Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

downloadShaker Heights is the kind of community where garbage is stored always out of sight from the street, and every last detailed is planned, from the diversity of its population to the color scheme of each house. When a free-spirited artist, Mia, and her daughter Pearl move to town, their lives become entangled with the members of the Richardson family, each of whom are either enamored with or infuriated by Mia and Pearl’s nonconformity. After a public scandal arises surrounding the custody of an abandoned baby, everyone in town is obliged to take sides in a controversy that will put ambiguous ethics at odds with family loyalties.

The novel has a nostalgic feel from the pre-Internet late 90s, when there was still some mystery in the lives of teenagers, and digging into other people’s past required some old-school sleuthing.  Celeste Ng deftly weaves through different time periods and perspectives, as each of the characters confronts the weight of their past decisions and struggles to move forward without casting judgment on themselves and others.

Set in a suburb founded on the idealism of planned order, the story peels back the façade of a community free from discrimination, conflict, and uncertainty.  Messy emotions are unearthed. Fires, real and figurative, are ignited. Ng takes readers on a journey through uncomfortable gray areas with no clear way out.

“You’ll always be sad about this,” Mia said softly. “But it doesn’t mean you made the wrong choice. It’s just something that you have to carry.”

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Infomocracy by Malka Older

infomocracyAn author and humanitarian worker, Malka Older’s novel Infomocracy comes at a pertinent time– when illegitimate information is being weaponized, and accuracy and transparency of data feels increasingly fragile. In Older’s utopian world of Infomocracy, Information with a capital “I” is glorified in a new world order. Here, groups of 100,000 people elect their own government, and things like the nation-state, guns, and war are obsolete.

As the election approaches, there are underground whisperings of a new threat to global peace, and it’s up to a few idealist individuals – an anti-election rebel, a policy-focused campaign specialist, and a badass employee of the Information bureaucracy—to unravel it before the well-ordered micro-democracy regresses into territorial warfare.

Taking place 20 years in the not so far future, the genre is mystery, action, sci-fi, and political commentary all rolled into one. As ideological dilemmas and power grabs unfold, Older reveals a nuanced ambivalence towards two things we hold dear in Western society—democracy and constant access to information. Infomocracy is an intriguing glimpse into the limitations of both of those things and why even the most carefully designed systems of governance are susceptible to the “quirks of neurobiology”.

“I suppose we should feel flattered they’re using Information rather than bombs for the moment.”

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Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

9780525511298In this debut collection of stories, Fajardo-Anstine weaves together an exquisite tapestry of Indigenous Chicana women. Set in modern Denver as gentrification morphs the landscape into something unrecognizable, the characters navigate an unrelenting world through sheer determination and lack of any other alternative. These are stories about displacement and female relationships—about physical realities that are easily and carelessly destroyed, as well as the deep roots that persist through generations.

Fajardo-Anstine’s characters have an impressive breadth of personalities and age. They are diverse in their circumstances and yet all linked through their heritage and connection to the land. Whether the story features a little girl tasked with co-parenting a bag of sugar for a class project, or a woman recently released from prison, Fajardo-Anstine brings to life complex familial relationships with heartbreaking clarity.

While these women endure abuse, rejection, loss, and grieving, what stands out the most in these narratives is not their difficult circumstances, but the way others fail to acknowledge or respond to their suffering. On one level, Sabrina & Corina celebrates the way women persevere to hold together the shards of their broken families. But beyond the portraits of female strength, it tells another timeless story of apathy towards violence against women. By telling these stories, Fajardo-Anstine forces ugly truths into the open and gives big voices to those who have been silenced.

This book is truly a cultural gem, capturing the American West and the transformation of Colorado through the lens of its indigenous women.

I thought of all the women my family had lost, the horrible things they’d witnessed, the acts they simply endured. Sabrina had become another face in a line of tragedies that stretched back generations. And soon, when the mood hit my grandmother just right, she’d sit at her kitchen table, a Styrofoam cup of lemonade in her warped hand, and she’d tell the story of Sabrina Cordova—how men loved her too much, how little she loved herself, how in the end it killed her. The stories always ended the same, only different girls died, and I didn’t want to hear them anymore.

