Diverse Books Tag

The marvelous Sharlene at Olduvai Reads tagged me for the Diverse Books Tag.

The Diverse Books Tag is a bit like a scavenger hunt. I will task you to find a book that fits a specific criteria and you will have to show us a book you have read or want to read.

If you can’t think of a book that fits the specific category, then I encourage you to go look for oneA quick Google search will provide you with many books that will fit the bill. (Also, Goodreads lists are your friends.) Find one you are genuinely interested in reading and move on to the next category.

Everyone can do this tag, even people who don’t own or haven’t read any books that fit the descriptions below. So there’s no excuse! The purpose of the tag is to promote the kinds of books that may not get a lot of attention in the book blogging community.

Find a book starring a lesbian character.

I choose my favorite of Helen Oyeyemi’s books, White is for Witching. It’s about a pair of twins who live in a haunted and xenophobic house. The girl twin, Miranda, goes off to Cambridge and gets involved with a black girl. The house is not happy about it.

Find a book with a Muslim protagonist.

Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead features a Canadian Muslim detective trying to solve a mystery relating to a possible Bosnian war criminal. This was obviously right up my alley, as I read very widely about genocides in history and their aftermaths. I enjoyed the mystery a lot and was excited to find that it’s the first in a series about this detective, Esa Khattak, and his right-hand woman, Rachel Getty.

Find a book set in Latin America.

A Latin America-set book on my TBR list that I can’t wait to read when it comes out next month is Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Here Comes the Sun, which is about three Jamaican women who fight against the installation of a new hotel in their community. It got a ton of buzz at BEA, and my pal Shaina raved about it, so I’m in!

Find a book about a person with a disability.

Do mental disorders count? If yes I am choosing Nathan Filer’s wonderful The Shock of the Fall, which made me cry many times like a tiny, tiny child. The depiction of what it’s like to live with schizophrenia is so beautifully done, without ever being patronizing or overly sentimental. I am tearing up now thinking of one moment in particular. Sniffle, sniffle.

Find a science fiction or fantasy book with a POC protagonist.

Don’t mind if I doooooo. A recent read that I enjoyed a lot, but didn’t get around to reviewing, was Nnedi Okorafor’s book Lagoon, in which a race of aliens makes their first contact in Lagos, Nigeria. All of the various protagonists trying to make sense of this bewildering new state of affairs are black Nigerians, and it’s a weird and spooky and excellent piece of scifi.

Find a book set in (or about) any country in Africa.

Jenny cracks her knuckles and does some jumping jacks in preparation, then remembers she should be reasonable about this and not get all crazy with it. Suffice it to say, I love reading books set in or about countries in Africa, and it is hard for me to pick just one.

I’m going to choose a book from a smaller press, Imran Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System. This book (which I’m still waiting for my library to order for me!) is a novel about the changes in South African society over the last forty years. I have been given to understand that it deals with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which I am extra interested in.

Find a book written by an Aboriginal or American Indian author.

Your recs for this category would be appreciated, as I didn’t have a ton of choices lined up. I’m choosing Ambelin Kwaymullina’s very enjoyable The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, a YA dystopian novel with (I’m delighted to report) a sequel to be published in America this year.

Find a book set in South Asia (Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, etc.)

I really like Ru Freeman’s book On Sal Mal Lane, which I read a few years back. Set on a road in Sri Lanka at the outset of the Sri Lankan Civil War, it depicts a group of families (some Tamil, some Sinhalese, and some Burgher) dealing with the changing political and racial dynamics of their country. It reminded me of one of my all-time favorite authors, Rumer Godden, and was just altogether great.

Find a book with a biracial protagonist.

Everyone was crazy about Fran Ross’s Oreo last year, when the 1974 satirical novel was reprinted. It’s a comic novel about a mixed-race woman in Philadelphia and New York, and although it has been described as picaresque and that is not really my jam,1, I am excited for Oreo to become the exception to my picaresque hate.

Find a book starring a transgender character or about transgender issues.

For this one, I’m choosing Meredith Russo’s If I Was Your Girl. Protagonist Amanda has just started at a new school and is falling in love with a boy named Grant; she badly wants to come out to him as trans, but fears how he will take it. I hear amazing things about this book and this author and can’t wait to try it!

  1. although I love the word! Picaresque! I wish it meant something awesomer.

#BBAW: Introduce Yourself!

The time has come! The time is now! After a few years of lying fallow, Book Blogger Appreciation Week has returned! Huge, huge thanks to my co-hosts Heather, Andi, and Ana, and thanks to everyone who’s participating.

