Tag Archives: books

The Problem with Ernest Hemingway

21 Dec
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Great Hemingway writing quotes here.

Young girls around the world adore Marilyn Monroe. They wear her image on their shirts, on purses. They quote what she said about beauty and self-confidence, only to find out later that she never actually said those things. The problem is that huge swathes of these girls have never even seen a Marilyn Monroe film, some of her fans can’t even name one. I’m friends with a couple of people like this. I try not to judge them, though, because in my world (the world of writers and readers), we do the same thing to Ernest Hemingway.

I love Ernest Hemingway, but he is the Marilyn Monroe of writers. Most anyone who reads or writes will profess a deep, holy love toward him, often citing him as their hero. My journals are full of his quotes. I’ve watched “Midnight in Paris” more times than I can count. I’ve read every fictional and non-fictional thing written about him. I even once had a beta fish that I named Ernest. But my big confession is that I don’t actually like the majority of his books.

I’ve read the major ones and could give a brief summary of the plot lines. I know why he is one of the most important writers of the 20th century: his razor-sharp, journalistic prose. But it’s not my thing. I like descriptions. I like being pulled into a scene with imagery and metaphors. And I’m not a fan of war, which is a huge part of most of his books. The one book by him that I adore is “A Moveable Feast” which was published posthumously. I see it as a departure from his iconic prose. He indulges metaphor and description. He gushes about Paris without much restraint. Or maybe his prose was easier to stomach when he wasn’t talking about battlefields and soldiers. Maybe I need to reread “A Farewell to Arms”?

You see, I carry so much guilt at not loving Hemingway’s books as much as I think I should. I carry a lot of his advice on writing and life around with me as comfort. And I wish I had the grace of his prose, which he admittedly attributed to being able to revise and discard. He reminds me of that perfect guy that you just don’t fall in love with. He’s handsome, smart, loves animals, loves you, but something in the chemistry is amiss and you can’t, despite your most valiant attempts, feel love for this person. I want to love Hemingway. I sorta love Hemingway. Just not in the way he deserves to be read and loved.

I think he’s an easy person to idealize as a writer. He traveled the world, transformed literature, had wild love affairs, wrote important pieces about things that he cared about. But another parallel can be drawn between his fan base and Marilyn Monroe’s. When people idolize Marilyn Monroe, they conveniently forget that she had crushing insecurities, that she suffered through an abusive relationship, that she was addicted to sleeping pills and might have even taken her own life with them. Hemingway, likewise, struggled with depression and took his own life. One of his oft-quoted lines is one that I downright hate.

“Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”

I can’t abide that. I think it is a harmful and mean thing to say. I don’t think happiness is a reflection of intelligence as much as it is a reflection of a mindset. I think people are really and truly happy when they turn their mind to it. Some of the most beautiful pieces of art, music, literature have come out of dark times and sad people, but I think some of it has come from happy individuals. I think about this quote a lot when I am happy and worry that my writing will suffer for it. He’s bullying me into choosing either happiness or intelligence, when I think that it is possible to choose both. And maybe that’s what pushes me away from his novels. This overarching gloom of war and death and failure doesn’t inspire me as much as his love and excitement and happiness in Paris. That’s the part of his writing that means something to me.

So instead of ending this on a criticism of the patriarch of modern writing, I’ll end it on one of my favorite quotes from “A Moveable Feast.” A quote that makes me want to quit my job and move to Montmartre. To find my own mustachioed Hemingway and while away the hours debating back and forth about politics, love, happiness, writing. No matter how I feel about some of his books, the man could craft an elegant sentence.

“You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.”

Am I alone in this? How do other people really, honestly feel about Hemingway? Love him, but don’t like him? Are there other authors out there that have that type of relationship with their readers?

