Book Review: Darius the Great is Not Okay

darius the great is not okayDarius the Great is Not Okay
by Adib Khorram
Young Adult/Contemporary Fiction
314 pages
Published August 2018

This novel got a lot of hype before and after its release – and it deserves it. It has great minority representation, from Persian (and bi-racial!) to Zoroastrian and Baha’i, to clinical depression and male friendship. You could also read gay and/or asexual into it, but that’s not explicitly mentioned. Romantic love is just never addressed; perhaps because the story just doesn’t involve it, but you could definitely read the main character as ace.

Darius is a great main character. He’s funny, self-deprecating, and complex. He has clinical depression, is medicated for it, and can sometimes tell when it’s the depression making him think a certain way, but sometimes he can’t. He’s biracial, visiting Iran and his mother’s Persian family for the first time, and adjusting to Persian social norms and traditions while trying not to lose sight of his American life. His connection with his father is tenuous and fraught with miscommunication, and lot of the book is spent wrestling with that relationship. His new friend, Sohrab, is a great foil to that, as his father is completely absent from his life, having been arrested and thrown in jail prior to the start of the story, largely for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and being part of a minority religion.

There are so many small things touched on this book – suspicion at customs when flying through, bullying at school for being Persian, not speaking his family’s language because his mother didn’t teach it to him (and feeling cut off because of it) – all little things that a lot of immigrant children deal with.

Aside from the cultural things the book addresses, there’s also the mental health aspect. Both Darius and his father have clinical depression, and there’s stigma attached to having the diagnosis, and to taking pills for it. We see how their mental states affects their relationship with each other and with the rest of their family, and it’s quite powerful. The author talks about having clinical depression in an afterword, and includes some resources that helped him. This is an #ownvoices novel in more ways than one, and it really shows. Excellent book.

From the cover of Darius the Great is Not Okay:

Darius Kellner speaks better Klingon than Farsi, and he knows more about Hobbit social cues than Persian ones. He’s a Fractional Persian – half, his mom’s side – and his first-ever trip to Iran is about to change his life.

Darius has never really fit in at home, and he’s sure things are going to be the same in Iran. His clinical depression doesn’t exactly help matters, and trying to explain his medication to his grandparents only makes things harder. Then Darius meets Sohrab, the boy next door, and everything changes. Soon, they’re spending their days together, playing soccer, eating faludeh, and talking for hours on a secret rooftop overlooking the city’s skyline. Sohrab calls him Darioush – the original Farsi version of his name – and Darius has never felt more like himself than he does now that he’s Darioush to Sohrab.

By turns hilarious and heartbreaking, Adib Khorram’s brilliant debut is for anyone who’s ever felt not good enough – then met a friend who makes them feel so much better than okay. 

Book Review: Goodbye, Paris

goodbye parisGoodbye, Paris
by Anstey Harris
Contemporary Fiction
277 pages
Published August 7, 2018

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m not a big fan of Contemporary Fiction. This, however, blew me away. Goodbye, Paris, is one of August’s Books of the Month, and as usual, it is outstanding. I don’t know how they consistently pick amazing books, but month after month they bring a bit of magic.

I started this book thinking “oh, she’s a musician, I can get into that,” but I didn’t know how much the author was going to explore that facet of her life. But right away, on page 14, our main character did something that made me gasp aloud and stop and actually write in my book. Which is a thing I don’t do. Grace plays cello the way I play piano. She’s far more skilled than I am, but – well just read:

My knees poke out, bony and white, cushioning the pointed lower bouts of the cello, and the scroll rests, where it belongs, against my ear. The cello takes up its rightful place and I become nothing more than a mechanical part of it.

This is what I have always done, how I have always found myself when I’ve been lost. When I first went to music college, eighteen years old and paralyzingly shy, when ringing my parents from the pay phone in the corridor just made me miss them even more, I would feel the strength in the neck of my cello, flatten the prints of my fingers into the strings, and forget.

I play and play; through thirst, past hunger, making tiredness just a dent in my soul. I play beyond David’s marriage, his holiday, even how frightened I was when he disappeared below the platform.

I play on until the world is flat again and the spaces between my heartbeats are as even as the rhythm on the stave in front of me.

