Book Review: HOMEGOING, the evil specter of slavery and the search for origins

Gyasi, Yaa - HomegoingHomegoing
Yaa Gyasi

Beginning in the late 1700s, in Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi introduces two half sisters, Effia and Esi. Effia, raised by a Big Man and his wife, is married to a British officer, and is unaware that she has a half sister. Effia’s descendants stay in Africa and participate in the slave trade becoming a dominant family until a chance encounter and a belief in love alters their course. For generations, though, the family felt the specter of evil haunting them since they had been involved in slavery.

Esi herself is the daughter of a Big Man, but her village is attacked by a rival and she is sold into slavery, held in a dungeon in the very castle where Effia lived with her husband. Esi is torn from her roots and rent from her family history, sent to horrors of slavery in the American South. Even after slavery ends, they are afflicted by persecution, discrimination, drug abuse, and a sense of lost history.

Each chapter is told from a different character’s point of view, alternating between the family branches. The book includes a family tree, and often, I don’t refer to these, but in the case of Homegoing, I found myself returning to it again and again.

The narrative is so expansive and sweeping, covering such a wide swath of history, I got very caught up in the story and characters. At times, I wasn’t ready to part with certain characters when their chapters were finished, though their fates were often subsequently revealed. It is quite impressive that Gysai was able to represent so many different periods of history so flawlessly, and I can’t imagine the meticulous research she must have conducted to achieve this.

One of the more interesting chapters to me was about H who escaped one form of slavery only to find himself a victim of another. Once Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, authorities in the south arrested black men on small or bogus charges and levied outrageous fines that they were unable to pay. Instead of being incarcerated, the prison system rented them out as laborers, basically perpetuating the slave system. What I didn’t know about was Pratt City, Alabama, an integrated and generally peaceful city created by former convicts who worked as coal miners.

Gysai introduces several themes in the book, including the long-term generational consequences of slavery, both for those enslaved and those complicit in the trade, including a sense of estrangement from origins and a feeling of being chased by evil. As Marcus, a character from the 2000s who is working on his PhD learns, the issues are so interdependent, from being barred from educational and economic opportunity to drug and alcohol abuse and broken families. The treatment of women, the role of religion, and the bonds of parenthood also run through the novel and show how power can be lost and regained in surprising ways.

Excellently written, brilliantly conceived, and with an important story, Homegoing is worth reading and reflecting on.

Book Review: THE END OF THE AFFAIR, a writer struggles with the idea of God

Greene, Graham - The End of the AffairThe End of the Affair
Graham Greene

In The End of the Affair, Maurice Bendrix recounts his liaison with the beautiful Sarah Miles, married to senior civil servant Henry Miles. Beginning in 1939, when Bendrix invited Sarah to lunch on the pretext of researching a book on civil servants, the affair lasted until 1944. It ended abruptly when a bomb fell in their neighborhood and damaged Bendrix’s boarding house. Bendrix, who had been in the stairwell at the time, was trapped under the front door. He was able to free himself, and when he returned to his room, Sarah was by his bed praying, something he’d never seen her do before.

Two years later, Bendrix ran into Henry walking across the Commons in the rain and invited him for a drink. That casual (or not) invitation pulled Bendrix back into Sarah’s orbit and disrupted the other men around her–Henry, Richard Smythe, an anti-Christianity rationalist, and Mr. Parkis, a private investigator.

My husband loves Graham Greene, and I’ve enjoyed the other novels I’ve read, The Quiet American and Our Man in Havanna. I was primed to enjoy The End of the Affair, but I just didn’t care for it. I’m not really interested in these internal religious debates, particularly the all-or-nothing choices that Bendrix seemed to consider. Furthermore, the only female character, Sarah, was just a symbol representing different things for the different male characters, not a fully developed person. If she were a fully developed person, I might ask why she would be interested in having an affair with Bendrix, a rough and insecure writer who wants to dominate women.

I did think the idea of storytelling and the arbitrary nature of beginnings and endings was interesting, and Greene did track how closely love and hate coexist, so some of the themes were compelling, but I was so overwhelmed by Sarah’s role in the book and the question of religion that it was difficult for me to see the other aspects of the novel.

Book Review: GOLDEN CHILD, a missing child and an impossible choice

Adam, Claire - Golden ChildGolden Child
Claire Adam

When twins Paul and Peter are thirteen-year-old, Paul wanders into the bush near the family’s house and doesn’t return. Since he was a baby and had a difficult delivery, Paul had caused Clyde consternation, especially in contrast to the extremely gifted Peter. Paul learns slowly, has difficulty in social situations, and relies heavily on Peter to navigate the world. When Paul doesn’t return, Clyde is convinced he’s up to mischief, but Peter and their mother, Joy, believe something else is going on. As Clyde learns the truth, he realizes he must make an impossible choice.