Sylvia Plath and Aziz Ansari

19 Dec
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From the amazing zenpencils.tumblr.com

I have been watching Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix show “Master of None.” I’m a huge fan of his comedy, and the show doesn’t disappoint. He’s one of those comedians that manages to be hilarious while remaining smart and thought-provoking. He’s unafraid to mix silly humor with humor that requires a modicum of intelligence. In the season finale (won’t give anything away), his father quotes Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar.” Aziz’s character goes to a bookstore and reads a section of the book while thinking about his life.

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

I love Sylvia Plath. And I love “The Bell Jar.” In college, I was obsessed with the book like so many millions of women of the age when life is a giant abyss before you with too many questions and too much uncertainty. I only learned years later that it was a cliche to be a young woman who loves Sylvia Plath. So even though I had read the book a half-dozen times, nodding along to every poetic sentence that seemed to dig into my heart, I stopped talking about it. I didn’t want to be that girl. The one that wears black and thinks big, dramatic thoughts about life and feminism. The Sylvia Plath fan who had likewise gone through sad times in life and felt inspired by the poets ability to channel it into beautiful words, poems, stories.

But I am that girl. The book remains one of my favorite because of passages that speak so directly to what it feels like to live in this day and age. I think the above quote is so apt for so many young people’s lives. It wasn’t long ago when people chose their profession usually by what their family did, what business their parents pushed them into. You worked where you apprenticed. You did what the community needed. Now we live in a global community with new levels of equality never seen before, especially for women. And these choices can be overwhelming. I know in the last couple of years I’ve considered veterinary school, law school, med school, speech/language pathology, writing, editing, web design. We are told to not settle, to find our true passion.

I don’t think that means certainty, though, and this is what Plath is speaking to. I envy my friends who decided what they wanted to be at 8-years-old and are now doing it. For the majority of us, though, I don’t think that’s the case. I think we, like Sylvia Plath, see hundreds of possibilities before us and are taught to wait for which one magically sings to us. But in this waiting, we let opportunity slip by. This quote got me thinking about choosing a fig, about just grabbing one. I’d argue with Plath that choosing a fig doesn’t mean that there are no other chances to choose another. After all, she did become a famous poet. But she also became a wife and mother. She took her own life at a shockingly young age, but if she hadn’t, there are plenty of figs that could have been before her. That’s the key to reading Plath. It’s the key to reading a lot of sad, dramatic writing. You can’t read it from within the Bell Jar, from her lens of negativity. You have to read it critically from the outside. Sure, swim around in her beautiful language, but also remember that she was wrong about some things. Reading her writing never depressed me, it always helped me to see anxiety-filled situations from a different lens and to feel less alone in those insecurities.

If you haven’t watched “Master of None,” you should do so as soon as possible. If for no other reason than to support a comedian who believes in quoting a poet on a television show. And you really must read “The Bell Jar.” Maybe even balance the two! Feel the melancholy of Plath and let Ansari cheer you up.

Whether to reading challenge or not

15 Dec

reading challenge

This has been my third year doing the Goodreads reading challenge, and it will most likely be my last.

I’ve always been a huge fan of lists. To-Do List, 500-best lists, Bucket Lists. So naturally a reading challenge seems right up my alley. The Goodreads reading challenge is as simple as they come. You pick a number of books that you’d like to read in a given year, and you try to read them. In 2013, I succeeded and read 52 after I had set a goal of 50. In 2014, I came up short reading only 49 when my goal was 55. And this year, I’m currently at 44 of 55 and will probably not reach my goal.

The arbitrary thing about this challenge is that I could go into my account and change my goal. A lot of the people I’m friends with have goals of 10 books, 15 books. I’ve surpassed those numbers, and 44 is nothing to scoff at. I like the idea of the challenge in that it pushes me to read more which is always worthwhile. But I’m afraid it was negatively affected my reading habits.

