All my Antics, Mostly Reviews

Tag: US

Carl standing on a New York street corner with a corner store

Humanity is Beautiful

A Review of Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing

Cover of An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

It’s been a while since this book came out and I only started reading An Absolutely Remarkable Thing now. I had bought it right away on the first day when a copy was available in my local book store in Freiburg. I’ve moved since, but now that its sequel, A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor (- curse you American English spelling), I really had to give this one a go.

You might have gathered from this blog already if you were attentive to it, that I follow Hank Green’s work in more than his books. I’ve been a subscriber to his YouTube channel Vlogbrothers, he runs together with his brother John Green, for more than 7 years by now. And I derive a tremendous amount of enjoyment from his work and the work of his production company Complexly, so I would be lying if this enjoyment wouldn’t colour my views on this book, Hank Green’s debut novel.

My life over the past weeks has been wild. It has been a while since I finished this book, now that I come to writing this review. I’m heavily relying on my notes that I made while reading.

But let’s get to it without much further ado.

April May sleeping on the floor with Carl's Arm

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is an interesting novel, exploring themes mostly around the concept of fame. It’s protagonist April is a young bisexual woman thrust into fame by the appearance of a mysterious robot or sculpture, that appeared in cities all around the world. Somewhere between social media, and cable news punditry, April takes on the task to advocate for the mysterious visitors all the while her personal relationships are thrown into turmoil by her fame, but also her inability to have honest and open conversations with her loved ones.

This book was the first book with open LGBTQIA+ representation since I read Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower in January of this year (2020) and I was glad for it. While passages of this book, namely this sequences about closing closet doors on boobs, made it onto r/menwritingwomen, it nevertheless managed to write characters that made me as a woman with ADHD feel represented.

Hank Green has talked about the fact that he might have ADHD in the past here. And to me, April felt like an honest representation of a young adult with ADHD, even if other reviewers have noted that April just very much feels like an extension of Hank Green himself, which honestly is a fair description, even if I might add that living with ADHD and feeling like Hank Green aren’t exactly opposite ends of the scale, even if Hank Green had a huge amount of privilege in his life.

Carl the Robot standing with his left arm missing over a city-scape

The appearance of the Carls, as the robot statues are lovingly called, brings up the main conflict of this book around a line of xenophobia versus open-mindedness. This conflict gets addressed in a media war. While humanity collectively is tasked to solve puzzles that appear in synchronised dreams.

My biggest problems with the book I had were honestly the discomfort I experienced from confronting my own interpersonal relationship problems mirrored in how April deals with her girlfriend Maya, and the focus on fame and punditry. I just cared too little about the televised interactions between April May and Peter Petrawicki. The same is true for the veneration the fictional US President of this near-future sci-fi story receives. This is especially true considering the shenanigans of current US politics.

Nevertheless, this was a very quick and enjoyable read, even if I cringed at the inconsiderate behaviour of its protagonist all too often.

Summary

The abrupt limit of the city, grass to the right, and a lonely plane in the sky

This book is a joyously crafted and thrilling sci-fi story imbued with the media conflict of our own time. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in young adult sci-fi stories that value good representation. Even if of course that representation isn’t flawless.

This book definitely isn’t flawless, but it has enough charm and enough will to try to be as good as it can be, that it remains enjoyable throughout despite some cringe-worthy moments, that are honestly as much about myself as they are about the book. I look forward to reading its sequel A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor soon.

My last book review was about the enthralling The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks. My last review of a fiction book was about the wonderful Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi Up next is probably Heinrich Steinfest’s Gewitter über Pluto or East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

If you liked my review, you can, as always, support me on ko-fi. Or you can get prints, stickers and other items with some of my designs on redbubble, at chwiggy.redbubble.com

a landscape and sunset, three trees in the foreground, 2 mountain ranges in the background

Two Strands

A Review of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing

Cover of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

When I picked up this book, I wasn’t aware of the journey this book would take me. Now almost two years later, now that I’ve read it from start to finish, I’m saddened I hadn’t picked this up earlier. I started reading Homegoing by Ghanaian-American author Yaa Gyasi, last month at the height of Black Lives Matter Protests against police brutality in the US and around the world. I couldn’t bear to use my usual random method to select books to read next from my to-be-read list, and so I deliberately picked a book by a woman of colour from my bookshelf.

Not that it should need an explicit occasion to do so, but sometimes it needs a jolt to recognise the privilege and exclusion that is prevalent in publishing. I’m aware that as a white reader, especially in Germany, I will encounter books predominantly written by white authors in any book shop I patronise. And it takes conscious effort to break simple habits and to seek out the voices of authors with less privilege.

That said, there’s no point in putting up with bad books. So this review will serve as a recommendation for an enthralling novel written by a woman of colour.

