Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Random House, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Hardcover, 400 pages
Expected publication: August 23rd 2016 by Random House (first published March 15th 2016)

“You think I don’t want to remain in America, too? You think I came to America so that I can leave? I work as a servant to people, driving them all over, the whole day, sometimes the whole week, answering yes sir, yes madam, bowing down even to a little child. For what, Neni? What pride are you talking about? I lower myself more than many men would ever lower themselves. What do you think I do it for? For you, for me. Because I want us to say in America! But if America says they don’t want us in their country, you think I’m going to keep on begging them for the rest of my life?…Never. Not for one day…”

 

Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers had its highs and lows. I’d like to first say that I love that Mbue is a native of Limbe, Cameroon. Rather than telling a story from hearsay and secondhand experiences, she was able to paint a realistic portrait of a modern-day Cameroonian family. The inflection in their tone and dialogue, their traditions, they all came through brilliantly here. Yet this, unfortunately, wasn’t enough for me to give this one high praise.

          Behold the Dreamers was a wonderful title for a work that told a story of exactly that: a family with dreams in their eyes and a determination to fight for a good life in America the Great. The writing was simple; particularly for the first large chunk, 40% or so. It was as simple as a burlap sack, and it was a bit too rudimentary to really pull me in. It definitely didn’t strike me as literary fiction, which some have labeled it as. On the other hand, I will say that it was culturally enlightening to read about the traditions of the Cameroonians, to recognize the cadence in their voices as different from those of their American counterparts. That dialogue between the immigrants read more jauntily, more authentically, than any of the other dialogue in this novel, the only thing that seemed dazzlingly authentic, and that was a let-down for me.

There were assuming plot leaps that lurched the timeline forward in a way that made me feel I’d missed something, where I, as a reader, missed the growth of the characters and how their bonds with one another transpired or were sullied, and that made the read less enthralling. It made me invest less in it. This wasn’t like plot twists that kept you guessing—this isn’t some mystery or thriller—but major life decisions that the reader had no warning were even possible, even a thought process in the characters’ minds, that just tumbled into the plot. That, to me, was a sure sign of the author’s inability to weave a plot with finesse. It felt like I was on a bumpy car trip, feeling every pothole and speed bump. Definitely not a luxury car ride.

And then there was the fact that it took way too long for any meaningful action to transpire. By the time I looked at my counter to see that I was over 40% of the way through this novel, I was shocked at how little I was invested in the characters, at how much valuable space had gone to waste in telling the story thus far. There was a high point, for me, where the action picked up and it looked like character evolution would take place—like Neni would fight the traditions of her upbringing and stand on her own, like she would fight her hardest for her dreams, which is what she came to America to do. But then I landed with a heavy flop at that ending and literally said to myself, “Oh, I’d better not turn this page for this to be it!” (literally, imagine me sitting at my computer, finger poised over the right arrow saying, “Oh, this had better not be it!”) only to find that when I did turn the page, that was it. Without spoiling the plot for anyone, **MINOR SPOILER ALERT** this one ended with the characters not having fully transformed. A bow-tie ending it was not, but it was still a deeply unsatisfying way to go out, my goodness.

Still, there were a few places where the writing dazzled. Where it popped and sizzled and hit the right notes like here:

            “For the first time in a long love affair, she was afraid he would beat her. She was almost certain he would beat her. And if he had, she would have known that it was not her Jende who was beating her but a grotesque being created by the sufferings of an American immigrant life.”

            But if there’s one thing that I hate in a read—that many hate, I’d assume—it’s characters who succumb. I love a realistic read that shows us that life is not always bright, life isn’t just one happy Facebook post after another—but I also want to be able to root for characters even in their short-fallings, and I found that I couldn’t always do that here. So, in the end, the Dreamers only managed to squeak out three stars ***

           

The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle by Dave Eggers

Mass Market Paperback, 491 pages
Published May 1st 2014 by Penguin (first published October 8th 2013)

“We all know we die. We all know the world is too big for us to be significant. So all we have is the hope of being seen, or heard, even for a moment.”

