Evicted_Matthew Desmond

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

Hardcover, 432 pages
Published March 1st 2016 by Crown

I received a copy of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City from the publisher, Crown, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Matthew Desmond’s research-driven prose is a dazzling work of examination and insight. Within these pages, the business and culture of evictions is dissected down to the very dollars and cents that uphold this thriving industry. The judicial system and the role it plays is scrutinized, and the lives of 8 families are put on intimate display for readers to bear witness to. Within the pages of Eviction, Desmond paints a clandestine portrait of the precarious lives of those living at and below the poverty line in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, during the time of his research. The survey into this little-known world is done first hand, with the aid of a tape recorder, and thus is the most personal and complete look at modern American poverty that I have read in a long time. Here, readers will follow the desolate, the addicted, the impoverished and the “lords” who shape their lives in these dangerous and volatile social environments called homes.

This book unveiled some of the most stunningly accurate vernacular and dialogue that I have seen anywhere, non-fiction or fiction. (Note to self: if you want to really capture the essence of a culture, use a tape recorder.) With this simple technique, Desmond was able to capture the true personification of the frustration and despair, of their interactions and intentions, and, hence, the dialogue told a story all of its own within these pages. It told a story of where these people came from and how they truly related to one another on a human level. He captured the true swag of these neighborhoods, the soul and essence that can’t be seen at first passing glance out of a car window.

The research in Evicted was expertly incorporated so that it read as fluidly in narrative as a fiction novel, and it was incorporated throughout, which was great, because it allowed the reader to absorb the information with illustrations of narration to make it easier and faster to digest. It also allowed for a read that wasn’t leaden with factoids, reading like a dry and tedious text book. The lives he chose to chronicle and exhibit were harrowing and demonstrative of humanity’s capacity to fail and to survive, to overcome and to find comfort in community. It also pulled back the curtains on this booming industry that both exploits the poor and treats them as expendable members of society.

In Evicted, Desmond dissected a truth that goes back to the Civil Rights Movement when Fair Housing laws were enacted. Stirring and emotional, this read holds a shiny mirror to the face of America. Similar to the PIC (Prison Industrial Complex) the eviction process, nay culture, is a vicious and debilitating cycle with ripple effects into communities. This exposé displayed how crime and evictions go hand-in-hand, each leading to the other with alarming frequency, a form of institutionalized parasitism on the poor at the hands of the judicial system and slum lords (in the instances where there are, in fact, slum lords). Here, Desmond portrays both the crimes that lead to evictions and the evictions that foster a bed of crimes.

This work really appealed to me when I read its blurb, and it did not disappoint. It was not a traumatically graphic read, but it was all consuming. Vignette after vignette portrayed the mental and emotional anguish that living at the poverty line heaps on it dwellers so that the only reprieve came in the form of spirited dialogue and intimate conversations between those he chronicled and their family and friends and from the research that clarified the stats behind their suffering, which was interspersed throughout. Other than that, there was no reprieve from the grief, struggling and suffering and, in a way, I think that that was not only the point of this read but, in many ways, an intellectual profit to the reader. Within these pages, those who could never in their own everyday lives imagine such hardships will be transported over the imaginary line that exists in all cities: the line between the haves and the have nots. That is a line that everyone should cross at some time, so pick up this read preparing to take a journey. Evicted gained itself a strong 4 stars. ****

Eligible_Curtis Sittenfeld

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Hardcover, 492 pages
Published April 19th 2016 by Random House

Eligible is the witty and modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Here you will find the Bennett sisters in the 21st century, complete with artificial insemination, yoga, and fad workout obsessions among other more raucous taboos. Here you will also find nearly 200 chapters—oh my goodness, those chapters; more on those below—and a page count a bit gratuitous for such a read. HOWEVER, within that excessive page count you will also find, sharply entertaining dialogue that’s convincingly witty and shockingly blunt that will keep you laughing along with the Bennett family throughout.

Eligible and I had a bit of a tug-of-war over my reader feelings for the first few chapters, I’ll admit. The dialogue struck me as funny, yes, even ingenious, but also superficial and surface-deep, if that. Initially, the characters struck me as two-dimensional chalk outlines that just happened to speak with droll absurdity that worked. Ah, but then I got to know the Bennett sisters a little better! If Sittenfeld was aiming for jaunty and clever, she certainly hit the nail on the head and was able to keep it consistent throughout. The writing was anecdotal, sometimes to its detriment and at times to its credit, but highly entertaining most of the time.

