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review 2018-12-11 01:46
The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth
The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia - Michael Booth

This is basically the world’s longest magazine article. I kept reading because the author had a great idea for a book: we in the English-speaking world are always idealizing the Nordic countries, but we don’t actually know much about what it’s like to live there, nor do we visit them very often or learn their languages. So the author, a Brit married to a Dane and living in Copenhagen, proposed to travel around these countries and report on, as the bookjacket claims, “how they may not be as happy or as perfect as we assume.”

Which could have been great, if it weren’t so light and frivolous. Aside from giving a brief overview of the history of each of the five countries included (Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland), chapters cover topics such as a visit to a sauna; a visit to Santa’s Village; traditionally-dressed revelers celebrating Norwegian Constitution Day; and a visit to a supposedly dangerous housing project occupied by Muslim immigrants in Malmö, which turns out to be pretty quiet and unremarkable when the author visits in the middle of the day and doesn’t actually talk to any immigrants other than the elderly Macedonian who heads the local mosque.

The book does briefly explore various issues – immigration, the rise of right-wing politics, high levels of taxation and government involvement in society, the causes of Iceland’s economic woes – mostly through talking to a small group of writers and professors who give rather fuzzy impressionistic answers. But he never does really get “behind the myth” in the way I expected. After his stroll through the housing project, he observes that its Swedish neighbors, said to resent the immigrants, “probably faced precisely the same problems as their immigrant neighbors in Herregården – poor education, few opportunities, little hope, and no money – yet each was fearful and resentful of the other.”

Wait. Stop the presses. This is it – this is “behind the myth.” Sweden isn’t supposed to have people, especially native-born ethnic Swedes, with “poor education, few opportunities, little hope, and no money.” Isn’t that the entire point of the welfare state? Isn’t that the heart of the “myth”? And yet Booth just keeps tripping blithely along, talking about views on immigration and even including a chapter entitled “Class” that turns out to be all about the weirdness of the Scandinavian monarchies. In another baffling omission, he observes that a Norwegian museum “featur[es] the usual Nordic tiptoeing around the subject of their oppressed indigenous minority,” then proceeds to describe the exhibit, note the Sami’s territory and numbers, and never mention them again. I checked the index just to make sure and yep, this is the only mention in the entire book. How you can think you’re writing a book about a region’s negative aspects and not include its generational poverty or oppressed indigenous minority, I have no idea. But on to Legoland!

The book is very focused on the author’s own experiences and observations, while some of his theories are just wacky. For instance, he theorizes that Finnish men drink too much because their country has a long history of foreign rule and military defeat, never mind that this does not appear to affect modern-day Finns in any way. He even writes about floating this theory to others, who all shoot it down, which doesn’t stop him from devoting a full two pages to defending it in the book.

Now sure, if you are looking for a lighthearted travelogue that will introduce you to a few cultural concepts, and fill you in on a bit of history and politics, this may be the book for you. I didn’t find it as funny as others did, perhaps because it relies heavily on pop culture references that don’t mean anything to me (“Swedish unemployment figures are about as reliable as Joan Collins’s age”). The book is just so long, without achieving any real depth, that at times I considered not even finishing it. I did learn some things from it, but I would have appreciated it more if it had been pared down and marketed as the lighthearted travelogue that it is.

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review 2018-12-10 19:34
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste Ng

I enjoyed this book. It’s quick, relatively light compared to a lot of my reading, and shows a lot of compassion towards a wide variety of characters. I don’t think it digs quite deep enough to be literary fiction, though it’s certainly more intelligently written than a lot of the “suburban drama and social issues” books out there.

 

This book focuses on the drama growing out of the enmeshment of two families. The Richardsons are prominent citizens in their planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio, who rent a home to struggling artist Mia and her teenage daughter Pearl. The Richardsons have four teenagers of their own, all of whom are drawn to Mia or Pearl or both. But Elena Richardson, the mother, starts digging into Mia’s past when a controversial adoption case divides the town and the two women are on opposing sides. All of this leads to a conflagration, as we learn in the book’s first sentence.

