Review: The Parking Lot Attendant

In January (or February?) I won a pretty sweet giveaway from Henry Holt & Co., an imprint of Macmillan Publishers. The reward: a stack of books from debut authors, set to release this spring. First up on the list for me was The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat.

The Parking Lot Attendant is a title that probably falls under the genre “literary fiction,” although I’ll be real honest with y’all: I love that genre and decidedly did not love this book.

Tamirat’s debut novel is seemingly the definition of a slow burn — except that it merely flickers and sputters out, without enough fodder to maintain a flame. Truthfully, up until page 170, very little discernible action occurs. And while I love a good bit of background-building (here’s looking at you, Steinbeck), 170 pages is a bit much.

Readers are introduced to the unnamed narrator and her father, who are self-proclaimed “unwelcome guests” on the unnamed island of B——. We get a brief — albeit perplexing — peek at daily life ok the island, where a commune lives in “utopian” peace, separate from the island’s bulk and natural inhabitants. We’re told things aren’t quite as ideal as they seem, then thrust backward in time to Boston to receive background on how the narrator and her father came to reside on B——.

Alas, Boston was sluggish and full of self-indulgent ramblings on the author’s end. (I get it; sometimes I let my own writing ramble because I like the look of it. But still.) The narrator — 15? 16? — befriends Ayale, an older man who is a parking lot attendant somewhere generally near the narrator’s home. Despite the gap in their ages, Ayale and the narrator find commonality in their Ethiopian roots and he takes the girl under his expansive gangster wing, acting almost like a father: checking on her schoolwork, asking about her life, giving her gifts and cash. They have some late-night meals — dates? — at diners and spend long hours chatting on the telephone, even after she’s spent post-school hours at the parking lot with Ayale. In short, the relationship teeters at the brink of awkward and inappropriate 90% of the time. Even the narrator’s utterly incapable father recognizes the sheer wrongness of the friendship and makes feeble attempts to end it. Meanwhile, I spent most of the book dreading their seemingly imminent sexual…coming together, if you will. (Spoiler: it never happens, THANK GOD.)

The novel concludes back on the island, with a brief description of how things have gone awry and a hint as to what will come. In short, 170 pages of mostly rambling fluff, only to be left with a hint at what might happen to our narrator. Sigh.

Tamirat’s strength lies in her writing of passionate diatribes from Ayale regarding the immigrant experience (I flagged a few of these gems as I read), and the occasional cheeky quip from the narrator, such as:

“I marvel at those who have made a living out of seamlessly appearing to be someone other than themselves. I haven’t done a particularly bang-up job of being me, and if I can’t manage that, it seems unlikely that I’ll ever do better by taking on someone else. I suspect that on the whole, I am untalented at the art of existence.”

These shiny moments in her work give me hope for Tamirat’s future works.

Ultimately, though, the novel was full of characters I didn’t particularly care for or like and meandering inaction. It wasn’t my cup of tea, but I’m grateful for the review copy nonetheless. It’s always good to be exposed to different types of writing, right? Right. (Here’s looking at you, Henry Holt Books!)

Overall: 2 stars, not likely to recommend.

On Loss

Tuesday afternoon, I received the message no educator ever wants to get in their lifetime: A student has died. More specifically, a student I had taught and coached and ribbed and soothed and loved — decided to end her life.

And so, my world changed a bit. It shifted. Things were no longer quite as reasonable as they’d seemed yesterday. Six hours previously, I’d been changing a diaper and bouncing a ball into my kid’s face and trying to eat something that resembled “moderately healthful” for breakfast and my student was being discovered by her mother and younger brother, dead by her own hand.

The world stopped turning. Not when it should have, I thought; not in the morning hours that J. ceased to breathe during, but rather, hours later when the message came through. It stopped turning, and since then, it’s been rotating backward or sideways or at a crawl barely recognizable as motion at all.

She’s dead. She’s dead. She’s dead. — This thought is hammered into my brain at least a dozen times a day, while I am heating pureed vegetables for Henry’s lunch or watching the sun dip below the unobstructed horizon or kissing my husband’s cheek before he heads out the door. As life continues to inhale and exhale around me, J.’s cessation comes to me at seemingly random moments, knocking the wind from the pit of my stomach.

It’s a queasy feeling, an uncertainty that I’m ill prepared for at 28 years old. The math is easy, she is — she was — ten years younger than me, on the cusp of womanhood. She was supposed to live another 80 years, outlasting me and all of her other teachers. We should have received invitations to her high school graduation, we should have watched her perform her serious solo at State forensics, we should have heard about her career and her marriage and her kids.

We should not have been preceded in death by this student. No teacher should ever be preceded in death by any student.

It’s perverse, this reversal of universal Rightness, and I cannot find a way to correct the problem in my brain. I’ve balled it up and tried shoving it into discreet nooks and crannies but my mind refuses the intrusion, pushing the knowledge forth and springing it open again — She’s gone.

And while it feels like a sucker punch delivered to the kidneys over and over and over again, I know that soon my world will resume as normal. I will think of her less frequently, though never not altogether; I’ll somehow go days and then weeks and months at a time without wondering who she would be or where she would be or how many lives she would have made different just by smiling in someone’s direction . . . and I feel guilty at this acknowledgement. Because for me, the sucker punches will come to an end and remembering will be more of a dull ache of remorse; but for her family, those punches will only keep coming. And coming. And coming.

I wish I could put my arm around J. now, and just hold her. I wish I could tell her, I wish I had told her — I was in your shoes, once upon a time. I tried. More than once. And I’m so very glad I failed, because damn, does it get better.

I wish I could tell her that her suicide has left me reeling, even though we only knew each other for a few years and I really have no right to this profound grief given my minimal impact on her world, but I’m reeling nonetheless and so many others are, too — the community is collectively sighing this sob of remorse and anger and hurt.

I wish I could confirm what I know she had to wonder — Yes, you will be missed. You are. You are. You are.

But I cannot do any of these things because J. is gone, she’s dead, and those things we do not say cannot be saved for better moments.

For now, this will have to suffice. Goodbye, dear one. Goodbye.

Read Next: For Lovers of History

At least once a week, I get a text from a friend saying something along the lines of Hey, what’s up? I need a book list — stat! These requests come in from new mamas needing to unwind, busy teachers looking for an escape from reality, out-of-practice readers looking to rekindle their bookish flame but not sure where to start.

I absolutely relish these calls to action, certain that I can find something among the titles on my shelves to capture their interest. And here’s the thing: I can never choose just one title to share with them. It’s almost a burden, loving books so much . . . 😉

One of my favorite genres to recommend from: historical fiction & nonfiction. To be quite honest, I didn’t retain much from my high school/college history classes and I’m quite certain that 85% of what I know about past events comes from my obsessive reading of historical nonfiction and fiction. (Also a major reason I advocate so highly for frequent reading, as a teacher.)

To the point, though — here’s a list of some of my favorite historical reads, in both the fiction and nonfiction categories.

