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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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review SPOILER ALERT! 2018-09-08 18:21
When Mountains Move (Free #2) by Julie Cantrell
When Mountains Move - Julie Cantrell

In a few hours, Millie will say “I do” to Bump Anderson, a man who loves her through and through. But would he love her if he knew the secret she keeps? Millie’s mind is racing and there seems to be no clear line between right and wrong. Either path leads to pain, and she’ll do anything to protect the ones she loves. So she decides to bury the truth and begin again, helping Bump launch a ranch in the wilds of Colorado. But just when she thinks she’s left her old Mississippi life behind, the facts surface in the most challenging way. That’s when Millie’s grandmother, Oka, arrives to help. Relying on her age-old Choctaw traditions, Oka teaches Millie the power of second chances. Millie resists, believing redemption is about as likely as moving mountains. But Oka stands strong, modeling forgiveness as the only true path to freedom. Together, Bump, Millie, and Oka fight against all odds to create a sustainable ranch, all while learning that the important lessons of their pasts can be used to build a beautiful future.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

* WARNING: If you haven't read the first book in this duology, INTO THE FREE, there are spoilers below. 

 

 

So here we are in the second book and Millie has made a choice regarding a direction for her life. She remains unsure if it's the right choice, but it is a choice nonetheless. She knows she loves Bump, but does she love him enough to make it last forever? She's at least willing to give things a try. 

 

Moving forward as newlyweds, they relocate from Mississippi to Colorado, where Bump's Mississippi boss owns a ranch. Bump is hired as the ranch manager, his boss hoping that Bump's skills with  horses will turn the property into a thriving livestock business. In return, Bump hopes to set aside start up money for his own veterinary practice. The Andersons are getting the property to live on rent free, but the house on site is, to put it mildly, ROUGH.

 

While Millie is elbows deep in Suzy Homemaker mode, she struggles with a secret from her old life in Mississippi that she hesitates to reveal to Bump. Almost as if on cue, who makes a surprise arrival at the new homestead by Millie's Choctaw grandmother, Oka. Oka knows a thing or two about secrets and facing hardships head-on. Her presence becomes a much needed ballast for Millie while she gathers strength to face her fears and have that all-important but tough conversation with her husband.

 

To complicate things though, Bump seems to be a little too friendly (in Millie's opinion) with their new redheaded neighbor, Kat. Millie begins to wonder if Bump regrets his decision to start this new life with Millie, which once again leads her down the path of thoughts of whether she herself was too hasty in her own choices. 

 

Though this story is supposed to take place during the years of World War 2, it didn't have much of that feel for me. Minus the occasional mention of food rations, dreaded telegrams from the War Dept. or use of pickup trucks, this could easily be set a hundred years earlier. I was a little disappointed by this, as I'm a huge historical fiction junkie who looks forward to being immersed in the time period I'm promised as the reader, but in this case I could overlook it because of the good story and the important themes behind it.

 

Once again (as she did with Into The Free), Cantrell illustrates the power of having a good support system around you as you move through life, people who honestly believe in you and truly want to encourage you to pursue your dreams. With Bump and Millie, it's also a pretty honest look at the rougher edges of marriage. How do you hang in there when the rosy glow fades a bit and real life sets in? It's tough because Bump was pretty likeable in the first book, but here he gets progressively less so. When Kat comes on scene, Bump's actions get slyly more and more disrespectful toward Millie, the way he dismisses her hard work or knocks her cooking in front of others, just as an example. Meanwhile, Millie is silently showing / battling symptoms of PTSD... but when your husband gets to where he seems annoyed by your very presence, how do you talk about such things?

 

Millie hangs in there though and eventually finds the means to craft a moderately happy life for herself. Personally, I don't really buy what Bump has to say near the end of the book. I'd even go so far as to say she settled. And it irked me that Bump makes himself out to be so innocent and Millie ends up being the apologetic one... Sure, Millie has moments where she catches herself wondering about River, but looking at Bump... there are some scenes in this story that looked seriously shady from a wife's perspective. I do kind of get Millie's line of thought when she explains why she's made these choices, but I couldn't help but close the book feeling that there had to be something so much more fulfilling out there for her than what she ended up with.

