Gold Fame Citrus

gold fame citrus

Riverhead Books, September 29, 2015


Nature refused to offer herself to them. The water, the green, the mammalian, the tropical, the semitropical, the leafy, the verdant, the motherloving citrus, all of it was denied them and had been denied them so long that with each day, each project, it became more and more impossible to conceive of a time when it had not been denied them.

Gold Fame Citrus opens in the Hollywood Hills with a former model, Luz, cavorting in an empty house—a house that despite her moderate success as a model is far beyond her means. Instead its owner has left it unoccupied and now Luz and her boyfriend Ray have moved in and while he skateboards in the empty pool she goes through the massive closets and wears a different jeweled gown every day. It would be oh-so-glamorous if Luz could swim in the pool or lounge for hours in the enormous tub, but in this world there is no water and there hasn’t been for most of Luz’s life. Instead, the starlet who owned the home has probably gotten out and is now living in the Northwest or East where there is water. Unfortunately, those opportunities are gone and they have nowhere to go but empty mansions, drinking their rationed soda and trying to survive. When a night out in Los Angeles brings a wandering toddler into their lives Luz and Ray make the decision to get out of California and try to get into someplace normal. That the only way out is through the desert does not seem like an insurmountable problem until they run out of gas midway through their trip and Ray disappears after setting out alone to get help.

Gold Fame Citrus takes the post-apocalyptic genre into new realms of creativity. The child Luz and Ray decide to take is unusual, given to infrequent bursts of words mixed with gibberish, but when she and Luz are taken in by a community of desert dwellers after Ray’s disappearance she is given the qualities of prophecy fulfillment. The group is led by a dowser, who manages to keep them in water—despite being in the Amargosa, a region of Nevada populated with sand dunes that rise up past the hills and shift nightly with the wind. Everyone has a past and a new purpose and for a time Luz is lulled into their lifestyle. In this way, author Claire Vaye Watkins spins a world composed of scenarios and characters that mimic reality but skew a bit eerie. Only Luz and Ray read as firmly within the sphere of real.

As someone who has spent half her life living in states reliant upon the bounty of the Colorado River novels like Gold Fame Citrus easily invoke a kind of nervous reaction because what happens when it is gone is not so far fetched. The West has been partying on water it does not have for decades and at some point when the party ends it’s going to get ugly fast. Watkins captures that ugliness, not with the over-the-top performance of The Water Knife, another recent drought-induced dystopia novel I enjoyed, but with the same stealth that allows the dunes to shift shapes and uncover previously hidden truths. Her prose generates the kind of insidious feeling of acceptance in the reader that afflicts the water-starved characters. It is surprising then that the ending feels incongruent to the rest of Gold Fame Citrus. In another author’s hands this might be enough to bring down the entire novel but instead I was left appreciative of Watkins’ skill at creating such a richly drawn world, yet questioning why what I had seen and understood was suddenly not there. Which may have been her intent all along.

Under the Udala Trees

under the udala trees

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, September 22, 2015


In Under the Udala Trees Ijeoma is only twelve years old when the civil war in Nigeria begins and her mother must leave her behind while she tries to establish a life for them in the north, a safer part of the country. It is 1968 and they live in Biafra, a southern state that has seceded from the nation. The war has already claimed her father and now her mother asks a teacher and his wife to take her in as a housegirl until she returns. For Ijeoma this decision is one she cannot understand.

No matter how much she tried to convince me of this, I knew the truth all the same: that she was doing it for her own good. At least that it was more for her own good than it was for mine. That she was doing it because she was overwhelmed: by life, by the war, by the thought of having to try and make it without Papa. And she was overwhelmed even by me. Didn’t matter that I myself was overwhelmed.

After several months in her new life, Ijemoa meets a homeless refugee girl her age from another ethnic group—a faction they are fighting against. The couple agrees to take her in despite the girl’s background. Days spent together turn into a deep friendship and as over a year goes by, becomes something more—a first love for both girls. After almost two years this love is discovered and Ijeoma’s angry mother returns and takes her away to their new home.

