Review: ‘The Broken Earth’ Series

I did not know what to expect when I started The Broken Earth series, but I was not disappointed. The series started popping up on my Bookstagram feed (@keepitkassual) in the late spring, and I knew that it was something I needed to get my hands on!

The glossy Hugo Award pictured on each cover is more than well-deserved. Author N.K. Jemisin presents some of the best storytelling that I have ever read with shifting points of view and poetic, poignant prose. You are constantly on the edge of your seat as you read, concentrating on every word as you learn about Essun and her story.

 

The first novel, The Fifth Season, starts with the statement that the world is ending. The story begins at the start of a Season, a series of catastrophic climatic changes that the inhabitants must survive through. We learn that the protagonist, Essun, lives in the Stillness, a supercontinent, and has just found her three-year-old son, Uche, dead in her living room. Her husband, Jija, and her daughter Nassun, have vanished. She knows that Jija has killed their son and taken Nassun, and she knows why. Jija has learned their secret: They are orogenes.

Orogenes are a specific race within the Stillness with a power called sessapinae, giving them the ability to control tectonic activity within the earth. Also referred to as the derogatory term, roggas, orogenes are oppressed, feared, and hated beings; they are seen as the “Other” within the Stillness. Essun, an orogene herself, kept this secret from Jija. She believes that Jija has taken Nassun somewhere to kill her, so she sets forth to find them and seek revenge on Jija. That is the premise of the story. Essun’s quest to find her daughter. What readers are presented with is so much more, however.

What I liked about The Broken Earth series was that the books shed light on many important social topics, including environmentalism (the Earth seeking revenge on the beings that destroyed it), systemic racism, and classism. The books aren’t just limited to those themes, however. They also explore individualism, resistance, LGBTQ relationships, and gender equity. These topics are important, and they are impeccably intertwined throughout the books.

The first book was my favorite, for it seemed the most organized.  I enjoyed the shifting points of view. Essun’s story is told in the second point of view, so, you, the reader, are Essun. You are the protagonist. The Fifth Season also follows the stories of Damaya and Syenite, two other orogenes. The ending of the book will leave you feeling exhausted and duped … but in a good way.

The Obelisk Gate has the one thing that a reader of the fantastic enjoys: world-building. Hundreds of pages of it. So much that it almost came across as disjointed and hard to follow. This might be because I don’t enjoy lengthy world-building, but it’s high fantasy, so I should have been prepared for it. I do read and enjoy Tolkien, don’t I? He loves to talk about trees. 

The Stone Sky, the final book, can be read quickly because you don’t want to put it down once you start. Jemisin’s writing is entrancing. The mother-daughter struggle is profound as you discover that Nassun’s powers go beyond what Essun could have ever imagined. This difficulties that they face stretches to the very end. The finale is truly heart-wrenching and fast-paced. You’ll finish feeling heartbroken yet satisfied. You will find yourself experiencing a complex array of emotions. That’s because it’s such a complex series.

In The Broken Earth series, Jemisin presents readers with the following question:

What are we willing to sacrifice to avoid positive change?

The Broken Earth series is a profound glimpse into our present and our future. It’s important now, more than ever, to have conversations about climate, race, and human rights. We must make sustainable change. We have to save our world.

. . . . .

N.K. Jemisin was the first writer to win three consecutive Hugo best novels awards for science fiction and fantasy. As a Black writer within the fantastic genre, her books feature strong Black characters struggling and combating important social issues. 

You can learn more about N.K. Jemisin and her work here.

 

 

 

 

How to control the unknown: Journaling during the pandemic

Recently, I rediscovered my love for journaling. I currently have two journals: a bullet journal where I track my bookish creative needs, and another journal where I focus on mental check-ins before bed and other writing.

With the recent pandemic sweeping the globe, I noticed my journaling habits dwindling. I have been glued to my phone, scrolling through Twitter and Facebook to try to make sense of it all. I couldn’t believe what I read, but seeing that everyone was facing the same issues somehow made me feel less alone. The issue with this, of course, is that people don’t always post the most encouraging or factual things on social media, so those notions of connectivity also brought panic, uncertainty, and a lot of anxiety that I could not curb.

I decided to unplug — to only focus on the positive things — and pay more attention to books (more than I already do). I am working to exercise daily, eat healthily, and be mindful of what I can control. I slowly started journaling again, readying myself to write down what I was feeling. I realized that I was avoiding journaling because it was easier to harbor anxiety and fear rather than see it on paper. It’s been a few days now, and I am enjoying the process and act of journaling. It has helped to record my thoughts and activities during this time and work through them rather than avoid them.

