Little Life

Yanagihara, Hanya. A Little Life. Penguin Random House, 2015.

Reason read: two reasons really. One, because I needed a book for the Portland Public Library Reading Challenge in the category of “A book published in the last ten years [I] think will be a classic.” Two, because my sister sent this in the mail. If you know the book then you know it is over 800 pages. I can’t believe she mailed it to me. I (selfishly) would have waited until she was in town if the roles were reversed.

To be one hundred percent honest, A Little Life disturbed me though and through. While on the surface the story follows the lives of four college friends, they all have serious issues that border on all-out tragedy. Living in New York and trying to make a go of different careers, it is terrifying to watch their weaknesses chew them up and spit them out one by one. At the same time, there is something unnervingly beautiful about their friendships despite vastly different upbringings. At the center is Jude. Beautifully broken Jude. At times I wanted to hurl his story out the window in seething frustration. He doesn’t want to talk about his life. He is a mystery. He can’t talk about his parents of ethnic background for fear of betrayal. He can’t navigate stairs and needs an elevator. He cuts himself to the point of suicidal. He’s not white and doesn’t mention his childhood. He’s always in pain, wearing leg braces or using a wheelchair. His injury is not from an accident but something deliberate. He is a glutton for punishment beyond human sanity. He went to same law school as his friend Malcolm’s dad. He is the most beautiful of the group; and the most sly. He doesn’t like to be touched. Yet, he is a loyal-to-the-core friend. Like a many-layered onion, the reader peels back the mystery that is Jude. When you get to his core you’ll wish you hadn’t. The abuses he suffers are so numerous and varied; each one more horrifying than the next that you have to ask yourself, how much trauma can one soul take?
Jude’s loyal and loving friends:
Willem: He is always hungry. He is good looking but not as beautiful as Jude. He is from Wyoming and both of his parents are dead. He’s not a big drinker or drug user. He works in a restaurant and his brother, Hemming, is disabled. He’s also an actor who, in the beginning, gets mediocre parts. His fame is a source of wonderment.
J.B (Jean-Baptiste): Like Willem, he is always hungry. He lives in a loft in Little Italy and works as a receptionist. He fancies himself an artist that works with hair from a plastic bag. His mother pampers him ever since his father died. Internally, he competes with his peers. He is sleeping with Ezra and has an artist studio in Long Island City. He is the proverbial “I don’t have a drug problem” denying man. He can’t give up his college days. They all can’t.
Malcolm: He never finishes his Chinese takeout, but he always orders the same thing. He lives with his parents and has a sister named Flora. He is taking a class at Harvard.
Digging into the meaning of friendship there was one concept that had me rattled. The potential for friends to outgrow one another. I have experienced it and Dermot Kennedy wrote a whole song about it, but I don’t think anyone has written about it so eloquently as Yanagihara.
Here is another confessional: this took me ages and ages and ages to read. There is a lot going on with many, many characters. Like extras in a movie, these people don’t amount to much, but at the time they were introduced I couldn’t be sure. I wanted to commit every single one to memory, but the parade of people was dizzying: Andy, Annika, Adele, Ana, Avi, Alex, Ali, Charlie, Carolina, Caleb, Clement, Clara, Dean, David, Dominick, Ezra, Emma, Fina, Findlay, Gabriel, Gillian, Harold, Hera, Henry, Isidore, Jansz, Jason, Jackson, Joseph, Jacob, Julia, Kerrigan, Lawrence, Luke, Lionel, Liesl, Lucien, Laurence, Merrit, Massimo, Marisol, Meredith, Nathan, Oliver, Peter, Phaedra, Pavel, Robin, Richard, Roman, Rhodes, Sally, Sonal, Sullivan, Sophie, Topher, Thomas, Treman, Zane. I could go on and on.

Quote to quote, “He could feel the creature inside of him sit up, aware of the danger but unable to escape it” (p 138).

Playlist: Haydn Sonata No. 50 in D Major.

Author fact: Yanagihara graduated from Smith College. Too cool.

Book trivia: Little Life is Yanagihara’s second book.

Before the Knife

Slaughter, Carolyn. Before the Knife: Memories of An African Childhood. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.

Before the Knife is a very quick read. Sometimes I felt I was reading fast because I wanted to get through the truly disturbing parts. In truth they were always there, lurking  behind the words Slaughter didn’t say, or worse, only alluded to. Because Slaughter announces early on, in the preface, that she was raped by her father the knowledge is out. “…the moment when everything changed only really came the night that my father first raped me” (p 4). However, she promises her story is not about that horror in particular. True to her word, Before the Knife isn’t about that trauma but having announced it, we readers are always aware of it. We translate innuendo to mean abuse every time. The story of an African childhood is lost to the knowledge something darker is at play. What a different book this would have been if we didn’t know! As expected Slaughter comes back full circle to the first night of the rape, describing it in more detail. Why, I do not know. The entire book is a tangled and confused mess of emotions.