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Severance by Ling Ma

81A9dFqIEELCandace is an aspiring photographer who thrives on the routine of her young professional life in New York City. She navigates the city in contented anonymity and plays her part as a competent and vital cog in the mass production of Bibles for publishing clients. As an epidemic of Shen Fever threatens the global population, Candace clings to the comforts of her 9 to 5 job, while the rest of the city flees to hometowns to find family and refuge. An orphaned daughter of immigrants, Candace is on her own until she joins up with a group of survivors led by Bob—an IT guy on a power trip, looking to enact his own vision for a new society.

Severance is a satirical apocalypse story pointing to the tragedy of the infinite loops we find ourselves barely living in.  Shen Fever is the embodiment of an epidemic already deeply rooted in the global consumer society—the mindless repetition of going through the motions while our mental capacity, bodies, and self-awareness slowly deteriorate. I love Ling Ma’s wry humor and her new-age interpretation of the apocalypse wrought with disillusioned millennials and the familiar horror of the relentlessly mundane.

“When you wake up in a fictitious world, your only frame of reference is fiction.”

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Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

“I do not even struggle to speak; the spark of words dies so deep in my chest there is not even space to mount them on an exhale.”

91ZOrAgmdrLOne thing I love about essay and story collections is seeing the recurring images and ideas that pop up throughout, like the weeds (or wild flowers?) of the author’s subconscious. As the title suggests, Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado is full of women’s bodies—bodies disappearing, falling apart, taking up space. With hints of surrealism, Machado’s stories explore the ways that we are continually haunted by past traumas. She renders the neurotic mania that sometimes takes the wheel when women remain unheard or misunderstood as well as the pain of feeling like a burden to your loved ones. Her characters don’t necessarily find healing and happy endings, but I love that they face their truest selves, no matter how terrifying it is, and fiercely pursue what they most desire.

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In the realm of sense and reason it seemed logical for something to make sense for no reason (natural order) or not make sense for some reason (the deliberate design of deception) but it seemed perverse to have things make no sense for no reason. What if you colonize your own mind and when you get inside, the furniture is attached to the ceiling? What if you step in side and when you touch the furniture, you realize it’s all just cardboard cutouts and it all collapses beneath the pressure of your finger? What if you get inside and there’s no furniture? What if you get inside and it’s just you in there, sitting in a chair, rolling figs and eggs around in the basket on your lap and humming a little tune? What if you get inside and there’s nothing there, and then the door hatch closes and locks?

What is worse: being locked outside of your own mind, or being locked inside of it?

Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez

9780399555497Julia Alvarez tells the story of 12-year-old Anita, whose family joins the resistance against Dictator Trujillo in the Dominican Republic during the 1960’s. While coping with the early stages of puberty, Anita also grapples with the concepts of justice and freedom as General Trujillo, “El Jefe”, and the secret police terrorize her family.

It’s a novel written for all ages that illuminates a history too often forgotten by Americans and the rest of the world. Regarding the political reality that her own family lived through, Alvarez writes– “As Americans, I think we’re very aware of the genocide and destruction that happened in Europe, the young casualties of the Holocaust, all those World War II children for whom UNICEF was originally created. But we’re less knowledgeable about what happened in our own hemisphere in the second half of the last century: the dozens of dictatorships and repressive regimes that afflicted the South American countries. In 1972, there were only three democracies in all of Latin America…I wanted to tell the story of our Anne Frank on this side of the Atlantic.”

Before We Were Free honors the children who had no choice but to fight for their psychological and physical freedom while their mothers and fathers risked everything for the ajusticimiento.

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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

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The Hate U Give is a Black Lives Matter inspired novel about a 16-year-old girl seeking justice for her childhood best friend, Khalil, who is murdered by a police officer.

Angie Thomas perfectly captures the teenage perspective of Starr Carter, who learns from a young age to cope with violence and trauma but is still learning what it means to use her voice. By bringing to life two different worlds—Starr’s predominantly black, low-income neighborhood, and her affluent, mostly white private school, Thomas shows readers what it’s like for Starr to constantly have to prove herself to others, and to walk a thin line between loyalty and survival.

Thomas’s  characters and candid writing honors both black Americans who have lost their lives, as well as the people who continue to fight for justice even as they grieve. Whether or not you’ve been personally affected by racial violence, this book will hopefully encourage readers to consider a new perspective in a story that is, tragically, all too familiar to Americans today.

“I stare at the two Khalils. The pictures only show so much. For some people, the thugshot makes him look just like that—a thug. But I see somebody who was happy to finally have some money in his hand, damn where it came from. And the birthday picture? I remember how Khalil ate so much cake and pizza he got sick. His grandma hadn’t gotten paid yet, and food was limited in their house. I knew the whole Khalil. That’s who I’ve been speaking up for. I shouldn’t deny any part of him.” 

