24 Hour Library

A Library Blog by Abby Hargreaves

Month: October 2017

Abby Reads: What I Was Doing while You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman

What I Was Doing while You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman
Three Rivers Press, 2014, 304 pages
Travel Memoir

Drawing from the same well of humor that provides lines for shows such as How I Met Your Mother, Kristin Newman brings her international travel stories to the page in What I Was Doing while You Were Breeding. After several failed relationships, Newman sets out on many trips betweenWhat I Was Doing while You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman show writing season and pursues short-term flings with whatever local men are available — or not — in the places she visits, which she calls “vacationships.” While for some journeys Newman brings along a friend or two, she often travels alone throughout her twenties and thirties, allowing for plenty of opportunity for self-discovery and global awareness.

Despite Newman’s enormous privilege to do all of this traveling, she’s seemingly unaware of it. Newman regularly complains that her friends can’t join her, blind to the amount of money and time away from a regular job it takes to travel the way she does. She goes out of her way to stay at inexpensive hostels and motels, which she uses as a strategy to meet other young, single people. This leads her to make comments about the poor conditions of her stays.

Arguably worse is Newman’s tendency to engage in offhand racism (which she admits is racist, but ultimately does nothing about it and even seems to find some pride in it) and general cultural unawareness. Although Newman has these many opportunities to explore the world and learn from other cultures, she is quick to point out things that are “weird” or otherwise lesser-than her American experience. Newman eventually recounts a specific event in which she declines a date with an Asian man through a dating app simply because he is Asian. Newman has minimal shame in admitting this — and arguably none at all, given her willingness to not only tell the story once, but refer back to it once or twice in later pages. She underlines this with a few blatantly anti-Asian jokes. Asians receive the brunt of Newman’s disrespect, but her general racism is evident in phrases that suggest otherness and exoticism like “gorgeously colored people” without many other descriptors, as if their whole being is tied up in the color their skin.

Readers might expect Newman’s book to be mildly offensive, like many sitcoms are. However, her offense does not stop at racism. There are also moments of homophobia and slutshaming — even in the same breath. “The nice thing about a gay club is there is no possible way to be the sluttiest person in the room,” she writes. This is par for the course for Newman. She regularly inserts comments that slutshame, claiming it’s okay because she’s the most promiscuous person she knows, while also putting down individuals who choose a more monogamous lifestyle and even telling of instances where she tries to get those individuals to move into a lifestyle that better matches and suits hers. Newman doesn’t even pause at rape jokes.

The following paragraph contains a spoiler, if you’re concerned about that kind of thing here — and it’s a big one, but something I feel is important to discuss given everything we’ve gone over at this point.

Newman isn’t a likable person, and the unshocking ending only serves to reinforce heteronormativity and a dangerous dependency on the patriarchy. Despite Newman’s past, it is a man and her relationship with him that ultimately saves her from herself, if she chooses to view her promiscuous lifestyle as destructive (which, as an undercurrent, it seems she does). She is only “cured” of her own personality (distasteful as it may be in its racism, slutshaming, and so on) when she is essentially forced into playing the role of the wife and mother. And I’ll just add another sentence of words here so the last words don’t stand out and inadvertently spoil anyone who cares about being spoiled and mistakenly sees the last words of the actual paragraph because they’re the last words.

Okay. Spoiler over.

The one redeeming quality of Newman’s memoir is a theme she returns to regularly, though perhaps doesn’t follow as closely as she might think. Her philosophy when traveling is this: Do the thing you’re supposed to do in the place you’re supposed to do it. This is a bit more nuanced than “when in Rome,” I think, and provides not just for doing as the locals do, but also doing things as opportunities present themselves — as both the time and place are right to do them. And as you are right to do them. This is a great takeaway for a travel memoir, and I only wish Newman had been more conscious of herself as a representative of America in her travels and as a writer when later relating these stories.

I read this book as part of Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge, fulfilling challenge #8, “Read a travel memoir,” and I leave it behind with two-and-a-half hearts.

❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: The Kitchen Boy: A Novel of the Last Tsar by Robert Alexander

The Kitchen Boy: A Novel of the Last Tsar by Robert Alexander
Penguin Books, 2004, 229 pages
Historical Fiction

Decades after the murder of the Romanovs, an elderly man previously known as the Romanov’s kitchen boy tells the family’s story to his American granddaughter through recorded tapes and sends her on a journey. With his narrative taking the the bulk of the prose, the kitchen boy The Kitchen Boy boy Robert Alexanderdescribes the final days of the Romanovs and his involvement. Rich with detail and research, The Kitchen Boy by Robert Alexander is a stunning look into a fictional take on the horror of the death of the Romanovs.

