Archive for September 2021

A Song Everlasting by Ha Jin

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What defines who you are? I've played piano for most of my life, studied music through two college degrees, and have worked as a professional musician. My love and understanding of music are intimately intertwined with my lived experience and have helped to shape me into the person I am today. There came a point in my life, however, when I had to learn that it was okay for me to separate myself from that art. By its very nature, art can be all-consuming, a 24/7 obsession that can be easy to lose yourself in. I am lucky to have found a balance in my life in which I know that being a musician is only part of who I am. It doesn't define the entirety of my being. Instead, I know that my life is a rich tapestry of the things I've done, the passions I've uncovered, and the people with whom I surround myself. Condensing the richness of that life into a single label does a disservice in defining the person I am. 

In A Song Everlasting author Ha Jin grapples with the mystery of defining a person through the intimate portrait of one man. Yao Tian is an acclaimed Chinese singer who is revered in his country as a brilliant artist and loyal patriot. Tian has built quite the life for himself, his wife, and their daughter. He approaches his art with the same duty with which he honors his country, a duty that drives him to sing nationalist songs and tour with the national choir. His traditional upbringing and culture also bind him to another kind of duty, the duty of being the patriarch of his small family. Tian has a comfortable life, but he's eager for more. Not more for himself, but for enough money to provide his daughter with the best college education possible. It is in this desire that Tian begins to lose himself and threaten all of the things that define him. 

On a trip to New York with the Chinese choir, things begin to unravel. Tian accepts an extra gig for a generous cash payout. He knows the money will help with his daughter's tuition. Plus, the event is advertised as a celebration of unity between China and Taiwan, a cause that Tian believes aligns with the priorities of his country. But as he attempts to return home, Tian is startled to learn that he's been fired from the choir and blacklisted by the very government that he's dutifully served. It turns out that the organizers of the private event he sang at are actually supporters of Taiwan's secession. In an instant, everything that has ever defined Tian is taken away from him. He is stuck in a foreign country with no feasible path back home. He has lost the career that defined him and worst abandoned his family. Now he'll have to carve out a new path, learning more about himself and what truly makes up a man in the process. 

I was drawn to A Song Everlasting by the summary that the publisher provided when they offered me a copy to review. I was instantly connected to the idea of a musician losing the means to a career that defined him. What I didn't expect was how deeply moved I would become by his story. Ha Jin writes with utilitarian ease that could be misconstrued as sparse. I found, however, that his words work in service to the story, disappearing from thought to allow the reader to focus more on the life that is being portrayed. In fact, I often found myself forgetting that I was reading a work of fiction at all, completely invested in the man and his situation. A Song Everlasting challenges definitions of tradition and duty and instead finds vibrance in the plainness of everyday life. Like a song itself, the book works not in a singular moment or event, but through the combination of its various characters, moments, and emotions. I left the novel stunned by the ideas that it contained, awed by the very splendor of its simplicity.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 35)

My Heart Is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones

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 "Horror is not a symptom. It's a love affair."

As Texas finally begins to trade the insufferable summer heat for the cooler weather of fall, I'm finding myself craving a good scare. I've always had a soft spot for the horror genre. There's just something about the thrill of being genuinely terrified by the words on a page that I find exhilarating. The chilled air and the promise of spooky thrills from a master horror author like Stephen Graham Jones were too much of a good thing for me to pass up when his publisher offered me a copy of his latest novel My Heart Is a Chainsaw. I was first introduced to the writing of Jones through his last novel The Only Good Indians. While I had a pretty mixed reaction to the characters in that work, I couldn't deny the ritualistic brutality of the horror. That story unsettled me in a way that still gives me chills when I think about it. Naturally, I was anticipating that this new novel would do the same. 