Line that punched me in the stomach: “But once it happened, we decided that it never happened at all” (p 4). Story of my life.
Line that brought me solace: :I hoarded his words in my heart for weeks and brought them out like a talisman any time I was at my wit’s end” (p 182).

Reason Read: November is another good time to visit Africa, only not Slaughter’s Africa. Most of the places she described are no more.

Author Fact: Slaughter has written a bunch of other things including Dreams of the Kalahari.

Book Trivia: This memoir does not include any photographs.

BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in the chapter called “Dreaming of Africa” (p 76).

A Child’s Life

Gloeckner. Phoebe. A Child’s Life and Other Stories. Berkeley: Frog, ltd., 2000.

Nothing could have prepared me for Gloeckner’s A Child’s Life. I don’t know what I was expecting – maybe something along the lines of Robert Louis Stevenson or Kate Greenaway. Something really benign and cute, perhaps. I was prepared to be bored. but sweetly so.

Not so. To put it bluntly, A Child’s Life is a visual assault that needs to happen. When there are news reports of sexual abuse, rape, incest, drugs either on television or the radio we viewers are shielded from what that really means. We allow our imaginations to blunt the sharp edges of reality. We cringe, but we don’t go there with the truth. Gloeckner doesn’t allow for this numbing of truth. With Gloeckner you don’t have permission to soften this horrific reality. As a graphic novel the pictures tell the stories of an abused childhood better than any words in a novel. In a word, it was painful. When I finished I had words of my own; words like harsh, gritty, shocking, tragic yet truthful rang in my ears.

Author Fact: If you pick up the 1583940286 version of A Child’s Life you will find hints that this is semi-autobiographical. Gloeckner denies it.

Book Trivia: In addition to being called semi-autobiographical, A Child’s Life was also once called “a how-to for pedophiles.”

BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in the chapter “Graphic Novels” (p 103).

January 2011 Was…

I can’t help but sing ‘Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow” when I think of the month January has been. If you live in any state (besides Hawaii) you know what I am talking about. Even HotTopic-Lanta has gotten some snowfall. They haven’t known what to do with it, but they got it nonetheless! Needless to say the snow has kept me indoors and reading for the month of January! For the record, here are the books:

  • Breath, Eyes Memory by Edwidge Danticat ~ in honor of Danticat’s birth month. This was a movie in my head (or else a true-life story). Really, really good!
  • Cruddy by Lynda Barry ~ in honor of Barry’s birth month. This was one of the most disturbing books I have read so far. the violence and abuse was over the top.
  • King of the World by David Remnick ~ in honor of Muhammad Ali’s birth month. I didn’t know I wanted to know but I’m glad I know.
  • I, Robot by Isaac Asimov ~ in honor of Asimov’s birth month. Science fiction, of course. Interesting, but a little redundant in theme.
  • Two in the Far North by Margaret Murie ~ in honor of Alaska becoming a state in the month of January. Courage and adventure personified. I enjoyed this book a lot.
  • Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army From the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany, June 7, 1944 -May 7, 1945 by Stephen Ambrose ~ in honor of Ambrose’s birth month. It took me a little to get into this book but I’m glad I read it. It is slowly helping me get over my fear of Hitler and all things Nazi.
  • Another Song About the King by Kathryn Stern ~ in honor of Elvis Presley’s birth month being in January. This was a super fast, super fun read.

I was supposed to get an Early Review book but it hasn’t arrived yet. It will go on the February list of books, hopefully.

This Boy’s Life

Wolff, Tobias. This Boy’s Life. New York: Perennial Library, 1989.

This Boy’s Life was spellbinding. Tobias Wolff’s personal memoir is not tremendous. It may even sound familiar to anyone who came from a broken home, had trouble with a step-parent, or had a mischievous streak growing up (who hasn’t?). What makes This Boy’s Life such a page turner is the honesty that radiates from every page, every sentence. It is not an overwhelming tragic tale, but it is painful and very real. Wolff does not paint a picture of hero, nor victim. It’s just an account of a troubled childhood. The writing is so clear, so unmuddied, that we can easily see bits of our own childhoods reflected in every chapter.

Probably one of my favorite parts was when Tobias (going by the name ‘Jack’ at this point) talks about altering his less than stellar grades in school. Report cards were written in pencil and ‘Jack’s’ admission of guilt is simply, “I owned some pencils myself” (p 184). It’s sly and smile evoking.

BookLust Twist: From More Book Lust in the chapter called, “All in the Family: Writer Dynasties” (p 5).

Color Purple

Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. New York: Pocket Books, 1982.

