Review: Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

Everywhere we looked, we saw the people trying to dream themselves out. As though there was someplace other than this place. As though there was another Brooklyn.

If I had to describe Another Brooklyn in terms of other books, I would say it lies somewhere between The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and the poetry of Langston Hughes. Jacqueline Woodson’s writing takes the outward shape of prose, but it is imbued with poetry.

It’s a short, quick read. In the first place, it’s less than two hundred pages, but it’s also made up of short paragraphs that are separated by spacing rather than indentation. Even the writing style is a bit “easy come, easy go” — it’s easy to get into, but also easy to put down. For that reason, I would recommend swallowing it whole, if possible. You can easily finish it in one or two afternoons, then go back and reread to soak it in more. I read this book pretty slowly, and that did me a disservice because it was harder for me to remember what happened when I picked it up again.

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August moves to Brooklyn with her father and brother at eight years old in 1973. The story encompasses her girlhood, flush with the affection of her three best friends, Angela, Sylvia, and Gigi. Their bond keeps them afloat through their various personal trials — in August’s case, coming to terms with what happened to her mother. August’s memories of her childhood are bittersweet, though. “What is tragic isn’t the moment,” she narrates. “It is the memory.”

The nostalgia in this book tugged at my heartstrings. In some ways, I could see my young, girlish friendships in August’s little crew. I remember how important it was to have a clique growing up, not for the purpose of excluding others, but as a safe haven. The people you could trust no matter what. In other ways, though, August’s childhood is much darker and shorter than my own. The shadow of her mother’s death hangs over her, and in the streets of Brooklyn lie in wait hardships and experiences that force children to grow up too fast.

As an adult, August’s preoccupation with death has led her to become an anthropologist in study of funerary rituals. Throughout the novel, passages are punctuated with descriptions of death around the world, tinted with suggestions of what customs say about a culture’s attitudes toward life and death. This motif is clever and it certainly works within the context of the story, but for me, it is a touch too on the nose.

The one part of the story that I felt was a bit self-indulgent was toward the very end, when August discovers herself in jazz music. On a structural level, this has the function of closing one of the many circles that Woodson likes to draw in her writing, but in practice, we see August become a moody, artistic young adult who sleeps around and travels the world. Maybe I just don’t have any poetry in my soul, but I feel that the sort of person August becomes as an adult is doing things and liking things in place of having an actual personality. The closest thing we get to a glimpse of August as a settled, self-actualized adult is in a brief meeting with her brother at the beginning of the novel.

Another Brooklyn is a lyrical and neatly constructed story of a childhood in snapshots. In some places there is a flair for style over substance, but it still has a lot of heart. I recommend this if you’re looking for a book that is easy to read, but meaningful and poetic.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

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Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

When I was in middle school, it was one book craze after another. Harry Potter. Warriors. And, of course, Percy Jackson and the Olympians. Those were the books that drove waiting lists. My friends and I discussed what Greek gods could be our parents with the same fervor as we did our Hogwarts houses. In eighth grade, my best friend and I jumped at the chance to take Latin at the high school even though we’d have to get up an hour earlier for it. Percy Jackson ignited a passion for mythology in not only me, but an entire generation.

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Was there a girl out there who didn’t want to be Annabeth Chase?

With that in mind, it’s no wonder that Madeline Miller’s books have done well. Swamped with schoolwork, the craze for The Song of Achilles passed me by, but I still heard about it and saw it on stands in the library. Now, Circe is the book that everyone is talking about, and seeing Rick Riordan’s stamp of approval, I couldn’t help but check it out.

Circe certainly speaks to the demographic that grew up on Percy Jackson, but when it comes down to it, this is a very different sort of book. More tragedy than comedy, it echoes with the pain and wisdom of millennia. Circe’s voice is distinct, that of a soft-hearted woman who has loved and lost countless times, collecting scars like so many flowers. She narrates her life story in the first person from start to finish, only once getting ahead of herself when she prematurely mentions Odysseus.

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As I read the book, I would occasionally pause to wonder whether an incident belonged to established mythology or was an invention of the author. More often than not, when I looked it up, it turned out to be the former. I slowly realized that both my freshman English class, which cast Circe as a capricious sorceress, and my Latin education, which largely ignored mythology that wasn’t to do with Aeneas, had completely failed me on the subject of Circe. Beyond that, while I am able to draw lines of relation where they are most essential, my teachers rarely had the time to explain the big picture of Greek mythology, like how the house of Atreus so often mentioned in Homer has its curse originate in Tantalus, or how Circe is related to figures such as Helios, Pasiphaë, and Medea. When I read these tales, I used to read them in isolation.