The Physical Book

a wooden stool

I own the 2016 Vintage paperback edition of this book, and it’s a very floppy book. Holding it out horizontally by its spine, the far edge of the book drops down to a 45°-angle. The cover is soft and somewhat coarse, and the same extends to the paper it’s printed on. The only high-gloss page is an insert of blurbs that juts out as a yellow stripe behind the shortened front cover at the right edge of the book.

And while the physical qualities of my edition don’t leave a particularly solid impression, the cover art is just something I fell in love with. The colour choices are impeccable, and I regularly strive but fail to recreate this kind of texture in my own art.

The Setting

Cape Coast Castle with a sunset

Homegoing is set in our world. The plot sets out in the late 18th or early 19th century in what we, nowadays, would call Ghana around the city of Cape Coast. But with history and slavery, one plotline at least moves to the US and there with historical events through different parts of the country.

Gyasi manages to describe, notably the Ghanaian settings, with enough care to make them feel lively and lived in. I think, for places in the US, she is more reliant on a shared understanding, of what these places look like. Nevertheless, these descriptions feel vivid enough for me to supply the right backdrop to the characters of this novel.

The Characters

Intergenerational as it is, Homegoing follows two Asante lineages, starting with two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, the daughters of a woman called Maame. Effia and Esi grow up in separate families. Their paths cross without their knowledge when Effia marries the new commander of Cape Coast Castle and Esi is held in that very same castle for transport to the Americas as a slave. From there, two separate family histories develop.

Portrait of an Unnamed Woman

Every main character gets their chapter in chronological order, alternating between one side of the family tree and the other. Since they are all part of family history, one of the side characters in each chapter becomes the point-of-view character in a subsequent chapter. This allows each point-of-view character an exceptional depth and roundedness. We learn about their whole life, not only what they did during their adulthood. We get to know them during their formative age, and we learn how they imprinted on the next generation in their old age.

To me, this emotional depth to each character makes this novel solid. You rarely get this many different people in one novel without losing depth to each of them. In some regard, this feels as if every character got their own short story, but each short story provides the context for the next. Even if especially the American chapters, make their characters into the messengers of a history lesson a bit too often.

And these characters, surely, are varied in their outlook in life and their emotional struggles. We find women and men who hold together families, but also women and men who pull them apart. On top of that, there’s something hidden in James’ chapter, that made me happy or at least look up in curiosity. James seems to feel love for his best friend, that goes beyond platonic love. And I’m definitely up for covert homoromantic representation.

The Plot

Stone necklace and chained shackles

Considering this is a debut novel, bringing the format, the characters and the plot together into one book, seems like a gargantuan task. And I’m quite sure a more distinguished reader than me, would find more fault with it than I do. Nevertheless, I think a more experienced writer could have given this book a more consistent throughline overall.

For me, much of the tension of this novel came from the spoiling glance at the family tree, printed in front of the first chapter, and my anticipation that the youngest family members with chapters of their own, Marcus and Majorie, would meet eventually.

As such, this novel is held together by a pull of symbolism that caries through the generations on the African side of the story. And a particular current of demographics and history, especially on the American side of the story, where characters exist somewhat driven only by historical events and not by their independent plotline.

For the Ghanaian characters, that is much less true. Their struggle and is guilt and blame more than anything else, in the words of Laura Miller:

“Homegoing”—the title is taken from an old African-American belief that death allowed an enslaved person’s spirit to travel back to Africa—is rooted, like the Bible, in original sin. Unlike the Biblical transgression, however, the source of the curse that dogs an Asante woman’s descendants through seven generations defies pinpointing and straightforward assessments of blame; you might as well shun your own hand. 

Laura Miller (2016): Descendants, in The New Yorker

The Writing

To me, the writing was mostly unremarkable. A better writer could have maybe pulled the plotline together more coherently or elevated the story with more elaborate prose. But after all, this was Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel with considerable scope, so I can forgive non-remarkable writing without much trouble. Especially, as I think there is much potential in Gyasi’s writing, that will and could improve with more experience and maybe a less sprawling topic.

Summary

For me, this debut novel is without a doubt worth a recommendation. While its sprawling nature and largely unremarkable writing might make it fall flat for some readers, it presented an interesting, captivating story for me. Of course, this book isn’t worthy of a Nobel prize in literature, but that is an overly pretentious expectation for a writer. This book has its special pull for me, even if that didn’t come from the plot itself, but from my expectations and a collection of great characters.

As a whole, I enjoyed the depth, the unique structure of this book gave its characters, especially the strand of the family that remained in Ghana. And I enjoyed the look into Ghanaian history, that gave me the appetite to look into it more. The same unfortunately can’t be said for the view into US history. Though it certainly offers a unique perspective of slavery founded in the loss of family history, that is stark in contrast to the other strand of the family.

My last book review was Where the Terrors Keep. My next review is probably going to touch on Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography.

If you liked my review, you can as always support me on ko-fi. Or you can get prints, stickers and other items with some of my designs on redbubble, at chwiggy.redbubble.com

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén