20 July 2009

I'm Down

I'm Down, Mishna Wolff.
Acquired: in a guilty haze, July 2009. Read in 3 days.

I wasn't supposed to buy this book yet. I was supposed to wait until I'd finished at least a few more of my own unread dust-catchers. I definitely wasn't supposed to pick it up, with guilty fingers, at the Barnes & Noble where I was looking for LSAT study materials. Of all places! Tsk, tsk, self-control.

This book came on my radar via Diesel Bookstore's newsletter. Peep what they said:

It's a rare book that can deal with race in America in a way that's as outrageously funny as it is heartbreaking. But I'm Down does just that. Born a self-described honky into south Seattle's all-black Rainier Valley, Mishna Wolff must not only contend with the neighborhood kids for respect but with the expectations of her father - a white man who, having grown up in the valley, identifies as black. Wolfy, as his buddies call him, quickly impresses on his young daughter the importance of "being loyal to the neighborhood", a.k.a. not being too white. Thus begins Mishna's journey in being "down," with mixed and often hilarious results. Then, just as she's beginning to find her way, she's sent to an all-white school where her new found social skills produce only bafflement and alienation, and force Mishna to decide for herself what it means to be white, what it means to be black, and what it means to be Mishna. -- Colin Waters

I liked this book. Maybe not "a lot," but earnestly and honestly. The writing is generally quick and witty, her family and friends endearing and hilarious. What really struck me about her story is the poignant sting of not fitting in, especially when you want to so bad. In retrospect, I didn't fit in as a kid very much either, and I can still identify really strongly with that feeling as an adult. I feel a kinship with misfits.

I really felt that race, although important especially in her early life, is not the real grit of this story, but rather it's the economic disparity between her very poor neighborhood and very rich classmates, her home life and her school life. She develops two visions of her possible life: either as a Stanford graduated anesthesiologist or jobless on a mattress with mysterious water stains, in a shack. The meat of her story is about coping with being poor, and often hungry, and trying to fit in with a richer crowd and their expensive ambitions while also trying to meet the expectations of her home life. Neither is easy for her.

Towards the end I was wondering where her story would wind up. The author is young by most standards, a little too young for her life to already have the climax and resolution of a good book. It didn't quite build up the momentum needed for a really exciting ending, but I was surprised at a theme that popped out: her relationship with her father. This is a guy she adored, who women adored, his friends respected, he seemed like a powerful, influential man. As she grows older, it becomes evident that he's really manipulated most of the people in his life to supporting him and not making it necessary for him to be responsible for himself and his own family. It gets so bad that Mishna's stepmother is convinced that she, at 14, should go get a job to help the family -- not the 35-year-old husband. Mishna ends up living with her mom, realizes her rich white teenage friends get "depressed" for reasons she doesn't understand, comes to an understanding of sorts with her dad, and then they swim across a lake together -- the end. More or less just like that. It felt like the tip of an interesting iceberg that the author either didn't want to share or didn't realize was interesting.

Fun and thought-provoking.


Up next: A Walk in the Woods

12 July 2009

This is getting hard.

I'm finding it very hard to be monogamous with my own books. In all truth, the one I'm reading now (A Walk in the Woods) is a loaner from my aunt Irene ... not technically breaking my self-contract but also avoiding the point of it, which is to make more progress in my own unread inventories. And aside from lent books, I find myself reading about new books that are out (like this one or this one) which promise to be funny and charming with a new perspective on something I want to know more about. Maybe the real problem is that I'm on a memoir bender and am running out? I doubt it.

I spent the last couple weeks in New York and Vermont dreaming about dairy and life in a place that experiences 4 seasons instead of 1.5. There are obvious benefits to both systems, and I wonder if it's not time to see what the other one is like. Isn't 4 seasons a little decadent? That's 2.5 more than I'm used to and I've gotten by just fine with the 1.5 I've had for the last 28 years. Is a climate with 1.5 seasons being miserly or overly indulgent? I've been at a crossroads that's lasted about a year, and I think this fall is when it all comes to a head and one path becomes the clear(er) choice. Which path? TBD. Like so many things right now.

It's hard to subdue my book-shopping impulses when there's so much on my mind. But I'm trying! I just have to remember not to hate myself if I submit.

My Antonia

My Antonia, Willa Cather.
Procured: 2004 or 2005 for a Literature class that I ended up dropping before the quarter began, but after I had already ordered all the books online. They were all early American canon, so I kept them for later enrichment. 4-5 years later and I have read exactly one of them. I finally picked it up and finished it on my recent trip to the cheese and dairy havens of NYC and VT.

Before starting this book, I was won over by the heft and feel of this particular edition. It's a paperback that has cleraly made its way from shelf to shelf, but still carries a substantial weight that feels full of promise. The paper is smooth and heavy, but not so heavy that it feels wasteful or needlessly thick. The binding is tight and secure, but the pages also open invitingly with little encouragement. With new, tightly bound books it can feel like prying open a clam just to read a few pages, which spoils some of the reward that I get from reading. This one was my perfect dimension, size, weight and feel. 10 points for aesthetics.

Is it a love story? Yes. But it wasn't the story I expected. It was as much about a love affair with the early pre-settled west as with anything else, and I found it peaceful to read about the whims of the land and the weather as if it were a woman, with the same good fortune and tragedies that any woman has.

The protagonist is a likeable guy. He has the good sense to see that the "proper" girls in town aren't nearly as interesting as the hired 1st or 2nd generation immigrant girls who work in their homes, and explains how decades later they were the ones who managed to make better lives for themselves with their dedicated industry. Without spoiling the ending of this book: I was frustrated at some of his choices.. particularly when he chose action vs. inaction; these moments had me cursing at the pretty, smooth pages. "Don't be a tool!" "Why would/wouldn't you do that!?" Etc.

The pace is slow compared to more contemporary fiction. I found this refreshing, but it could just as easily be a pain in the ass, depending on what you're looking for from a book at a particular time. I really liked the experience of reading it, so I want to recommend it to others, like the three people who read this blog. You three: I can only recommend this to you if you feel like sitting on a warm front porch for a few hours sipping iced tea. Or maybe if you feel like a nice hike would be good right about now. Or maybe, just maybe, if an industrious afternoon in the garden, followed by a hot bath to soak your aching muscles sounds particularly rewarding today.


Up next: A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson.