Review: Quiet Until the Thaw

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Review for "Quiet Until the Thaw" by Alexandra Fuller (2017)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I went into this book fully aware of the controversy around it, a story about a pair of Oglala boys on a Lakota reservation written by White British woman raised in colonial Africa. I was curious about this novel because I wanted to answer a very important question for myself: does a writer have to be a member of a race or culture in order successfully write about its traumas?  I already answered this question somewhat in my last review with Edna O’Brien’s Girl, a historically based novel about the plight of 276 Nigerian girls kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram in 2014. Although O’Brien is a White Irish woman, I felt that her knowledge of the sensitivities of her subjects were appropriate, given the long, racist history of African colonialism. However, I wanted to take my consideration of this question a step further. It’s apparent that White writers can write about the traumas of people of color, but when does it become exploitative? When has the line of cultural appropriation been crossed? I had this debate with students in my children’s lit class, and I think there are important arguments to be made on both sides.

Hence, I read this book. In the back, the author, Alexandra Fuller, mentions a visit that she made to the Pine Ridge reservation in 2011 to commemorate the murder of Crazy Horse. Being on the reservation, she writes, was like an “unexpected homecoming.”

Well alrighty then…

Anyway, “Quiet Until the Thaw” is the story of two Lakota boys growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in the 1960’s and follows them over the course of the next 30 years of their lives. Orphaned at birth and raised by the town midwife, Rick Overlooking Horse speaks few words. As a young man he is sent to the Vietnam War, where he suffers a devastating injury from a friendly fire napalm bomb. He comes home and builds a teepee on empty land and resigns himself to a quiet life as a farmer. You Choose Watson, the other boy, becomes a rageful man, leaving home to dabble in drugs and odd jobs before returning to the reservation, rising to the level of tribal chief elder. Once in power, he uses his political position to pilfer funds and terrorize the residents, leading to a terrifying standoff with the U.S. government. You Choose is sent to prison, yet his rage continues into another generation.

This book is not a conventional novel, it’s more of a series of vignettes. The chapters are short and language is spare. While most of the book focuses on the characters, other parts cover the struggles of an oppressed people through incidences like the 1492 conquest, Disneyland, and so on. Although this inclusion is thoughtful, I think that Alexandra Fuller is misguided here. There’s tons of annoying Indigenous/Native American stereotypes in the book, such as the “noble” savage, the smoking Indian, the lazy Indian, the drunk Indian. They all go to boarding schools, bear children afflicted with fetal alcohol syndrome, live in “tar paper lean-tos,” and, when in a group, are referred to namelessly with empty titles as “Extended Relations.” Worst yet, the Native people in this book put up racial degradation, such as being called “Red Nigger” and “Diesel Engine” by White characters. It’s also peppered with Lakota words, which I wonder are even translatable given the context in which Fuller is using them.

I hate to dismiss this book but I’m afraid I have to here. The abject poverty and hopelessness of the people is written about reverently, as if it is unconnected to 500 years of racist genocide that preceded it. And speaking of genocide, the author treats this as a romantic notion, much in the same fashion as ridiculous movies as Dances with Wolves or some other outdated Western novel.

Does Alexandra Fuller have any idea about the inner lives of Native/Indigenous people? I get that she lived “on the rez” for three months, but there’s quite a few very good Native American writers out there that have exclusive rights to this narrative and I would rather hear it from them directly. As a White woman born and raised in a colonized and oppressed country as a member of a privileged class due to her Whiteness, I don’t feel that Fuller has any right to this story.

Cultural appropriation, theft, stealing, or whatever the hell you want to call it is here to the umpteenth degree.

Review: Internment

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Review for "Internment" by Samira Ahmed (2019)

Rating: None (DNF)

Not going to rate this because I DNF’d this one, right at about 30%.

“Fifteen minutes into the future,” Muslim-American teenager Layla finds herself in an internment camp in the desert of California, placed with her family there after an Islamophobic president (sound familiar?) enacts an Exclusion Law, prompting the government to round up Muslims and relocate them. It’s pretty horrifying but feels achingly real in today’s climate: neighbors turning on other neighbors, the government pursuing those who resist. Layla and her family are taken to a dusty outpost in the California desert and treated not much better than animals. Despite the harsh reality of the camps and the danger of escape, Layla begins to plot how to take down the system for good.