For readers in modern day America it is difficult to imagine the danger of a same sex relationship in 1970s Nigeria, a country that was (and still is) deeply religious. Ijeoma’s mother views her actions as an abomination and believes with fervent prayer and Bible study Satan can be driven out of her daughter. As Ijeoma gets older and secretly falls in love with another woman, it is not only her mother’s judgment she fears but also Nigerian society as the consequences of being with another woman are dire. When a friend is burned alive and a man from her childhood reappears in her life, Ijeoma’s emotional and mental confusion and fear are so great that she agrees to marry him in hopes of saving herself.

A debut author, Chinelo Okparanta writes Under the Udala Trees with grace and power. She imbues Ijeoma with a vibrancy that wanes as she gets older and the pressure of her mother and her religion builds. After she is married the color seeps from Okparanta’s narrative voice to be replaced with a quiet dispassion. Ijeoma is only 22 years old but feels like a broken woman as she struggles to change this most intimate part of herself. This leaden feel could overwhelm the novel but even as Okparanta juggles the weighty issues of human sexuality, religion, war and famine she shares Nigeria’s rich tradition of folklore and song as harbingers of hope for Ijeoma and her future.

Sadly, the hope for the LGBTQ community that Okparanata creates in Under the Udala Trees can only be found in fiction and laws now are worse than they were in the 1970s. In 2014, Nigeria’s president signed a law criminalizing same-sex relationships. In the largely Muslim northern region, the punishment is death by stoning.

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights

two years

Random House, September 8, 2015


Salman Rushdie is back with Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, a story about the strangeness that resulted from a seam being opened between the world of humans and the world of the supernatural, as embodied by jinns and their female counterparts, jiniri. Of the jiniri there was none more powerful than the Lightning Princess, a spirit who back in the 1100s coupled with a human and produced a prodigious amount of children, all who went on to reproduce throughout the centuries—without knowing that they carried some small superpower of their own. Now, the two worlds are colliding and they, as well as their immortal ancestor, will be called upon to battle with some of the most fearsome and devious creatures of the spirit world.

As the slits between the worlds broke open the mischief of the dark jinn began to spread. At first, before they began to dream of conquest, the jinn had no grand design. They created havoc because it was in their nature. Mischief and its senior sibling, real harm, they foisted without compunction upon the world; for just as the jinn were not real to most human beings, so also human beings were not real to the jinn, who cared nothing for their pain, any more than a child cares for the pain of a stuffed animal she bangs against a wall.

Two Years begins with a hurricane and continues in the same way with plots, characters and places creating a swirling chaos that makes holding one’s attention difficult. Rushdie is one of the most gifted storytellers I’ve ever read but in this novel it feels as if he can’t corral the elements to make them work together. There are simply too many and with a timeline that shifts unexpectedly and doesn’t always seem to add up it means there’s no place to grab hold and become entrenched enough to care about what’s happening.

Diehard Rushdie fans will make it through Two Years simply for the joy of his words and his writing but for anyone not familiar with his work this is going to be one of the more difficult of his novels because he unleashes the full force of his story telling mind and utilizes so many mythological, phantasmagorical beings and events. Or (not to abuse the hurricane metaphor), the struggle to stay afloat in a torrent of words, timelines and characters is exhausting. After picking up and putting down the book over several weeks, when I did get to the final sentence Rushdie once again beautifully encapsulated a tender and wistful sentiment but the effort to get to it may be too much for many readers.

A Window Opens

a window opens

Simon & Schuster, August 2015


It seems that I stumbled into a payload of modern American life fiction. Two weeks ago I reviewed Days of Awe and now I’m back with A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan, a female centric novel that may seem as if it is weighted with an overload of heavy events but it’s not. What it is is real, messy, complicated, and confusing with new jobs, shifting marital responsibilities, kids growing up, and parents getting sick. For the main character, Alice, it’s life and for the reader there is moment after moment of recognition—we’ve all been there and if we had the skill to write with such insight and dry humor we would, but for now, Egan says it far better than we could.

Alice has what seems to be the perfect life—she’s a part-time books editor at a woman’s magazine, her three children are now all in school and her husband is up to be promoted at his law firm. And then, as they do in life, things change. Nicholas not only doesn’t get his promotion but he quits to start his own practice, a move that means Alice will need a fulltime job. Unfortunately, more hours are not possible at the magazine so it is a dream come true when she is offered a job as a content manager for Scroll, a huge online company that wants to redefine brick and mortar bookstores as luxury hideaways for the reader. Everyone at the company is young and hip leaving her a bit out of her element at first, having gotten married and having her first child by the time she was 26.

