The Nest_Cynthia Daprix Sweeney

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

Hardcover, 368 pages
Published March 22nd 2016 by Ecco

       The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney did absolutely nothing for me. I had high hopes for this one going in—another brilliantly written cover flap did the trick—but my expectations were never met, and by mid-way, I stopped hoping and assuming that they eventually would be. In fact, this one almost didn’t get finished; sheer perseverance pushed me through.

        The Nest is about the Plumb siblings, four middle-agers whose lives are thrown into tumult when the eldest, Leo, gets himself into trouble yet again—drugs, a Porsche and a pretty young thing complete the cliché—and their mother nearly depletes “the nest,” their trust fund, which they are all expecting to inherit soon, to get him out of this bind. His siblings, Jack, Bea, and Melody are outraged and anxiety-filled, worrying about their personal financial situations that have escalated to the point of emergency because they assumed they’d have the nest to bail them out, and now it’s nearly gone. Leo and his siblings struggle to find a way out of the mess he started, and isn’t sure how to remedy, while dealing with the intricacies of their own lives.

The problem with this one is that this novel could’ve been written by anyone. I saw no particularly extraordinary skill, no ambition, no originality, no nothing. Even the endings were all hastily done, formulaic bow ties fit for day-time TV. In short, I was not impressed as a reader. The Nest fell so flat for me that there was nearly an audible splat sound ringing in my ears throughout the entire reading process. The writing was mediocre, at times hitting on pithy narrative prose that occurred so infrequently that I have to believe they were flukes, one-offs.

       “Maybe she would slip Melody some cash, enough for some Botox or a facial or something to brighten her pallor. She was the youngest and somehow the most faded, as if the Plumb DNA had thinned with each conception, strong and robust with Leo and each child after being—a little less.”

That was one of the better lines of this novel (in addition to the 9/11 nationalism sarcasm), but unfortunately it also sums up how I felt about this one—strong and robust packaging and selling of this one only for each chapter to impress me less and less. The characters here were so uninteresting, so unremarkable, that I could hardly keep them straight. They were all either blah, like Melody, or cliché—oh, the clichés here!

I can’t even really discuss the glaring rudimentary stereotypes running rampant in this one. There was the drunken, ice queen of a matriarch who dressed in a sexy robe for her daughter’s 12th birthday (one of the more interesting characters, whom we hardly saw, but the cliché smacked me in the face). Then there was Matilda Rodriguez, the naïve Hispanic girl who “called everyone Mami or Papi” despite their age—cliché, yawn—and Simone, the supposedly cool, urban, street smart black girl (honestly, already the shallow cliché in this novel’s setting) who says, “Tight” a lot. Tight? REALLY? Tight? What decade is this, please? This one was absolutely deserving of the eye-roll, that she would stake her novel on such underdeveloped outlines of overdone stereotypes (and that it would then be praised as great writing really confounded me). Then we shan’t forget the cliché of the gay sibling who wanted lots of random, casual sex in sleazy nightclubs (I literally forgot his name and had to look above to write it here, Jack) who marveled at his luck at dodging AIDS (really?), and the list actually does go on. There were so many clichés thrown into this one that it was like the literary equivalent of Scary Movie. This element in and of itself revealed that Sweeney is as out of touch with the real world as her characters are and that made the read unenjoyable—in fact, a chore. This element wasn’t nearly pushed far enough to be satire; this is really the world she wanted to paint, which would have been fine, possibly even funny, as a satire but nothing more than that.

The Nest also had too many superfluous characters and storylines! (I’m looking at you Robohook man, and the guy from the 9/11 towers). If you want to read about WASPy yacht problems (1st world problems that no one cares about other than the self-absorbed people experiencing them), endless whining about not receiving a large, undeserved amount of money and having to settle for a mere $50,000 each, and storylines that suffered because of the sheer number of them squeezed in here, you’ve come to the right place. I started to give this one 2 stars, because I finished it, but then realized that that was my own accomplishment, not this novel’s. 1 star. *

A Little Life_Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Hardcover, 720 pages
Published March 10th 2015 by Doubleday

First of all, let me say that A Little Life was exactly what I’ve been looking for. This novel was so rich in raw, uninhibited emotion, in the true unveiling of life’s effervescence, horrors and humanity, that I didn’t feel that I was trudging through a thick read—though, believe me, it’s thick!—I felt that I was on a 40-year Hajj with these characters, a journey that, like real life, takes you over lofty and decadent highs then drags you through trough-like lows. It was the lows in A Little Life that made me literally cringe and turn away, re-read at times and stop reading at others just long enough to question what really is humanity?

