Review: Carson’s Norma Jean Baker of Troy

Norma Jean Baker of Troy

Anne Carson


Carson is a genius. An actual genius. She’s a Greek scholar, and a gifted poet and novelist. She’s also someone I’ve admired for years. In fact, I have a whole page of this website devoted to her.

Sometimes her work, which often mixes the ancient with the modern, can border on the too difficult for simpletons like me. But this play — a brilliant mash-up of Helen of Troy and Marilyn Monroe really delivers at the sweet spot of gorgeous, funny and clever. I regret I didn’t see this when it was performed in Brooklyn. If there’s ever a revival, I’ll be there.


Review: Wilkinson’s American Spy

American Spy
Lauren Wilkinson

Spy novel written by serious novelist that deals with race, gender, and anti-colonial struggles in Africa? SIGN ME UP. Wilkinson walks the line between literary and page turner here, incorporating very specific and nuanced discussions of African American / Afro-Caribbean Brooklyn, race and policing, and modern African history. To this she add a gripping who done it and a believable, tragic, love story. Worth the time even if spy novels aren’t usually your thing.


Book Review: Westover’s Educated

Tara Westover

The injuries in this book, the real bloody, life changing injuries. I wasn’t ready for that. I was ready for the story on the cover, of a woman raised by Mormon survivalists in the remote west, the story of a woman who didn’t know what the Holocaust was until she went to college, but who would, eventually work her way all the way to Oxford.

That story, I was ready for. But I wasn’t ready for the junk yard, and the accidents that left Westover’s brother violent and unhinged, and her father horribly disfigured. That flabbergasted me. I expected guns and conspiracies and a story of finding one’s self, but I didn’t expect children routinely put in harms way. Nor did I expect Westover’s relationship with her family to be so complex into adult hood.

This book is a bestseller, and it has the bestseller qualities, both good (compelling narrative) and bad (a bit on the “oh look at these weirdos” side) but its also much more moving than I expected. If seeing up close how precarious it can be to live “off the grid” and “close the land” than this is worth a read.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Tara Westover

Review: French’s Faithful Place

Faithful Place

Tana French

The third book in French’s Dublin Murder Squad series and the best one so far. Follows the story of a detective who returns, after twenty years away, to his dysfunctional family and neighborhood to investigate the death of his high school sweetheart. Like all of French’s books, the plot is strong, but it’s the characters and dialogue that keep you at it. I figured out the killer about half way through the book, but I didn’t care. I wanted to find out what happened to these people. I try not to equate too closely the experience of the Irish with the experience of my own ethnic group – the Irish American – but the similarities here between these hard scrabble shanty Irish and my own family were eerie. The family at the center of this book is much like my own extended kin, full of love and resentment; humor and booze. They tell a good story, sing a sad song, and really struck a nerve with me.

If you’re a fan of crime fiction, I’m sure you’d enjoy it. If you’re a certain kind of Irish American, you’ll see reflections of your own family in these pages, and my guess is, devour it.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Jemisin’s The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season

N.K. Jemisin

The first volume in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. The story of a world beset by earth quakes and other natural phenomenon, which can be kept at bay (or instigated) by a group of people with the power to control the forces of the earth. Called Orogenes, these people are hated, and feared. But why? Because they’re dangerous? Because they’re different? Because they’re strong? The story of some o these Orogenes and their shifting place in society is the center of this book. Their adventures and misfortunes are what move the plot. This book won a Hugo this year, and you see why. The writing is light years better than the average fantasy novel.  Jemisin is a gifted writer of real subtly, who introduces her characters, and her world, gradually, and carefully, revealing a bit more here and there to flesh out her heroes, and villains, and the world in which they live.

There’s plot twists and reveals here that in the hands of a lesser author would feel contrived. But Jemisin knows what she’s doing. While I may have uttered a “holy shit” once or twice when a revelation about the nature of the story finally dawned on me, I never felt conned like I sometimes do with books that have this sort of reveal-as-they-go structure. Yeah, this book is “fantasy” and I know that label alone may turn some off. But I suggest you get out of you comfort zone here and give it a try. It’s a great ride.


Review: Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees

The People in the Trees

Hanya Yanagihara

If not the best novel I read this year, among them. Super-duper icky and disturbing, but deeply compelling story of a scientist who travels to a remote pacific island and finds a substance that can allows those who eat it to live forever.

Basically (and intentionally), a b-movie plot on the surface, but told in a way that is really, really not b-movie style. Gorgeous writing, featuring deeply troubled characters, horrific (sometimes sexual) violence, child abuse, ecological collapse, terrible family dysfunction, the works. It isn’t an easy read. There were times when I felt physically sick from descriptions, but it tells us something, about the scientist at the center of the story, but also about the way we interact with each other, with that which is new, and with that which is different. It’s an important and challenging book and I’d really like to talk to you about it. You should check it out.



Book Review: Butler’s Parable of the Sower

Parable of the Sower

Octavia Butler
I call myself a science fiction fan, and a progressive, but somehow, I’d reached middle age without having read Parable of the Sower. FAIL.

Very pleased to have filled this gap in my education.

Parable of the Sower is a modern classic of the dystopian future subgenre of science fiction. In a future Southern California plagued by drought, massive economic inequality, and violence*, Lauren Olamina, a young African American woman, who can literally feel your pain, sets out to found a new religion and head north to a better life. This is book is ostensibly a journal she keeps of her journey. The book is divided into two parts: The first covers Olamina’s discovery of her religious calling, which blossoms as her home life disintegrates under the pressures of a failing society. In the second half, she finds her first followers, and clarifies her vision, while traveling north with thousands of other economic refugees to a better life.

There is action, there is philosophy, and there are political lessons. Olimina battles sexism, racism, ageism, and the dark impulses of late capitalism, all while falling in love and contemplating the meaning of life.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this could have been trite. But Butler has the chops to develop her characters, and advance the plot, without sacrificing the larger political and cultural issues she wishes to engaged in. That isn’t to say this is a perfect novel. Despite Butler’s skills, the dialogue can be clunky, and the secondary characters aren’t always as vivid as they could be, but it’s still a great read. Thoughtful enough to feel like you’re not wasting your time on mind candy, but fun enough that the pages go by quickly.

There’s a sequel to Sower, Parable of the Talents, which I haven’t gotten around to yet. But on the strength of this first volume, I will.


*Sound familiar? Shit’s even worse in the book than it is currently IRL there.


Octavia Butler