The Sellout

This book was just what the doctor ordered. I started reading it while I was stuck in a car line to get into a festival in Oregon for 12 hours (no, I am not exaggerating) to help keep myself from losing my mind. I had heard about it after the author was last year named the first American ever to win the Man Booker prize. I was blown away by the novel’s beginning and I have a keen memory of sitting in that car seat shrieking every few pages. Then, after we finally made it into the festival and wasted a day moving campsites, the following night I became very ill and was tent-bound for two days. This book was my absolute solace. I needed an excellent book to get me through and when my eReader froze just as started getting better, I almost lost it.

The Sellout

“The Sellout” by Paul Beatty is a satirical novel about race relations in the USA. The narrator, who is never given a first name, is a quiet young African American man who lives in a fictional Los Angeles town called Dickens. Despite wanting to live an understated life as a farmer, after he loses his father, an experimental sociologist who used his son own as a test subject, the narrator finally finds himself faced with the racial discrimination his father always lectured him about. However it is the final straw of Dickens’ erasure from the map that sets off a chain of events resulting in the narrator appearing before the USA Supreme Court accused of crimes against humanity.

This book, without a doubt, is the best book I have read this year so far. Beatty is an absolute master of the craft and every sentence in this book is full of double entendres, socio-political references and neologisms. I think my eyes were almost falling out of my head the entire time I was reading this, and it is definitely not a book that you can skim through. This book demands your full attention and the rewards are instantaneous. I don’t really want to say too much more about the plot because I really think it’s best to go cold, but it is really is exquisite in its audacity. However as outrageous as the premise is, as a modern social commentary it is bang on the mark and blistering in its honesty.

Although it has been some weeks since I finished it, I am still thinking about this book. It’s hard work, and I think that you have to be pretty up to date to get all the references (there were a couple that went over my head as a non-American), but it is a brilliant read. I truly think this is going to become a modern classic and I can’t wait until I can read it again for a second time.

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Homegoing

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog bookshop, and I was very keen to read it. This is the third book I read on my five weeks of American literature, and I read it while I was travelling through California and managed to finish it just on my last day in San Francisco – a city that features in one of the chapters. I took this photo while I was staying in a friend’s apartment in one of the beautiful old San Francisco buildings.

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“Homegoing” is the debut novel of Yaa Gyasi. The story is a two-pronged family saga on either side of the ugly history of slavery in what now is Ghana. Each chapter is dedicated to a member of the respective families of Effia, a Fante woman who is married to an English governor and whose descendants remain in Ghana, and Esi, an Asante teenager who is captured and sold as a slave to the Americas. Joined both by their past and their future, Effia and Esi’s story unfolds over successive generations.

This novel is a really interesting exploration of the role of African nations and state warfare in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, in particular during the 1700s, a role that I really did not know about at all. Gyasi uses her novel to contrast the lasting impacts of slavery against the lasting impacts of European colonisation in Ghana: two very different sides of the same coin. While Effia’s descendants grapple with their role in perpetuating slavery and later in overcoming British rule, Esi’s descendants must survive slavery and later segregation and institutionalised racism.

Gyasi is a very tactile writer and this book has a strong focus on the senses and the body. The African chapters in particular give a very keen sense of place, time and people. This is part of the reason why I felt that the African chapters are much stronger than the American chapters. I also felt that despite some of them living in extreme poverty, Effia’s descendants seem to have rather more self-determination than their American counterparts and I felt like their personalities were far more nuanced and individualised. In contrast, Esi’s family line seem a little more like caricatures and, although character development within a single chapter is understandably a difficult feat, they seem much more rigid. I think if you were after a more engrossing family saga just about race in America and moving through slavery to segregation to today, I would probably recommend “Cane River” over this one.

However, the historical importance of the story as a whole and the contrast between the two family lines does work quite well. Although the changing chapters can be a bit jarring at times, it is nevertheless a fascinating story and Gyasi is a strong enough writer to link all the complex threads together by the end.

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13 Reasons Why

Content warning: suicide, bullying, sexual violence.