Golden Child is the first book I’ve read that was set in Trinidad and for that reason alone, I was excited. At first the dialect was a little awkward, but I quickly became acclimated to the style. The first half or so of the book is told from Clyde’s perspective, then there are sections told from Pauls’ and a teacher, Father Kavanagh’s perspective. Several times I felt sucker-punched (in a good way!).

To tell too much would be a disservice, but the book is extremely well-written and lyrical covering themes including the strengths and limits of parental love, the dangers of self-fulfilling prophecies, the bonds between twins, and the jealousies that fester among family members all set within the interesting context of Trinidadian society.

If anything, I wish there had been slightly more sociological context to the narrative. Also, the ending felt a little abrupt and manufactured. Still, I recommend reading this book. At times, it’s a difficult read, but it beautifully rendered with valuable insights.

Thank you to NetGalley and Crown Publishing/SJP for Hogarth for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: PIECES OF HER, a daughter’s search for the truth of her mother’s secret past

slaughter, karin - pieces of herPieces of Her
Karen Slaughter

Andrea, an indecisive thirty-one-year-old who moved back to her hometown, is having a birthday lunch at the mall with her mother, middle-aged speech pathologist and breast cancer survivor, Laura Oliver. Warm and nurturing, Laura encourages Andrea to find her passion but promises she can live with her until she does.

In the brief moment Andrea slips away for a refill, a shooter comes into the mall diner and hits two women before going after Andrea who freezes. Laura, displaying skills Andrea has never seen, confronts the gunman. One of the diner patrons recorded the exchange and his video replayed incessantly on the news.

For all of Andrea’s life, Laura has diligently kept her past a secret, but now, she’s been exposed, and now she and Andrea are both at risk. Laura sends Andrea away, but Andrea is determined to learn the truth about her mother, even if it comes at the ultimate cost.

Pieces of Her is one of my least favorite Karin Slaughter books. Laura’s backstory is interesting but rather unbelievable, and some of the characters (e.g., Paula, Nick) are one-note and stereotypical. Although the book is in part how women find their voices, in the lead up, these women are malleable, inarticulate, and for the most part extremely annoying.

Even one of Slaughter’s lesser books has positive aspects, and Pieces of Her does offer an evil corporation, secret identities, and cult-like personalities. The book is a quick, compelling read for those looking for a “palate-cleansing” mystery.

Book Review: WE SHOT THE WAR, a tribute to Overseas Weekly

We Shot the War (4)We Shot the War
Lisa Nguyen

Stars and Stripes is an American military newspaper, and although independent, is published out of the Department of Defense, and at least at one time took the perspective of officers rather than enlisted men. In 1950, Marion von Rospach, a Stanford University alum, her husband, and three servicemen founded Overseas Weekly as an alternative to what they saw as the official narrative.

In 1966, the paper, based in Germany, sent Ann Bryan to Saigon to start a Pacific edition of the paper focusing on the Vietnam war. Marion von Rospach unexpectedly died in 1969, and the paper was sold, but it ceased operations in 1975.

The Pacific edition hired several women and successfully challenged the ban on women reporting from combat zones. Because it frankly covered such topics as courts martial, racial tensions, and drug use, it earned the ire of the Pentagon which tried to get it banned from PX newsstands. Until that decision was overturned, local children hawked the paper on Saigon streets.

After the magazine closed, its records were largely forgotten, but many of the photographs, negatives, and contact sheets were saved by Calle Hesslefors, a former photographer. They ended up with Mark Goldsworthy, a Swedish designer, who contacted the Hoover Library and Archives once he realized the treasure he possessed.

Out of the archive, Lisa Nguyen curated an exhibit and edited a companion book, We Shot the War. Nguyen offers an introduction giving context to the photographs, and in all my reading on the Vietnam War, I’d never heard of the Overseas Weekly, so it was interesting to me to hear about it and the battles it fought, though I found myself wishing for more details about the key events, e.g., securing the right of women to report from combat zones.

The book includes essays from former Overseas Weekly photographers tracked down by the Hoover Institution once they received the paper’s archive. While these recollections add to the oral narrative of American experience in the Vietnam War, they are by their nature not analytical or in-depth.

Photographs from Overseas Weekly represent the bulk of the book and because of their origin, they haven’t been reproduced in modern books and publications. They include both servicemen and Vietnamese. Unlike most pictures of Vietnamese, these often capture them in the activities of daily living.

Finally, We Shot the War reproduces a few columns of a popular feature from Overseas Weekly: “Man in the Street,” in which a reporter asked servicemen a question. Here, the columns had asked about the utility of body count as a measure of success and the presence of racial discrimination. Because these topics have been analyzed so much in the present, it was very interesting to see how servicemen thought about them at the time they were in Vietnam.

If you plan on purchasing this book, you should invest in the hard copy and not the electronic version. I found the Kindle edition hard to read. The type was very small, and though text bubbles popped up, they were hard to navigate. There was no way to enlarge the photographs, so they were difficult to see as well.