The Great Believers

Rating: .5
Author: Rebecca Makkai
Genres: Historical Fiction, Fiction
Pub. date: Jun. 2018 (read May 2019 on Audible)

I listened to The Great Believers as an audiobook and I feel like I’ve been working on it for a long time. It took me a while to get into it, but once I did, there were parts of the book that I really liked, and other parts that I found kind of boring.

First of all, I will say that the scope of this novel is impressive. Makkai tackles a lot in this book. The main plot of the story (for me anyways), centers on Yale Tishman, who is a gay man living in Chicago in the 1980’s and coming to grips with the HIV/aids crisis completely decimating his entire community. The novel opens with the death of Yale’s friend Nico, which in a round-about way initiates a conversation between Yale and Nico’s great Aunt, Nora, who would like to donate her personal art collection to the university art gallery that Yale works for, which would be a huge acquisition for Yale and the gallery.

At the same time, a second storyline is set in Paris in 2015 as Nico’s sister, Fiona, searches for her adult daughter who she hasn’t seen in 5 years since she disappeared into a cult in America called the Savannah Collective. I would never have thought to pair any of these plotlines together, so I was impressed with Makkai for her creativeness and scope of the book.

That said, I didn’t love all of the plots in this book. I thought some parts were a lot stronger than others and it’s what really drove the rating down for me. I’ve described 3 major things: the HIV/aids crisis in the 1980’s, an art acquisition, and a missing daughter. Yale’s storyline about the HIV/aids crisis was by far my favourite. I’ve been privileged to have not had to give this period in history a whole lot a thought, so it was both sobering and fascinating to read about.

I really liked Yale. I thought he was super relatable and I loved reading about his relationships with all his friends and his perspective on the HIV/aids crisis. I thought his story had a really good balance of history, politics, and emotion. I connected with him a lot and it was devastating to watch his friends die one by one and the government do nothing. Makkai weaves in a lot of social commentary without overpowering her novel with it. This was still very much a novel about characters and relationships, with just the right amount of history and politics.

I thought the art acquisition storyline was mildly interesting. I liked the parallels that Nora drew between the artists she knew in WWI and the war that Yale and his friends were fighting in Chicago. I have never really read anything about the art world, except maybe like, the Da Vinci Code or something (lol), so this was a whole new world for me that was intriguing to learn about.

But Fiona’s story set in 2015 didn’t do much for me and is what really dragged down my rating and enjoyment. I found myself tuning out for entire sections of Fiona’s story and I felt like very little happened in her timeline. It took forever for the story to advance and when I finally realized what the “so what” was of Fiona’s story at the end of the novel, it felt a little anti-climactic. Fiona had a tumultuous relationship with her daughter that was an indirect result of the trauma of losing all her friends in the 1980’s. She talks about how you can’t really describe what it feels like to survive a war that none of your friends make it out of and how that impacts the rest of your life without you even noticing. I thought this was a fascinating topic and I was eager to explore it, but I thought Fiona’s relationship with her daughter was a laboured way of doing it. I liked Fiona, but I just thought the modern day part dragged the book down. I also felt like I didn’t get enough context of Fiona’s relationship with Claire as a young girl and so I didn’t understand why Claire hated Fiona so much

Overall though, I did like the book and I would definitely place it firmly in the category of literary fiction. Makkai writes with depth and I loved the characterization of Yale and all the secondary characters in his timeline. It wasn’t as stand out a book as I was hoping, but I’m definitely glad I read it.

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Aristotle and Dante Discovers the Secrets of the Universe

Rating: 
Author: Benjamin Alire Sàenz
Genres: Young Adult
Pub date: Feb. 2012 (read Apr. 2018)

Yay! I loved this!

