Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux Genre: Literary Fiction Pages: 284 Format: Hardcover Buy Local My Rating: 4/5 stars
The Flores family works hard to combat the poverty they face along with their fellow Hawaiians. The Big Island swarms with tourism and wealth, making it difficult for its residents to eke out a life amid high costs and few job opportunities. For Malia Flores and her husband, a miracle arrives when their youngest son, Nainoa, falls off a boat into shark-infested waters: the sharks swarm, but one of the largest takes Nainoa gently into its jaws and brings him safely back to the boat. The story spreads like wildfire across the island, especially when young Nainoa suddenly begins to show an uncanny ability to heal—a gift Malia attributes to mystical signs from the island preceding his birth.
Noa’s staus brings the family much-needed money, but, it also exacts a toll on the elder children. Dean excels at basketball, but has a penchant for trouble. Middle-child Kaui is fiercely intelligent, but nobody seems to notice. As the children become adults and the family drifts apart, Noa’s gift haunts each of them in different ways. Noa can’t content himself with the person he thinks he’s supposed to be, and his siblings blame him because their lives have been overshadowed by his gifts. When tragedy strikes, threatening to shatter the Flores family for good, the island begins to pull on each of them, leaving them to reconstruct their connection to their homeland and the magic of family bonds.
Sharks in the Time of Saviors is Washburn’s debut novel as well as a love letter to his native homeland. Hawaii is an irrefutable paradise, but sitting in the shadows of its jungle lies a people whose deep ancestral connection to their homeland is challenged by poverty and the relentless influx of Western culture. Washburn constructs this world carefully as both a place of struggle and of deep magic, characterizing Hawaii with a great beating heart. Aside from Noa’s miracle, the land itself weaves through each character with heavy roots, showing us how our homeland shapes us as much as our experiences.
Washburn does more than take us on a journey to his home, however. The characters Noa, Kaui, and Dean pulse with the frustration of trying to find themselves within the confines of Western culture, which has taken so much from them. Each sibling battles against the ancestral land that tethers them while they stake out their own identities. It’s a novel about both growing up and going home.
Beautifully written and sparkling with life, Sharks in the Time of Saviors is a stunning debut and a promising start to the career of a powerful new literary voice.
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company Genre: Literary Fiction Pages: 512 Format: Paperback Buy Local My Rating: 5/5
The Overstory is a vast novel with a dynamic cast of characters; at its core, it is the question of humanity’s compatibility with other forms of life. It is a novel that turns around the idea of man versus nature, where man is the protagonist and nature the antagonist, and makes it nature versus man, with nature as the protagonist and man as the antagonist. This is a story about trees, but it is not told from the perspective of trees, but rather those who have lived their lives alongside trees—and knowingly or not, formed a relationship with the objects that at some point they might have believed to be nearly inanimate. It explores complex crevices of our relationship to nature and shows that, like relationships between people, there is a give and a take. And also, just like relationships between people, imbalance in that give and take can be disastrous.
What was most striking to me about this novel was the way its form mirrors that of a tree. It starts with the seeds that would one day grow into the characters that it focuses on. Patiently, it nurtures those seeds until they pop up from beneath the soil and begin to intertwine around one another as they grow upward. As the characters form a trunk together, they continue to grow, and just as a trunk they begin to diverge from one another. Branches grow out in other directions, some fall off, but like a fallen tree in a forest, they cultivate a plethora of life, even after the life that they have known has transformed into something different. This carefully crafted novel feels groundbreaking in the way that it grows, and is breathtaking in the overall image that it is able to craft.
On several levels this novel is epic in proportion—in its vast and dynamic cast of characters and in its actual length, but there is something else too. Reading it felt like a fantasy novel set in the modern world, particularly during the middle portion. There is a natural magic at play in this book, the whispering of trees, but also a sense of good and evil that goes beyond such a simple binary. This was another aspect of this novel that stood out as interesting to me. While I would certainly categorize it as a literary work, I think that it successfully borrows from tropes present in a lot of genre writing and manages to subvert and disguise them in a way that makes the story exciting while still feeling like a work of art.
I have always appreciated and admired trees while knowing relatively little about them. This novel changed that, not only because it is dripping with interesting facts about trees and the ecosystems they build, but because it made me curious to go out and learn more on my own. If you have ever felt even a slight connection to nature, this novel is likely to foster that connection and awaken something inside of you that you didn’t know was there. That is not to say that it stands on its stumps and pontificates about the preservation of the natural world though. Instead, it examines various relationships to trees and to nature from an empathetic viewpoint that reeled me in and kept me wanting more until the very last page.
