EXPeriencing ‘Swing Time’ by Zadie Smith

Cover image (and a more comprehensive review) via.

As an introduction to Zadie Smith, Swing Time may not have been the best choice. While I did enjoy the novel, Goodreads comments tell me it’s not as good as her earlier White Teeth or On Beauty.

That said, as a standalone novel without the comparison to Smith’s other works, I thought it was a fascinating coming-of-age tale of two girls—one who fancies herself a dancer, and one who truly has talent—who become women with quite different lives. From the narrator and her best friend’s childhood dance classes, to the narrator’s work and subsequent dismissal from her job as a pop star’s assistant, Smith jumps back and forth in time to paint a picture of how two similar childhoods can become very different adulthoods.

One of my favorite narrative elements of Swing Time is that the narrator remains unnamed throughout the entire novel. I find this to be a masterful storytelling technique, that 400 pages can go by, you know the entire life of a character, and yet, you never learn her name. This of course is a far cry from many of the stories I tried to write as a teenager that started with my main character examining herself in the mirror so as to perfectly describe her features before her mother calls her name telling her to come downstairs…

I also found Swing Time to be an important read simply because most of the main characters are people of color. In our new America, it’s more important than ever to read books about brown women written by brown women.

It’s taken me a while to write about Swing Time, and in the time since I read it, the characters haven’t really lived with me. I finished the book and they faded from my thoughts rather quickly. The story sucked me in, but it spit me out pretty fast.

If you like coming-of-age novels and want to read more books by and about people of color, I do recommend Swing Time, but maybe start with another one of Zadie Smith’s novels if you’re more curious about the author’s storytelling than this story’s characters.


EXPeriencing ‘Life of Pi’

I’m not one to belabor seasons. As much as I love the warmth and long days of summer, I look forward to crisp leaves and the nip in the air that comes with fall. But as much as I’ve been looking forward to fall this year, it’s felt like a long time coming. September was more like August Part Two, and just this week it was still in the 80’s. But today, finally, it was cold and raining, and leaves were hitting the ground almost as frequently as the raindrops.

Which made me think back to the books I read during summer’s end, and I realized that I haven’t talked about them at all. They’ve been hanging out in my head for more than a month at this point, and if I don’t write about them, I might go crazy. Or maybe I’m just itching to write and this is my excuse.

Either way, I need to write about LIfe of Pi, which I read at the end of August. What an unexpected story. I recognize I’m over a decade late to this book, and at this point most people have probably seen the movie, too, but wow. This story surprised me from page one, and the ending has kept me living with this story for months.

If you haven’t read this book yet, you may be like me and think it’s about a boy on a lifeboat with a tiger. But there is so much more to it than that.

The book doesn’t start on the lifeboat with a boy and a tiger. (Actually, once we get to the lifeboat it doesn’t even start with a boy and a tiger, but a boy, a tiger, a hyena, an orangutan, and a zebra.) Well before we ever reach the Pacific Ocean, the book details Pi’s backstory–which makes sense why the book is called Life of Pi and not Pi Trapped on a Lifeboat with a Tiger.

Pi’s story in itself is fascinating, but what I enjoyed most at the beginning (surprising even myself) were the long, nuanced religious musings about Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. Pi considers himself Christian, Muslim, and Hindu, and it was interesting to read about how Pi came to participate and appreciate all three of those religions.

While the beginning of the book isn’t about Pi drifting lost on the ocean, a majority of the book is just that. It, too, was fascinating. It actually surprised me how much of a page-turner this was. I often set the book down at night wondering what was going to happen next. Towards the end of Pi and the tiger’s journey, things got a bit magical realism for my taste. The story eases into it, but I still raised my eyebrows a few times. I’m not big on magical realism, but it didn’t deter my enjoyment.

Which is a good thing because omg the ending. The ending of this book is… it left me speechless. I don’t know how to write about it because I can’t give it away but I want to gush about it so badly. You have to experience the whole journey to appreciate the ending. The payoff is just perfect.

If you haven’t checked out Life of Pi yet, definitely go pick it up from the library and give it a read. It’s well worth it.

EXPeriencing Go Set a Watchman

Cover photo via Entertainment Monthly.
It’s been more than two months since my last blog post, but after buying my first house and dealing with all the insanity that comes with that, I think I’m finally ready to dive back into blogging and keeping up with this little project. Thanks for reading!

What a roller coaster of thoughts and emotions I had with Go Set a Watchman. The initial exhilaration, trepidation, and anticipation surrounding the book’s announcement and release; hearing of Atticus’s racism; actually finally receiving the book and sitting down to read it—then stopping for over a month with just 100 pages to go while buying a house—and finally sucking it up and finishing it. Whew.

