Review: The Mars Room

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Review for "The Mars Room" by Rachel Kushner (2018)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

It took me almost a month to read this book. Based on its glowing reviews and my initial enthusiasm when I first picked it up, this should have been a book that I breezed right through. It wasn’t.

“The Mars Room” opens with the story of Romy Hall, a single mother shackled on a bus and headed to a remote women’s prison in California to begin two life sentences without parole. In the time before, we learn that her young life was full of trauma and neglect–drugs, hustling, and working as a dancer at a strip club that bears the book’s title, The Mars Room. The novel begins with details of Romy’s adjustment to prison life, the harsh conditions of confinement, and the connections she makes on the inside. Interspersed with Romy’s narrative are the stories of other characters in the facility and beyond: Sammy, her cell mate, Gordon, a teacher in the prison who falls for Romy, Doc, a crooked cop in a separate facility that’s loosely connected to the story’s events, and at last, Kurt, Romy’s victim.

The story started out well, but as it continued I found it harder and harder to engage with. Romy, in my opinion, was far too distant and aloof. There is a sense of empathy that you feel for Romy’s circumstances, but nothing was felt as far as a personal connection to her. The other perspectives fare no better—they absentmindedly jump around between first and third pov’s in short, vignette-style chapters. Also problematic was the reason behind the inclusion of several of them–Doc, for instance (as I mentioned before, he is only loosely connected to the events of the story). There are also excerpts from Ted Kaczynski’s diary, lengthy quotes from Henry David Thoreau. I’m still not sure what either of those perspectives were doing here.

There are also plot events that were so predictable that I knew how they would play out before even starting the book. Beyond setting up the basics of the story, nothing significant seems to really happen until the end and by then it’s too much, too late.

And finally…I know that women in prison make great stories, but it bothers me that this novel really doesn’t break any new ground here. What I’m saying is that there really isn’t anything in this book that we haven’t heard or seen already that hasn’t appeared in an episode of “Orange is the New Black.” What, then, is the point of this novel? If it is to stress how women on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale end up incarcerated, then we are already well familiar with this through investigative reporting on this issue, OITNB, and a multitude of other books out there. If it is to make a larger point beyond this (hence the inclusion of Kaczynski and Thoreau), then count me among those that simply didn’t get “it.”

Overall, I think that “The Mars Room” is a book with a lot of potential but doesn’t really have anything new to say.

I rate this as 3 stars, and that’s being more than nice.

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Review: How to Love a Jamaican

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Review for "How to Love a Jamaican" by Alexia Arthurs (2018)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

“How to Love a Jamaican” is an engaging collection of eleven short stories from debut author Alexia Arthurs. These are not your “typical” immigrant stories, however. Arthurs is not afraid to delve deeply into the lives of her characters and discuss complex issues of sex, class, and race both in Jamaica and within the lives of Jamaicans living in America.

All of these stories are about Jamaicans and cover a wide variety of their lives–male and female, straight and gay, old, young, and middle aged, on the island and in America. The characters are not linked, but this is definitely a cohesive collection of stories. In “Mash Up Love,” a set of identical male twins vie for the attention of their mother and loved ones. “The Ghost of Jia Yi” is about a young college student’s adjustment to America and her realization that she is an outsider. “Light Skinned Girls and Some Kelly Rowlands” is about the class conflicts within a friendship between two college girls, one Jamaican born, the other U.S. born with Jamaican born parents. “Bad Behavior” is about a free-spirited teenage girl sent to the island for disobeying her parents, with the hope that her stern Jamaican grandmother will ‘straighten’ out her wayward behavior. I also liked “Shirley from a Small Place,” about a Jamaican American pop star who finds international success and deals with the pitfalls of fame.

It’s hard to choose a favorite story here, I really liked every single selection. Even though the stories share similar themes, there were no repeats and not a single word was wasted.

4.5 stars. I will definitely read the next thing that Alexia Arthurs writes.

[NOTE: An electronic copy of this book was provided by the publisher and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Top Five Book Moments

Ahh, memories. This is a good topic this week…

Certain books will always remind you of the past and the time period of your life you were in when you read it. I’ve listed a few that make me a bit nostalgic for that special moment.