I must say that I’d be completely misleading you if I didn’t prepare soon-to-be readers for that chapter formatting, though. Some will love it, because it made the read feel that it was moving along faster—helpful when you’re holding almost 500 pages of what is essentially light-read chick lit in your hand—but for those of you who want to be profoundly engrossed and deeply invested in your characters, you may find this to be a bother. I straddled this line. There were times when I was practically dizzy with all of the vignette-type chapters sprawled out here, several of them less than a page long (that goes for pages on your phone, Kindle, iPad—less than a page anywhere, on any reading medium, really). I felt inundated by 200 flash fictions, which just happened to link together into a full-length story. At times I found it to be slightly annoying; sometimes I loved it because it seemed to make the read feel lightning fast, and sometimes it made me feel disconnected from the characters and their world because there wasn’t enough there in the chapter to pull me in. In the end, I think both sides canceled each other out for me, and it was fine.

Eligible definitely could’ve been cut down though. I don’t believe for a second that the editor didn’t notice those superfluous chapters that led nowhere—anecdotes about the past and random streams of consciousness—which should’ve been yanked out, because that definitely contributed to the relatively high page count and my antsyness toward the end. But aside from that last round of edits that went undone, this was a really funny and entertaining read. In the end, I did end up caring about the characters once I settled in—Darcy was my favorite, by far. Sittenfeld gets extra kudos for the way that this one came full circle. If you’ve ever read Austen’s classic on which this one is based, you basically knew how it would end, but Sittenfeld managed to toss in plenty of surprises along the way. I also liked the way that the title was used as a double entendre throughout this novel. Well done.

All in all, I found Eligible to be a jaunty little read that smacked of WASPy delights. It would make for a brilliant movie, likely better than it read, though I enjoyed it on a whole. The characters had wit and flair that would translate well on the silver screen. And, I would feel remiss if I didn’t mention my appreciation for the way that Sittenfeld handled Mrs. Bennetts’ casual xenophobia, cooly admonishing her as ridiculous, foolish and behind the times with just the right hint of “just the way it is.” That aspect added an extra layer of funny in a way that could have easily fallen flat or warranted an eye roll (like its counterpart The Nest, which I have also reviewed. If you’re a chick-lit lover, or even curious about the retelling of an Austen classic, this one will really work for you. Indeed, if you were a fan of The Nest,Eligible will work for you as well, because this one is definitely its much prettier younger cousin that you’ll be glad you chose instead).

So, keeping in mind that this was light-read material not intended to be the next Harper Lee brainchild, I give this one an easily attained 4 stars. ****

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

Hardcover, 288 pages
Published May 5th 2016 by Chatto & Windus
It is set for a US release in February 2017

I received a copy of The Woman Next Door from its publishers, Chatto and Windus, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Hortensia James and Marion Agostino have been rivals for decades, though they’ve lived on the other side of a hedge from each other for all those years. In post-apartheid South Africa, one is black and one is white; what they have in common is their spunkiness in old age, that they’ve both been recently widowed and that they both feel a certain superiority from the successful careers they once had. They’ve become comfortable sniping at each from across the way, antagonizing each other over racial differences and otherwise at neighborhood meetings, but when unexpected life circumstances hit them both, will they be willing to set their differences aside and find friendship within each other?

I was really looking forward to reading this novel by Omotoso and had it on my to-read list before I knew that I could get in on NetGally. However, The Woman Next Door was a bit of a disappointment for me. For me, the conflict never came across as organic or authentic. The build-up of their long-time feud seemed rushed, superficial and underdeveloped. With this being the very foundation for the way that the novel unfolded, the novel never came together for me. It never grabbed me or moved me in any way. In fact, I found it difficult to even finish. The characters seemed to only be developed based on stories told to each other in dialogue and narrative passages that never delved deep enough into their background for me to feel that I knew them or to sympathize or identify with them. I found the writing to be threadbare, just enough to tell the story, but not enough to feel complete, certainly not enough to hold my attention as a reader.

With that in mind, I’m giving this novel 2 stars because there were elements of the plot that worked well and could have really made this novel a delight, but I can’t give Omotoso more than that because I honestly felt it wasn’t well executed at all. 2 stars **

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The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

Hardcover, 304 pages
Published April 5th 2016 by Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

“How do you know you didn’t ruin my life forty years ago?”
“From what I can see, you never looked back.”
“I looked back, believe me,” she says.
“That makes two of us.”

