Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich
(Harper, 2017, 263 pages)
I’m a devoted Erdrich fan and will read anything that she writes. Future Home of the Living God veers away from what you would typically expect from Louise Erdrich; it’s a dystopian novel with a different vibe from what she normally produces.
There’s a lot going on in this book so I pulled the following summary from Goodreads:
The world as we know it is ending. Evolution has reversed itself, affecting every living creature on earth. Science cannot stop the world from running backwards, as woman after woman gives birth to infants that appear to be primitive species of humans. Twenty-six-year-old Cedar Hawk Songmaker, adopted daughter of a pair of big-hearted, open-minded Minneapolis liberals, is as disturbed and uncertain as the rest of America around her. But for Cedar, this change is profound and deeply personal. She is four months pregnant.
Though she wants to tell the adoptive parents who raised her from infancy, Cedar first feels compelled to find her birth mother, Mary Potts, an Ojibwe living on the reservation, to understand both her and her baby’s origins. As Cedar goes back to her own biological beginnings, society around her begins to disintegrate, fueled by a swelling panic about the end of humanity.
… a moving meditation on female agency, self-determination, biology, and natural rights that speaks to the troubling changes of our time.
The novel comes across as a response to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which has been noted by a number of reviewers. I appreciated the story but this isn’t an Erdrich title I’d classify as a favorite. Unique and timely, given our political climate, I appreciate this different literary styling from an author that I love.
Portrait of a Nation: Men and Women Who Have Shaped America; 2nd edition
by the National Portrait Gallery
(Smithsonian Books, 2015, 312 pages)
After the unveiling of the Obama portraits I was inspired to learn more about the National Portrait Gallery and the works that are displayed there. Portrait of a Nation highlights men and women from many walks of life who have been influential in American life. This includes historical figures, presidents, performers, celebrities… Each portrait is partnered with a brief biographical blurb about the figure explaining what led them to be incorporated into the collection.
One of the main things I came away with when reading this book was a list of artists whose work I wanted to explore in greater depth and whose biographies piqued my interest. Even if you can’t make it to the National Portrait Gallery, it’s worthwhile to get a glimpse at some of the pieces in their collection.
Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman
(Harper, 2016, 356 pages)
This was the final selection for the spring 2018 Between the Covers book club. Girls on Fire is set in a small town in Pennsylvania in the 1990s; this is at a time when grunge is coming on the scene and the idea that kids are practicing Satanism is scaring parents everywhere. When a local teen is found dead in the woods this only leads parents to worry more about their kids. Hannah exists on the periphery of this apparent suicide. She knew the guy, but they didn’t really run in the same circles. What his death does lead her to is a friendship with Lacey. Lacey is the new girl at school who seems to exist in her own world; not caring what anyone else thinks.
As Lacey and Hannah grow closer we learn more about what happened in the woods. We also see Hannah distance herself from the quiet “oatmeal” life she had been living. With Lacey it’s like she can be a new person and operate more freely in the world. But with this freedom comes rebellion and unexpected jealousy. Not everyone is happy that Lacey and Hannah have found each other and secrets end up being divulged in ways no one could have expected.
Girls on Fire was most definitely a compelling read. Wasserman keeps you guessing where the book is going to go up to the very end. I knew it was going to be a dark read but I was surprised at how much it got into my head. I needed a literary palate cleanser after finishing this one. Graphic novels and romance quickly found their way to my nightstand. That being said, in spite of the darkness I enjoyed Wasserman’s literary talents.
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
(Penguin, 2017, 423 pages)
The pre-publication buzz for this book was all over the place! Not to mention the fact that it was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Woman’s Prize for Fiction. I was very excited to read The Idiot, but to say it wasn’t quite what I expected is an understatement. While Batuman is a crafty and beautiful writer, her aim with this book wasn’t to tell a “plot-driven” story. You’re meant to be immersed in the story, and I was. I was invested in the novel but I still finished it feeling like I’d missed something.
I read an essay Batuman wrote for n+1 and that helped clarify for me what she was going for with The Idiot. A line near the end of the essay really encapsulates things, “Write long novels, pointless novels… How you write is how you will be read.” This novel takes you on a journey where nothing really happens. Below you’ll find the summary from Goodreads:
The year is 1995, and email is new. Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, arrives for her freshman year at Harvard. She signs up for classes in subjects she has never heard of, befriends her charismatic and worldly Serbian classmate, Svetlana, and, almost by accident, begins corresponding with Ivan, an older mathematics student from Hungary. Selin may have barely spoken to Ivan, but with each email they exchange, the act of writing seems to take on new and increasingly mysterious meanings.