Wow, what a read! It’s been a little while since I’ve given a read 5 stars, so I’m feeling a bit like:

description

I went into this one a little tired from the mild let-downs that some of my more recent reads have been and wanting to take a quick breather from my list of upcoming pre-release 2016 reviews. (This one was released in 2014.) I am delighted to say that this novel, The Circle by Dave Eggers, really blew me away! I felt like it’d been a while since I read a novel that actually lived up to its blurb (and more), so I was thrilled about that, not to mention wholly enamored with this world that Eggers constructed. The Circle is the new-age Animal Farm meets “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a read reminiscent of 1984 where Eggers provides a fresh mirror in which to see ourselves and our culture in a startlingly accurate light, in a kaleidoscope of scenarios that straddle the line between personal rights and rights of commerce, the greed of cultural extravagance and the effect of e-media inundation on our lives. While, at the same time, we watched Mae’s slow and complete decent into some millennial version of madness. I loved it!

First off, let me say that the lack of chapter markers was a smart play. The format threw me off balance, which kept me on my toes, a useful trick in a read like this. Or as one character put it: “I want you on your toes, off-balance, intimidated, handcuffed and willing to prostrate yourself at my command.” It also did an exhilarating job of reeling me in as a reader, making it hard for me to pull back, fully immersing me in the on-campus world through Mae’s eyes. It was like I could feel my own slow inundation with The Circle, which, of course, made the implications as they unfolded a little horrifying, the thought of this utterly realistic and culturally possible phenomenon actually happening. The completely bizarre started to become normal, sounded like it really made sense. Of course everyone should know everything! Of course we should do everything we can to keep children safe! Hmph, must be how cults are formed.

Here, Eggers offered a view of our world like Big Brother on steroids. Imbedded in the fact that the Google-like company mostly employed millennials—and that we millennials are known for our social media voraciousness and oversharing—it comes off as a totally plausible alter-universe that Mae has stumbled upon when she arrives, both to herself and to the reader. If you’re a typical millennial, read it and take pause. If you’re not—especially if you’d classify yourself a Luddite—read it and weep at this completely conceivable, totally creepy, new-age possibility.

       The Circle was comical in its realistic nature, life-like in the way that the interactions between characters were played out. Here you’ll find competition in a survival-of-the-fittest sort of way reflected in passages that unnerve while being so relatable that they’re undeniable. Here Eggers brushes up against classism, caste, struggling to belong and competition, whether healthy or not:

       “Annie still held some particular status. Again Annie’s lineage, her head start, the varied and ancient advantages she enjoyed, were keeping Mae second. Always second, like she was some kind of little sister who never had a chance of succeeding an older, always older sibling.”

Eggers pushed situations to a brink that you might be tempted to label over-the-top, but he did so in a way that was contemporary social commentary at its finest. Even Mae’s interactions with the people around her—all strange in their own way—ring hilariously true, from frustrating reprimands from the boss who’s drank too much of the company Kool-Aid to clumsy sex in a dorm (and even a cave, who hasn’t done that, right)? Mae was a realistic 24-year-old character—still bright-eyed and bushy tailed, initially worried about her student loans and her parents’ health and well-being, feeling weighed down by her responsibility as an only child, and that contributed immensely to the direction that the plot took, as we see her being stripped down to conform to a new mold. I loved watching her and being a part of her world. In fact, Eggers wrote a world that I wished I was a part of, one of the reasons that we read in the first place. He constructed a world where social media reigns supreme, where privacy is the enemy, an awesome looking glass of us all being reduced to screen-scrolling sheep.

       “Here…there are no oppressors. No one’s forcing you to do this. You willingly tie yourself to these leashes. And willingly become utterly socially autistic. You no longer pick up on basic human communication clues. You’re at a table with three humans, all of whom are looking at you and trying to talk to you, and you’re staring at a screen, searching for strangers in Dubai.”