  1. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Fiction. This multigenerational tome centers on the often-grueling circumstances of Sunja’s family: poor Koreans living in the shadow of Japanese racism post-WWII. Actually, the novel starts much earlier, at the start of the 1900s, with Sunja’s father’s birth; so readers gain a very insightful look at the relationship between Koreans and Japanese as well as both cultures. The writing is stark and though lengthy, the novel demands to be read diligently and without pause (when possible). Read more about it here.
  2. Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand. Nonfiction. Quite possibly my favorite work of nonfiction, ever, Seabiscuit is an endearing and emotional tale of one of the nation’s most formidable racehorses — and an absolutely thrilling comeback story. The story opens in the early 1900s and follows the lives of Seabiscuit’s owner, jockey, and trainer before introducing the legend himself. In the tumultuous and dramatic times of the Great Depression and World War II, Seabiscuit became an American hero and a symbol of the working class. Hillenbrand’s novel offers a fascinating portrait of this era, as well as a heartwarming and rousing emotional read. (Bonus: the film adaptation is also fantastic.)
  3. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. Fiction. A searing tale of two young girls bound together by slavery — one, slave; the other, master — well into their adult years, The Invention of Wings is more than an engrossing narrative. It’s an uncomfortable, disturbing account of a piece of American history based on the very real lives of the Grimke sisters — born into a prominent Southern family of slaveowners, the pair were decidedly abolitionist in an unprecedented way for women of the time.
  4. October Sky by Homer Hickam. Nonfiction – Memoir. I originally discovered this gem in high school, some time after having watched the film adaptation. Originally titled Rocket Boys, this piece of NF is at once charming, laugh-inducing, gut-wrenching, and hopeful. Nestled in coal mining country in West Virginia, October Sky is the true story of Homer Hickam’s quest to be more than a miner and break free of the predetermined path set forth for boys in his town. Inspired by Sputnik‘s race across the sky, Hickam dreams of building his own rockets to send to the stars. His dad’s not happy about it, his mom can’t offer much in the way of open support, and he and his friends are the laughingstock of the drab community; but Hickam persists in his pursuit of outer space and the resulting narrative is an absolutely magnificent tale of perseverance and the heartbreaking nature of dreams.
  5. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Fiction. This World War II-era novel is a bestseller for a reason: the gripping coming-of-age tale is absolutely stunning in its own haunted way. With an omniscient narrator (Death himself), the novel kicks off in Nazi-occupied Germany at the end of the 1930s. Liesel Meminger, given to strangers by her mother who cannot care for her any longer, comes to live on Himmel Street with the Hubermanns — a jovial man and his crabby wife who come to love Liesel like a daughter. I’m a huge fan of coming-of-age stories and the beautiful narration in this novel — coupled with the dramatic backdrop of a menacing time period — makes this an unputdownable read.
  6. ‘Tis by Frank McCourt. Nonfiction – Memoir. I didn’t know how much I loved memoirs until I read this gut-busting (and often tearjerking) tale of an Irish immigrant’s arrival in the “promised land” that America has been to so many over the decades. Frank McCourt arrived in America in 1949, fulfilling a dream of his and at once leaving behind the dismal poverty that had marked his life in Ireland (only to find more troubles in the land he’d so long dreamed of making his new home). I was fascinated by the tidbits of history and laughed out loud at the naive observations of the young Catholic boy in the big city of New York.
  7. The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. Fiction. Set in post-WWII Germany, this brief novel (200 pages in my rather small edition) is utterly captivating. “When young Michael berg falls ill on his way home from school, he is rescued by Hanna, a woman twice his age. In time she becomes his lover, enthralling him with her passion, but puzzling him with her odd silences. Then she disappears. Michael next sees Hanna when she is on trial for a heinous crime, refusing to defend herself. As he watches, he begins to realize that Hanna may be guarding a secret she considers more shameful than murder.”
  8. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Nonfiction. This thrilling account of America’s first serial killer, H. H. Holmes, is closely woven into the history of the planning, design, and spectacle of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. As a work of narrative nonfiction, I found this novel relatively easy to read and only dry in a few places. The telling alternates a bit between Holmes’ arrival in Chicago (and his subsequent planning stages) and the World’s Fair architects and planning committees, offering readers more than just a glimpse at a serial killer’s timeline. I was fascinated to read about the birth of several modern-day amenities such as shredded wheat, sliced bread, and Juicy Fruit gum.

What are some of your favorite historical reads, both fiction and nonfiction? Tell me in the comments section below!

March on the Plains

There’s not a green shoot of grass in sight, other than — somehow, miraculously — the tufts of wheat crawling up from the powdery dust that passes for soil in the field across from our house. The earth hasn’t seen rain in seven months and it shows: trees are shriveled, their bark wrinkled and cracked like the flesh of a centuries-old tortoise; last year’s grass looks more like last decade’s grass; even the slightest cough from the sky sends chalky particles upward in a dizzying pirouette to the sky.