The young Brooklyn hipsters were an impressive bunch. They answered emails after midnight while tending their chickens and building lamps from spare parts salvaged at flea markets. They baked artisanal macarons and wove their own reusable coffee filters and trained for weekend mud runs upstate.

It is this kind of humor, sharp and a little snarky that runs through A Window Opens and makes it so wonderfully appealing. At the same time Egan uses this humor in softer ways to deal with personal and professional generational differences. There is Alice’s father, who embraces technology to stay in touch but also thinks an immediate reply is necessary and will continue to text until he gets one, or her young boss who thinks an Edible Arrangement is appropriate for condolences.

Egan writes with strength throughout A Window Opens and much of the novel hits home. It is only as Alice enters the home stretch of her dilemma about her job at Scroll that the novel falters. I wanted the focus to stay on the battle between corporate-online-giant-versus-bookstores but Egan veers into the more touchy feely territory of motherhood. An admirable topic to be sure and one that makes for good fiction as well but in the larger context of the story it left me detached. And yet, I can’t say disappointed because Egan’s writing is so delicious. I can only compare my feelings about A Window Opens to a relationship. We met, I fell madly in love, but as the end approached I realized we were simply too different and so we parted friends. Friends who enjoyed each other’s company but without a deep connection.

It’s Monday, September 28th: What Are You Reading?


It’s the first Monday of fall, which means we are heading into prime curl-up-with-a-book weather. At least for me. There is something about cooler days that makes me want to immerse myself in a book. How about you? Is this the beginning of reading weather or do you have fall activities that keep you busy? If you do have time for reading, what are you reading now?

Our house is largely finished and slowly but surely we’re unpacking and turning empty spaces into a home. For me, this means books coming out of cartons, finding homes for those books and spaces where I can read them. Fall is also the time of year for the biggest new releases from the publishers although that seems to be less so this year. However, I am ¾ of the way through one of those books and it is the reason why I only have one book to share this week—because this chunkster weighs in at 944 pages. MIt’s Garth Hallberg’s debut novel City on Fire. Whether it’s worth the investment of time for readers or the almost 2 million dollars Knopf paid for it in a bidding war remains to be seen. I will say this, from my perspective at 458 pages in, the answer is…doubtful. But who knows maybe there is something right up ahead that will change my mind. If so, it better happen soon because I’m close to setting it aside and moving on to something else.

In other media here’s what I’m up to this week:

Television: Borderline binge watching The Newsroom. If you’re an Aaron Sorkin fan and you have HBO access then you you have no reason not to fall face first into another of his series with crackling-smart, fast paced dialogue and his incisive take on an American institution.


Magazines: I’m including this one this week because it is the month for the fall fashion issue of the major magazines. Also known as the time of year when my postal carrier gets all passive-aggressive about the weight of said magazines by scrunching them up and jamming them into our mailbox even though they fit without being bent in half. This is what I look at when I want to read without having to think about writing a review. What I’ve learned so far is that this fall in fashion feels about as exciting as what’s happening in books. Blahsville.


This is what remains of my September magazine reading. The biggies like Vogue and InStyle have already been devoured.

Tell me what’s on your radar this Monday? And do you look forward to fall as a time for reading? Or are you a seasonless reader? 

Fear of Dying: A Novel

fear of dying

St. Martin’s Press, September 8, 2015


It has been so long since I read Fear of Flying that I can’t claim to remember anything about it, except being left with the feeling ‘wow, that is one gutsy author’, writing about sex and relationships in a way I’d never read before. The author was Erica Jong and 40 years after that novel she is back with Fear of Dying, her new fictional take on sex, relationships, and the more depressing reality: dying. Vanessa is a beautiful actress who owns her sexuality and attitude towards men and relationships. At 60 she is faced with the decline of her parents’ health and that of her husband who is in his 80s. Her response to the encroachment of death is to place an ad on, a website for sexual encounters with no consequences. This foray into the easy anonymity of the internet for sex proves to be confusing and not so easy. Jong brings back Fear of Flying’s heroine, Isadora Wing, as Vanessa’s best friend and purveyor of wisdom. A writer whose work was the basis for the site now has a different take on sex that she wisely shares with Vanessa:

It’s impossible to generalize about sexuality—even one’s own. The only way to keep it pure is to keep it unspoken. Keep it out of words. Words are not where sexuality lives. Without privacy, there is no ecstasy—which leaves out the Internet, the press.