The theme of lifelong friendship is obviously central to the novel, and I loved that the four focal characters were all male. To get the male perspective on contemporary brotherhood and solidarity was a breath of fresh air; I hardly ever get to experience a literary piece from the viewpoint of modern-day (non-white) men, so if that appeals to you, then this read will be a real treat. Likewise, on that note, I was greatly impressed with the way that Yanagihara handled race in this work, because she flipped the stereotype completely on its head. I remember a feeling of unanticipated surprise, of true and pure admiration of the author’s hand and voice for flipping the script on the typical literary formula.

A Little Life was brilliant in the way that it portrayed the capriciousness and uncertainty of college life through middle-age: the discovery and exploration of their sexuality, life goals, insecurities and the precariousness of their own self-images and the pursuit—often slow and unsure—of their own personal ambitions and aspirations. It all rang so true, so genuine.

     “These were days of self-fullment, where settling for something that was not quite your first choice of a life seemed weak-willed and ignoble…surrendering to what seemed to be your fate had changed from being dignified to being a sign of your own cowardice. There were times when the pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive, as if happiness were something that everyone should and could attain, and that any sort of compromise in its pursuit was somehow your fault.”

Yanagihara’s exploration of religion (Ambition and atheism…only here did you have to apologize for having faith in something other than yourself) and race (Race has always been a challenge for Malcolm, but their sophomore year, he hit upon what he considered a brilliant cop-out: he wasn’t black’ he was post-black…unfortunately, no one was convinced by this explanation, least of all JB, whom Malcom had begun to think of as not so much black but pre-black, as if blackness, like nirvana, was an idealized state that he was constantly striving to erupt into) was modern, realistic and enlightened. This work was full of eloquent, thoughtful and introspective narrative prose, but at the same time, Yanagihara did not hesitate to push the reader beyond their comfort level. Her descriptions of abuse and cruelty, suffering, addiction, fear, and the toll these all take on the human psyche—the way that they impact the human experience—were so vivid, so intensely thought-provoking and emotive.

However, I must admit that I did take a few issues with this one. For one, I was disappointed to not see a single chapter from Malcolm’s sole perspective in the entire piece. With this massive word count, there was certainly ample opportunity to do so. He started off being just as interesting a character as the others, questioning his future and his sexuality, feeling inferior to his sister and entitled while simultaneously, perhaps, feeling a bit embarrassed by his upbringing and entitlement. The groundwork was set for a rich character portrayal of him that could have easily rivaled JB’s and Willem’s, but in all 700+ pages we never heard a peep from his own voice. I also wished that Yanagihara had explored JB more. The chapter that was 100% from his perspective honestly resonates with me louder than any of the other chapters, even those rather disturbing chapters on Jude that are the talk of literary chats everywhere at the moment. I was truly gripped by his sense of terror and self-loathing, his sincere lack of control and, finally, that heart-wrenching scene towards the end of his chapter.

Honestly, I felt that Jude had too many chapters, that the entire novel revolved around him—and I get why it would—but there were several opportunities lost that could have been capitalized on better by the author. Also—gulp, I’m sorry to say—A Little Life could have stood up to a bit of a haircut too. Not a big chop, mind you, but a trim of at least 50 pages would’ve made the novel a less cumbersome read, particularly towards the end, the last few chapters. Chopping some of those arguably useless narrative passages away would have allowed for a feeling of truly running towards something, towards a climax deserving of these wonderful characters. Instead, the novel felt more like it sputtered out (no less heart-breakingly) quietly. In a way, I feel the Fabulous Four deserved better.

Even with all of this, I am truly changed having read this one and thankful that I took the time to sit down and really enjoy it. A Little Life has raised the bar so high for me, I can only hope that my next reads will stand up to the shadow that this tall order may cast over them. Yanagihara has gained herself a lifelong reader and an easy 5 stars. *****

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Throwback Thursday: The Hip Hop Wars by Tricia Rose

Paperback, 320 pages
Published December 2nd 2008 by Basic Civitas Books (first published January 1st 2008)

          “Hip Hop is not dead, but it is gravely ill. The beauty and life force of hip hop have been squeezed out, wrung nearly dry by the compounding factors of commercialism, distorted racial and sexual fantasy, oppression, and alienation. It has been a sad thing to witness.”

