TBR Double Dare

2017: Looking Forward

Happy New Year! It’s hard to believe the holidays are already over, but I don’t think many of us are sad to say goodbye to 2016. While 2016 may have not been the best year in more ways than I care to list, as I mentioned in my year-end review post, I had an unusually strong reading year. With my first pick of 2017, Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl, that trend seems to be continuing. I’m not even a third of the way through that one and I’m already in love with it. Something about Jahren’s writing and worldview remind me of my beloved M Train, so I can see it easily taking a place on my year-end favorites list. Crazy, right?

My reading goals for this year are very loosey-goosey, but I am joining a couple of challenges. For the fifth year in a row, I’ll be joining the TBR Dare (formerly known as The TBR Double Dog Dare and created and previously hosted by James), which has been taken over by Lizzy and Annabel. The general idea is to tackle your TBR by reading books exclusively from your shelves from January through March (or longer if you dare). I have about five books that I placed on hold at the library well before the new year, but aside from those I’ll be reading books I already own well through April.

This year I also decided to join Book Riot’s Retro Rereads group. I am hoping to reread at least 12 books (one per month). While I’m not going to pick them all out ahead of time, I have a few in mind: Just Kids by Patti Smith, In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien, Straight Man by Richard Russo, Crooked Hearts by Robert Boswell, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, and Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant.

I’d also like to read more non-fiction this year (I only read three works of non-fiction last year, and two of those I didn’t even finish). And as someone who used to read short story collections almost exclusively, last year I didn’t read a single collection, so that needs to remedied as well.

As for blogging, my main goal is simply to blog more. I’m not sure what that will look like, but when I was doing my year-end post I realized how little I shared of this terrific reading year. I’m not going to commit to writing formal reviews of everything I read, but I definitely would like to share more, even if I’m just posting some favorite passages from what I’m reading. If you’re generally interested in keeping up with what I read outside the blog, you can also follow me on Goodreads.

So that’s it for me in a nutshell. What are your reading plans for 2017?

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2016: Looking Back

As I mentioned in my Favorite Books of 2016 post, 2016 was a fantastic year in reading for me. Honestly, I can’t remember a better year since maybe 2012. The better part of my reading year was filled with four- and five-star books, and not simply because I was being generous. At the same time, several books I expected to love didn’t make the cut. You can see everything I read this year here, but I wanted to cover a few highlights of my reading year that aren’t just about favorites:

My very favorite books of the year were Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner and Commonwealth by Ann Patchett.

The book I finished too late to consider for year-end favorites was The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin. This fictional account of Truman Capote and his New York society “swans” was a delightful surprise. If you enjoyed this one, I highly recommend The Two Mrs. Grenvilles by Dominick Dunne, a fictionalized account of the story of Ann Woodward, the socialite accused of murdering her husband.

The best debut author I read was hands-down Imbolo Mbue. Behold the Dreamers, a novel about a Cameroonian family employed by a Titan of Wall Street just before the 2008 crash, is so powerful that feels like it was written by someone who has already churned out award-winning work. Unlike a lot of novels that deal with contemporary events, I can see this one becoming a book that remains relevant because Mbue seamlessly manages to integrate a timeless story about wanting a better life with current events, events that never overshadow the more intimate drama of a husband and wife’s struggles to get ahead. It got some good attention, but I don’t think it got nearly enough. I look forward to reading her next book. She will most definitely be a writer to watch.

Another book I thought deserved more attention was The Unseen World by Liz Moore. Ada Sibelius’s father, the only parent she has ever known, is beginning to lose his mind. In the midst of this crisis, she learns a family secret that sends her on a mission to learn the truth about her father. Moore never lets Ada’s story veer into melodrama, nor does she turn the eccentric Ada into a silly caricature of quirkiness. Moore is a quiet writer, developing deep, original characters without sacrificing plot. I also recommend her novel Heft.