The idea behind this book is excellent, exactly why it immediately found its way on my TBR list. But the execution, MY LORD…

For one, let’s talk about the universe of this novel. We’re told this story occurs “15 minutes” in a not so distant future, but there is no build up or explanation of how we got here. The author assumes we get it, but I’m sorry–all of us don’t. The premise is heavily based on the Japanese internment of WW2, but the author makes the assumption that her readers have a detailed understanding of these events. Even if the topic is contemporary, worlds still must be built up, a reader needs to feel as if they’re a part of it. I didn’t get this at all here. There’s no effort to familiarize or explore the background, just a small info dump and then bam….we’re in the camp with Layla.

Two: the characters. There’s not much to Layla’s voice. She hates the camp, she disagrees with her docile parents, she thinks about her boyfriend a lot. Granted I didn’t finish it, but with this basic info–why would I want to? The guards and the director of the camp yell and pound their fists and drag people away like your typical stock bad guys. There’s a lot of telling here and very little showing, I wasn’t compelled and I wasn’t convinced.

Overall, great idea but not executed with a whole lot of care and consideration.

Review: Ghost Wall

Ahhh, I know it’s been a while. Forgive me for my lack of updates. It is almost the end of the spring semester, so my dissertation and scheduled presentations have been taking up most of my reading time. Updates may be a bit slow until mid-May.

Anywho, I do have a quick book review for you guys. Sorry it’s not a good one, but you know me. 🙂

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Review for "Ghost Wall" by Sarah Moss (2019)

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Nah, I didn’t really like this. Thank God it was short.

Teenage Silvie and her Mom and Dad are a part of an experimental anthropology course that involves spending several weeks in the forests of a remote part of north England, living as if they were people during the Iron Age. They make tools, forage for food, wear antiquated clothing, and sleep in huts, just as if they were people from that ancient time period. With an abusive father and a mother that acquiesces to his will, Silvie is more of a hanger-on to this bizarre anthropological experiment.

During their time in the forest, Silvie meets a young woman named Molly, student in the class. She challenges Silvie to question her life, including why they are participating in the experiment. As the story moves forward, it is quite clear that there’s some very sinister, weird shit going in Silvie’s dad’s ‘lil Iron Age LARP adventure…

What bothered me the most about this book is that even though the plot sounded good on paper, the writing and the characters really weren’t all that engaging. You know from the first 3 pages that there is something ominous that is going to happen to these role-players, you’re just not sure what. The suspense is drawn out through most of the book (thankfully it’s short) but by the time the end arrives it’s nothing that you haven’t predicted already. The style was also an issue–with no punctuation and few line breaks, much of the novel runs together in huge paragraphs, a slog to read.

Somebody out there will appreciate this–it just wasn’t me.

Review: Ohio

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Review for "Ohio" by Stephen Markley (2018)
Rating: none (DNF)

D to the N to the F. I repeat: DNF. Somewhere around 50%, I gave up.

This is a drag of a novel about 4 high school acquaintances all coming back to their economically stagnated, drug-ravaged hometown of New Canaan, Ohio on a random night, 10 years after graduation. All of the friends have taken different paths: Bill is an alcoholic and a druggie social activist, Stacey is an embittered graduate student coming back to meet with the mother of her ex-lover, Dan is an emotionally shattered Iraq War veteran, and Tina, an abused, fragile girl coming back to confront her abuser.

This book wasn’t good. It’s way overwritten, an absolute slog to read through. Each of the main 4 characters accounts is about a quarter of the book, which is way too long and relies heavily on flashbacks to high school. In addition to the sheer tedium of the characters’ reminiscing about events of their past so much and so often (obviously designed to reveal current plot points in the book), you wonder why all of these adults are so obsessed with their high school years anyway, something that I couldn’t relate to and what ultimately made this novel one great big eye-roll.

I didn’t stay for the Big Dramatic Conclusion because honestly I didn’t care. Perhaps this was supposed to be some kind of epic statement on the fall of the working class after the Great Recession of 2008, but this book brings no nuance, nothing new or really interesting to the table. There’s nothing here in “Ohio” that we haven’t already seen in a news report or read before.