I found myself this Sunday morning scribbling in my journal, feeling much like Jo March when she has a moment of inspiration and needs to get it down. I wrote six pages of free prose, mostly detailing what is happening, how I feel, and how my husband and I are coping during these troubling times. I wanted to share some of it with my readers, for I feel like this is how we might all feel. I also want to start sharing more of my writing with others, which takes a lot of courage.

Here are my favorite snippets:

As a homebody, this is certainly a lifestyle that I am used to, but I find myself gripping to my humanity more and more as we encounter outside individuals on our walks or in the grocery stores. As someone who is so introverted, I find myself craving extroversion. Technology is keeping “us” connected through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat…Google Hangout, FaceTime and Zoom and “we” are having virtual Happy Hours and game nights. Families are joining each other for dinner in their respective living rooms. Why haven’t we done this before? Last week, my friends and I got together for a virtual chat. We laughed and caught up. One friend said: “We should have been doing this all the time anyway!” It’s true. Why wouldn’t my friends and I schedule regular time to do this? When we can’t get together physically, why don’t “we” embrace technology and still be together socially?

I hope that we all appreciate the simplicities of greetings: a smile, a handshake, or a “hello, how are you?” as we pass each other on the street. Why did we lose that in the first place? Ian and I went for a walk the other day, and every person looked at us and said “hi,” as if they were also craving that social interaction. Before, we wouldn’t get a glance from half of the people we crossed paths with. Where did humanity go? Does it take us to all be locked in our homes to strive for politeness when someone passes by?

I hope we learn to appreciate each other more — that we continue to take better care of one another and of ourselves. What about our planet? What about appreciating those on the front lines all of the time? Or asking those “what about them?” questions when things go wrong? I hope we don’t lose sight of that — taking care of each other.

After this is over, I hope that we continue to pick up more books, appreciate the small things like getting an iced coffee or an ice cream cone. I hope more people browse bookstores or work to support small businesses. I hope that we call our friends more, FaceTime with our grandparents regularly. I hope that we exercise and crave to go outdoors and take care of it. These things were always options, but now it’s something that we want to do and share.

I hope that we rediscover hobbies during this time- our love of books, favorite movies, playing or creating music. I hope that we are creative – that we paint, write, draw. I hope we are OK if we do none of those things but take time to look within ourselves and know that we are resilient … that we are strong and we can regain control and maintain that control when the world seems to have lost it. I hope we can just “be” and know that if we do anything, it is good enough. Enough with comparing ourselves on social media, thinking that we are not good enough. Enough with the drive for money and the greed to be successful. Can we continue to check in with one another? Can celebrities and musicians continue to share their talents?

I hope we act silly; that we dance. That we come out of this stronger than ever.

I am so excited to see all the creative work that comes from this. I can’t wait to see all the art, read all of the prose, and listen to new music. I hope to create my own work, academic and personal, during this time. I hope to learn how to be OK with my work, breathe slowly and be patient with my craft — to continue being diligent as a writer. I want to be loud; I want to praise others for their talents and help others feel safe and not alone. It’s time to be there for each other.

Interview with Juliet Grames, author of ‘Stella Fortuna’

In November, I met Juliet Grames, author of her debut novel, The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna. We met at an event held in my home state where she talked about her novel and her family. I even had dinner with her! It was an unforgettable experience, further deepening my love for literature and becoming an author.

I read her novel last month and was deeply moved by it. From immigration to feminism, this book has every topic that can interest a reader. There is so much history, and as a Connecticut native, like Juliet, I was interested to learn more about my own family’s emigration to the United States.

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Book synopsis

From Calabria to Connecticut: A sweeping family saga about sisterhood, secrets, Italian immigration, the American dream, and one woman’s tenacious fight against her own fate.

For Stella Fortuna, death has always been a part of life. Stella’s childhood is full of strange, life-threatening incidents—moments where ordinary situations like cooking eggplant or feeding the pigs inexplicably take lethal turns. Even Stella’s own mother is convinced that her daughter is cursed or haunted.

In her rugged Italian village, Stella is considered an oddity—beautiful and smart, insolent and cold. Stella uses her peculiar toughness to protect her slower, plainer baby sister Tina from life’s harshest realities. But she also provokes the ire of her father Antonio: a man who demands subservience from women and whose greatest gift to his family in his absence.

When the Fortunas emigrate to America on the cusp of World War II, Stella and Tina must come of age side-by-side in a hostile new world with strict expectations for each of them. Soon Stella learns that her survival is worthless without the one thing her family will deny her at any cost: her independence.

