Book Review: Jazz
Monthly Book Reviews by YWP alumna Iris Robert
Jazz by Toni Morrison, Book Review by Iris Robert, March 2024
This month on Iris's Bookshelf I want to talk about Jazz by Toni Morrison. I absolutely love Toni Morrison and I think she's one of the best storytellers – her writing is gorgeous and she puts together a story and pulls it apart in such a stunning way.
This book is not talked about as often as some of her other books, like The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, or Beloved (which you should absolutely read, too!) and the subject matter isn't quite as intense, though it is still violent. I read all of Morrison's books back-to-back when I was fifteen, and this is a particularly memorable one. This novel is set in 1926 Harlem (the Harlem Renaissance plays a large role), and it's about a love triangle, a marriage, and a murder. This is another book that is nonlinear and the narrative travels its own unique path, full of tangents and improvisations, much like jazz music itself.
The setting of New York City is particularly important to this novel, and the story ricochets off of the city, echoing and interacting with the history and humans who live there. The narrators trade places and riff off one another, and the narrative flows through this swap.
Check out the first paragraph: "Sth, I know that woman. She used to live with a flock of birds on Lenox Avenue. Know her husband, too. He fell for an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going. When the woman, her name is Violet, went to the funeral to see the funeral and cut her dead face they threw her to the floor and out of the church. She ran, then, through all that snow, and when she got back to her apartment she took the birds from their cages and set them out the windows to freeze or fly, including the parrot that said, 'I love you.'"
This novel is dynamic and lyrical. I give it 3.5/5 stars and I recommend it to anyone looking for a funky, musical, tragic, exciting read.
The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton, Book Review by Iris Robert, February 2024
This month on Iris's Bookshelf, I want to talk about another old favorite of mine, The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton. I've read this book several times, and I love it every time. It became even more meaningful when I found out that Hinton was only 15 when she wrote the book (after failing her creative writing class!) which is so inspirational, especially because of how wildly successful it has been. The Outsiders is about a gang of teenage boys in the 1960s, split into the greasers and the Socs, who are separated by privilege and loyalties. The Socs can do anything and everything without consequence, because they're wealthy, privileged, and can pay their way out of problems. The greasers, on the other hand, have to take responsibility for their faults and have to fix their real world problems with real world solutions.
The narrator, Ponyboy, lives with his brothers and runs around town with them and their friends. They stay away from the Socs except when they're provoked (often) but fall in love with the Soc girls (doomed) and get involved in fights and accidents (tragic). There's something about the closeness of the greaser boys, between Ponyboy and his friend Johnny and between Ponyboy and his brothers, that is particularly memorable and emotional.
There are countless quotes from this book, but I want to highlight the most famous one:
“It seemed funny to me that the sunset she saw from her patio and the one I saw from the back steps was the same one. Maybe the two different worlds we lived in weren’t so different. We saw the same sunset.”
This speaks to the relationships that Ponyboy and his friends try to have with girls from the Soc group, in which they start to see similarities between their lives that seem so deeply different in socioeconomic status.
Another quote that shows the familial roles and loyalties:
“We can do our family members down as much as we like. But the second an outsider insults them our blood seethes. At the end of the day I don’t like him – but I love him. And I see my own failures in him.”
The book was the inspiration for the 1983 film, The Outsiders, a coming-of-age crime drama film directed by Francis Ford Coppola. I give this book 4.5/5 stars. I read it at a time when it meant a lot to me, and the ending was particularly heartbreaking. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to read about the freedom and violence of teenagers in the 1960s, the alliances and failures and loves and traumas that plague them.
Revenge of the Scapegoat by Caren Beilin, Book Review by Iris Robert, January 2024
This month on Iris's Bookshelf, I want to talk about Revenge of the Scapegoat by Caren Beilin. I found this book in a bookshop in Brattleboro, VT, and I picked it up because of the striking cover.
I've never read anything like this, where the writing is so electric, bursting with descriptors and metaphors, and nonlinear in an abstract and absurd way.
Caren Beilin is a Vermont author, and brings such a unique voice to Iris, the narrator (great name, by the way). The story is about 36-year-old Iris, the scapegoat of her family, who receives a package of letters from her father one day, bringing back unfortunate memories of her past and familial troubles. She escapes to the countryside and befriends a woman on a farm, and the story runs wild from there.
Beilin writes metaphors in such an interesting way, where she compares one thing to another thing, but then compares that to another thing, and then compares it to yet another thing, until there are so many layers within one sentence, but each layer is intentional and tightly woven.