I don’t recommend this. No stars.

Review: Katerina

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Review for "Katerina" by James Frey (2018)
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

NO NO NO NO NO NO….*slams book on the table with each successive NO*

This book’s terrible. It reads like a bad Tumblr poetry, awful teen fan fiction. Choppy lines, run on sentences, and magnetic poetry kit lines masquerading as style. “Katerina” is the story of Jay, a whiny brat of a dude who goes to live in Paris in the 90’s. All he does in the City of Lights is eat bread, get drunk, vomit, snort coke, sleep, have sex, and share his opinions on the superiority of French culture and art, which I really don’t care about. Somewhere in the middle of all this he tries to establish himself as a writer, though I don’t care about this either. He falls in love with a Norwegian model named Katerina, who is equally as shallow and as horny as Jay is. We suffer through dozens of their awkwardly written sex scenes (trust me, they’re not titillating at all) until they finally have enough of each other and break up. Jay returns to America shortly thereafter and starts smoking crack.

Fast forward to present day and Jay is a nouveau-riche writer and still a douchebag. He is married and making tons of money writing, though he hates himself for doing so. He’s contacted by Katerina and they begin chatting online. The present-day scenes are interpersed throughout the text with ones from the past, and are eerily reminiscent of his James Frey’s current life, including his “Million Little Pieces” controversy. For the third time, I don’t care about this. I’ve never read his first book and never will. I do care about how bad this book is though. Ugh.

Every now and then the book manages to say something interesting, but most of it is so ridiculously shallow and self-indulgent it’s not impossible to wonder how it managed to get published, though the author’s notoriety is probably a good reason. Anyway, skip this. Please.

Review: Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America

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Review for "Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America" by Linda Tirado (2014) 
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Ladies and gentlemen: this is a long review. I also have a potty mouth. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I wanted to read this book all the way through but I just couldn’t. I did finish it (thank God it’s short), but skimmed through most of it. I’ve never read a book in which the author’s tone is so negative, angry to the point where the arguments they are attempting to make are almost laughable because its obvious that they’re affected by their emotions. I got this over as quickly as possible.

Linda Tirado was an average “poor” person on the internet one evening when she came across a message board where a poster asked why poor people make bad choices (smoking, drinking, having children they cannot afford). She responded to the poster in a strongly-worded diatribe on why life is hard for poor people. Her post went viral and apparently she started a GoFundMe account and raised $60k. She promptly went on a Vegas vacation got herself a book deal.

In “Hand to Mouth,” Tirado takes us on a kind of “tour” of what it means to be poor. In the introduction, she breaks down poverty as “when a quarter is a miracle,” poor as “when a dollar is a miracle,” working class as “being broke, but in a place that’s not broke down,” and “middle class” as “being able to own some toys and to live in a nice place–no leased furniture.” “Rich,” according to Tirado, is anything above this.

[Pause]

From this page forward I knew that this individual was completely insane, but I decided to give her a chance.

Anyway, I call BS on this book for the following reasons:

— Despite the “poor-middle class-working class-poverty” distinction Tirado makes in the intro, she spends the entire book only talking about two types of people–rich and poor. If she’s just going to speak in a dichotomy, then her definitions are meaningless, because by doing so everyone who is not rich is, in her own view, “poor.” In applying the term “poor” to such a large swath of the population, she falsely attributes the same attitudes she has to everyone who is not rich. This is a classic logical fallacy. It is also simply not true, and it permeates the whole book.

— Tirado was going to college, but admits that she dropped out because, financially, she “didn’t think it would amount to anything.” While I’m not one of those snooty folk who believe college is for everyone (it’s not), I am curious to why the author did this with no apparent backup plan for a career. She also does not bother to learn a marketable trade or skill (i.e., paralegal, nursing, auto mechanic) in the place of college. Instead, after dropping out, she complains to us about working a series of low paying jobs that she hates. With no advanced degree or training, how then, can she expect better than low-paying work? Does she seriously expect, by stroke of luck, to land a job making $25 an hour despite not having demonstrated any kind of skill to do it? I’m a bit confused with her logic here.

— Tirado also admits that she was mediocre at several of the jobs she’s held, even screaming at her boss once because she was stressed and has “anger issues.” Putting anger issues aside, I am not sure what “being poor” has to do with simply being a bad employee. The “poverty” she’s referring to here seems to be one of the spirit.