A brief disclaimer — anything I could say about this book won’t truly communicate what an incredible work it is. Just read it.

A framed story, most chapters describe Leonka’s experience with the Romanovs with brief passages visiting his granddaughter’s travel from America to Russia. Each moment with Leonka and his story is a gift made of a rich voice, totally formed and unique to any other narrator I’ve ever encountered. Alexander’s grasp of his character is extraordinary and is the foundation of this phenomenal book. Leonka tells his story with tension and, while the reader likely knows the fate of the Romanovs, the tension remains high throughout. Even as the reader knows death approaches, they hope for the release and survival of the Romanov family.

Alexander does take some liberties in the story — it is, at the end of the day, a fictional take on a real story. The twists that bring the story together are shocking. Alexander’s ability to mislead and redirect while maintaining a plausible narrative is another element that sets this novel apart from others. These twists are grounded in prose which is wholly immersive. Despite the very fine detail with which Alexander writes, there is never a sense of tedium or overwhelm. This style provides a story to savor and digest slowly and deliberately.

The prose also delivers wholly developed characters, from inconsequential guards to the Tsar himself. Leonka’s unique position as a family aid gives him particular insights into the family which others might be without. The culmination of these observations create a vivid look at the Romanovs as people, as captives, as royalty, as a family. Leonka himself makes for a fascinating character, particularly as the story builds and pieces of information are revealed.

The Kitchen Boy is a novel so far ahead of anything else I’ve read (at least to my memory) that I didn’t feel I deserved it. It was engaging, endlessly fascinating, fantastically clever, rich and detailed, breathtaking and more. It’s a book into which you put your time and energy, carefully chewing each sentence to get to a truly amazing center and a satisfying end that will shake and astound you. Fall into the Romanov’s story with this as a start and you’ll never want to leave that world.

❤❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Knopf, 2016, 320 pages
Fiction

Two sisters separated by social conventions and later by slavery and marriage open this long line of family stories that travel between Africa and North America in Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. Alternating between the two lines of the family, Homegoing transcends time and space as it moves through the ages, encountering culture and politics. With each chapter featuring a new small plot, the work as a whole focuses on the impact of slavery and colonialism.

Gyasi’s careful planning and mapping of her characters and plots is evident throughout the book. Though not strictly a novel, Homegoing reads like one, even with each chapter and element tied so loosely together. It is largely the attention to detail Gyasi bestows that transforms the work from simply a collection of stories to what feels and reads like a novel. At the same time, readers who prefer small bites rather than sweeping epics will see the opportunity to get the best of both worlds.

What’s interesting about seeing the generations over the years is how each family has a personality, making each line a sort of character of their own. In our own lives it can be a challenge to see beyond one or two generations, but watching personality traits and traditions get passed on is fascinating. There is not necessarily a single thread that runs through either family, but there’s a clear cause-and-effect between parents and children that appears in key ways. Gyasi knows her fictional families well, showing once again her attention to detail and planning.

In including so many individuals for such a lengthy story, however, Gyasi does fall into the trap of losing momentum. Earlier characters are much more defined than later characters are. This may be a symptom of simply getting tired of the story and losing energy or it may be the nearness. With less historical separation, Gyasi perhaps loses her ability to see characters as separate from herself. Because they are not living in such a different world than she is, she’s more able to rely on things she already knows to inform her characters, which then causes her to include fewer personal details to illustrate them. But this is only a theory.

Meanwhile, her writing style leans heavily toward the story-telling tradition, which is fitting for the African backdrop. This style also softens some of the more brutal aspects of the story — the slavery, rape, and racism that is present on both sides of the Atlantic is rarely graphic, yet Gyasi still achieves a powerful narrative. While she’s under no obligation to make these horrendous aspects of black life over history and in present, Gyasi’s prose style has that affect. Whether this is a positive or negative thing is up to the reader, and likely differs for each reader. Some may feel it was a disservice to omit the reality of these horrors, while others might feel a taste of the horror is enough to get the point across without turning readers off. I’m inclined to feel it’s somewhat a disservice, but recognize that Gyasi’s priorities may have been elsewhere.

If you’re a reader who prefers short stories or novellas to whole novels, Homegoing is a good alternative. It’s slow-moving at points, but overall captivating and an achievement in research and self-introspection. Gyasi has certainly done her ancestors proud in representing them here, as not just victims of their circumstances, but as people.

❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

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