While the loss of desire and sex in her marriage provides the surface motivation for Vanessa’s actions it is the fragility of life that is the true source of her fears and what causes her frenetic ping-ponging between the determination to launch into an affair and the inability to do so. As her husband recovers from a near fatal aneurysm and subsequent heart attack she and her sisters are dealing with their parents slow deterioration. Mortality is foremost in Vanessa’s mind. Jong’s prose is strongest in Vanessa’s musings about her parents as she visits them, cares for them, and watches them slip into a lingering half-life before death. For anyone over the age of 40 she puts voice to the thoughts that strike us all and does so with elegiac tenderness.

To revisit a seminal piece of work forty years later is no small feat and Jong deserves credit for doing so and for being able to reframe her original novel for modern times. For the most part I found Fear of Dying to be poignant but it was largely the parts that dealt with the slow pain of the dying process. Where Jong stumbles is in Vanessa’s feelings about her marriage and her own desirability. It may have been to mimic the uncertainty of age but her conflicting feelings about her husband as either the ‘love of her life’ or a somewhat mediocre lover and workaholic became confusing and ultimately, lost me. Just as the encounters Vanessa initially professes to want lack any intimacy, so too Fear of Dying makes only a partial connection.

Did You Ever Have a Family

did you ever have a family

Simon & Schuster/Scout Press, September 1, 2015


If you take a major event and separate out all the people involved in that event—whether responsible for it or impacted by it, you get wildly divergent impressions about what actually happened. This is what author Bill Clegg does so soulfully in his debut novel, Did You Ever Have a Family. June’s daughter Lolly, her daughter’s fiancé, June’s ex-husband, and her boyfriend are all gathered in her home to celebrate Lolly’s wedding the following day until this happiest of occasions ends before it begins with everyone but June dead. This is not a mystery novel. The hows and whys of what happened are secondary to the imprint left on each of the characters and how they stagger through the weeks and months after the tragedy.

Clegg arranges his narrators in a way that feels as organic and simple as writing about objects as they catch one’s eye and then moving on, but there is nothing simple about Did You Ever Have a Family. Each narrator has their own chapter, using it in the present and in the past, which is both a help and a hindrance in the beginning. Until the entire puzzle is framed it is hard to know how each of these voices relates to the other. It is only once the pieces begin to fall into place that the awful, sorrowful beauty of the novel takes shape. We see that June’s relationship to her daughter is complicated by choices she made in her marriage. Her new boyfriend is almost half her age and has spent much of his life maligned because of his race. His mother, although a beauty, has never found her looks to be anything but trouble. When June’s response to the loss of all her loved ones is to take off across country, these stories link into a chain with a whole other cast of people that encounter her in her travels.

What struck me most in Did You Ever Have a Family is how perfectly composed it is. Far from being random objects, every story, every person in the novel is integral to the whole. They may not come together cleanly in our initial observations but as Clegg lets their narratives flow without judgment so too are we coaxed into releasing our own preconceived notions. In doing so, we become open to the complexity and far reaching impact of even the smallest of decisions. Clegg does not provide the glib panacea to death and grief we might desire, but instead leaves us with what we really need: understanding.