Being a teenager is tough. For Jade Daniels, a senior in high school, her young adulthood has been downright unbearable. Her mom left her dad many years ago, and Jade only sees her when she visits the local dollar store where her mother works. Jade lives with her father, an abusive alcoholic who spends most nights in a drunken haze reliving the glory days with his best friend. At school, things aren't much better. She's an outcast, more comfortable on her own than with any friends. It isn't like there are people lining up to befriend her anyway. Her teachers are equally uninterested. Jade is on the path to dropping out of her final year in school. It's safe to say that things are pretty terrible. 

Jade finds refuge in an unlikely source. She's obsessed with horror movies. Her encyclopedic knowledge of the genre knows no bounds, but she has taken a special fascination in those classic slashers that see a masked villain exact revenge on the place and people who did them wrong. So thorough is her knowledge that Jade has decided to submit an essay on the lurid history of her own town as a last-ditch effort to successfully graduate from high school. She narrates her own story, corroborated by a cast of eccentric locals, in the same style as the horror films she reveres. But Jade isn't prepared for what is about to come next. She's about to find herself and her town in the center of a very real horror story. 

My Heart Is a Chainsaw is a love story of sorts. Not in the traditional sense, of course, but as an ode to the kinds of slasher movies of the '70s and '80s that clearly influenced Stephen Graham Jones's affinity for the genre. I imagine that the character Jade's own reverence for those horror classics mirrors that of the author who brought her to life. Like the films that are referenced, this work balances gore and humor while driving home a deeper message around family, community, and revenge. I found Jade to really be an acquired taste. At first, she was kind of annoying, seemingly bringing much of her problems on herself. But as I got to know the character more, I was really moved by her journey through both her personal problems and the horror story that unfolded around her. At times, My Heart Is a Chainsaw slows to a crawl, especially as Jones devotes much of the middle section to character development. Fortunately, the slower parts pay off as the final act plays out in gruesome glory. Stephen Graham Jones has written a really fun novel that works as both a thrilling horror story and an homage to the films that inspired it. It was the perfect read to kick off the fall season. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 34)

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

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"He'd spent so much time trying to keep one half of himself separate from the other half, and now they were set to collide."

How do you follow up a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel? If you're Colson Whitehead, the answer is easy. You simply write another Pulitzer winner. That's what he did with his last two efforts, The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys. Each of those books told powerful stories dealing with slavery and racism, unflinching portraits of a nation's tragic history. I adored both novels, and have been not so patiently waiting for Whitehead to write something new. The hype surrounding his first Pulitzer win was massive, so you can imagine the anticipation with which the world has waited for this follow-up to his second. The fine folks at Doubleday granted me access to an advanced copy of Whitehead's latest book Harlem Shuffle. While this new work is not nearly as serious as his previous two efforts, it is nonetheless impactful. 

Ray Carney is a man between two worlds. In 1959 Harlem, everybody knows everybody. To most of the community, Ray is known as the upstanding owner of Carney's Furniture, a modest business on 125th street that sells good quality furniture at a reasonable price. It isn't much, but it's an honest living. Could things be better? Of course. Despite a decent living, money can be tight. Ray and his wife live in a small apartment that the impending birth of their second child will officially render too small. This is where the other side to Ray begins to emerge. You see, he's the son of a well-known crook, the kind of man who is completely counter to the honest businessman Ray has worked to become. Ray's struggled to carve his own path away from the shadow of his father for years, but the need for a higher cash flow is about to darken that path again. 

It begins innocently enough. Ray's cousin, Freddie, periodically shows up to the store with a random piece of jewelry. Ray doesn't ask where the items come from, but he's happy to take them off Freddie's hands. A little extra income off the books never hurts. But then Freddie begins to escalate things. He joins a group of gangsters in a plot to rob a prominent hotel and volunteers Ray to hold and sell whatever loot is gained. The heist goes off with plenty of complications that place Ray in the sight of the worst kind of people. Suddenly his quiet family business becomes the meeting place for criminals, dirty cops, and other lowlifes who call Harlem home. As the novel progresses, Ray struggles to balance the two sides of himself, the cracks between them threatening to dismantle his entire livelihood. 

