Book Review of Avni Doshi's Burnt Sugar
Set in Pune in the west-central Maharashtra state in India, Burnt Sugar is primarily an exploration of a dysfunctional mother/daughter relationship. Burnt Sugar is told from the viewpoint of Anantara. who we learn had an unconventional and neglected childhood.
In her youth Anantara's mother, Tara, had left her husband to join an ashram. Whilst Tara took Anantara with her she largely ignored her as she embarked upon a wild and unsatisfactory love affair with the ashram leader, After later being rejected and leaving the ashram, there followed a stint as a beggar, and a further unconventional and unsatisfactory love affair with the waiter/writer Reza.
The reader joins the story when Tara is in middle-age but suffering from early onset dementia. Anantara is married to Dilip, (an immigrant reluctant to return home to America), The story is based on an exploration of Anantara's emotions and own unravelling sense of self. The ties of Tara and Anantara are, it seems impossible to break, as the lines between love and hate merge.
The unravelling sense of self seems to be reflected through the first person narrative. Conventionality is challenged and rejected. Dysfunctionality is presented as normality; The narrator uses an understated matter-of fact tone to reveal complex and shocking emotions. The reader is drawn into exploring the unravelling not only of Tara's mind, but also that of Anantara.
An acerbic wit is used to ponder big life questions which encourage an engaged reader to confront truth in all its ugliness. Burnt Sugar is raw and challenging. It reveals the cruelty of life in a deceptively readable manner.
Book Discussion Questions on Avni Doshi's Burnt Sugar
Bookclub Questions on Avni Doshi's Burnt Sugar (if you haven't read the book!)
Personal Response to Avni Doshi's Burnt Sugar
This is a great debut novel from Dubai based author Avni Doshi. After reading the first few pages I thought it was going to be a topical and timely exploration of caring for a parent with dementia. It had pleased me that such an important topic had been chosen for a Booker Prize longlisted text. How wrong I'd been in this oversimplification. Burnt Sugar is a story of love and hate, betrayal, forgiveness and revenge. It takes the emotions of a dysfunctional familial relationship and takes the exploration of mother/daughter relationships to extremities.
Book Review of Colson Whitehead's The Nickel Boys
My husband enjoys fiction with well-developed characters and a defined 'plot' line. The largely linear narrative of The Nickel Boys, at least for the first two sections of the story with a definite progression of events and wonderful characterisation of the protagonist, Elwood Corey, meant that I didn't hesitate to recommend The Nickel Boys to him. This isn't something I'd do lightly. My husband reads more non-fiction than fiction so is very choosy about the fiction that he invests in. The Nickel Boys is worth the investment.
The Nickel Boys traces the story of young Elwood through his childhood into his teens, growing up in Talahassee. Although abandoned by his parents, he is loved by his grandmother, and, inspired by the speeches of Martin Luther King, is determined to improve his own life circumstances.
As Elwood leaves home for a college education he, through no fault of his own, finds himself wrongfully sent to a reform school. Once there Elwood suffers untold and unimaginable horrors, but is determined to not only escape the miseries he and the other boys endure daily, but to continue to hold close the ideals and beliefs of Martin Luther King. During a spell in solitary confinement he struggles over King's equation "Be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer..." It is King's beliefs and values that underpin the novel.
On the book jacket of The Nickel Boys Alex Preston, of the Observer states that The Nickel Boys "opens up thrilling new vistas for the form of the novel itself." I began the review by suggesting that the book follows a traditional narrative structure. When reading the text Preston's comment initially surprised me. Although the book is great, it wasn't I felt ground breaking, stylistically. It was only when I had read to the very end that I realised what an absolute tour de force it is both in structure and style. The final chapters are stunning demonstrating tremendous story writing skill as the heart wrenching conclusion to events is revealed. As in The Underground Railroad Whitehead shows it is clearly not his purpose to spare the reader's feelings..
Book Discussion Questions on Colson Whitehead's The Nickel Boys
Did you anticipate the twist at the end of the book?
The injustices Elwood's grandmother has faced throughout her life means that, whilst she acts very bravely, she actually lives in constant fear. How does this manifest itself in the way that she raises Elwood?
Revisit the different sections of the story. Discuss how and when the narrative voice changes.
Appearance vs reality is a theme that dominates the story. Discuss when and how the theme is explored.
Why did Turner/Elwood refuse to be photographed promoting his business in front of his new offices on 125th Street?
Turner was reulctant to share Elwood's written account of what really happened in the school, but ultimately did so. Why?
What messages of hope are there in the story The Nickel Boys?
Discuss the signficance of the final line of the The Nickel Boys "He was hungry and they served all day, and that was enough."
In chapter twelve of The Nickel Boys the narrator states that there are four ways out of Nickel. Of the four tehcniques which would you choose?
The Nickel Boys illustrates the horrendous levels of racial abuse that openly existed in America during the 1950s and onwards. Moving forward, how helpful was the text for you in understanding the current "Black Lives Matter' movement?
In The Nickel Boys the weak prey upon the helpless. The level of barbarity and pre-meditated cruelty of characters such as Spencer and Hardee is wicked. Are some people simply born evil or are the reasons behind their cruelty more complex? Is it possible to, if not pardon, at least explain the reasons for their barbaric behaviour?
Did you find the ending of the book satisfactory? Why or why not?
Who is the bravest charcter in The Nickel Boys? Discuss.
We learn that Elwood had been abandoned by his mother and father who left him and went to California when he was six. Elwood's father had fought loyally for America but became embittered once he returned to civilian life where he lived in a town where black men in uniform were frequently lynched. Elwood's mother was described by his grandmother (her own mother) as weak. How do you view Elwood's parents?
What lasting impression has reading The Nickel Boys had on you?
Bookclub Questions on Colson Whitehead's The Nickel Boys (if you haven't read the book!)
Whilst The Nickel Boys is a work of fiction it is inspired by the real events that occurred in The Dozier School for Boys. Discuss whether you find fiction a useful means of understanding real life events. Do you have examples of other fiction books which have helped you understand real life injustices?
Discuss how you think you would respond if faced with utter adversity.
Discuss how you have been affected by the Black Lives Matter movement. How has fiction, for example The Underground Railroad, or Kiley Reid's Such a Fun Age helped you understand racism from both a historical and current context?
Elwood only owns one record which plays the sermons of Martin Luther King given at Zion Hill. What speeches have you heard that have inspired your life? Or, what music have you repeatedly played that has lasting significance for you?
Personal Response to The Nickel Boys
When I read The Nickel Boys I hadn't realised that it had won the Pulitzer Prize this year. I was suprised, especially as it is was only 2017 that Colson Whitehead took the same prize for The Underground Railroad. I was pleased though. I enjoyed it and thought it a thoroughly worthy winner.
I particularly enjoyed that The Nickel Boys was historical fiction, but set relatively recently. It raised that classic question about how we continue to be blind to current injustices. It is difficult to comprehend how the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida on which the fictional Nickel was loosely based existed right up until 2011. A sobering thought. Having now read The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys I will certainly read more of Whitehead's books. I will also be investigating the Pulitzer further; it is a prize I know little about and I'm curious what criteria the shortlisted titles must meet to be considered for it.
Book Review of Kiley Reid's Such A Fun Age
As a rule I wouldn’t comment on a book cover, but the sleeve of Such a Fun Age really pulled me in. Jojo Moyes’ comment “I couldn’t put this down” promoted its accessibility. In addition, the positive comments from both the Times “A new literary star” and the Guardian “A firecracker debut” added to its appeal. The story Such a Fun Age lived up to its promise. I wasn’t disappointed and hope this reaches the Booker prize shortlist.
In Such a Fun Age the issues of what it means to be racist, who is and isn’t racist, why and how this might manifest itself is tied up in an exploration of messy real life. As such it is a fascinating read.
Context is significant in Such a Fun Age and at a time when the ‘Black Lives Matters’ campaign is making readers like myself question our own self-awareness regarding white privilege, I found myself being quite self-conscious as I read along. Normally I would simply immerse myself in a text and respond to it naturally and with confidence in my views regarding character, theme and plot.
When reading Such a Fun Age, however, I was questioning my own responses as someone experiencing ‘white privilege’ and trying to be reflective of this as I read from the perspectives of the key characters. Interestingly, Kiley Reid actually refers to raising awareness about racism in our current society within the story itself.
Regarding the plot: in brief, the main protagonist Emira is a black twenty something graduate, living in Philadelphia who is moderately disenchanted with her life. Working as a babysitter she feels left behind, earns little, but knows she is great at her job. She has a firm affection for Briar, the toddler for whom she cares, Briar is the daughter of seemingly successful and woke Peter and Alix. They are not necessarily quite all they seem and one evening they call Emira and ask her to take Briar to the mall following a disturbance in their own home. This leads to Emira being accused of kidnapping Briar and thus unleashes an unexpected chain of events during which the reader can reflect upon and challenge aspects of all the key players’ motivations and beliefs. Things come to a head when we learn that Emira’s current white boyfriend Kelley had been Alix’s first love. The relationship had ended badly with Alix being presented as racist during her time in school.