In present-day Connecticut, one family member tells this heartrending story, determined to understand the persisting rift between the now-elderly Stella and Tina. A richly told debut, The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna is a tale of family transgressions as ancient and twisted as the olive branch that could heal them.

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The interview

How long was this book in the making?
A long time–you could say since 2011, when I first wrote down Stella Fortuna’s name and earnestly started research and note-taking. Or you could say since 1988, when I was five years old and realized I was already haunted by what I didn’t know about my grandmother’s life story. I spent the thirty years in between then and now trying to learn more about her, about the faraway world she came from, and about other immigrant women in her generation, trying to fill in the blanks. In the end, I couldn’t fill them in, so I wrote a novel about a fictional Italian immigrant woman, instead.

Can you talk about your literary pilgrimage to Italy? I know you did a lot of research for this book—how did it change the book itself, and how did it change you?
Yes, I did a lot of research in many different formats, but one of the most important pieces of the puzzle was the month I spent in Ievoli, Calabria, the village where my grandmother was born a hundred years ago. I showed up in Ievoli knowing no one, only with an overwhelming feeling of crazed, high-pressure joy, terrified that my Italian wasn’t good enough, that I would disappoint my grandmother’s legacy, that I’d never be able to reconstruct her life from what she’d left behind so long ago. My terror was unjustified on all counts. I was welcomed with open arms. Total strangers (who turned out to be third cousins, of course–it’s a small village) insisted I live in their home, fed me and drove me around to their favorite sights and introduced me to anyone they could think of who might have helpful information for me. I spent a transformative month absorbing everything I could about their mountaintop lifestyle, their food and folksongs and proverbs and superstitions, and realizing how much of it was already familiar to me, cultural residue of my time with my grandmother. I left knowing so much more about her, and so much more about myself–and knowing I would go back.

Your book is about your family and their struggles. Can you tell me about your experience writing about something so personal?
Although my inspiration for beginning this book was my grandmother–and just as much her sister, my great aunt–it is, in the end, a work of fiction. Because my grandmother was lobotomized when I was five years old, I never felt I understood who she really was as a person before her brain injury, despite the many hundreds of hours I spent with her (she lived to be 98 years old). I tried to write a biography of her many times, but I could never wrap my head around her motives or choices. In the end, I only felt free to write and finish a book inspired by her by inventing a fictional woman to write about instead.

Not only does your book shed light on Italian culture, but it also puts a spotlight on immigration and the struggle that those who emigrated faced (in America and the families back at home). What did you hope to get across writing about this topic?
We are at a pivotal and violent moment in American history. I am especially grieved by the vitriol toward immigrants in the press and among politicians, especially considering the very vast majority of Americans are descendants of immigrants who would not have been allowed legally into the United States under current restrictions. I would dearly love to see us rehumanize the conversation around immigration by remembering our immigrant grandparents and imagining how their–and our–lives would have been altered if they had faced the immigration conditions in place today.

This book is truly a feminist novel. What do you hope readers take away after reading Stella Fortuna about women, specifically women from that era?
Thank you. It would make me happy to know that a reader of my novel was inspired to reappraise their own foremothers–grandmothers, mother, aunts. For those (many) of us with a grandmother who has been written off in family history as mean, boring, aloof, short-tempered, drunk, stingy, or a difficult woman of any specific adjective, I hope the book inspires the question but why? Why was she a difficult woman? Usually, there is a very, very good reason–an untold story of what she went through to survive or protect a loved one.

What was your hardest scene to write?
If you’ve read the book, I bet you can guess. It was so difficult to write that I knew it would be difficult to read, and I struggled mightily over whether to keep it in the text. But the whole reason I wanted to write this book in the first place was to acknowledge the traumas of our foremothers, which are so often buried in order to protect the legacies of our forefathers.

What’s your favorite underappreciated novel?
Oh no, this question is the hardest one here, since when you really love a novel no amount of public appreciation is enough! I’m going to choose The Last Nude by Ellis Avery, set in 1920s Paris, a fictional reimagining of the life of the young American woman who ended up becoming the model for painter Tamara de Lempicka (as well as her lover). It came out in 2011 and I loved it so much I was eagerly awaiting the author’s follow-up–only to find out last spring that she passed away at age 46 of cancer. She was such a powerful and sensitive writer that I hope many others will discover her and feel compelled to spread the word.

What are common traps for aspiring writers?
I think the most fatal flaw among aspiring writers is getting so caught up in the idea of publishing that they drive themselves into despair, when in fact writing should be an art practice that brings them joy. Publishing and everything to do with it is almost entirely out of a writer’s control–it’s a classic situation of not pinning one’s happiness on third parties. Of course, it took me 15 years of working in publishing to feel this zen about it, but I know intimately how the sausage is made. Whatever else is happening in the world, a writer should need to come back to the page and keep striving to attain their highest artistic ability, whether anyone else ever reads it or not. That’s the real goal of writing.