 

What I most enjoyed about this book was its empathy and understanding toward its characters. Rather than painting people in black and white and dismissing some of them as just being lousy, it reaches out to turn everyone’s viewpoint into a sympathetic one. The omniscient narrator dips into the heads of even minor characters, which works well, drawing a full picture of events that allows readers a greater understanding than any individual character possesses. And the level of empathy is particularly noticeable around the adoption case, where the author shows an understanding of both the poor, desperate immigrant mother who abandoned her baby in a dark moment and the loving couple that want to adopt her despite their contented ignorance about her birth culture.

 

And yet, there’s still a certain remove from the characters that left me frustrated. If only the book had dug one layer deeper with the protagonists, I think this would have been a great novel. Perhaps it’s the amount of narrative summary (though there’s still a lot of scenes and dialogue) or the omniscient narrator (though that works well in many books) or the cramming of six or so “main” characters along with many more of lesser importance into a novel of average length rather than focusing on one or two protagonists (though again, this has been done successfully).

 

Or maybe it’s that certain moments don’t ring true.

The younger teens’ successful revenge on the bullying orchestra teacher reads like pure wish-fulfillment fantasy. Trip and Pearl’s relationship doesn’t quite ring true, and for that matter her friendship with Moody didn’t quite make sense to me either, probably because we don’t really see them together after their first meeting. Elena’s pursuit of Mia’s past also seems a bit over-the-top: Elena is initially presented as a principled woman, though somewhat blinded by her privilege, and her lack of qualms about her methods (as well as the fact that it was sparked simply by Mia’s telling Bebe about her daughter’s whereabouts – which weren’t exactly a secret) didn’t seem quite believable. And of course there’s the absurdity of the wealthy New York couple whose choice of a surrogate is a struggling college student picked up on the subway simply because she resembles the wife: I realize surrogacy wasn’t common in 1981, but common sense could still have told them that a girl who has never given birth before and is backed into a financial corner might have a change of heart about giving up her baby. And finally, the photographs Mia leaves behind, speaking on a deep level to each of the Richardsons, seemed to me a cliché but not very believable gesture.

(spoiler show)

 

At any rate, I enjoyed my time with this, though it didn’t rock my world. I would consider reading more from this author.

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review 2018-12-10 05:51
Days Without End (Audiobook)
Days Without End - Sebastian Barry,Aidan A. Kelly

Narration: 5 stars

Story: 3.5 stars

Final rating: 4 stars

 

It was my week for strange stories. This isn't even a story in the traditional sense. This reads more like a rambling memoir but with language so intimate and lush that I could easily forget that I was only really getting broad brushstrokes for the bulk of the story. This is mostly a summation of a young man's life as he figures out some hard-won truths.

 

Told from the POV of Thomas McNulty, an Irish immigrant, as we follow him and his friend turned lover John Cole across America in the mid-1800s. Survivors of the famine, they come to America with nothing, practically starved to death, and start to figure out how to survive from one day to the next, whether that's playacting as girls in a stage show or joining the Army to fight in the Indian Wars and eventually the Civil War.

 

This book doesn't shy away from the harsh reality of this time period in American history, nor does it give us safely and comfortably progressive-minded MCs to filter that reality through. Thomas and John Cole might not be outright hateful of anyone but they don't stop to ask why they're being given the orders they're given nor do they spend much time if any contemplating the morality of the slaughter of the First Peoples. Not at first. As Thomas notes at one point, no soldier fully understands the war he fights in; he only knows his one part in it. 

 

I was most interested in Thomas's and John's non-Army days, while they were living together and eventually with their adopted daughter Winona, a Sioux orphan, but those parts were sparse safe harbors in between all the violence and war of those times. The ending, such as it was, is more open-ended than anything else. 

I would have preferred a reunion between Thomas, John and Winona instead of just Thomas looking forward to it.

(spoiler show)

 

The narration by Aiden Kelly was truly amazing. He captures Thomas's bewildered voice perfectly and truly makes this oddly mesmerizing story come to life. 

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review 2018-12-10 04:58
One Night in Boukos
One Night in Boukos - Corinne Demas

This is an odd one. I guess this is historical AU, since it's set in an alternate world, but doesn't have any fantasy elements. The world-building is sprinkled throughout, and is largely accomplished by the culture clash of the Sashian embassy staying in the Pueschaian town of Boukos to open trade routes between the two countries, so it comes across more naturally than the info-dumping one might come across in other AU novels.