A book from my TBR pile that made quite an impression on me was Crow Lake by Mary Lawson. I bought it used five or six years ago after browsing through the (virtual) bargain bins on Better World Books, and then I promptly  stuck it on the shelf and forgot about it, probably in favor of something new and shiny everyone was discussing. This is another debut novel, although Lawson, a Canadian, was 56 when it was published (hope for us all). It tells the story of the four Morrison children, whose parents are tragically killed in a car accident at the beginning of the book. The novel has an unreliable narrator in Kate Morrison, who has very definite ideas about how the family tragedy has shaped everything in their lives. This novel is an interesting and often quietly humorous look at how family roles and myths can lock us into patterns that may actually have nothing at all to do with what really happened.

I re-read three books this year, M Train by Patti Smith, You Remind Me of Me by Dan Chaon, and Machine Dreams by Jayne Anne Phillips. I loved every single one of these books the first time around, and I’m happy to say they remained five-star reads. Re-reading M Train was like visiting a favorite friend, and I suspect it’s a book I could re-read every year without tiring of it. In 2017 I am planning to re-read Just Kids (more on that in a forthcoming “Looking Forward” post), but I may make room for both. I originally read You Remind Me of Me in 2005, on two long plane trips to and from Las Vegas. Like Kent Haruf or Bonnie Nadzam, Chaon is one of those writers who beautifully crafts the small stories of people in the so-called flyover states. Machine Dreams was Phillips’s (probably best known for her novel Lark & Termite) debut novel, and it covers the years from WWII through Vietnam, giving us the changing face of a nation and times through the stories of family of four in small-town West Virginia.

Thirty-six of the fifty-five books I’ve read this year were by new-to-me authors. Of those books, the best surprises were All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt, and A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay. All My Puny Sorrows sounded like a book I would love from the get-go (because who doesn’t love books about suicide, really?), but the humor was completely unexpected. The latter two were both definitely outside my wheelhouse and were books I picked up because they were generating so much buzz with readers I trust. Mr. Splitfoot is absolutely grounded and magical at the same time, and Hunt never gives over to too much weirdness or too much explanation. A Head Full of Ghosts is supremely clever, even for those of us who aren’t horror fans, with fully realized characters and an overall interesting take on family narratives. Oh, and also an honorable mention for Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, which didn’t surprise me so much but did delight me to no end.

Thirty-one of the fifty-five books I read were by women, but only a lousy seven were by non-white authors, which is an issue I realized late in the year. To tell the truth, it makes me squeamish to count such things, though, because it makes me feel like I am patting myself on the back and congratulating myself on what a good little white person I am. That said, I realize I need to be more aware. The main thing I plan to do in 2017 is purchase books by non-white authors, so I can vote with my dollar and tell publishers what kind of books I want to see them publish. Except for books by favorite authors, when it comes to white authors I’ll probably start using the library more frequently. As much as I’d love to BUY ALL THE BOOKS, I have too many unread books right now to justify buying more unless the purchase makes a meaningful statement in some way. Given the recently announced Simon & Schuster decision to give a book contract to a white supremacist, I think voting with our wallets is more important than ever.

Only four of the books I read got two-star ratings: Siracusa by Delia Ephron, The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson, We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas, and Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne. Siracusa and The Kind Worth Killing were on a lot of people’s favorites lists, but for me they both fell flat. The characters in both novels were unlikable and two-dimensional, and their motives were dumb. Still, I have to give credit where it’s due: The Kind Worth Killing had a very tightly plotted pace that kept me turning pages almost against my will. We Are Not Ourselves started out strong but quickly became a drag, as it has one of the most insufferable protagonists…and it started to get sloppy. At one point late in the novel, a main character suddenly has a sister, even though early in the novel it’s explained that he only has a brother. And Empire of the Summer Moon, a non-fiction account of the Comanche in Texas that won the Pulitzer, was shocking because it’s written from a very solid, Western, Christian, thank-goodness-the-whites-came point of view. I stopped at page 61, but up to that point the pages are flagged and underlined and marked with my notes exhorting my disbelief. Check out this little nugget: “This the fateful clash between settlers from the culture of Aristotle, St. Paul, Da Vinci, Luther, and Newton and aboriginal horsemen from the buffalo plains happened as though in a time warp–as though the former were looking back thousands of years at premoral, pre-christian, low-barbarian versions of themselves.” Because morality did not exist until Christians, y’all.