This is how and why I play piano! To see it so gorgeously described on the page was breathtaking. I am not a concert-level pianist by any means, but I’m decent, and playing piano brings me back to myself. When I’m angry or frustrated or hurt or simply feeling down, the music centers me and makes me focus until everything else falls away. From this point on, I was enthralled with this book and with Grace.

Grace’s partner, however, I was not so enthralled with. Grace and David have been together for eight years when the book opens. David has been married for all of those years, which Grace knew the night they met. (Though after they fell in love – it was one of those lightning-bolt-from-above things) He had two children with his wife, though, and a third on the way, and because of the crappy way he grew up, he was absolutely unwilling to divorce and mess up his children’s lives. Which, okay. Noble. (Though honestly, most children know when their parents are unhappy and wish they’d just divorce already, as Nadia, one of Grace’s friends, illustrates.) He and his wife both know their marriage is only for the children at this point, and are totally okay with relationships outside the marriage. Grace, however, is unaware of this arrangement, and THAT’S where my irritation at David comes in.

I don’t talk about it much on this blog, (though I have mentioned it) but my husband and I are polyamorous. He’s had another partner for almost five years now, plus other occasional dalliances. But everyone knows this. His other partner and occasional flirtations all know about each other and about me. David, on the other hand – his wife appears to know about everything, but Grace only knows about his wife. We’re never told what his other girlfriends know about. This isn’t ethical non-monogamy. He lies to everyone about his intentions and relationships. I think he’s probably incapable of monogamy – some people are – but he needs to be truthful about it. There are ways to make that work without ruining peoples’ lives and breaking hearts!

So David is not a character I like.

Mr. Williams and Nadia, however, are amazing. So besides playing the cello, Grace also makes cellos. And violins, and double-basses. Nadia is her shopgirl, and Mr. Williams is an old man who brings her a violin to repair. These three become such an incredible little trio! Nadia and Mr. Williams are the ones who put Grace back together when her life gets turned upside down, and are saved themselves in turn. Nadia is a little prickly, but I think it was her way of protecting herself. Mr. Williams is too old for games – at eighty-six, he doesn’t fool around anymore.

I loved this book. Book of the Month has once more made an outstanding pick. The characters and emotions are beautiful and heart-rending and magical. I think this is one of my favorites of the year!

From the cover of Goodbye, Paris:

Will Grace Atherton fall out of love . . . and into life?

From the simple melody of running her violin shop to the full-blown orchestra of her romantic interludes in Paris with David, her devoted partner of eight years, Grace Atherton has always set her life to music.

Her world revolves entirely around David, for Grace’s own secrets have kept everyone else at bay. Until suddenly and shockingly one act tips Grace’s life upside down, and the music seems to stop.

It takes a vivacious old man and a straight-talking teenager to kick-start a new song for Grace. In the process, she learns that she is not as alone in the world as she had once thought, that no mistake is insurmountable, and that the quiet moments in life can be something to shout about . . . 

For fans of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and Jojo Moyes, Goodbye, Paris is the story of a woman who has her heart broken but then puts it back together again in the most uplifting and exquisite way.

Book Review: The Animators

animatorsThe Animators
by Kayla Rae Whitaker
Contemporary Fiction
386 pages
Published 2017

I hadn’t actually intended this to be one of my Pride Month reads, but Mel, the main character’s best friend and business partner, is lesbian, so it turns out that it counts! I read this book as part of Litsy’s “Buddy Reads” program, where everyone participating reads the same section of the book and discusses it before moving on to the next section. So I’ve been slowly reading this one over the past month. I’m not sure I would have read this if not for the Buddy Read.

This book surprised me! I enjoyed it, and I wasn’t sure I would. Mel and Sharon have been friends since college, spurring each other to greater artistry in their chosen field of adult cartooning. (Not porn, just not childish themes.) They work well together, with Mel coming up with most of the beginning ideas and Sharon hammering them into a shape that will work and keeping them on track through projects. But Mel has a drug and alcohol problem, and Sharon has a stroke, and working through all of those things are really what the book deals with.

The two go back to visit Sharon’s hometown in Kentucky at one point, and the way Sharon describes the town, and how surreal it is and how she never felt like she belonged, even when she lived there – that was a really hard-hitting passage for me. I went back to my own hometown last Christmas, and I felt the same feelings Sharon has in the book. Seeing those feelings actually put into words was….strange.

