Review: The Turner House, Angela Flournoy

I bought One Hundred Years of Solitude as a treat for myself right before I went to live in England for a year, and it was like if I had bought myself a bag full of delicious Reese’s peanut butter cups for a plane snack and then when I got on the plane I discovered it was just lumps of jicama inside the wrappers. (I hate jicama so much, I can’t even tell you. It makes my skin crawl just to think about it.) So I will never be won by a plethora of reviews comparing any book to Gabriel García Márquez, as everyone has been doing with this book, but I will always be won by the Act Four bloggers saying “read this thing,” and they did, so I did.

If you were wondering, it’s not really anything like Gabriel García Márquez.

It’s impossible to write a synopsis of this book that actually conveys what it’s about, so I’ll just say that it is about family dynamics, Detroit, mortgages, homes, ghosts, and addiction, and that it wears all of these things lightly, with an assurance that would be impressive in a veteran author.

This is Flournoy’s debut novel. I love the phrase “debut novel.” I like the image of a book as the herald of a person in the writing scene. Here is a person who writes! Pay attention to her! And you should definitely pay attention to Angela Flournoy. The Turner House is damn good.

Flournoy doesn’t fall into the trap that catches many writers dealing with an ensemble cast, of trying and failing to make all the siblings equally interesting. For most of the book, we’re with three of the siblings (Cha-Cha, Troy, and Lelah) in the present day, or with Francis and Viola, the mother and father of these thirteen grown siblings, back in the 1940s when they first began their family. The other siblings are floating around, though, and the glimpses we get of them are vivid and precise. Flournoy captures the logistical details of having a huge family — I have a preposterously huge family myself — perfectly:

“Can we talk about this at the party [at your place] next weekend?”

“What party? There’s not gonna be no parties around here.”

“Tina just left me a voicemail about five minutes ago. Talkin about a party for the spring birthdays next Saturday and does Bobbie eat chocolate.”

“I just talked to everybody else and didn’t nobody mention a party.”

“I don’t know, Cha-Cha. . . . I’ll see you there though. Tell her Bobbie eats chocolate but he can’t have any peanuts. They make his skin act weird.”

Bahahaha it’s so good, I swear I have been a participant in this exact conversation.

Whiskey Jenny and I were just talking about the dynamics between adult siblings, and that more than anything is what I loved about The Turner House. Flournoy has the knack of reminding the reader that encounters between people can look unrecognizably different depending on where you’re standing, and nowhere is that more true than in the resentments, alliances, and mess of a family full of siblings. Towards the end of the book, she says “Humans haunt more houses than ghosts do.” Humans haunt each other more than ghosts do, too.

Mocking Jonathan Franzen: A links round-up

In a review of a novel by Mussolini, Dorothy Parker wrote:

If only I had a private income, I would drop everything right now, and devote the scant remainder of my days to teasing the Dictator of All Italy…Indeed, my dream-life is largely made up of scenes in which I say to him, “Oh, Il Duce yourself, you big stiff,” and thus leave him crushed to a pulp.

And this is just how I feel about Jonathan Franzen. Not because he is a fascist or in any way a danger to America. Just because I find him extremely annoying, and I find internet jokes at his expense extremely delightful. All of which to say: ‘Tis evidently the season once again to be making fun of Franzen.

A call for messy comic book heroines.

I still like listening to stuff on vinyl, but otherwise, this point about the internet improving our lives is well taken.

Y’all this may make me a curmudgeon but I don’t want a brain-net. I like the internet where it is, exterior to my brain. Please and thank you.

Linda Holmes of NPR tackles the problems with portraying Black Widow in a superhero landscape woefully short on women.

HOORAY Eddie Redmayne is confirmed going to be in the JK Rowling movie about magical beasts.

After the most recent icky rape scene in Game of Thrones the Show, The Mary Sue has made an editorial decision to stop promoting or talking about the show.

On titles that are lists of three things. It notes that they sound better if the third thing is longer, and that, friends, is why some genius came up with the name “ascending tricolon,” a phrase I tried not to overuse on my Latin AP exam many years ago.

This woman was, as a toddler, a participant in primate research. She remembers almost nothing about it.

Not a dumb American: Congo edition

Onward with my Africa reading project! David van Reybrouck’s Congo: The Epic History of a People, translated from Dutch by Sam Garrett and published by Ecco, has received widespread critical acclaim, and very very well deserved too. If you happen to know anybody in the market for an enormously long history of a failed state, may I recommend pointing them towards Reybrouck? Congo reads nearly like a novel, and Reybrouck heavily privileges African voices in telling the story of the country’s modern history. It’s an excellent, excellent book.