Part of the reason for responding to Such a Fun Age with some element of self-doubt is that it doesn't present characters that are archetypally villains or heroes, so is constantly demonstrating that we can all make errors of judgement whilst not being fundamentally ‘bad people’. Each character has flaws and all have some redeemable characteristics. Race is the central theme explored in the text and yet, at the same time, it almost isn’t. It is as if ‘colour’ is an external theme to which the characters all react. In Renni Eddo-Lodge's Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People about Race she talks about how it is only white privileged people who make the claim of everyone being at the same starting point in life. Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age proves the validity of this claim. The text is continuously presenting the actions of the different characters within a justified framework which seems legitimate to themselves. It is for the reader to either accept or refute the legitimacy of that claim. The central example of this is when Alix loses her virginity to Kelley, but almost immediately afterwards calls the police when his black friends arrive at her house. This can seem legitimate to her, but of course her narration of the events is just one narrative and not necessarily a reliable one.
Book Discussion Questions on Such a Fun Age
thebookerprizes.com/fiction/2020To what extent is it possible to read Such a Fun Age without being self reflective about how your own race, wealth or class have influenced your own life?
What are the main flaws in Alix’s character?
What are your views on why Kelly and Emira don’t reconcile once he is proven to be basically ‘right’ about Alix?
It is when Emira realises that she is the only one of her friendship group who is still on their parents’ health insurance policy that she reflects on her lack of financial and career success. She knows that she is being ‘left behind’ yet doesn’t seem to be able to quite do anything about her prospects. What are the factors stopping her becoming richer and more successful?
Which of the characters in the book do you most identify with and why?
What are the reasons for Alix’s ‘friendship crush’ on Emira?
In the story Such a Fun Age we see the significance of ‘first love’ and how it can affect a person’s whole future. We also see how unreliable personal narrations of first love can be. How much, if any sympathy do you have for Alex as a teenager? Can she be forgiven for calling the police?
In the story, Kiley Reid comments that Kelly gravitated towards black cool kids at school and that he always has black girlfriends. Reid has Emira express how grown up she feels having an older white boyfriend who doesn’t buy his furniture from Ikea. Discuss what this reveals about Emir, Kelley and society at large.
Both Kelly and Alix wanted to share the video of the racist incident involving Emira and Briar in the grocery store even though Emira doesn’t want to. What are their motivations for wanting to put the video on social media?
Both Alix and Emira rely a lot on their female friends for companionship and validation of their life choices and decisions. Do you think their friends let them down at any point in this story?
Is it possible to argue that Alix truly believed that she was genuinely helping Emira by sharing the video clip?
Peter is probably the least ‘fleshed out’ character in this story. Discuss whether any significance should be attached to this.
Discuss the importance of the final line of Such a Fun Age “Emira would carry the dread that if Briar ever struggled to find herself, she’d probably just find someone to do it for her.”
Kelly and Alix both assume that they know what is best for Emira, regarding how she should respond to the racist attack on her in the shopping centre. Discuss.
The exploration of racism and prejudice are dominant themes in Such A Fun Age. What other issues are also significant? How do they manifest themselves?
Discuss what you understand by the term ‘white privilege’. Review how it is central in the story Such a Fun Age.
Can Alix’s growing awareness of her own ‘white privilege’ be used as any kind of excuse for her errors of judgement?
Alix accuses Kelly of being racist. Is he? Discuss.
Would you like to see this book win the 2020 Booker Prize? Why or why not?
Bookclub Questions on Kiley Reid's Such a Fun Age (If you haven't read the book!)
The initial incident in the shopping centre where Emira was accused of kidnapping Briar was the result of a suspicious white shopper who jumped to outrageous conclusions based on various prejudices and assumptions surrounding not only race, but also class, wealth and appearance. Do you have incidents of friends being similarly wrongly judged simply because they are not white and/or other assumptions? Alternatively are you prepared to admit instances of when you have jumped to conclusions based on prejudices and assumptions that you may have?
How aware are you of what ‘white privilege’ is and what it means?
When writing these questions I felt very self-conscious, as a white middle-aged woman, about whether they are appropriate or whether I am revealing any unconscious prejudice that I might have. I would hope I am not racist, yet not having experienced racism myself makes me cautious about commenting about it. How comfortable are you discussing issues of race?
Have you read Why I’m No Longer Talking About Race? Did you find it a valuable read? Why or why not?
How important is an individual’s nationality or cultural background when interpreting text?
Further Comment on Kiley Reid's Such a Fun Age
Whilst the issues explored in Such a Fun Age can never simply stop mattering and Emira’s life journey doesn’t suddenly stop, the story does have a definite end. Loose ends are, by and large, tied up which is quite pleasing for the reader. On one level, Such a Fun Age is an easy read. The writing style is enjoyable and has a light touch that pulls the reader in. On a different level though the book is a challenge and raises as many questions as it answers. The complexity of this really appealed to me.