It’s Monday, May 25th: What are You Reading?

what are you reading

I decided that since so many of you would be enjoying one more day in a long weekend, it might be nice to check in and ask: what are you reading? Because even though it is probably beautiful and sunny where you are, you are reading on your day off, right? Right?!

It’s OK, I’m probably not reading right now either. I’m most likely working on putting a home back together or trying to get organized to move. However, I’m happy to report that the reading slump I went through earlier in the year is over and I’ve read a lot of great things recently, including Neverhome which was a 5 star book for me. Here’s what I’m reading this Monday and what lies ahead this week.

 

Monday

 

It has been so long since I’ve read Judy Blume but who can ever forget Are You There God? ? The first time I read a book where I thought, ‘this person knows me’ and at that age, that’s what matters most. Imagine my excitement to see that her latest, In the Unlikely Event,  is for adults. I’m really hoping this is a good as it looks.

 

 

 


monday

 

 

All the Birds, Singing came out last year and while I saw a lot of great reviews about I didn’t get a chance to read it. Now it is going to be discussed at The Socratic Salon on June 10th so I thought the time was right to try it. Especially based on the reviews of blogger I trust like River City Reading,  and The Steadfast Reader

 

 


 

what are yo ureading

 

 

I don’t know much about The Unfortunates but the blurb sounded like it might be the kind of light reading to kick off the summer.

 

 

 

 

That’s it for me. It’s Monday: what are you reading?!

Housebreaking: A Novel

housebreaking

Simon & Schuster, May 12, 2015

 

Benjamin is forty-four and finds himself kicked out of his house and life by his wife for cheating on her yet again. With nowhere to go he moves in with his father only to discover that his high school crush Audrey just moved in down the street with her husband and their teenage daughter. Because nothing is ever as it seems Benjamin’s not-so-subtle efforts to reconnect pay off. This is just one aspect of the many phases of relationships found in Housebreaking by author Dan Pope. In six parts Pope carefully splices together the lives of Benjamin, Audrey, their spouses and families, beginning in the summer of 2007 and ending with Thanksgiving of that year when not everyone is thankful.

In working with a chronological format but through multiple characters Pope walks us through the same events repeatedly but with a different set of eyes each time. That he does so without being clumsy or repetitive gives Housebreaking a panoramic feel. On a more personal level it is like slipping into each character’s skin then shedding it to move onto the next. It is an intimate style and works well as does the majority of the novel. There is only one character and plot line that does not work. Audrey’s husband, Andrew is a high-powered lawyer who defends corporations against employment discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuits. Pope chooses to have him fall prey to a situation that is completely implausible for someone whose career has been spent ferreting out secrets and lies. On a smaller scale this might go unnoticed within the story, but no one would make mistakes of this caliber at Andrew’s level.

Despite the Andrew scenario being a fail for me, Housebreaking has so much else going for it. Pope approaches the conflicts and internal mayhem of midlife with finesse—the ennui, confusion, and crises—and yet, doesn’t stop there. He imbues the novel with the same level of empathy and emotional immediacy for a number of life stages, from the teenage angst of changing schools to the later-in-life struggles with ill-health and the subsequent loss of independence. With one exception Housebreaking is a realistic novel about the messiness of life and how we each try to clean it up.

Luckiest Girl Alive

luckiest girl alive

Simon & Schuster, May 12, 2015

 

Ani FaNelli opens Luckiest Girl Alive by being just that: Perfect hair, perfect body, perfect fiancé and the perfect prima donna attitude to go with it all. Except that underneath, Ani is really TifAni from the far end of Main Line Philadelphia—Main Line being where the upper echelon of Philadelphia society lives and TifAni does not. However, her mother is determined her daughter get into the best private school there and with much financial finagling she does, where, despite her best efforts, she only hovers at the edges of the cool kids group much in the same way her zipcode hovers at the edge of Philadelphia respectability. Not too surprisingly, this desire leads TifAni into making one of those teenage girl dangerous decisions that impacts not only her but eventually everyone at her school. Hence the new persona a decade later—TifAni is gone and in her place is Ani who seems to have it all, but does she?