I don’t feel down or unaccomplished for not reaching these goals, because I know exactly why I didn’t make it. Last year, it was the fault of Game of Thrones. This year it’s the fault of Outlander. In their respective years, I decided to read through these series and the volumes are not small or quick. I loved them though, especially Outlander.

jamie fraser

But these series slowed me down. I’ve only read the first three books of the Outlander series, and each one took me about three weeks to get through. The reading challenge was looming over my head, though. So instead of savoring Gabaldon’s descriptions of Jamie Fraser’s fiery locks or the sweet tones of his Scottish accent, I kept thinking to myself, “read faster, get through this, you’re so behind on the challenge.”

At bookstores and at the library, I found myself running away from larger books and favoring large font, shorter books, knowing that I could get through them faster. And I’ve never found myself intimidated my large books before. So instead of the reading challenge pushing me to read more, it only pushed me to read faster, to pick quicker books and shy away from larger tomes. I became so concerned about my numbers and how they stack up. I want my annual number to be better than the last.

The challenge can be a great thing for the right reader, but next year, I’m giving myself permission to read whatever book I want at whatever pace I want. If I decide to swim in the literary lake that is a poetry book, I will do so and not be rushed to meet some number I forced upon myself. It’s all about quality as opposed to quantity after all. Every good reader knows that.

HOW DID YOUR READING CHALLENGE GO? ARE YOU GOING TO DO ONE IN 2016?

Reading Short Stories

13 Dec

This has been my autumn of short story collections. Not for any particular reason other than I had a number of unread ones sitting on my shelf, and I wanted to clear them out. I know a lot of people who buy books at a much greater rate than they read them, and I too used to be one of those people. But I find it satisfying to go through these books and winnow down my collection. I have limited space, and I try to only hold onto the books that mean the world to me. The rest I give away to friends or donate. I do, however, one day want to own a house where all the walls are made of books shelves, but even in that scenario, I want them to be the great books, the ones I wouldn’t hesitate recommending to someone. That requires making sure that the books I own have been read and to commit to not buying new ones until the unread ones have been dealt with accordingly.

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Remember when the Beast gave Beauty this library, and it was the most romantic thing ever, and it set your standards of romance at an unreasonable height when you were still only 8-years-old?

I wholeheartedly believe in the short story as a medium, although it is still one of the most looked over. When I tell people that I’m reading a short story collection, they tend to dismiss the genre either because they think it’s pointless to read something so brief or they’ve never even tried reading short stories, because it holds no interest for them. What draws me to it is the intensity of the story and the language. Short stories, by their nature, have a limited amount of space in which to make the reader feel, grow attached to the characters, and watch them change. Time cannot be wasted in a short story. Novels can be short, long, or painfully long. They can go on wild tangents that have almost nothing to do with the plot and more to do with the author’s political views. I’m looking at you, all 19th century Russian writers. ESPECIALLY YOU, TOLSTOY.

We live in a fast-paced, ADHD society, and short stories are a great option. A brilliant tale with intense images that can be read in 15-20 minutes? It’s the Twitter of Literature. It’s also a great way to get a sampler of the literary scene at the moment. Most mainstream novelists also write short stories and publish them on the side, sometimes expanding them into full-length novels. I do most of my reading on the subway, and I love that I can read about a story per journey. So time-efficient!

 

BEST AMERICAN

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I’m a fan of all the “Best American” collections. They offer about any genre and do a great job of pulling together a snapshot of the best of what has been published in the previous year. Best American Poetry. Best American Sports Writing. Best American Essays. Best American Mystery Writing. I like it, because it is conscious of literary trends that come and go and offers a good glimpse at what is being put out there.

O. HENRY PRIZE

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My aunt gave me a couple of these collections years ago for the bus ride back to New York, but I only just got around to reading them. I don’t know why I stayed away so long, honestly. The stories were excellent and tend to come with the most well known authors on the literary scene. Alice Munro, Joyce Carol Oates, George Saunders. I found one or two stories by new writers, but they tend to collect stories from authors at the height of their powers.

