Book review of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Book review of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Rating

2 Stars

Plot

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is a story of a mother (Lydia) and her child (Luca) fleeing from a Mexican drug cartel. The two have survived a horrific massacre that saw 17 members of their family murdered in retaliation for a newspaper article on the local cartel leader written by Lydia’s husband.

Convinced that she and her son will continue to be targeted, Lydia flees the scene and determines to make her way to America via ‘la bestia’, a long and dangerous train journey north. Along the way they meet other migrants fleeing violence and despair in the hope of a better future.

Themes

This book attempts to explore the violent and corrupt drug culture of Mexico, the unrelenting and unfathomable depth of love a mother feels for her child, and bring to light the humanity and personal horror of migrants seeking asylum in the US. It tries. Sort of. Not really.

Impression

This book has sparked controversy around Cummins’s appropriation of Mexican narratives and superficial and clichéd depictions of migrants. Don’t get me started on the glowing wonder that is America in this book.

Let’s set aside the myriad issues with Cummins’s decision to write this book in the first place and start with the writing itself. It’s boring. Overburdened with indulgent flashbacks and constant explanations of Lydia’s feelings, this book really drags. It’s a long 459 pages despite the blurb spruiking it as an action-packed thriller. I mean, ‘For him, she will leap onto the roof of a high-speed train’ has Hollywood blockbuster written all over it (and I believe there’s one in the pipeline). Yet, the reading experience is slow and tedious. I found myself skimming this book just to get through it.

The characters are two-dimensional and overwritten. Luca is the perfect survivor child who stoically comes of age as their journey progresses. The bad guys are really bad and the good guys are really good. Lydia is wholly unsympathetic in her naivety, stupidity and stupid luck.

Then there’s the lack of authenticity and depth in Cummins’s representation of Mexico and of migrants. This is not the place for me to weigh in, but I can direct you to a swathe of excellent resources that will highlight how damaging books like this can be (marketed as must reads for those who want to know about the plight of Mexican migrants).

Here’s my favourite summary of American Dirt by Myriam Gurba:

“Unfortunately, Jeanine Cummins’s narco-novel, American Dirt, is a literary licuado that tastes like its title. Cummins plops overly-ripe Mexican stereotypes, among them the Latin lover, the suffering mother, and the stoic manchild, into her wannabe realist prose. Toxic heteroromanticism gives the sludge an arc and because the white gaze taints her prose, Cummins positions the United States of America as a magnetic sanctuary, a beacon toward which the story’s chronology chugs.”

Here a few sources to help you get a handle on why this book is controversial:

I suggest you read Gurba’s full article to get a true sense of why she found American Dirt a difficult book.

Why is everyone arguing about the novel American Dirt?

The problem with American Dirt is not the author’s background.

I don’t have an issue with the fact that Jeanine Cummins isn’t Mexican. It doesn’t mean she can’t write a book that deftly tackles social, political and economic issues in another country. The problem is, she didn’t write deftly. She didn’t write well, and she didn’t write with care. She wrote a book that would sell millions of copies and be made into a movie. I take issue with the fact that she wrote a bad book that played on stereotypes and cliché.

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Review: The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

Review: The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

Rating

4 Stars

The dictionary of lost words by Pip Williams has been in the top-ten best-sellers list since it’s release. But good sales often don’t correlate to the quality of the book. Fear not, I’ve got you covered. This review will help you decide whether The dictionary of lost words needs to be on your bedside table.

Plot

The dictionary of lost words by Pip Williams is set during the ambitious project to build the Oxford English Dictionary. The story follows the life of Esme Nicoll and her search for lost words. Esme is raised by her widower father and spends her childhood beneath his desk at the Scriptorium where he works as an editor on the dictionary. Naturally, Esme grows up among words, definitions, and scholarship.

When Esme finds a discarded word on the floor of the Scriptorium, she undertakes a lifelong project to collect and record words that don’t meet the dictionary’s strict standards. These words, though excluded from the OED, hold depth and meaning to those who use them.

Themes

This book is rich with history, relationships and politics. Set during the women’s suffrage movement and the building political tensions of an impending world war, The dictionary of lost words has tremendous amounts of material to mine. Yet, this is an unassuming book. Esme goes about her life’s work beneath the shadow of the great dictionary. Her love of words builds her understanding of the world and her place within it.

Somehow, Esme’s gentle passion for words is deeply stirring. As she seeks ‘women’s words’ and those of others who don’t meet the criteria for the OED, Esme gives voices to women, the working class and the illiterate. She works apart from the large moments of history but is no less subversive or valuable than the grand vision of the OED or the suffragettes. This book shows that battles are fought on many fronts, and they’re all important.

Impressions

When I began reading The dictionary of lost words, I thought it was going to be a quaint (suggested by the cover) exploration of a young girl’s passion for words. It was, and it was so much more. The dictionary as a device for viewing this tumultuous period of history is clever and elightening, while the characters in this book are beautifully rendered. I particularly enjoyed the relationship between Esme and Lizzie (a maid who becomes her surrogate mother).