Now that I have finally finished the thing, I can give it my informed opinion and “rating”: a solid huh verging on meh. Of course, you can’t just leave it as huh-meh. It’s Harper Lee’s undiscovered manuscript! It’s To Kill a Mockingbird’s first draft! Huh-meh doesn’t really take all that into account or give Watchman the necessary context to understand how it came to be. And indeed, I think you must take that context into account when you read the novel, or it could not only be a confusing reading experience for you, you could completely ruin To Kill a Mockingbird.

That said, you MUST read To Kill a Mockingbird before Go Set a Watchman. Even if you read TKAM in high school, I would highly suggest you read it again. And in this case, yes, even watching the movie would be acceptable. But you have to fully absorb TKAM again before you try to read Watchman. You also have to be aware of and understand that Watchman is the first draft of TKAM. I think that context is vital to understanding not just how novels are created, but how TKAM came to be in the first place. I also think it’s important to understanding the vibrant characters of Scout and Atticus and see where they came from in Watchman to how they became the characters we know and love from TKAM.

Which, examining the characters, is where some of the problem is in regarding Watchman as a fully-developed, publishable novel: the characters just aren’t quite there. You get a lot of internal thoughts and exposition from adult Scout (yes, I refuse to call her Jean Louise as she is mostly referred to in the book) as she comes to the realization that her father is not, in fact, an infallible god. However, there’s not a lot of additional substance to truly understand her heartbreak—if you don’t have the context of TKAM to draw on, that is.

In TKAM, Atticus is an infallible god (not just to Scout, but to all of us), so when Scout sees that he’s actually racist, you can see where her heartbreak comes from. But without that in-depth look at her childhood and her childhood vision of Atticus’s great deeds, his actions in Watchman—while on the deplorable side of his character—aren’t exactly world-shattering for the casual observer.

His actions are further played down when you read about the Tom Robinson trial. It’s reduced to four paragraphs in which there are no names, few details, and you learn “the only reason [Atticus] took this [criminal case] was because he knew his client to be innocent of the charge, and he could not for the life of him let the black boy go to prison because of a half-hearted, court-appointed defense” (109). Atticus knew the charges were false, and took the case so “he could live peacefully with himself.” Lo and behold, Atticus “accomplished what was never before or afterwards done in Maycomb County: he won an acquittal for a colored boy on a rape charge. The chief witness for the prosecution was a white girl.” But Tom (or who becomes Tom) is acquitted because it was determined it was consent, not rape. “Consent was easier to prove than under normal conditions—the defendant had only one arm. The other was chopped off in a sawmill accident.” So yes, it’s great Atticus got the acquittal and can live with himself. But according to Watchman, he certainly didn’t like it: “After the verdict, [Atticus] walked out of the courtroom in the middle of the day, walked home, and took a steaming bath. He never counted what it cost him; he never looked back” (109-10). Those four paragraphs to attempt to convey, in part, what made Atticus infallible in Scout’s eyes as well as in ours, only to be left with a feeling of insincerity and disappointment. It’s certainly not a stretch to see Racist Atticus from this vantage.

But the book wasn’t all bad or mediocre. I actually did enjoy some parts of it, specifically the parts—the sparks—that are the building blocks of and become To Kill a Mockingbird: young Scout, Jem, and Dill playing; the background and explanations of Maycomb County and its history that are copy+pasted into TKAMScout’s recollection of childhood that causes her to come to terms with being an adult… Huge kudos to Lee’s editor who read this manuscript and saw the potential behind the story of young Scout and her childhood and had Lee build upon that. Because honestly, Go Set a Watchman is a solid first draft. Maycomb County is a solidly built world and the Finch family a solidly built set of characters. They make a decent story.

But how they were developed into To Kill a Mockingbird, now that’s a classic.

EXPeriencing ‘The Mistress’ by Tiffany Reisz

First things first, when an erotica novel makes you cry (multiple times) because of All The Feels, you know you’ve got a good book on your hands.

Two and half years ago, I read my first-ever erotica novel, The Siren by Tiffany Reisz. I blogged about that experience on my old blog, and you can find it there on Life’s Distractions. You can also find the article I mention, “You Can Take the Smut-Peddler Out of the Seminary but You Can’t Take the Seminary Out of the Smut-Peddler,” on Huffington Post. Based on that article title alone, you can probably tell what kind of author Tiffany Reisz is, that is, a very talented and funny one. The interactions I’ve had with her on Twitter alone will testify to that, but her books will even more.

