers in the world. And I was the world’s greatest traveling cat.”

The story is told both in Saturo’s words and in the words of the cat, Nana, as they embark on a great journey together [to say more would be a spoiler]. The journey is poignant, but never precious, sweet, but never cloying. It is balanced so nicely between those qualities that I never wanted to stop the audiobook and get out of the car. The reader was perfect for his role as well.

“As we count up the memories from one journey, we head off on another.”

I will be buying myself a copy of this one to keep–it is now that dear to me.

My Verdict

4.5

The Traveling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa

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Review: The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

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My Interest

India is a country I’ve long wanted to visit. It is a fascinating place. The story interested me for that reason and because the young woman is of my own kids’ generation.

The Story

Shalini is a young college grad working in a lifeless job and yearning to make a difference.  She decides to go off and look for a man who used to visit their family–a man from Kashmir, a troubled region near the dangerous boarder with Pakistan.  In alternating chapters, she tells of her time in Kashmir and the story of her trouble middle-class upbringing in Bangalore, explaining  how her family knew the man for whom she is searching why he was important to her.

My Thoughts

I sincerely doubt if one American in 1000 today could find India and Pakistan on the map, let alone the Himalayas (which Americans pronounce incorrectly) or Kashmir or Bangalore. We hear of India and Pakistan only when the word “nuclear” can be added or a disaster is perpetrated by an American chemical company. Even fewer Americans know that a minor member of the royal family, Lord Mountbatten, (Prince Philip’s Uncle and Prince Charles’ mentor) afraid to be away from his naval career too long, set an arbitrary date for full Indian Independence. To make that long story short, he divided India into two nations–Pakistan being the new country born out of a majority Muslim area. This area of the so-called “partition” has been violent almost ever since. If Americans consider the mess we have currently on the Mexican border and then add in religion, and religious extremists who are eager to kill or die or both, you can about picture the region Shalini went to in this book.

All through the story, I thought of myself and my fellow Peace Corps volunteers arriving bright-eyed, pukingly earnest and eager to “help” by telling people how to do things the American way. Shalini’s experience was so similar. The feeling of “family” created with the locals with whom you lived [although the dictator I lived under did not allow foreign volunteers to live with host families as is the norm in nearly every Peace Corps country–even 1960’s India itself where President Carter’s mother, “Miss Lillian” served in retirement], the sense of “belonging” you gain as the community becomes geographically familiar to you, and self-esteem you develop as the languages and gestures of the people start to become understandable. You feel yourself “assimilate.” You think you are a local, a real resident. A part of the community.

All of that is laughable. You are so ridiculously naive. You find this out when you go to leave at the end of service and they want your stuff. Shalini, too, found out just how naive she was and I relived every emotion along with her.

Every word of this book rang true. The emotion, the process of assimilation–it was so chillingly accurate. Yet, in the end, Shalini found out what an impact she had [no spoilers] and how naive she was.

My Verdict

4.5 Stars

The Far Field by  Madhuri Vijay

I listened to the audiobook.

I learned of this book from the Podcast “Reading Women,” episode 70.

 

Review: Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali

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First of all, thank you to The Book Satchel for bringing this book to my attention. You can read her review of the book here.

Second, how often do you get the chance to read an 80-year old novel, written in Turkish, that stands up to the test of time? Translators Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe seem to have done the perfect jobb of rendering every nuance of thought and word into English. It was so well done I had to remind myself that this was a translation!

The Story

Quiet, down-trodden Raif Efendi sits alone in an office translating bank communications into German day after dull day. After work he goes home to a house crammed with relatives who disdain him. No one seems to care or wonder about him. Yet he harbors a secret.

That secret centers around the time he spent in Berlin in the 1920s supposedly learning about the manufacting of fine, scented soap. Instead he experiences a different life. To say much more would be posting spoilers and I just cannot do this–the story is too wonderful.

This is a novella so the perfect short read for a busy holiday season.

The Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali.

This book is apparently BACK on the bestseller lists in Turkey these days, too, which makes it even more fascinating. I listened to the excellent audio version.

