mini-review · stuff I read

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner

46265702._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
From Jennifer Weiner, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Who Do You Love and In Her Shoes, comes a smart, thoughtful, and timely exploration of two sisters’ lives from the 1950s to the present as they struggle to find their places—and be true to themselves—in a rapidly evolving world. Mrs. Everything is an ambitious, richly textured journey through history—and herstory—as these two sisters navigate a changing America over the course of their lives.

Do we change or does the world change us?

Jo and Bethie Kaufman were born into a world full of promise.

Growing up in 1950s Detroit, they live in a perfect “Dick and Jane” house, where their roles in the family are clearly defined. Jo is the tomboy, the bookish rebel with a passion to make the world more fair; Bethie is the pretty, feminine good girl, a would-be star who enjoys the power her beauty confers and dreams of a traditional life.

But the truth ends up looking different from what the girls imagined. Jo and Bethie survive traumas and tragedies. As their lives unfold against the background of free love and Vietnam, Woodstock and women’s lib, Bethie becomes an adventure-loving wild child who dives headlong into the counterculture and is up for anything (except settling down). Meanwhile, Jo becomes a proper young mother in Connecticut, a witness to the changing world instead of a participant. Neither woman inhabits the world she dreams of, nor has a life that feels authentic or brings her joy. Is it too late for the women to finally stake a claim on happily ever after?

In her most ambitious novel yet, Jennifer Weiner tells a story of two sisters who, with their different dreams and different paths, offer answers to the question: How should a woman be in the world?

I liked Mrs. Everything, especially the relationship between Jo and Bethie and how women’s roles have changed (or not changed, see also: #metoo) over the latter half of the 20th century. But it felt very draggy to me, with some parts rendered so beautifully early in the book and then others very slapdash later. She could have used some balance in the narrative pacing.

It’s definitely an ambitious book, based on events in her mother’s life. The author’s note in the back of the Barnes and Noble Book Club edition was very informative. I haven’t read any of Weiner’s previous books so I don’t know how this compares to Good in Bed or In Her Shoes.

Read for BN Book Club. A trigger warning for a brief description of sexual assault and abortion on the page and several depictions of unwanted groping.

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

mini-review · stuff I read

What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence by Michele Filgate

42201997Summary from Goodreads:
Fifteen brilliant writers explore what we don’t talk to our mothers about, and how it affects us, for better or for worse.

As an undergraduate, Michele Filgate started writing an essay about being abused by her stepfather. It took her more than a decade to realize what she was actually trying to write: how this affected her relationship with her mother. When it was finally published, the essay went viral, shared on social media by Anne Lamott, Rebecca Solnit, and many others. The outpouring of responses gave Filgate an idea, and the resulting anthology offers a candid look at our relationships with our mothers.

While some of the writers in this book are estranged from their mothers, others are extremely close. Leslie Jamison writes about trying to discover who her seemingly perfect mother was before ever becoming a mom. In Cathi Hanauer’s hilarious piece, she finally gets a chance to have a conversation with her mother that isn’t interrupted by her domineering (but lovable) father. André Aciman writes about what it was like to have a deaf mother. Melissa Febos uses mythology as a lens to look at her close-knit relationship with her psychotherapist mother. And Julianna Baggott talks about having a mom who tells her everything.

As Filgate writes, “Our mothers are our first homes, and that’s why we’re always trying to return to them.” There’s relief in breaking the silence. Acknowledging what we couldn’t say for so long is one way to heal our relationships with others and, perhaps most important, with ourselves.

Contributors include Cathi Hanauer, Melissa Febos, Alexander Chee, Dylan Landis, Bernice L. McFadden, Julianna Baggott, Lynn Steger Strong, Kiese Laymon, Carmen Maria Machado, André Aciman, Sari Botton, Nayomi Munaweera, Brandon Taylor, and Leslie Jamison.

I was so excited to read this essay anthology, filled with pieces from so many writers I admire. What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About is a very solid collection of essays from a diverse selection of writers about the things they don’t talk to their mothers about: family history, abuse, love, protection, secrets, first husbands, expectations. Particularly poignant essays are from Alexander Chee and Brandon Taylor (the last few pages of Brandon’s gutted me, not because it’s graphic or horrible, but because it’s a wish to have understood his mom and who he knew her to be).

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

mini-review · stuff I read

The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling

untitledSummary from Goodreads:
A gorgeous, raw debut novel about a young woman braving the ups and downs of motherhood in a fractured America

In Lydia Kiesling’s razor-sharp debut novel, The Golden State, we accompany Daphne, a young mother on the edge of a breakdown, as she flees her sensible but strained life in San Francisco for the high desert of Altavista with her toddler, Honey. Bucking under the weight of being a single parent–her Turkish husband is unable to return to the United States because of a “processing error”–Daphne takes refuge in a mobile home left to her by her grandparents in hopes that the quiet will bring clarity.

But clarity proves elusive. Over the next ten days Daphne is anxious, she behaves a little erratically, she drinks too much. She wanders the town looking for anyone and anything to punctuate the long hours alone with the baby. Among others, she meets Cindy, a neighbor who is active in a secessionist movement, and befriends the elderly Alice, who has traveled to Altavista as she approaches the end of her life. When her relationships with these women culminate in a dangerous standoff, Daphne must reconcile her inner narrative with the reality of a deeply divided world.