Firstly, let me say to those who have read this novel, I have no idea why the Goodreads summary made me think I was going to be getting this:

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For those of you who haven’t read it and are considering it, it’s not that. 🙂

**CAUTION, this review contains (mild) spoilers**
In 1631, Sara de Vos is a painter ahead of her time who is plagued with debts and personal losses. Centuries after her death, her last known attributed work hangs on the bedroom wall of a wealthy lawyer, Marty de Groot, in 1950s Manhattan, until one day, it doesn’t. Marty discovers that the painting, which has been in his family for generations, has been stolen and replaced with a brilliantly executed fake. So brilliant, in fact, that it took him months to even notice the switch. It is Ellie Shipley, a graduate student from Australia with a talented eye for art and a desire to push her artistic capabilities, who is hired to forge the painting, forever joining their lives in a complex weave of events and emotions. 40 years later, Ellie is a celebrated art historian and curator who is putting on an exhibition on the topic that has compelled her and her work for her entire adult life: the Dutch Golden Age. The last known painting of Sara de Vos, At the Edge of a Wood, still haunts them both, for the forgery that Ellie painted decades before will now resurface at the same exhibit that she’s curating, threatening to end her career and tarnish her name forever.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is a novel that straddles the line between contemporary and historical fiction. Let me take this opportunity to say that I was truly on board with this one at the start, but then it lost me a little about midway, maybe a little before, and then picked me up again in the last quarter or so. This novel was a good combination of fiction and research. Not brilliant, not mind-blowing, but good. Strap yourself in and get ready to be fully immersed in a painter’s world, from a how-to on mixing rabbit hides for paint to entire narrative passages how to deconstruct a 400-year-old canvas. I’m on the fence on how I feel about how the research was displayed, leaning towards positive but not all the way there. On the one hand, it allowed me to trust the narration, made the world that Smith painted (no pun intended) far more believable, and I learned a few things from this read, which is always a plus.

BUT on the other hand, I definitely felt that I didn’t need allof it. It wasn’t quite info dump, but it was a bit much at times. For example, reading pages of 17th century minutiae such as making “apothecary blends of Ceylon loose leaf.” Honestly, I don’t even know what that passage was about. Possibly 17th century teas? Maybe? These were nice touches in and of themselves, but too many of them began to weigh me down a little. That can be a problem with fiction based heavily on research—or research-based non-fiction that tries to read like fiction—the author doesn’t know when tolay off of the research and dive into the plot; they want to include every. little. piece. of information that they found in an effort to set the setting (which was my main gripe withThe Witches as well, by the way—at times the 17th century chapters here read similarly to those).

What I can say is that I never felt that any of the story lines suffered, though there were at least three in play at once, occurring in different time periods and on various continents. The Last Painting was almost Brontë-esque, which I can see a lot of people really enjoying. The settings were meticulously set; the story line seemed to meander on leisurely, as if on a stroll through Central Park, reminiscent of those good ole’ days—pre television—of classical writing, which left me, in a way, nostalgic.

There were times when the writing was tender, but it always stopped just shy of being emotive, often somewhere between clinical and touching. I felt I was an onlooker, a 3rd party staring in through a window on tip-toe, seeing and feeling it all second-hand, perhaps even slightly removed from that. I wasn’t made to sympathize with these characters, though I loved the fundamentals of Ellie’s narrative. She didn’t grab me, but most of the time, I didn’t mind watching her. I couldn’t tell if Smith was writing in this fashion deliberately or if he was just inexperienced with handling emotions as a writer. (I suppose a deeper foray into his works would answer this question for me definitively.) I realize that this novel was not meant to be the next great love saga—Marty and Ellie are not Rhett and Scarlett by any means—but their love affair, or rather their reactions to it, came off as unrealistic, not quite believable and definitely not emotive, possibly because that side of them was underdeveloped. Intellectual, I think is the word that I’m looking for. Their story line and the handling of it was intellectual, even when it wasn’t meant to be, and that didn’t grab me.