So let’s get to it. Here’s the Democratic Republic of Congo:

I know, I know. It’s very confusing that there are two countries right next to each other, and one of them is called Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the other one is called Republic of the Congo. Which one used to be Zaire? (The DRC.) What does “Brazzaville” even refer to? (The capital of Republic of the Congo. I’ll learn more about it soon.) I know. It’s confusing.

What I learned about the DRC from my book: Some new stuff about Rwanda and the genocide there and how Congo was involved in all that. When the colonial powers were dishing out Germany’s holdings after World War I, they gave Rwanda to Belgium to govern — probably because Belgium was doing such a bang-up job in the neighboring Congo.

Kidding. That’s not why. They weren’t; see below.

Belgium heightened ethnic tensions for most of its time governing Rwanda (they were all about concentrating power in the hands of the Tutsis, because they thought Tutsis were less black than Hutus); the independent Congo was a major player in the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath; and although Rwanda arguably put Laurent Kabila in power in the First Congo War, they did not remain such cozy close allies once Kabila was actually running the country.

Many Rwandans considered Congo to be a country of lazy, chaotic bunglers who cared more about music, dancing, and food than about work, infrastructure, and public order. Many Congolese saw Rwandans as a cold, authoritarian country where plastic bags were banned for reasons of public cleanliness and motorcycle helmets were mandatory, a country of arrogant, pretentious parvenus who looked down on them in contempt.

Wonder if that remains true still now. I am very interested in the stereotypes various countries have about each other.

Definitely true: The Belgian colonial administration was super racist.

The Congolese middle class that emerged in the mid-1900s wanted to have the same rights as the European population in the Congo, including jolly luxuries such as not being at risk of being flogged with a piece of hippopotamus hide if you got convicted of certain crimes. So the Belgian government introduced a thing called the carte d’immatriculation, which was supposedly to extend the same legal rights to Congolese card-holders that Europeans living in the Congo already held by default.

Extremely stringent requirements were posed for obtaining such a card. Those requirements were often humiliating as well. During the period of application, an inspector was allowed to pay surprise visits to the family home, to see whether the candidate and his family lived in a truly civilized fashion. The inspector would look to see that each child had a bed of its own, that the family ate with knives and forks, that the plates were uniform in size and type, and that the toilet was clean.

About two hundred people received these cards. The population of Congo at that time was around fourteen million. Great work, colonialism.

But the most important thing I learned, by far, is this: PAY YOUR ARMY. Never don’t pay your army. The Congolese government did not make the army a financial priority in the early years of independence, and the results were Not. Good. First, the army mutinied. Then, the Belgians freaked about Congolese army guys maybe raping their ladies, so they all left. Belgian civil servants. Belgian transportation workers. Belgian export company owners. Everyone.

(Not everyone. But sort of.)

To put it simply: after one week Congo was without an army; after two weeks it was without an administration. Or, to put it more accurately, it was without the top layers of an administration. Of the 4,878 higher-ranking positions, only three were occupied by Congolese in 1959. Suddenly, people with a simple education now had to assume important roes within the bureaucracy, roles that were often far beyond their ability.

PAY YOUR ARMY.

David van Reybrouck’s marvelous book has spoiled me utterly for the future of my reading project. Does anyone have a particularly excellent history of an African nation to recommend? I can see an argument for doing Rwanda next, while this Congolese context is fresh in my mind. On the other hand, it might be neat to move on to some totally different African nation about which I know nothing. Like Mali. I know literally zero facts about Mali.

P.S. Sorry this post wasn’t funnier. Just, Congo has a sad and difficult history, and the country is in a bad way today. Corruption is everywhere, sexual violence ditto, and although Congo is the most resource-rich country in the world, its people are among the very poorest. It’s hard to make jokes about the history that led to these crappy, crappy outcomes.

Greensleeves!

The winner of my Greensleeves giveaway is Jill, from Rhapsody in Books! Congratulations, Jill!

However, everyone else should order themselves a copy of Greensleeves anyway. It’s such a good book, and I am tired of being one of like five people who loves it, when the correct situation would be for literally everyone everywhere to love it. GET ON IT book blogging world!

Review: Poison, Sarah Pinborough

Sooooo remember when I said that I was concerned that Poison wasn’t going to work out for me? Poison…didn’t work out for me.

By rough synopsis, Poison should have worked flawlessly for me. It’s a dark retelling of the “Snow White” story (if you’re thinking, That story doesn’t need to be retold dark; it was dark when we got here, I feel you) that deals with the complicated relationship between Snow White and her stepmother and the expectations men have of women.