Day 1: Introduce yourself by telling us about five books that represent you as a person or your interests/lifestyle.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte

I’m starting with an unoriginal one, I know! But Jane Eyre was the first book where I ever read the end before I read the middle. It gave me a taste for romance, for gothic novels, for crazypants plots where lunatics set things on fire, and for angry-girl heroines.

Fire and Hemlock, Diana Wynne Jones

I mean, come on. I was never going to make this list without at least one Diana Wynne Jones book on it. Although Jenny’s Law states that Diana Wynne Jones is better on a reread, I have chosen one of the only DWJ books that I loved immediately. Fire and Hemlock is, nevertheless, everything I have ever loved about Diana Wynne Jones; in particular, the way that it’s packed full of adult truth bombs that gradually exploded as I’ve gotten older.

Also it left me with a great love of cellists.1

White Is for Witching, Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi is one of a very few writers whose books I will read purely for her writing. White Is for Witching is my favorite of her five so-far books. It is about, I swear, a xenophobic house and the family that lives in it. There are twins and pica and university examinations, and every one of the narrators is unreliable. (I LOVE UNRELIABLE NARRATORS.)

The Charioteer, Mary Renault

“Jenny, are you just including The Charioteer on your list because everyone you’ve ever recommended it to has thought it was super boring?”

Mary Renault has been a super formative author for me in my life, from when I read her Alexander the Great books in late middle school. The Charioteer is slightly atypical for her in that it has a modern (to Mary Renault! World War II!) setting, but it also requires the queer characters to speak to each other in a coded, roundabout, subtexty way. That she manages to make these unspoken relationships urgent is a testament to her powers as an author.2

The Lost Books of the Odyssey, Zachary Mason

The Lost Books of the Odyssey includes extensions of the Homer stories, alternate versions of them, stories that happen around the edges. It is stories, and it’s about stories, and I will read stories about stories every day until the heat death of the sun.

Happy first day of Book Blogger Appreciation Week! Head over to the Estella Society to link up your #BBAW posts.

  1. Jubilee on The Bachelor played the cello, yet Ben insanely sent her home. The other Ben from Kaitlyn’s season would never have done this.
  2. Mumsy, I forgive you for not loving this book. I mean, sort of. I mean, you did just make me cookies the other day.

Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi

Note: I received this ebook from the publisher via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.

The beginning: That’s the first line of Boy Snow Bird, and doesn’t it remind you of how much you’ve missed Helen Oyeyemi? In her newest book, a girl named Boy runs away from her abusive father, a rat-catcher, to a small town called Flax Hill. There she meets a man called Arturo Whitman, and maybe she falls in love with him, and she tries not to become a wicked stepmother to his beautiful daughter, Snow.

The end (spoilers in this section only, so skip down to “The whole” if you don’t want to know!): This is actually a good example of a time the benefits of reading the end are objectively evident. At the end Boy Snow Bird, it is revealed that the rat-catcher, Boy’s father, was actually her mother omg shocking twist, who was a queer artsy college type until she was raped, whereupon she retired to a home for girls and found that the person looking out at her from the mirror was a man, so she started acting like one in her real life. And Boy packs up her husband, daughter, and stepdaughter to go “break the spell” the rat-catcher is under. The end.

Okay. Sometimes it happens this way. Sometimes I read the end, and I think: Man, that seems disappointing. I hope the parts of the book I haven’t read make it not disappointing. And I’ll tell you right now that they usually don’t. Usually it’s that the ending isn’t good, but if you’ve read the end before you read the middle, then at least you have a good bit of time to prepare for the ending to not be so good. It won’t be that you reach the very end and get suddenly, abruptly, enormously disappointed.

Not to say that the ending of Boy, Snow, Bird is suddenly and enormously disappointing. Thematically, the reveal at the end works fine — it’s very much in keeping with the book’s themes of identity and fear, and the image clusters with mirrors keep right on coming. It’s dicey, though, in terms of tone and plot, and it’s hella dicey as a portrayal of gender nonconformity.

The whole: Oh, I’ve missed Helen Oyeyemi. She seems to just keep getting better and better at this business of putting books together. Boy Snow Bird has all the matter-of-fact strangeness of her past books, but it feels more carefully assembled than some of her earlier work. Going back through for quotations from it, I keep finding great little bits of foreshadowing and parallel imagery that I missed as I was reading it the first time.

