stuff I read

All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg

43261190Summary from Goodreads:
“If I know why he is the way he is then maybe I can learn why I am the way I am,” says Alex Tuchman, strong-headed lawyer, loving mother, and daughter of Victor Tuchman—a power-hungry real estate developer and, by all accounts, a bad man. Now that Victor is on his deathbed, Alex feels she can finally unearth the secrets of who he is and what he did over the course of his life and career. She travels to New Orleans to be with her family, but mostly to interrogate her tightlipped mother, Barbra.

As Barbra fends of Alex’s unrelenting questions, she reflects on her tumultuous life with Victor. Meanwhile Gary, Alex’s brother, is incommunicado, trying to get his movie career off the ground in Los Angeles. And Gary’s wife, Twyla, is having a nervous breakdown, buying up all the lipstick in drug stores around New Orleans and bursting into crying fits. Dysfunction is at its peak. As each family member grapples with Victor’s history, they must figure out a way to move forward—with one another, for themselves, and for the sake of their children.

All This Could Be Yours is a timely, piercing exploration of what it means to be caught in the web of a toxic man who abused his power; it shows how those webs can tangle a family for generations and what it takes to—maybe, hopefully—break free.

All This Could Be Yours is composed of the most dysfunctional of dysfunctional people. Victor (the father) is terrible and even though he is comatose in his hospital bed he is everywhere in this narrative, Barbra (the mother) is emotionally withdrawn and obsessed with her appearance, Alex (the daughter) is angry at her mother and can be vindictive, Greg (the son) deals with the situation by refusing to show up, and Twyla (the daughter-in-law), as it turns out, is having a breakdown because of something she has done. Now, there is nuance to each of these stories, of course – except Victor, there is no nuance to a guy who is the Jewish version of a Mafia property developer and who idolizes The Sopranos. The trick is that Jami Attenberg is such a good writer she can take a book that is stocked with particularly unlikeable characters and make the story compelling. I kept on reading because a) I wanted know if Victor was going to get it in the end and b) to see if the other characters straighten themselves out (maybe? I think by the end of the book most of them have managed to shake Victor’s grip). The granddaughters, Sadie and Avery, are excellent and I wished they had made more appearances in the book.

This is also an excellent book to read if you like fiction where the setting feels like a character. New Orleans as a location plays a huge part in the story as several characters wander around the city, or escape it. The weather, specifically the humidity and heat of the Mississippi River delta, plays into this.

The only thing I really didn’t like was that it was a bit hard to follow as the narrative shifted from present to past and between characters. There was a long chapter in Barbra’s point-of-view that gave us a long chunk of backstory but it jumped around as she power-walked around the nursing unit.

I do have to give a trigger warning for domestic violence on the page. I also have to note that one character (and two others to a lesser degree) has internalized fatphobia and feminine beauty standards to an extreme and so there are a number of comments about women’s appearances that feel quite a bit squicky.

All This Could Be Yours published on October 22.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Unicorn Whisperer by Dana Simpson (Phoebe and Her Unicorn #10)

43821537Summary from Goodreads:
Welcome back to the hilarious and heartwarming world of Phoebe and Her Unicorn, where readers of all ages can always find a friend to lend a magical helping hand — or hoof.

For 9-year-old Phoebe Howell and her sparkling companion, Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, every day is an adventure. In this latest installation of Dana Simpson’s award-winning Phoebe and Her Unicorn series, Phoebe navigates the challenges of school life with a little help from her unicorn friend, who is always ready with the perfect spell for the occasion. But as the magic spells mount up, both Phoebe and Marigold find themselves wondering if sometimes they might be taking things just a little too far…

87ecd9ed-80f5-4038-8ef0-e35d1c5cc151Another adorbs collection of web comics from Dana Simpson. I love the relationship between Phoebe and Marigold and the way the fourth panel in a strip has an excellent stinger. This collection also has some really great strips with Phoebe and her hipster dad, so cute. There did seem to be an odd jump at one point where all of a sudden Phoebe and Marigold needed to return Dakota’s boots without any previous mention in this volume of Dakota’s boots as a plot point. So I do wonder if we’re missing a strip or two.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book. Gotta have the whole set!