There are so many great quotes from this book. Here's one: "A scapegoat does not believe, and I'll say this twice, that anything coming out of her mouth can be heard. Not without SCREAMING. Not without a trick. It does not work to say, This hurts. It does not work to say, Please. . . . A scapegoat doesn't think she can ask. No, she doesn't believe in honest questions."
And another quote (one of the big themes of this book is the dynamic between fathers and daughters and the tension of the father's letters to Iris): "The letters in my package were an evil archive, for sure, a father who hates his own daughter??? - no, who wouldn't mind destroying her - no, who desperately needs her love and wants to choke it out of her - who thinks she could sustain these horrible letters. Worst package of my life."
I give this book 4/5 stars for experimental creativity and startling, shocking, satisfying prose. I recommend this if you're looking for a funky, absurdist story that isn't traditional or traditionally told. It was one of four Vermont Book Award winners in 2022.
Brutes by Dizz Tate, Book Review by Iris Robert, December 2023
This month on Iris's Bookshelf, I want to talk about Brutes by Dizz Tate. I absolutely love this novel (it's my Barbie movie) and I still have a few chapters left (I'm reading it slowly because I want it to last longer!).
This book is about a group of tweenagers in Falls Landing, Florida who all idolize this one girl Sammy, until she goes missing and their community is flipped around. I grew up in Florida, and this book is so evocative of those years in the sweaty heat with intertwined friendships that make you feel like a collective organism. Dizz Tate writes about this group so well and the tensions between the hierarchy and who gets which role. The narrative begins with the group in Florida after Sammy goes missing, and then, surprisingly, swaps to each girls' perspective as grown adults, away from their hometown and looking back on their childhoods and everything that happened.
I found this book through an Instagram video of book recommendations, and it was described as the "sticky, sickly friendships" which captures the setting and the relationships perfectly. Here is an interesting article about the book, describing its influences (The Virgin Suicides, Bunny). https://www.clereviewofbooks.com/writing/dizz-tate-brutes
There are so, so many quotes that I love in this book. Some of my favorites: "No one looks at us and this gives us a brutal power." Much of this novel is about brutal power – from parents, between friends, in communities, to oneself. Being brutal and being called "brutes" is something this group hears a lot, and they start to like the power of it.
The writing is electric and rhythmic. Here's a sample: "When we wake up, the sun has just appeared, a thick red muscle bleeding low across the lake. We rub our eyes and stare. The women have returned to the ground. The hot air blurs around them. They seem deflated and move slowly through the morning's pink haze. They have abandoned their instruments and seem to be calling her name over and over. They look desperate, their determination lost. We giggle. We focus our binoculars on their mouths, the lowering and widening of their pleading jaws. 'Sam-my, Sam-my, Sam-my.' We can hear more sirens on the highway, and the faint noise of tourists from the hotels and into the theme parks across the lakes."
And another quote: "We smear eye shadow up to our eyebrows. We color and shine our lips with gloss. We smile. We shimmer. We feel like we do not exist." To me, this book is my childhood, when I would use all the makeup in my mom's makeup bag and run around with my friends getting into trouble, ignoring all the 'grown up' things happening around us. It's carefree, it's loud, it's silly, it's messy, it's sad.
I give this book a 4.5/5 and I completely recommend reading this!
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Book Review by Iris Robert, November 2023
This month on Iris's Bookshelf, I want to talk about one of my old favorites. I first read this novel when I was about 9, and then I re-read it several more times after. This is the story of Mary, an orphan who moves to live with her recluse uncle in his mansion on an English moor. She meets her cousin Colin, who's been extremely sick his whole life and has to stay in his room, and other characters who care for and live near the mansion. She befriends a robin, who leads her to a secret garden on the property that had been abandoned for years and became overgrown.
I love how you can see Mary change and become an entirely different person over time. She starts off spoiled, selfish, and rude, but then she opens up to be caring, kind, and carefree. She and her cousin grow close and she helps him become healthy and experience the world in ways he hadn't before.
This book is really about the keeping of things you love: whether it is a garden, a family member, a friend, or yourself. It's not always easy to care for others, but there is so much more happiness and satisfaction from loving others.
Here is a favorite quote of mine: “And the secret garden bloomed and bloomed and every morning revealed new miracles.”
And here is another quote that I love: “Sometimes since I've been in the garden I've looked up through the trees at the sky and I have had a strange feeling of being happy as if something was pushing and drawing in my chest and making me breathe fast. Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing. Everything is made out of magic, leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and foxes and squirrels and people. So it must be all around us. In this garden - in all the places.”