Except it doesn’t really deal with those things, at least not in any way that’s convincing or surprising. It looks like it’s going to, but we never really get a grip on Snow White’s stepmother’s true feelings for Snow White, or learn in any depth how she became the (evil) way that she is. Instead, Poison tells the Snow White story pretty straight. Which, if I’d wanted the story told straight, I’d just have read the story, in Grimm or Andrew Lang or whatever.

Now, I will say that I loved the ending. It’s no darker than the foregoing events of the book, but it twists the fairy tale in a way that the rest of the book fails to do. When I realized the book was over, and that was genuinely the way it was going to end, I was delighted with Pinborough’s audacity. Whether that will be enough to make me pick up more of her work — we’ll see.

I am participating in Carl’s Once Upon a Time challenge, and this has been my Fairy Tale book for it. Yet to come are a mythology book, after which I will have completed my Quest! Visit the reviews site to see what other people have been reading.

Review: The Precious One, Marisa de los Santos

If I haven’t recently recommended Marisa de los Santos’s Love Walked In and Belong to Me, let me take the opportunity to do so now. She’s a writer along the lines of Jojo Moyes or Rainbow Rowell, where the books feel light-hearted even when sad things occur, and where the author seems to be the direct puppeteer of your heart strings (in a good way! not in a manipulative way!).

Falling Together, de los Santos’s third book, was kind of a disappointment. I had my doubts about her fourth one, The Precious One. But I am glad to report that Marisa de los Santos is right back on form. She’s a lovely and lucid writer, and her particular strength as a writer — which she has in common with Rowell and Moyes, and which makes me cherish them so much — is her generosity to her characters.

Taisy Cleary’s father cut ties with her and her mother and brother when Taisy was eighteen, and she has hardly spoken to him since. Now Wilson has contacted her and asked her to come visit in [location], where he lives with his glass-blowing wife and his new daughter, the eponymous “precious one,” sixteen-year-old Willow.

It’s such a dear of a book. As Mumsy pointed out to me, and Jill mentioned as well in her review, Marisa de los Santos writes better women than men: Either the male characters are too impossibly wicked or they’re too saintly good. So there’s an extent to which you may need to suspend your disbelief about some of what happens in this book. But it’s still lovely. If you like Jojo Moyes, hit up The Precious One. And then read Love Walked In and Belong to Me, cause those books are the books I read when I start to feel forlorn.

Review: Cuckoo Song, Frances Hardinge

Note: I received an e-galley of this book from the publisher for review consideration.

My first experiment with Ana’s beloved Frances Hardinge was a mixed bag. A Face Like Glass started slow and continued very strange before getting abruptly very exciting towards the end. But Cuckoo Song looked more my speed from the word go, a story about Britain in World War I, about sisters, and about a changeling.

(British authors and cuckoos, have you noticed? They can’t resist them! The cuckoo has infilitrated the British subconscious and hatched its eggs there.)

Triss wakes up one day scrambling to recover her memories. With some effort, she’s able to recall her parents, father and mother, and her angry, rebellious sister Pen. But for the life of her she can’t remember the event that her parents say has made her ill, falling in the gammer nearby and having to crawl out of it again. She knows that Pen hates and resents her, and she knows that she is desperately, unceasingly hungry.

Like A Face Like Glass, Cuckoo Song is a little slow to start. Triss takes quite some time sorting out what I knew from the jump (cause title), and only after that do the true adventures begin. In the meantime, there’s plenty of groundwork to be laid for future plot and emotions, which could profitably have been pruned back without affecting the work they’re doing for the story. But once the full premise is out in the open, the book becomes hard to put down; and I read it all in a single sitting.

A spoiler follows that you could probably figure out on your own (cause title). My favorite type of changeling story is the type where the family keeps the changeling. This is the full premise of Brenna Yovanoff’s excellent The Replacement, and this year I’ve read two successive books — this and Holly Black’s The Darkest Part of the Forest — that each do something about kept changelings that I’ve never seen before. Triss’s realization that she’s not really Triss may be something of a foregone conclusion, but her journey to becoming a fully realized person in her own right is anything but.

Nestled comfortably into three of my particular sweet spots, Cuckoo Song is exciting and inventive without the studied whimsy of (parts of) A Face Like Glass. Frances Hardinge newbies will find it a perfect introduction to her particular brand of madness and suspense.

This has been my folklore read for the Once Upon a Time IX Challenge, which, I don’t want to be vain, but I am crushing it this year. Head over to the reviews page to see what everyone else has been reading.

A shortish links round-up for a rough fortnight (plus a birthday giveaway!)