Unusually, I watched the TV adaptation of this book before I read it. It had caused quite a stir for Netflix, who was criticised quite soundly both for the portrayal of suicide and the failure to provide adequate warnings or support information. This in itself has raised a lot of questions about the responsibility streaming services have to their viewers, and more broadly about the regulation of streaming services as a whole. However, I digress. This is a blog about books, and it actually wasn’t until I had started watching the TV series that I realised that it was based on a book. I managed to wangle a copy, and it was the second book I read on my five weeks of American literature. I cracked it out and finished it before I even landed in California. Considering yesterday was R U OK Day, I think this is a really good book to review. Unfortunately, I forgot to take a photograph of it before I eventually gave it away to the San Clemente Friends of the Library bookstore. You’ll just have to make do with the photo I did take instead.

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“13 Reasons Why”, or “Thirteen Reasons Why” as it was originally published, by Jay Asher is a young adult novel about a girl called Hannah who has committed suicide. Shortly afterwards, Clay, who was one of her classmates finds a parcel addressed to him containing 13 cassette tapes. As soon as he begins to listen to them, he realises that the tapes were made by Hannah shortly before she died and that each tape represents a ‘reason’ why she decided to commit suicide. As the book progresses, more is revealed about Hannah, her relationships and the way she was treated by her classmates in school.

Reading this book after watching the TV series was like looking at a sketch after seeing the finished artwork. Asher has the bones of this story down and it has a lot of important messages about mental health, bullying, consent and the responsibility teens have to one another. I think he captured the nuance, fragility and complexity of teenage relationships well and really contrasted the power teens already have to deeply impact each other’s lives against their inability yet to fully deal with the consequences. It’s a sparsely but powerfully written book, with a lot of focus on Hannah’s narration through her tapes and conversations that had happened in the past.

Without wanting to compare it too much to the TV adaptation, I do think all the layers added to the story by the Netflix series really gave it a lot of extra depth. Things that weren’t connected became connected. Clay’s own mental state got much more of a spotlight. The impact of Hannah’s suicide on her classmates became more pronounced. However, not all of the changes were necessarily positive ones. The Netflix series is very flashy, and a lot of the choices felt like they added to the drama or the cinematography rather than the underlying messasge. This includes the method by which Hannah commits suicide. Where in the book it’s mentioned offhand that she used pills, in the TV series the audience is confronted with a far more graphic (and, some argue, harmful) depiction of her cutting her wrists.

I think the strength of the book is that the focus in not on the suicide itself, but on the bullying, sexual harassment and ineptitude around Hannah that led to her deteriorating mental state and the inability of those around her to recognise the signs and offer meaningful help. While it may not be the most lyrical book you’ll read, if you want to read the simpler story that led to acclaimed TV series, it is nevertheless an important book that helped to kickstart a growing awareness of suicide.

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, you can call or chat online to someone at Lifeline on 13 11 14 or at www.lifeline.org.au.

If you want to learn what to say to someone who is struggling with their mental health, how to pick up the signs and where to refer them, I highly, highly recommend ASIST suicide intervention training and mental health first aid training.

 

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Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body

Content warning: sexual assault. 

If you follow this blog with any kind of regularity, you may have noticed that it’s been a little quiet on here lately. The reason for that is because I have been in America for five weeks! For that five weeks I set myself a challenge: to spend five weeks reading only American literature. I asked around for recommendations, but I had a clear idea of some books that I was going to read and this one was on top of the list. This wasn’t the first Roxane Gay book I had planned to read, but after the controversy earlier this year, I knew that it had to be. I cracked it out on my eReader as soon as the plane took off.

Hunger

“Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body” by Roxane Gay is a memoir of her life primarily about her experiences being a woman of size. After being gang raped as a teenager, Gay turned to food not only as a comfort but as a means to make herself bigger and therefore more invulnerable. However, the more weight she gained, the more her body was scrutinised, criticised, dehumanised and even ridiculed by those around her; including those who loved her the most.

This book starts off very strong. Gay has a clear, unequivocal tone in her writing that demands to be listened to. The book oscillates between her experiences of sexual assault and being subject to her parents’ efforts to control her weight gain as a child, and her experiences moving through the world as an adult black woman of size. Gay’s book is divided into 6 parts. The first 3 parts chronicle her life from child to adult with a focus on the lack of autonomy she had over her own body. I think these are the strongest because they have such a clear narrative structure and move chronologically through Gay’s trauma, her difficult years as a young adult and eventually finding her voice through writing. The remaining chapters are more general commentary on broader social issues, such as the depiction of size in media, and Gay’s own experiences with doctors, sexuality and race. I think however the second half of the book might have benefited from a more rigorous structure. It does get a little meandering and I think the later chapters, while powerful individually, could have been linked more strongly thematically.