The theme of not being exactly what you look like (of mirrors — literal and metaphorical — being unreliable) runs through the whole book and all of its characters, so that you can never feel confident that what you’re looking at is true. Oyeyemi has no stake in resolving reader discomfort about what’s real; rather, she insists that the reader recognize that reality is flexible, subjective, ever-changing — unreliable.

As for Flax Hill itself, I was on shaky terms with it for the first few months. Neither of us was sure whether or not I genuinely intended to stick around. And so the town misbehaved a little, collapsing when I went to sleep and reassembling in the morning in a slapdash manner. I kept passing park benches and telephone booths and entrances to alleyways that I was absolutely certain hadn’t been there the evening before.

The writing is gorgeous: Helen Oyeyemi has a very particular way of writing that is inimitable and that I love. Here’s some advice Snow receives:

When something catches your attention just keep your attention on it, stick with it ’til the end, and somewhere along the line there’ll be weirdness. I’ve never tried to explain it to anyone before, but what I mean to say is that a whole lot of technically impossible things are always trying to happen to us, appear to us, talk to us, show us pictures, or just say hi, and you can’t pay attention to all of it, so I just pick the nearest technically impossible thing and I let it happen. Let me know how it goes if you try it.

And a description of Snow:

If Snow was ever worried, if any anxieties ever disturbed her for longer than a day, she rarely showed it. She was poised and sympathetic, like a girl who’d just come from the future, but didn’t want to brag about it.

And this just because it made me smile:

Both Gee-Ma and Grammy Olivia have their funerals and coffins and burial plots all paid for, only Grammy Olivia also has a guest list for her funeral and strict instructions that anybody who isn’t on the list can’t come in. This makes Bird’s dad laugh and sigh at the same time and intrigues Bird, because it suggests Grammy Olivia is worried about unsavory characters from her past showing up to damage her reputation.

The ending, as I said above, was troubling from an ideological standpoint, but never mind. I just won’t read the ending next time. I’ll stop early, when Boy gets the black eye that she says is from falling over. I can do that. I do it for Moulin Rouge all the time. The big show ends, the curtain falls, THE END. Or My Fair Lady: “Goodbye, Professor Higgins. You will not be seeing me again.” THE END.

White Is for Witching remains my sentimental favorite of Helen Oyeyemi’s books, but I don’t think there’s much question that Boy Snow Bird is the best of her books so far structurally — polished, elegant, unmerciful.

American cover
American cover
British cover
British cover

Cover report: I’d have done something with mirrors, if it were me. I like the way the British cover addresses coloring, which is such an issue in Boy Snow Bird, although the rest of the cover feels like a nonsequitur. I hate the colors and the design of the American cover. British cover wins.

Giving up

Okay, I can’t do it, I’ve read too many books and not reviewed them and then I can’t remember anything about them. So whatever. I’m doing little bitty ones here. I’m declaring bloggy bankruptcy and giving myself a clean slate. Have to. Here are a series of cranky little reviewlets.

Mr. Fox, Helen Oyeyemi

Liked it a lot! I went to see Helen Oyeyemi talk at McNally Jackson, and she said that writing Mr. Fox was just fun, that she was just enjoying every minute of writing it. It shows when you’re reading the book. Mr. Fox plays with ideas of inspiration and violence against women and writing and imagination and Bluebeard stories. It’s a little weird and confusing but a lot funny and clever. Helen Oyeyemi remains one of my favorite young writers. As before I can’t wait to see what she does next. White Is for Witching remains my favorite of her four books because it involves a haunted house and I love a haunted house.

An Episode of Sparrows, Rumer Godden

Little street urchins try to make a garden in a Blitz-wrecked London. My mother loves this book, and I liked it, certainly, but it was awfully sad. The ending is hopeful, but not quite hopeful enough to make up for how extraordinarily sad it was in the meantime. Maybe upon successive rereadings I will love it better.

A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore

My coworker said that Lorrie Moore writes the best women characters he’s ever encountered. Better than Alice Walker (he said). Y’all know it’s never a good idea to read a new book in a combative mood. I read A Gate at the Stairs with skeptical eyes but I have to say? I didn’t think the women characters were that great. They didn’t feel real at all, and neither did the men, and the whole thing just, eh, I didn’t like it. I thought it was going to focus more on the experience of being in college, so there was also that expectations gap that’s an enjoyment-killer.