Imagine a world where e-media and all-encompassing surveillance are the prime forms of communication and interaction across the globe. It’s also how you vote, how you pay your taxes, how you shop online. Your social media profile is how the world—the government, even—sees you. You’re now living in “…the world’s first tyrannical monopoly.” That’s a scary, chilling thought that Eggers executed fluidly, with clarity and intrigue. With mounting anxiety, both on the part of the reader and the main protagonist, Mae, until…until it all seems perfectly normal. And that’s the scary part.

I knew that this one was getting 5 stars from about the mid-way point, and hoped that it wouldn’t disappoint with some hastily done bow-tie ending or weak sort of sputtering out like it was tripping over the marathon finish line. But, it did not. It held up its end of the bargain, so I’ll hold up mine: a well-deserved 5 stars. *****

The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock

I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Doubleday, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Hardcover, 384 pages
Expected publication: July 12th 2016 by Doubleday
description

When I sat down with The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock, I was all set to have my love for Southern Gothicism stoked here—forget that, even just my love for a great read in the Southern tradition. Anyone who follows my reviews knows that I’m a sucker for it. Yet, The Heavenly Table fell unexpectedly flat for me, I’m sorry to say.

Here you’ll find the story of the Jewett boys, regular hillbillies turned cowboys in 1917 Georgia, chasing a Buffalo Bill-type dream and their own versions of “the heavenly table,” a metaphor used throughout this novel. Here, you’ll also find an entire cast of colorful characters whose big personalities jostled for space within these pages.

description

For me, the problem with this read came down to two very important counterparts that didn’t marry well here: plot and soul. You can have a wonderful premise—a killer idea and plotline all sketched out—but that doesn’t mean that it will be executed with a real feeling of ambiance and depth. And for a novel whose blurb wants it to live up to the Southern Gothic tradition (with references to Quentin Tarantino, no less!) it has to have soul. Period. Otherwise, peel that label off and call it something else. Call it “Django with a 3 Stooges cowboy twist.”

The premise of Pollock’s The Heavenly Table was great—the characters filled the pages; the vernacular added some awesome local color; the setting was rich and there were a couple of Gothic elements that tipped their hat toward the tradition of O’Connor and Faulkner. I even saw Tarantino here, featuring cartoon-like descriptions of gore and debauchery that were cinematic and would translate well on the big screen. (In fact, this one would probably make a better movie than it did a read.) In short, the fundamentals of the story itself were fine, maybe even good, but I never felt any depth. I’m not even talking “feels,” just enough depth to make it funny, to make it feel real even in its raucousness.

     The Heavenly Table was beautiful as a metaphor but fell short in that it never gripped me and pulled me in. True enough, each character had some spit and dirt to them—in that way, it was gritty—but the rest of the grit came off as superficial and referential to other great works, to others’ great styles, and not fully of its own character. It didn’t make me yearn for the next flip of a page to see what lay in wait on the other side. To me, it read as classroom-learned writing with no natural swag. This was my first foray into Pollock’s works. It read like a 1st novel, which is surprising coming from an author with the renown that Pollock has amassed thus far. What I will say about this 3rd major work of Pollock’s is that he did let his own Southern Ohio, blue-collar roots hang out with a confident flamboyance and devil-may-care flair that I appreciated, making the read feel authentically Southern.

But Rule #1 is always: Don’t tell me; show me. And I think that one was tossed to the wind here in favor of superfluous character plotlines and backstories—I still can’t figure out what some of those characters were even doing in there, let alone why they had entire backstories of their own—and debaucherous accounts of adventure that I could see but not feel, not taste, not touch myself. It fell short of being fully 3-D for me, cinematic though the plot aimed to be. Without that added depth of flavor, without that thickened roux at its base, the cinematic appeal lost a little of its verve and sparkle— it lost some of its Rabelaisian humor appeal.