At the end of the school year, Ivan goes to Budapest for the summer, and Selin heads to the Hungarian countryside, to teach English in a program run by one of Ivan’s friends. On the way, she spends two weeks visiting Paris with Svetlana. Selin’s summer in Europe does not resonate with anything she has previously heard about the typical experiences of American college students, or indeed of any other kinds of people. For Selin, this is a journey further inside herself: a coming to grips with the ineffable and exhilarating confusion of first love, and with the growing consciousness that she is doomed to become a writer.
Reading The Idiot led me to explore Batuman’s other, shorter pieces. The more I learned about her and read her previous work, the more I appreciated her novel.
What Did You Eat Yesterday? Vol. 1 by Fumi Yoshinaga
(Vertical, 2014, 200 pages)
I honestly can’t remember how this series even caught my eye but the subject matter (fabulous food, relationships, comics) is certainly in my wheelhouse. This was actually my first time reading manga so it was a fun experience to adjust to the different reading format.
The story focuses on two men who are in a relationship. Shiro is a high-powered lawyer who reveals nothing about his sexuality at work. He enjoys spending his free time cooking delicious meals for himself and his partner, Kenji. Kenji works as a hairstylist and owns his sexuality. They occupy very different worlds but they bond over their shared meals.
Yoshinaga offers detailed descriptions of the food Shiro prepares and also includes recipes at the end of each chapter. I appreciated the artistic styling of the book and I’m actually curious to see how Yoshinaga further develops the main characters. There are a lot of plot points introduced in this volume and I’m intrigued by how they might get resolved. I’d give another volume or two a try before making my final decision on the series though as you can see from my star rating, I wasn’t blown away by any means.
Hurts to Love You (Forbidden Hearts #3) by Alisha Rai
(Avon, 2018, 369 pages)
The final book in the Forbidden Hearts series wrapped things up nicely. Keeping things in the Kane and Chandler families this book focuses on Eve, the youngest (and only) daughter in the Chandler family. She is getting ready to celebrate the wedding of her brother and his recently-reunited high school love, Livvy, but in the midst of wedding details she finds it harder and harder to ignore her attraction to Gabe Hunter, a surrogate-Kane if ever there was one.
Gabe was the child of the Kane’s housekeeper and was effectively raised with the Kane children. Tall, rugged, handsome, tattooed, known for his sexual prowess… he’s the man Eve has had her eye on since she was a teenager. What Eve doesn’t know is that in the midst of the wedding planning Gabe has developed something of a crush on her that he regularly tries to brush off.
While both Eve and Gabe try to deny their mutual attraction it seems like all the mishaps leading up to the wedding day are conspiring to get them to spend more one-on-one time together. Eve helps that along by deciding to put herself out there in a way she hadn’t really done before. As the two find themselves getting closer family secrets find a way of coming out… Neither Gabe nor Eve is sure they can handle the ramifications.
There’s no question that the first book in this series (Hate to Want You) was the one I enjoyed the most, but this one didn’t disappoint. I’m glad I discovered Rai’s writing and will turning to her when I’m looking for another contemporary romance to round out my TBR pile.
The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton
(Disney-Hyperion, 2018, 440 pages)
I had been eagerly anticipating the publication of this book for a while. This is primarily because it was getting such great buzz but also because it’s author is COO for We Need Diverse Books (a non-profit I love) and I was curious to see what she had in the works. This book is the first in a series and I promise that I am compelled to keep up with it. I was honestly surprised at just how much I found myself drawn into the book.
Set in a future world known as Orleans we are introduced to a group of 6 girls known as “The Belles.” These girls are responsible for bestowing beauty on the people of Orleans, a population that is born grey and ugly, with red eyes and straw-like hair. The notion of beauty changes based on the royal family and the looks that the Belles come up with. There are no limitations based on skin color, hair texture, body size… it’s all based on what the individual wants and believes to be a notable look. Our primary Belle is Camellia and it is through her experiences that we get insight into what is expected of the Belles in addition to uncovering the dark secrets embedded within the royal family.
As I mentioned earlier, I’ll be keeping up with the series. I’m frustrated that I’ll have to wait since I started the first book almost as soon as it was published. I did note some parallels between details in this book and those from The Hunger Game series but the book stands on its own. And you’ll appreciate the lush descriptions Clayton offers up when referring to everything from food to clothing. For a good review of the text that pairs well with my reading of the book feel free to check out Roxane Gay’s post on Goodreads.