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Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera

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The novel opens with surrealist undertones as the main character, a young woman named Makina, is about to cross over to another world. Makina has been tasked by her mother to cross the border from Mexico to find her brother who left 3 years earlier. In order to have a chance at succeeding, Makina is forced to cooperate with the local cartel, who promise to help secure safe passage in exchange for a favor.

Makina’s journey illustrates the unimaginable risk undertaken by those crossing the border illegally, the stakes that make it worth losing everything, and the forces that motivate immigrants to stay in a new country despite their permanent status as an outsider in a disillusioned society. By showing the US through Makina’s perspective, Herrera turns the tables on the common notion of Latinx immigrants as criminals.  In the US, Makina’s compatriots must be “armed with work”, constantly deflecting persecution and protecting themselves from violence by existing just on the edges, in the backs of restaurants and on bleak construction sites.

The story also showcases savvy women who choose not to be victims in a misogynistic society. The women adapt ways to harness their power without men even noticing the ways that they take control of their lives and communities. Early on in the book, her mother says, “I don’t like to send you, child, but who else can I trust it to, a man?” Makina’s power stems from her ability to interpret many layers of language in her job as a switchboard operator as well as acting as an emissary between two entangled cultures.

Herrera has an unexpectedly whimsical use of language, his words both simple and inventive. The English translation captures this surprisingly well; the original Spanish version is surely even richer. The plot is largely executed in the abstract, with towns, countries, and activities that go unnamed but are understood implicitly by the reader. These concepts are interspersed with tangible details that bring to mind stark images. To read this book is to take a journey to the US from the Other Side—any origin/identification/language that makes you forever the target of disdain and suspicion.

 

“The city was an edgy arrangement of cement particles and yellow paint. Signs prohibiting things thronged the streets, leading citizens to see themselves as ever protected, safe, friendly, innocent, proud, and intermittently bewildered, blithe, and buoyant; salt of the only earth worth knowing.”

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Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés

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Women Who Run with the Wolves is a collection of myths and stories venerating the Wild Woman–the powerful, instinctive nature that lives within every woman. Collected over a lifetime from around the world, and especially from the author’s Latina and Eastern European ancestors, the stories teach us that the Wild Woman brings vitality, good instincts, and creative fire to the female soul. Through the characters and archetypal symbolism, Estes teaches women how to nourish the Wild Woman in order to avoid falling victim to an over-civilized culture and other predators both external to and within our own psyches.

 In contrast to the watered down, Christianized fairy tales of modern times, these stories are dark and messy. Each one, combined with commentary, reveals insight into topics such as romantic relationships rooted in soul-craving, seeing through illusion, finding people we belong to, embracing the Life/Death/Life cycle, and how to live in a way that honors the untamed criatura within each of us.

I hope that all of the women I love will read this one for the spiritual healing it can bring at any stage of their post-adolescent life. I suspect that different chapters will speak to women at different points in their journey, and I plan to read it multiple times!

 

“The balanced valuing of emotion is certainly an act of self-respect. Even raw and messy emotions can be understood as a form of light, crackling and bursting with energy. We can use the light of rage in a positive way, in order to see into places we cannot usually see.”

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An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

Gay-An-Untamed-State-jacket-art-9780802122513Roxane Gay has a truly inspiring ability to write about sexual violence through the unfiltered, unapologetic voice of a survivor. In this novel, she details the unravelling of a woman after she is kidnapped for ransom in Haiti—the destruction of a woman’s body and her fundamental sense of self.

As a first generation Haitian-American, Mireille copes with the uncomfortable contrast between her family’s wealth and the poverty of a country that is both an integral part of her identity and a place she can never really understand. Throughout the book, Gay’s characters are forced to determine what physical and emotional ransoms they are willing to sacrifice for survival. The novel is also critical of Western perceptions of poorer countries but refrains from presenting readers with any simple conclusions regarding ambiguous identity politics.

It’s a heavy read, but an important one—the timeless story of the destruction of women at the hands of entitled, prideful men. The dialogue felt a bit heavy-handed at times, but I appreciated the fact that the relationships are full of the frustrations and contradictions that push us to our limits, for better or worse, when it comes to the people we love the most.

 “There is nothing you cannot do when you are no one.”

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