To put this on the list is either to admit I never read it before or I don’t remember it. Those are the rules. Supposedly. Only this time it’s different. I chose to reread The Color Purple out of respect…and to get from under the sugar rush I got from other books I’ve read this month. Let’s face it, there is not much sweetness and light in The Color Purple.
Alice Walker has a masterful voice. Just by starting chapters “Dear God” the voice evokes prayer, a quiet kind of desperation. It’s even worse when it’s coming from a child in the beginning. Most people start uttering “dear God” when things turn bad and for Walker’s main character, Celie, it’s always bad. From the very first chapter you learn she is being raped by her own father, tolerating pregnancies and beatings while taking care of her siblings, only to be sold off to a man who does exactly the same. Different man, different children to take care of – same struggles to survive. Yet, Celie is clever, strong and more importantly, resilient. She knows how to make it through the toughest of times. She even learns how to blossom when Shug Avery, her husband’s lover, comes to town. She discovers love, sexuality, and a sense of self.

Favorite lines: “Sometimes he still be looking at Nettie, but I always git in his light” (p 6).
“Like more us then us is ourself” (p 14).
“His little whistle sound like it lost way down in a jar, and the jar in the bottom of the creek” (p 71). Love that imagery!

BookLust Twist: In Book Lust twice: in the very first chapter called, “A…My Name is Alice (p 2), and “African American Fiction: She Say” (p 12).

Tomato Girl

Pupek, Jayne. Tomato Girl. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2008.

What a beautifully written, tragic first book! The characters are so true to life and so compelling I was picturing them in a movie. It’s told in first person from the point of view of 11 year old Ellie. With the help of a series of seamless recollections Ellie recounts her life with a mentally ill mother and a cheating father. Ellie’s father is taken with, and soon overcome by, a teenage girl who delivers tomatoes to the store he manages. From the moment the “tomato girl” comes into Ellie’s life every day is stacked with another unbelievable tragedy, a level of sadness leading to horror much deeper than the one before. It is hard to imagine the amount of pain this child has to endure at such a tender age. Pupek writes with sentences full of foreshadowing. They hang heavy like dark clouds, bloated with the storm that will erupt any minute.
My only complaint is absence of addressing molestation. Ellie is “grabbed” by boy hard enough to leave a bruise. At the same time her period has started (her first). When Sherrif Rhodes discovers the blood, and Ellie tells him of the rough boy, the Sheriff doesn’t take Ellie to a hospital to be examined by a real doctor. She is brought to a black woman who practices witchcraft. Because the story is set in the late 60’s and racism is hinted at I was surprised Sherriff Rhodes would bring a child to her rather than the local hospital. This is the only part I wish was explained better.

ps~ there are a ton of those “gotcha” sentences that I love so much. Too many to mention.


Bluest Eye

IMG_0663 Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Plume, 1970.

The LibraryThing Review:
“Because The Bluest Eye doesn’t have a traditional storyline plot the reader is free to concentrate on the complexities of the characters. The entire work is like a patchwork quilt of human suffering. Each character a different patch of sadness and survival. With each square, the ugly underbelly of society is exposed: poverty, racism, rape, incest, abuse, violence…Toni Morrison is the eye that never blinks in the face of such harsh subjects.”

These are the quotes that stopped me short. “They did not talk, groan or curse during these beatings. There was only the muted sound of falling things, and flesh on unsurprised flesh” (p 43). It’s the word ‘unsurprised’ that speaks volumes.
“He urges his eyes out of his thoughts to encounter her” (p 49). Another way of describing a deep-seeded prejudice.

One aspect of this novel that caught me up was the narrator hearing certain words in colors like light green, black and red. I have done the same thing with my imagination. I see words as certain shades or hues. Aside from the colors, this was a hard book to read and I can’t say anything that hasn’t already been said.

BookLust Twist: From More Book Lust and the chapter called “Big Ten Country: The Literary Midwest (Ohio)” (p 29).

Bastard out of Carolina

Bastard out of CarolinaAllison, Dorothy. Bastard out of Carolina. New York: Penguin, 1993.

The only way I can describe how I felt after finishing Bastard is raw. Raw and used up. Maybe it’s because this is my second time reading it. Maybe it’s because I reread this in two days. I don’t know. There are a thousand different ways to describe the book itself: coming of age, looking for acceptance, southern, white trash poverty, motherhood gone by the wayside. It’s a nightmare of a mother loving a cruel stepfather (Pearl calls him “violent and predatory”) more than her own daughter. I could go on and on but that would only ruin the depression. Oddly enough, I loved it. I loved Bone’s defiant voice as she tried to make her way through life as the oldest daughter of young mother Anney. I loved her keen observance of her surroundings, “It was dangerous, that heat. It wanted to pour out and burn everything up, everything they had that we couldn’t have, everything that made them think they were better than us” (p 103).
The social commentary on men and women, men against women was poignant, too. “A man belongs to the woman who feeds him…the woman belongs to the ones she feeds” (p 157).

BookLust Twist: Bastard out of Carolina is mentioned twice in Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust. First, in the chapter called “Grit Lit” (p 106), and then in the chapter simply called “Southern Fiction” (p 222).

pps~ I was wondering if this was ever made into a movie and it has…back in 1996. Where have I been?