What’s next on the horizon?
I’m working on a novel set in 1960 in Italy, a crime novel about a naive young woman who travels to an isolated village on a charity mission only to realize that she has vastly underestimated the complexities of the locals’ struggles–ranging from emigration to political corruption to the legacy of World War II on a tiny community–and that she’s being pulled into their drama as a sort of amateur detective.

A giant thank-you to Juliet for the interview. You can learn more about her book (and purchase it) here.

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2020: The year of ‘Self’

Happy New Year, everyone!

I’m a little late to my 2020 theme post. Actually, I’ve been later. Did you notice I didn’t post one last year? Neither did I. I don’t even know if I had a theme in 2019, and it sure did prove to be a tough year for me.

Not only are we welcoming a new year—we are also welcoming a new decade. As I reflect on my life the past 10 years, I see tremendous growth: I met my husband, graduated with an undergraduate degree, traveled to places around the world, had many rewarding jobs, got married, got a cat, went to graduate school, won an alumni award, and rediscovered different hobbies like theater and avid reading and writing. Life has been good to me!

If there’s anything that I’ve learned this past decade, and continue to relearn, is my self-worth. It’s something we all have (not to be confused with self-esteem) and I’ve worked hard to combat those negative thoughts.

What I have noticed throughout the past year is that I have been super negative. From looking in the mirror and picking at my face, my body, and overall image, to writing and calling myself incompetent or worthless, I’ve really pushed myself down this year. I feel as if I can never say a good thing about myself. I’d like for that to change in 2020.

Writing a master’s thesis and starting a new job at the same time is extremely stressful, but they are both very positive things. I’ve become so stressed that I’ve been sick since October. I haven’t been eating well, and I haven’t exercised as much. It’s taken a toll. It’s time I start to become more positive and erase those negative thoughts that constantly swirl in my head telling myself that I am “not enough.” As a perfectionist, these thoughts occur often, and it is affecting my overall health and happiness.

In 2015, I learned that there is a key difference between resolutions and habits. Resolutions just don’t work. If you say you want to eat healthy, you aren’t really creating something that is SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based). If you really want to succeed in your goals for the next year, try to form habits.

In 2016, I took it one step further (all inspired by Gretchen Rubin, a happiness expert) and declared a theme for my year, which was Health. In 2017, I created a theme of Improve, and in 2018, my themes were Perform and Travel. This year, my theme is “Self.”

Coffee, Food, Drink, Hottest, Leaves, Winter, Cold

I was trying to find the perfect word to describe what I wanted to achieve this year, and I found that one of my friends has the same goals for 2020, calling 2020 the year of “Self.” So, inspired by her, that will be my theme!

Now, along with a theme, you must create goals that correspond with that theme. Then, you create SMART habits that will help you achieve your goals.

Here are my goals for Self:

GOAL: Become more mindful: Do you every feel as if your mind doesn’t stop? My mind has raced constantly and I cannot concentrate and complete everything on my to-do list.

Habit: To achieve mindfulness I will use my Stop, Breathe, and Think app once a day and meditate throughout the year.

GOAL: Be organized: From my full-time job and writing my master’s thesis to side gigs and a social life, I have found that I have lost touch with my organizational side (a side I took pride in). I want to be able to juggle all my tasks—from my blog and bookstagram posts (follow me @keepitkassual on Instagram) to my work meetings and academic projects.

Habit: Purchase a monthly/daily planner and a bullet journal and regularly update both items once a week, on Sunday mornings. Sundays will be your day to be organized for the week and start the work week recharged and focused.

GOAL: Prioritize fitness: This one is pretty straightforward. When I exercise, I am not only physically healthy, but mentally healthy. I am energized, confident, and can concentrate and complete my other tasks with a positive attitude.

Habit: Go to the gym 2-3 times a week, incorporating regular strength training with cardio (spinning on Saturdays or using the bikes at the gym on weeknights). I also plan on putting the gym in my planner to hold myself accountable and not move it if other things were to arise.

I am hopeful that these goals will be achieved this year! If I am mentally and physically healthy (mindfulness and exercise), I will feel organized and energized to complete my other tasks. I also hope to prioritize writing not only for my thesis and other academic projects and read slowly, enjoying the books I want to read rather than rushing through them. With the help of achieving these goals, I will truly be able to focus on myself—mind, body, and soul.

What about you? What are your “themes” or goals for 2020? Share in the comments below, and wishing you and yours a Happy New Year!