Stack of books: 84, Charing Cross road by Helene Hanff, Real Life by Brendan Taylor, Ark Angel and Scorpia by Anthony Horowitz, The Yield by Tara June Winch, and Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J. Lee

March 2021 Book Reviews

My reading mojo returned in March, perhaps the sun woke it from a winter slumber. All of this to say, “I read a bunch of books in March.” I had gotten into a bit of a slump, but 84, Charing Cross Road in particular pulled me right out of it. Read on to find out why!

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

I’ve been a little hesitant to hop on the Liz Gilbert train. It’s too easy to like her, too easy to enjoy so many things about her and part of me is cautious. But when I listened to Eat, Pray, Love, it grabbed me and I now regularly use the film as an example of story structure. When I read Big Magic, I ended up taking pages of notes and writing out lots of quotes. She’s a morning page writer and actively works to champion Black women. I like her.

City of Girls is the story of a young woman who doesn’t cut the mustard when it comes to being an upstanding east coast daughter sent off university to get her Mrs. degree and ends up working in her aunt’s theater in NYC instead. The book is about losing your innocence and learning about friendship and making mistakes and learning that sometimes, apologies aren’t enough. I enjoyed it.

It’s structured as a letter from the narrator to a woman who wants to know about the narrator’s relationship with the father. Structurally, I thought this was lovely. Throughout the novel, each man introduced in the story could have been the father, each relationship could have been the one in question. This little bit of mystery kept me extra alert while I was reading and I enjoyed that even if it reminded me of the “How I Met Your Mother” premise.

What this book does well is explore the way theater life was (is?) a haven for people who didn’t fit into a set of social rules that allowed for limited self-expression. It does this while exposing the way young adults can be uniquely and destructively self-absorbed. Just when the book felt like it was mostly about fun and games turning into trouble, it settled down into something serious that gave it a depth I truly appreciated.

Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J. Lee

The internet showed me a reference to this book and I bought it right away. Jessica J. Lee is a British-Canadian-Tawanese writer and her hyphens are so familiar to me as I go through life American-Dutch-Taiwanese. I was intensely curious about this book.

Two Trees Make a Forest is a combination of memoir and nature writing that’s driven by Lee’s curiosity about her grandfather, the island where he comes from, and a piece of memoir writing the family finds in his belongings. Her view of Taiwan was entirely new to me, one that was about hiking and views and fault lines and earthquakes. She talks about the gaps and dilemmas of language as well as the way we take our elders for granted and fail to connect with them as people, particularly if they are immigrants.

I snapped this book up with the same energy that I got my hands on Interior Chinatown. I want badly to read more authors with Taiwanese roots, those who grew up with the island in the distance. Never close enough to call it home, but tied to it irrevocably and influenced by everything it represents. Lee’s focus on the beauty of the island instead of the bustle of the cities was a revelation for me. This book isn’t for everyone, but if you’re curious about Taiwan and want to see a side of it that’s little discussed outside of guidebooks, have a read. You’ll appreciate it immensely.

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

As I write this, I realize that 84, Charing Cross Road and City of Girls take place in the same city at about the same time. And yet, no books could have two such different protagonists. 84 isn’t really about New York City at all, instead it’s an epistolary story based on letters exchanged between Hanff in New York City and a used bookshop on Charing Cross Road in London.

We don’t write letters much anymore, but I used to write almost daily letters to friends across the globe when I was in boarding school. The delayed and deliberate conversations that happen through the mail are different from the electronic conversation we have today. A delayed letter can evoke more anxiety than an email answered a few days or weeks too late. Plus, letter writing brings with it an intimacy that bubbles up through the letters in this collection. On the one hand it seems odd that Hanff struck up such a close relationship with this bookshop, on the other hand, why not? After all, it did happen and Hanff seems like an incredibly impulsive, energetic person, the kind of person who could take a liking to a stranger and invite them over for dinner.

Half of the joy of reading this book was the tactile joy of reading a Slightly Foxed book. I’ve had a subscription to their quarterly literary magazine for a few years now and eye the catalog that comes with every edition. Whatever expectation I might have had, this blew them all out of the water. The pages are soft and creamy, the cover is the prettiest color of soft blue-green. This book almost insists that you get yourself a high-backed chair, cozy fireplace, warm lap blanket, and appropriate beverage before you open the covers. I’d love a library of them, but for now, one will do.