My other biggest disappointments were This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell and the third novel in the Elena Ferrante trilogy, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. This Must Be the Place barely escaped getting a two-star rating from me because it also had an implausible situation at its core and dull characters. I loved The Hand That First Held Mine so much, I had been looking forward to this one since it was announced. And with the Ferrante, I’m not sure what happened. My Brilliant Friend was breathtaking, but the longer the story went on in the third novel, the more it felt like listening to a friend who has a creep of a partner who makes her miserable but whom she refuses to leave. However, the books are interesting from a sociological standpoint, and Ferrante is very good at putting a reader right in the moment without succumbing to melodrama.

In other sort of bookish news, I finally finished The Gilmore Girls, including A Year in the Life. I’m not going to give away any hints about the ending, but I will say I found it kind of disappointing. Seasons 2-4 remain my favorite, and ultimately my favorite character will always be Emily.

I’ll be back soon with a look forward at all the bookish plans I have for 2017. Happy New Year to you all!

Reader’s Journal: We Disappear

We DisappearFor years I’ve been saying that I need to keep better track of how I find books. I thought about this again when I picked up Scott Heim’s We Disappear and almost immediately wished I could offer a personal thank you to whoever recommended it.

Scott is a freelance writer living in New York City. Well, “living” might be too broad a term; he’s a writer, yes, but he’s also a meth addict, hiding out in his apartment most days and devoting his time to his high. Scott’s mother Donna lives in Haven, Kansas, just outside Hutchinson. She calls Scott to tell him that a seventeen-year-old boy named Henry Barradale was found murdered. She sends him newspaper clippings about the story and calls him regularly with updates. She bids him to come home to they can investigate together what happened to Henry, perhaps find his murderer.

Donna is suffering from terminal lung cancer. She’s a former prison tower guard at a maximum-security prison and True Detective (the magazine, not the television show) fanatic. Scott realizes her phone calls and sudden interest in Henry’s murder are really about something else, so he relents and agrees to visit. As it turns out, Henry’s murder is not the real mystery she wants to solve. We learn that the missing—the disappeared—have been an obsession of Donna’s since Scott and his sister Alice were children, when a Haven boy named Evan Carnaby vanished:

“The boy had disappeared during the time our mother was drinking, those weeks and months so long before her real disease, and soon she began staying up, quiet leaden midnights and beyond, to search for information on Evan and more missing souls. I remember hunkering downstairs to find her in the darkened kitchen, absorbed in her new undertaking. The staggering breathing, the rustle of newspapers, the sudden glint of scissors…In the mornings, Alice and I would wake to find all the faces watching us, Evan and his vanished companions, their photographs taped and pasted and pinned to our kitchen walls.”

Scott returns to find his mother similarly obsessed with Henry Barradale. The dashboard of Donna’s truck is covered in pictures of the missing, and when he arrives at the house she proudly shows him the kitchen walls she’s transformed with the same sort of clippings that she’d “taped and pasted and pinned” all those years ago. She also has an idea, a project for the two of them: a book about the missing in Kansas. She’s placed classified ads in newspapers in cities like Hutchinson and Emporia and Wichita, looking for families of the missing who want to talk, to tell their stories:

“Perhaps I hadn’t fully grasped my mother’s determination. I wasn’t certain she understood the gravity, the possible danger: could she actually exploit these despairing family members or friends with all her promises, her false guarantees? Would she still discuss our fictitious research and resulting work? Her detective work, Dolores had called it.”

When Scott arrives home and his mother’s best friend Dolores picks him up at the bus station (he’s had to take the bus because he’s carrying meth to see him through his visit), he realizes immediately that his other’s disease has progressed much more than he realized. They haven’t got much time, and so he agrees to go along with most of his mother’s schemes and wishes, even when he feels it’s against better judgment (although whose better judgment is questionable, since everyone in the story is afflicted in some way that affects their faculties).

