We Love You, Charlie Freeman, by Kaitlyn Greenidge

Review:

We Love You, Charlie Freeman: A Novel - Kaitlyn Greenidge

This novel quickly went from very good to fantastic. The premise and sample interested me immediately–an African American family who speaks sign language(s) moves to a scientific institute as part of a study to see if chimps (one in particular, the titular Charlie) can learn to sign.

At first it feels almost quirky; the first point of view we’re given is that of Charlotte, the older of two daughters in the family. She is not happy about her parents’ decision to move the family from Boston to rural New England. But as soon as they arrive at the institute, it’s clear something with this situation will not be kosher. Much of the book you wait for the other shoe to drop, and as soon as additional points of view from the past and present emerge and repeat, that dread becomes specific until the reality confirms it.

Each family member relates to Charlie–or doesn’t–in their own way. Charlotte is standoffish and more concerned with fitting in at the almost entirely white school she begins attending–a hallmark of the town’s past (and present) segregation. She begrudgingly becomes friends with the only other black girl and hangs out with her and her mother, who both appear to be radicals. Younger sister Callie is left to her own devices and does her best to be a “big sister” to Charlie; in the meantime, food becomes her comfort. Mother Laurel has the tightest bond with Charlie–too tight, as Charlotte first discovers. Father Charles loves math and Laurel, and his devotion to her is tested by her bond with Charlie.

Alongside the family drama come flashes of the past when the institute first opened. The lens is that of a black woman who begins a disastrous relationship with one of the institute’s scientists–a man who proclaims he does not believe white people are biologically better than black people but whose slowly revealed study of local black people proves otherwise. Past and present merge and culminate in one bizarre Thanksgiving dinner, followed by a telling letter written by the institute’s foundress (I’m making this word up).

The novel presents one of the most nuanced contemporary portraits of race in America that I’ve read. Everything stems from the characters, who are deftly drawn, and the structure and lovely prose make it an engaging and subtle read. We Love You, Charlie Freeman earns my “recommend like whoa” tag, and I look forward to seeing more from this author.

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We Love You, Charlie Freeman, by Kaitlyn Greenidge

Innocents and Others, by Dana Spiotta

Innocents and Others: A Novel - Dana Spiotta

This book and I turned out not to be a good match, and I made the executive decision to stop reading (at 26%) today. Because there’s so much else to read, not to mention I’m a slow reader, and wasting my time reading something I don’t enjoy is dumb. My only regret is that I bought the book, so it feels like I am wasting money.

 

I read the sample before purchasing and was mostly intrigued by a protagonist’s experiment watching the same film a crazy amount of times in a few days. I love film, and the idea of reading about (fictional) female filmmakers was exciting. But at a quarter of the way in, with three main characters introduced, I couldn’t get a feel for what the book was about, its narrative thrust. I also didn’t care enough about the characters to keep going, and the prose could feel like cliches wrapped in pretentious prose.

 

DNFing is painful, but it’s time to move on!

 

 

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Innocents and Others, by Dana Spiotta

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, Amy Schumer

Review:

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo - Amy Schumer, Amy Schumer

If you are familiar with Amy Schumer and her comedy, you likely think either the sun shines out of her ass or she’s awful. I’m in the former camp. I enjoy her sketch show, Inside Amy Schumer, and her stand-up, as well as her movie, Trainwreck (though I admit I have not been crazy about her handling of the Kurt Metzger fiasco, which occurred just as this book was released). If you like Schumer, I can’t imagine you wouldn’t like The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo.

Written as a series of essays and lists, plus excerpts from her old diaries (with footnotes), accompanied by often hilarious photos, the book is unsurprisingly candid and funny. What did surprise me were the serious bits–still told with humor, except for the chapter on the shooting at a screening of her movie–her relationship with an abusive guy, her non-consensual loss of virginity, her introversion. I hadn’t previously read or heard many interviews with her, so these details of her personal life were news to me. She’s survived much more than being a woman in the world of comedy and entertainment.

My only worry beginning this book was that it would contain too many jokes from her stand-up; that fear is definitely unwarranted. The tone is familiar–and I might just have to listen to the audio book–but the content is fresh. I laughed out loud at least once most chapters, often suddenly from an offhand-feeling quip. I appreciated her vulnerability, but let’s be real; if this book weren’t funny, I’d be disappointed.

Although early on she states that it’s not a self-help book, there are still plenty of moments when Schumer writes directly to the reader or otherwise points to the lessons she’s learned, or, more accurately, how she gets on with things and lives her life. Most aren’t a surprise, at least to me, but she doesn’t become preachy and those bits are borne of personal experience.

I hope she writes the theoretical future books she mentions. Especially Juggling Dicks. 😉

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The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, Amy Schumer

The Vegetarian, by Han Kang

Review:

The Vegetarian: A Novel - Han Kang

What an odd little book. Struggling to find a way to describe it, I read some reviews and found many comparisons to Kafka, which, in retrospect, rings true. The Vegetarian is unsettling; it takes the everyday and scours what’s beneath. The last paragraph of its synopsis on Amazon accurately casts the novel as “a darkly allegorical, Kafka-esque tale of power, obsession, and one woman’s struggle to break free from the violence both without and within her.”

All it takes is one woman’s personal choice to stop eating meat to splinter her family. Yeong-hye is not really the protagonist, a fact that mirrors how much control she has not had in her life. The short novel is divided into three sections, with each told from the perspective of a family member: her impatient, baffled husband; her fascinated artist brother-in-law; and her responsible sister. Their reactions to Yeong-hye’s decision–and her steadfast adherence to it despite their efforts and the efforts of doctors–illuminate their own appetites as much as hers. Only in the first section do we get her direct perspective, italicized and interspersed with her husband’s.

Yeong-hye does not stop eating meat (and eggs and dairy and, eventually, anything) because of health reasons or even an outwardly ethical concern. She has nightmares, bloody and violent nightmares where she sees a face she can’t identify. In one striking passage, she thinks,

 

I like my breasts, nothing can be killed by them. Hand, foot, tongue, gaze, all weapons from which nothing is safe. But not my breasts. With my round breasts, I’m okay. Still okay. So why do they keep on shrinking? Not even round anymore. Why? Why am I changing like this? Why are my edges all sharpening—what I am going to gouge?

Violence is never far from the surface, and as the narrative develops, we learn more about the violence Yeong-hye has experienced. As her condition progresses, she begins to think of herself as a plant, something without blood or violent will that survives on sunlight and water (though I’d personally tell her plants need food, too). Her sister, still the responsible one despite a close call, tries her best to save Yeong-hye but also sympathizes.

This is the kind of book I wish I were reading for a class so I’d have a chance to hear others’ interpretations. It resonated plenty with me, but I get the sense there’s so much more going on than a first read alone could provide.

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The Vegetarian, by Han Kang