Harlem Shuffle sees Colson Whitehead writing a story that places his readers directly into the heart of Harlem during the early 1960s. His descriptions of the place and people who inhabit it are as real as any of his previous characters, the kind of folks whom you could easily see passing on the streets as you visit the city. There's a lightness and sense of fun to this novel that wasn't present in his previous two works but don't let that fool you. Beneath the surface lies the kind of thoughtful commentary on race, class, and morality that readers have come to expect from this celebrated author. I hesitate to say that I enjoyed this book as much as I did other Whitehead novels. The opening portions of the book took a bit too long to establish the story for my taste. Still, the latter half of the novel had me breezing through the pages, breathlessly reading to see how the ending would play out. The uneven pace of this one is perhaps more noticeable because of the stellar plotting of Whitehead's last two books. Still, there's plenty about Harlem Shuffle to marvel at. Sometimes a great author writes a great book while other times they merely write a good book. I think that's the case with this one. It won't be my favorite book written by Colson Whitehead, but it certainly is a joy to read. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 33)

56 Days by Catherine Ryan Howard

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Take a moment to think back to the early spring of 2020. What was your life like right before the pandemic forced us all into a lockdown? I had just purchased my first home and had spent the week off of work, moving in. I returned to work and was surprised to learn that we were attempting to social distance. Up until that point, COVID was something affecting people on the other end of the world, not something we had to worry about at home. How wrong I was. A week later, everything was shut down and I was working from home, unsure of what the future would hold. 

As the pandemic went from being a short two-week lockdown to the long-term "new normal" that we've grown to live with for nearly two years, it was inevitable that this reality would find its way into books. I mean, how could an author avoid at least tangentially touching upon an event that was impacting the majority of civilization? Enter Catherine Ryan Howard and her latest thriller 56 Days. I first learned of her intent to write a "COVID thriller" as she publicized her novel The Nowhere Man during an Instagram Live interview. I was instantly drawn to her willingness to embrace the pandemic head-on. In an ultimate lemonade from lemons scenario, she was attempting to turn the uncertainness that comes with a lockdown into a thriller. As soon as her publisher offered a copy of the novel to me, I jumped at the chance to read her work. 

The novel begins innocently enough. When we first meet Ciarra and Oliver, COVID-19 isn't on anyone's mind. The couple meets at the local supermarket and instantly connects over a shared interest in space exploration. Both are new to the city and haven't really put themselves out there up until now. A first date goes well and the pair vow to meet again. Here's where things begin to get tricky. As the couple prepares for date number two, the entire country enters a lockdown. COVID is beginning to spread, so citizens are asked to quarantine with their own households, work from home, and avoid traveling for any "non-essential" needs. 

Eager to not lose the momentum of their new relationship, Ciarra and Oliver decided to proceed in an unconventional way. Rather than postpone their next meeting until after the two-week lockdown has been lifted, they decide to quarantine together. As the pair begin their time together, the truth behind their motivations begins to be revealed. Ciarra sees their quartine as a chance to truly get to know each other, find out if their love will flourish, and avoid the scrutiny of her family and friends. Oliver sees things a bit differently. While he tells Ciarra that he's locked down with her for the same reasons, he is actually keeping something from her. He knows that if Ciarra learned of his true identity, their relationship would be over in an instant. What Ciarra doesn't know can't hurt her. Or can it?

In 56 Days Catherine Ryan Howard spins the COVID pandemic into a devilishly twisted thriller that strings the reader along through paranoia-driven suspense. She employs shifting perspectives and jumps back and forth in time to slowly reveal her hand, only giving the reader a tease of the things to come with each chapter. I'm always a bit hesitant at this tactic, but Ryan Howard uses it to maximum effect. My enjoyment of the novel was probably heightened by my own connection to quarantining during the pandemic. Every time a new ripple of the COVID crisis unfolded, I was reminded of my own experience going through those same developments. As such, it will be interesting to see how the novel plays when we are further removed from that history. With a timely plot, intriguing characters, and a twist ending that I didn't see coming, 56 Days gave me everything I could have dreamed of in a COVID thriller. I hope to work my way back to The Nowhere Man soon and will be eager to read whatever Catherine Ryan Howard conjures up next. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 32)