As it does in Gillian Flynn’s work, Kansas itself also becomes a sort of character in the book: the small towns, the farms, the flat, cold landscape that Scott realizes he sought to escape but carries with him:

“Along the narrow avenues were houses with shattered windows, with gardens of car parts and sandburs and tumbleweeds. I watched her scribble street names on her notepads, names that might once have been functional but now were simply silly: Cowherder Street, Barley Boulevard, God’s Green Way.”

A way of life has disappeared, one that’s reflected in the antiques in Donna’s house:

“The bronze chandelier with its drops of glass…the old firkin sugar bucket, clumped with dried roses…the Dazey butter churn. Most of the antiques had remained in our family for years. Others I hadn’t seen before, her recent discoveries from junkyards and auctions. I stepped around the room, straightening the picture frames, examining the rows of dolls in the glass china cabinet.”

We Disappear is one of those books where it’s difficult to know what might be a spoiler, so as far as plot, I’ll leave it at that even though there’s so much more. The story is told in the first person, and Scott is a compelling narrator, and it’s difficult to not to empathize with him. Everyone in this book is disappearing or disappeared in some sense, whether through illness or memory or reality, but Scott in particular has always felt invisible in some ways—a gay teenager in small-town Kansas, escaped to the big city where instead of finding himself he found the drug that would cause him to disappear even further. He’s an addict, and he makes no bones about the fact, but neither does he glamorize it or use it to shame, blame, or confuse other people. Instead, Scott does everything in the book despite his addiction, and I think that’s one of the things that keeps the book from dragging the reader around in the hopelessness of it all.

Here’s something I can’t quite figure out: as dark as this book is, I enjoyed it thoroughly. We Disappear features a meth addict, a cancer victim, a lonely alcoholic, and countless missing or murdered men, women, and children. Yet something redeeming exists, and I think ultimately that thing is love. Scott loves his mother, even with all her eccentricities, even with all his frustration at her and at himself. He knows that she loves him. It isn’t that they aren’t flawed people, but more that Heim doesn’t really let the flaws and dysfunction get in the way of the love, and that’s as unusual in a novel as in life. Hope beats steadily beneath the narrative, which makes it easy for the reader to keep going, to keep hoping.

*images and links from Goodreads and Wikipedia

Reader’s Journal: Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead

Claire DeWitt and the City of the DeadI can’t remember how I came across Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead. I think maybe I saw it on one of those “Recommended Reading” lists from someone like Gillian Flynn or Megan Abbott, which makes sense because stylistically this novel, the first in a series (hopefully a long one), sits alongside works by those authors (and I’d include Laura Lippman’s books, both her Tess Monaghan series and her stand-alone works, here as well). Gran definitely has the grit of Flynn and Abbott, the page-turning story skills and character development of all three.

Claire DeWitt is a private investigator. For her, being a PI isn’t a job, but a calling, or even a burden. At the age of twelve, she and her two best friends, Kelly and Tracie, find a book called Détection in the crumbling Brooklyn mansion where Claire lives with her parents. Détection is a manual of sorts, written by a French PI names Jacques Silette. Silette’s work is less a “how to” than an existential philosopher’s text for the PI. For example:

“There are moments in life that are quicksand,” Silette wrote. “A gun goes off. A levee breaks. A girl goes missing. These moments of time are different from the others. Quicksand is a dangerous place to be. We will drown there if we can’t get out. But it tricks us. It tricks us into confusing us with safety. At first, it may seem like a solid place to stay. But slowly we’re sinking. You will never move forward. Never move back. In quicksand you will slowly sink until you drown. The deeper you let yourself sink, the harder it is to claw yourself out.”

As Claire explains it, Silette has a small, cult-like following, primarily because Détection is a book that finds its readers, not so much the other way around.

In the present day, Claire DeWitt is 35, and she has just returned to New Orleans, having left the city many years before when her mentor, Constance Darling, a former lover and student of Jacques Silette, was murdered. It is a couple of years after Hurricane Katrina, and Claire has been hired by a man named Leon Salvatore to solve the mystery of the disappearance of his uncle, a man named Vic Willing who was a prominent DA for the city. Leon believes his uncle is dead, but he wants to learn what happened to him before he vanished.