I have nothing but praise for this novel, and I cannot recommend it enough. I think that it is a beautiful work of art that would enrich any reader’s life. With that said, I do have to make a note about how it took me over a month to finish it. When I said it was epic in proportion, I meant it. This was not an easy novel to consume, but it was well worth it.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake follows two generations of Bengali immigrants as they make a life for themselves in America. The Ganguli family, consisting of Ashima (mother), Ashoke (father), Gogol (son) and Sonia (daughter), paint a representation of how Indian American families cope with cultural divides and intimacy across generations.
The novel begins with a young Ashima and Ashoke as they move from Calcutta, India to America. Ashoke is a young college student at MIT trying to prove himself among his peers. Ashima is a mother who is frightened of the unfamiliar world she finds herself in. Their children, Gogol and Sonia, are the focal point of much of the novel. As they grow up, the children are faced with pressure to conform to either American or Indian culture. Eventually, as they become adults, Gogol and Sonia learn how to coexist with these social pressures. The children create their own families and self identities. Ashima and Ashoke find a way to accept the lives their children create for themselves.
What most impressed me most about The Namesake was how invested I became in the story of this fictional family. Lahiri is gifted at crafting intimate moments between characters. The novel begins in a moment of discomfort as Ashima gives birth to her son in an unfamiliar hospital in an unfamiliar country. It’s clear from the first narrative moment that Lahiri is not afraid to show pain and raw emotion in her work. This trend continues throughout the novel as the children grow up and begin exploring their American culture. Every moment of tension, sadness, and joy could be felt through the page. By the end, I felt that I knew each of the characters personally and had been on a journey of self-exploration with them.
Turning the final page of The Namesake was a sad moment for me. I felt like I was abandoning the characters halfway through their journey. Even though I had read about two whole generations of the family, I wanted to continue on with them and see what new challenges life would present them. The Namesake is a beautifully written novel that I would recommend to anyone who enjoys emotional, character driven writing, or, just a good cry. Jhumpa Lahiri is a talented author whose other books are definitely on my 2020 Reading List.
Meet Jenny Irish, an Assistant Professor of English at Arizona State University and the author of the new short story collection, I Am Faithful, published by Black Lawrence Press. Staff writer Edward Dolehanty had a chance to talk to her about her new book, names characters, dogs, and more!
1. How would you describe I Am Faithful to a potential reader?
First, thank you so much for these wicked smart questions. I love what you all are doing with The Spellbinding Shelf!
Second, that’s a big first question! Okay! Buckle up!
I Am Faithful is a collection of stories about the experiences of the working, lower class. As a writer, I want to challenge stereotypical representations of Americans living at the edge of poverty and engage the complexities of human experience and the effects of multigenerational poverty. These are stories posing questions about privilege, power dynamics, and the consequences of the choices and compromises people make when attempting to improve their conditions. And I also try to ensure that every story avoids simplifying things that are knotty and entangled.
Across the stories in I Am Faithful, there’s also a focus on the experiences of girls and women. It’s common for girls and women find themselves preyed upon because they’re physically desired, because of the body they inhabit—but that same physical desirability, in a certain context, also gives them a degree of power. What happens, then, when a woman who is dependent on being desired—who commodifies her sexuality out of necessity or choice—becomes a mother, her body altered and her freedom encroached? What happens to the children of these women, especially their daughters, who may become viewed as competition?
2. One of the things that I most enjoyed while reading I Am Faithful is the way that a lot of character’s emotional ranges are shown through their relationship to dogs. How did you come up with the idea to so creatively incorporate dogs into your work?
*whispers* I wanted to be a Rottweiler when I was little.
I think for many writers there are things that appear in their work consistently. Whether these elements make it into the “final” version of a piece or not, the majority of my writing will have dogs, snow, and PBS in it. Some of it is because of familiarity, some of it is because of curiosity, and some of it is because it’s what feels right in the particular piece.
I love dogs. With the exception of a sad, short stretch in graduate school, when it wasn’t financially possible, I’ve always had dogs. My first favorite book was the AKC Complete Dog Book, with all the pictures of breeds, and diagrams, and descriptions of temperaments. And dogs are amazing because they direct back the energy that they feel from a person. In that they’re a kind of magic mirror that can show what’s inside someone.
I also think it’s incredibly telling how people treat things that are dependent on them: children, seniors, strangers they could help, animals in their care. So, I try to address this in my work. I also think that it’s important to recognize that there are different motivations for similar actions. The story “I Am Faithful” is very much about this.
3. So many of the stories in I Am Faithful feel delightfully uprooted from time through the use of flashbacks to inform the present moment. Does this relationship to time come naturally to you in your writing or is it something that you think about a lot in the drafting process?
This is just the way that I tend to write, without thinking about the work or having a plan. Most of the stories don’t follow a straight path, chronologically. Instead, they’re moving associatively. I think there’s a relationship between how elliptical stories can be “uprooted” from chronological time and the operation of memory. Associations carry us from one place another, and that movement isn’t necessarily be linear.
