If Beale Street Could Talk

Well, that was devastating.

If Beale Street Could Talk is a wonderful book with so much love in it that is nonetheless about how structural racism can ultimately affect that love. Tish and Fonny are a young couple in love, and how they became a couple is told in flashbacks to the main story, where Fonny has been jailed for a crime he didn’t commit, and their struggle to free him.

It’s James Baldwin, so the language is marvelous; it’s James Baldwin, so the racism is cuttingly accurate. But what really struck me was all of the ways that love is shown in the story – the romantic love between Tish and Fonny, but also the friendship between Fonny and Daniel and the sisterly relationship between Tish and Ernestine and the parent-child relationship between Fonny and his father as well as Tish and her parents. The story is bleak, but the relationships and the caring that exists between people in the book was what made it worth reading to me.

Highly recommended.

Melodrama can be fun

A Discovery of Witches is a book that I am not convinced is good, but you can bet I devoured it and will read all three books in the trilogy. The question is: why?

First, let’s get the basic plot out of the way. Diana is a witch, but she doesn’t use her powers, nor is she interested in using them. She’s perfectly happy being an American history professor at Oxford. Until she calls up a book from the archives: Ashmole 782. This book, it turns out is enchanted, and everyone from the three non-human races (vampires, witches, demons, all of whom look conveniently human) is interested in reading it. Alas, she’s already sent it back to the stacks. Don’t bother with why everyone wants it. Ashmole 782 is the book’s macguffin. Everyone is suddenly after Diana.

One particular vampire, Matthew Clairmont becomes more entranced with Diana than the book. He turns out to be French nobility, because of course he is. They fall in love very melodramatically – the whole book is very melodramatic – and he protects her as they have adventures and he awakens the witchy part of her. Of course he does.

Which brings us back to the question of why do I like this book? I’ve admitted to enjoying romances, and the romance aspect is part of it. I’m much more partial to a story about relationships than a story where people are horrible to each other. There’s enough horror in the world.

But it’s not like this is a happy book – there’s kidnapping and torture and death. There is Good – Diana and Matthew and their families – and there is Evil – the Congregation, a group of people who want to keep Diana and Matthew apart, who also want Diana to bring the book back so everyone can learn what’s in it for their own advantage.

It’s melodrama, a genre that is so over the top that it’s practically camp, and A Discovery of Witches is definitely taking itself seriously. And that might be why I devoured it: the heightened emotions, the very clear good vs evil, putting family first, and the love story. There is something appealing about that, especially when it’s on my television screen or in a novel.

And so yes, I will read the second book in the series, which involves time travel, and probably the third, too. And I might tell you to read them too.

Death and the family

Everything I Never Told You

What’s it about?
It’s the 1970s, and a teenaged girl has died. Lydia Lee doesn’t come down for breakfast. Her family breaks a little bit. Her father, James, is the son of Chinese immigrants – he was the only Asian child in the small town in Iowa where he grew up; his family is the only Asian family in small-town Ohio where they live now. Blond, white Marilyn grew up in a traditional home in Maryland – and was whip smart in science and was determined to be a doctor. In the 1960s. Instead, she gets pregnant with Lydia’s older brother, Nathan. So James and Marilyn get married – and Marilyn’s mother never speaks to her again. And then there’s Hannah, the littlest sister, who gets used to being an afterthought. How does Lydia’s death change them?

Why should you read it?
It’s an amazing character study. Very little actually happens in the main plot line of the book: Lydia dies near the end of the school year, when we wrap up, it’s about six weeks later and everyone is mourning. How do they mourn? It depends very much on who they are and how they related to Lydia. James wanted Lydia to be popular and social. Marilyn wanted her to become a doctor. Nathan wanted to help her keep the family together. Hannah just wants someone to see her.

Everything I Never Told You is a lovely book. I’d highly recommend it.

Acknowledging a transition

the bar mitzvah and the beast


What’s it about?
The Bar Mitzvah and the Beast is about an SF Bay Area family that bikes across the country. Why? Well, the father is Jewish and his turning-13-year-old son is an atheist. The father (Matt, also the author) wants to mark his son’s passage into his teenage years; the son tries to go to Hebrew school and have a Bar Mitzvah, but just can’t. So a cross-country bike ride is their compromise. They spend a summer riding from San Francisco to Washington DC. The whole family goes – Matt, his wife, Yonah (the son), and his little brother. (The Beast is an old tandem bike that they buy for Matt & the little brother to ride across the country.)

Why should you read it?
I am not religious (to my mind, you can’t prove either the existence or non-existence of god and I don’t worry about it that much), so I sympathized with Yonah. But I did like the idea of commemorating your child’s passage into their teenage years. My daughter is eleven and as she moves from her childhood to being a teenager, she is changing. Acknowledging that somehow, formally or informally, seems worthwhile. I’d never really thought about that before reading The Bar Mitzvah and the Beast.

The book was strongest when it was talking about Yonah’s rite of passage. It also wanted to be about overcoming your prejudices and drawing awareness to global warming. The marriage of the three themes wasn’t successful to my mind. But it’s still worthwhile.

This book is a brain worm

Station Eleven


What’s it about?
Station Eleven is three stories in one. It follows the lives of three people, before, during, and after a plague – the Georgia Flu – kills 99% of the people on earth. (Georgia the former Soviet Republic, not Georgia the state.) The pre-plague storyline follows an actor as he gets famous, and one of his wives. The during-the-plague story follows the paramedic who tries to save the actor who has a heart attack on stage the night the plague breaks out. The post-plague story follows the child actor who was on stage with the actor that night. It takes place 20 years after the Collapse (as it’s known in the book).

Why should you read it?
I can’t stop thinking about Station Eleven. I finished it almost a week ago, and the characters are with me. I think about Miranda, who wanted to be an artist; I think about Clark, with his museum; I think about the Frenchman stranded in Michigan starting a newspaper; I think about the lack of entertainment and information; I think about how tough Kirsten is; I think about Jeevan stockpiling food as fast as he can; I cannot stop thinking about becoming a survivalist – what if a flu came that killed people in 24 hours. How fast would it spread? Could I survive? What would life be like afterwards? How would we all react? There’s a scene where a person finds a group of people living in an airport. He starts crying, they ask him why. “Because I thought I was the only one.” It breaks my heart thinking about it. If I could give a copy of Station Eleven to everyone I know, I would. It’s that good.

Beach read, brain candy


What’s it about?
The Vacationers is a beach read. It’s about a dysfunctional family full of people you may or may not like all heading to a small Spanish island for a two-week vacation. Will the wife forgive the husband’s affair? Will the daughter have sex for the first time? Will the son ever grow up? Will the gay couple (friends of the family tagging along) manage to adopt a child? The Vacationers will address those questions.

Why should you read it?
It’s fun, harmless brain candy. It’s not a great work of fiction, but it was entertaining. Sometimes that’s all you can ask for; sometimes, that’s all you want.