A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
I had this novel on my Kindle for almost two years before I finally forced myself to read it. The cover is so deeply emotional that it made me completely uncomfortable to the point that I didn’t want to read the book. Awful, I know, but raw human emotion and vulnerability make me TERRIBLY UNCOMFORTABLE. And this novel met my cover expectations. It was beautiful written, but absolutely devastating. It was a punch in the heart over and over.
When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity.
Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever
The issues of self-mutilation and abuse that haunted Jude were very similar to something a close friend experienced. And it hurt to read about it because I wasn’t emotionally prepared. I remember feeling a lot of things that Willem felt when he would find Jude or when he tried to understand why Jude would continue to hurt himself. I wanted to shake Jude and make him tell Willem so that at least he could understand why Jude was in such a dark and disturbing place. The novel was difficult to read, and there were days when I knew not to read it because I was not in particular need of isolating sadness overwhelming me. The writing was beautiful and at times overwrought, but the author did a great job exploring the complexity of human friendships.
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
I read East of Eden the summer after my sophomore year of high school when I was a life guard at a natural springs pool that NO ONE ever came to. It was just me and one other girl, and she was very clearly not interested in being my friend or casual acquaintance, so lots of time for reading! I cannot even tell you exactly why I continue to pick this novel up year after year, but I like the idea that we can choose who we want to be. I love Steinbeck’s ability to write with such vivid detail, and that the attributes that make Kate the worst aren’t because she’s a woman, she’s just not a good person. Lee and Samuel Hamilton are two of my favorite literary characters to this day.
In his journal, Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck called East of Eden “the first book,” and indeed it has the primordial power and simplicity of myth. Set in the rich farmland of California’s Salinas Valley, this sprawling and often brutal novel follows the intertwined destinies of two families—the Trasks and the Hamiltons—whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel.
Adam Trask came to California from the East to farm and raise his family on the new rich land. But the birth of his twins, Cal and Aaron, brings his wife to the brink of madness, and Adam is left alone to raise his boys to manhood. One boy thrives nurtured by the love of all those around him; the other grows up in loneliness enveloped by a mysterious darkness.
First published in 1952, East of Eden is the work in which Steinbeck created his most mesmerizing characters and explored his most enduring themes: the mystery of identity, the enecplicability of love, and the murderous consequences of love’s absence. A masterpiece of Steinbeck’s later years, East of Eden is a powerful and vastly ambitious novel that is at once a family saga and a modern retelling of the Book of Genesis.
I read Grapes of Wrath after this, but if you haven’t read that by now, then I don’t know what to tell you.
Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke
As I’ve mentioned before, my very dear and amazing friend Heather is a book critic. She reviewed this novel last fall, and I’ve had it on my reading list ever since.
When it comes to law and order, East Texas plays by its own rules–a fact that Darren Mathews, a black Texas Ranger, knows all too well. Deeply ambivalent about growing up black in the lone star state, he was the first in his family to get as far away from Texas as he could. Until duty called him home.
When his allegiance to his roots puts his job in jeopardy, he travels up Highway 59 to the small town of Lark, where two murders–a black lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman–have stirred up a hornet’s nest of resentment. Darren must solve the crimes–and save himself in the process–before Lark’s long-simmering racial fault lines erupt.
A rural noir suffused with the unique music, color, and nuance of East Texas, Bluebird, Bluebird is an exhilarating, timely novel about the collision of race and justice in America.
I greatly enjoyed this novel, and felt like it was deeply true to parts of East Texas, and small Texas towns in general. The issues of race and justice that Darren faces are real, and they are still true today. I thought the book was exciting and engaging, and the characters were well developed. It seems like there may be sequels to this novel, and I sure hope so. It couldn’t put it down.