Rose’s survey on the current state of the hip hop industry is a dazzling display of contemporary cultural probing and criticism. The Hip Hop Wars dissects the music industry, particularly the sphere of hip hop music, and puts it through a methodical and impassioned analysis from the inside out. Two-thirds of this work uses the framework of Critics vs. Defenders, exploring each side of the arguments presented, which allowed for an extremely dynamic and diverse examination of the subject. Simultaneously, Part Two: Progressive Futures offered solutions to the “problem” that hip hop and the African American diaspora, as the community and identity surrounding it, are confronted with. The format itself was refreshing, as it endeavored to offer as comprehensive a view of the industry’s landscape as possible, while also offering solutions to the problems, rather than simply proselytizing to the masses from a perch on a soap box. No, this was a down-to-earth work in that way, in that the author was clearly writing from the concerned standpoint of one entrenched in the soul of the very wounded creature that they seek to heal, rather than from an outsider’s view, hovering above the culture and taking stilled snapshots from their safe locale outside of the battle field, away from the dangers of getting their own hands dirty.

Rose reaches into the heart of the new technologies and music markets that now shape and affect this music, as well as the gaping mouth of the corporate Goliath poised to gobble up this once-expressive art form like the Cookie Monster. She examines the who, what, when, where, and, most importantly, the why of the disintegration of this form of artful story-telling and the complicit-ness of the artists and its consumers in the demise of their own culture, their own music, their own outlet and venue of true personal expression. Neither rappers, nor music moguls nor radio stations are spared in this introspective and insightful survey. Unemployment, the drug trade, and even affordable housing and white consumption, feminism, sexism (all the isms, really), even Shaft and Foxy Brown’s roles in the foundation, intent and culture of hip hop music are examined and explained to create an entire picture of the hip hop music industry and its players.

While I loved The Hip Hop Wars and the passion and thorough research with which Rose displayed her arguments, there were times where she managed to nearly push me off the bandwagon—well, maybe not off, but to the edge. Some of her arguments seemed a bit overwrought and exaggerative, and there are several places in my notes—believe me, this one was highlighted and marked up like schoolwork—where I wrote that I thought she was overdoing it a bit.

However, her overall argument really grabbed me, educated me and entertained me. I felt that I came away with something that I didn’t have before, when I finished the last page and closed the book, and that is what reading is all about; that is what a good argument should do. I would absolutely read this one again and suggest it to anyone considering giving it a whirl. This one proved why we can’t just sit by and watch an art form crumble, watch a culture be commercialized, packaged and sold with such deformities that it no longer represents the subject that it depicts at all—all for the sake of capitalism and mass exploitation:

          “The term ‘street’ became a euphemism for a monsoon of profanity, gratuitous violence, female and male hyper-promiscuity, the most vulgar materialism, and the total suppression of social consciousness.”

That is not what black culture is about, though it is the way that it is portrayed on the radio and in pop culture. The Hip Hop Wars brought to the forefront where it all went wrong, and how we can take it back again. True hip hop is not gentrified or yuppified; it isn’t Barbie-doll packaged and ready for shipping, complete with a thong and gold teeth. It isn’t the minstrel show that it’s become today, and Tricia Rose helps us to both remember and explore that. 4 ½ stars ****

Everything I Never Told You_Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Hardcover, 304 pages
Published June 26th 2014 by Penguin Press

“How suffocating it is to be loved that much.” 

Everything I Never Told You centers around the Lee family: James, the Chinese-American professor who lectures on the epitome of what was never attainable for him—true Americanism, Marilyn, the blond wife who’d always dreamed of being a doctor when female doctors were a rare phenomenon only to turn out just what her mother had hoped and what Marilyn had always wished to avoid, and their three children, Nathan, Lydia and Hannah. James and Marilyn focus all of their attention on Lydia who they are determined to mold into everything that they were never able to achieve themselves, creating a crushing pressure for her that comes from both sides. When she dies unexpectedly, the glue that holds them all together is no longer able to hold. As they try to learn what happened to her—and why—they come to realize that she was not the girl they thought she was. The reader is allowed to learn this before the family does, which creates a beautiful inside glimpse of a family crumbling.

       Everything I Never Told You is about just that: the subtle nuances and emotions that go unsaid, the familial tension behind closed doors that goes unnoticed, unexplored, and the way that our lineage and upbringing shape our lives, for better or for worse. Gripping in its portrayal of dreams deferred and hopes crushed, of coming of age in the 60s and 70s, of the subtle (and not-so-subtle) cruelties of the world and of the ignorance of those who would rather mock than understand, Everything was an exploration of the overwhelming pressure of a family’s love and expectations—both for themselves and for their children. Despite the fact that this one had a few moments of lethargy at the start, it all came together beautifully, and the last half or so of the novel I finished in one sitting. This novel, all told, was a bold and shattering glimpse into reality for all of the characters involved. It was the historical and ancestral short-fallings, misgivings and dreams unrealized that brought this one to a head in the most lovely way. It was chilling in its honest and straight-forward depiction of challenges with fitting in, with being oneself, all wrapped into beautiful little metaphors that were easy to hold…and easy to crush: a Betty Crocker cookbook, a white doctor’s coat, cowboys, a silver locket.