A Promised Land by Barack Obama

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I've always had an interest in reading presidential memoirs. Even as a high school student too young to understand every nuance of Bill Clinton's My Life, I could recognize the unique perspective of his journey and the decisions he was faced with that would impact not only his personal life but the lives of those he was elected to govern. Years later, George W. Bush's Decision Points helped illuminate his response to the horrific terrorist attacks on 9/11 and the lengthy military action that followed. Politics aside, I think that we can all agree that it's a lot to ask of one person. Every four years the weight of the entire country is set upon the shoulders of a single American. They are elected to guide the nation through whatever challenges and hardships arise, all while we look on and judge every move they make. 

If every President faces immense challenges and scrutiny, then the historical presidency of Barack Obama faced that tenfold. In his memoir A Promised Land, Obama chronicles his unlikely rise through community organizing and local politics to becoming the first African American to be elected President of the United States. He candidly recaps the great responsibility that comes with running a country, never shying away from the toll that obligation took on him. Intermingled with the sprawling geopolitical recollections are those of the quiet in-between moments of a man and his family. It is these moments, the kind that the public only glimpsed as he served, that makes Obama's memoir one of the most personal political writings that I've ever read. 

By all conventional wisdom, Barack Hussein Obama should have never become the President of the United States of America. Born from a biracial couple and bearing a name so different from those of his predecessors, his path to the White House is as unique as he is. He spent much of his early years in search of an identity. Guided by the idyllic vision of his mother and the more practical outlook of his grandparents, Barack gained a worldview of working hard and doing what is right for himself and others. This would form the foundation of his personal and political ideals and propel him to a life of public service. 

The lead-up to his election was nothing short of spectacular. Running in a crowded Democratic primary against the juggernaut front runner Hillary Clinton, Obama's grassroots approach to running a campaign was seen as a huge gamble. But his methods paid off.  He seemed to capture the enthusiasm of those he met, exciting record numbers of Americans to turn out to vote. His candidacy wasn't without its detractors, especially from the other side of the political aisle. While John McCain always came to the defense of Obama against the most heinous of personal attacks, a fired-up Republican Tea Party was out for blood, foreshadowing the political divisiveness that would cloud much of Obama's eight years in office. 

Even before his presidency began, Obama was faced with some of the greatest challenges of any American President. The country was on the verge of economic collapse, leaving millions of Americans jobless and in financial ruin. A bipartisan stimulus deal helped to turn the tides, but recovery would be a long and strenuous process that would slowly take place across his first term. And what a term it was. Ambitious initiatives around diplomacy, healthcare, and climate change were all undertaken as Obama also faced the challenges of unexpected political moments like the Deepwater Horizon tragedy and the military operation that would lead to the death of Osama bin Laden.

Barack Obama has always had a way with words, and the first volume of his presidential memoirs is no exception. A Promised Land sees the former president thoughtfully reflect upon the run-up to and the duration of his first term in office. I was struck by the huge aspiration that Obama approached his presidency with. And with good measure. He ran a campaign built upon hope and change, and a majority of the American population placed their confidence in him to deliver it. When he arrived in the Oval Office, he was faced with the reality that achieving everything he promised wouldn't be without challenges and opposition. He writes about the self-doubt that comes with trying to run the country in a way that aligns with his morals and those of the people who elected him. The book is wordy. Obama takes his time describing the details of each historical moment, giving due course to all of his decisions. Unlike other political memoirs, however, I never felt that the wordiness bogged down the writing. In fact, it only further added to my appreciation for the depth and care with which Obama devoted to his time in office. Whatever your opinions of his politics, I think that there is great value in reading a memoir like this one. A Promised Land brilliantly illustrates Barack Obama's devotion to family, country, and the American dream. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 31)

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