Review: Standing Tall by C. Vivian Stringer with Laura Tucker

It’s October 31st, and in my family, that means more than just Halloween. It’s my mom’s birthday. So while I’ve spent most of October celebrating the spookiest month of the year, today I’m reserving space for something more important.

26904195_10211208822319260_1292685667046878872_n

That’s how I ended up reading Standing Tall, a choice I never would have picked for myself, simply because I’m not usually interested in sports. My mom, however, has always loved them, and she has oodles of school spirit for her alma mater, Rutgers University. Therefore, she decided to challenge me with a book close to her heart: the autobiography of C. Vivian Stringer, the head coach of Rutgers women’s basketball. As of the publication of this post, she is only three victories away from coaching her thousandth win. (“Make sure to mention that,” said Mom.)

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

After reading this book, I understand more why my mom is so passionate about Rutgers basketball, and I especially see why she admires Coach Stringer so much. Coach Stringer rose from poverty, became the first in her family to graduate from college, and became one of the most respected coaches in the country, even as she has dealt with a devastating string of personal losses and difficulties. She has also been an advocate for women, and especially black women, in the athletic world.

While I self-identify as “not athletic,” I actually was co-captain of my high school fencing team, and there was a time I dedicated two hours a day, six days a week to that sport. With that in mind, I have a lot of respect for my former coach, Coach Amy Lawless, who I thought of a lot while reading this book. They’re both unmistakably coach-y. Coach Stringer tells the story of her life, but throughout the narrative, she expounds on individual anecdotes to teach lessons useful both on and off the basketball court. She describes moments where she had to be tough on her teams, but also shows herself to have a deep well of love in her heart for her players.

Having played on a team myself and done a certain amount of coaching as a captain, I can empathize with a lot of the struggles she has had that are related to her work. As she relates pushing her good players to do better, being exasperated with players who refused to put in the work, and dealing with obnoxious parents, I find that much of it consists of things I’ve heard, said, or done before. When I think of all the times my teammates tried to weasel their way out of harder drills or longer practices… oof, I’m with you, Coach Stringer, Coach Lawless, and all the coaches in the world. Building others up to work hard and do better for themselves is itself hard work!

There is also a lot in this book, though, that I cannot personally relate to and indeed can barely imagine. Coach Stringer has been dealt difficult cards in her personal life: the disability and early death of her father, the disability of her daughter, the early death of her husband, frightening near misses with both of her sons, and her own fight with breast cancer. Through all of these struggles, Coach Stringer makes no secret of the suffering she endured and how hard it was for her to handle everything. Thanks to the support of the people around her, though, she has been able to pull through, and she believes that she has endured so much so that she can be a better comfort to others.

I found this book to be genuinely inspiring. This is not a glossy, self-promoting autobiography, but rather a meaty and personal memoir that shares in order to teach. If you’re looking for a new hero, especially one who is a successful black woman, I recommend checking out Standing Tall.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars.

You may also like:

Check out my masterlist for the rest of my posts and reviews!

Review: The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing

Harriet and David are a happy couple who want lots of children, and so they have them. The first four are perfectly ordinary. The fifth child is something else. It’s a simple premise for a horror novel–almost an obvious one–and accordingly, it needs less than 150 pages for the idea to express itself fully.

This is not a gory, blood-pumping horror novel; it’s a tale of suspense. We spend nearly the entire book waiting for the other shoe to drop. Time and time again, the fifth child, Ben, does something that sets off alarm bells in the brain, and so we wait for him to snap. And wait. And wait.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

Doris Lessing takes the story from merely psychological to philosophical, taking a figurative page from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Like Frankenstein’s monster, Ben cannot help being what he is, and he does make efforts to be human in some sense. He is doomed to be misunderstood. Unlike Frankenstein’s monster, though, it’s not that people refuse to understand him. Harriet does her absolute darnedest to love Ben like she does her other children. Chillingly, he is completely incapable of being understood.

I find The Fifth Child to be an excellent example of horror from a feminine perspective in that it comments so incisively on motherhood. What Harriet faces is an extreme version of what many mothers face. Can I love all my children the same? Is it normal to resent my child? If my child turns out “wrong,” is it my fault? Am I doing motherhood wrong? Is it bad not to breastfeed, is it uncaring not to follow all the little bits of health advice that we mothers pass around among us? So many of Harriet’s problems are just one step beyond what an ordinary mother experiences.

The thing is, her experiences are not the experiences of an ordinary mother, and whenever she tries to point this out, others gaslight her. They pretend that Ben is just remarkably strong for his age, or a bit slow, or a bit “different.” On the flip side, they treat Harriet as though this difference is her fault. It all comes to a head in her conversation with a doctor toward the end of the book:

I don’t blame myself, though I don’t expect you to believe it. But it’s a bad joke. I feel like I’ve been blamed for Ben ever since he was born. I feel like a criminal. I’ve always been made to feel like a criminal.