Claire is no ordinary PI. She reads Silette, consults the I Ching, and abuses a fair (larger than fair, really) amount of substances in pursuit of the solution to Leon’s mystery. Interwoven with the mystery of Vic’s disappearance, Claire also shares the story of how she met Constance Darling, in addition to another unsolved mystery that continues to haunt her: the disappearance of her best friend Tracie when they were seventeen years old.

This is one of those books where I feel like I need to walk the line. Of course I don’t want to give away what happened to Vic Willing, but more importantly, I don’t want to give away the smaller mysteries the book contains, because they are part of its charm. Claire uses instinct, dreams, and signs as her primary tools for working her mysteries (notice I didn’t say solving), and while that kind of thing could get hokey and annoying pretty quickly, in Gran’s capable hands they seem like natural tools for the private eye, probably because Claire herself is anti-social, smart, and gritty—the last person you would expect to believe that a roll of the dice could reveal anything other than a pair of numbers. She also gives quaint names to the mysteries she works on (Vic’s is “The Case of the Green Parrot”; another is “The Case of the Missing Miners” ), which seems like a sly and charming nod to golden-age mystery series

The other compelling character in this novel is the city of New Orleans. I don’t think I’ve seen a documentary or read a news story yet that quite captures what it must have been (must still be to some extent?) like post-Hurricane Katrina. Because Vic Willing disappeared days after the hurricane, Claire’s investigation leads her to places and people who are still devastated by the event nowhere near recovery, if they ever will be.

I’m looking forward to reading Gran’s second book in the series, Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway, and will be anxiously awaiting the third installment. I highly recommend it. And for the record, I own the first book, so it also counts for the TBR Double Dog Dare. (Too bad I don’t own the second one.)

*image and link from Goodreads

Top Ten Tuesday: 2015 Resolutions

For today’s Tuesday Top Ten, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, we are asked to share our 2015 resolutions, bookish, blogging, or otherwise. This year I feel like I am in a resolution rut, because my resolutions are pretty much the same this year as they were last year and the year before. Instead of being discouraged by this, I am just going to promise myself that this year, I’ll make sure at least half of these stick!

1. Read more books. 2014 was a good year as far as quality, but very poor as far as quantity: I only managed to finish 32 books, although I started and put down at least a dozen more after making substantial progress. I really let my (bad) mood drive my reading choices. My target isn’t huge, just to average one book a week. If I read some chunksters this year, I may give myself a small pass on hitting 52 books. (I currently have have my eye on Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White.)

2. Tackle the TBR. This is an ongoing resolution for so many book bloggers. We try and try to whittle down those piles. I’ll be doing the TBR Double Dog Dare hosted by James, which is becoming something of a yearly tradition for book bloggers who want to diminish those piles. The Dare is to read only from the TBR pile from January 1 through April 1. Participants can buy new books but cannot read them until after March 31. I participated in 2012 and 2013, and was fairly successful (although in 2013, I didn’t make it all the way to April without reading a new book).

3. Keep track of my thoughts. This year I would definitely like to keep better track of what I thought of what I read. I need to get back to using flags or highlighting (ebooks) and taking notes as I read. Over the past couple of years I started to realize I probably would never get around to writing a review for the blog, so I gave up even taking notes. I’m sorry that I did, because I know I read some terrific books this year but I have no notes to remind me of what I loved. Also, I find that if I am keeping up my reading journal, I am more likely to write reviews here, which leads me to number 4…

4. Write more reviews. I may not review everything I read, but I’d certainly like to write more reviews than I did this year. I read so many terrific books—like Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress—that went unsung (well, on this blog, at least).

5. Comment more on other people’s blogs. The chance to discuss books was the whole reason I got into book blogging. Commenting was a hot topic this year, because many people have simply stopped for various reasons. Sometimes it feels too time-consuming to try and keep up with so many great bloggers; other times we have nothing to say because we haven’t read or are not interested in the book being reviewed. For my part, I’d just like to do a better job at letting the bloggers who I read regularly know that I appreciate their time, effort, and recommendations.