I give this book a 3.5/5. I loved it when I was a younger reader and just getting into classics (around the time I was reading Black Beauty, The Wizard of Oz, etc.) and I also love it now. I definitely recommend this if it's your first time reading it, or if you're returning to it many years later.
Open City by Teju Cole, Book Review by Iris Robert, October 2023
The narrator of the novel Open City is a Nigerian immigrant named Julius who lives in New York City. He walks around the city, travels to Europe, meets with old friends and makes new friends, and comes to terms with the tragic and unfortunate events in his life and the choices he's made. I liked how Teju Cole's novel flowed, and the tangents that made the narrative nonlinear, as well as the unexpected (and unsettling) final moments and questions left behind for the reader. This book reminded me of Americanah by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie because of the themes of Nigerian immigrants living in American cities and addressing issues of race, privilege, and love.
Here is a great interview with Teju Cole, talking about Open City, the nonlinear narrative, the identity of the narrator, and other interesting elements: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/conversation-teju-cole. I like how Cole expands on elements of the novel and we get to hear it from his perspective (I always like hearing from the author's perspective, because they see so clearly what sometimes appears to readers as a huge mess or question mark).
This is a quote that summarizes one of the plot themes of good, evil, belief, and what you make others know about you: “We have the ability to do both good and evil, and more often than not, we choose the good. When we don’t, neither we nor our imagined audience is troubled, because we are able to articulate ourselves to ourselves, and because we have through our other decisions, merited their sympathy. They are ready to believe the best about us, and not without good reason.”
This is another quote that I think is particularly important to the narrative: “If you're too loyal to your own suffering, you forget that others suffer, too.”
Overall, I give this book 3.5/5 stars. I liked the writing style a lot, and the extremely vivid and evocative descriptions. I thought the characters were complex and well developed, and I liked that the plot ran in circles and was more of a long description than a series of events that impact each other.
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Book Review by Iris Robert, September 2023
I first read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott during a creative writing class I took this summer. I happened to find my copy at Goodwill for $2, and I was surprised by how much I liked it.
Sometimes I think that writing advice can be repetitive and drone on, but Lamott brings a fresh and humorous perspective to all areas of writing: first drafts, dialogue, plot, writer's block, and finding your voice. She includes anecdotes, prompts, and quotes from other books/poems/pieces of writing.
This is a helpful read for writers for both the advice and the ability to recognize yourself in Lamott's descriptions, as the young writer unsure of their voice, the writer who cannot continue their story no matter how many attempts, the writer who suddenly despises everything they've written, and the writer who doesn't know how or where or what to edit. Even though I read this for my class, I would absolutely have read it on my own (and I'll return to it, too).
Lamott talks about wonder and awe in writing, and how important it is to maintain. She writes, "This is our goal as writers, I think; to help others have this sense of - please forgive me - wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered worlds. When this happens, everything feels more spacious.... I think this is how we are supposed to be in the world – present and in awe." I love this idea of seeing this anew and being in awe while writing – I think it's also a great prompt. What fills you with awe? What makes you feel most present?
Lamott also talks about character development: "My friend Carpenter talks about the unconscious as the cellar where the little boy sits who creates the characters, and he hands them up to you through the cellar door. He might as well be cutting out paper dolls. He's peaceful; he's just playing."
I really love this idea of creating character as paper dolls and just playing around with ideas and concepts in a carefree way, rather than being hard on yourself or getting caught up in specifics. It's always harder to write when you're critiquing yourself, rather than being open and playful with your ideas and seeing where they can lead.
Lastly, one of my favorite quotes from this book is actually a quote from another book, Rabbit, Run: "It always reminds me of the last lines of Rabbit, Run: 'his heels hitting heavily on the pavement at first but with an effortless gathering out of a kind of sweet panic growing lighter and quicker and quieter, he runs. Ah: runs. Runs.'" This just perfectly describes the feeling of writing and finding your pace and your voice, and getting to the point of being comfortable and excited about what you're writing.
Overall, I would give this book 3.5/5 stars. I really enjoyed Lamott's advice, especially since I don't usually choose to read nonfiction books. I would definitely recommend this book if you are interested in learning more about the different elements of writing, or if you're looking for motivation to get past that stubborn writer's block.
Iris Robert is a YWP alumna and summer 2023 intern who is studying English literature at Bennington College. You can contact Iris with questions, feedback on her reviews, or just to say hi by messaging her on the site at eyesofIris.