I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you. A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.
Ruth, a writer living on a lonely island in British Columbia, stumbles upon a Hello Kitty lunchbox that has washed up on shore; it probably found its way to the island in the aftermath of the 2011 Japanese tsunami. Inside the lunchbox is a collection of artifacts: letters written in Japanese, a wristwatch, and a journal that’s been written inside a swapped out copy of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time); Proust’s cover provides some camouflage for Nao’s innermost thoughts.
Ruth’s been experiencing writer’s block and finds it impossible to move forward on her memoir. She becomes obsessed with the diary, written by a sixteen-year-old Japanese schoolgirl named Nao. After her father lost his job in the United States, Nao’s family relocated back to Japan. The shame of losing his job and his subsequent inability to find work in Japan sends Nao’s father spiraling into depression, and he attempts suicide several times. It’s doubly hard on the thoroughly Americanized Nao, who is an outcast at school and is subject to extreme bullying. It isn’t long until she too is secretly suicidal.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
Publisher/Year: Random House, 2012
Narrator: Jim Broadbent
Length: 9 hrs, 57 minutes
What it is: Harold Fry has recently resigned himself spending the rest of his days in quiet retirement with his wife, even though their relationship has been strained for some time. One day, he receives a letter from an old friend he hasn’t seen in twenty years. Queenie Hennessy is dying; she’s in a hospice and is just writing to say goodbye. He writes a reply and walks to the post office to drop it off, but instead of stopping, he keeps walking; he’s suddenly become convinced that he needs to deliver the letter to Queenie in person — if he walks those six hundred miles across England, Queenie will live.
Why I listened to it: Lots of people were raving about it last year, plus it was longlisted for the 2012 Booker.
What I thought: I’ll admit I was a little hesitant about this one at first. The guy walks? For 600 miles? And that’s…it? But no, that’s not it. Though a lot of the plot is internal (Harold does have a lot of time on his hands to think about things, after all), the novel becomes a beautiful exploration of haunting regrets and new connections. Harold knows that this pilgrimage to Queenie is illogical. She’s dying, after all, and he’s old — it’ll take ages to get to her on foot. Nonetheless, it’s a journey he needs to make. I also adore Jim Broadbent and think it was genius to have him narrate the audiobook: he’s quiet and sad and contemplative and perfect.
You might also like: Building Stories by Chris Ware because of the way it explores its character’s past.
The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan
Publisher/Year: Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2012
What it is: Rollrock Island is a beautiful, isolated place where people work hard and live modestly. But the witch Misskaella knows something no one else does: inside the seals that inhabit the island live the most beautiful women anyone has ever seen; the women can be pulled out of their seal bodies with magic. For a price, Misskaella will capture one of these women, hide her seal skin so she can’t get away, and hand her off to her eager husband-to-be. Let’s just say bad things happen when every single man on the island begins thinking with the wrong head.
Why I read it: Because Margo Lanagan. Nuff said.
What I thought: OOOOOOMG. This book is weird, cruel, unsettling, and reaaaaaally addictive. It took me a while to get into it because of the characters’ dialect. Each chapter is written from a different point of view, so it also took a while to fall into the rhythm of the book. But once I did, I couldn’t put it down. I respect Lanagan tremendously for her ability to create these ethereal worlds and tackle some of the more sinister aspects of human nature in entirely believable ways. It’s one of my favorite books so far this year.
You might also like: The Color Master by Aimee Bender since it also deals with dark fairy-tale/myth retellings.
Set in Belle Époque Paris, The Painted Girls was inspired by the lives of the Van Goethem sisters. Antoinette, Marie, and Charlotte already lived in poverty before their father’s sudden death, but now they can’t rely on their alcoholic mother to make ends meet, and the girls must find a way to earn some wages. Hotheaded Antoinette has been kicked out of her position in the Paris Opera ballet, but Marie and Charlotte are able to audition and enter the Paris Opera as petit rats, the lowest level for ballet dancers. Meanwhile, Antoinette finds temporary work as an extra in Emile Zola’s L’Assommoir.
The girls struggle to live off the few francs they earn each week, but it’s never enough; they’re always hungry and underclothed. When Marie gets a chance to make some extra money as Edgar Degas’s model, she hesitantly agrees. Though she shows great promise as a dancer, she’s at a disadvantage compared to her peers. She’s undernourished and must get up early everyday to work her side job at the bakery, then head to ballet practice. Nor is she pretty; she’s a gangly girl with bad teeth, and she doesn’t have the money to buy pretty ribbons or flashy dancewear. Her only hope is to find a wealthy patron who will take an interest in her and provide the funds to support her dancing career. Might Degas be that person?