I honestly didn’t like either Mel or Sharon for the first few chapters, but as the story unfolds, they begin to open up. The book is about growing up in some ways; the two of them, though advancing in their careers, haven’t had to do a lot of maturing emotionally until the events of the book. I thought they both become much more likable as that happened.

The writing was excellent in this book, the character development outstanding, and the plot heartbreaking in places. Even though it’s not my typical reading fare, I really liked it.

You can find all my Pride Month reads listed here.

From the cover of The Animators:

She was the first person to see me as I had always wanted to be seen. It was enough to indebt me to her forever.

In the male-dominated field of animation, Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses are a dynamic duo, the friction of their differences driving them: Sharon, quietly ambitious but self-doubting; Mel, brash and unapologetic, always the life of the party. Best friends and artistic partners since the first week of college, where they bonded over their working-class roots and obvious talent, they spent their twenties ensconced in a gritty Brooklyn studio. Working, drinking, laughing. Drawing: Mel, to understand her tumultuous past, and Sharon, to lose herself altogether.

Now, after a decade of striving, the two are finally celebrating the release of their first full-length feature, which transforms Mel’s difficult childhood into a provocative and visually daring work of art. The toast of the indie film scene, they stand at the cusp of making it big. But with their success come doubt and destruction, cracks in their relationship threatening the delicate balance of their partnership. Sharon begins to feel expendable, suspecting that the ever-more raucous Mel is the real artist. During a trip to Sharon’s home state of Kentucky, the only other partner she has ever truly known—her troubled, charismatic childhood best friend, Teddy—reenters her life, and long-buried resentments rise to the surface, hastening a reckoning no one sees coming.

A funny, heartbreaking novel of friendship, art, and trauma, The Animators is about the secrets we keep and the burdens we shed on the road to adulthood.

Book Review: The Dirty Girls Social Club

the dirty girls social club

The Dirty Girls Social Club
by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez
Contemporary Fiction
308 pages
Published 2004

So in trying to read more inclusively, I had been looking at some prominent minority writers like Junot Diaz or Sherman Alexie (I actually had one of Alexie’s books out from the library when I realized where I’d heard his name). When the news broke about Junot Diaz, and I remembered that Sherman Alexie also had sexual harassment accusations against him, I decided instead of reading their books, I’d look up the books of the women calling them out! The Dirty Girls Social Club is the first book of what I’m calling my “Wronged Women” list. Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez wrote an article titled “I tried to warn you about Junot Diaz” about her experience with him. Others on the list include Erika Wurth, Elissa Washuta, Zinzi Clemmons, Carmen Maria Machado, and Monica Byrne. I’ve built a shelf on Goodreads for my list, and I’m sure more names will wind up on it. (Unfortunately.)

The Dirty Girls Social Club is the story of six college friends who decide to meet every six months for the rest of their lives, no matter what. The book covers one six month period, from one meeting to the next. It took me a few chapters to sort out who was who, and throughout the book I occasionally had to flip back to the first chapter, where Lauren gives a rundown of names and professions. All six are Hispanic of some flavor, whether that’s Dominican, Puerto Rican, Colombian, Spanish, or Southwestern Native American. That’s why they banded together in college. Each one has her own storyline – dealing with an abusive marriage, leaving a loveless marriage, being forcibly outed as a lesbian and learning to adjust to her new visibility, or becoming a rock star. I enjoyed how each of the six had a very individual story; they have interesting jobs and complicated love lives and unique problems.

Each of the women reflects on her Hispanic heritage in some form, whether that’s taking lessons in how to love from their parents, or fighting for recognition for their minority, or writing columns about their lives for the local newspaper. The book both shows and tells us about the differences in various Hispanic cultures.

I especially enjoyed Amber/Cuicatl (the rock star) and Elizabeth (the lesbian). The rest of the book was a little slow going at times, but I think that’s largely because I’m not a fan of contemporary fiction. I did enjoy it, though, and I’ll probably check out more of the author’s books.

From the cover of The Dirty Girls Social Club:

Meet the Dirty Girls – Lauren, Sara, Amber, Elizabeth, Rebecca, and Usnavys – six friends whose mutual support and (mostly) admiration society sorts out and celebrates the complications and triumphs in each other’s lives. No matter what happens to each of them (and a lot does), the Girls dish, dine, and compare notes on the bumpy course of life and love. There’s always a lot of catching up to do.