Junot Díaz: April 20, 2018

On Friday, April 20th, I had the amazing opportunity to attend a discussion and book signing for Junot Díaz!  The event was put together by the Just Buffalo Literary Center as part of their BABEL series, in which they bring world-renowned and award-winning writers to Buffalo.  Past seasons have included Isabel Allende, Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith, Amy Tan, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Marlon James, and Toni Morrison.  Not many writers come to Buffalo, so I was especially excited to attend my first BABEL event.

Díaz began by speaking about immigration, specifically the many traumas an immigrant in the United States faces.  He continued with a discussion on gratitude while addressing his frustration with the, “If you don’t like it, go back to your own country” trope.  Díaz shared that Americans expect immigrants to be grateful, but it is really the Americans who need to be grateful because they are the ones who benefit from an immigrant’s hardships.

Next, Díaz answered some questions from the audience.  On the subject of writing, Díaz claimed, “I don’t seek answers, I seek the next question,” and when asked if he considered The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to be magical realism, Díaz said no, it was not his intention, and, perhaps in a nod to Gabriel García Márquez, said people only think that because of the “z” in his name!

When asked what it is like to teach creative writing at M.I.T., a highly technical school, Díaz responded, rather bluntly, “It’s like being an artist in America.”  He continued by saying that M.I.T., like the majority of America, values making money over making art.  This thought certainly got a chuckle from the audience members, who ranged from young, beanie-clad hipsters to classy older folks seeking literary enlightenment.

All of these wonderful thoughts aside, the sentiment that will perhaps stay with me the most is when Díaz was asked about the use of Spanish/Spanglish in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which some readers found frustrating.  He said, “We only understand fifteen percent of what we hear, and that’s in our own f***ing language…”  He expressed that it’s alright if you don’t understand everything in his book, because some parts will go over your head but other parts will resonate with you.  As a reader, it can be upsetting when I don’t fully comprehend an idea an author presents in their work, so Díaz’s statement was well-said and comforting.

Later, after the lecture and discussion, I waited in line (for more than an hour!) to meet Díaz and get my book signed.  In person, he was kind and down-to-earth, not to mention hilarious.  He said our handwriting as similar, because our H’s look like K’s, and he said my parents must be so proud of me for being in school.

It was my first time meeting an author and having a book signed, and I loved every minute of it!  I am especially excited for next season, when Mohsin Hamid, Jesmyn Ward, Min Jin Lee, and George Saunders will each have their own night!

xx,
Hannah

 

 

The Comedown // Rebekah Frumkin

Thank you to Henry Holt & Co. and Netgalley for an early review copy of The Comedown by Rebekah Frumkin, which will publish April 17, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.


From the publisher:

I’ll admit to struggling a bit with Rebekah Frumkin’s debut novel, The Comedown.  Initially it was a bit slow, and I felt caught up in confusion over the characters.  I had a hard time keeping everyone straight, especially when there were four characters with the same name; I resorted to drawing up a family tree, which was a huge help in the long run.  You know how a writer can get so familiar with their own story that they forget how to explain it to their readers?  It’s just become so clear to them that they assume everyone else is at the same level of clarity?  I figure that’s what happened to Frumkin.

Once I got past the initial character confusion, it was relatively smooth sailing.  Frumkin has that unique quality to her writing that makes you revisit paragraphs and offer up a resounding “yes.”  The Comedown defines her as a promising new voice in literature and a skilled storyteller.  It’s a decent debut effort though I can’t say I was particularly blown away, and I did struggle to finish, skimming the last few chapters.

Despite the lack of “wow” factor overall, there were many individual pieces of The Comedown that I admired tremendously, one of which being the timeline.  Frumkin jumps around in time brilliantly; the book is a collection of character studies, and bits and pieces are gradually revealed with each character to create the bigger story.  The Comedown also features some nice commentary on police brutality; it’s subtle but still very much there.

In general, Rebekah Frumkin’s debut is bold and refreshing, a slow burn character study written with mesmerizing prose.  Fans of family sagas will love The Comedown.

Note: The Comedown contains trigger warnings for suicide and drugs.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

On My Nightstand: April 2018

March was pretty overwhelming in terms of coursework (thus the mini hiatus here on the blog), and getting back into the swing of things after spring break was tough, so I decided to boost my spirits by purchasing some new books!  I’m pretty excited about all of these, especially The Heart’s Invisible Furies and Pachinko, because it seems like everyone has been gushing nonstop about how amazing they are.