description

That extra word count from all of those storylines would’ve been better served filling out the story of the main characters. This one had too many ideas that could have been narrowed down to a much better read. Yes, yes, I get the attempt at weaving several intricately woven stories together so that they come together surprisingly in the end—it’s awe-inspiring when done right—but this wasn’t that. This was too many ideas—some of which were poorly executed or simply unnecessary—with the end result being me confused about who was who and whether or not they would show up again often enough in the novel for me to even care about them (sometimes the answer was no). Really, The Heavenly Table took the long way to its finale and dragged in too many characters to do it, with the end result not having the kick that it could have. There were serial killers tossed in for the hell of it, like “oh by the ways” tossed in just for good measure, just to make sure the read was good and raunchy. I didn’t respond well to that kind of fabricated grit. Was Heavenly Table gritty (as the blurb stated) because it had heart or because debauchery was heaped on debauchery? I’d say the latter, like a bawdy and mildly depraved version of the Slapstick genre: events were just happening just to be happening at some times, and that really turned me off.

Yet, to others, this might be a real selling point, as it was indeed Rabelaisian. For those who want to ride along with a good ole early 20th century American adventure story, complete with liquor, whores, murder and debauchery, this is most definitely the read for you—and you’ll LOVE it! But if you’re looking for more depth based on the blurb, don’t be fooled by the O’Connor reference—you won’t find that kind of true soul of allegory here. 2.5 stars **

A Wife of Noble Character by Yvonne Georgina Puig

Hardcover, 320 pages
Expected publication: August 2nd 2016 by Henry Holt & Co.
     I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Henry Holt & Co., via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Boy, was I looking forward to reading this one! With its attractive cover promising intrigue, social commentary and references to Wharton, I was sold like a new car and eagerly clicked ‘Request’ on NetGalley the moment I came across it. But upon reading it, I came away with a mixed bag of emotions toward it that left me a bit dissatisfied. What I liked about Puig’s A Wife of Noble Character was that it didn’t follow the trajectory I thought it would, and that’s always a plus. I had an idea in my head of how it would all play out when I first met all of the characters. And, yes, while this is a self-proclaimed “classic love story,” (a label which basically lets you know how the story will end) the twists and turns that happened to get to that point were often surprising. The biggest plus of A Wife for me, by far, was the last 20% of the read, which pulled this read back from the abyss for me. Without giving anything away, one of the pivotal turning points in the novel did make me respect, if not like, Vivienne a little more.

Vivienne is a character who is considered by all in her sphere to be beautiful. All she has ever been—or accomplished—in life is being “beautiful,” thus her aspirations in life go hand-in-hand with that. She struggles against this internally, but it’s not as deep as it sounds. Really, she’s trying to decide if being a Texas gold-digger is really her calling—though she still hasn’t settled on whether or not she would consider herself to be such. Enter her gentlemen callers, the men in her life who have similar views on her shown in polarizing ways but who end up shaping the way that she views herself and what she wants from her own life.

Now, I must say that in reviewing A Wife of Noble Character, I realized that the problem I had with it was the packaging. It all began and ended, so to speak, with the packaging! Reading it, I wanted it to be more; I wanted it to live up to the lovely wrapping that it was dressed and presented in, but it didn’t—not for me. This wasn’t some poignant and charmingly funny Edith Wharton spin-off—some modernized version that still had some intellectual bite. No, this was pure chick lit, highlighted by the fact that the protagonist, Vivienne, seemed to want sympathy and commiseration for the everyday life hardships that she experienced, as if she were somehow exempt from real-world issues. (Enter borderline shopaholic heroine who frets over whether or not to flat iron her hair.) Annoying, but often true of chick lit, which is why had I known that this was behind door #1, I would’ve run in the other direction for sure. More importantly, I can’t imagine that this won’t be an issue for this novel to some extent in the future. How are readers of chick lit who might really enjoy this read to know that they’ve found their match if it isn’t packaged correctly? And how many readers will be annoyed to no end once they figure out that they’ve been duped by a literarily slanted book flap and cover?

Meanwhile, this one started out in one of the strangest manners I’ve come across in a while. It just dropped the reader in, right in the middle of a college campus quad, not knowing who the characters were or where their motivations lay. I felt like I’d stumbled into the middle of something and had a hard time getting into the swing of things in those first few chapters, because I kept feeling that maybe I’d missed something—that the format of the first chapter had been purposeful and not just awkwardly done. Character entrances like that can work well and make the reader to feel that they’re really in the middle of the action! This just felt like I’d started the read in the middle of chapter 2.