 

* For book groups: the most recent edition of the paperback includes discussion guide and writing prompts. 

 

Something else to note -- while another of Cantrell's books, The Feathered Bone, has been packaged to match the new covers of Into The Free and its sequel When Mountains Move, I believe The Feathered Bone is actually not tied to Millie's story, but in fact its own separate story. 

 

 

 

FTC DisclaimerTNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

 

----------------

 

My reviews for Julie Cantrell's other books:

 

Into the Free (Free #1)

The Feathered Bone 

Perennials

 

 

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2018-09-08 15:54
Into The Free (Free #1) by Julie Cantrell
Into the Free - Julie Cantrell

In Depression-era Mississippi, Millie Reynolds longs to escape the madness that marks her world. With an abusive father and a “nothing mama,” she struggles to find a place where she really belongs. For answers, Millie turns to the Gypsies who caravan through town each spring. The travelers lead Millie to a key that unlocks generations of shocking family secrets. When tragedy strikes, the mysterious contents of the box give Millie the tools she needs to break her family’s longstanding cycle of madness and abuse. Through it all, Millie experiences the thrill of first love while fighting to trust the God she believes has abandoned her. With the power of forgiveness, can Millie finally make her way into the free?

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: This novel includes scenes of domestic abuse, rape, suicide and violence towards animals. 

 

 

In Depression Era Mississippi, Millie Reynolds is a young girl dreaming of the day when she can escape her oppressive life with an abusive, alcoholic father and and a mother who refuses to stand up to him. Millie is of mixed race, her father being Choctaw, her white mother disowned by her well-off family for marrying him. 

 

For six years straight, Millie watches a band of Travelers roll through town each spring, but one year she plucks up the courage to actually speak with them. She ends up befriending River, a young man within the group. Millie grows increasingly drawn to him, especially his deep love for nature and literature. One day, River suggests Millie go with the Traveler group (most referred to as gypsies in this story, but see the note at the bottom of this review) when they get ready to leave again. Just as she's about to take him up on the offer, tragedy strikes and within just a few short months, Millie (still under age, btw) finds herself orphaned. 

 

"She's not crazy. She's just sad. You would be too. How would you feel? If they hauled you off. In a straight jacket. Just because -- you needed -- to cry -- for a little while?"

 

Though tempted to stay, River makes the choice to carry on with his group. Millie can't bring herself to go but hopes opportunity will arise soon to bring River back her way. In the meantime, Millie agrees to move in with Diana Miller, the nurse who looked after Millie's mother in the hospital prior to her death. Shortly after moving in, Millie is stunned to find that this one small choice proves pivotal in her finally finding answers to long buried secrets within her own family. Here, of all places! As one of the characters in this duology likes to say, no such thing as coincidence (or so it would seem)!

 

I'm  certain I have never seen such a perfect house in all my life. Everything in its place. No dust on the floor. No broken hinges, hole-punched walls, or mildewed windowpanes. I am intimidated by the sudden lack of chaos. Knowing that life could be like this. That home could mean something secure and safe. 

 

As Millie works through these discoveries and mourns the absence of River, she meets another young man, Kenneth "Bump" Anderson, a skilled veterinarian and horse breaker who worked the same rodeo circuit as Millie's father. Almost immediately, Bump seems enamored with Millie, but of course wants to play it cool. Bump places himself in Millie's path as an honest, reliable, caring friend who gets her a job at the same rodeo. Not only does she get a chance to work with the horses she loves and gain some free therapy out of it, but Bump has an excuse to be around her that much more! While his feelings for her intensify, she's just a big ol' emotional mess inside, unsure of what she really wants out of life anymore. Millie sees and appreciates Bump's steadiness and kind heart, but is that enough when compared to the fire River used to bring out in her?

 

If only we didn't have to go to church. It's the only time Diana lets me leave the house, and she insists I join their family every Sunday morning. At nine o'clock sharp, we all pile into the third pew to the right... It's the longest hour of my week. Sitting on the cold, hard bench, all dressed up in a fancy new dress, acting a certain way to impress the churchgoers. I do as expected and play the part of a "fine young Christian girl".