Austenesque · stuff I read

The Bride of Northanger by Diana Birchall

The Bride of Northanger Blog Tour Banner FinalHello! Today marks the last few stops on the #Janeite blog tour for Diana Birchall’s new Austen Variation, The Bride of Northanger, stopping here with a review (waves!) and also a spotlight at My Love for Jane Austen. Many thanks and hugs to Laurel Ann of Austenprose for organizing the tour and visit her review and kick-off post for a list of other participating blogs for interviews and more reviews.

48205456._SY475_BOOK DESCRIPTION:

A happier heroine than Catherine Morland does not exist in England, for she is about to marry her beloved, the handsome, witty Henry Tilney. The night before the wedding, Henry reluctantly tells Catherine and her horrified parents a secret he has dreaded to share – that there is a terrible curse on his family and their home, Northanger Abbey. Henry is a clergyman, educated and rational, and after her year’s engagement Catherine is no longer the silly young girl who delighted in reading “horrid novels”; she has improved in both reading and rationality. This sensible young couple cannot believe curses are real…until a murder at the Abbey triggers events as horrid and Gothic as Jane Austen ever parodied – events that shake the young Tilneys’ certainties, but never their love for each other…

Diana Birchall’s new sequel to Austen’s Northanger Abbey opens the night before Catherine Morland’s wedding to Henry Tilney as Henry arrives at the Morland family home to dutifully inform them that the Tilney family appears to operate under a curse: that the wife of the eldest Tilney son will die young (apparently the family was cursed during the Dissolution). Catherine, now rid of her youthful flights of fancy, dismisses this so-called curse. Henry is, of course, the second son and furthermore, as rational, modern people, they don’t believe in curses. So Catherine and Henry marry and settle into a pleasant life at the vicarage…until General Tilney (and his ominous wedding gift) summons the young couple to a strange dinner party at Northanger Abbey. This sets off a year full of mysterious events, ghostly sightings, and deaths worthy of Catherine’s horrid Gothic novels.

And those deaths are firmly in the realm of gruesome twists of fate, serving up grisly demises for several familiar characters. Birchall made an interesting choice in this novel, to both attempt the ironic tone Austen used when poking fun at Gothic fiction and go full-Gothic at the climax of the plot. It starts out very light, with Catherine enjoying married life and expanding her reading – and education – by reading works of philosophy and history under Henry’s direction. Even the initial trip to the Abbey stays on the lighter side with a glimpse of a possible ghost to tickle Catherine’s imagination. The plot, though, begins to delve into horrors that steadily pull away from the recreation of Austen’s tone. In one scene Catherine is made to sit a vigil over a dead body since no one else from the family is available to do it and the sequence of events is quite unnerving, far more so than searching a cupboard to find a mysterious document (which turned out to be a laundry list) or speculating whether General Tilney killed his wife. Each further mishap gets a bit more squicky-making. (Sorry about the vagueness, but there are quite a lot of twists to the plot that I’m trying to avoid spoiling.) The plot of The Bride of Northanger is much closer to a true Gothic novel in the vein of The Castle of Otranto or The Mysteries of Udolpho than Austen’s lively send-up. If you’ve read any of the Gothics that Catherine so enjoyed then you’ll recognize a number of the plot elements.

The book reads quite well. I took it with me on a short trip and read almost the whole thing on a two-and-a-half hour plane ride. It was fun to see so many of the original characters again, so despite my wish to have a bit more Austenian irony and a few less deaths it was quite enjoyable.

The Bride of Northanger is out now!

Dear FTC: I received a review copy of this book via the blog tour organizer.

food · mini-review · stuff I read

Eat Joy: Stories & Comfort Food from 31 Celebrated Writers edited by Natalie Eve Garrett

43835491Summary from Goodreads:
This collection of intimate essays by some of America’s most well-regarded writers explores how food can help us cope in dark times―whether it be the loss of a parent, the loneliness of moving to a new country, the heartache of an unexpected breakup, or the fear of coming out. Luscious, full-color illustrations by Meryl Rowin are woven throughout, and accompanying each story is a recipe from the writer’s own kitchen.

Lev Grossman explains how he survived on “sweet, sour, spicy, salty, unabashedly gluey” General Tso’s tofu after his divorce. Carmen Maria Machado describes learning to care for herself during her confusing young adulthood, beginning with nearly setting her kitchen on fire. Claire Messud tries to understand how her mother gave up dreams of being a lawyer to make “a dressed salad of tiny shrimp and avocado, followed by prune-stuffed pork tenderloin, served with buttered egg noodles” for her family. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie remembers a childhood friend―who later died as a soldier in Nigeria―with a pot of fragrant jollof rice. What makes each tale so moving is not only the deeply personal revelations from celebrated writers, but also the compassion and healing behind the story: the taste of hope.