4. Something that stuck out to me about I Am Faithful is how most of the narrative characters go without a name. For me, as a reader, this allowed who the characters are to shine as opposed to highlighting what they are called. Could you discuss your relationship with naming characters in your writing?
There is something entirely mortifying to me about naming characters. In I Am Faithful, I think there’s only two characters with names, girls who have the same name, and much of the story is dependent on their shared name because of the comparison it invites between the two.
For me, characters are representative of real people, experiencing things that happen in the world, but they could be anyone. These things, or things like this, they happen to a lot of people.
5. One of the themes that resonated most with me in your collection is the sacrifices so many of the characters make in the name of independence. How they are willing to put themselves into compromising situations physically, socially, and morally, for the satisfaction of having something to call their own—no matter how small. In the story, “Worry,” the opposite is true of the narrative character, who is willing to make these sacrifices in the name of dependence. Did you find that the process of writing this story differed greatly from the others in I Am Faithful?
Thank you for telling me you appreciated this story. I’m proud it, but it hasn’t been particularly well received.
In “Worry,” a young girl disappears, and her mother is largely unconcerned. The mother’s smitten boyfriend—who is the narrative lens—was witness to the hostile relationship between his girlfriend and her daughter. He desperately wants to believe the woman he worships wouldn’t have harmed her child, but struggles with what he’s seen. This is a story, for me, about how complicated sexual commodification is and how powerful a motivator loneliness is. It’s also one of the longest stories, because it needed to be.
Love is complex and love isn’t always healthy. I think, when we talk about sacrifice, we often link it to punishment, but sacrifice can be a true act of love. In the collection, there are mothers who experience the sacrifices that parenthood demands—whether they choose to make those sacrifices or not—as a punishment and their relationships with their children reflect that feeling. I hope that there are other examples who see love in the sacrifices they make, and in that have the potential to be affirmed by their choices, even as they’re struggling.
I’ve already said a version of this, but I think it’s worth repeating: I hope to always avoid good/evil binaries, which I think are dangerously simplistic and generally false. Though there is one unquestionably “bad mother” in the collection—the mother in “Worry”—I think there are more people who are trying to be better than their circumstances, but making uncomfortable compromises along the way.
6. Each one of these stories strikes me as authentic and true even though they are fiction. I think that this in large part to the way in which the characters are presented as they are and, unless intentional, without the prejudice for impoverished people that is quite prevalent in society. Is this something that you were conscious of while writing this collection?
The very first rule of fiction, or, the very first rule of fiction workshop, is that we never ever conflate author and story. That said, like many writers of fiction, I do draw on my own experiences in writing.
When I was child, I always had an awareness of my class positioning. The reminders of it were constant. I always had an awareness that my mother was struggling to make ends meet. There was a perpetual anxiety about how to scrape things together in a way that would allow a precarious situation to keep going. I watched the people around me beg, borrow, and steal, and I understood that it was my job to conceal that. Hiding how bad things were was huge part of my childhood.
So yes, a goal of I Am Faithful is to be authentic and in that, capture the anxiety and varied forms of violence, desperation, and hope that come with living a life scraped together from scraps. Too often, I feel like these experiences are grossly simplified and fetishized. I’d rather they be honest and as ugly as they need to be.
7. A question we love to ask of our guests here at The Spellbinding Shelf is, what are you currently reading?
Ahhhh! I love books! I just finished We Will Tell You Otherwise by Beth Mayer, and re-read The White Book by Han Kang, and right now I’m reading By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart and Blood Box by Zefyr Lisowski.
Thank you so much for reading I Am Faithful and this conversation!
For more information about Jenny Irish, click here. Buy I Am Faithful locally here.
Thank you to Black Lawrence Press for providing an ARC and making this interview possible.
Publisher: Vintage Genre: Literary Fiction Pages: 206 Format: Paperback Buy Local My Rating: 5/5 stars
In her debut novel, The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison explores the undoing of a young black girl, Pecola, who cannot imagine herself as anything but ugly. The story is told by giving voice to members of the community as they experience Pecola’s story and by slowly unfolding the generational trauma done unto her family. Employing brilliant and beautiful language, Morrison explores the depths of poverty, sexual violence, cultural perception, and the vicious cycle of harm perpetuated by those who themselves are wounded.
From the first page, it is clear that Morrison has a power with her words that is unrivaled by most other writers. Equal parts poetic and challenging, this book has a way of slowly climbing back toward its central figure in the most gratifying ways possible. Even when exploring events that happened many years before Pecola’s birth, the book is always working to highlight another aspect of the harm that has been done unto her by her father and mother, her community, and herself.
While the subject matter is devastating, there is something that can be described as nothing less than joyful when reading Morrison’s work. Her deep vocabulary and creative license takes the reader far, and there is a sense that she is always in control. This, combined with the great empathy that pours out of this book for its characters, makes something that is spectacular to read and hard to put down.