It used to thrill me when a women like this assumed I was cut from her cloth. It meant my mask was that convincing. When did that assumption start to strum the rage? 

Author Jessica Knoll moves well between the high school spheres of snarky fun turning into bullying. Her characters nip with puppy sharp teeth at what is kind-of-all-right and what is oh-so-wrong. In her desperate need to be one of the cool kids TifAni ends up being abused and follows the party line of ‘it’s all right because I just drank too much and don’t really remember what happened’ in order to maintain the status quo. These are the parts of Luckiest Girl Alive that hurt; the molten lava levels of pain and rage that exist beneath the exterior of a successful young woman who has it all. Has it all but still hates herself, blames herself for what happened in a rich boy’s house one night with three of his friends, no parents and a lot of booze and drugs. That this event turns into something larger feels unnecessary. What happened to Ani is enough so bringing in more tragedy almost feels like diminishing what she went through. It is the only choice Knoll makes that didn’t ring true and feels a bit gratuitous.

Luckiest Girl Alive captures the hyper-kinetic world of teenage life and so resembles the novels of Megan Abbott—novels that are itchy with teenage girl drama—but Knoll goes well beyond that with a broad spectrum of characters, each with their own psychological issues and needs. Some are amusing stereotypes while others speak more to the pain many experience. The pinnacle of these is Ani with a superficial oh-so-chic life and attitude that covers a deep reservoir of psychological damage. Can she find a way to really become the luckiest girl alive?

Neverhome: A Novel

neverhome

Little, Brown and Company, May 19, 2015

 

There comes a point in a reading life where, short of science fiction, it gets harder to be surprised by a novel’s premise but I have never before read a Civil War novel where the protagonist is a female… soldier. I’ve seen articles and photos of real-life women who fought disguised as men but had not come across it translated into fiction. How marvelous then that an author has done so and with such strength as Laird Hunt in his novel Neverhome.

Neverhome is one of those novels that once started there is no going back; where it is difficult to disengage and return to the present day. Hunt so thoroughly and completely captures a time and place you inhabit it with the characters. His protagonist is Constance Thompson, a woman who goes off to fight in the Union Army disguised as a man, leaving her husband behind to tend their farm in Indiana. For two years she lives as man, going by the first name Ash. She is a highly valued member of her regiment for her shooting skills and stamina but after she is wounded near Richmond and separated from her unit she is taken in by a Confederate woman who, in healing her wounds, discovers her secret and later turns her in as a spy. After she is locked up in an insane asylum her only goal is to escape and get home.

I told him I knew a thing or two about men brought to the brink and hard pushed, that I had stood alongside them many a time, that I could not hold the ugliness of war against them any more than I could against myself or those I considered my friends.

There is not a single misstep in Neverhome. Hunt sets every word in place perfectly with no gaps or cracks, each sentence dovetailing perfectly into the next and all with the cadence and parlance of the times. Told from Constance’s point of view, it reads like a journal; a diary written by a woman seeing the war as a man, in its brutal and brutish nature, the filth and terror dispelling any of the romanticism that might still cling to the legends of the War Between the States. And in this way, she reveals herself to be more Ash than Constance, more alive as she battles on the field and off, propelled by a part of herself she knew existed but had never tested. The primal nature of Ash guides her until the novel’s final pages when for the first time the she who was and the he who is collide and take away the things she loves most.