“Different” was the connective tissue here. The characters’ differences from those of the outside world and in the incongruousness of their perception of themselves versus what others saw were so well developed that the feeling of discomfort (both in their lives and in their minds) was palpable within these pages, creating a need to continue turning the pages. Ng portrayed their longing here brilliantly—longing to be someone else, to be free.

“Sometimes you almost forgot: that you didn’t look like everyone else…you saw it in the little boys on the playground, stretching their eyes to slits with their fingers—Chinese—Japanese—look at these—and in the older boys who muttered ching chong ching chong ching as they passed you on the street, just loud enough for you to hear…and tried to forget about it. And you did, until it happened again.”

Ng was not forceful with her hand, but allowed those things unsaid, undone, unnoticed, to tell the story in its way of delicate nuances. The snatching off of a locket here, the touching of ones finger to tongue there. It was those subtleties that the reader had to catch, or they’d miss something integral. Characterized by lovely narrative prose, Ng’s MFA background stood out and was on full display in a way that showed spirit and depth. Mellifluous, introspective and refined, it dug into the very soul of what it means, what it must feel like, to be different. 5 stars. *****

 

 

Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

Hardcover, 302 pages
Published November 1st 2010 by Little, Brown and Company

Released to rave reviews and the full packaging monty of its publisher, Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra took the NYT by storm in 2011, remaining there for months. And no wonder! This kamikaze of masterly writing, meticulous and thorough research, and humanizing hand of the author did a spectacular job of unmasking the woman behind the myth and debunking the lies we today call slander.
This is the biography of Queen Cleopatra VII Philopator (as the title implies) but it is done unlike any other. (PLEASE) remove the images of Liz Taylor in near-drag from your mind as you embark on this one, for this work is a truly stunning portrayal of the woman behind the parable. This biography delves into her marriages, her political decisions, her rise and her downfall. The flap said it all. In fact, it was the dazzling summary in the book flap that drew me in (rather than the razzle dazzle of Schiff’s renowned name on the cover and spine):
“Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons…In a masterly return to the classical sources, Stacy Schiff boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order, a generation before the birth of Christ.”

Honestly, I couldn’t have summed this one up better myself (and whoever wrote that flap summary, in its entirety, should be commended themselves).
This biography, mind you, was released before the (in my opinion) disastrous exposé that Schiff did on The Witches, back when I’d never heard of this Pulitzer Prize winner and my mind was free of all bias for what those pages might hold, for how her style of writing would or would not stimulate and intrigue me. So, I was delighted to find that even the very first line drew me in with a skill rivaling the best in fiction, and her knack for weaving a story out of the hard research and history lost—rather than numbing the reader’s mind with dull and tiresome fact after fact—kept me reading, and hooked.
“Among the most famous women to have lived, Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt for twenty-two years. She lost a kingdom once, regained it, nearly lost it again, amassed an empire, lost it all.”
Thus go the very first two lines of this biographical tour de force. Schiff weaves the tale in three dimensions. The world—Cleopatra’s world—that she depicts is rich with detail, color, noise. Intrigue, scandal, but, best of all, skillful and methodical stripping away of the myths that surround the legend. Page by page, Schiff untangles the Queen from the lies that have torn her down and muddied her name and her legacy, her intelligence and her political savvy. She dissects the hard decisions made in the name of sovereignty and survival that have painted Cleopatra both the witch and the harlot for centuries, truly, millennia—detailing the actions that made the Queen while giving the reader the perspective of the Queen who made the actions.
No surprise that the same methods used to villainize women both today and historically were used to dismantle the legacy of a great ruler of that era; indeed, the last ruler of that era. But Schiff’s Cleopatra did not cower behind the wall of generations of myth and salaciousness. Everything from her genealogy and skin tone (about as disputed as that of Christ himself’s) to education and precarious upbringing were explored, and Schiff’s work did a masterly job of giving the reader a view of Cleopatra’s life from a thrilling perch, as if right on her shoulder the entire time.
Because of this work, I will most certainly give Schiff’s writing another chance. This page turner (I literally finished half of it in one sitting) made me laugh with the satirical jabs that Schiff managed to aim at the lies surround her muse. It brought me to tears—yes, real ones!—at the climactic conclusion that left a queen and her lover dead and an era at an end. And the clever style of writing itself was witty, intellectual, adroit and entertaining to say the least. My copy was left full of highlighted passages and marginal notes; the best kind of read, if you ask me. Five stars *****