Rich White Dudes: Mini-Reviews

I’m back again with two more mini-reviews on a theme. Last time was mysteries that had me going until the end but today is not all that mysterious, it’s rich white dudes. Which, apparently, there are fair amounts of in recent fiction.


rich white dudesThe Fall of Princes is author Robert Goolrick’s look at the brash and bullish world of Wall Street in the 1980s. An interesting time to be sure but one I feel like I’ve already covered in my reading with Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities—which isn’t to say I only read one novel about a time period or event—an outright lie given my fondness for the Tudors and World War II. From another perspective, maybe, but the narrator is a Wall Street hotshot and Goolrick’s macho prose, peppered with declarative sentences and enough testosterone to leach off the page doesn’t interest me anymore. It’s a time and a place we learned nothing from so that in 2008 the same expensively suited, stupidly wealthy men got to do it all over again and this time, bring down our economy. This one rubbed me so wrong I was not able to finish it but Goolrick’s brash prose and the narrator’s foibles, as well as the sybaritic high life of the era, mean that this is a novel that could be appealing to a number of readers. If you’re one of them read it and stop back to let me know what you thought!

rich white dudesA Good Family chronicles the lives of the Brunson family: the powerful patriarch, Henry, whose personal and professional successes have segued into the unease of middle age only to be assuaged by leaving his family and embracing nightclubs, young women and Viagra—in that order; his wife, Julia, who is coping with her husband’s departure by popping Zoloft like Pez; their oldest son, Charles, who was his father’s pride and joy and heir apparent in the business world until he quit his job and enlisted; and Barkley, the youngest son who perfectly fills his slot as a pretentious, entitled young man who is certain that his sci-fi stories are going to make him the next Asimov.

I started A Good Family right after The Fall of Princes so in the name of honesty, I’ll acknowledge that it was bad timing for me regarding fiction about rich white men who have spent their lives plundering only to be beset by fears of dying. This is not a protagonist class that piques my interest. Add to that the abundance of family stereotypes (philandering dad, checked-out mother, loser gamer brother) and I’m left wondering when/if originality is going to make an appearance. Having said that, this novel has garnered a lot of praise and while the story did not appeal to me the writing is strong. If A Good Family had been about Charlie and his struggles to re-integrate into his life after a tour of duty in Afghanistan I would have stuck with the book because in those chapters Fassnacht explores issues of profound importance in modern day America. Unfortunately, if only one out of four in an ensemble cast has a compelling story it’s not enough to keep me turning pages.


A quick note: I’ve reached the point in my reading life where I give a book only so much time and if it hasn’t won me over, I’ll stop reading it before the end. I never used to do this but the credo “life is too short” has made its way into my bookish life. There are simply too many other things out there waiting to be read to stick with something that doesn’t work for me. 

How about you? Do you power through every book no matter what? Or do you bail when they bore? If you do bail, what’s the deciding factor?

The Marriage of Opposites

the marriage of opposites

Simon & Schuster, August 2015

Beginning in 1795 on the island of St. Thomas The Marriage of Opposites is Alice Hoffman’s newest novel. It is the story of Rachel, a strong willed and intelligent woman, bound by the confines of the times but with dreams of traveling far away to Paris and living a life on her own terms. As the daughter of a wealthy Jewish businessman she is brought up as young ladies were but also, thanks to her father’s belief in her intelligence, she is taught math and accounting in order that she understand the family business even if she will not be allowed to inherit it. It is a bitter disappointment then when she is 22 and that same father marries her off to a much older widower with three children in order to save the family’s store. When her husband dies and his nephew comes to the island to settle his estate and take over the business they fall in love and marry, much to the disapproval of the island’s Jewish community. That Frédéric is eight years younger than Rachel turns that disapproval into a shunning leaves them isolated from their friends and neighbors. Still, they find happiness in their marriage and in their children, one of whom is as headstrong and creative as Rachel herself. He is her favorite child and her greatest trial.

As is Hoffman’s habit, the bones of The Marriage of Opposites are fact. In this case, Rachel is the mother of Camille Pissaro, one of France’s greatest Impressionist painters. Hoffman weaves his path in with Rachel’s as he too struggles against his parents’ expectations. He rebels against Rachel and finds a confidante in her best friend, Jestine, the daughter of Rachel’s family cook. She has her own sorrows and secrets and shares them with him, expanding the novel from the stories of one family to many. When Camille finally escapes to Paris he vows to find answers for Jestine and, possibly, for himself.