Diamond Head

diamond head

Harper, April 2015

 

Diamond Head is an ambitious debut from the school of Amy Tan multi-generational Chinese family drama. The Leongs are the premier family living on Oahu where they settle after leaving China prior to World War I. First time novelist Cecily Wong does an admirable job portraying the inter-generational relationships amongst the Leong women. She captures those that reflect the racial heritage and also strikes deep to the not-so-simple mother-daughter dynamic. The key voices in the novel are Lin, the matriarch, her daughter-in-law Amy and her daughter, Theresa. For Lin, there is such gratitude to her husband for rescuing her from a life of abuse for being a lowly daughter that she never questions any of his other actions. Amy has grown up in poverty with a mother who married rashly only to discover that her husband had no intention of ever providing for their growing family. This leaves her to make her marital choice with security as the paramount concern despite having being in love with another man. For eighteen-year-old Theresa, despite being the granddaughter of one of the island’s wealthiest men, life is confusing.

…even at twelve years old, I began to understand that there was something very strange about my family. That there were things meant to be held up for the attention of the world, things to be admired from the outside, and things that were better left in the darkness…

The relationships and historical aspects of Diamond Head make for fascinating reading so it is curious that Wong chooses to introduce a murder 2/3 of the way through the book. From this point on, the drama increases exponentially as secret after secret is revealed. This plethora of plot points feels unnecessary element and throws the pacing off. And while Wong allows each narrator (Lin, Amy, Theresa) to speak in the 1st person she shifts to the 3rd person for the present day; going from the intimacy of one to the more subjective of the other is jarring, especially further into the story. These seismic shifts in an otherwise engrossing generational character study work against the novel’s natural flow and while they don’t cause Diamond Head to completely crumble they serve to weaken its inherent strength. When the dust settles, it’s a like not a love.

Mr. and Mrs. Doctor

mr. and mrs. doctor

Coffee House Press, May 12, 2015

 

Job’s father sends him from their homeland in Nigeria to America to study to become a doctor. Instead of doing so, Job flunks out of college but continues to tell everyone he is still studying. At twenty-four he uses some of the tuition money on a green card marriage thus ensuring he never has to move home and acknowledge his lies. This is the beginning of the quicksand foundation laid out in Julie Iromuanya’s debut novel, Mr. and Mrs. Doctor. Almost two decades after his supposed graduation and into his fictional medical career in Nebraska it is time for Job to marry properly (having long divorced his fake American wife) and rather than pulling the curtain back on his lies, he forges forward with them by going back to Nigeria to marry the bride he has chosen. His new wife Ifi knows only that she finally has a chance to escape her aunt’s home and to marry a doctor and live in America so if she is somewhat older than the pictures her groom has seen of her it is a minor lie. The collision between Ifi and Job, as they negotiate a life based on lies is the heart of Mr. and Mrs. Doctor.

A protagonist named Job automatically sends the mind towards the biblical character who was beset with horrible misfortunes to test his faith, but this Job does not need a god for his problems; he is more than capable of creating them himself. Which he does by dropping out of school, getting his green card through a scam marriage, spending money he does not have, and trying to be a man he is not. All this right up until true disaster hits at which point Job is faced with either acknowledging his lies and trying to create a real life or continuing down the broken path of deceit. In Iromuanya’s hands Job is a fluid character in that even though they are his choices they feel as if they just happened to him and are largely beyond his control. In this way, he engenders feelings of sympathy yet his willful denial of reality makes him difficult to like, especially when these choices impact those around him.

Mr. and Mrs. Doctor threads its way through the messy world of being foreign in America. The novel plays the seeing-and-wanting aspects of American abundance against the ability to have it. Job works hard at two hourly jobs, but he is not a doctor and yet, wants to live that life; even when he is being shaken down by his ex-wife, he can’t admit he has no money. Where Iromuanya flexes her creative muscles is in her unflinching portrayal of this man who comes to America for the American dream but, believes it should just happen to him without effort on his part. The scenes of frenetic spending—especially on a television that is too big for the apartment and for which they don’t even have cable to watch it or for rounds of drinks at strip clubs are the types of attitude that make caring difficult. And yet, there is compassion for all the instances of racism Job, Ifi and their friends encounter and regarding the cultural differences between their homeland and the United States. By using the broad stereotypes of people and place Mr. and Mrs. Doctor strips them bare, leaving only the bones of human sadness.