 

But everything about the sermons, the customs, the tithing -- it all seems so hypocritical. Especially when the preacher talks about Indians and how they worship false gods. Says they will burn in hell for eternity, as their ancestors have done before them. Same goes for Mormons, Jews, Catholics. Of course, he also counts unwed mothers and those who have divorced. Negroes, even if they do go to a Christian church. From what I can tell, anyone not white-skinned, baptized, married and putting money into this very offering plate every Sunday is destined to infinite torture. "Heaven must not be a very big place," I whisper to Camille. She laughs and Diana gives us a look. 

 

Of course, suicide results in eternal damnation. And consuming alcohol too. Dancing. Swearing. Even thinking of sin is as bad as committing sin, according to this guy. So, the way I figure it, with Choctaw blood, an alcoholic father, and a mother who used a secret stash of morphine to take her own life, I have no choice but to burn in hell too. Pretty dresses and shiny shoes won't help me.

 

Despite all that, some folks still hold out hope to save my soul. My name is on the prayer list every week, which means families like Diana's are talking about me over supper, lifting me up to the heavens. The rodeo-trash half-breed. 

 

Though the plot is tinged in sadness and deals with some heavy topics, there is still a pervasive warmth and sense of comfort to the overall tone of the story. Maybe it's Millie's hopefulness that one day all this craziness will make sense. Maybe it's the idea that family doesn't necessarily have to be blood-related. One just finds themselves matching Millie's emotions as they read: you feel for her, struggle with her, yet you can't help but feel optimism for her because it's undeniable that she's got a good support crew around her, even if she doesn't always notice them in the darker moments.

 

I don't want to end up like Mama, weak and submissive. I also don't want to turn out like Diana, with a lack of trust due to secrets untold. I sure don't want to follow Jack's course, abusive and aggressive, fighting against love and loss even after the chance for a fresh new start. And I don't want to spin out of control like Bill Miller, bitter and vicious because I didn't get my way. Maybe there is another choice... I am here. I am here for a reason. For something more than to just breathe, blink, swallow. I am worthy of happiness and love. Worthy of a good life filled with good people who love me in return. And no one, no one has the right to rob me of that peace.

 

 

Our main girl is an admirably, honestly flawed character. Her emotions run hot, she second-guesses herself pretty regularly, she has struggles with faith and gets frustrated with God. But through it all her heart is in the right place. She honestly cares for everyone in her life, even those who wrong her. Millie's story is an illustration of learning to never let anyone tamp out your inner light, steal your smile, etc. Through Millie's experiences, author Julie Cantrell also lightly plays with the topic of afterlife and the thin veil between those we've lost and how they continue to help us on this plane. An additional reminder to readers that you're never quite as alone as you might sometimes feel. 

 

* Note on the term "gypsy": At the end of this book, author Julie Cantrell includes a note which explains that while the term "gypsy" is actually considered derogatory throughout most of Traveler or Romany culture, for historical accuracy she decided to keep it in the text. 

 

* For Book Groups: the most recently published paperback edition includes pages of in-depth discussion questions, an author interview, and a "Just For Book Groups" section where Cantrell encourages groups to reach out to her (via social media) with requests for video chats / interviews.

 

Something else to note -- while another of Cantrell's books, The Feathered Bone, has been packaged to match the new covers of Into The Free and its sequel When Mountains Move, I believe The Feathered Bone is actually not tied to Millie's story, but in fact its own separate story. 

 

 

 

FTC DisclaimerTNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

 

_____________

 

My reviews for Julie Cantrell's other books:

 

When Mountains Move (Free #2)

The Feathered Bone 

Perennials

 

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review 2018-08-26 18:29
Old Magic New World
Trail of Lightning (The Sixth World) - Rebecca Roanhorse