Of course, the Circe of the Odyssey is one of many obstacles for Odysseus to outwit, an exotic sorceress who he seduces and strips of her powers against him. In that sense, her story as told by Homer is that of a male power fantasy. With the slightest critical eye, though, it’s easy for a woman to find a recognizable face in Circe. She turns men into pigs? We’ve all met a man more porcine than human at some point. She’s a witch? In the modern day, it’s accepted that “witches” are often just women who have gained more power than is socially acceptable. With those associations at her fingertips, Miller leans into a sympathetic, feminist portrait of the character.

This is no lazy attempt to capitalize on trends, however. Miller is a scholar of classics, and her expertise shines through in the text. She draws on tales both familiar and unfamiliar to create a cohesive life story rather than a collection of pieces. Her take on Glaucos and Scylla I thought was particularly inspired.

In a thread she introduces through Glaucos and Scylla, then returns to throughout the text, Miller explores the concept of becoming one’s true self. Circe, an oddball among gods and mortals alike, struggles to find a companion in a cruel, isolating world. She searches for fulfillment in her brother Aeëtes, in her various lovers, and in her son Telegonus. No matter where she looks, the gods are too uncaring and the mortals too transient. Immortality proves to be a curse rather than a blessing. In this version of the story, at least, she does find what she’s looking for in the end.

I shouldn’t neglect to say that the prose is gorgeous. Circe’s narration is shot through with description that channels the sort of nostalgia we humans tend to have for lost ages we have never seen with our own eyes.

I recommend this book for anyone with an interest in Greek mythology and to lovers of strong female characters. In fact, Miller seems to argue through the text that Circe is the prototypical strong female character. Even if you don’t have a hunger for either of those things, Circe will satisfy your appetite for a well-told story.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars.

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Review: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Cold Comfort Farm is apparently one of those pieces of popular culture that is common knowledge… if you’re from the U.K. Personally, I hadn’t heard of it until this year. I’m glad that I did, though, because it’s possibly the funniest book that I’ve read in my life.

The cover of the edition I have seems like a mysterious contradiction to a person not already aware of the contents of the book. It has the standard staid cover design of the Penguin Classics series, but the image chosen to represent the personality of the novel is a goofy-looking cow with its nose pressed into the camera. Even though there are great works of comedy in the canon, the expectation remains for “classic” literature to be serious literature. Cold Comfort Farm is delightfully un-serious.

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Here’s the premise: Flora Poste, a bright, sensible young woman, moves out to the country to live with a pack of gloomy relatives who think they’re cursed, then solves their problems for them with practical common sense (with the help of her personal guidebook, The Higher Common Sense.)

It’s a parody of British rural melodrama, a genre that I have never read, but as I sank into the book, I found that many of the archetypes involved are more familiar than I expected. There’s Flora Poste, the plucky heroine, Seth, the town player and family favorite, Reuben, the disparaged heir, Amos, the old religious crank, Judith, the gloomy aunt wracked with guilt, and so on. The core of it all is, of course, the crazy old head of the family, Aunt Ada Doom, never the same after the traumatic events of her childhood. What happened to her? She saw something nasty in the woodshed. What did she see? No one knows, but it sure was nasty. Unspeakable, one might say.

While I may not be directly familiar with the works parodied in the novel, I found plenty of literary background to contextualize it for me. There are numerous references to the Brontë sisters, and certain elements of the plot and characters have a hint of Austen in them as well.  Amos, for example, calls to mind the servant Joseph in Wuthering Heights with his talk of hellfire and damnation, and Mrs. Beetle somewhat resembles Nelly. Furthermore, the wild child Elfine has parallels to Cathy Linton with her tendency to roam in the fields and her forbidden love. Aunt Ada Doom recalls Jane Eyre with her role of mad recluse. And, of course, the odious Mr. Mybug, who is a Brontë conspiracy theorist, could easily pass for a rejected suitor from an Austen novel.

Although the book is derivative in nature and full of humorous references, it stands on its own even without that context. Stella Gibbons is just plain funny. She fills her pages with intentionally purple prose, marking her personal favorite passages with asterisks. In another life, she would be a shoo-in for the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.

As the plot progresses, Flora strips away the veneers of gloom and doom from each of the characters, revealing them to be regular people in most cases, or at the very least a manageable sort of odd. The catch is that Flora herself is not an entirely normal person. She’s more like some kind of deranged Mary Poppins, a fact that brings the farce to a whole other level.

The whole book seems written for the screen, and there is apparently a much-loved film adaptation that I intend to watch as soon as possible.

Cold Comfort Farm is designed to make you laugh, and it undoubtedly achieves that aim. The entire time that I was reading it, I kept pausing to read funny lines out loud to my friend. I’m in the habit of being a bit obnoxious that way, but my friend laughed, too, so you can rest assured that the book really is that quotable.