I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump lately, and, not only that, but it’s been hard to find time for pleasure-reading.  As an English major, I do so much required reading for class that it’s difficult to want to continue reading, even if it’s for fun, in my free time.  A gal can only read so much, right?  Hopefully these books will help me get back into the reading mood.

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

I’ve been meaning to read Sweetbitter since it came out, and watching the trailer for the brand new series adaptation rekindled my interest.  I’ve been dreaming about moving to New York lately, so it seems like Sweetbitter was reintroduced to me at a perfect time; not only that, but I just re-watched No Reservations and I forgot how much I love narratives from the restaurant world.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

The Heart’s Invisible Furies was pretty much everyone’s favorite book last year!  I’m a wait-for-the-paperback kind of gal, so when the softcover edition was finally released at the beginning of March, I snatched it up immediately.  I’ll admit I don’t know much about the plot, but I’d like to keep it that way.  I can’t wait to see what all the hype is about.

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

I’ve been craving a vivid campus novel, and I’ve had my eye on The Idiot for a while.  (Could the simplistic millennial pink cover be any more gorgeous?)  When Batuman’s book made the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 longlist, it moved up a few slots on my TBR.  I’ve heard mixed reviews: some say it’s odd and poorly developed while others say it’s an incredible bildungsroman with a distinctive writing style.  Either way, I’m looking forward to finding out for myself.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

It seems like Pachinko has been all over my Instagram feed these past few months.  Ever since it was nominated for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction, I’ve heard nothing but good things.  I’ve read some of Lee’s shorter pieces, essays and whatnot, and I was absolutely captivated by her voice.  Plus, family sagas are my jam, so I’m pretty hopeful that Pachinko will be a new favorite.

Any ideas which book I should pick up first?  What books have you been excited about lately?  Let’s chat!

xx,
Hannah

Alternate Side // Anna Quindlen

Thank you to Random House and Netgalley for an early review copy of Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen, which will publish March 20, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.


From the publisher:

Some days Nora Nolan thinks that she and her husband, Charlie, lead a charmed life- except when there’s a crisis at work, a leak in the roof at home, or a problem with their twins at college.  And why not?  New York City was once Nora’s dream destination, and her clannish dead-end block has become a safe harbor, a tranquil village amid the urban craziness.  The owners watch one another’s children grow up.  They use the same handyman.  They trade gossip and gripes, and they maneuver for the ultimate status symbol: a spot in the block’s small parking lot.

Then one morning, Nora returns from her run to discover that a terrible incident has shaken the neighborhood, and the enviable dead-end block turns into a potent symbol of a divided city.  The fault lines begin to open: on the block, at Nora’s job, especially in her marriage.  With an acute eye that captures the snap crackle of modern life, Anna Quindlen explores what it means to be a mother, a wife, and a woman at a moment of reckoning.


Alternate Side was my first Quindlen, but it won’t be my last.

The book begins with an “alternate side” street parking debate and quickly grows into something much more complex, as the parking situation heats and sparks a conflict between two members of the street’s tight-knit community- a conflict that shakes the Nolan’s marriage and puts them on “alternate sides.”  (See what I did there?)  A chain reaction of events slowly puts Nora Nolan over the edge as she comes to realize just how unhappy she truly is.

From the summary, Quindlen’s latest seems like a fluffy women’s fiction selection, chock full of upper-class problems in an affluent neighborhood, but it’s more than that; Alternate Side briefly touches on ideas of racism and sexism.  In one instance, Nora contemplates why each homeowner is white and all of the “help” (i.e. housekeepers and handymen) are POC; in another case, Nora considers taking a different job and struggles deciding what to do when her husband, Charlie, says he would prefer if she didn’t take it.  These insights aren’t a main part of the book, but Quindlen shares enough to spark conversation.

My only complaint with Alternate Side are the abrupt transitions between past and present.  There is no clear distinction between flashbacks and the present-day narrative; Quindlen would jump to the past, and I could only tell from the ages of Nora’s children, Oliver and Rachel, who are college-aged in the present.  It’s a small detail, but it did become frustrating.

Overall, Alternate Side was a pleasant surprise, and I’ll be looking out for more from Quindlen in the future!