I think that Harriet’s predicament is relatable not only for mothers, but for any woman who’s been treated as “hysterical” or “crazy” over legitimate grievances. That realism is what gives the novel its edge.

At first, I was a bit disappointed that we never do really solve the mystery of Ben. However, how Ben came to be what he is, is not the point. The point is the effect he has on his family and the people around him.

I recommend this to anyone looking for an unsettling read that isn’t too outright scary, especially if you appreciate a tint of feminist insight.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

You can buy it here!

You may also like:

Check out my masterlist for the rest of my posts and reviews!

Review: Ogre Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

This review is based on an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

I love Ella Enchanted. I love Gail Carson Levine’s entire bibliography. If you haven’t seen it, I’ve written an essay on the impact Ella Enchanted has made on my life. So when I got the chance to read Ogre Enchanted before it officially comes out, I was psyched. This book can stand alone, but it’s also a prequel featuring characters from the generation before Ella.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

There’s a suggestion of a Beauty and the Beast narrative, but Ogre Enchanted is content to leave it as a vague inspiration rather than the basis of the tale. In fact, the Beauty and the Beast story canonically exists as a fairy tale in this universe. This stands in contrast to Ella Enchanted and Fairest, which are retellings, albeit ones that take great liberties with the source material.

Our protagonist, Evie, turns down a marriage proposal from her friend Wormy in the presence of the familiar fairy Lucinda, who turns her into an ogre in retaliation. If Evie can’t secure and accept another proposal within the time limit, she’ll remain one forever.

The main appeal for me as a fan of Levine is the expanded world-building. This story sheds light on the workings of ogre culture and magic, gives important background information on the history of Kyrria, and explains how Ella’s parents got together. The main plot-line is solid enough, but it seems a bit formulaic, and I would have preferred a different ending.

Spoilers under the cut.

Continue reading “Review: Ogre Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine”

Review: The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

She was struck by the selfish thought that this was not fair to her. That she’d been in the middle of a different story, one that had nothing to do with this. …Stupid men and their stupid violence, tearing apart everything good that was ever built.

In the 1980s, Yale Tishman is weighed down by a tricky art acquisition for work, relationship problems, and the AIDS crisis striking down his community. In 2015, Fiona chases a shadow of a hope to Paris, where she searches for her estranged daughter. The connection between the two? Fiona’s brother, Nico, was a pillar of Chicago’s gay community and a good friend of Yale’s before dying of AIDS.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

The Great Believers is a twisty book. While its narrative is firmly entrenched within the perspectives of its two main characters, its cast is a large ensemble, sweeping across decades and tied together by all kinds of messy, strained, and complicated relationships.

And frankly, as I got further and further into the book, I got the distinct impression that it’s something someone my mom’s age would read for their book club. There’s the nostalgia for the youthful eighties in one thread, a relatable middle-aged woman of the present day in the other, and they’re tied together by the regrets and hardships in between. It’s a book that I, as a young person, struggled to read in the same way I struggled to read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (although that book is hard to read for multiple reasons).

The intricacy of the characters’ relationships combines with the reader’s initial unfamiliarity with said characters in such a way that the book ends up with a slow start. At the beginning, I had trouble mustering the curiosity to follow all of the petty intrigues that were happening. Fiona’s thread suffers from this more than Yale’s. However, as new facets of the characters reveal themselves, and as connections arise between past and present, the plot gradually becomes more engrossing.

By the end of the book, every new detail makes the tale more heart-wrenching. It makes me realize that it’s easy to forgive a slow start in a book if the ending is good. The ending here is an agonizing denouement, scratch upon scratch and bruise upon bruise. A blurb on the back of the book calls it “a healer and a heartbreaker,” but the healing is in catharsis and survival, the healing of a scar rather than a cure.

This book is meaty, emotional, and an excellent tribute to the gay community of 1980s Chicago. It’s also not really my type of book, although I did enjoy it overall. If you are looking for a book club book, though, The Great Believers is a solid fresh pick and a tearjerker without being wholly depressing.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

You can buy it here!

You might also like:

Check out my masterlist for the rest of my posts and reviews!

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.

27213163

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.

Buy Another Brooklyn here!

You may also like:

Check out my masterlist for the rest of my reviews!

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.

Annabeth_Chase-Viria
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.

circe

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.

Buy Circe here!

You might also like:

Check out my masterlist for the rest of my reviews!

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.

ccf

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.

Buy Cold Comfort Farm here!

You might also like:

Check out my masterlist for the rest of my reviews!