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.

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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.)

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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.

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Review: The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

I picked this book as a Halloween horror read. What I got wasn’t quite what I expected. While I knew that Shirley Jackson also wrote about everyday and domestic life, her reputation for horror writing far eclipses the rest of her work. In this collection, most stories lean toward the everyday with twists that range from mysterious to creepy.

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It’s important to note that while this book is now known as The Lottery and Other Stories, it originally had a different title: The Lottery or, The Adventures of James Harris. The recurring character of James Harris is sprinkled throughout the book, and he lives a mysterious life. He is always at the peripheral of the lives of other characters, and only very loose connections allow us to form some kind of portrait of him and his life.

He is first named in the second story of the collection, “The Daemon Lover,” having jilted a young woman on their wedding day. Convinced that there is some mistake, she is determined to track him down, but never finds him. This sets the tone for his role in the collection. Whether he is truly supernatural or merely a fantastic conman is left unclear, and even the possible glimpses into his origin are opaque.

A notable aspect of Jackson’s writing is her addressing of racism. She writes of “benevolent” racism from white people who assume all black people are poor, and of neighbors who suddenly drop friends for getting too cozy with a mixed family. She depicts white middle-class “respectable” families with an unflattering eye, exposing the attitudes of those who think that not looking racist is more important than not being racist.

There is a solid mixture of short and long stories in this collection, the longest being “Elizabeth,” which begins around the halfway mark. Elizabeth is a worn-down literary agent having trouble with her business partner, and possibly the most fleshed-out character of the collection. Like many other characters we meet, she is ordinary, understandable, but not the sort of person one would call good. Her story meanders, leaving the reader with neither a positive or negative impression, only curiosity as to what will happen next. This is emblematic of Jackson’s style, which rarely calls on us to like the characters, only to be interested in their doings.

It’s understandable that this book is marketed under the name The Lottery, as the final story of the collection is her best-known short work, but the assumption that the other stories would be very much like it does a disservice to the versatility of Jackson’s writing. Personally, I’m more a reader of novels than of short stories, but I could nonetheless appreciate the quality of each story, and especially how they are curated to create a cohesive, representative body of work. I will definitely be checking out her novels, but I also wouldn’t be opposed to reading her other short story collections.

The Lottery and Other Stories is not what I would label a horror collection, although there are certainly a few horror stories tucked into it–“The Renegade” certainly threw me for a loop. More so than horror, though, it has an air of mystery and of the slightly off-kilter.

I recommend this book for anyone with an appreciation for short stories. With its balance between the normal and the abnormal, it holds something for everyone.

Rating: 5/5 stars.

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Review: The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty

What burdens we lay on the dying … seeking to prove some little thing that we can keep to comfort us when they can no longer feel–something as incapable of being kept as of being proved: the lastingness of memory, vigilance against harm, self-reliance, good hope, trust in one another.

What do you expect from a book about grieving? It’s probably not what you get from The Optimist’s Daughter, which strikes a light and philosophical tone as it follows Laurel through the death of her father. Beleaguered by well-meaning mourners and her too-young stepmother, Fay, Laurel tries to make sense of her father’s life and actions, especially his taking a second wife after the passing of her mother, Becky.

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Laurel, although she is the central character, often fades into the background as she observes other characters. While others make her father’s death about themselves, fluttering around and making a spectacle, Laurel is determined to remember her father as he was. She wants nothing more than to arrange the aftermath of her father’s passing the way he would have wanted it, but Fay’s self-centered plans get in the way.

Funerals. The chaos of trying to plan an event in the midst of deep sadness. Reminiscing. The odd moments of joy and laughter that follow. The empty silence when it’s over. Sorting through your loved one’s belongings. Welty takes us through the entire process. It’s just realistic enough to not feel so sad. Thankfully, I haven’t been through the loss of a parent, but I related intensely to the sheer strangeness that permeates the loss of a loved one. Funeral receptions feel surreal to me, and the distribution of a family member’s belongings can be a difficult process.

There are also the questions. Who was Judge McKelva? Was he who Laurel thinks he was? Why did he remarry? Do those left behind deserve to impose on the privacy he held in life?

This book is easy to read until it isn’t. The very ending brought tears to my eyes, although I hadn’t felt particularly sad up until that point.

Usually when I read a book, I have some meter going in the back of my mind measuring how much I like it, where the strengths are, where the flaws are. That didn’t happen with this book. I just read it. It’s a short read, so if you get the chance to get through it in one or two sittings, you should absolutely do it. With a colorful cast of characters and simple poignancy, there’s nothing not to love about The Optimist’s Daughter.