Eat Joy is a charming, and sometimes heart-breaking or heart-warming depending on subject, collection of essays and recipes from respected authors like Alexander Chee, Porochista Khakpour, Lev Grossman, Carmen Maria Machado, Anthony Doerr, Edwidge Danticat, and Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie. Some recipes are definitely new to me and I want to try them – Mira Jacob provides a chai recipe, Rakesh Satyal has one for pie (I have yet to master pies) – but others are just something simple that brought comfort at a tough time, like Dina Abu-Jaber’s pita+yogurt+z’atar (one is literally boxed brownie mix, that’s it).

This would be a perfect addition to a cooking-themed holiday basket you might be planning.

Dear FTC: I read a review copy sent to me by the publisher. Thank you so much to Catapult pitching it to me.

mini-review · stuff I read

In the Dream House: A Memoir by Carmen Maria Machado

42188604._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
A startling, moving, and innovative memoir from the National Book Award Finalist for Fiction.

For years Carmen Maria Machado has struggled to articulate her experiences in an abusive same-sex relationship. In this extraordinarily candid and radically inventive memoir, Machado tackles a dark and difficult subject with wit, inventiveness and an inquiring spirit, as she uses a series of narrative tropes—including classic horror themes—to create an entirely unique piece of work which is destined to become an instant classic.

In the Dream House is a phenomenal work of memoir, both in its unique construction and determination to shatter cultural myths about domestic violence in queer relationships. Machado chose to use second person as a point of view to show how her relationship with her “dream woman” slowly devolved into terror, a choice that both allowed space between herself and the incidents and also invited the reader to make those horrible situations personal, make them universal. In between these short vignettes/chapters are small essays about the recognition of domestic abuse in queer relationships and how, legally and culturally, it is still very hard to contemplate from a cis-het-patriarchal worldview.

I was privileged to hear Machado read over the weekend (and in conversation with Garth Greenwell) and she’s such a wonderful speaker and thinker. In the Dream House is both a quick (lots of white space) and slow (there are some incidents with her “dream woman” that are truly terrifying and give you pause) read but very much worth the time you spend on it.

Dear FTC: I read a galley that I requested from Graywolf Press. Thank you so much, Graywolf, for sending it.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West

38362811Summary from Goodreads:
A brilliant and incisive look at how patriarchy, intolerance, and misogyny have conquered not just politics but American culture itself.

What do Adam Sandler, Donald Trump, and South Park have in common? Why are myths like “reverse sexism” and “political correctness” so seductive? And why do movie classics of yore, from Sixteen Candles to Revenge of the Nerds, make rape look like so much silly fun? With Lindy West’s signature wit and in her uniquely incendiary voice, The Witches are Coming lays out a grand theory of America that explains why Trump’s election was, in many ways, a foregone conclusion.

As West reveals through fascinating journeys across the landscapes of pop culture, the lies that fostered the catastrophic resentment that boiled over in the 2016 presidential race did not spring from a vacuum. They have in fact been woven into America’s DNA, cultivated by generations of mediocre white men and fed to the masses with such fury that we have become unable to recognize them as lies at all.

Whether it be the notion overheard since the earliest moments of the #MeToo movement that feminism has gone too far or the insistence that holding someone accountable for his actions amounts to a “witch hunt,” The Witches are Coming exposes the lies that many have chosen to believe and the often unexpected figures who have furthered them. Along the way, it unravels the tightening link between culture and politics, identifying in the memes, music, and movies we’ve loved the seeds of the neoreactionary movement now surging through the nation.

Sprawling, funny, scorching, and illuminating, The Witches are Coming shows West at the top of her intellectual and comic powers. As much a celebration of America’s potential as a condemnation of our failures, some will call it a witch hunt—to which West would reply, “So be it. I’m a witch and I’m hunting you.”