Back to those, her books. Or I should say, back to The Mistress specifically, the 4th and final book in her Original Sinners: The Red Years series. (She started a prequel series, The White Years, and the first of those books is up next in my queue.) I wrote a review about the first book in this series, and here is my review about this last one, but you’ll notice that I’ve not written anything on the two books that come between The Siren and The MistressThe Angel and The Prince. Let’s just say, some shit. goes. down. in those books. Which, for the sake of spoilers and ruining almost literally everything that happens to all of the characters, I won’t get into too many details here. But, I will reiterate what I said in my review of The Siren: the characters are what drive these stories. They’re so layered, they’re so complex, they’re so real. When you take such different characters as Nora, the dominatrix turned erotica author; and Wesley, her teenage roommate/intern; and Soren, her lover/ex-lover/lover; and Kingsley, the king of NYC’s underground BDSM scene, and make them all likable and dislikable as appropriate (sometimes the same character at the same time), and make the reader care about all of them in some capacity and pray for their happiness, that’s a book worth reading.

I enjoyed The Mistress because of the characters the most, and it’s important that I followed them on the whole journey. You can’t read out of order or skip books in this series, that’s for sure. I became pretty attached to the characters from book one, so their journeys climaxing coming to a head culminating here in this book had me gripped from page one (it helped that The Prince ended on a huge cliffhanger). I read a review on Goodreads that said they didn’t love The Mistress because it felt like the characters had lost themselves. I disagree. In fact, I think the exact opposite: I loved The Mistress because it felt like all of the characters had found themselves. There’s a great deal of tension between the characters I mentioned above (plus a couple more ladies), and in The Mistress they’re forced to spend time with one another under truly dire circumstances. Their frustrations and misgivings with each other build over the whole book, and each one is forced to come to terms with what they truly want, what they need, and who they love. I believe some people may not enjoy The Mistress because they don’t get the ending they want. But I believe the characters all ended up where they’re supposed to be and who they’re supposed to be with (Despite an interesting little hiccup there with that ending. Thanks, Tiffany.) And that makes a very satisfying read to me.

Another important note to make is similar to one I made in my review of The Siren: the sex scenes in the novel serve to further the plot, not to service serve the reader. And there are relatively few sex scenes in The Mistress. In 458-page novel, I think you can count all the sex scenes on one hand. And there’s a large chunk in the middle where there is nothing at all. As I mentioned, some shit has gone down in the series, and as it all culminates here, there’s not a lot of room for sex when you’re fearing for characters’ lives.

Yes, an erotica novel where you’re worried not all the characters you love are going to make it through, and the danger has very little to do with whips and canes in the bedroom.

Seriously, this is one hell of an erotica series. I can’t recommend it enough. Start with The Siren, get drawn in by the characters, get a little beat up, and come out on top with The Mistress. You won’t regret it.

Find Tiffany Reisz’s books and where to buy them on her website: www.tiffanyreisz.com.

EXPeriencing All the Light We Cannot See

I’ve always been drawn to historical fiction. Ever since I was a kid and would devour American Girl and Dear America Diary books, I’ve loved stories that put you in one person or a couple people’s shoes during a certain event in history.

Specifically, I’ve also always been drawn to WWII stories. Perhaps it’s because I was of an age where every couple of years a Holocaust survivor would visit our school and share their horrifying experiences. Maybe it’s because the war is a collective memory/stain that much of the world shares, no matter where or how old you are. Or maybe it’s just because I know my grandpa served in the Navy during that time. Whatever the reason, I’ll always gravitate to a WWII story, especially when it’s well-written and features a range of emotions. Bonus if there’s a coming-of-age element to it.

All the Light We Cannot See is just that: a well-written novel spanning several emotions, both for the characters and the reader. It also happens to be a great Bildungsroman. (There’s your vocab word for the day. Also appropriate given the arrival of my newest Out of Print purchase this week.)

All the Light We Cannot See primarily focuses on two characters: Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig. Marie-Laure is a girl of six when the story starts in 1934 and she goes blind from congenital cataracts. “Bilateral. Irreparable. ‘Can you see this?’ ask the doctors. ‘Can you see this?’ Marie-Laure will not see anything for the rest of her life” (27). This blindness adds several layers of hardship, suspense, and triumph to the story that would not have been present had Marie-Laure been able to see. With the amount of WWII stories out there, any new perspective an author can introduce helps make a story come alive, especially when they can add so many additional sensory elements (see below quote). When Marie-Laure and her father flee Paris in 1940, they go to the town of Saint-Malo on the sea to live with Marie-Laure’s great-uncle, Etienne. He is reclusive and afraid of the outside world, but he and Marie-Laure build a strong bond. Marie-Laure will live out the rest of the war in the tall house tucked away in Saint-Malo.