I don’t have any complaints about this book. If there’s anything, it’s simply that beyond the humor, there is little else to it. I think that what separates a good comedy from a great one is the ability to treat a serious subject. By joking about the serious things, we can relieve some of the pressure and come at them from new angles. In Cold Comfort Farm, there is no real substance. At the same time, this book wasn’t meant to be substantial, so all is well.

Cold Comfort Farm is a light-hearted read with universal appeal. I especially recommend it to both fans and haters of Wuthering Heights, the Brontë sisters, and Austen.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

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Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

The other weekend, my cousins and I were visiting my sister at her apartment. Owing to the heat wave, we stayed indoors as much as possible, and when we went out, we brought with us ice-cold water bottles filled to the top. While we were there, she showed us around the neighborhood, and of course, when we saw the bookstore, we just had to go in. I made two purchases that day: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, which I’ve been meaning to pick up for a while, and, upon my sister’s recommendation, Sing, Unburied, Sing.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is a sweltering book, perfect for the dog days of summer. It captures the mood of a day so hot it makes the air shimmer, one where the sunlight microwaves your brain within your skull. The jacket aptly describes it as “part ghost story, part road novel.” It’s set in rural Mississippi, and toward the beginning, the timing is hard to place. At certain points, it feels as though it could be set during almost any time in the second half of the twentieth century, at least until mentions of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill fasten it much closer to the present.

Leonie, a black woman, is the neglectful mother of two children, thirteen-year-old Jojo and toddler Kayla. In their daily lives, the children depend on their maternal grandparents, Pop and Mam, to take care of them. When Michael, their white father, is released from prison, Leonie takes the kids along on a road trip to pick him up. The twist is that the prison in question, Parchman Farm, is the same place where Pop had been incarcerated many years before. Jojo, knowing this, begins to uncover the haunting story of Pop’s past. Meanwhile, Mam lies bedridden at home, slowly succumbing to cancer.

As you can see, there are a lot of moving parts to this story, but within the context of the book, these elements connect in a sensible manner. The story is told in alternating perspectives with two main threads: Leonie’s road trip and Jojo’s ghost story. There isn’t a sharp distinction between the threads, and we occasionally see the same event from the viewpoints of more than one character.

Jojo is a caring, gentle boy who is fiercely protective of his sister. He is observant and in some ways mature beyond his years, but there is still an undeniable boyishness to his thought processes. Leonie, on the other hand, is caught in a state of arrested development along with Michael. She and Michael are a sort of modern Romeo and Juliet, two youths in love despite a blood-stained color boundary between them. Leonie’s immaturity and shortsightedness make her perspective less enjoyable to read than Jojo’s. While her past motivates some of her behavior, it does not, in my view, fully explain the extent of her actions and inaction throughout the novel.

The plot is neatly woven together, and magical motifs give the story a pleasant blush of color. Ward uses lush descriptive prose to bring the pages to life; however, her description is more effective in some places than others. In slower stretches of the book, mainly the road portion, the writing can be unnecessarily purple. There are pieces of dialogue padded by descriptions that had my eyes jumping right past them before I caught myself. Still, in other sections, the same style of writing shines. The first and last chapters are especially compelling. Jesmyn Ward is a writer with prodigious talent in this area, but I think that to give her writing maximum impact, she should use flowery language with a bit more restraint.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is a distinctly American book. It tells its own story by incorporating those that Americans are familiar with. Slavery. Segregation. Inhumane prisons. Lynching. Racism. Police violence. It hints at the politics underlying the disasters of Katrina and the BP spill, lets them seep into the environment of the story without making them the main focus. And Parchman Farm, formally known as Mississippi State Penitentiary, is a real prison with a dark history. Ward mixes beautiful literature with harsh realism, giving the story a bite that has made it stand out to both critics and the reading public.

While I recognize the merits of this book, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I anticipated. Since it was so highly rated by others and recommended to me by my sister, I was hoping to be wowed, because usually my opinions do line up decently well with critical consensus. In this case, that didn’t happen. I am admittedly not much of one for road novels, so it may just not be my type, but I also think there are real weaknesses that have been glossed over with the hype around it. Sing, Unburied, Sing has the literary style signature to M.F.A. writers, of which Ward is one. That style tends to be popular with critics– it ticks certain boxes in their requirements for what makes a good book. Don’t get me wrong. It is a good book. It is not, my opinion, a great one, and that’s fine.

If you’re stuck with long hours on a road trip this summer or trapped inside by the heat, Sing, Unburied, Sing will match the mood magnificently. If you’re ordinarily a fan of critic’s picks, it’s probably up your alley. If you’re looking to read a novel with relevance to current events, you’ll find them seamlessly integrated into the fabric of this story. My one caveat is that this book contains dark themes including explicit violence and drug use.

Rating: 3.5/5

Buy Sing, Unburied, Sing here!

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