mini-review · stuff I read

The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin

40390714Summary from Goodreads:
The New York Times bestselling author of The House Girl explores the lives of four siblings in this ambitious and absorbing novel in the vein of Commonwealth and The Interestings.

“The greatest works of poetry, what makes each of us a poet, are the stories we tell about ourselves. We create them out of family and blood and friends and love and hate and what we’ve read and watched and witnessed. Longing and regret, illness, broken bones, broken hearts, achievements, money won and lost, palm readings and visions. We tell these stories until we believe them.”

When the renowned poet Fiona Skinner is asked about the inspiration behind her iconic work, The Love Poem, she tells her audience a story about her family and a betrayal that reverberates through time.

It begins in a big yellow house with a funeral, an iron poker, and a brief variation forever known as the Pause: a free and feral summer in a middle-class Connecticut town. Caught between the predictable life they once led and an uncertain future that stretches before them, the Skinner siblings—fierce Renee, sensitive Caroline, golden boy Joe and watchful Fiona—emerge from the Pause staunchly loyal and deeply connected. Two decades later, the siblings find themselves once again confronted with a family crisis that tests the strength of these bonds and forces them to question the life choices they’ve made and ask what, exactly, they will do for love.

A sweeping yet intimate epic about one American family, The Last Romantics is an unforgettable exploration of the ties that bind us together, the responsibilities we embrace and the duties we resent, and how we can lose—and sometimes rescue—the ones we love. A novel that pierces the heart and lingers in the mind, it is also a beautiful meditation on the power of stories—how they navigate us through difficult times, help us understand the past, and point the way toward our future.

Well, I liked it. Or, I at least like it better than last month’s Book Club selection. The women of the family were all interesting and Joe, well, Joe I wanted to kick down the nearest flight of stairs. I’m not quite sure the author delivered on her premise, that when we fall in love with the right person everything works out. Also, she finked on Fiona’s poetry, giving us only a hint about her work (for a book that pulls off the narrative plus the invented poetical works, see AS Byatt’s Possession).

What I really could have done without was the frame narrative, which was jarring whenever I would come back to it. We had enough of the omniscient narrator from the future, the frame narrative could have been easily cut.

Read for the BN Book Club (and this time finished more than 2 hrs ahead of the meeting 😂).

Dear FTC: I read a paper galley of this book from the publisher provided for the BN Book Club discussion leader.

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stuff I read

The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict

43692424Summary from Goodreads:
She was beautiful. She was a genius. Could the world handle both? A powerful, illuminating novel about Hedy Lamarr.

Hedy Kiesler is lucky. Her beauty leads to a starring role in a controversial film and marriage to a powerful Austrian arms dealer, allowing her to evade Nazi persecution despite her Jewish heritage. But Hedy is also intelligent. At lavish Vienna dinner parties, she overhears the Third Reich’s plans. One night in 1937, desperate to escape her controlling husband and the rise of the Nazis, she disguises herself and flees her husband’s castle.

She lands in Hollywood, where she becomes Hedy Lamarr, screen star. But Hedy is keeping a secret even more shocking than her Jewish heritage: she is a scientist. She has an idea that might help the country and that might ease her guilt for escaping alone — if anyone will listen to her. A powerful novel based on the incredible true story of the glamour icon and scientist whose groundbreaking invention revolutionized modern communication, The Only Woman in the Room is a masterpiece.

Well, I finished it in time to lead the Book Club discussion last night (we had bad weather, one person came so we’ll try for a make-up date next week). I’m extremely lukewarm on this book. While Hedy Lamarr herself is a really interesting historical figure, I found this fictional account of her life as a married woman in Vienna and her subsequent work in Hollywood to be shallowly drawn and rather simplistic. Bloodless, really. So much was beautifully described, especially the houses and clothes and jewels of Lamarr’s married life, but glossed over the violence of living with a possessive, abusive man. I also wished that the plot spent more time on her life in Hollywood and her scientific inventing, since it came so late in the book. The novel reads easily, though.

Dear FTC: I read a paper galley of this book provided by the publisher for the Book Club leader.

mini-review · stuff I read

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

42074840Summary from Goodreads:
The Carls just appeared. Coming home from work at three a.m., twenty-three-year-old April May stumbles across a giant sculpture. Delighted by its appearance and craftsmanship–like a ten-foot-tall Transformer wearing a suit of samurai armor–April and her friend Andy make a video with it, which Andy uploads to YouTube. The next day April wakes up to a viral video and a new life. News quickly spreads that there are Carls in dozens of cities around the world–everywhere from Beijing to Buenos Aires–and April, as their first documentarian, finds herself at the center of an intense international media spotlight.