Top Five Books That Are Linked to Special Moments in My Life

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Frog and Toad Are Friends – Arnold Lobel
This is one of the very first books I remember reading when I was a kid.
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“I Can’t,” Said the Ant – Polly Cameron
Another book that makes me misty-eyed. I remember my Dad used to read this book to me and my younger sister every night before we went to bed. He used to do different voices for each character, and we both thought that was the greatest thing in the world.
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Hamlet – William Shakespeare
Hamlet has always been my favorite Shakespeare play, ever since I read it in high school. I remember reading this out loud when I was pregnant with my son, hoping he would “hear” it and the words would soothe him during the evenings when he would kick me like crazy. He is now a teenager and he loves to read, so I think that this book was an excellent choice.
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Ariel – Sylvia Plath
I first came to know about Plath when I was in 7th grade. I remember reading one of her poems (ironically entitled “Spinster”) and at that moment being really, really moved by it. I went to the library and looked up some of her other poems, and from there it became an obsession. I did my undergraduate thesis on Sylvia Plath. I’m very proud of that work.
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The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison’s first book. This was the book that truly “awakened” me to the world of Black literature (before this point my reading was mostly White/European authors) and women’s literature. I read this book and thought: this is what I want to read and write about for the rest of my life. And it’s still the topic that I’m writing about today.
The ID Channel calls,
Kellan

Review: Animals Eat Each Other

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Review for "Animals Eat Each Other" by Elle Nash (2018)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Ok, I’ll admit it…the intriguing title–“Animals Eat Each Other”–of this book pulled me in. There is no animal on the cover, only a mirrored, vintage 1970’s style photo of a smiling woman. So I picked this up and read it, having never heard before of the author, Elle Nash. About 10 pages in, I realized that I was reading something quite special. Needless to say, I loved every moment of this book.

The unnamed 19-year-old narrator lives with her mother and works at a Radio Shack. She spends her extra time consuming Robitussin, taking her mom’s Percocets, and having empty, loveless sex with the people around her to boost her self-esteem. She is self-destructive and knows this, her narrative never condemns or denies this fact. The main character’s self-hate and need for physical and emotional pain lead her into becoming involved in a three-way sadomasochistic relationship with a man named Matt and his girlfriend, Frankie. Immediately we know that three is a crowd here, and it isn’t going to end well. The ‘darkness’ of the situation does not stop the narrator, who becomes obsessed with Matt and her behavior spirals further downward out of control.

What I loved about this book most was its sense of rawness and its lack of shame. You feel what the main character feels with her body, and it’s OK. I think this book speaks to where a lot of young women (me included) find themselves in their 20’s: passionate, energetic, vulnerable, and driven by a deep need to be desired. It is this vulnerability that takes the narrator to dark places, which she does not resist. There is a kind of madness in human attraction, pleasure in pain.

This novel is careful not to preach or moralize. It is not a cautionary tale. You’re not told what to do when you finish it. When I got to the last page I just let out a breath because…well, because. Immediately I wished this had been longer, but then again I think the short length here (120 pages) is appropriate because the narrator’s self-loathing is quite intense. As much as I loved this, this book is a dark, dark place. The author’s choice to get in there, tell the story in as few pages as possible, and move on is a good one.

The transgressive stuff in this book will turn off some readers (lots and lots of sex, drugs, Satanism) but these are not the ones who this book is for. I definitely recommend this if you are into darker stories that explore human nature and relationships.

Review: A Lucky Man

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Review for "A Lucky Man" by Jamel Brinkley (2018)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is one of the most profound short story collections I’ve read over the past few years. I say that with no hesitation, because let’s face it–most short story offerings these days ain’t that good, unevenly written at best. Very rarely are ALL of the stories in a collection readable and relatable pieces of literature. “A Lucky Man” is one of the few exceptions.

In this volume are nine stories, all featuring Black men and boys in the Bronx who are dealing with life and its societal pressures. There is a focus on masculinity here, specifically Black masculinity–how Black men view the women in their lives, their families, and how they justify their behavior toward them. There are definitely depictions of unhealthy relationships here, but it’s not just sexism on display. The nuances of what it means to be a Black man are explored here in a variety of different settings: in some cases, the choice to reject traditional “male” behavior has disastrous consequences, but in others, the character finds peace.

The powerful story “J’ouvert 1996” was my favorite in this collection, which tells the story of a young boy’s coming of age during an all-night street festival. “Everything the Mouth Eats” is the tale of two brothers’ healing of the past during a capoeira festival. “A Family” is about one man’s quest to come to terms with his actions, many years after a terrible act. “A Lucky Man” is an interesting exploration of public spaces and male desire.

Overall, this is a beautiful collection of tales. It is hard to believe that this is Jamel Brinkley’s first book, he writes with a talent that is rare and unique. I look forward to any future writing projects he has. Definitely recommend!

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Novellas/Short Stories

Ok, ok…before I begin Top Ten Tuesday, the weekly meme by That Artsy Reader Girl, I have to confess to you guys that I’m a bit biased, as my choices for favorite short stories are a bit old-fashioned. Even though I read short stories and novellas all the time, I just don’t think anything comes really close to classics. Also keep in mind that I used to be a middle school teacher, so naturally a lot of classic stories pop up in kid’s textbooks. When you’ve read something umpteen times over the years, you can quote it with your eyes closed. Naturally you grow to like it too.

  1. “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson – A small town’s terrifying ritual gone amok. I used to teach this story to my 7th grade students and pass out a small slip of folded paper with an ‘X’ on it to illustrate the plot.
  2. “Patriotism” by Yukio Mishima – Japanese writer’s story about a man and his wife committing seppuku (ritual suicide) in response to a military defeat. Strangely beautiful and mad deep.
  3. “The Tell Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe – Another story I used to teach to my students. They used to love this!
  4. “Wild Child” by T.C. Boyle – Historical fiction account of Victor of Aveyron, the first documented “feral” child, in 1800’s France.
  5. “1922” by Stephen King – Greed and betrayal and rats. The Netflix movie was pretty close to the novella, thankfully.
  6. “Thank You, Ma’am” by Langston Hughes – A little boy gets more he bargained for when he tries to snatch a woman’s purse.
  7. “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant – Another one in my 7th grade curriculum about fakery and the power of an authentic life. There’s a twist at the end that always gets me, every time.
  8. “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Magical realism to tell a satirical tale about ignorance vs. power of freedom, or flight.
  9. “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin – Story about a woman who loses her husband, then gains him back, and then dies–all within an hour. Powerful feminist message here too.
  10. “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury – Science fiction story about a class of students on Venus, where it rains constantly and the sun comes out for only one hour every seven years. My 6th graders used to like this one–lots.

xoxo, Kellan

Review: There There

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Review for "There There" by Tommy Orange (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Here’s a fact about me: whenever I see a book by a Native American author other than Sherman Alexie winning loads of critical praise, I’m going to read it. Tommy Orange’s There There is one such book–much praise, reviews in major publications. I reserved it months back and finally jumped on it when my copy came up on reserve at the library. I read this in about 4 sittings over a 4 day period.

There There is a unique narrative in that it explores a group that has never really been given a voice–urban Native Americans. In this novel, the characters come from various tribes and live in and around the city of Oakland, California. Orange writes about their search for identity and explores the ‘old’ problems that surround this community (alcoholism, domestic violence), as well as modern ones (cultural appropriation, loss of traditions, etc). The author uses an ensemble approach, telling the interconnected stories of various attendees headed to a local powwow.

Unfortunately though, this is a book loaded with problems. For one, there are about a dozen different perspectives in this book. Even though the same characters are visited over and over again leading up to the powwow, I felt there were far too many perspectives, too many voices here to keep up with. I kept having to look back at other sections to remember who was talking, and at about 50% into the book I gave up trying to connect all of the dots. You never really get to know any of these people before their 8-10 pages is over and it’s on again to another person. I would have much rather the author focused on less people and fully fleshed out his characters more.

Also, I didn’t feel the writing was anything to write home about. The dialogue was bland, the descriptions too stripped back. A lot of telling, as my creative writing teachers would say, and not enough showing. In many places, a person’s entire life was contained within less than 5 paragraphs. It seemed too rushed, like a false start. In other places the writing was mad awkward, like the two times we’re told that a character has his head “on a swivel.” (*eyeroll*)

The ending is anti-climatic and the book simply just…ends. It’s weird. We’re never told what happens to any of the characters. I just turned a page near the end, and that was it.

Strangely, the prologue to this book was quite beautiful. It’s a thoughtful meditation about the attempted genocide of indigenous people, told historically and figuratively through the motif of the infamous Indian-head test tv pattern. I was kinda disappointed when this part was over, ’cause I could have read this for another 50 pages. It’s never OK when the prologue is better than the story, but I’ll digress here.

As much as I didn’t really care for this book, I won’t go lower than 4 stars. There is a story here, somewhere in the rubble of all of this. I respect what Tommy Orange is attempting to do by giving us an alternate perspective of Native American life that’s outside of the images of dusty reservations and old stereotypes. I just don’t think this was executed well. This is his first book, however, so the structural issues are forgivable.

I definitely recommend this book, perhaps you’ll like it more than I did.