Hopscotch, Julio Cortazar

Argh. I loved the idea of this book. There are 55 basic chapters and 99 “expendable” chapters. The author says you can read the 55 chapters in order and dispense with the 99, or you can read in an order he suggests that hopscotches between the regular chapters and the expendable ones. The idea is that you’ll have quite a different book if you read straight through, compared to if you jump around. Per usual, experimental fiction loses me by not giving a crap about plot. I couldn’t stop thinking about how cool it would be if a plot-minded author had done this same thing. If Barbara Vine had done it, say. If the expendable chapters had cast a new light on the events of the regular chapters. That would have been amazing. But that wasn’t what happened. I just got fed up and started wanting to punch the characters, and I couldn’t stop reading because I borrowed the book from a coworker (the one who thinks Lorrie Moore is better than Alice Walker OBVIOUS NONSENSE) and I wanted to be able to say something nice about it when I returned it because I hate it when someone asks to borrow a book from me and I lend them the book in spite of strong inclinations against lending my books and then they give it back without reading it. So I staggered on becoming more and more resentful, and by the second half of the book — which actually was significantly better and more interesting! — I was too fed up to enjoy the good things about the book.

And I hate reading books in translation. Sorry. I just do.

The end! Clean slate! Clean slate going into the New Year. I am going to be awesome at writing posts this year. YOU WILL SEE.

Review: White is for Witching, Helen Oyeyemi

In White is for Witching, Helen Oyeyemi has done the thing I was afraid she wasn’t going to manage, which is to become EVEN BETTER YET in her third book than she was in her second.  She can’t keep this up much longer, right?  I mean she has to plateau at some point, right?  Helen Oyeyemi!  What will you do to stagger and amaze us next?

White is for Witching is about a set of twins, Eliot and Miranda, who live in a haunted house.  Miranda has pica, and the house hates foreigners.  As the book goes on, we come to realize that there are people in the house apart from those that its inhabitants can see, people that the women of Miranda’s family have sometimes been able to perceive.  Miranda and Eliot go off to Cambridge and South Africa (maybe), respectively, and still they are bound to each other and to the house.  Spookiness ensues.

Simon’s review of this book suggested Helen Oyeyemi might have got too experimental for her boots with this one, which filled me full of fears that she had given up on interesting plots/characters in favor of using too many words in unorganized word salad sentences.  In fact there’s just a hella lot of ambiguity and uncertainty about the sort of evil the house is wreaking, and what all the characters’ true motives are.  Which is the sort of ambiguity I can see why someone would mind it, but I do not, when the book is about a sinister haunted house.  A haunted house is scarier if you can’t lay the ghost.

Another reason I liked it (but someone else might not) is that there are multiple narrators, in varying degrees of reliability (one of them is the house.  You really can’t rely on the house to tell the truth).  I love multiple narrators.  I have done ever since I was in fourth grade and my mother bought me Caroline B. Cooney’s Among Friends, and I thought it was the coolest idea ever and swiftly went off and wrote a book my own self with multiple narrators.  One of them was a unicorn, and one was a talking book.  And at the end?  The army of men and the army of women all decided to get married, so they didn’t have to have a war after all.  Lesson learned: It is rather lame to pretend like you are going to have to have a Major Event (like a war) at the end of a book, and then for some silly reason not have to have the Major Event after all.  [Thinly veiled subtext: I learned this lesson before I left elementary school, while Stephenie Meyer never learned it at all.]

That unnecessary slighting reference to Stephenie Meyer brought to you by: Embarrassment at my nine-year-old self’s idea of what constituted a good story.

Anyway, multiple narrators.  I am a fan.  If you are not, this may not be the book for you.  Ditto for if you need to be perfectly clear on the spooky haunty happenings and what’s real and what’s not.  Otherwise, hit this up immediately.  It is damn good.  I’m only sad that Helen Oyeyemi has no further books for me to read right now.

Other reviews:

A Striped Armchair
Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog
Stuck in a Book
Torque Control
Coffee Stained Pages
Fantasy Book Critic
The Indextrious Reader

Tell me if I missed yours!

Review: The Opposite House, Helen Oyeyemi

When I do not expect to enjoy a book all that much, but I need to get it read so I can return it to the library, I leave it in my loo and read it in tiny increments when I am cleaning my teeth and contact lenses, or waiting for the hot water to heat up (my hot water acts like it’s ready to go and then turns from a gush to a trickle; you have to wait SO LONG to get it going properly.  Many lukewarm showers before I figured it out).  If the book turns out better than I expect, I promote it to my bedside table, and read it in larger increments at night before I go to sleep.  If it turns out better than that again, I put it in my large yellow handbag and carry it about with me, so I can read it wherever I go.