Hoffman has the most beautiful ability to pace a novel in the way that humans interact. There are secrets, lots of them, in The Marriage of Opposites, but in the characters’ conversations they take years and even decades to come out, even between the closest of friends. They start and stop, are partially revealed and then left alone. It isn’t until the novel’s final pages that the husk of secrecy is taken down to its kernel and the truth of Rachel’s family history is revealed. This is how real life moves so it is a sweet counterpoint to the magical realism that suffuses Hoffman’s work. In The Marriage of Opposites it is the witchy Rachel with her long dark hair and dark eyes who attracts the spirits and treats them with the honor they deserve, so they respect her in turn. At the same time, this woman so attuned to the supernatural world cannot show any understanding to her son when he falls in love, despite having been reviled for her own choice in love.

Using conundrums, misunderstandings, social mores, and the inexplicable nature of the human heart Hoffman once again creates a novel richly populated with complex characters and places so finely drawn they can be felt. In one of my favorite Hoffman novels The Dovekeepers, it is the harsh life of the arid desert that is so well rendered the dust seems to float off the page but now it is the lush vibrancy of St. Thomas that welcomes the reader. But while the location is an idyllic one it is the people in The Marriage of Opposites who are the main attraction and who provide the great escape.

Fates and Furies: A Novel

fates and furies

Riverhead Books, September 15, 2015


Hello, dear Reader! It’s Monday and I know for a lot of you it’s a busy day, getting back into the weekly grind, so if you’re on the run and don’t have time for a full review, here’s what you need to know: read Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. If you’re a metrics kind of person I’ll make it even easier—I give it 5 stars. Now go. Go and buy it, check it out at the library, whatever you need to do and get back to work, the kids, the exercise bike. If you have the time, settle in and I’ll tell you all about this astonishing book.

You could say it’s the story of a marriage but that’s like saying World War II was a disagreement. A lot of fiction is about marriage, which means to make it memorable you’re going to have to turn it on its head and shake it hard, both of which Groff does. The novel is neatly bisected between Lancelot (aka Lotto), the husband, in the Fates chapters and the wife, Mathilde, in the Furies. By the end of Lotto’s life I was questioning whether I would manage 3 stars for this book, because while he achieved professional success Lotto himself is not a character who held my interest. He is a creative alpha male and everything had to circle around him. Grand, golden, glorious—gracious in the giving but always taking. A man who could never be filled with enough praise or attention from others and yet, from the moment he saw Mathilde at a college party she was enough. He had many a weakness that charismatic men have but throughout their marriage there was never a moment when he strayed or when he even contemplated leaving her. She was the prize. In an essential way she eased the emptiness inside him.

No, Groff does not take the easy route by making Fates and Furies a novel of marital betrayal. It’s something much deeper, enough to make adultery seem an aside, nothing worthy of much attention. Because where Lotto is all surface and shine, Mathilde is deep and still. She is, at once, everything Lotto believes her to be, and not. Her childhood, her teen years, her origins, none of them are as he knows them for she has buried it all, figuratively and literally. And like the much-vaunted phoenix she has risen from the ashes as the ultimate helpmeet. She too, is golden but her blonde is the icy cool of Nordic waters, sleek and mirror-like. Lotto sees nothing more in her than his best self reflected back at him. She has no other aspirations than to be his muse, to take care of anything in their life that takes away from his art. There are times early in their marriage when the veneer of her calm and abiding nature cracks and Lotto sees that

Mathilde was never unkind but she wore her passive aggression like a second skin. 

Beyond that, Mathilde subsumes herself to her husband. But, in so far as she rescues him, he rescues her and that is the foundation upon which their marriage firmly rests. If it is true that

Great swaths of her life were white space to her husband. What she did not tell him balanced neatly with what she did. Still, there are untruths made of words and untruths made of silences, and Mathilde had only ever lied to Lotto in what she never said.

then that is only what is necessary for a marriage that lasted decades, until death do us part.

Groff’s achievement in this book is stunning. The center of Fates and Furies is a marriage but it is in exploring what lies outside that center, outside the bonds of matrimony and inside the eye of the beholder, that Groff’s prose simultaneously reveals and obscures. Fates and Furies is a literary dance of the seven veils and Groff is the brilliant, cunning Salome who holds us in thrall; as drunk on her incandescent prose as Herod was on the glimpses of the young Salome’s flesh. And, in the same way Salome extracts a terrible price for her dance, so Groff strips away the conventional beliefs about knowing everything about those we love and leaves us with the bargains, obfuscations, and shadows of the truth, all employed in the name of love.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...