This is only my second Nina LaCour book, but I think it’s safe to say now that I am a fan! I read Watch Over Me at the tail end of last year and really liked her writing style. She seems to write atmospherically haunting ghost stories that fall right on the cusp between Young Adult and New Adult. I had a book hangover after finishing Once There Were Wolves and thought this one might be the antidote.
We Are Okay focuses on college freshman Marin, who has just moved from California to New York after losing her grandfather. In her grief, she fell out of touch with her best friend, Mabel, and now Mabel is flying to New York to try and rekindle the friendship and convince Marin to come back home. The problem is that Marin is haunted by the ghosts of her past and still too deep in the throes of her grief to return to California.
This is the exact kind of character driven novel that I live for and a great example of why I keep returning to Young Adult, despite feeling I’ve outgrown most of the books in the genre. There are always books in YA and middle grade that have such beautiful writing and universal themes that they are able to rise above the rest of the genre and be appreciated at any age.
It’s a subtle book that explores Marin’s past – her relationship with Mabel, with her grandfather, with her mother, and with herself. The death of her grandfather forces her to face truths she’d rather live buried and her sudden expulsion into adulthood leaves her feeling unmoored. It’s easier to run away than face our ghosts. More than anything, this is a book for those left behind by their loved ones. Grief is a language anyone can understand, at any age. It impacts each of us differently, but it’s a beast we must all face throughout our lives. A beautiful exploration of family, both made and found.
I’ve had a bunch of people asking me my thoughts on this one and it’s a book that has me really conflicted. I’ve heard so many great things about Crying in H Mart, and I would definitely not hesitate about recommending this book. But I was really on the fence about how to rate it. I decided on a 3 star rating because I had started to lose interest during the last third of the book, but after writing this review, I found a lot more arguments for why this was actually a really good book, so I decided to increase my rating to 4 stars. One of the reasons I love taking the time to actually write reviews is it forces me to meaningfully reflect on what I’ve read.
Crying in H Mart is a memoir about the author’s relationship with her mother, food, and how the two have become intertwined. It is a deeply personal book. The primary reason I would recommend this is because the author has such raw honesty, it really did blow me away. She lost her mother to cancer a few years ago and this book is very much a manifest of her grief. It is sad and moving to read – it almost feels wrong to rate it at all, even highly, because the author so clearly wrote this book for herself more than anyone else.
The story does have some ebbs and flows. Like I mentioned, I found the last third a bit slow moving because it focuses more on the author’s life after her mother’s death (which I found somewhat monotonous and not as interesting to read), whereas the first half is so shocking in its honesty that you become completely engrossed. But what makes it powerful is it’s not just about the author’s grief, instead it’s an in-depth look at her complicated relationship with her mother, her culture, and her mixed-race family. A lot of her observations about her mother are very unforgiving. She doesn’t remember all the good things about her mother, but rather, she remembers everything about her mother – the good, the bad, and the ugly. It takes so much courage to write that kind of memoir about grief, which is why I applaud the author and ultimately why I decided to bump my rating up to 4 stars.
Even though parts of this story were less compelling to me as a reader, I feel like Zauner is committed to the memory of her mother as she was and the exploration of her grief through and through. It doesn’t matter what path grief takes or how it looks to other people, it only matters how it feels for you. It’s kind of beautiful to think that our memories of our loved ones don’t have to be confined to one narrative. We are not only the good things or the bad things that we did, we are all of those things, and I can see how remembering it all, good and bad, could be cathartic.
Overall, I think I would recommend the paperback over the audiobook. The audiobook is read by the author, which I usually love, but she is very monotone and I think that may have contributed to my fatigue with the book.
Watch Over Me was an impulse buy at a local bookstore. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Nina LaCour’s other book, We Are Okay, and the phrase “aged out of foster care” in the book synopsis intrigued me. Plus the cover art and end pages for this book are absolutely gorgeous, so I wanted it for my shelf. Publishers, never underestimate the power of beautiful end pages! I really wish more books had them.
Anyways, I started reading this almost right away and it’s one of those slow burn character driven novels that I absolutely love. The plot wasn’t quick paced, but I was sucked into the story and more or less read it in two sittings (it’s a short book). This was a weird mix of magical realism and ghosts and it just really worked for me.
18 year old Mila has aged out of foster care and been accepted to work as a teaching intern on a farm. The owners, Terry and Julia, have supported many foster children over the years and offer Mila room and board in exchange for help teaching some of their existing foster children. Mila eagerly accepts and travels to the remote farm to stay in her little one room cabin.
At first everything seems too good to be true. Everyone on the farm is extremely welcoming and she finally has a little space and family to call her own. But she soon discovers that the farm is haunted and that she may be forced to confront the trauma of her past.
It’s a bit of a weird book and I could definitely see this not being for everyone, but I really loved it. First off, the writing is gorgeous – I really felt that there were no words or ideas out of place. At 250 pages, with a large font, it’s a short book, but I felt that the author said what she needed to say and then ended it. She spent time on what mattered and didn’t waffle around on what didn’t.
Ultimately this is a story of grief and loss and learning to forgive ourselves. Mila had a very traumatic childhood, which compelled her to make choices that she’s not proud of. Yet she’s still an incredibly kind and loving person – her mistakes have not influenced her caring demeanor and ability to see good in others. But they are tearing her apart inside and not permitting her to grow and flourish.
I really didn’t know how this book was going to go once Mila showed up on the farm. There’s an atmosphere of grief and longing that permeates throughout the entire novel and I wasn’t sure whether to expect good or bad things from the farm and the people who lived there. Everyone was so kind at the farm that I kept waiting for a big reveal for what’s actually going on underneath the surface. This happened, but not in the way I expected.