 

During a party, the ambassador to Zash goes missing but this isn't noticed until the following morning. His personal secretary Bedar and Bedar's friend Marzana, the captain of the guard, go on a discreet manhunt through Boukous as they try to follow the crumbs of the ambassador's trail after his disappearance. To complicate matters further, the city is preparing for the annual festival to honor their god of debauchery, Psobos, a most un-Sashian ritual. Along the way, they meet a couple of citizens of the town and slowly fall in love over the course of a most unusual night.

 

This is a charming little tale. I had no idea what I was getting into when I picked it for my Prime loan, and that just added to the charm. Despite the urgency of Bedar and Marzana's mission, this story unfolds at a leisurely pace. There's a spattering of humor, a little action, but mostly it's just two men out of their depths as they navigate an unknown city full of people they don't understand only to discover they're not so different after all.

 

I thought I had the endgame figured out at one point, but I was only right about part of it. Chereia and Pheres were a great supporting cast and just as fully fleshed out as Marzana and Bedar. The m/f and m/m couples get equal page time to develop and are respectfully handled in the difficulties that faced both pairings. That makes one a little less satisfying than the other, but certainly still an HFN. (To be clear, this isn't Romance and there's no on-page sex.)

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review 2018-12-10 04:31
There There by Tommy Orange
There There - Tommy Orange

Books about communities seldom portrayed in media have an undeniable cultural value aside from their literary value. This book, about a large number of Native American characters living in contemporary Oakland, California, clearly has a lot of cultural value for readers whose vague notions of Native Americans encompassed no more than reservations, feather headdresses and a sense that these folks aren’t really around anymore. I suspect the book will also be valuable to a lot of Native American readers, particularly in its portrayal of native characters struggling with issues of identity: what does it mean to be native if you don’t know much about your heritage, if you’re mixed race, if you learn powwow dancing by watching videos on YouTube?

That said, I am not in either of these groups, and on a literary level I was disappointed. Like a lot of first novels by MFAs, this book bites off more than it can chew, experimenting with literary techniques but distancing the reader from the characters. It follows 12 point-of-view characters – eight men, three women and a boy – in a novel that due to short chapters is even shorter than its 290 pages would have you believe; and each POV character comes with their own supporting cast of friends and family. Seven of these characters have chapters told in the first person, despite the fact that every character’s voice sounds alike. (They always do, and yet first-time novelists persist in doing this.) One obnoxious 17-page chapter is even told in the second person. (“You went back every Tuesday for the next year. Keeping time wasn’t hard for you. The hard part was singing. You’d never been a talker. You’d certainly never sung before. Not even alone. But Bobby made you do it.”)

Unfortunately, so little time with each person means that everyone is a bit-part character. We barely get to know any of them as people, and their surroundings feel oddly blank as well, with descriptions of place mostly limited to Oakland street names. It’s definitely urban grit lit: the emotional arc of one chapter is traced through the character’s constipation and ultimate pants-pooping, while another character pulls spider legs out of a bump in his leg . . . and although we spend too little time with any individual to see much more than a snapshot of their lives and histories leading up to a powwow, it’s clear from the beginning that it will culminate in a mass shooting. When it comes, we don’t even learn the fates of all the characters before the book ends.

The book is crammed full of issues – alcoholism, missing parents, urban violence, domestic violence, interracial adoption, more alcoholism – which is fine, but at the point that the author addresses the reader directly about Native American history in both a prologue and an interlude, and a character in the middle of fleeing her abusive husband gets a random lecture from her friend about the issue of native women going missing in large numbers, I had the image of the author with a bullhorn going, “Do I have your attention? Excellent! Let me tell you ALL THE THINGS!”

That said, I do think author shows a lot of promise. The characterization is decent given the fact that the book barely gives any of the characters room to breathe. The writing is fine – it’s not always as staccato as the brief excerpt above, though still too distinctive to plausibly attribute to a large number of characters of different ages and backgrounds. Many first-time authors attempt and then get past the multiple-narrators thing, and Orange’s second book will probably be much less frantic in its issue-inclusion just because he packed so much into this one. I will be curious to learn more about the next book, but on its literary merits I wouldn’t recommend this one.

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