— The author also attributes every unfortunate thing in her life to “poor” financial circumstances. Her lawn is shitty because she can’t pay someone to fix it. There’s tires in her grass because she can’t pay someone to haul them away. She can’t land a nice secretarial job because she’s poor and not pretty. She doesn’t want to open a bank account because they take a monthly fee, and she’s poor. There’s roaches at her house because, well, she’s poor. At some point you wonder where a sense of personal responsibility sets in, or the strength and amazing resilience of people like my grandparents (who, trust me, were dirt poor, Black, and living on a cotton field in the Mississippi Delta) and still managed to keep a clean house, a nice lawn, arrive on time to maintain stable jobs, and raise 10 law-abiding children in the process. Yes poor people are poor, but they still thrive. They find meaning in their lives, they get out of bed in the morning and yes, they manage to keep up a decent looking lawn. Fuck that.

— Makes no point at all about race and/or privilege. Despite how “poor” Tirado claims to be, her being White still gives her a privileged existence over many minorities who could write this same story. At least she doesn’t live in the projects, or live in a violent, gang-infested neighborhood. At least she speaks English. At least she is a documented U.S. citizen, and doesn’t have to deal with the fear of being deported every time she leaves her house. At least her and her husband don’t have a juvenile criminal record which would prevent gainful employment. At least she doesn’t have a physical disability or a severe mental illness that completely prevents her employment. I could go on and on, yet she mentions nothing of the fact that even she has it a lot better than some because of the systemic racism and discrimination that privileges Whites and able-bodied individuals over minorities.

Now Tirado does make some points that I agree with:
— Yes, universal health care is needed.
— Yes, the myth of meritocracy (the idea that anyone can be rich, all they have to do is try hard; as well as the idea that if one is not rich, they did not try hard enough) is very real and is still very much bullshit.
— No, we shouldn’t judge poor people’s decisions to have children. We may not like the fact that a poor woman has more kids than we’d prefer, but that’s not my decision to make.
— I also agree that poor people aren’t the only ones who get hand outs from the government (bail outs and corporate tax cuts are the wealthy person’s welfare).
— No, rich people should not look down upon people in service industries (cooks, washers, retail workers, food service).

But this book is simply too angry, too simplistic, and far too emotional in its tone to be taken seriously. I don’t advise reading it.

Review: The Grip of It

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Review for "The Grip of It" by Jac Jemc (2017)

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

This book is the cliche of all cliches: the Haunted House. Of course I was aware of this before proceeding, because who knows, perhaps there was Something New in these pages, a grand twist on The Oldest Plot Known to Man. Needless to say, I was grandly disappointed. Not only is there nothing added to this classic genre that’s worthy of note, there’s really nothing here at all.

James and Julie are a pair of married yuppies who move out of the city and into the perfect country house. There’s a small beach nearby, room for a garden, surrounded by quiet woods, and to top it all off–the house is practically a steal. Immediately after they move in they notice strange things–ominous breathing sounds, secret passageways, child-like drawings on the walls, an old journal with indecipherable writing. Julie develops strange bruises all over her body. Their creepy old man neighbor can’t stop watching them from across the street. I have to admit that I did get swept up in the weirdness of this tale, because the occurrences are never really explained. Are they really experiencing something supernatural? Or is it just a dream?

But anyway, that’s where the enjoyment of this book ended. The story is told in short, alternating chapters of the POVs of Julie and James. There is very little discernible difference between the voices of the two. There were many times where I had to stop, flip back a few pages, and figure out who was speaking. There are also long passages where the characters’ actions run on and on and nothing’s really gained as far as knowledge to what’s going on.

And oh yeah, the writing…I didn’t like that either. The tone here was too objective, too matter of fact, and far too emotionally detached. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this kind of storytelling, but I don’t think it fit this narrative. There are no real thoughts or emotions given with either character, it’s just a kinda hmmm…there’s drawings on the wall we didn’t put there and the other’s nod of agreement. It’s weird.

The horror here is rather PG too. At no point in this book was I even remotely scared (pronunciation: “scurred”). I was just weirded out, counting the pages left, and wondering when it would be over with.