Happy Spring: A Handful of Book Reviews

Hi friends! Can you believe it’s May? I used to hate when people said that (“Can you believe it’s already [insert month here]?!”) because, like, of course I can believe it… time passes, days begin and end, and then 30 or so have gone by and it’s a new month. But I don’t know, April really did fly and it kind of feels like there’s no possible way that it’s already over. But turns out, it is. How about that. ANYWAY, it’s been a while and I’m backlogged on reviews, so I’m going to share the last four books I read with you! Since I last blogged, I joined yet another book club (oops, that brings me to three book clubs total now), so two of the last four books I read were book club picks. Thank you as always for reading, and enjoy!

book #8: a brief history of seven killings by marlon james

OKAY, THIS BOOK WAS MASTERFUL. I know this is going to be a difficult one for me to review, because it just contained so much. Let me also preface this by saying: I definitely went about reading this book in the wrong way. It’s super long (I think around 800 pages?) and I jumped in during my morning commute one day. I continued trying to read it like that – 30-40 minutes on the train in the morning, and 30-40 minutes again on the way home – until I was a little more than halfway through. I’m very mad at myself for doing this, because this was definitely one of those books that deserves to be, like, buried in, for hours at a time. James’s writing and the plot seemed to feed on itself, so the story was building and building and building really effectively, but I wasn’t giving myself enough time to see the broader implications of the building… if that makes sense? I feel like it probably doesn’t, but basically I needed a minimum of 2 hours to immerse myself in the world of this book at a time. But I didn’t recognize that, so I was cutting myself off just as I would start to become immersed, because it was my stop and I had to get off the train. The first portion of the book is set in Kingston, Jamaica, and a lot of the characters spoke in Jamaican Patois, using a lot of slang. Plus, there were like 4,000 characters in play right off the bat. I’m exaggerating, but not by much. The story is told in alternating narratives, so it required a lot of figuring out who was who, in relation to everyone else. Sorry, that was a lot of prefacing but I just can’t stress enough that I think there’s a right way to read this book, and I hope that if you’re thinking of picking it up, you will heed this advice. So, onto the book! A Brief History of Seven Killings is, at its core, about an assassination attempt made on “The Singer” (Bob Marley) in 1976. We hear about this attempt, and all the political unrest leading up to it, from a huge variety of voices including a CIA agent stationed in Kingston at the time, a former lover of The Singer, leaders of the Jamaica Labour Party and the People’s National Party, a Rolling Stone reporter, gang members, enforcers, and dons, and pretty much everyone in between. However, to say that this book is “about” the assassination attempt is like saying that Harry Potter is “about” a school for magic. ABHoSK is just as much about the implications of this attempt on everyone directly and indirectly related to the incident. The story follows several of the same characters over the course of a few decades, as the reverberations from 1976 still echo however distantly in their lives. Hands down my favorite character in this book (and maybe a top-ten of all time) was Nina Burgess. She was the only lead female character, and she was so well-written. She was sharp, strong-willed, and sensitive; she could be ruthless but she was such a badass. I need a spin-off prequel or something, just devoted to Nina Burgess. My queen. Okay this review is pretty bad because, as I predicted, this book was so difficult to review. Marlon James is truly a genius though, and I’m ready to read everything he ever writes (I just need gaps between them, because based on this experience, his books are a lot). How does one even go about plotting a book like this? I would love to pick his brain, and will probably spend a good portion of this weekend scouring the internet for interviews with him, about his writing process for this book. He brought like 50 extremely distinct voices across effortlessly, and that is incredible. He also told one of the biggest stories I’ve ever read, about a true historical event, but also about a country that has maybe never been granted the attention it deserves, in literature or otherwise. Epic and amazing, I would highly recommend this one. It is not easy but it is worth it.

I need to go home. But I’m outside here, waiting on him. You ever feel like home is the one place you can’t go back to? It’s like you promise yourself when you got out of bed and combed your hair that this evening, when I get back I’ll be a different woman in a new place. And now you can’t go back because the house expects something from you.”

—page 46

“People with no plan wait and see. People with a plan see and wait for the right time. The world is not a ghetto and a ghetto is not the world. People in the ghetto suffer because there be people who live for making them suffer. Good time is bad time for somebody too.”