The Icarus Girl started life as a bedside table book, but I think it may have been, actually, a teeth-cleaning book.  I expected it would be the same with Oyeyemi’s second book, and I expected her third, about which I have heard great things, to be a bedside table book.  So Mardi Gras I took The Opposite House upstairs with me when I went to clean my teeth after I’d finished my coffee.   In fact it proved to be a handbag book; in fact I took it downstairs and read the whole thing that day.

The Opposite House follows two storylines: Maja, a black Cuban girl whose family fled to London when she was seven, has fallen pregnant with the child she has wanted since she was five years old, but she is struggling with depression and anxiety, what she calls her “personal hysteric”.  On the other side we have Aya, a goddess of Maja’s mother’s religion, who lives in “the somewherehouse” that gives into London and Lagos.

Helen Oyeyemi’s writing has improved practically out of recognition from The Icarus Girl.  Not that The Icarus Girl was poorly written – it wasn’t at all – but The Opposite House has some truly lovely passages, which I will excerpt for you below.  Oyeyemi’s characters are more fully realized too.  Maja’s friend Amy Eleni is a sharp, vivid character, and I missed her whenever she was not around.  Her friendship with Maja, an emotional anchor when Maja is trying to decide what to do, is utterly believable, the strongest part of the book.

I said I might have been being unfair to The Icarus Girl, and I think now I am being unfair in the opposite direction to The Opposite House.  I was so blown away by the improvement in Oyeyemi’s writing that I may be glossing over problems in the plot – the plot did not always work for me, and the connections between the two stories aren’t made clear.  But I am giving The Opposite House four stars anyway, because of the writing being so good.

I wrote this down in my commonplace book:

If you still knew who you were, you had to keep it a secret.  The gods hid among the saints and apostles and nobody perceived them unless they wanted to…A painting of a saint welling holy tears and the story of an Orisha teach you the same thing – if you cry for someone, it counts as prayer.

And this, I really really like too, and would have written it in my commonplace book except it was too long:

Like every girl, I only need to look up and a little to the right of me to see the hysteria that belongs to me, the one that hangs on a hook like an empty jacket and flutters with disappointment that I cannot wear her all the time.  I call her my hysteric, and this personal hysteric of mine is designer made (though I’m not sure who made her), flattering and comfortable, attractive even, if you’re around people who like that sort of thing.  She is not anyone, my hysteric; she is blank, electricity dancing around a filament, singing to kill.  It’s not that there are two Majas; there is only one, but she can disappear into her own tension and may one day never come back.

My second ever boyfriend – frizzy-blond-haired and built like a rugby player – was a postgraduate student five years older than me when I was in my first year.  Luke seemed to prefer my personal hysteric to me.  He told me over and over that I was beautiful, sweet, so clever.

In his mouth, on his tongue, those words were not safe.

And he said these terrible things earnestly enough to make me sit on my hands when I was across from him at dinner.  In his mouth, on his tongue, those words cast a spell which conjured me into the things he kept insisting I was.

Luke was always pleading with me to calm down before I even realized that I was unsettled.  I stopped daring to raise my voice at him, or smile too much, even.  Luke filled bedtime mugs for me, brimful with creamy white, warm Kahlua and milk.  When I sipped them sleepily from the enfoldment of his arms, I became convinced that I was ill, and that it was terminal.  There was no other reason for such care, for the way he laids lands on me so lightly that it seemed I was already disappearing.  One night, drunk, drunk, drunk, I dropped my empty shot glass and a full one for Luke, sat down beside the pieces and arranged them in my skin, twisting clear flowers planted to grow from my soles, my arms.  It hurt.  But wearing my hysteric, it became a matter of art and pain and so on.  It was extreme, it was because of tension.  Luke took me to the emergency room and spoke to me, richly, quietly, held me for as long as he could while I cried and put my sight away from my torn skin.

We went to a girls’ school, Amy Eleni and I.  We know about subtle, slow murder, the ways that glances and silences and unnecessarily kind words can have a girl running into traffic trying to get hit so that she doesn’t have to turn up the next day.  When Amy Eleni arrived at the hospital she was in no mood for pleasantries.  She took Luke aside and told him to “Fuck right off.  Immediately.”

I cannot wait to read White is for Witching!  I am so enjoying watching Helen Oyeyemi develop as a writer (coincidentally, Clare just posted about writers and their development, so I have been thinking about it even more).  Helen Oyeyemi is young!  And has many years in which to write more and more books!  I love young writers!

Have you read this book?  Leave me a link!