Keenly observed, bristling with humor, and set against the beauty of a little-known part of California, The Golden State is about class and cultural breakdowns, and desperate attempts to bridge old and new worlds. But more than anything, it is about motherhood: its voracious worry, frequent tedium, and enthralling, wondrous love.

The Golden State is a really spare but intimate novel about a woman grieving for circumstances that are beyond her control: her husband has been deported back to Turkey due to shady federal immigration officers, a young woman in her academic program died in an accident on a sponsored trip, and she’s a single mom with a toddler and no family to help her. She’s treading water and floundering at the same time. Mixed into this almost plotless story is a secessionist movement in Northern California spearheaded by her grandparents’ neighbor and a friendship (of a sort) with an elderly woman she meets in the local diner. Kiesling does an interesting thing with language, avoiding commas at certain times which makes the words a rushing river of internal monologue.

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

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 · Read My Own Damn Books · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag

Su30267604mmary from Goodreads:
For readers of Akhil Sharma, Mohsin Hamid, and Teju Cole, a haunting, masterly novel about a family splintered by success in rapidly changing India.

A young man’s close-knit family is nearly destitute when his uncle founds a successful spice company, changing their fortunes overnight. As they move from a cramped, ant-infested shack to a larger house on the other side of Bangalore, and try to adjust to a new way of life, allegiances realign; marriages are arranged and begin to falter; and conflict brews ominously in the background. Things become “ghachar ghochar” – a nonsense phrase uttered by one of the characters that comes to mean something tangled beyond repair, a knot that can’t be untied. Elegantly written and punctuated by moments of unexpected warmth and humor, Ghachar Ghochar is a quietly enthralling, deeply unsettling novel about the shifting meanings – and consequences – of financial gain in contemporary India.

Ghachar Ghochar is a fascinating short novel, barely longer than a novella, about the peculiar inner-workings of a family in Bangalore who started out lower-middle class then suddenly became fabulously wealthy when the father’s younger brother makes a fortune in the spice trade. Things are not always as they seem, though, as the unnamed, diffident narrator puzzles through his family’s suspect foibles at his favorite Coffee House. I only wish it were longer.

Dear FTC: I read My Own Damn Copy of this book that I bought because it was selected as part of the BN Discover program.

stuff I read

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Summary from Goodreads:
In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colors of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.
Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenaged daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past and a disregard for the status quo that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.
When old family friends of the Richardsons attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town–and puts Mia and Elena on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Elena is determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs.

NEW CELESTE NG! THIS IS NOT A DRILL!

When a debut like Everything I Never Told You is THAT GOOD, you worry about the next book.  Will it be good? Same good? Same different? *bites nails*

Fear not, my friends.  Celeste Ng has given us a new novel that follows themes used in EINTY but does not retread the same ground.

Little Fires Everywhere opens with a literal house afire. The Richardsons’ spacious, gracious home in affluent Shaker Heights is burning down, torched by one of the family’s children, although we don’t quite know or understand why yet.  The book then rewinds to the beginning of the school year, when an itinerant artist and her high-school aged daughter arrive in town and rent the Richardsons’ condo. The introduction of Mia and Pearl, with their different ideologies and desires separate from the monoculture of Shaker Heights, break up the Richardsons’ tidy lives, particularly the mother Elena’s routine, WASPY mindset.

The disruption is, perhaps, not for the better. Pearl, having lived her entire life as a child constantly moved from one town to another, witnesses the comfortable lives of the Richardson children, who have never wanted for anything, and is quickly adopted into the children’s clan as friend and girlfriend. The Richardsons’ youngest daughter Izzy attaches herself to Mia, seeing in the artist a model for her own rebellion against Shaker Heights’ expectations. When a local adoption case pitting an affluent white couple against a poor Chinese mother becomes national news, Mia and Elena take opposing sides, prompting Elena to take drastic action and setting in motion events that will lead back to the raging house fire from the opening chapter.

LFL is a house afire (pun intended) of a novel, where EINTY was a slow burn. The Richardsons appear to be a family that functions as a well-oiled unit, just like all the other families behind the placid facades of the houses in Shaker Heights, but the introduction of Mia and Pearl provides the grit that works between the crevices until the family fractures from internal pressure. Ng leaves no characters’ dirty laundry unaired. The children’s abject selfishness in claiming Pearl as “theirs” is fascinating because she’s never truly an intimate, more of a plaything. The color-blind racism of the 90s gets raked over the coals in this book, both through the custody trial that forms the B-plot of the book and how the characters so often pride themselves as being “not racist” when blinded by privilege. There is so much to digest in this book. There is a whole dimension of Mia’s art that is just breathtaking, so thought-provoking and provocative, that I want a museum gallery to come to life so I can look at the images for hours. If the flash-backs were your favorite thing in EINTY, you won’t be disappointed (though I did think that a flashback section in LFL overstayed its welcome at one point, but that’s a pretty minor quibble).

Little Fires Everywhere is out today – an absolute Must Buy or Holiday Wishlist book.

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