—page 416

book #9: lovely war by julie berry

I’ve been trying this new thing where, if a book is chosen for book club and I’ve never heard of it before, I just get a copy without reading anything about the book, including reviews, interviews, etc. Basically to keep it as unknown as possible so I have no preconceived notions going in. That’s what I ended up doing with Lovely War and I do not regret it. This book centers on a few different, equally beautiful love stories. It begins in WWII time in a swanky New York City hotel, where characters with names like Aphrodite and Ares are checking in. It quickly becomes clear that these characters are the Greek gods. Aphrodite and Ares are soon joined by her husband and his brother, Hephaestus, and it’s not a party without Apollo and Hades, who show up later. Hephaestus has caught Aphrodite and Ares in the middle of an affair and, feeling smug and bruised in equal measure, he arranges an impromptu trial for the two. Aphrodite, acting as her own defense lawyer, launches into a love story for the ages, thus establishing the dual timeline of this story. Through Aphrodite, the reader then learns about Hazel and James, who meet just before James is to head to battle in World War I. They quickly fall in love before they’re unfairly separated by the war, and Hazel heads to France as a volunteer to help American soldiers. Here, she meets the beautiful Colette, who develops her own equally heartbreaking love story with the American soldier, Aubrey. It’s just a lot of love and war and love and war, but in the best way. The novel is interspersed with asides from the trial of the gods, so you never forget who exactly is telling this story. I thought the Greek god narrative was a clever way to narrate it, especially because new WWI and WWII novels seem to be coming out constantly. This book is technically young adult, which I also didn’t realize, but I think that Julie Berry walked the line between YA and adult better than anything I’ve read in recent memory. It was feel-good but also realistic, and it did have me crying in public (which, granted, isn’t hard to do, but is also the mark of a really good book, in my opinion). A few reservations that came up during book club: some people didn’t love the gods storyline, especially those who didn’t feel familiar with the actual mythology. I couldn’t quite remember the mythology either, but I did feel like there were enough context clues to make sense of the relationship between these gods. Another interesting point, which I didn’t necessarily pick up on while reading but which I agree with in hindsight, was the complaint that Colette and Aubrey’s love story felt extremely secondary, and not fleshed out well. Aubrey was part of the 369th US infantry, meaning he was a black soldier and treated like a second class citizen by the army. In hindsight, I can see the complaint that him and Colette falling in love was just a convenient way for this book to shed light on the unfair treatment of black soldiers in the US military. But all in all, this was a good read that I would recommend.

It was Archimedes of Syracuse who first said that the shortest distance between two points was the straight line connecting them. Far be it from me to ever cast a shadow upon the wisdom of a Golden Age Greek, but Archimedes had it wrong. The length of the straight line between two people who don’t dare admit they’re in love is infinite.”

—page 248

book #10: my brilliant friend (again) by elena ferrante

Oh my, I loved this book even more the second time around. This was the other book club pick for the month of April, and I couldn’t decide if I should reread it or not but I’m so glad that I did. It also forced me to buy a copy, since I had borrowed a former roommates last time around, so I’m grateful to have access to the full series now. ELENA FERRANTE IS JUST SO! GOOD! Sorry, let me try to keep it together. This book is about two girls, Lila and Lenù, who are growing up in a poor neighborhood outside of Naples. Their world is extremely insular, and they interact with the same five-ish families day in and day out, for the most part. Lila is the daughter of the neighborhood’s shoe repairman, and she has an older brother, Rino. Lenù is the oldest daughter of a City Hall porter, with two younger siblings who may as well not exist for all they’re mentioned in the story. The girls meet as young children, when Lila rudely throws Lenù’s doll down through a grate. Lenù does the same to Lila’s doll in retaliation, and thus the girl’s intense, odd, sometimes toxic, always loving friendship is solidified, setting the tone for the rest of their friendship. The girls attend school together, and Lenù ends up continuing to high school while Lila finishes only an elementary education. As they grow up, Lenù’s thoughts are so centered around Lila, and she thinks of most things only in terms of both her and Lila together. The entire book is narrated by Lenù, so we never hear directly from the enigmatic Lila, who has always been the scrappier and more prone to violence of the two, very much a product of the violent and passionate neighborhood that raised her. Lenù is the calm, grounded, sweet half of the duo. I don’t think I’m doing a great job of reviewing this book because it’s so character-driven, and so internal. As I mentioned, Lenù is the narrator and a large part of the book is witnessing the way she works through relationships and conflicts in her head. I just think Elena Ferrante nailed it, writing this bookish, insecure young girl growing up as one, arguably weaker half of a forceful friendship. I just think everyone should read it. The writing is frank, clear, and surprising, and the characters are as well. I think I’m likely going to have to reread the entire series now (ha, “have to”).

I liked to discover connections like that, especially if they concerned Lila. I traced lines between moments and events distant from one another, I established convergences and divergences. In that period it became a daily exercise: the better off I had been in Ischia, the worse off Lila had been in the desolation of the neighborhood; the more I had suffered upon leaving the island, the happier she had become. It was as if, because of an evil spell, the joy or sorrow of one required the sorrow or joy of the other; even our physical aspect, it seemed to me, shared in that swing.

—page 256-257

So that’s it! I only finished one of the books on my “intimidating” list, but ABHoSK was well worth it. I’m curious to see how this goal stands up in the impending warm weather. I’ve never been much of a “beach read” person, but the logistics of bringing a 900-page brick of a book to Coney Island over the summer seems… challenging. We’ll see how this goes. Have a wonderful rest of your Saturday! ◊

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