What I’m Reading this summer
Time for Summer Reading, y’all!
The Great Alone
The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah
Usually I love Kristin Hannah’s books, but this one just didn’t have the same appeal. On the other hand, I disliked “The Nightengale” on my first read — it took a second read for me to get swept away. So maybe I need to read this one again. Anyway, the descriptions of the Alaskan wilderness are vivid, as well as the hardships. The hardships weigh heavily on the reader, so maybe that’s why I didn’t enjoy this book as much.
Our protagonist, Leni, moves with her parents, Cora and Ernt, to the wilds of Alaska. Ernt suffers from PTSD after being a POW in the Vietnam War, and wants to start a new life off the grid. He is a scary character, one who should not be spending months in the literal darkness of winter in Alaska. He takes out his frustrations on Cora. This is one of the most difficult parts of the book: watching Cora go back to Ernt again and again. Life is hard for this family. Then Leni falls in love — only to have Ernt interfere again, so that she can’t be with her boyfriend. Years go by.
I think Hannah meant for the ending to be uplifting, but it just made me feel sad. Even the wilderness is no longer the same, as now the town is a tourist attraction.
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson
I love her spare writing style. I love writers who can say so much with so few words. I also love this quote because it encapsulates the book so well:
My brother had the faith my father brought him to, and for a long time, I had Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi, the four of us sharing the weight of growing up Girl in Brooklyn, as though it was a bag of stones we passed among ourselves saying, Here. Help me carry this.
The novel is written in flashbacks. August and her brother are brought to Brooklyn by her father when they are very young. Her mother doesn’t come with them. Woodson never fully explains her absence (again, spare writing style) and lets us piece it together, just like August did as a child. At first she and her brother observe the world from the open apartment window. This becomes a metaphor — as the story unfolds, we learn that some people only get to watch the world and not have everything available to them.
We get a strong sense of place: Brooklyn through the 1970’s: white flight, more drug users, and gradual decline of her neighborhood. What holds August together is her friend group, Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi, but as adults, they grow apart. Woodson writes well about the ache of lost dreams, lost opportunities, and the loss of friends.
Crazy Rich Asians Trilogy
Crazy Rich Asians, Rich China Girlfriend, Rich People Problems by Kevin Kwan
These books are fun reads, and I’ve written about Crazy Rich Asians and the two follow-ups: Rich China Girlfriend and Rich People Problems before. They hold up on the second reading, and I thoroughly enjoyed them. Now I’m craving hand-pulled noodles and other Thai delicacies.
The Shadow Land
The Shadow Land, by Elizabeth Kostova
This novel is set in Bulgaria, a place that is unfamiliar to most of us. And just like adjusting to an unfamiliar country, I found myself adjusting to this book. It was hard to get into. It seemed like the beginning was all about descriptions and explanations. But at some point the story took hold and I got swept away. The title of the book is “The Shadow Land,” and often I wondered if it should be something like “The Mirror Land,” because the parallels between Alexandra and another character, Stoyan Lazarov, are plentiful.
Alexandra Byrd has just arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria, a country she chose because her brother, Jack, was interested in it. Alexandra is still in mourning for her brother, and she feels responsible for his death. Due to a mix-up at a taxi stand, she accidentally picks up a bag that doesn’t belong to her. Later she discovers that the bag contains an urn with human remains. She immediately begins a quest to return the bag to its rightful owners.
Along the way, she meets a friendly taxi driver named Bobby, and then a protective dog, who become her traveling companions. As the two of them try to piece together the mystery of Stoyan, they visit some of his closest friends. Meanwhile, a man calling himself R is positioning himself to be the next prime minister. I was annoyed that this character kept showing up, because I didn’t understand why he was meddling in everything, or why Alexandra and Bobby were suddenly in danger. But as we learn more about Stoyan, we learn R’s story as well. Stoyan was a gifted violinist, but he was also arrested and sent to the prison labor camps. He, like Alexandra, felt responsible for someone’s death.