6. Write. In the last quarter of 2014 I got very disciplined about scheduling in some writing time and sticking to it. I don’t have a goal here other than to pick up and keep that momentum going in 2015. For now, it’s all about getting back into the habit.

7. Read more short stories. I used read more short story collections than novels in any given year. Last year I read one, the aforementioned Stone Mattress. Late in 2013 I pre-ordered Lorrie Moore’s latest collection, Bark. It’s still sitting on the shelf, untouched. **Cringe** I bought several other collections in 2013 and 2014 and haven’t read any of them either. Any of you who have followed this blog over the years know I am an advocate of the short story, so I think in 2015 I’d better walk the walk.

8. Find a read-along or another challenge to join. I gave up on challenges a long time ago, but I think joining one (just one!) again might help me get back into the swing of things.

9. Use the library. A couple of years ago I decided to give up my library card in hope that I would defer to my own shelves. That didn’t entirely work, so this year, I renewed my library membership. I am hoping that will help me stop buying ebooks on sale, but I am also happy to be supporting my local branch once again.

10. Finish what I start. I’ve gotten really bad about not finishing some perfectly good books. I am all for putting down a book if it truly is bad or making you suffer in some way, but I put down some great books this year just because. I had several book tantrums where I spent a period of weeks just grazing through books and being mad at any number of them for not holding my attention, when really it wasn’t their fault. I need to get back some of the discipline that has rewarded me as a reader in the past.

What are your resolutions, bookish or not, this year?

Challenged

To start, I had this blog post mostly written and then I did some magic with the keyboard and the first draft disappeared. So it has been that kind of day/week/month/year. I am so ready to see 2012 out (Bye bye now. Please do hit yourself on the ass with the door on your way out.) and welcome 2013. (Actually, I cannot believe I just said that. Now I am sure to get struck by lightening or something on January 2.) This year has been, shall we say, challenging. But lately I feel like I need the kind of relief the turn of a clock or a calendar page can bring. I know so, so many people who feel this way because they’ve had a really tough year.

The harder things get, the harder I get on myself, and the more things seem to stand still. The thought struck me this afternoon that I am overwhelmed with “shoulds”: I should eat better, I should exercise more often, I should run longer/faster, I should read more, I should write every day, I should eat out less and cook more meals at home, I should stand up every ten minutes so that I won’t have a shortened life span, I should write a review of that book, I should call so-and-so, I should be more social, and on and on and on.

There is a big difference between “I should” and “I want to,” and somewhere over the last year, things I used to want to do have started to feel like “shoulds.” In this case, a smarter person would probably not add to her list of things to accomplish. But I am a pragmatic optimist. The best thing to do, sometimes, is to give yourself a stern talking to and own up to what you want.

Long-Awaited reads month buttonI haven’t been posting regularly, but one of the things that has made life the last month or so a bit more tolerable is this blog. Being a part of the book blogging community here and on Twitter serves as a reminder to stay in touch with something I love: books. It was in that spirit I decided to hook up with Ana and Iris and a bunch of other great bloggers for Long-Awaited Reads Month in January 2013. It was also in that spirit today that I signed up for The TBR Double Dog Dare hosted by C.B. at Ready When You Are, C.B. Last year I committed to read eight books from my TBR list by April 1, excluding book club books. Given my current reading pace, I’m planning to stick with eight books this year. If I get through more, then that’s just a bonus. (Full disclosure: Last year I also signed up for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2012, and I failed miserably. I think almost every book I read this summer with a few exceptions was a new book. Yeah. I SHOULD have read my own books, but I WANTED to read new books. See how I made that work?)

Another thing I was thinking of was perhaps putting together a re-reading group or challenge, if anyone is interested. I have a lot of books that I should want to re-read, but never get the chance. I have no button, I have no page (I could easily put one together), and I don’t want to pressure anyone, obviously. But if, like me, you are hankering to re-read some old favorites and you haven’t been able to get to it, then this could be our chance. Any takers? Let me know in the comments if you’re interested. (I think I have about ten readers, so if you join and fail to complete the challenge, hardly anyone would know! That’s an upside! Going for the hard sell here!)