PUSHCART PRIZE

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The Pushcart Prize is a collection of short story, poetry, and essay that have been published by a small press. One of my first jobs was at a small press in Seattle. Three people in an office space, talking about poetry and living on a tight budget. The collection is known for being ahead of the curve as far as trends and publishers go. They pull together from more well-known literary magazines/publishers like McSweeney’s and Tin House and smaller ones that I would probably not come into contact with other wise, like the Alaska Quarterly or the New Ohio Review.

AUTHOR COLLECTION

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Of course, authors also have their own collections which are fantastic and some of my favorite books. I recently read Lorrie Moore’s “Bark.” Her writing is so cutting and something I aspire to. They’re easy books to buy with confidence, too. Just invest the ten minutes or so at the bookstore to read one of the stories, if you like it, chances are you’ll like the rest too.

A Kim Jong-Il Production by Paul Fischer

10 Aug

Happy National Book Lover’s Day everyone!

This is the second book I have read about North Korea. The first had my jaw on the ground. This threw me into a full-blown obsession with the hermit kingdom.

This book is nonfiction which sounds impossible when you hear the premise. The book is about two South Koreans, one a film actress, the other her estranged film director husband. In the 1980’s, Kim Jong-Il had them kidnapped and brought to North Korea where they were forced to make propaganda films, including a Godzilla-knockoff. They escaped years later and this is the tale of their saga. They were put through brainwashing prisons, isolated in strange houses with North Korean guards and minders to stop them from escaping. They were forced to watch movies with Kim Jong-Il and to thank him for kidnapping them.

The best part about Fischer’s writing (and all good nonfiction writing in my opinion) is that he intersperses the drama of this true story with relevant politics and history of the region. While the other North Korean book I read was incredible and painted the daily lives of North Koreans from different songbuns (social classes) with heartbreaking detail, I came away from this book with a good basic understanding of the history of how North Korea came to be, the official state biography of Kim Jong-Il, and the finances and politics behind supporting this rigidly nationalistic dictatorship. The book has a comic-book-like dust jacket, but the research is meticulous and fascinating.

I’m obsessed. I’m OBSESSED with North Korea. All my nearest and dearest have had to listen to non-stop rambling about the craziness in the country. I see mirror images of the empire around me everywhere. I went to a Yankee game on Friday night, and as I looked at the giant sign with George Steinbrenner’s face and the words “The Boss” on it, I could only think of the propaganda of Kim Il-Sung “The Supreme Leader.” Remember how Donald Trump called Mexicans rapists and thieves? That’s almost verbatim the rhetoric that Kim Jong-Il uses to describe Americans!

I think my obsession stems from the fact that North Korea is a mystery. We can’t really know what life is like there, and the world is at a loss as to what to do with this strange pocket of comic-book-level villainy. What we know of North Korea are just glimpses. Here are some of the better things I’ve found in my obsessive research.

  • This three-part documentary from Vice does a good job of getting inside the country and sneaking a bit past the carefully orchestrated face North Korea shows the world. The main documentary guy made me nervous. He karaoked “Anarchy in the UK” in front of his minders! I was nervous he was going to end up in a concentration camp. People have been sent there for much less. Lisa Ling also has a good documentary available on Netflix called “Inside North Korea.” That documentary delves more into the brainwashing of the citizens.
  • This photo gallery is beautiful and disturbing. I like this one even more.
  • Ever heard of the mass games? It’s organized insanity. Once a year to celebrate the founding of their country, thousands of North Koreans put on this bizarre performance for their leaders. People practice all year for it, and the giant moving pictures in the back are made up of thousands of children holding giant books over their heard and flipping the pages in tandem. IT’S WEIRD. It was thought up by none other than Kim Jong-Il.
  • In recent news, North Korea announced they are creating their own time zone which will be 30 minutes off from everyone else. Of course the are. Of course they are.
  • All mockery aside, though, it’s quite tragic what goes on beyond our reach. The people of North Korea are enslaved to the strongest cult of personality the world has ever seen. My heart breaks to think of the starvation, the brainwashing, the labor camps, and the violence North Koreans have to live through. It’s important to remember that while the leadership in the country is deplorable and terrifying with their constant talk of nuclear war, millions of people are suffering within the country’s borders, and it is to them that we owe a bit of compassion and concern.