There is nothing heavy-handed about The dictionary of lost words. Everything from sex, death and the limitless depth of meaning within every word is treated with delicacy and intelligence. I emerged from this book with a sense of warmth, sadness and awe. Williams addresses the silencing of women’s histories by offering a path into the past that has slipped through the cracks.

What did other reviewers think?

Here are a few links to other reviews if you want to dig deeper.:

Better Reading

The Guardian

Sydney Morning Herald

 

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Review of The Betrayals by Bridget Collins

Review of The Betrayals by Bridget Collins

Book Review: The Betrayals by Bridget Collins

Rating

4 Stars

Overview

The Betrayals is the latest book from Bridget Collins, an artistic nod to Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, written with Collins’s unmistakeably rich and lyrical style. Collins’s debut adult novel, The Binding was an astounding piece of writing and expectations were high for her next offering. 

The Guardian’s Stevie Davies describes The Betrayals as a game that is ‘played by the author with and against the reader.’ For me, The Betrayals reflect the games we play with in our efforts to construct ourselves. 

 

 Plot

The Betrayals takes place at the mysterious Montverre Academy, a school where boys study the grand jeu, also known as ‘the game’. The grand jeu is a mix of music, maths, movement and arguably magic. However, the mechanics and visuals of the game remain unexplained and intangible.

The story is told from three POV characters: the rat, Leo Martin and Claire Dryden.

The rat, a young girl who lives at the school in secret, opens the novel and introduces the arcane world of Montverre Academy—part school, part seminary. She sees all as she scurries through the walls and hidden rooms.

Leo Martin is an ex-student of Montverre and now a disgraced political sent back to in exile under the guise of scholarship. Once a gold medallist the grand jeu, Leo is forced to confront past trauma at his former school.

Claire Dryden is the first female Magister Ludi (head teacher) of Montverre and already harbours a burning hatred for Leo. She must prove her value at the school by delivering her first ‘summer game’ but the pressures of Leo’s presence and her own past threaten to undo her life’s ambition.

Themes

The Betrayals is a complex blend of romance, mystery, fantasy, historical reflection, gothic and political thriller set in a dystopian authoritarian world. The politics of ‘The Party’ lurk in the background but, like the game, are an implicit threat rather than a fleshed-out reality.

This obfuscation is a theme that runs throughout the book. The setting is overwhelming and rich with possibility, but Collins keeps the perspective tightly focussed upon the inward journey of her characters. While some reviewers have criticised Collins for her trail of world-building breadcrumbs, I feel the mystery of the outside world drives the reader and characters to the interior. This is a journey into the heart of darkness, searching for the light at the centre of what it is to be human.

The romantic threads of the novel explore love and attraction as a connection between two people, undefined or inhibited by gender. Yet, gender is one of the largest constraints of the novel. Only boys may study at Montverre and until Claire Dryden is accidentally appointed, only men could be magisters. Women in the world of ‘The Party’ are bound to the tenets of ‘Home, Husband and Happiness’.

Within this oppressive landscape, the grand jeu becomes a sanctuary of equality and independence.

Impressions

I loved this book, but perhaps I would have loved it more if I’d read it before The Binding. It’s difficult for an author whose previous novel is exceptional to live up to a reader’s heightened expectations. To be fair to Collins, The Betrayals is beautiful. It pulses with rhythm and cadence, matching the grand jeu in its intricacy. The recurring imagery and cinching plot arcs explore the core of what makes us human, like a quickening heartbeat.

Bridget Collins is rapidly becoming one of my favourite authors. Her romantic narratives are deeply moving and speak to the profound and wordless emotions that drive human connection. I wanted to know more about the grand jeu, and I wonder if this is one of those rare books that would translate well to film, where the visual elements of the game can create a sense of its depth and beauty.

The Betrayals is as dazzlingly clever as the grand jeu but lacks the heart-wrenching connection of The Binding. It’s as much an intellectual exercise as an emotional one, which I enjoy, but somehow it didn’t grip me in the same way. This is a book that can be studied. A book that can be written about and probably should be.

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Review of Adults by Emma Jane Unsworth

Review of Adults by Emma Jane Unsworth

3.5 Stars

This week I review Adults by Emma Jane Unsworth, released January 2020.

I picked up  Adults because the vague stare of the scruffy dog on the cover piqued my interest. The word ‘Adults’ in bold, black lettering felt like a challenge to my adulting abilities. Was this a book that would validate or undermine my sense of competency? No. In the end, Adults is a book that provides forgiveness and empathy.

Adults explores the relationship between social media and trauma through the story of Jenny, a columnist more invested in her online presence than her real life. It’s an extreme representation but not an unfamiliar one. We’re led through Jenny’s story by a mixture of traditional prose, email and text messages. The differing styles offer insights into the different facets of Jenny’s personality and history.