I’ve been having a lot of success with YA lately. For awhile I thought I’d maybe finally outgrown the genre, but there’s still some really great contemporaries out there! This was the second book in my monthly challenge to read 3 award winning books. This was one of the soft spoken books that isn’t very plot driven, but develops some really beautiful characters.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is set in 1987 in El Paso, Texas. It’s summer and Ari, who has never been very good at making friends, is trying to pass away the time on his own when he meets Dante at the local pool. Dante seems to get a long with everyone and is well liked, but he’s never really been great at having friends either and the two boys strike up a friendship. Ari struggles to connect with people and is frustrated by his parents refusal to talk about his older brother who has been in prison for most of his life. Dante has a close relationship with his parents, but he struggles with his identity – who he is, what he loves, and what it means to be Mexican.

Like I said, it’s not a plot driven novel, although it does have some shocking plot elements that push the story forward. But ultimately it’s a coming of age story about friends, family, and identity. I love YA books that have a strong family element, especially one that built around understanding and love, rather than conflict and rebellion, which I’d say is probably more popular in YA. I love Ari and Dante’s parents in this book and the relationships that they all built with one another, how they developed and grew over the course of the book. In some ways it felt like a slow-build kind of book, but at the same time I found it hard to put down.

I don’t want to give any of the story away, I think it’s a good book to go into blind. I did and I really enjoyed the experience.

Girl in Translation

 

 

 

 

 

Rating: ⭐.5
Author: Jean Kwok
Genres: Fiction, Young Adult
Read: Jan. 2018

YES! Finally, a good read in 2018! I was off to a rough start before this gem!

Girl in Translation has been on my TBR forever and I finally decided to give it a read as part of my January Reading Challenge to read 3 books about immigration. This is a beautiful, beautiful book and I’m so glad I finally took the time to read it.

Girl in Translation tells the semi-autobiographical story of Kimberly Chang and her mother as they try to survive in New York City as new immigrants from Hong Kong. I’m not entirely sure when this book is set, but from a few of the pop culture references it seems to take place in the 1980’s. Kim and her Ma are sponsored into America by her Aunt Paula, who puts them up in an apartment in Brooklyn and gives Ma a job at her husband’s clothing factory. Kim and Ma are dismayed at the state of the apartment, which has broken windows, no heat, and a lot of roaches and rats.

Back in Hong Kong, Kimberly was always top of her class, and knowing hardly any english, she struggles at school. Ma is working as a finisher at the clothing factory along with many other Chinese-Americans. The factory is actually a sweat shop that illegally pays its workers by the garment (as opposed to an hourly wage) and Kim must help Ma every day after school until late in the night to get the clothes ready for each shipment. When Kimberly is teased at school and harassed by her teacher, she wants to skip school, but quickly realizes that she is her and Ma’s only chance at ever getting out of poverty. She’s throws herself wholeheartedly into learning English and works hard to get back to the top of the class again.

This is such a heartbreaking and inspiring story and I really like Kwok’s writing. It reminded me of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which is a huge compliment because it is one of my all time favourite books. It’s not a plot driven book, it’s simply the story of a young girl growing up in very tough circumstances and working incredibly hard to better herself and her family. I loved that Kimberly was tenacious and ambitious, but that she was also very real and had flaws. She takes the weight of the world upon her shoulders and she refuses to ever ask for help. She struggles to make friends, but she is so lucky to have Annette and I wish she’d confided in her and shared herself with Annette. Kim always declined help and was reluctant to let anyone into her life. I feel like may be a symptom of her Chinese culture as Ma was always reluctant to build any relationship that couldn’t be reciprocated and reverently believed in the idea that a debt must always be repaid. Sadly they both seemed to confuse kindness as a debt sometimes.

The ending is pretty abrupt, which caught me off guard. I actually think this story could have used another 50 pages to do the ending justice, but I still really liked it. It’s a heartbreaking ending, but I really appreciated it because it was real. When I saw where things were going at the end, I immediately knew how Kim was going to react because Kwok has breathed such life into this character that she took on a life of her own and acting any other way would have been contrary to her character. Kwok is very perceptive and I loved all of her characters because they were so real and so flawed. I was worried she might take the easy way out to create a happier ending, but I’m glad she stayed true to her characters and gave us this very bittersweet ending.