A God in Ruins

god in ruins

Little, Brown and Company, May 5, 2015

 

In her new novel, A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson answers the question that arises when one is spared from death but others are not: Is my life worth it? In her previous novel Life After Life Ursula Todd is reborn back into her life for second and third chances to change history in World War II but rather than doing so on a global scale she opts for the life that allows her dear brother Teddy, a fighter pilot in the RAF, to live. Teddy is the focus in this companion novel and we follow him and his wife and child through their lives, in essence to see what Ursula’s decision has wrought. The novel goes as far back as the mid-1920s when Teddy is a boy to all the way up to 2012 as he lays in a nursing home, dying.

The title A God in Ruins is an apt one because, insofar as she can, Ursula plays God in Life After Life and Atkinson presents the reader with a mixed bag of results. Teddy is a good and decent man, one who fights heroically in the war but beyond him, were the lives that followed such that they outweighed Ursula’s other historical options? Atkinson seems to come down on the side of ‘no’ in crafting Teddy’s only child, Viola. She is deeply unlikable but without any of the complexity that makes such a character interesting. If she has more than one dimension it never appears and her attempts to blame the world and most especially her father for depriving her of her mother make the thought of surgery without anesthetic welcome. She is entitled, self-absorbed, ignorant, and rude.

She was the worst kind of liar—transparently untruthful and yet completely convinced of her ability to deceive.

If Atkinson’s sole purpose in writing her is to evoke strong feelings of dislike than she succeeded in the first paragraph.

Thankfully, Viola is just one of a far-reaching group of people who are of Teddy’s life and in touching him each and every one is touched by him. This is Atkinson’s forte because despite there being only one life per character in A God in Ruins there is a tremendous amount of movement in these lives. She makes an eel out of time and for as much as you try and grasp it it will wriggle out of your hands. The past slithers into the present back to the past and into the future in serpentine prose that would be a hopeless jumble without her skill. Despite this temporal speed, the novel has a very slow start and for some this will be a detriment. The plot had not hooked me by page 100 but the characters were so well-defined with their dry humor and wry British dialogue that I kept going, only to find myself ultimately pulled into their world. A world that flowed between the mundane nature of peacetime life and the uncertainty of life at all during the war.

I stated earlier that the title A God in Ruins could refer to Teddy’s sister Ursula, who essentially saves his life on a cosmic level, but Atkinson goes well beyond this by sizing the theme up from a single family to a world scale. With so much happening on so many levels the novel becomes highly individualized and will likely strike different people in different ways. The rapidly shifting timeline amongst the themes means that the ending, when it comes, is one that is emotionally eviscerating. Like war, there is simply no way to prepare for it and its outcome is devastating.

Books about Books: Mini-Reviews

Every reader has a soft spot, a genre or author or both that they gravitate towards without their usual scrutiny. Some people will read any book about dogs, others will grab anything written by John Grisham or Stephen King. For me, it’s books about books or books with the word book in the title. My brain disengages from critical thinking and switches to the blind belief that it HAS to be good if it is related to books in even the most remote way. By and large, I’ve been lucky in that the majority of fiction I’ve read about books has been marvelous (The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, The Moment of Everything) but today’s mini-reviews are two that were…not so much.

books about books

Thomas Dunne Books, January 2015

“Everybody knows that no healthy person would take up writing novels. Healthy people do healthy things. All this darned hoopla and hot air about literature—what is it really but mental derangement run through a printing press?”