All in all, if you’re looking for glimpses of Edith Wharton, you won’t find her here. That I can promise you (if you’re like me and you think something like Afterward [1910] when you think Wharton). Nevertheless, the writing was energetic and buoyant in its WASPiness—in the same vein as other recent releases The Nest and Eligible. Of course, it exploited every cliché of Texas life you’ve ever heard—trust me, I know, being born and raised in Texas. But clichés are clichés for a reason, so sometimes they work well when re-examined, re-purposed, re-done, re-imagined, but I didn’t see much of that here. If pushed just a tad further it could’ve been satire in some areas, but it fell a little short in that department too. I felt like I knew these characters and understood them, because their motives were simple. But I never felt for them or rooted for them. Really, I was just watching them and their drama play out but never felt a part of it, never felt invested in the outcome.

So, between the light-heartedness of the narrative and the mild feeling of being duped, A Wife grabbed herself 3 stars that would’ve been shaky at best if not for the pivot it took toward the end. 3 stars ***

I Almost Forgot About You by Terry McMillan

 

Hardcover, 368 pages
Published June 7th 2016 by Crown

I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Crown, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
I Almost Forgot About You is the breakthrough new novel from Terry McMillan after her roughly 3-year hiatus from the shelves. A feel-good novel if ever I’ve read one, the writing is witty and flavorful, full of all the spice and sass, reminisces, failures and regrets, personal triumphs and lessons learned that make McMillan’s characters feel like your neighbor next door—like your mother/cousin/sister/aunt who you love to watch and look forward to gossiping with over peach cobbler. You know, the women in your life you can really relate to because they’ve been there/done that and lived to tell about it all. That’s who you’ll find within these pages.

It’s always evident that McMillan writes what she knows—that she’s lived it, felt it, cried it, laughed it all herself—because her characters are always life-sized. Not larger-than-life rock stars or spoiled and whiny heroines worried about what nail color to try next, but people you can really see yourself sitting down with for a cappuccino—or a Cosmopolitan. She’s grown with them, infusing her own hard-gained knowledge and life experiences into their worlds, sharing a little piece of herself every time she does so. I’ve always appreciated the ease and grace with which she portrays black women, her protagonists of choice, and I Almost Forgot About You was no exception. If you’re tired of the made-for-TV reality drama and the caricatures of black life, 50+ life and “over-the-hill” life that the media will readily hand you on a platter these days, you can turn here for an upbeat, spunky and humorously wise take on the same. Here you will find lively characters who could fill a room with their banter and who go through more than a few bottles of wine on their trek toward what’s next in their lives.

The dialogue and narrative were so realistic that I laughed out loud, for a moment thinking it must’ve been stolen from me and my own girlfriends! McMillan’s writing here was both tender and reflective without being overly emotional. It was a light and entertaining read that told a story worth reading, was peppered with uplifting phrases I wanted to jot down and that was devoid of the melodrama that “coming-of-age”/ “finding-yourself” mid-life crisis fiction can bring to the table these days. It was all the way real, pure and simple.

The story line was completely true-to-life in its twists and turns, never coming across as over-the-top or forced. However, it was also littered with events that happened off screen and were dropped like small bombs on the reader during dialogue in an, “oh did you know this happened?” sort of manner, leaving me feeling like I may have missed the path somewhere along the line and ended up at a surprise that was both delightful and a little jolting. Of course, this tactic was used to keep the read interesting, to keep the reader on their toes, but this wasn’t a need-to-be-on-toes kind of read; this was a cozy, hilarious, sanguine, fireplace-and-whole-bottle-of-red-wine read, so that really threw me off—not quite annoying me as a reader, but definitely knocking me off balance in a way that warranted a momentary frown.

But, that was honestly the only qualm that I had with this read, and it was a minor one. Terry hasn’t lost her touch, and I hope she never does, because I’ll always keep coming back for me and more. This one got an easy 4 stars ****