Textbooks can never do history or its victims much justice. That’s where novels supplement them, add context, and bring them to life. They teach us something new and evoke feelings that textbooks never can; that’s exactly what The Patriots did for me.
Sure, every American kid learned that the Cold War threatened the institution that was the “Beacon on the Hill” and all of its principles. But somehow my history classes glazed over the passion, the unity, the rumblings, and even the atrocities of the Soviet Union during this time. But just as important, it left out stories of those Americans who felt a connection to the U.S.S.R., took a chance, and left their homes for this place of the future. Sana Krasikov vividly showcases these narratives in her 2017 debut novel. With her evocative words and strong storytelling, The Patriots doesn’t allow these defining (and more importantly, those less so) moments to go unnoticed by making a four-flame impact.
You never know what you’re gonna get. For main character Lillian Dunkle, that was quite the case, as she navigated life from being an impoverished and abandoned immigrant on the Lower East Side to a national phenomenon living on Park Ave. And as a reader, I definitely didn’t anticipate that The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street would be the Forrest Gump of the dessert world. But that’s what Susan Jane Gilman gives us in her debut novel. From Ellis Island to the conservative movement of the 1980s, Gilman provides us with a lesson in American history through the lens of her main character, much like Winston Groom did with his 1986 novel.
If you’re going to follow the concept of a book that led to a Best Picture Oscar, then you have to nail it. Gilman does. She chooses a strong and interesting, albeit abrasive, character to lead her tale. And she keeps her storytelling consistent with the same humor, drama, and characterizations lasting for 500 pages.
Make Your Butt Bigger Bars do more than expand my derriere. They fill me with warmth; they make me nostalgic; they make me feel homesick, grateful, and loved. My mom’s signature bars, which have traversed half a country to impress the finicky minds of New Yorkers, might seem like a gluttonous Midwestern treat to the outside, but if you’ve had the pleasure of indulging in one, you know their power: They transform your soul.
That capability of food is the core of Kitchens of the Great Midwest, which makes it a relatable and beautiful read. As a young food savant grows into a powerhouse chef, she takes the most important ingredients and meals in her life with her to the next chapter (literally and figuratively). This love affair with food heightened my senses of sight, smell, and taste (not to mention induced perpetual hunger), but I struggled to follow the book’s plot and connect the characters. To Stradal’s credit, though, he has a way of filling in the gaps right when it matters the most: the very end.
- What: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
- Who: Betty Smith
- Pages: 493
- Genre: Classic literature
- Subgenre: Coming of age
- Published: 1943
- The lit: of 5 flames
Every New Yorker has his or her favorite neighborhood spots. While living in my first Brooklyn apartment, mine was the grilled cheese place that opened the same year. Erin had a knack for finding cute little coffee shops as well as a love for the Brooklyn Museum a few blocks away. Jamie’s was Ample Hills, named for Walt Whitman’s words. And we all reveled in the days we ate at Tom’s without an hour wait. It’s these places that we recall in our memories.
Francie Nolan had those places too. In early 1900s Brooklyn, it was McGarrity’s saloon, where her father fed his addiction. There was the shabby yet charming house that the Nolans falsely used as their address so Francie could transfer schools. Carney’s junk shop was where she and her brother, Neely, would lug their knickknacks to earn a penny. And of course there’s the library whose librarian didn’t look at Francie her entire childhood.
These places are remembered because they’re where we grew up; we all have them. It’s this connection of coming of age, as well as strong characters and a touching theme, that earned A Tree Grows in Brooklyn four flames.
They say home is where the heart is. So where do you call home when your heart’s been ripped in two? This is what I kept asking while reading Tell the Wolves I’m Home. Calling a book “heart-wrenching” sounds a little cliche, but that’s how I felt every time I picked it up. It’s a story of AIDS, love, heartbreak, family, growing up, and finding yourself. The classic band Westlife can explain it best:
“I’ll see you again
You never really left
I feel you walk beside me
I know I’ll see you again”
My friends say they can’t trust my opinions because I “don’t know the meaning of best and favorite.” Maybe I’m just easy to please?
A few months ago, I tried a Mexican restaurant near my apartment. The next day I told my bestie (pun unintended), Jamie, that they had the best margaritas.
Jamie: “Haha I don’t know if I believe that. I’m pretty sure you told me last week you’d had the best margaritas at another restaurant.”
There’s truth in jest. I can’t say I have a favorite movie or restaurant. And it’s true I have a lot of bests. They say the first step is admitting you have a problem, so here we go: I struggle to make definite decisions about what I like and dislike, and I can’t commit to a firm opinion. So even though I would ideally give Another Brooklyn 3.5 flames (there’s a big difference between three and four!), I’m pushing myself as a book critic and not giving the book the benefit of the doubt. I’m not taking the easy way by giving half a flame, which is physically impossible. Therefore, I’m dropping my review to an average .
- What: New People
- Who: Danzy Senna
- Pages: 229
- Genre: Contemporary adult fiction
- Published: 2017
- The lit: of 5 flames
Rarely do I not know what to say about a book. Usually I could talk for hours about a specific plot, character development, narrative arc, setting, etc. etc. etc. And whether I loved or hated the book usually doesn’t matter. I’m a bibliophile; I can talk about books forever.
But Danzy Senna’s 2017 novel, New People had me coming up short. All I can say is that it barely ignited two flames. This might seem harsh, but honestly, the only thing that kept me reading was knowing that I only had to get through 229 pages. “Get through.” That’s not how I speak of literature. New People lacked depth and explanation, and while the bones are there for a great story, they were poorly constructed. I felt lost in every one of those 229 pages.