I recommend this as a thoughtful, relaxed read to enjoy when you have the time and the focus to absorb it fully.

Rating: 5/5 stars.

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Review: Everything Belongs to Us by Yoojin Grace Wuertz

You made a fool of us– what right do you have? Not everything is your plaything. Not everything belongs to you.

This novel takes places in the simmering political environment of South Korea in 1978, a year before the assassination of dictator Park Chung-hee. Its opening scene takes place at a factory workers’ protest, unarmed women facing a government crackdown. With this kind of setting, you might expect the plot to be political in nature.

It is and it isn’t. The central dilemma of Everything Belongs to Us concerns three students at Seoul National University, the country’s most prestigious school. Jisun is a poor little rich girl turned labor activist, the heiress of a chaebol, an elite, massive conglomerate with fingers in every pie. Namin, her foil, claws her way up from poverty, determined to succeed in life. Caught between the two of them is Sunam, a male student among thousands, neither rich nor poor, ambitious but lacking in drive. The politics here are personal, a microcosm of three different strata of society meeting.

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While their story is totally different from the book, Wuertz was inspired by her parents’ college years.

In short: everything belongs to Jisun, but she doesn’t want it. Namin has nothing and wants everything, but not if she has to eat it from Jisun’s hand. Sunam has something, but he’s opportunistic. He could always have more.

The entanglements of these three students, rather than resolving themselves, become nastier and more complex throughout the novel. Like so many tragic heroes, fate binds them ever stronger in its hold as they try to struggle against it. Rather than ending with a violent fall from grace, though, the story twists into an unsatisfying anticlimax that mirrors the protagonists’ dissatisfaction with their own lives. All of them get what they want in life, more or less, but with a tinge of bitterness to it. “Everything belongs to us,” claims the title, but what did they sacrifice to get it?

The types of these characters seem obvious, easily cast as leads in a drama. However, sometimes a character that can be painted in broad brushstrokes is exactly what a story needs. Simple on their own, they become fuller versions of themselves through the ways they interact with one another. The fact that they end up more or less where they began only makes it more intriguing.

The prose of this book is like a pinball machine, each sentence bouncing from the one before it. Sometimes the angle is expected, and other times it ricochets to a completely different direction. Wuertz has the chops to skillfully paint pictures with words, but she resists the temptation to over-describe. We learn just enough about the scene to set the tone before diving into the action.

The plot develops so quickly that saying much about the contents of the book would spoil it, so suffice it to say that I was seriously impressed with this book. It’s almost hard to believe that this is Wuertz’s debut novel. It makes you think more deeply about the meanings of words like money, love, and success. I recommend it to anyone looking for a fast-paced but thoughtful read steeped in interpersonal drama.

Rating: 5/5 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: The Cake Tree in the Ruins by Akiyuki Nosaka

I received a digital advance reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

There are many wars going on around the world, many children and families are suffering, but these hardly affect those of us living in peacetime and we become inured to the images of suffering that we see on TV. I feel strongly that people should be aware of the reality of war and why we should do everything in our power to avoid it—whether it affects us directly or not. That is why stories like the ones in this collection are so important.

— Ginny Tapley Takemori, translator

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Akiyuki Nosaka is best known as the author of “Grave of the Fireflies,” an award-winning short story that was adapted to film by Studio Ghibli, becoming one of the most critically acclaimed animated films of all time. The stories in this collection are diverse, but like “Grave of the Fireflies,” they also concern the tragedies of World War II, particularly as seen through the eyes of children and animals. This short story collection is an expansion on the 2015 English-language publication of The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine. It includes five additional stories not included in the original English publication, making a total of twelve.

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Nosaka presents war as a calamity that inevitably strikes innocents who cannot fully understand it or be complicit in its violence. The personification of animals, child-oriented tone, and elements of magical realism throughout the book give the stories a fairy-tale feeling that contrasts with their dark subject matter.

Content below the cut contains spoilers.

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Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

A few weeks ago, I picked up Pachinko alongside its fellow National Book Award finalist, Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. Sing, Unburied, Sing took home the prize last year, but Pachinko has won my heart.

Is that too cheesy?