If I had to say what my favorite part of reading this book was, I would say that it is the cast of characters that Morrison assembled to tell Pecola’s story. While what has happened to Pecola is enough to drive the novel all on its own, Morrison uses this instance to bring an entire community to life. In doing so, she paints a fuller picture of exactly what led Pecola to wander the streets muttering to herself.
While reading The Bluest Eye, it quickly became apparent why Morrison is so beloved. If you have not had the opportunity to read her work yet, there is no better time!
Publisher: Doubleday Genre: Literary Fiction/ Historical Fiction Pages: 224 Format: Hardcover Buy Local My Rating: 5/5 stars
In this novel, Whitehead examines the potential of youth and shows how corruption and injustice can so easily crush that potential. By all accounts, Elwood Curtis is a formidable young man—smart, curious, hardworking, and determined—he is even enrolled in college courses while he is still in high school. When Elwood is sent to the Nickel Academy for stealing a car to get to those classes, he finds that he will have to adapt to a harsh new reality if he wants to survive. Elwood discovers the strength to do so through his dedication to the works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which has engrained a deep sense of moral justice within him. At Nickel, however, injustice is bred into the very fabric of the institution.
What most entranced me with this book is the way in which Whitehead masterfully intertwines personal history with the history of an institution. Many chapters of this novel start like the slow panning of a camera until it zooms in on the narrative focal point. No words are wasted, though at times it can feel to the reader as if they are far from the places that the book has previously taken them. Many times I did not think that what I was reading could have anything to do with the Nickel Academy, and then the book would whisper in my ear “trust me.”
I did not feel the full weight of this book’s emotional impact until the epilogue. When I closed the book’s final chapter I was ready to give it a four star rating because I felt somewhat confused and dissatisfied. I could not have felt more different when I turned the final page of the novel. Hold on, this is an emotional and tumultuous ride worth seeing through to the very end.
Publisher: Penguin Press, 2019 Genre: Literary Fiction Pages: 256 Format: Hardcover Buy Local My Rating: 5/5 stars
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong, is written as a candid letter from Vietnamese immigrant Little Dog to his illiterate mother in which he recants his version of their family and his personal history. In the letter, he explores both his mother and grandmother’s experience as Vietnamese citizens during the American war, as well as their subsequent stories as immigrants in America. He also details his understanding of American culture and the ways in which it is embedded with violence, and he confesses the sordid affair of his first-love with OxyContin addicted Trevor. All the while, Little Dog tries to find his place in his family, in America, and in the world, while remaining both hopeful and grateful for the imperfect love in his life.
From the novel’s opening in which Little Dog evokes Chinse poet Bei Dao in comparing freedom to the distance between the hunter and its prey, I was sucked in by its emotional depth and expressive language. This book is as beautiful and vivid as it is honest and devastating. At times, the string of hope that runs throughout the novel gets so thin that it is barely visible, but in its own subtle way, it always seems to bubble back toward the surface. This makes for an emotionally tumultuous read that is well worth it.
What I believe makes this novel so important is the way in which it addresses the immigrant experience in America. All the while, it employs evocative language to show the power of communication—which is largely taken away from Little Dog’s mother and grandmother. Through the cruelty of assumption born of the lack of communication, the book shows the way in which we all want to belong, and how America represents a collective sense of belonging that Little Dog desperately wishes to be tethered to in order to feel more legitimate. This novel speaks to all of our experiences as immigrants, maybe not from country to country, but on smaller scale, such as moving to a new school or starting a new job; it relates those experiences back into a basic shared human desire to belong.
Another interesting aspect of this novel is the way in which Vuong’s background in poetry influences the form of the novel. The letter Little Dog is writing to his mother is written in a series of vignettes that allow the reader to explore his memories in a way that feels unseated in time. At the same time, the distance between the narrator and the story he is telling is constantly fluctuating. In one scene, that lasts less than four pages, Little Dog imagines his mother taking the long walk home from work. In quick secession the reader learns about some of the layout of Hartford, Connecticut, Little Dog’s job and supervisor at the Boston Market, the origins of Trevor’s addiction to OxyContin, and Little Dog’s Grandmother’s memory of a girl killed in Vietnam while wearing sandals made of the burned rubber of a tire. Through all of this, Little Dog never forgets to return to speak directly to his mother to orient her both emotionally and on the streets that he imagines her traversing. I have to praise Vuong for his ability to make each word and each sentence have so much impact. It is a stunning feature of this novel and one that is likely to keep you hooked throughout its entirety.
At its core, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a novel that strives to both accept and celebrate the ways in which love enters our lives. Love, like all things, is imperfect, but that does not mean that we should not cherish it all the same. It is a vibrantly written emotional experience that will stick with you long after you have read the last page. It makes my required reading list for life, and I cannot recommend this book enough.