before you suffocate your own fool self by Danielle Evans :: This collection, focused primarily on the lives of women of color (though one is from a male point of view), is spectacular. It’s not often that a short collection of rather long short stories can keep the momentum from beginning to end while also delivering succinct characters, plot, and insight. This collection delivers. Each story is imbued with a sense of melancholy and longing. It’s never quite on the surface and isn’t spoken except within a character’s own thoughts. The opening story, “Virgins,” moves fast and ends exactly as it should, which is not to say it is happy. Some of the stories have more finite ends (“Snakes” and “Robert E. Lee is Dead”) while others leave the ends intentionally up in the air with only clues given to the reader as to which way the character’s life unfolds (“Harvest” and “Jellyfish”). Its ambiguous endings won’t be for everyone, but there are enough clues throughout the stories that a thorough reading will answer your questions and leave you satisfied.
All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg :: This book reads so, so fast and I mean that in a good way. I can see how many would find this woman relatable as a woman in hers thirties and then forty who finds herself purposefully single. She drinks, she does drugs (or did them), she has sex with who she wants to have sex, and she has a job she’s good at but truly doesn’t like. She’s a total mess, which is endearing, humanizing, and infuriating. I thoroughly enjoyed this book from craft to story. It even ended in exactly the right place where many with this kind of set-up tend to go on about twenty pages too long. Oh, a word about the set-up: this book is not chronological; it is told in a series of vignettes that weave through time according to topic as though the character is telling you the story in a more conversational setting (which makes sense because it is written in first person). Some will find this difficult to follow, but I hope they won’t give up. It follows through on its promise.
Ghettoside by Jill Leovy :: Gah. There’s so much that has been said about this book that is positive that it’s a bit ridiculous to add to it. Let’s just say that Leovy lays bare so many misconceptions about murder and police/detectives in LA with blatant honesty that it would behoove anyone who wants to be taken seriously when discussing inner city violence to read it. The statistics alone only tell a portion of the story and as a country, the US too readily desires to treat symptoms rather than causes.
Marlena by Julia Buntin :: This book reads fast, which you should know from the opening chapter alone. The structure, which oscillates between past and present (or sort of present), lends itself well to the brokenness of the human spirit. Buntin weaves the past and present scenes in such a way that makes the reader all too aware of the ways in which adolescence and friendship shape adulthood. It’s not the most dramatic of events that shape Cat (or us), but the mundane, ongoing, softer things. Cat is not likable – in fact, she’s often roll-your-eyes worthy – but that’s exactly why she’s a perfect protagonist, especially as a teenager.
Caucasia by Danzy Senna :: This book has catapulted itself into a short list of my favorites, which is difficult to do. I cried, I laughed, I was furious and hurt and in awe. The structure, the writing, the story – all of it is above reproach. The sisters’ relationship is one of the most relatable sister-relationships I’ve read, especially in recognizing how they look at each other at different ages and what’s behind such looks. It’s an older book (1998) and I am more than a little upset it has taken me so long to read it because I was truly missing out. Of course, if I’d have read it when I was a small child I probably wouldn’t have felt it as strongly as I do now about the more nuanced ideas depicted. Many have said that this book is perfect for teenagers and young adults trying to figure out their identities, and it is, but I want everyone to read this book. Every single person.
The Last Days of California by Mary Miller :: The ugliness of these characters is enthralling and obnoxious and human. That’s about the best way to describe this book: human. Nothing big happens, though there are big peripheral events, but that’s not a bad thing. This book captures what it was to be a certain kind of teenager from a certain kind of family in the early 10s. The protagonist’s issues are decidedly first world and rather commonplace, which is exactly the point. Maybe it is because I grew up in Small Town, USA surrounded by tens of girls who were as naïve and wanting as this one, but I got her – and more than once, I wanted to strangle her. The book’s road trip opens her up to the world and experiences outside her own, which is all I could have asked of the writer to do for this character (as many real-life teens like this one never open themselves to the world outside their own). I knew these sisters, which made the book relatable to me, but I don’t know that readers who didn’t will feel as strongly about the characters represented.
To add: The author colloquially refers to the father’s type 2 diabetes as simply diabetes. I know why this is done, as the separation of type 1 and type 2 is not understood or noticed by the vast majority of people unless they either know someone with type 1 or have the disease. However, how the protagonist’s father handles his disease demands that the difference be noted. It is not uncommon for type two diabetics to skip their insulin or take poor care of their health; it is, however, deadly for type 1 diabetics to do so (as in, you do not under any circumstances skip an insulin injection for a long period of time). The management of type 1 and type 2 are vastly different and it is important, especially when using the disease to show a character defect, to separate the two. Obviously, this is personal to me and most readers will take no issue with its handling (which, when it comes down to it, is just one example of how the average person does not understand the gravity of the disease).
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid : This book is both lyrical and brutally straightforward, a rare combination. Even rarer, this story weaves paragraphs of graphic warfare with a sweet and biding love. The first half is all of these wonderful things, the second half goes in and out. It is necessary for what is accomplished in the end, but the second half loses some of its directness and scales time more quickly. It reads almost like a summary of a much longer second half, which is both good and bad. I’m a little torn on this book because the first half is just so perfect and the second half is so human and relatable and flawed. And, maybe, flawed is the point that makes it more human.
Euphoria by Lily King :: Let me start by saying that I have a soft spot for cultural anthropology and world ethnography. If I were not a writer, I would be an anthropologist. This book, then, based (very loosely) on a snippet of the lives of Margaret Mead and her second and third husbands, is right up my alley. The setting and descriptions of the different cultures (all fictional) are beautifully rendered as are the tense moments between the three ethnographers. The book read fast and while the climax of the thing is rather small and not as cleanly drawn as the less actionable moments, I fully enjoyed it. If you’ve read anything on or by Mead then the protagonist will intrigue you, but King does such an excellent job of bringing these characters to life that such knowledge is not necessary going into the book.
– M. Ray Hall