The novel follows the history of a Korean-Japanese immigrant family. It begins in Busan, Korea in 1910 and ends in Yokohama, a main port city of Japan neighboring Tokyo, in 1989. With the narration in omniscient third person, many characters, major and minor, contribute their voices to the telling of this story. The sprawling network of characters has a nucleus in Sunja, who is not so much a main character as a central one. It is her unexpected teenage pregnancy that serves as the catalyst for the events of the book, and as she weathers the storms of life, she slowly transforms from a wide-eyed girl to an elderly matriarch of many sacrifices.

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The variety of perspectives reflects the research that Lee conducted while preparing it, which included interviews with numerous Korean-Japanese people. She has also expressed her desire to tell the stories of “minor” players in history, such as minorities, women, and the working class, and so the ensemble cast includes all of these. About her narration, Lee has said, “above all, I wanted the narrator to be sympathetic to every character’s plight.” This even-handedness lends the book an interesting realism when it comes to the thoughts and feelings of the characters — after all, everyone can justify their actions within the safety of their own minds, no matter how unreasonable those actions may seem to other people.

A major thread that runs through the narrative is Christianity: the characters’ relationship to it or lack thereof. Sunja’s husband, Isak, is a Presbyterian minister, and their marriage contains parallels to the book of Hosea. When the imperial Japanese government cracks down on Christianity, there are nods to the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Although Isak is an exemplar of Christian love, faith, and humility, other characters have more complicated religious viewpoints and struggle with the idea of God. Sunja, for example, wonders whether she will see her father in heaven and feels attached to the ancestral traditions of her upbringing.

The male characters of the family line, Yoseb, Noa, Mozasu, and Solomon, each have their own burdens to bear, and even having biblical names can be a struggle in a country where they are extremely uncommon. There is a push and pull in how each character lives up to, runs away from, or simply ignores his name. These names are badges of both their Christian upbringings and their foreignness, and some of the characters wish to break away from both of those things. The politics in a name are even more evident as each Korean is required to take on a legal Japanese name. As the younger generations become more and more Japanese, they more often choose to pass as native Japanese to avoid discrimination, although their legal statuses remain as foreigners. Outside of the context of the book, Korean-Japanese people are still not considered full Japanese citizens today.

The game that gives the book its name, pachinko, does not come into play until midway through the book, when Mozasu gets a job at a pachinko parlor. Pachinko is a type of pinball/slot-machine game that sidesteps Japan’s anti-gambling laws by offering prizes that can be exchanged for cash. Historically, it has been affiliated with yakuza, or Japanese organized crime. It’s also one of the only industries where early Korean immigrants could get a leg in, owing to widespread discrimination.

While pachinko plays a role in the livelihood of Sunja’s family, it also serves as an extended metaphor for life itself, and particularly the chances taken by immigrant families as they build their lives in new countries. Some of the Korean characters work in pachinko, but none of them play it. Instead, they play the game of life. This connection becomes explicit in the story of one of my favorite characters, Etsuko: “[She] had failed in this important way—she had not taught her children to hope, to believe in the perhaps-absurd possibility that they might win. Pachinko was a foolish game, but life was not.”

Being a family history, Pachinko necessarily reflects on parenthood and on connection and disconnection between generations. The plot flows so gradually through time that changes in technology and cultural norms can catch the reader by surprise, and characters that once seemed full of life transform into two-dimensional cutouts in the eyes of their descendants. The effect is to follow a trajectory opposite of most novels — in the end, when their adventures are over, some of the characters seem less than they were in the beginning, even when we know that they must be more. Most novels, of course, don’t follow characters past the end of their own stories, and in stopping there, they leave them frozen in states of self-realization in the mind of the reader. Not so in Pachinko nor in life — the waters of time must flow onward.

The characters of Pachinko struggle to bridge the generational gap between parents and children. Parents wonder why their children don’t respect the sacrifices they have made for them, and children run relentlessly toward the future, determined to blaze their own paths. Heartbreakingly, it is the mothers who often suffer the most in these situations: Yangjin, Sunja, and Etsuko all experience some kind of abandonment from their children. “A woman’s lot is to suffer,” they repeat time and time again. The tragedy of their familial discord is a powerful reminder to love and respect the parental figures in your life.

Pachinko is a complex and lovingly crafted novel that clocks in at nearly five hundred pages long. Min Jin Lee clearly put in the work to make it as historically accurate as possible, and the details buoy the story, giving life to the various settings while refraining from over-exposition. It has the fire and pluck of an adventure novel, the emotional tension of a family drama, and the scope of an epic. I recommend it to anyone looking to get invested in a book with substance. This is a truly great modern novel.

Rating: 5/5 stars.

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