I leave you with an apt quote from this book that I highly recommend anyone and everyone to read.

“The people are still required, under pain of imprisonment, to thank Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il every morning for their food, even though Kim Il-Sung is dead and they have no food”

Book Roundup #3

13 Jul

I was amazed today to realize how peripatetic my 2015 has been so far. New Mexico, London, Spain, Tangier, California, Maine, and later this week Canada. I’ve had so many amazing opportunities that I haven’t been able to turn down. One of the side-effects of my jet-set life is a lot of reading to fill those plane and/or train rides. I like being stuck on these journeys with a stack of books or gigabytes of books as the case may be. It’s one of my favorite things about traveling, having an excuse to sit and read or write and let my nerd-self simmer in the English language. These are some of my favorites of late.

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari


Buy here.

I bought an Aziz Ansari comedy special years ago and somehow ended up on his mailing list. In preparation for his debut book, I got a mass email that announced a lottery for his book release party open to those that pre-order the book. It doesn’t take much to convince me to buy a book, so I pre-ordered a copy in hopes that I’d get to hobnob with Aziz in New York. I didn’t win, but I was surprised to find the book on my kindle one morning. I was even more surprised to find out that I loved the book. I’m not a huge fan of comedy books. I just don’t find them funny without seeing the delivery. But, although, Aziz Ansari’s brand of humor is present throughout, the book is more of a sociological study about dating in the modern world. He conducted experiments with a sociologist and combed through OKcupid’s data to find out how people are dating and what they are doing right and/or wrong. He even discusses modern dating in other cultures like Japan, France, and Argentina. I read the book in about a day as it was fascinating and easy to get through.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Spoilers in that video, although I like the analysis.

I watched the movie before I read the book. A sin, I know. But I had accidentally found out the twist in this book when reading an essay about unlikeable female characters. I was so disappointed to have it spoiled for me that I didn’t want to read it. But after seeing the movie and reading Flynn’s other book “Dark Places,” I had to. It was amazing. I couldn’t put it down. I loved every ounce of the character of Amy and the dark tones of the book. Gillian Flynn has quickly joined my fantasy Boss Ass Bitch Booze Brunch club along with Cheryl Strayed, Amy Poehler, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi. I daydream about hanging out with these intelligent women and discussing writing, creativity and just being awesome. I guess they would discuss, and I would refill their cocktails/bring out more hash browns, but I’d be honored to be there and to possibly soak up some of their glory.

Anyways, “Gone Girl” takes a commonplace narrative of a murder and twists it around to something new. I know I’m late on the bandwagon, but I just can’t stop thinking about the book. It raises so many questions about love, marriage, feminism and identity.

“Travels with Charley: In Search of America” by John Steinbeck

I’ve been meaning to read this book for years, and it went above and beyond my expectations. John Steinbeck has always been one of my favorite authors. This is a departure from his usual fiction writing and is a memoir of a road trip he took with his standard poodle Charley through the country to try and get back in touch with what real America is like. I loved this book for all the reasons to love any Steinbeck book. Funny, beautiful, and revelatory. My mother bought me my copy when we were in Monterey as a souvenir of our California trip, and I’ve marked this copy up with all my favorite quotes and parts I want to go back to and re-read.

“I was born lost and take no pleasure in being found, nor much identification from shapes which symbolize continents and states.”

Conversations with Maya Angelou Edited by Jeffrey M. Elliot

8 Jun

mayaWhat an incredible woman. My associations with Maya Angelou where formulated in high school when, like so many others of my generation, I read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” I remember liking it, but like so many books forced upon me in high school, I don’t remember too much about it, or her, other than the basics. She was raised in the South during segregation, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, and she had her son at the age of 16. She went on to become a symbol of Black female strength and was even named Poet Laureate during the Clinton Administration, becoming the first poet since Robert Frost to read at the presidential inauguration.