The plot of Rabbit Back Literature Society and the quotation above landed it so squarely in my wheelhouse I knew it was a novel I needed to read. A small group of writers is mentored by a famous author in a sheltered and mysterious group but they hide a secret about their writing. When a local teacher is invited to join she learns that the authors’ success may be due less to their talent and more to a secret game they play. Sounds amazing, right?! Especially as the mystery builds, people disappear, and the contents of books in the library change. All of these things work in Rabbit Back but there is one small glitch. This is a Finnish book translated into English and my only thought is that something, well, lots of somethings, got lost in translation. The plot is not the problem but the prose is and because I’m not familiar with Finnish literature I can only approach this from an English speaking perspective. The characters speak in ways that do not align with their personalities as originally portrayed, the dialogue is clunky and stilted, and paragraphs are rife with non-sequiturs. There is no flow to the narrative, just the annoying stop-and-jerk feeling you get on a subway train stuck in a tunnel—every time you think its finally on its way, it stops again and the momentum is lost.

I kept hoping Rabbit Back would get back on track but instead, in the same way that old dubbed foreign movies show the characters mouths moving before the sound comes out, the humor in this novel is out-of-sync with American sensibilities. I get that the author is being funny but it’s a bit off and awkward without the flow needed to sustain really great sarcasm. This novel did not work for me at all but I would be thrilled to have someone read it in the original Finnish and tell me it is a masterpiece.


books about books

Penguin Press, April 28, 2015

 

I was looking for something else in books. I could not really say what, but I think I can say why: a notion started in my own brain was probably wrong, but an answer read in a work of literature would be right.

Matthew Pearl’s The Last Bookaneer is told in the swashbuckling manner of an old-school adventure but with people who love books. I know, seems a bit incongruous but instead of buckaneers you have bookaneers, people who lead wildly adventurous lives in pursuit of books. Unfortunately, they’re only in it for the money so Pearl takes two real events and blends them to concoct what will be the last great heist in bookaneer history. Up until the end of 1800s copyright was national, meaning authors like Charles Dickens had to watch as people bought his work while in England, sailed home to America, reprinted it and kept all the profits without him getting a farthing. It isn’t until 1891 that the United States agrees to an international copyright act, which will go into effect on July 1, 1891. At around this time, the famous Robert Louis Stevenson has gone to live in

Samoa where it is believed that, given his ill-health, he is working on a final book before dying. Pearl takes these truths, adds Mr. E.C. Fergins, a bookseller and Pen Davenport, a bookaneer and sends them from Great Britain to the islands of the South Pacific in search of what will be the last great get in bookaneer history.

Pearl excels at plot and there is a lot of it in The Last Bookaneer. In an effort to win their prize Fergins and Davenport must compete against enemies of all kinds and work with the utmost stealth and Pearl feints and dodges with the best of them strewing the novel with clues, arcane details, and the kind of minutia that makes for non-stop reading. The only problem? When a novel is so dependent on plot then that plot had better work right up until the last sentence and this did not. We discussed this kind of thing at The Socratic Salon (How Important is the End of a Book?last week so it is odd that I’m now faced with a specific instance of it. There is a spoiler but while that part works Pearl goes beyond it to a premise/plot twist that does not fit with the rest of the novel. Which bothered me. A lot.

Do you have a type of book you’re drawn to again and again- even if it sometimes disappoints?

The House of Hawthorne

house of hawthorne

NAL, May 5, 2015

 

Erika Robuck is an author who loves to explore the lives of other authors through her fiction. She continues this tradition in her latest, The House of Hawthorne, by following Sophia Peabody as she is courted by and eventually weds Nathaniel Hawthorne. With her outstanding attention to detail and thorough research Robuck uses Sophia’s perspective to provide insight into her husband’s nature well beyond his writing talent. This is an intimate novel about the man who wrote such American greats as The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, but who never achieved the financial success of some of his contemporaries and so, led a life with his family of uncertainty and often, economic distress. Through Sophia’s eyes we see how the man and the writer are in constant battle.