Meanwhile, the once-close relationship she’s always had with Antoinette is wearing thin. Antoinette has fallen in head over heels in love with Emile Abadie. Emile sets off all kinds of alarms in Marie, who feels that he’s nothing but trouble, but Antoinette will hear nothing of it. Using alternating narrators (Marie and Antoinette), Buchanan allows readers to see the story from two different sides.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
Publisher/Year: The New Press, 2010
Narrator: Karen Chilton
Length: 13 hrs, 16 minutes
What it is: An analysis of today’s supposedly colorblind legal system and an argument that Jim Crow has simply been repackaged to suit today’s purposes. At face value, the system looks and sounds like it’s applied equally, but communities of color continue to be decimated. African American men, in particular, are imprisoned in disproportionate numbers; many will spend their lives in and out of prison, or in poverty because of the stigma of being labeled a felon.
Why I listened to it: I had my eye on it for a long time and just finally got around to listening to it.
What I thought: Parts of this book are really powerful and heartbreaking. I was already familiar with some of the things Alexander addresses, but she does a great job at outlining the history of some of the worst laws. She makes compelling arguments and eloquently connects the dots from Jim Crow to the present day. Maybe because I’ve already read about this subject, I didn’t always think the book was particularly groundbreaking in some of its arguments, but I do think I it’s an important book; she makes a great point that anyone interested in racial justice should be more vocal regarding the criminal justice system. I do regret listening to this on audiobook, though; Chilton does a good job narrating, but there are so many facts and statistics being thrown that I would have liked to have a printed version to be able to go back and refer to.
A companion recommendation: Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness by Rebecca Walker. It’s completely different subject matter (it’s an anthology on the concept of “black cool”), but a couple of the essays definitely came to mind while I was listening to The New Jim Crow.
Daytripper by Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá
Publisher/Year: Vertigo, 2011
What it is: A graphic novel about Brás de Oliva Domingos, an obituary writer and son of an award-winning Brazilian author. Brás dreams of being a successful writer himself, but instead is stuck in his dead-end job waiting for his life to begin. It’s a non-linear story that reads more like a series of vignettes featuring Brás at different ages.
Why I read it: I had read some good reviews, and that book cover sealed the deal.
What I thought: I took my time with this book. The artwork is absolutely gorgeous. And the story itself is philosophical in nature: at what age does life really begin? Something terrible happens to Brás at the beginning of the book that sets the tone for the other chapters. You learn about his life in little snippets. He has his share of happy and magical moments, but like many people, he’s always waiting for the next big thing; it’s that age-old story of waiting for life to happen, even though it’s been happening and is already passing you by.
You might also like: Big Questions by Anders Nilsen, another philosophical graphic novel. It’s massive and a lot less straightforward than Daytripper, but it’s weird and awesome.
Publisher/Year: Recorded Books, 2011 (book first published in 2003)
Length: 10 hours, 53 minutes
Narrated by: Lisette Lecat
What it is: Kambali is a privileged, 15-year-old Nigerian girl growing up under the harsh rule of her abusive father, a well-respected man in their community. A brief stay at her aunt’s house shows her just how different life could be, but a military coup soon shatters her peaceful environment.
Why I read it: I had never read anything by Adichie (I know, I know), so I figured I should start at the beginning.
What I thought: I wanted to like this book more than I did. Parts of it were amazing. Adichie was wonderful at creating the tense atmosphere as a result of the domestic violence taking place inside Kambali’s home, and this fear extended to nearly every aspect of Kambali’s life, guiding her actions and shaping the way she interacted with others. At fifteen, she’s soft-spoken and naive about so many things that girls her age — even those less privileged — take for granted. But overall, I felt it dragged too much and was at times a chore to get back to. It probably didn’t help that the narrator was the slowest reader ever.
Blasphemy by Sherman Alexie
Publisher/Year: Grove Press, 2012
What it is: A collection of old and new short stories, mostly dealing with male Native Americans from Spokane.
Why I read it: I’m an Alexie fan.
What I thought: Of all the Alexie books I’ve read (I think this was the fifth) this is definitely the one with the darkest undertone. About half of the stories had been previously published and I’d read several of them, but much of the newer material had an angrier and sadder edge to it. As with most of his books, his characters often face the some of the more common problems affecting Native American communities — mostly racism, alcoholism, depression and poverty — and the stories only show a tiny snippet of the characters’ lives. There were a few weak stories, but it was interesting to compare his older and newer work side by side.