Read if you liked: (1) Modern Lovers by Emma Straub for its realistic cast of characters, its meager marital drama, and the indescribable ambiance of New York City; (2) The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer again for the New York atmosphere and enigmatic ensemble, but also for the plot involving a sudden conflict with long-lasting consequences.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

Exit West // Mohsin Hamid

One word continues to come to mind when trying to describe Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, and that word is quiet.  Silent.  Subdued.  Subtle.  Its storytelling is understated, but I also found it to be very underwhelming.  I could not have received more recommendations for Exit West, and I enjoyed it, but it didn’t quite live up to the hype.  While I read this book, I kept hearing a voice in the back of my head saying, “You should be loving this… why aren’t you loving this?” and while trying to summarize my thoughts, I definitely struggled with not writing a rave review.  Maybe I shouldn’t have waited so long to read it, or maybe I’m going through a reading slump, but Exit West just didn’t do much for me.


From the jacket:

In a country teetering on the brink of civil war, two young people meet- sensual, fiercely independent Nadia and gentle, restrained Saeed.  They embark on a furtive love affair, and are soon cloistered in a premature intimacy by the unrest roiling their city.  When it explodes, turning familiar streets into a patchwork of checkpoints and bomb blasts, they begin to hear whispers about doors- doors that can whisk people far away, if perilously and for a price.  As the violence escalates, Nadia and Saeed decide that they no longer have a choice.  Leaving their homeland and their old lives behind, they find a door and step through…

Exit West follows these remarkable characters as they emerge into an alien and uncertain future, struggling to hold on to each other, to their past, to the very sense of who they are.  Profoundly intimate and powerfully inventive, it tells an unforgettable story of love, loyalty, and courage that is both completely of our time and for all time.


“We are all migrants through time.”

-Mohsin Hamid, Exit West


Exit West is not a “flowery” book by any means, but that’s because it doesn’t need to be.  The story is enough in and of itself.  Hamid writes long, sprawling sentences full of clear, simple language, and there’s beauty in that simplicity.  I picked up Exit West amidst my study of Romantic poetry for class, so Hamid’s style was a breath of fresh air compared to Wordsworth and Coleridge!

The biggest part of Exit West was the magical realism.  I absolutely loved the concept of the doors… but I was not too keen on the execution.  I think Hamid didn’t fully commit to the magic doors concept like he needed to; it seemed like it was an idea he quickly introduced and threw around a little bit without really utilizing it.  (Also, not going to lie, the doors reminded me a bit too much of Monsters, Inc., and I was glad to see Barry thought so too, yet his opinion on it was a bit more extreme than mine!)


“To love is to enter into the inevitability of one day not being able to protect what is most valuable to you.”

-Mohsin Hamid, Exit West


Overall, I have mixed feelings on Exit West.  It was underwhelming to say the least.  I enjoyed it; I didn’t love it but certainly didn’t hate it, and I’m sure that I’ll pick it up again at some point when I feel clear of any hype or pressure surrounding it.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

Freshwater // Akwaeke Emezi

Thank you to Grove Atlantic and Netgalley for an early review copy of Freshwater by Awkaeke Emezi, which will publish February 13, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.


From the publisher:

Ada has always been unusual.  As an infant in Southern Nigeria, she is a source of deep concern to her family.  Her parents successfully prayed her into existence, but something must have gone terribly awry, as the young Ada becomes a troubled child, prone to violent fits of anger and grief.  But Ada turns out to be more than just volatile.  Born “with one foot on the other side,” she begins to develop separate selves.  When Ada travels to America for college, a traumatic event crystallizes the selves into something more powerful.  As Ada fades into the background of her own mind and these alters- now protective, now hedonistic- move into control, Ada’s life spirals in a dangerous direction.


Akwaeke Emezi’s debut Freshwater is one of the most talked-about books of the year so far, and with good reason.  It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read before- unique and refreshing, powerful and profound, with vivid imagery and so so so many good lines.  (I can’t even begin to count how many gorgeous quotes I underlined!)  Emezi is an immensely talented writer; she certainly knows how to style a story and keep its audience captivated.

Freshwater has a distinct narration style, told from both the individual and the collective “we.”  Each narrator is somewhat unreliable, yet Emezi still makes you feel for them and understand their motives.  I’m not going to lie, I was a bit confused by the narration at various points throughout the novel, so if you’re thinking about reading Freshwater, I’d recommend checking out this Twitter thread first, wherein Emezi explains the basic concepts of Nigerian mythology and the ogbanje.

Overall, I found Freshwater to be an eye-opening and thought-provoking tale.  I can’t even begin to explain what this book made me feel.  It’s so original, so authentic, so deserving to be read.  Do you ever read a book that just sort of quietly resonates with you, that blows your mind and makes you sick at the same time?  I think any review I attempt to write just won’t do this book enough justice, so I’ll keep it short and sweet.