TSS: Small Island, Small World

sunsalon1This has been a strange year so far. Not only have I not had much time to post here, I have not had much time to read. Most days I get only about 20 minutes or so before bed, and that’s only if I can keep my eyes open that long. I did manage to finish a couple of books in the last two weeks, though, so that’s something…but not really given that one of them, Shanghai Girls, I started sometime last December. Ahem. And now I am trying desperately to finish C.J. Box’s Blue Heaven, which I actually started last summer. Anything to squeeze in a few more books before the end of March to at least attempt to meet my goal for the TBR Double Dare. Of course, this pressure is all internal. I’m happy about it actually, because it makes me focus where I should focus: on my own books.

As far as Shanghai Girls and Small Island, I can easily recommend both; however, Shanghai Girls is incredibly sad, and Small Island…well, racism is never an easy subject, ever. Both books actually deal with racism, and it’s ugly in both cases. And interestingly enough, although both books are set around the time of World War II, they both deal with subjects that are lately in the news every night: immigration and racism. It’s a pitiful fact that this is the case. While I realize we have progressed some, sometimes I wonder if the progression is real, or if people have just gotten better at hiding their prejudice. Or perhaps I should say, I wonder if people HAD gotten better at hiding their prejudice, because it seems to suddenly raising its ugly head in ways I could not have imagined a decade ago.

Shanghai Girls deals with the racism Chinese immigrants faced in this country in the mid-Twentieth century. Many Chinese came here looking for opportunities to help their families in China, and after the Japanese invaded China in 1937, many people came here to escape the war, only to find that 12 years later they would be unable to return to China under the Communists–and face suspicion here of being Communist spies. Hailing from Texas, I grew up around Mexicans my whole life. I moved to Georgia over a decade ago. As you might know, Georgia does not share any borders with Mexico. In 2010, someone running for state office promised to “protect our borders.” Protect them from what? Immigrants from Alabama? All those crazy South Carolinians? Perhaps they forgot, as well, that so much of our economy depends on people crossing the border to find a better life. They pick the fruit and vegetables sitting your fridge (or at least they did–Georgia farmers are now regretting their support of conservative candidates who promised to pass strict immigration laws, because they can’t find anyone to pick their crops). But fear is a powerful thing. Make people believe they are under a vast threat and promise you can protect them…like, say, telling the Germans that the Jews wanted to take all of their jobs, so that soon no Germans would be able to find work.

I bring this up because it illustrates a relevant point, both in the two books and in what’s happening in our country right now: people are driven and easily manipulated by fear. By fear of what, I do not know. I hear a lot of blathering about Christians losing their rights and being oppressed, when everywhere there’s evidence of the contrary. The white, Christian man seems to be having a heyday. If not, then how could laws be passed forcing women to have transvaginal ultrasounds? If not, then how could this bumper sticker be proudly displayed on people’s cars? If not, why do people want to build fences along the Mexican border? If not, why are there people who still insist that President Obama is a Muslim? (And so what if he was? What happened to religious freedom? If you’re so threatened by someone else’s religious beliefs, perhaps you should question what makes your own faith so shaky and threatened by the idea of beliefs that are different from yours.) If not, why did a white man in Florida shoot a young black man for walking down the street with a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea? (And I promise you, if the shooter had been black or Hispanic, he would have had cuffs slapped on him faster than you can say “hoodie.”)

I tend not to talk politics with people in person, and I generally don’t say anything about it here on the blog either. But I am simply appalled, and I cannot sit still and pretend nothing is happening. I’m not interested in starting arguments or attacking parties (I believe there are racist liberals and progressive conservatives). I’m simply saying, by themselves, both of these books made me cringe. Given the parallels between what happens in these books set in the 1930s and 1940s and what I see on the news today…it made me want to crawl under the bed and not come out.

I’ll simply close with the wise words of Airman Gilbert Joseph, RAF in Small Island, and leave it at that:

‘You know what your trouble is, man?’ he said. ‘Your white skin. You think it makes you better than me. You think it give you the right to lord it over a black man. But you know what it make you? You wan’ know what your white skin make you, man? It make you white. That is all, man. No better, no worse than me–just white.’