A+ for that book report. But reading these interviews about Maya Angelou made me want to re-read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and perhaps to go back and read all those other books I rushed through in high school so I could finish my Calculus homework.

I knew she was a poet and an author. I did not know that she was a playwright, a screenwriter, a director, an actress, and a dancer. That she had been nominated for Tonys and was the first black woman to write and direct her own film. She worked along Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X during the Civil Rights Movement. Fluent in seven languages, she also was a master at cooking regional African cuisines that she learned while teaching in Ghana. All this from a woman who never went to college, who worked as a madam and a stripper. She seemed to always push forward, pick herself up and accept any challenge presented to her.

These interviews with her felt like How to Live Life 101. So much zest for living, always striving to write better, and looking for ways to influence and improve the world around her. So many gems to quote, like…

“What do you mean, do I consider myself a feminist? I am a feminist. I’ve been a female for a long time now. I’d be stupid not to be on my own side.”

or

“I want to know more- not intellectually- to know more so I can be a better human being, to be an honest, courageous, funny and loving human being. That’s what I want to be – and I blow it 86 times a day. My hope is to cut it down to 70.”

This book spans her thoughts on racism in America, the plight of white women vs. the plight of black women, motherhood, creativity, how to write, travel, and how to be happy. From page 1 to page 240, I was gripped by her unwavering love of life.

“Living life fully, fiercely, devotedly, makes you much more able to accept other people who are doing the same. All we’re trying to do is to get from birth to death. And you can’t fail. Even if you only live five minutes, you have succeeded…But it seems to me that life loves the liver.”

Phenomenal woman, indeed.

The Summer Game by Roger Angell

20 Apr

I know that I’m a couple of weeks late in writing about the beginning of the 2015 baseball season. But that shouldn’t undermine the level of excitement and complacency I feel. Playing softball with my friends on the warm Spring days. Watching the Mariners at a sports bar while eating wings and drinking beer. All is right with the world. Everything is as it should be.

During this time of the year, I spend a lot of time working with Dr. G who is a lifetime Yankees fan. We tease each other back and forth and talk about the ups and downs of our respective teams. Dr. G is the one who told me about Roger Angell who is a friend of his and a client of the clinic’s. I had no idea that the adorable old man with the Jack Russel Terrier also happens to be one of the most legendary baseball writers of all time. “The Summer Game” is the first book of his that I have read.

The book is full of essays that he wrote during the sixties. To be honest, some of the writing didn’t grab me, only because I was reading about games that happened almost 60 years ago. And while I easily recognized names like Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, and Carl Yastrzemski. So many of the other players and games he wrote about are so far in the past that their importance doesn’t translate. So I did skim over a handful of the recaps of who stole what base in what inning.

There was an interesting arc to the essays as they followed the nascent years of the New York Mets whom I support on a casual and Queens-pride level. He wrote about how horrible they were in their first couple of seasons, yet how the fans supported them with a fervor that some of the more successful teams couldn’t come close to. He wrote about the transition from the Polo Grounds to Shea stadium, tracking the evolution of major league baseball to newer venues, expanded franchises, players rights.

“This was a new recognition that perfection is admirable but a trifle inhuman, and that a stumbling kind of semi-success can be much more warming. Most of all, perhaps, these exultant yells for the Mets were also yells for ourselves, and came from a wry, half-understood recognition that here is more Met than Yankee in every one of us. I knew for whom the foghorn blew; it blew for me.”

Angell writes about baseball as only a true baseball-obsessed person can, as a religion. I get tired of the debate I have with people about whether baseball is boring or not. If other people don’t like it, I simply don’t care. It’s something I need in my life. And there’s a special kind of recognition to spend time with another baseball fan who understands the game and what makes it so special. This is the recognition that I found in his writing.

“Whatever the pace of the particular baseball game we are watching, whatever its outcome, it holds us in its own continuum and mercifully releases us from our own.”

