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review 2018-06-13 22:20
Laughing Without an Accent by Firoozeh Dumas
Laughing Without an Accent: Adventures of an Iranian American, at Home and Abroad - Firoozeh Dumas

I enjoyed this book – it’s an entertaining memoir-in-essays by an Iranian-American author about her life, family, and navigating two cultures. Her book titles may be doing her a disservice by treating humor as her primary selling point; I would call this book amusing, humorous, and enjoyable but not laugh-out-loud funny. Of course humor is individual, and the stories are good enough to enjoy even if you don't find them hilarious.

There are a lot of good stories here. I enjoyed reading about the author’s childhood in Iran and the U.S., appreciated that she shared her disappointing and isolated first year in college (there is a lot of pressure on kids for this to be the best time of their life, but isn’t for everyone), chuckled at the misunderstandings when she began dating her husband, experienced schadenfreude reading about her worst day as a stay-at-home mom but admired her getting the TV out of the house, and was entertained by the ups and downs of life with her quirky relatives. Toward the end there were a couple of chapters that didn’t do much for me: one about her experience of giving a graduation speech essentially regurgitates the speech (complete with long paragraphs on why we should care for our teeth and read books), while another – a potentially great chapter about her meeting Kathryn Koon, who was held hostage in Iran in 1979 – fell flat, because neither the author nor Koon seems to have many feelings about this and so it becomes a chronicle of their road trip around Iowa and what visiting an Amish store is like. Also, the "gross foods in France" chapter is indeed gross.

Overall though, this is fun reading, easy to pick up for a chapter at a time when you’re busy. Nothing huge happens in it, but it’s an enjoyable window into the author’s life as an immigrant, mixing serious topics with humor.

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review 2018-06-07 17:36
Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen
Wake of Vultures - Lila Bowen

I’ll begin with a disclaimer: this isn’t my type of book, though from its marketing I thought it might be. First, because while it has a fantasy plotline, the setting and tone are more horror-tinged paranormal, full of monsters and gruesomeness. Second, because it really is a young-adult novel, in the sense of being an easy-to-read, action-oriented adventure populated by simplified characters and featuring a 16-year-old Chosen One who is unrealistically functional for her age and life experience, with a heavy emphasis on People Are Different and That’s Okay. Adding a couple of sexual assault scenes doesn’t make an adult novel of something not written in an adult register; it just means your YA is dark and risqué.

At any rate, this book follows a standard fantasy plotline: Nettie, a mistreated orphan of mysterious parentage who is shunned in her town, discovers supernatural powers, loses her mentor, learns she is the Chosen One, and goes on a quest to defeat an evil villain. The setting is interesting – an alternate version of the Old West, specifically Texas around the 1870s – and the author tries hard to make the book diverse: Nettie is part-black, part-native, bisexual, and genderqueer. This effort is in my view only moderately successful: the characterization overall is not particularly deep or complex; Nettie doesn’t have any consensual sexual encounters or a relationship; and Nettie’s racial heritage functions mostly just as the reason people are occasionally mean to her. She was raised by white people and the only important non-white characters in the book are two native siblings who, in the traditional role of irritating fantasy allies, are much more knowledgeable, skilled and committed than the protagonist but inexplicably pop in and out of the story rather than sticking around long enough to be helpful, presumably because if they simply took over the quest there wouldn’t be much action left for the clueless young protagonist. But this is better than including no diversity at all.

It’s an action/adventure type of book, with a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter and even a literal one at the end of the novel (I read the preview of the sequel online to satisfy my curiosity, which does not extend to reading another book). The narrative is full of “cowboy” talk: “The Rangers were doing their level best to give off an air of relaxation and ease, but any feller with sense could see that underneath the calm they were jittery as junebugs at a jaybird party.” At least the author has committed to her setting.

Overall, this isn’t a book that did much for me; I’d have appreciated more interesting characters or a plot that contained more than a quest to kill a monster, with something or other attacking our heroes every chapter. But if you like dark paranormal YA with a dash of horror and don’t mind the standard fantasy plot, this book may well be for you.

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review 2018-06-07 16:32
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
The House of Mirth - Edith Wharton,Elizabeth Hardwick

This is a well-written, engaging classic with complex characters and psychological insight, though a depressingly predictable story. Published in 1905 and set in the wealthy New York society of the late nineteenth century, this feels in many ways like a 19th century British novel, populated by independently wealthy leisure types who spend their days attending house parties and gossiping about one another. But the protagonist, Lily Bart, stands out as a complex individual: aged 29 at the beginning of the novel and raised to a life of leisure, she doesn’t quite have the judgment or ruthlessness needed to succeed in that milieu, and the book is more or less the chronicle of her downfall.

This is an excellent book in the way you expect from a novel that has stood the test of time: Wharton has a keen eye for people and their behavior and motivations and hypocrisies; the book brings to life a particular slice of society in a particular place and time; and it is an engaging story, one I read to see what would happen next as well as for the polished style and complicated characters.