“Then there’s the sixth floor: her grandfather’s tidy bedroom to the left, toilet straight ahead, the little room where she sleeps with her father on the right. When the wind is blowing, which it almost always is, with the walls groaning and the shutters banging, the rooms overloaded and the staircase wound tightly up through its center, the house seems the material equivalent of her uncle’s inner being: apprehensive, isolated, but full of cobwebby wonders.” (146)

Werner Pfennig will make his way to Saint-Malo, too, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Werner and his younger sister Jutta are orphans living in the town of Zollverein, “a four-thousand-acre coal-mining complex outside Essen, Germany” (24). When their story begins, Werner is eight, and he and Jutta are being raised at Children’s House, “a clinker-brick two-story orphanage on Viktoriastrasse whose rooms are populated with the coughs of sick children and the crying of newborns and battered trunks inside which drowse the last possessions of deceased parents: patchwork dresses, tarnished wedding cutlery, faded ambrotypes of fathers swallowed by the mines” (24). Needless to say, Werner and his sister had a rough childhood. The highlight, though, is when Werner is 10 years old and he finds a crude radio, fixes it, and discovers a French science program for children. The show holds wonders for Werner and his sister, and is in part why he begins to tinker more and more with radios. As it turns out, Werner has a near-prodigious ability to understand and repair radios. Despite his impoverished circumstances, Werner’s abilities with radios attract the attention of the “right people” (AKA, Nazis). After fixing one Nazi family’s radio when other repairmen couldn’t, a series of events allows Werner to be selected to study at a “brutal academy for Hitler Youth.” From there, Werner joins the war, traveling across Europe to track down the German resistance from Russia to, eventually, Saint-Malo in France.

“Werner unscrews the backing and peers inside. The tubes are all intact, and nothing looks amiss. ‘All right,’ he mumbles to himself. ‘Think.’ He sits cross-legged; he examines the circuitry. … He tries to envision the bouncing pathways of electrons, the signal chain like a path through a crowded city, RF signal coming in here, passing through a grid of amplifiers, then to variable condensers, then to transformer coils. …

He sees it. There are two breaks in one of the resistance wires. … Could two men have missed something so simple? It feels like a gift. So easy! Werner rewinds the resistance track and splices the wires and plugs in the radio. When he turns it on, he half expects fire to leap out of the machine. Instead: the smoky murmur of a saxophone.” (82-3)

We follow Marie-Laure and Werner as they navigate childhoods cut short by war and by duty—duty to family, to country, to survive. As we follow their journeys, we get peeks at the future, flash-forwards to Saint-Malo and where their stories will converge, as we know they must. I call them flash-forwards instead of flashbacks, because while the story does start in 1944 when their paths are about to cross, the bulk of the novel’s timeline takes place previous to that point in time. The flash-forwards provide a heightened level of suspense while you’re reading so you can’t wait to get to that point, but by no means are you simply reading the rest of the novel just to get caught up.

Seeing how Marie-Laure copes with her blindness and following her as she discovers Braille novels is a journey itself. Additionally, her father helps her navigate her sightless life by building wooden models of where they live so Marie-Laure can learn the layout by touch to travel and explore on her own. Watching her struggle and then triumph is definitely a bright spot between a lot of darkness.

On the flip-side, watching Werner’s journey from orphan to Hitler Youth to Nazi is… not wonderful. When Werner is sent to the school at Schulpforta, it’s like some weird shadow-negative version of Hogwarts. He lives in a dorm with other boys his age, takes specialized classes for his coming profession, and learns new skills he never thought he would have the chance to even begin to learn. But instead of wizardry, it’s Nazism, and all the other boys are like extra-evil Slytherin jerks. (I’m a Slytherin, so I’m not hating on them, but they were a bunch of jerks when Harry was at school.) The boys must do as they’re told, blindly following commands. And if they don’t, well, let’s just say there’s no Skele-Gro in the infirmary…

Something I appreciate most about All the Light We Cannot See is that it really doesn’t leave many questions unanswered. Just recently I was listening to an episode of the Nerdist Podcast and the guests were talking about how they don’t always love or want shows that just end, leaving all kinds of questions because we’re just cut off in the middle of someone’s story. More often than not, we want stories that can be wrapped up in a nice little bow with no nagging thoughts, no but-whys and but-hows. All the Light We Cannot See has a good bow. It may be a little messy and tugs at your heart and mind for longer than expected, but any story that leaves you pondering and considering and weighing is a good one. And this is one of the better ones because even while I continue to think about it, I’m not trying to write the ending for the characters I wasn’t given. I know their endings—some extending well beyond the end of WWII—and I’m satisfied.

If you’re like me and love a well-written historical fiction novel, a compelling WWII story, or both, I suggest picking up All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. You won’t be disappointed.