Today, yesterday, tomorrow (most likely) — the wind batters from the south. And the west. And sometimes, the north. It shrieks and moans as it whips around the walls of our abode, which emit their own protestations at the unrelenting battering ram. Together, the wind and the walls squeal out a song of misery, day and night.

The floor lamp flickers again and again, its light a wavering attempt at courage in the wind-storm that rages outside. Its brilliance ebbs and flows, mimicking my inner dialogue — I will not last another day in this desert wasteland. Oh, but you must! Mmph…

Another gust blasts against the door, followed by another and another and another. I imagine our house a dinghy tossed about on the ocean — oh, to be surrounded by water! — it creeps beneath the door, the wind: an unadmitted visitor paying no heed to social niceties, barging in coldly to wrap its wispy fingers around my ankles.

The chill rises, a tingling slowness as though I have been lowered into a pool of water feet-first. Whispers of the furious gales outside crawl deliberately upward, snaking ever closer toward the destination. I am certain — the wind is alive, burning with the icy fire of the soulless wicked.

Hand on the brass knob, I repress a shudder and twist. For an instant, respite: silence descends, dirt hangs motionless on the horizon, tumbleweeds relax their grip on the barbed fence.

In another instant, the door is wrenched from my grasp and Chaos resumes its descent, drawing me into the fray.

Review: Girls Burn Brighter

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that nearly 21 million adults and children are bought and sold globally, into both forced-labor and sex trade. Of these 21 million, when the trade is for sexual exploitation, ninety-six percent of victims are women and girls. (See more here.)

The sickening truth of these statistics is driven home in Shobha Rao’s debut novel, Girls Burn Brighter — a harrowing tale of friendship and feminism that I wouldn’t recommend lightly. Given the utterly horrific backdrop the story is set against, the novel’s tone can be described as despairing and nightmarish, at best. Although I believe the narrative is an important one, this novel wasn’t quite what I hoped it could be and I feel very conflicted about it. Let me explain:

Girls Burn Brighter is a fictional story of two girls in early-2000s Indravalli, India. Poornima and Savitha come from different families, but both belong to the impoverished  weaving caste. Poornima’s mother dies when she is fifteen, extinguishing hope in the girl’s very core as she approaches marriageable age and prepares for a very different life than the one she’s always known. Frequently chastised by her father, who is bitter at Poornima’s very existence — the cost of a dowry cannot be overlooked as more than a waste of resources — Poornima leads a joyless existence, finding pleasure only in her charkha, where she spins the thread that her father will weave into saris.

Savitha is from the other side of Indravalli, where pigs and rats mingle with children to dig through trash heaps and find recyclable materials that can be sold for a rupee here and there. Her father, once a drunk, is decrepit and rendered useless by arthritis; though he loves his daughter, despite her lowly status as a female. Her mother cleans houses for other people and Savitha rummages in garbage to merely survive, though her true passion lies in sari-making. When Savitha arrives at the door of Poornima’s family home, though, the two soon become bound together in a love that uplifts and sets their souls ablaze. They become confidantes, closer than sisters. Their friendship is something to behold, truly.

A cataclysmic event sends the girls reeling, and the two careen in different directions that take them into the horrific world of human trafficking and forced servitude. In an effort to be reunited — and escape the horrors of their new realities — the two embark on separate journeys that span years and continents.

***

The first half of this book is bittersweet in its hopeful telling of the girls’ unforeseen friendship. It is, admittedly, a much more tolerable section of the novel, as background is being established before the hammer really drops. The narrative is sweet, obviously, for the beautiful companionship that blooms before readers’ very eyes as Poornima and Savitha become acquainted and eventually, inseparable. Bitter, though, most certainly, because the girls exist in a world that has no love for women. It was very humbling, indeed, to read the many ways in which Poornima and Savitha faced discrimination and abuse (verbal, psychological, emotional, sexual) at the hands of men merely for the crime of being born a woman.