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

23 Feb

People just kept recommending this book to me. Everyone saying the same thing. They couldn’t put it down. The writing is stunning. So I began this book with the highest of expectations. This always makes me nervous as it makes books easier to fall short, to not be perfect.

This however lived up to the many wonderful things said about it. Most of the talk generated around this book has to do with race, which Adichie addresses beautifully and in a way that I had not seen done before. The novel is about a young Nigerian woman Ifemelu and the love of her life, Obinze. The two of them dream of emigrating to America together. However, only Ifemelu is able to obtain the visa. Over the years, they drift apart as Ifemelu tries to acclimate to the United States, and Obinze unsuccessfully tries to get to the US by working in London, but eventually ends up back in Nigeria.

A lot of books talk about the Black experience in America, but this book does so through the lens of a woman who spent the first 20 years of her life where being Black didn’t make her a minority. The subtlety of the racism she encounters is beautifully documented, not overly dramatized, yet apparent. It’s real. It makes all the people in this country that want to try and deny that we don’t have an issue with race look insane. Black people have come a long way, but to try and say that racism has been eliminated from our culture is foolish. Books like this that confront the issue are more important now than ever.

But beyond the expansive issue of race, the book is a beautiful love story. Ifemelu is a whip-smart, loveable character, and I found myself not wanting the book to end if it only meant that I could follow her story forever.

That being said though, to anyone out there that read the book, did the last three pages feel rushed to you? Maybe I was overwhelmed with grief that the story was ending, but I felt it was forced. I wanted more, not multiple months and the most important encounter of the book (to me) slapped on at the end.

Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins

21 Feb

“Have you started reading your book-pick yet?”

This is how my friend and fellow book club member Melis greeted me as I entered my friend Jonah’s launch party for his new website.

“Not yet. Why? Is it bad?” I ask her. This is my second time picking a book for my book club, and both times I’ve been terrified that I’ve selected a dud.

“It’s kind of fucked up.”

“It’s about Nevada!”

“It’s not about Nevada. It’s about fucked up things happening in Nevada.”

My relationship with my home state is fraught with tension. I hated living there. I often felt embarrassed about being from there. Yet it’s shaped a huge part of who I am. And since I’ve left, my nostalgia for that weird place has become bittersweet. I don’t know how it happened, but I reluctantly fell in love with Nevada.

It has crept into my writing as a loaded setting, and a new friend of mine who has been kind enough to read the short stories I’m churning out told me to check out this book. He recommended it not just because of her use of the Nevada setting, but he thought our styles were similar as well.

I was ready to love this book from the moment it arrived in the mail. An initial kudos goes to an incredible title. “Battleborn” is the slogan of the state of Nevada, referring to the fact that we only became a state so that our silver could help finance the North in the Civil War. But it is also an adjective that can aptly describe the characters that Watkins writes about. They come out of poverty. They come out of the desert. They come out of heartbreak. But I don’t agree with Melis’ assertion that it’s about fucked up things. I think it is about unpleasant situations (unwanted pregnancy, sexual assault) in a somewhat gritty place (rundown apartment buildings, whorehouses, desert.)

And I think that’s exactly the kind of thing that I’ve grown to love in my own writing, in the things I read, and in my home state. It’s not the shiny fantasy that the tourist boards from California, Florida, even New York present of themselves. Even Las Vegas, the shining glory of the state drips with seediness. It’s a quirky place that’s hard to understand unless you are from there. But I think the thing that Watkins does that I admire is she is able to bring the reader closer to what life in Nevada is like, making it a character in itself. I also couldn’t help but get giddy as she mentioned so many things that I remember and love. Penny poker slot machines and the Bucket of Blood Saloon, anyone? Above all, it’s fine writing. I savored every sentence, and I felt physical pain as I neared the end. I wanted more. More Nevada. Not enough has been said about that place, but I’m glad that a brave soul is out there bringing it into the conversation.