Nevertheless, Gay’s observations are ones that would resonate with most readers. In a time when our media is saturated with phrases such as “obesity epidemic”, fatphobia is a real thing and I think it’s critically important to remember that regardless of size or shape, people are still people and still deserve respect and compassion.

 

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The Heart to Kill

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

The Heart to Kill

“The Heart to Kill” by Dorothy M. Place is a crime novel about young law student Sarah. After receiving phone messages on the same day that she has not been successful in her application for a coveted law internship, and that her childhood friend has been jailed for the murder of her two children, she returns to her South Carolina hometown. When she arrives, she finds her father as overbearing as ever and quickly gets a job with the firm representing JoBeth in her murder trial. However, the more research she does on the matter, the more Sarah uncovers a darker side to the town she grew up in.

Parts of this book really resonated with me, especially Sarah’s disappointment and anxiety around her legal career when she didn’t get the internship she applied for. Other parts I thought were done well like Sarah’s relationship with her parents and the banter between her and the partners at the law firm representing JoBeth. I think there were parts (which might have been the point) about JoBeth’s story and defense lawyer Al that I found a bit abrasive. I think this story is more about Sarah’s journey as an adult rather than about the development of secondary characters though, and for that purpose it is a strong narrative.

A deeply personal novel about a young woman letting go of her past to forge her own future.

 

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My Cousin Rachel

This book and I didn’t get off to a great start. It’s just recently been made into a film, and I loved “Rebecca” so much I thought I simply had to get a copy. First of all, I have a beautiful set of Daphne du Maurier novels – but it doesn’t include this one. So I tried to pick up a copy from some secondhand bookstores, but I couldn’t find one anywhere. Finally, on my lunch break, I found a copy in Dymocks in Canberra City that didn’t have photos from the new film adaptation over it. However, when I got back to the office I realised that the cover had damage to the bottom! My colleague very kindly went back to swap it for me, but they didn’t have any more copies in store. Bummer! So I guess I’m stuck with this one, but I did get a couple of goodies including an ARC and a notebook to make up for it.

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“My Cousin Rachel” by Daphne du Maurier is a historical novel set in Cornwell, UK during the Victorian era. The story is narrated by Philip Ashley, a young man orphaned as a toddler who was raised by his cousin Ambrose. Philip grows up to be just like his cousin, and loves their bachelor lifestyle on Ambrose’s idyllic country estate. However when Ambrose’s health begins to suffer in the English winters, he leaves Philip for months every year to visit warmer climates. It is on his third such trip that he meets Philip’s distant cousin Rachel. Philip is increasingly disturbed by the letters from Ambrose about his swift marriage to Rachel and his rapidly declining health. He decides to visit Italy himself to check on Ambrose and find out about this mysterious cousin Rachel.

This is a compelling novel that is best read in the winter. Du Maurier is queen of setting an ominous tone, morally ambiguous characters and creating women dwarfed only by their reputations. Philip is a complex character who is both oblivious and obstinate, and he makes for an interesting narrator. I don’t want to give too much away, but while I didn’t enjoy this as much as I did “Rebecca”, this is still an engaging read. Du Maurier maintains tension throughout the entire book, but I felt like the ending was just a bit too predictable.

Not quite “Rebecca”, but not bad. I’m very interested to see what they made of the movie.

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Escapades in Bizarrchaeology

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

Escapades in Bizarrcheology

“Escapades in Bizarrchaeology: The Journal of Captain Max Virtus” is a history book with a twist. Narrated by the fictional Captain Max Virtus, the readre is taken on a tour of his Warehouse in Bizarrcheology. The book covers quite a few areas of geographical areas and themes in ancient history with a particular focus on Rome, Egypt, war and weapons.

This is a fun read that I think would be well suited to pre-teens and early teens. It has a good mix of silliness with historical facts, and covers a broad range of historical information. The book has a very diverse range of structures like recipes for making mummies, letters and quizzes that I think would be great for capturing the interest of young readers.

It does have a really strong focus on fighting and weaponry, and I think I would have liked to have read a bit more about bizarre examples of history in other topics. Most of the historical figures discussed in the book are men, and while I appreciate that women have been excluded from many history books (and while I did enjoy reading about the famous woman pirate Ching Shih), they are there and I would have liked to see more women in this book.

An enjoyable and educational read.

 

 

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