However, I must say that I am content with how this one ended. At various points in the novel, I hovered between giving de Vos 3.5 and 4 stars. Ultimately, I’m going with 3.5 because many of the novels I’ve given 4 or 5 stars truly moved me—or educated me in a way that will always stay with me—and this one was just shy of that. 3.5 stars ***

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Patches of Grey by Roy L. Pickering, Jr.

Published January 8th 2010 by M.U.D. House Books (first published January 8th 2009)

 

       “They all believed back then that love lasted forever. By now they surely knew…that forever was a treacherous myth, though probably a necessary one.”

This novel was given to me by the author in exchange for an honest review.

       Patches of Grey by Roy Pickering is the emotional story of the Johnsons, a family from a Bronx tenement pre “rise of Obama.” If you love Sister Souljah, Sapphire and old-school Omar Tyree, this will be a great read for you. Tony, the eldest son and main character, yearns for more than his poor upbringing can provide for him and knows that he is smart enough to use his grades to get out. He is constantly ridiculed by his father, Lionel, a drunk and abusive man, and his younger brother, C.J., who is proud to have been just initiated into a local gang. Tony’s dreams of getting away, not to mention his once-coveted, now-won Caucasian girlfriend, put him at constant odds with his father and brother, while his mother and sister deal with their own emotional and physical turmoil dealt to them by the men in their lives. Over the course of a year, their lives are changed, tragedy strikes and Tony’s dreams of collegiate life and affluence thereafter may never be realized after all.

There were some truly lovely patches (no pun intended) of narrative prose in this one, but they were often overshadowed by the sheer amount of purple prose surrounding them. At times, it disoriented me, some of the sentences were so overwrought with it. There were too many metaphors and too much hyperbole, so the essence of these oft-lovely lines was often lost in the sheer quantity of them, as if the author wanted to slap on more and more lights, more and more decoration, when the tree itself would’ve sung beautifully. Enveloped within the metaphor-flooded prose was vernacular that sometimes hit the mark and sometimes did not. The transitions from narration to dialogue were often choppy and forced, trying to straddle two worlds unsuccessfully. There were moments when the author’s hand showed through glaringly, usually displayed as soap-box-worthy soliloquys on social injustice. There were also some editing issues here.

All in all, I found Patches of Grey to be an emotional narrative with a flawed message. There was a deep story here, one that often grabbed me and sometimes moved me, but in the end, I didn’t respect the characters. It’s not that the storyline was not wholly believable—it was—but I didn’t feel satisfied with the read because it yielded to the stereotypes, allowing them to win after all. If this was meant to be a cautionary tale, it didn’t go far enough with presenting its moral; it seemed to just concede defeat. There were hints towards the end that maybe things could be different in the future, but that wasn’t enough for me; I’m sorry to say that the hastily offered explanation in the final paragraphs felt like a cop-out to actually writing out a fully developed end to this story that would leave the characters well-rounded and, perhaps, whole. I can literally point out the moment that this novel lost me and my respect. Trust me, I hoped that it would be a plot twist that would right itself, a curve in the bend that the characters would bounce back from—or, at least, be educated on—but that never happened:

“It was not the decision to leave his gang which had doomed C.J., or even the choice to join in the first place. His fate had been determined the moment he was born a black male into a white world.”

While I was ecstatic to find that Pickering didn’t stoop to using easy bow-tie, happily-ever-after endings, the above quote does adequately summarize the faulty message of this story right up to the end: that in no way, shape or fashion were their circumstances any fault of their own doing, because of their own choices, not even a little. This novel allowed the characters to wallow, to not fight harder. Instead they surrendered, conceding defeat to society in a way that made them bitter, in a way that they could never recover from. The mother, Caren, believes, “…love is never granted free of charge. Once one’s heart was surrendered, it became subject to the whims of its captor. She complained little of its mistreatment because it had been her choice to give it away,” a beautiful line that really grabbed me, but simultaneously annoyed me because she, like some of the other characters, assumed that she had little choice in what happened in her own life. The moments that were supposed to function as absolution, as moments of strength and clarity for the characters, were too hastily done to stand up to the ravages of what the aforementioned phrases had done to them, and the reader.  There could’ve been so much more here. This was a surprising stance for a novel that seemed to shoot out of the gate with a purpose, a mission, a true message. Did we need happily ever afters? No. But is anything offered to the world by perpetuating stereotypes, by not adding anything to the diaspora dialogue? No.

In that way, this novel felt like regression. I gave this one 3 stars, keeping in mind what else is out there in this genre. ***