Reading The World

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I had trouble deciding on this book. It is writen by a Turkish author, about a Turkish man but mostly set in Berlin. Above then is a map to show the proximity of both countries. You decide.

Review: The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers

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A Tiny Bit of Background

Dave Eggers captivated me with The Circle, his eery corporate management by “like” novel that resonates with me becasue of my own experience in a culture that has a similar idea-sprouting routine (happily mine is nice, not menacing). His newest book, The Monk of Mokha, is a nonfiction account of a young man, a child of immigrants, who chose success.

Choosing Success

Mokhtar Alkhanshali is a 24 year old Yemeni American, working as a doorman in San Francisco and trying to go to college, when his girl friend says “You ever looked across the street?” That simple phrase, and the iconic statute it pointed to, started a rise to riches like something from an 19th century Horatio Alger novel.

 

 

 

Hills Brother’s Coffee statute and logo

Maybe you’ve heard of Arabica coffee? Sounds a lot like….Arabic. Don’t worry, I didn’t catch that till I read the book, either! Apparently Hills Brothers Coffee had–they put a stereotypical old school Yemeni on their can and made him a statue at their old corporate head quarters–across from where Maktar and his girl friend were talking that fateful night.

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Well, it turns out coffee originates in Yemen. The same Yemen now enduring war and famine. But, coffee farmers there didn’t really know what they were growing–at least not in terms of what well-heeled San Franciscan, and Americans in general, would pay for the world’s best cup of coffee. Happily, Mokhtar had a wild idea to make Yemeni coffee known as the world’s best. Happier still, he spoke the language fluently, had a group of fellow Yemenis and others in San Francisco and elsewhere to bankroll his dream and the tenacity to stick with it.

What impressed me was that Mokhtar  grew up in a dirt poor neighborhood full of  those entertainment places whose name brings lots of spam so I won’t say it, as well as guns, an open drug market and lots of booze. The schools were pretty bad. Yemeni immigrants took the normal new-comer jobs of janitors, cab drivers, cleaning ladies, etc.  Mokhtar could easily have resigned himself to such a life–or maybe a notch or two up the immigrant ladder. Instead of wasting time on a pro sports or celebrity dream, Mokhtar, when not out goofing around with friends, read anything he could get his hands on–even Plato’s Republic. You see, Mokhtar choose to succeed.

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When he decided to go to Yemen and export coffee he did his homework with a vengeance. He sought out the best help and advisors, educated himself, took industry certification exams and more. When he landed in Yemen he was ready except for…. [No Spoilers!] But when his ship comes in….well, you’ll have to read the book to find out!

I truly hope Dave Eggers will produce a Young Person’s version of this book. Parents may not be pleased that Mokhtar put college aside to pursue his dream, but the education he gave himself, plus the industry certifications he earned, were worth as much or more, to the success of his dream. I loved this book–and I don’t even like coffee. Go figure!

The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers

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Here is the New York Times review link.

Here is an interview from PBS’ News Hour

 

Review: We Fed An Island by Jose Andres

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“You should never feel guilty about feeling ambitious when you are trying to help other people. If you don’t dream then reality never changes.”

The Story

After hurricane Maria leveled Puerto Rico, chef Jose Andres and others got together to feed the people of the islands while FEMA, the Red Cross and others dithered and followed standard operating procedures that left people hungry, homeless and without hope. Military MREs were given out but were barely edible.

“A plate of food is not just a few ingredients cooked and served together. It is a story of who you are, the source of your pride, the foundation of your family and community. Cooking isn’t just nourishing, it’s empowering.”

As he tells his story, Andres tells of other disasters and how groups responded to the crisis. He documents the many times that President Trump’s TWEETS were nowhere near the reality and times when the President seemingly intentionally mislead the American people on the effort in Puerto Rico. He shows how ridiculous much of the response process is, how much over-spending and under-delivering is involved and how impractical many solutions are. Then he explains how he re-wrote the rule book on feeding people after a disaster.