Alex Rider books

We gave my son a 11 book box set of Alex Rider books for Christmas and I’m having a great time trying to keep up with him. Scorpia is book five in the series and to be honest, I read it to see if Horowitz would do something interesting. I’m not a fan of formulaic series. There are a number of authors I stopped reading after two or three titles because they became so repetitive that the details blurred together.

Anthony Horowitz, however, is not that kind of writer. Just as I was wondering about the reluctant-boy-wonder-saves-the-world formula, he gave Alex Horowitz a dark past to wrestle with and hard choices to make. Instead of being the last Alex Rider book, Scorpia was so gripping that I picked up Ark Angel almost immediately after.

I’ve enjoyed Horowitz’s adult writing, which I encountered via the Susan Ryland books, Magpie Murders  and Moonflower Murders. The Alex Rider books are no less exciting and I’ll be reading more.

The Yield by Tara June Winch

This was a book club read and a prime example of why it’s so valuable to have an international book club. An Australian member of the group gently insisted we read this book and we are all so happy we agreed.

The Yield is the story of August Gondiwindi, who returns from ten years abroad to her Indiginous family’s farm in Australia for her grandfather’s funeral and finds herself in a property and identity crisis. The novel is written in three voices, August’s contemporary voice, her grandfather’s Wiradjuri dictionary entries, and a letter written by a missionary reverend who originally built the farm in 1915.

I was surprised to find the grandfather’s dictionary entries the most compelling voice of all three. Each entry is an exploration of what the word means to the man. Some are brief, just a few sentences, but some go on for a few paragraphs and include personal or folk stories. The dictionary entries are in reverse alphabetical order and yet are so carefully crafted that they fill in the gaps created by the other two narratives. This is the work of a master storyteller.

If you’re liking the sound of this and want to hear more about The Yield, I recommend the Bookcast Club Podcast episode #43 which is all about it. I also heartily recommend the book. It’s an outstanding read.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

In the way that books seem to relate to each other, this book surprised me with a section that was written as a letter exchange. It was another library book that I picked up back in December along with City of Girls. I’ve seen it on a lot of Black author lists but it took me a while to feel emotionally ready to read it.

An American Marriage tells the exceedingly sad story of a young Black couple whose marriage is pulled apart by a false accusation, guilty verdict, and prison. The story is told in chapters that alternate Roy’s and Celestial’s voices. Once Roy’s in jail, they exchange letters. 

I’m having a hard time coming up with words for this because it was such a visceral reading experience. I ached for these characters and the unfairness of their situation. Everything about what they went through was wrong and yet they had no choice but to go through it. And through it all, they both try with everything they have to retain their dignity and their humanity.

This is a beautifully written novel that is hard to read because this kind of thing happens. Maybe not these personalities with these stories, but this kind of injustice ripping lives apart shredding dreams and impacting whole ecosystems of families and friends and communities. Read this book because it’s wonderfully written and because we must all work to make sure these stories become artifacts instead of facts.

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

A friend of mine kept talking about this book and kept talking about this book and loaned me the book and finally, I read it. I actually read this after an Alex Rider book, which is all action and fast pace. This book is the opposite, incredibly contemplative and deliberate and deep.

Real Life tells the story of one weekend in the life of Wallace, a gay Black life sciences PhD student at a midwestern University in the United States. Brandon Taylor manages to fill this weekend with every conflict, doubt, and pain that Wallace has been carrying. These are conveyed in conversations that Wallace both participates in and observes and descriptions of details that become deeply symbolic without falling into pretension.

In some ways, the story reminded me of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, another book about an outsider trying to navigate his entree into an academic social circle that includes his body without ever understanding or caring about his person in a meaningful way. The main difference is that the violences here are not physical but psychological and deeply harmful in part because they leave pain and doubt behind.

This book touches on race, sexuality, honesty, academic integrity, favoritism, friendship, love, desire, and more and does it by slowing everything down. It makes me wonder if all of our lives contain so much in so little time and if we miss it purely because we aren’t paying attention. If you liked The Secret History, you’ll like Real Life as well!

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