The story begins with Jenny agonising over an Instagram post of a croissant. How many likes, shares and comments has the post attracted? Was the post banal? Will her favourite influencer follow her?

We cringe as she performs the obsessive rituals of virtual life, all the while pretending we don’t recognise them as a part of our own routine. Secretly we soothe ourselves, dismissing Jenny’s pathology as far-fetched.

Yes, but this book is over the top. I’m not as bad as that.

The need for online validation overtakes Jenny’s daily life to the detriment of her professional life and relationships. She crumbles at work, loses friendships and battles with self-doubt. Yet, we see her at her strongest when she’s constructing a self-image in the artificial realm of digital communication. Her online persona is dry, quick-witted and sardonic.

As Jenny’s physical life unravels, we see a darker side to her social media addiction. Adults leads us beyond the shallow self-obsession portrayed at the beginning of the book in a way that is reminiscent of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s fabulous Fleabag.

The flippant parody of the book’s early chapters transforms into a shared experience of grief and loss until we’re left staring at her vulnerability as it mirrors our own.

Adults is a modern take on a modern life. Addiction, self-preservation and camouflage come in many forms and are not easily teased apart.

 

Don’t want to take my word for it? Here are what a few other people thought of Adults:

Book Review: Honeybee by Craig Silvey

Book Review: Honeybee by Craig Silvey

I know everyone will be reviewing this book considering it’s one of the biggest releases this year. However, I want to share my experience of Craig Silvey’s new work anyway since talking about books is one of the things I love to do.  I don’t want to spoil this book for you, so I’m going to give little detail about the themes and plot.

Honeybee is another beautiful, painful and frank coming of age book by Craig Silvey. As he did in Jasper Jones, Silvey doesn’t shy away from the issues confronting adolescents as they attempt to navigate a prescriptive world. Issues that we, as adults, might all like to pretend don’t exist for the young people in our lives. Yet, despite the confronting moments in this book it is nothing short of exquisite from the first word to the last.

When I started reading Honeybee, I instantly felt that all my own efforts as a writer were pointless, clumsy and doomed. Silvey’s ability to create characters that are vulnerable and strong, innocent and worldly is masterful. Sam, or Honeybee, is no exception. Silvey draws us through a harsh and painful world and the disparity between Sam’s naivety and our understanding makes it all the more the bleak. As Sam narrates the events of his life, it’s hard not to want to talk to him. To impart the wisdom to him that he needs to find for himself.

Despite the dark places Silvey takes us, this is a book full of love, hope and tenderness. It shows love and friendship as the heart of the human experience. This is an immersive book that you will read quickly, perhaps even in a single sitting and the experience will be all the more compelling for it.

Review: The Sister’s Song by Louise Allan

Review: The Sister’s Song by Louise Allan

It’s not news that I love books. I love reading them. I love the way they look on my shelves, my bedside table, my desk, the kitchen bench, in my handbag, perched on the edge of the couch… you get the picture (book hoarder). Just having books around me makes me happy.

Most of all though, I love seeing the world through someone else’s eyes and that is something books are uniquely good at.

Even better than reading a good book and discovering a new author you can secretly love from afar, is reading a good book written by someone you know. There’s the tantalizing thrill of prying open the inner workings of their brain. The fear of what you will do if you don’t like it, and the excitement in letting them know that you do. You try and piece together what you know of them, and how they found their idea. It makes the reading all the more pleasurable.

I met Louise Allan through a workshop group and was struck with how bright and outgoing she is. The best word I can use to describe her is gregarious. So, I knew immediately that I had read her book.

I was not disappointed.

Set in Tasmania, The Sister’s Song traces the lives of two sisters who each mourn the loss of what could have been. They story is narrated from Ida’s point of view, beginning in childhood, as she struggles to live in the shadow of her younger sister’s immense musical talent. As the sisters grow up it seems they are destined to lead drastically different lives. Ida a wife and mother, Nora an opera star. Yet both sisters suffer different but equally devastating loss and find themselves having to reconstruct their sense of self and purpose. The relationship between Ida and Nora is deftly portrayed, exploring the complex and intricate ways that women rely upon, and care for, each other.

Louise Allan’s The Sister’s Song is a book that rings and resonates like a tiny crystal bell. It is delicate and beautiful, and sings with an exquisite melancholy that is somehow touching and heart-warming in its sadness and beauty. There is so much to love about this book. The writing is crisp and clear and there are no wasted words. Instead, Allan manages to lay bare her characters loss and trauma without resorting to melodrama. It simply is, and the story is all the more powerful and devastating for it.

Set in an era where women’s roles were clearly proscribed and defined, The Sister’s Song speaks to all women about their hardships, their losses, their work and their need for kinship. Running through the book is the whisper of hope and optimism that together we are stronger, that there is no one path, and that what was, is no more.