The world has been put back into the hands of the Dine'/Navajo. After a great flood the water has risen and few land masses remain, one is the reservation were the Dine' were shucked off to many years ago. With this new beginning comes the old gods, the magic and the oral histories become life savers. Everything old is new again and those remaining need to relearn the ways. Monsters, witches and twisted souls meet in this Mad Max-ish world of survival.
Maggie, has her clan's magic in her, it's a killing magic, and she kills the monsters. She was trained by one of the gods to use her magic, it makes her unpopular till somebody needs her. When the monsters get more dangerous she reluctantly takes on a partner who is a healer with magic. It's not an easy match, or a welcome one. Many things will challange this partnership, old loves, secrets, betrayals, death and magic.
I struggled with the first 1/4 of this book. I was stuck on some of the Navajo language used. I really missed to knowing what some of the words ment. My in laws are Navajo and helped with some but a brief guide would have made the experience more. The more I read the more I was investing in this world and these characters. When I finished the book I felt I'd said good bye to family I would miss. I can't wait for the next book in the series. This is an author to follow.

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review 2018-08-01 18:14
Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit: Essays on Native American Life Today by Leslie Marmon Silko
Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit - Leslie Marmon Silko

Bold and impassioned, sharp and defiant, Leslie Marmon Silko's essays evoke the spirit and voice of Native Americans. Whether she is exploring the vital importance literature and language play in Native American heritage, illuminating the inseparability of the land and the Native American people, enlivening the ways and wisdom of the old-time people, or exploding in outrage over the government's long-standing, racist treatment of Native Americans, Silko does so with eloquence and power, born from her profound devotion to all that is Native American. 

Amazon.com

 

 

 

In this collection of essays, Silko, a member of the Pueblo Nation, discusses art, symbolism, and overall cultural growth within the Pueblo community. Some of the topics covered in Yellow Woman (the title of the book coming from one of the essays enclosed):

 

ART

 

* Symbolism in Pueblo art, ie. use of squash blossom on pottery designs = possible berringer of death, lightning imagery could mean good fortune, karmaj petals used for their symetry to represent four corners of the earth or four elements  (fire, water, earth, air). Discussion of how some imagery is used to illustrate the earth being simultaneously complex and fragile

 

* "Yellow Woman" an image of Pueblo mythology, a goddess highly regarded for her bravery, strength, calm demeanor during catastrophe, and her "uninhibited sexuality" Rather than relying on violence and destruction to assure victories, "Yellow Woman" bewitches foes simply through her sensuality and self confidence.

 

FAMILY / SOCIETAL STRUCTURE & PREJUDICES

 

* Silko writes that her own family is a blend of Pueblo, Mexican and Caucasian and her own struggles of "not looking right" to any of these groups. She speaks lovingly of her "dark and handsome" great-grandmother who "exuded confidence and strength", but admits that the woman might not have been considered traditionally beautiful by either Caucasians or Pueblo people, which opens up an essay discussion for how beauty, the thing itself, is interpreted by different cultures. Silko notes that facial differences are highly prized among the Pueblo people. 

 

*Discussion of how the idea of gender norms or "mens' work vs. womens' work" doesn't really have a place in Pueblo culture, only a matter of if you are able-bodied enough to get the job done.. so you find women doing construction and men doing basket weaving and child care. People just go where they are needed. 

 

*Historically, Pueblo people were originally fine with sexual fluidity and up until the arrival of the Puritans, openly supported LGBTQ members of the tribe. Also, babies born out of wedlock were not an issue because unplanned or not, the life was honored as life. If not wanted by the biological parents, the newborn was simply given to a barren woman within the tribe to raise. 

 

The discussions on art and culture were interesting but there was something quietly underneath that just had a feel of Silko sometimes talking down to her readers. Some of the essays repeat topics and even certain passages are duplicated verbatim from one essay into another, which I found incredibly disappointing and lazy. I know some of these pieces were previously printed elsewhere, but certain essays she must have been sitting on for a long while. For instance, one that is noted as having been previously published in 1996 -- "Auntie Kie talks about US Presidents and US Policy" -- but within that essay Silko talks about telling her aunt about an upcoming article Silko is to have published, "What Another Four Years Of Ronald Reagan Will Mean to Native Americans" (Reagan announced his Alzheimer's diagnosis in 1994). 

 

So while some of the topics were interesting, I thought the collection as a whole was kind of sloppily put together. Also, if you haven't read any of Silko's fiction, there are spoilers for some of her short stories within these essays.

 

 

 

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