Overall, LaCour does a really good job of conveying the longing we all feel to be loved and accepted. Though Mila is forced to confront her demons, she finds everything she’s ever been longing for on the farm. We can always begin anew. We don’t have to be defined by the mistakes of our past and we are always still worth being loved. Especially in these pandemic times, aren’t we really all just longing for home? Sometimes it’s a place, sometimes it’s a person, but we all long to belong.
To Date, Gyasi’s first book, Homegoing, is the highest ranked book my book club has read – and we’ve been reading a book a month since 2012. So I was super excited to pick up Yaa Gyasi’s new book for our November meeting.
Transcendent Kingdom is completely different from Homegoing, but in the best possible way. Homegoing is a wonderful piece of multi-generational, historical fiction, while Transcendent Kingdom is a deeply introspective look at grief, addiction, mental health, religion, and the challenges of being an immigrant. I could see how some fans of Homegoing might be disappointed with Transcendent Kingdom, but I loved that the author tried something new in this book and I think she really showcased her versatility as an author. So even though this book is getting most of its press because of Homegoing, try not to let Homegoing influence your expectations.
Gifty is a PhD candidate who has studied medicine at both Harvard and Stanford. She’s been studying addiction and whether there’s a neurological way to break the cycle through lab experiments with mice. Her studies are driven by her own tragic past as her brother, Nana, was addicted to opioids. Her family immigrated to America from Ghana before she was born and she’s always had to walk the line between two worlds and cultures.
Meanwhile, her mother shows up at her apartment after undergoing her own emotional breakdown and spends weeks in Gifty’s bed battling depression. Her mother had a similar struggle with depression 20 years prior, after Nana’s death. Like the last time, Gifty is determined to help lift her mother out of her pit of depression, but has absolutely no idea how to help her. As she tries to encourage her mother to reignite her faith, she is reminded of her childhood and the deep-seated role religion and spirituality played in her own life.
I don’t think this was a perfect book. I think the structure could have used a little more work and I would have liked to see some of the themes developed further. Gyasi tackles a lot of issues in this short book and I’m not sure she was able to do them all justice in just 260 pages. That said, life and grief and mental illness are all messy. Healing is not linear and it does not fit into a nice like hallmark-movie narrative. I felt the story ended too soon – I wanted to see more of a resolution to some of the themes – but I also appreciated that grief and depression are things that we carry with us for many years and that though we all seek catharsis and closure, we don’t always get it.
That said, while I did feel her exploration of her Mom’s depression could have been a little better developed, I thought she did a great job exploring some of her other themes, particularly around grief, addiction, and religion. I really liked how the narrative was developed. There’s no clear delineation between the past and the present, with her current day experiences triggering past memories throughout the novel. I could see how this structure might be frustrating for some, but I loved gaining those little insights into Gifty’s past and how those past experiences influenced who she is today and her relationship with her mom.
But the highlight of the book for me was Gyasi’s look at the role religion played in Gifty’s life, and how despite her best efforts, she was never able to completely shed that upbringing. I had a big religious upbringing myself and while I haven’t been trying to shed that background the same way Gifty was, I really related to her in the ways that it hurt and helped her. Unfortunately religion also brings with it a lot of shame and guilt. I wish it wasn’t the case, but it does create an internalized sense of shame and feelings of anger and frustration when religious institutions are not the good and holy influence that they should be. There are a lot of christians who carry around a lot of misplaced righteousness and it has not made the world a better place.
But more than anything, I felt Gifty was really just looking for something to belong to. She has more often than not been the only black person in her church, in her classes, in her program, and she has struggled to make friends and connect with people. Her brother was the one person she felt close to and when she lost him and her mother started to fall apart, she had no one that she could turn to. Her faith in God was destroyed by the loss of her brother, and to an extent by the hypocrisy of the Christians in her church and town. But while she tries to leave her faith behind or explain it away, she’s never able to fully dismiss her spiritual experiences. Despite her church not caring for her family the way they should have, her pastor was there for her and her mom when they needed him and she finds herself seeking comfort in the familiarity of church services and her favourite bible verses. It’s hard to describe the feelings Gyasi’s narrative evoked, but I just really connected with Gifty and despite all that is different between me and Gifty, I found her very relatable.
Finally, the writing was lovely. It’s a very introspective plot – it’s not character driven in the way I normally like in literary fiction, but I liked how the author explored her ideas and how I came to understand Gifty and her family a little better throughout the course of the novel. Like I said, the narrative is a bit all over the place, but honestly that’s exactly what my thought process is like too, so it just worked for me.
Definitely recommend this one, just set aside your expectations because this is not like Homegoing.
Woohoo! First person on goodreads to rate and review this book!
I’ve been going through a bit of a poetry phase and stumbled across this anthology in the Poetry section at Chapters. I had no idea it was a brand new release, but I liked the premise of it and decided to buy a copy. It’s only 50 pages long, so I read through it in 2 sittings.
Grief & Loss & Love & Sex is about all of the above, but mostly grief. Lara’s sister passed away by suicide and this is really her response to dealing with that grief. She includes a prologue about the book and her sister that was really moving, before getting into some of the poetry she wrote about how she was impacted and affected by her sister’s death. I really like her style of poetry. It’s not too dense to read and I like the spoken word feel of it. It has a good beat to it and I like that much of it rhymed. I feel like not that much poetry rhymes these days, which is totally fine, but I appreciate clever and well written prose.
In my opinion, most of the anthology focused on grief and loss, but Marjerrison does start exploring themes of love in the last third. Personally I didn’t find this poetry quite as engaging, but since this anthology very much reads like a personal, healing journey, I don’t think it really matters if it didn’t pull me in as much. There’s a strong emotional theme present throughout the entire anthology and I really do hope that the writing of it helped the author to heal. A great debut – very moving.