If you choose any book to read this month, make it Freshwater.  It’ll blow you away.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Being a Minimalist Bookworm

The term “minimalist bookworm” sounds contradictory, I know.  Book lovers these days seem to be defined by the content of their bookcases- the more books we see, the more well-read we assume a person is.  I struggle with this, because as much as I dream about having a library of my own someday, I personally feel overwhelmed by too much stuff, so having a huge collection of novels isn’t exactly my ideal.  I think that’s why I was initially drawn to a more minimalist lifestyle (also because I adore tiny houses!).  The Minimalism Movement has been on trend for a few years now, and I’ve been striving to be more minimalist, so I thought I’d share some things I’ve learned on my way.

DO keep books you’ll reread.

It’s only natural that you’ll want to revisit some of the books you’ve already read, and it’s hard to justify getting rid of something you’ll eventually come back to.  Keep your favorite books, the ones that interest you, the ones you’ll want to return to someday.

DON’T hang on to books you’ve owned for years but still haven’t read.

If you’ve owned A Game of Thrones since the first season premiered but you still haven’t gotten around to it, I think it’s safe to say you won’t be reading it any time soon!  We all read at different paces, but consider setting an amount of time, anywhere from eight months to five years, after which you will get rid of books you haven’t read yet.

DO save books that have meaning to you.

Still own that battered copy of Charlotte’s Web that your mom used to read to you as a child?  Did you purchase a book as a souvenir of your trip abroad?  These are the ones you might want to save, and that’s okay.  I actually regret donating some of my favorite childhood books, so hang on to sentimental books unless you’re positive you no longer want them.

DON’T own more than one edition of the same book

Of course, there are some exceptions to this one; for example, I own a paperback copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and I also own the illustrated edition.  I can’t imagine getting rid of one or the other.  However, I think having ten editions of Pride and Prejudice might be a bit extensive (#sorrynotsorry).  You just have to determine what’s right for you.

DO utilize the library.

One of my favorite things about the library is there’s no pressure to like every book you read.  Often, when I buy a book, I feel the need to enjoy it because I’ve spent my hard-earned money on it, but at the library, I’ll pick up just about anything, and if I don’t like I’ll return it, no guilt necessary.  The library is a great resource for quick readers especially, and (bonus!) it’s free, so you really can’t go wrong!

DON’T purchase books just because they’re popular or trendy.

It’s okay, we’ve all done it, but buying a book, especially one you don’t think you’ll like, just because it’s all over Instagram, is probably not the best idea.  Eventually the popularity will fade and you’ll be stuck with a book you don’t actually want to read!  And if you’re not sure whether or not you want to read it, try waiting a few months after the hype has died down and see how you feel about it then.

DO try ebooks and/or audiobooks.

Ebooks and audiobooks are great for saving physical shelf space, and (bonus!) they’re often cheaper than paperbacks or hardcovers.  However, if you don’t like reading in either format, don’t force it: reading should be an enjoyable experience, not a frustrating one.

DON’T buy books without reading an excerpt.

For me, the writing style is one of the most important qualities of a book; if I don’t like the writing, chances are I won’t enjoy the story or the characters.  That’s why I always like to read an excerpt or chapter sample of a novel before I purchase it.

DO try a book-buying ban.

Set yourself a period of time in which you refrain from buying any books, and see how it goes.  Not only are bans great for stopping the intake of new books, but they also allow you to get around to the books you own but haven’t read yet.  It’s a win-win!

DON’T let yourself feel stressed or discouraged.

You might notice it’s difficult to strip your shelves at first, and that’s okay!  It’s not for everybody, but don’t let your feelings keep you from making the change.  It’s definitely easiest to do a little bit each day rather than all at once.  Personally, I’ve found that making the strides to be a minimalist bookworm has been challenging but absolutely worth it!

If you’re interested in reading more on minimalism and books, I’d recommend checking out Why I Love to (and Will Always) Buy Books by Cait Flanders, who went through a two-year shopping ban while paying off debt, or 12 Helpful, Practical Steps to Unclutter Your Book Collection by Joshua Becker, a longtime minimalist of ten years (and counting).

Do you have any other tips for anyone seeking to be more minimalist?  Have you tried any of these tips yourself?  Let’s chat in the comments!

xx,
Hannah