“The group seemed to like my energy, but that was about it….They looked at me like I was a smart ass with some crazy vision of saving the world.”

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My Thoughts

Having seen the foreign aid process first hand–the graft and corruption that eats up much of it, I know he is telling the truth. Having researched charities and the amount per dollar that actually reaches the intended “target” versus what is spent on staff, offices, transportation, etc., I know he is telling the truth.  FEMA, a name now reviled after Hurricane Katrina, gets more well-deserved criticism. STOP–standarad operating procedures really can mean STOP or stopped.

Having visited Puerto Rico, worked with educators and educational administrators there back in the early 90s, and having an uncle with a home on Vieques, I know everything he said about the kindness and generostiy of the Puerto Rican people is true. The communities pulling together is exactly what happens there.

Sadly, the legislative history of Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States (Puerto Ricans ARE U.S. Citizens) was very dull even to me, a former law librarian who enjoys researching things like that.

As a librarian and historian, I loved seeing how social media is capturing history in the making. Andres made excellent use of it in documenting the story.

Some Things I Learned

I did not expect to hear the Southern Baptist Convention praised in this book! I had no idea that they provide fully staffed mobile kitchens to help in Red Cross disaster relief efforts. That was fascinating.

I may have misunderstood–I was, after all, listening while driving on my daily commute, but I did not know that the Red Cross spends only what is donated for that cause–not it’s millions in general. That shocked me. I know they are ridiculously wealthy, have horrendously high overhead, but I had thought they used the money on hand for each disaster. I knew they were a virtual government agency, but I really didn’t know the full extent of that. I had long ago stopped donating to them, but this reinforces my decision.

Regret

Why or why didn’t he include recipes!

P.S.

Jose? Please find a different word for focus. I loved your accent but I heard a very different word in your accent! (laughing)

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Review: Halsey Street by Naima Coster

Reading Around the World: The Dominican Republic

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Have You Found Your Life Yet?

The Story

Penelope Grand is the adult only child of a depressed father and a mother who couldn’t take her husband’s depression any longer. Her father, Ralph, grew up in an orphanage in New York, her mother is from “The D.R.” [Dominican Republic]. Ralph’s life was tied up in his now failed record shop. He has since had any number of trials and tribulations. Mirella, Penelope’s mother, has returned to the D.R. to make a new life. Penelope, too, has tried a new life–in Pittsburgh places. Now she is back in Brooklyn to care for her Dad and sort out her life–only….[no spoilers].

My Thoughts

I love it when I find a debut that doesn’t read like a debut. Coster has the strength and determination as a writer to pen a character who isn’t un-loveable but also isn’t very likable. Her writing is excellent–I especially enjoyed the memories of Penelope’s visits to her Grandmother in the D.R. and of her Grandmother’s early life.

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What I didn’t like, as I alluded earlier, was Penny–Penelope. She was sulky, rude, angry with a chip on her shoulder the size of Argentina. She can think of no way to describe or speak of physical intimacy being “F—” which got very, very tiresome.[Minor Spoiler alert!!!] She kept referring to her short-term lover’s wife as “the landlord” (which she was) and never as “his wife.” That was very indicative of her way of seeing the world. [End of minor spoiler]. Her bluntness was beyond rudeness–it was often savage. She nurses her hurt like it was the only way to sustain her life. She needs therapy–and fast. Maybe even a Rottweiler as a service dog–a service dog to those crossing her path so they can be safe from her!

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She finally has a small epiphany about the time her mother asks her the question at the top of this review. Sadly, she does not go on to sort it all out. I would have thought the obvious answer was staring her in the face: With all those rich white hipsters invading the neighborhood, find a new location and reopen the record shop. Hipsters LIVE for music on “Viynal” almost as much as they do for coffee. Heck, throw in a coffee bar while you are at it! Paint the place yourself–showcase your art, don’t waste that year you sulked through the Rhode Island School of Design! Let people SEE your talent instead of your nastiness for a change, Pen!

Halsey Street by Naima Coster

This book is currently on sale for Kindle for only $4.99.