Tuesday, February 28, 2017

"How to be a Woman" by Caitlin Moran

 I'd overlooked and then resisted this title for a while. I'd heard Moran's views on feminism were controversial, and she presented them in a particularly crass manner. Crass humor is not typically my thing & I know this, so I try to avoid it so as not to ruin it or complain about things other people are enjoying. But then I heard Moran's talk at Politics & Prose on her new book, "Moranifesto," chuckled and nodded along, and decided it was time to give her work a try.

It was a great decision. "How to be a Woman" is both Moran's memoir and a feminist text, discussing her life story along side her views on shaving, masturbation, weddings, abortion, and Lady Gaga.  Her views are controversial. But they're worth reckoning with. Do I agree with everything she says? Absolutely not. But I am a better feminist for considering her viewpoints and articulating where I find flaws in it. 

There are flaws, some of which Roxane Gay describes well. Casual, caustic use of the word "retarded" and an uniformed discussion of the N-word are insensitive and disappointing; it is important to recognize and criticize these flaws. I don't think, though, that these flaws invalidate Moran's larger message. Her mission to articulate her view of feminism and its importance is successful, if set back by language and references that could have been better chosen.

Moran also does her own audiobook narration, and her conversational tone fits the text well. I look forward to reading or listening to more of Moran's work, though I sincerely hope that she has learned or will learn to choose her words more carefully and consider the plight of those in different positions than her when choosing how to best express herself and her views. 

Verdict: Affirmed, for those looking for a text they can engage with and criticize as appropriate. If you want to laugh at the misadventures of a young British journalist at the start of her career, or have your feminism challenged or complicated, read this book.

"How to Be a Woman" by Caitlin Moran, published June 16, 2011 by Ebury Press, republished October 11, 2016 by Harper Perennial. Audio narration by Caitlin Moran, published February 24, 2012 by Random House Audiobooks.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

"Roses and Rot" by Kat Howard

In law school I served as Managing Editor of the Morningside Muckraker in part because I would get to work with creative people. I'm not artistically creative myself, but I like being around people who are, discussing their work with them, and helping to create spaces where they can be their creative selves. Kat Howard's debut novel "Roses and Rot" evoked this feeling of being around those who live to create. And it gets bonus points for reminding me of excellent parts of "The Night Circus."

Imogen and Marin are sisters, a writer and a dancer, respectively. They grew up together and grew extremely close as they were forced to deal with horrific abuse at the hands of their mother. And yet, at the start of the novel, they haven't spoken in seven years, though they are about to live together in an artist's colony, Melete. Everything at Melete is not what it seems. Imogen and Marin must decide what their art means to them, what are the aims of their ambitions, and what they will sacrifice to achieve their goals. 

Howard creates an enchanting environment in Melete, and it is this setting and the feeling created that reminds me of "The Night Circus." Make no mistake, the books are entirely different, but each has its own carefully crafted atmosphere that draws the reader in an ensnares their attention. Additionally, each character has a slightly different view on art and how to create, though all share a devotion to their work. I enjoyed the opportunity to consider these different approaches.

Finally, Howard is playing with fairy tales. Imogen writes them, the girls are living one, and the novel plays with the structures and tropes of them. I have some thoughts on how this plays out, so get to reading so we can discuss. 

Verdict: Affirmed. "Roses and Rot" is great on audio and ebook (as I learned when my audio rental expired and my aunt generously provided me with the ebook to finish the last several chapters; thank you again!). Fans of fairy tale retellings and inspired works will appreciate this new entry in the subgenre, and sisters will enjoy the complex and true relationship between Marin and Imogen. 

"Roses and Rot" by Kat Howard, published May 17, 2016 by Saga Press.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

"A Gentleman in Moscow" by Amor Towles

I haven't yet read Towles's debut novel "Rules of Civility", but I have read many good things. So when Book of the Month had "A Gentleman in Moscow" as an option back in September, it seemed an interesting pick. Then I managed to get DC book club to read it, and it was a great choice.

Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced by the Soviet government to live out the rest of his life in the Metropol hotel, granted a reprieve from the death sentence due to a poem he authored that inspired many during the communist revolution. He will be killed if he ever leaves. So Rostov sets up a life for himself within the walls of the hotel with both the staff and guests. As time passes, his relationships deepen and remain central to his life, and the novel. Although he is largely isolated from the  events of the world outside the hotel, occasionally the changing world finds its way into the hotel's operations.

A novel about a man determined to find the best in those around him, to tenderly care for his relationships with those he loves, and to live his life as best he is able in his reduced circumstances. Towles obviously took care with his writing, but his prose doesn't quite make it to that joyous effortless plateau that should be the aim of literary fiction. Towles slips at times, especially early on when the Count wanders into past reminiscences that are mere devices for filling in backstory. But as the story progresses (and the reader has the requisite backstory), these trips into the past occur more naturally and Towles finds his stride.

Overall, this novel was a delight to read. The Count's outlook is optimistic, and that viewpoint effuses the reading experience with a certain joy, even in its darker moments.

Verdict: Affirmed, it was widely enjoyed by my book club & would make a great pick for yours, too!

"A Gentleman in Moscow" by Amor Towles, published September 6, 2016 by Viking.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead

FTC Disclosure: I received an e-ARC from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. I purchased a signed first edition out of pocket when I found one at my local bookstore, though. Wasn't going to miss that opportunity!

Everyone has heard of this novel by now, and likely of the fact that Oprah liked it enough to get its release pushed up an entire month so she could feature it in her book club.  I had received an early review copy & had been saving it for after the bar exam  to review in time for the September release. Instead, Oprah scooped me. But Whitehead is deserving of such heaping praise.

The novel follows Cora, a slave whose mother is the only slave ever to have escaped successfully from the Randall plantation in Georgia. Cora faces horrors both unspeakable and far too common for a slave, and becomes a runaway herself.  From there, Whitehead builds on the mistake all young children likely make - that the Underground Railroad is an actual railroad & uses the device to visit several states, each treating its black population with a unique form of cruelty.

There are highs and lows in this novel, but the highs are glorious. The ending is beautiful, and brought tears to my eyes. But I'll admit, I stalled at some parts. The novel alternates between vignettes telling the story of those Cora encounters, and large chunks of her tale as she reaches a new state. The structure works, but the longer chapters dragged at times, for me. I don't think this is a problem all readers will face; dreading a long chapter after I've completed a short one is a tic of mine, especially short ones as self-contained as the vignettes here. I do wish Whitehead had pushed the conceit of the novel a bit further, traveled another stop or two. Yet overall, the writing is great, the story will stick with you, and this book is worthy of the praise it has received.

Verdict: Affirmed, for historical fiction fans particularly, and literary fiction fans broadly.

"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead, published August 2, 2016 by Doubleday books.