I so enjoy Lindy West’s writing and The Witches are Coming does not disappoint. I snort-laughed in public often. This collection doesn’t have as much range as Shrill, which drew from all parts of Lindy’s life and felt very personal, but has more focus on cultural commentary – good commentary, and yes, that Adam Sandler essay because I have never understood why people thought he was funny. Her excellent Goop Health piece is included here.

(1. That cover. 2. Whee, Shrill S2 drops in January!)

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book. Although I might have to exchange it since we’re going to get signed copies for the holidays at the store.

stuff I read

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo (Alex Stern #1)

48431439Summary from Goodreads:
The mesmerizing adult debut from #1 New York Times bestselling author Leigh Bardugo

Galaxy “Alex” Stern is the most unlikely member of Yale’s freshman class. Raised in the Los Angeles hinterlands by a hippie mom, Alex dropped out of school early and into a world of shady drug dealer boyfriends, dead-end jobs, and much, much worse. By age twenty, in fact, she is the sole survivor of a horrific, unsolved multiple homicide. Some might say she’s thrown her life away. But at her hospital bed, Alex is offered a second chance: to attend one of the world’s most elite universities on a full ride. What’s the catch, and why her?

Still searching for answers to this herself, Alex arrives in New Haven tasked by her mysterious benefactors with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies. These eight windowless “tombs” are well-known to be haunts of the future rich and powerful, from high-ranking politicos to Wall Street and Hollywood’s biggest players. But their occult activities are revealed to be more sinister and more extraordinary than any paranoid imagination might conceive.

Nipped out the last few pages last night before Book Club.

Ninth House is a compulsively readable fantasy novel that smashes together The Secret History, the Rivers of London series, and a whodunnit. I’ve read reviews comparing Alex to Lisbeth Salander, however, she strikes me as more in the vein of Thursday Next, but less principled. The first 100 pages felt a little boggy to me with the back-and-forth between time periods and narrators and backstory but about midpoint the plot really kicked into high gear. I really liked Bardugo’s not-subtle commentary about the systems of power, magical and otherwise, relied on by these societies at Yale (and elsewhere, since alums keep coming back to have the “tombs” help them achieve success) and how everything functions to prop them up even to the point of covering up rape and murder.

I will give a trigger warning for descriptions of rape and sexual abuse (not incredibly graphic or used to give another character motivation but they do happen on the page) and drug use.

Dear FTC: I read an advance galley provided by the publisher for the discussion leader at my store.

stuff I read

The White Man’s Guide to White Male Writers of the Western Canon by Dana Schwartz, illustrated by Jason Adam Katzenstein

43884181._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
Narrated by the voice of a once-in-a-generation Twitter account @GuyInYourMFA: a handbook for the wannabe literary elite and those who laugh at them—all illustrated by a New Yorker cartoonist.

Who better than that unjustifiably overconfident guy in your MFA to mansplain the most important (aka white male) writers of western literature? You can’t miss him: riding the L, writing furiously in his Moleskine notebook, or defying the wind by hand-rolling a cigarette outside a Williamsburg coffeeshop. He’s read Infinite Jest 9 1/2 times—have you?

From Shakespeare’s greatest mystery (how could a working-class man without access to an MFA program be so prolific?) to the true meaning of Kafkaesque (you know you’ve made it when you have an adjective named for you) to an appropriately minimalist dissertation on Raymond Carver that segues effortlessly into a devastating critique of a New Yorker rejection letter (”serious believability issues”), this guide is at once profound and practical.

Use a Venn diagram to test your knowledge of which Jonathan—Franzen, Lethem, or Safran Foer—hates Twitter and lives in Brooklyn. (Trick question: all 3!) Practice slyly responding to an invitation to discuss Bartleby the Scrivener with “I would prefer not to.” Sneer at chick-lit and drink Mojitos like Hemingway (not like middle-aged divorcées!). And as did Nabokov (originator of the emoticon), find the Pale Fire within.

So instead of politely nodding next time you encounter said person at a housewarming party in Brooklyn, you can hand them this book and tell them to roll up their sleeves and cigarettes, and get to writing the next great American novel.

Much parody, very satire. (Y’all, if you don’t understand what the @guyinmyMFA twitter account is about you won’t understand this book.)

If you’re looking for a funny, dry, keeps-nothing-precious snark-guide for a booklover, this is it. The illustrations are a hoot, too.

The White Man’s Guide to White Male Writers of the Western Canon is out today, November 5.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss during 24in48 in July.