Now April has to deal with the pressure on her relationships, her identity, and her safety that this new position brings, all while being on the front lines of the quest to find out not just what the Carls are, but what they want from us.

Compulsively entertaining and powerfully relevant, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing grapples with big themes, including how the social internet is changing fame, rhetoric, and radicalization; how our culture deals with fear and uncertainty; and how vilification and adoration spring from the same dehumanization that follows a life in the public eye.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is a really fun and readable debut SF novel (if you follow me at Goodreads, it really didn’t take 3 weeks to read, I read it twice because I lead the Book Club discussion at work).  Hank Green wrote a story which one the surface is about First Contact but far more about how social media “fame” and punditism is a really slippery slope. I enjoyed a lot of the plot call-backs in the novel (Chekhov’s gun got a workout). I did have a few issues with the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” aspect of the main character, April May, i.e. she’s pretty but doesn’t try, thin but also doesn’t try, can hang with the guys, etc, etc. It felt very overdone and also made her seem like Alaska’s sister (if you like John Green, you’ll like Hank’s writing style).  The ending generated the most discussion in the group.

Dear FTC: I had to buy a copy of this one because the review copy didn’t show up by release day and I needed to get it read.

mini-review · stuff I read

Clock Dance by Anne Tyler

37880810Summary from Goodreads:
A bewitching new novel of family and self-discovery from the best-selling, award-winning author of A Spool of Blue Thread.

Willa Drake can count on one hand the defining moments of her life. In 1967, she is a schoolgirl coping with her mother’s sudden disappearance. In 1977, she is a college coed considering a marriage proposal. In 1997, she is a young widow trying to piece her life back together. And in 2017, she yearns to be a grandmother, yet the prospect is dimming. So, when Willa receives a phone call from a stranger, telling her that her son’s ex-girlfriend has been shot, she drops everything and flies across the country to Baltimore. The impulsive decision to look after this woman and her nine-year-old daughter will lead Willa into uncharted territory–surrounded by eccentric neighbors, plunged into the rituals that make a community a family, and forced to find solace in unexpected places. A bittersweet, probing novel of hope and grief, fulfillment and renewal, Clock Dance gives us Anne Tyler at the height of her powers.

After reading Clock Dance twice, it falls somewhere between a 3 and a 4 book for me. I’d never read Anne Tyler before – she has a very nice writing style – but I wasn’t super-jazzed by the actual story of Willa and her life choices. She was so blah in the space between Chapter 1 and maybe the last 20 pages. I’m pretty sure my favorite character was Airplane, the dog.

However, I was the bookseller leading our Book Club discussion last night and I was intrigued to hear from others about this book. A number of participants were older women (50-60+) who are or had been married who had decided opinions about Willa’s marriages and how she related to her husbands and sons. Some sympathized with her, some did not. Some felt she was trapped, some that she was too comfortable and inclined to accept the status quo. I think Clock Dance is very much a novel where your mileage may vary, depending on your situation.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley and a paper galley from the publisher.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

35480518Summary from Goodreads:
Greer Kadetsky is a shy college freshman when she meets the woman she hopes will change her life. Faith Frank, dazzlingly persuasive and elegant at sixty-three, has been a central pillar of the women’s movement for decades, a figure who inspires others to influence the world. Upon hearing Faith speak for the first time, Greer–madly in love with her boyfriend, Cory, but still full of longing for an ambition that she can’t quite place–feels her inner world light up. Then, astonishingly, Faith invites Greer to make something out of that sense of purpose, leading Greer down the most exciting path of her life as it winds toward and away from her meant-to-be love story with Cory and the future she’d always imagined.

This is going to be a quick review, since I’m leading the Book Club tonight at work and I don’t want to work over my opinion too much ahead of time. But I did read it twice.

Basically:
Five stars for the sentences. I love me a Meg Wolitzer sentence. She also has one of the most simple, moving paragraphs about grief in Chapter Six in the exchange between Cory and the taxi driver.

Three stars for plot: This is OK. It’s a perfectly fine story, which is worth discussing in its critique of white and/or privileged feminism and mentorship and whether that critique is successful but I feel like the story took no risks. The characters told us nothing new, except to always be wary of holding our idols too dear.

Thanks to Riverhead for sending the galley copy.

Dear FTC: I read a galley sent by the publisher to my store.