In fact, there were many noteworthy gems from the first half of the book that I tracked while I read, such as —

“. . . it seemed to her that anything a person has held is a thing that they never really let go.”

and

“She even felt pride at times, and said to herself, I was their hope and I came true. Imagine not coming true. Imagine not having hope.”

The prose at the onset of the novel is beautiful, even in the sad places, and lyrical.

For me, the novel fell apart about halfway through. The prose seemed to become more rambling and aimless in direct proportion to the sharp increase of horrific circumstances that kept coming and coming.

Here’s the thing: I understand Rao’s position as the writer, and the choice she made, to create this deeply disturbing novel that is so true to life for the millions of women and girls who have been exploited. I get that. But it felt like the point of this novel should have been (or was intended to be) this portrait of feminine resilience and hope . . . and after this continual stream of negative events the hope flame just died. It went out cold.

Part of this may be due to the fact that Rao made her point early on — about the crime of being born a woman in India (and in some ways, globally) — and the repetitive narrative that followed was almost just gruesome to be gruesome. It’s hard to go into specifics without divulging too much; so I’ll just leave it at this: I was disappointed by the way this novel unfolded. The end did not completely disappoint me, though others have lamented the abrupt conclusion.

As you can see by my rambling, I liked quite a few things about the novel — the girls’ resilience and devotion to one another, the lyrical prose at the start — but there was still something to be desired at the conclusion. I felt like Rao included a few things that just . . . didn’t need to be there (the old man’s narrative in the car — like, what?).

Overall: 3/5 stars, some days more of a 2-star read. I would not recommend this to readers who are sensitive to abuse or sexual violence.

A huge thank you to Flatiron Books and @worldswithinpages for hosting this giveaway on Instagram, where I won the book! If you’re not following their accounts, check ’em out — and while you’re at it, look me up: @littlereaderontheprairie.

Reflections on a Life Unlived

I sat down last night and, for the first time in a long while, I didn’t pick up a book or fiddle with my planner (to make myself feel as though I’m far more productive, busy, and important than I actually am). I just kind of sat there, eyes glazed over with the exhaustion that sometimes comes at the end of a day with Henry. And I thought, Hey. You. You haven’t written anything in a long while. Not even a book review. Not even a reflective idea.

And then I thought —  You haven’t even acknowledged your thoughts for a while.

Sadly, I had to admit, these revelations are accurate. I’ve always been fairly adept at deflecting inquiries as to how I’m really doing — I’m fine; I’m busy; I’m doing okay, no complaints here — so it should come as no surprise that I am not always entirely honest with myself. But still. Sometimes, I am surprised. Like, whoa — there’s that dark place again; how did we get here, Renee?

I’m not sure what’s changed, or what’s spurred the recent self-evaluations that have become so all-consuming in my world, but suddenly I am considering my self and my place daily. It’s an absentminded sort of pastime, admittedly; and I’ve deflected my realizations a bit so that they haven’t arrived fully at the forefront of my mind until just last evening. But here we are, in a place of wonderment where I have begun to ponder —

who are you?

what are you even doing with this solitary life of yours?

and

when you die, what the hell will you leave behind?

When I was ten, I could’ve told any old stranger, without hesitation, that by the time I was twenty-eight I’d be a novelist. People would be reading my stories and they would be smiling and laughing and crying at all the right places; they would be touched in their souls by these words that somehow evoked feelings they didn’t even know could be held in common with a complete stranger from some remote home in a state called Kansas.

I would be special. I’d be a writer. My name would be on the cover of a book, people would speak of my ideas, they would press copies of my work into their friends’ hands saying You have to read this really great book, it’s amazing —

I would be somebody.

But I am twenty-eight, and I am not a writer, and I am not an author, and I do not have an editor or a publisher, and I have not done

anything

remarkable

at all.

And all that I can think of is — how very disappointed ten-year-old me would be to discover this version of myself.

I don’t even have to imagine.

She is still within.