THE GIRLS – Emma Cline

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I remember the first time I noticed men looking at me. I was eleven, maybe twelve. I was with my mother in the car—on the way home from church, of all things—and the thrill of occupying the front seat still buzzed somewhere at the bottom of my throat. When we were parked a red light, heads bobbing to some song on the radio, my mother muffled a laugh and told me the man parked next to us was looking at me. I didn’t believe her, but when I glanced to my right I made brief eye contact with a man who I would have figured to be closer to my mother’s age than my own. He snapped his eyes back to the road, grinning.

“He was looking at you, not me,” I corrected, when the light turned green and we drove away. My mom just shook her head and smiled. “He was checking you out,” she assured me. “You’re a pretty girl.”

I felt sick and exhilarated, small and large all at once. I thought I was marked, somehow, by the gaze of a stranger—like I was able to call myself something new for having been seen.

Emma Cline’s debut novel The Girls deals richly in the subject of being seen, of the constant awareness of their own visibility that young women so often feel but so seldom verbalize. The novel’s protagonist Evie Boyd narrates a heady, tumultuous recollection of a summer in her youth, which she spent in the company of a group of people that most now refer to as a cult. The “summer of ‘69” cliché finds itself refreshed in a coming-of-age meditation: as alcohol leads to drugs leads to dark and unexpected violence, Cline’s narrative focus—and Evie’s gaze—remains fixated on the only constant, on the girls. Continue reading

BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME – Ta-Nehisi Coates

btwn world meThis book is not the only medium available to me that demonstrates the systemic plundering of black bodies by the conglomerate of American institutions we see fit to call a society. Between the World and Me is a secondary source—I can get much closer to the massacre than that.

This week, in Minnesota, Philando Castile was shot four times while he reached for his ID during a routine traffic stop. His girlfriend filmed the aftermath, and millions watched in real-time as she navigated that deadly space between trauma and an officer of the law.

Just two days before that, in Louisiana, Alton Sterling was pinned to the ground by two officers and shot fatally. Onlookers caught this incident on video as well, and in the span of less than a week the resulting media of both these incidents have roused the shock and outrage that they should.

The assassination of five Dallas cops during peaceful protests against police violence heaped onto the nation’s despair, and when the sniper who killed them declared he had set out with the sole intention of killing as many white officers as he could, many people began to think—tragically, deceitfully—that this was war.

These events and the media unfolding exponentially around them are all texts we should approach with critical minds: by now, if we have been diligent, we might have seen a pattern emerging, might have noted the futility of video documentation in shocking the nation awake, in holding the police forces responsible for their crooked execution of an already unbalanced justice. And we should all—I believe this strongly—read Between the World and Me before we set out to make our judgments. Continue reading

AMERICANAH – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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I knew Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s name only from the Beyoncé song (ladies, tell ‘em). And so when a close friend recommended earnestly her newest novel Americanah, I expected (so, so whitely) a smart and sharp commentary on race, nothing more. A work of nonfiction dressed up in fictional names. And while commentary is certainly a catalyst of the story, one of its strongest flavors, the novel contains multitudes beyond simply that. It is, at its core, a love story: a tale of well aimed psychological depth and emotional heft, where the characters’ feelings can stack on top of you like steep, rolling hills.

Americanah follows Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman who moves to America during college; and Obinze, her first—perhaps her only—great love. Ifemelu and Obinze meet in high school and fall for each other, fast and hard, with a precocious kinship of spirit. But after a series of strikes render their educations inert and Obinze fails to obtain an American visa, they must part ways: Ifemelu to America and Obinze to London. Continue reading

THE WAKE – Paul Kingsnorth

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The debut novel of British writer Paul Kingsnorth and a work of unique linguistic ambition, The Wake (2014) is a story that picks its way through the ashes and wreckage of England after the Norman invasions of 1066. When Buccmaster of Holland, a surly and domineering landowner from the English fens, finds his home and family destroyed by French “ingengas,” he sets out to claim his revenge. In Robin Hood fashion, Buccmaster picks up a small gang of guerilla fighters who adopt the English forests as both home and weapon, committing small acts of resistance wherever they can. But Buccmaster’s dispossession and troubled mind lead his band not to storied victory, but rather to unrest and infighting, and soon even their bravest and most reckless acts are rendered totally insignificant in the medieval post-apocalypse of Norman reign. Continue reading

GIRLS OF RIYADH – Penguin, 2005

goRiyadhMy boyfriend gave me this book as a graduation gift, pitching it as “Sex & the City, but for Saudi Arabia.” In fact, the TIME review on the back reads much to the same effect. But likening Girls of Riyadh to the late-90s television show really only works as far as the synopsis. Yes, both stories revolve around four women of unlikely wealth, all struggling to sort out their love lives. And yes, both stories are set in worlds I don’t really understand: one is an outdated cosmopolitan society rampant with classism and crippling gender roles, and the other is Saudi Arabia. But beyond these very skeletal elements, Girls’ heroines and Carrie Bradshaw simply don’t compare. Continue reading