The events in Baltimore and the elections in the UK have been occupying a lot of my internet-browsing time, so this is a shorter links round-up than usual. I tried to keep it positive, because the bad news on top of bad news on top of bad news can really get a girl down after a while.

To keep it extra positive, I’m doing a giveaway! My birthday was this week, and I’ve decided to celebrate it hobbit-style. One of my all-time favorite books, Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s Greensleeves, was recently put back into print by Nancy Pearl. It’s a dear of a book, as I raved here, and it taught me useful stuff when I was a dumb new adult, and I am offering it up to one lucky winner! The giveaway is open worldwide as I’ll be sending it via Book Depository. Just leave a note in the comments saying you want it, along with a way to contact you, and I will pick a winner on 15 May (next Friday).

This is a lovely article about the flaws and wonders of Anne of Green Gables, and about how we don’t have to choose between Anne and Emily. But I’m going to choose anyway and I choose Emily. Not because of feminism. I just love the Emily books more.

In praise of Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane.

Viola Davis will play Harriet Tubman in an upcoming HBO movie. Yes, thank you, I will watch that.

“Don’t keep finishing your sentences,” he said. “I’m not a bloody fool.”

Feminist romance novel recommendations from Maya Rodale, featuring several of my very favorite romance writers, as well as a book whose title I cannot stop reading as Asses in the Wind, no matter how many times I look at it.

The marvelous Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on African literature, over at the Wall Street Journal.

Reading the End Bookcast, Ep.39: Siblings in Books and Priya Parmar’s Vanessa and Her Sister

We’re back again to talk about books with siblings! We find ourselves mystifed by the relative paucity of books about adult siblings, compared to the rich bounty in children’s, middle grade, and YA novels. And then we review Priya Parmar’s Vanessa and Her Sister, about Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf. You can listen to the podcast in the embedded player below or download the file directly here to take with you on the go.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Get at me on Twitter, email the podcast, and friend me (Gin Jenny) and Whiskey Jenny on Goodreads. Or if you wish, you can find us on iTunes (and if you enjoy the podcast, give us a good rating! We appreciate it very very much).

Credits
Producer: Captain Hammer
Photo credit: The Illustrious Annalee
Song is by Jeff MacDougall.

Review: The Devil in Silver, Victor LaValle

The Devil in Silver is something like a horror thriller, set at an inpatient mental health facility in New York City, where the patients are being stalked–and sometimes killed–by the literal devil, who lives in their facility on a locked ward. Our protagonist Pepper teams up with a bipolar teenager called Loochie, a schizophrenic lifer called Dorrie, and a Ugandan immigrant, Coffee, to fight back against both the devil and the rigid structures of the hospital.

This book vibrates with anger at the mental health system. The text itself is shot through with anger, and the acknowledgements afterward include a literal “fuck you” to the psych ward at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt.

Criticism of the mental health system is a minefield with me. I have so much skin in the game I end up on defense no matter who you want to criticize. Yes, inpatient mental health care is a critical need in this country, and yes, I can understand why a reasonable human would choose not to submit herself to that kind of care, because yes, inpatient mental health care can strip you of your civil rights and subject you to a hideous and dehumanizing invasion by people who listen to you not at all and just want to get through their shift. And yes, the mentally ill are people with rights who are worthy of respect, and yes, caring for the mentally ill day after day is draining, frustrating work, and yes, the staff who do this work sometimes abuse their positions and make decisions based on expediency rather than the best interests of the patient, and yes, the staff who do this work are underpaid and undersupported and undertrained.

LaValle navigates all of this beautifully. It’s a strange and impressive thing for a book to punch so hard at a complex machine like the American mental health system without the blow landing on any individual cog. Though the staff at the hospital can be stern, needlessly rule-bound, and at times outright abusive (our protagonist, Pepper, decides to turn down his meds, and the hospital staff thereafter refuse to give him his meals either), there are no Nurse Ratcheds here; just tired, frustrated people who aren’t getting paid nearly enough to bring their human compassion A-game day after day.

But while the author can show compassion and grace to each part that together makes up the sum of the mental health system, his criticisms of the whole are trenchant.

The jury’s verdict (at best) might’ve been: We really feel terrible for these people. (And here’s the hard part, they really would.) We feel terrible, but we have doubts. We doubt the world works this way, because it has never worked this way against us.

Ouch, right? And true, right? I don’t even know how much I actually liked this book qua book, because I was just so floored by the accuracy and empathy of LaValle’s portrayal of life in an inpatient ward. That he has lived this experience (which he evidently has) and can still write about it without vitriol is really, really impressive to me.