But the most interesting thing about it is the character of Lily. Even after finishing the book I can’t quite decide how to view her, and how much it is fair to condemn or excuse her. On the one hand, Lily has a massive sense of entitlement: she wants to live a life of ease without having to do anything to earn it. On the other hand, she lives her life surrounded by people who do exactly that, who inherited or married into wealth and pass their days showing it off. And by the standards of her society, Lily is more “worthy” than many, being naturally beautiful and socially skilled. (Amusingly, the concept of a “brilliant woman” and her “career” in this context refers to a beautiful, sophisticated woman and her social trajectory, more specifically her run as a husband-hunter.) Lily’s qualms about marrying for money a man she doesn’t actually like are sympathetic, but if she doesn’t want to live her mother’s life (her mother clearly not having cared a whit for her father as an actual person, while he was working himself to death for their sake), it’s frustrating (though believable) to not see her reconsider her mother’s insistence on luxury and social success as the measure of meaning in life. And most frustrating of all is the fact that she has so many options and opportunities to avoid her fate – and rejects all of them, because in one way or another none of them conform to her vision of what she wants herself and her life to be. In that way the story feels a bit like a Greek tragedy, where the character’s downfall is due entirely to her personality. 

Yet it is a story that remains relevant today. Lily’s predicament is not so different from that of many modern folk who struggle with the sense that they are too smart or talented for the jobs or incomes available to them. In answer, Lily’s story is a warning that the world is largely indifferent to inherent worthiness; you still have to actually take the opportunities that are offered and work for what you want, not just expect success to fall into your lap.

So it is a book whose themes have outlasted the society that gave birth to it, and one that made me think. My biggest criticism of the novel is that for me it was an illustration of the perils of writing tragedy; because it was clear what would happen to Lily, to an extent I disengaged emotionally from her story. And it's worth noting that there is some anti-Semitism here, in the form of stereotypes and generalizations. But overall it’s an excellent book and one that I would recommend.

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review 2018-06-05 22:33
Lakota Woman by Mary Crow Dog
Lakota Woman - Richard Erdoes,Mary Crow Dog

This is a raw and eye-opening book, though it’s as much manifesto as it is memoir; it’s partly about the author’s life, with a focus on various injustices she’s experienced or witnessed, and partly about the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the 1970s. The author grew up poor on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, was forced to attend one of those boarding schools meant to eradicate Native American culture, and wound up joining AIM as a teenager and having a baby during the siege at Wounded Knee.

I don’t necessarily know a lot about the author after reading this book, though that doesn’t seem to be her goal. Instead I know a lot about various people getting beaten up, imprisoned or killed and about political protests and religious ceremonies she participated in. The book was worthwhile to me not so much on literary grounds but because it’s a topic I know little about; I grew up in a part of the U.S. without a prominent Native American community and realized through this book that being native in the Dakotas in the 1960s and 70s was a lot like being black in South at the same time. But most Americans know at least a little about the Civil Rights Movement, while I knew nothing about AIM at all.

Overall, interesting book, the writing is fine and accessible (I might have expected more flourishes from a ghostwriter but perhaps he was just being careful to keep it in her voice), and it’s a hard-hitting introduction for those who don’t know much about this slice of history.

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review 2018-04-20 17:28
The Not-Quite States of America by Doug Mack
The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA - Doug Mack

A book about America’s territories: part travelogue, part history, part investigation of the territories’ political status, this is a lightweight, readable introduction to a complicated topic. Doug Mack takes readers along on his trip through the territories: beginning in the U.S. Virgin Islands, then traveling to American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific, and ending with a trip to Puerto Rico. He even makes a stop in the Marshall Islands and briefly discusses the U.S.’s “freely associated states” of the Marshall Islands, Palau, and the Federated States of Micronesia. (These are independent Pacific Island countries that have a special relationship with the U.S., even having U.S. post offices and citizens serving in the U.S. military; as a group, they were best known to me for being the only other U.N. member states to always vote against sanctions for Israel.) Along the way, he shares his research about the territories in an accessible way that provides a good primer for readers new to the topic.

I found this book interesting, educational and easy to read. The author shows readers each territory as a unique place and digs into their histories and the history of U.S. international policies more broadly. He also examines the legal oddities governing the rights of the territories and their residents: for instance, they are eligible for some public benefits on their islands, but never become eligible for others even when living in the mainland U.S. (some of which actual foreign immigrants can receive after several years). Meanwhile mainland Americans can’t vote for president if they relocate to the territories. Mack pushes for opinions on the territories’ political status, and except in Puerto Rico often finds them hard to come by; for the most part, territory residents seem to prefer a flawed status quo to possibly losing individuality by becoming a state, or losing economically by becoming independent.

Mack could have improved the book a bit by being a little more willing to go out of his comfort zone as a traveler. He does meet a variety of people living in the territories, including, in the Northern Mariana Islands, a man who spent several years in another part of the Pacific learning traditional navigation, and a woman who immigrated from China to work in the garment factories. But his only exposure to obeah in the U.S. Virgin Islands is asking a well-off couple (he’s a local but she is a scuba instructor from the mainland U.S.) about it, to which they essentially smile and roll their eyes. Toward the end, he comments with surprising honesty that “In all my travels in the territories, I’d seen countless shacks and set foot in many middle-class houses and gaped from afar at the occasional oceanfront villa.” It doesn’t seem to occur to him to try to get invitations to some shacks as well, and the book gives little sense of how most people live in the territories.

All that said, with the exception of Puerto Rico, the territories are tiny islands about which relatively little has been written, especially in such an easy-to-read, bite-sized format, and this book did an excellent job of filling them out on my mental map. I would recommend it to any American to learn a bit more about some of the furthest-flung parts of the country. It can even be funny: did you know about the U.S. government’s machinations in the 19th century to claim uninhabitated islands for their bird poop?

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