The novel begins with Sophia’s life as a young woman with an artistic temperament in a family filled with love and acceptance of the arts but very little security. This is the 1820s so the other notable aspect of a time is the delicacy of women. Sophia is beset with headaches with no known cause and no efforts to treat beyond using morphine. She is a talented painter but is coddled in her ill-health in a way that is, quite frankly, to modern day thinking, annoying and yet, for the times, probably accurate. This annoyance is not specific to Sophia, because Hawthorne himself is a less than stalwart character—so tied to his mother and sisters that he takes over three years to tell them of his engagement. It is once they marry and begin their lives on their own that The House of Hawthorne hits its stride and Nathaniel and Sophia come to life.

One of the more endearing aspects of the novel is the passion that continues in the marriage. It is one thing to read of this when marriage is new and lovers are young but Hawthorne’s letters to Sophia when she is away with their three children are deeply touching.

You are a welcome ghost, haunting and tormenting me at all hours of the day and night. I run my hands thought my hair, trying to conjure the feeling of your fingers in it…The winds of the waterway assault me, chilling my bones to the marrow in their reminder that there is no warmth for me while you are gone…When this separation is over, we must never allow it again. How could I have done this? I am frantic, Dove.

At the same time as The House of Hawthorne describes a marriage of abiding love Robuck also chronicles the attitudes and mores of the times. We see that while Sophia embraces her life as a wife and mother she finds it comes at a cost to her painting

My artistic power is a snuffed candle

 And while Hawthorne supports her efforts to recapture her muse he is adamantly opposed when their daughter shows a talent for writing, as a woman being published is unseemly. Through these kinds of details Robuck gives us a nuanced portrait of a man conflicted by many aspects of life and of the world around him. At the same time she hangs this portrait against a backdrop of American events, providing the reader with both an enduring love story and a sense of how it was impacted by these events. We may know Nathaniel Hawthorne as a great American author but in The House of Hawthorne Robuck shows us that without the love and strength of his dear Sophy we may never have known about him at all.

The Book of Aron

book of aron

Knopf, May 12, 2015

 

Set in a Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland The Book of Aron is, like any Holocaust novel, difficult reading. But what makes it so, is not graphic depictions of violence against Jews it is the interminable grind of life lived in circumstances that have nowhere to go but down. At first, it is simply that the community is being segregated as a health precaution against typhus. Then walls go up and non-Jews move out. Then Jews from other areas are moved in and living quarters become tighter. Suddenly, the trams stop running through the area and the only way out is through a heavily guarded exit. More people arrive and your home is no longer your own but is shared with one, then two, and ultimately as many as three or more families. Only, they don’t stay families long—the men are sent away to work camps, supposedly to better food and shelter and they will come back. But they never do. This is life from nine-year old Aron’s point of view.

Author Jim Shepard fills The Book of Aron with the grit, filth, cold, and deprivation of life in the Warsaw ghetto. Yet he does so in a way that eases the reader into it much the way it must have felt to a child. There was always poverty so making do with less was a normal part of life but it is not long before normal devolves into doing anything to survive. For the young Aron this means joining a group of smugglers his age who help their families eat by bartering goods they bring into the ghetto for food. When, as the youngest and smallest, he comes to the attention of the Jewish yellow police to be an informant he cannot say no despite his best efforts. Using Aron, Shepard explores the ingenuity for survival against what it does to the soul.

It is in these darkening days that Aron meets Janusz Korczak, a real pediatrician and educator in Poland at the time that Shepard weaves into the novel. He was known throughout Poland for his progressive views on child rearing.

He told the adults to remember to approach children with affection for what they already were and with respect for what they could become. He told the children to remember that we couldn’t leave the world the way we found it. 

When the ghetto is closed off he chooses to stay and run an orphanage for the ever-increasing number of children whose parents have died or disappeared. Aron is one of these children and for the first time in his life, through Korczak, he is treated as a person of value. The old man and the young boy, one educated and privileged, one not, find common ground not just in trying to survive but also in saving others, even if it comes at a cost to themselves. With the simple, straight-forward prose of a child The Book of Aron will cause the heart to ache not just for the child who was lost but for who he could have been.

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