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even though he is comatose in his hospital bed he is everywhere in this narrative, Barbra (the mother) is emotionally withdrawn and obsessed with her appearance, Alex (the daughter) is angry at her mother and can be vindictive, Greg (the son) deals with the situation by refusing to show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 · Reading Women · stuff I read

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, translated by Marilyn Booth

untitledSummary from Goodreads:
Winner of the 2019 Man Booker International Prize

In the village of al-Awafi in Oman, we encounter three sisters: Mayya, who marries after a heartbreak; Asma, who marries from a sense of duty; and Khawla, who chooses to refuse all offers and await a reunion with the man she loves, who has emigrated to Canada.

These three women and their families, their losses and loves, unspool beautifully against a backdrop of a rapidly changing Oman, a country evolving from a traditional, slave-owning society into its complex present. Through the sisters, we glimpse a society in all its degrees, from the very poorest of the local slave families to those making money through the advent of new wealth.

The first novel originally written in Arabic to ever win the Man Booker International Prize, and the first book by a female Omani author to be translated into English, Celestial Bodies marks the arrival in the United States of a major international writer.

I was very interested in this International Man Booker winner, the first Arabic-language winner of the prize and the first-ever novel by an Omani woman to be translated to English. Catapult was kind enough to approve my galley request. It is a beautifully-translated novel comprised of linked vignettes (best descriptor I have since the narrative is only vaguely linear with many narrators and points-of-view). Alharthi’s dream-like narrative uses the many perspectives of three generations of a family to capture a country and culture transitioning into the modern world.  There are a LOT of characters and the narrative shifts back and forth in time, so this definitely isn’t a fast read, but they’re all so interesting, especially the three sisters Mayya, Asma, and Khawla, Mayya’s husband Abdullah, and Zarifa, a woman formerly enslaved to Abdullah’s father.

Celestial Bodies is out now.

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

stuff I read

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale #2)

48143077._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
Fifteen years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, the theocratic regime of the Republic of Gilead maintains its grip on power, but there are signs it is beginning to rot from within.

At this crucial moment, the lives of three radically different women converge, with potentially explosive results. Two have grown up on opposite sides of the border: one in Gilead as the privileged daughter of an important Commander, and one in Canada, where she marches in anti-Gilead protests and watches news of its horrors on TV. The testimonies of these two young women, part of the first generation to come of age in the new order, are braided with a third voice: that of one of the regime’s enforcers, a woman who wields power through the ruthless accumulation and deployment of secrets. Long-buried secrets are what finally bring these three together, forcing each of them to come to terms with who she is and how far she will go for what she believes. As Atwood unfolds the stories of the women of The Testaments, she opens up our view of the innermost workings of Gilead in a triumphant blend of riveting suspense, blazing wit, and virtuosic world-building.

Not gonna lie, I was not impressed when The Testaments was announced. The Handmaid’s Tale is a book I felt never needed more explanation or sequel. It was a very important part of my reading when I was a teenager. I probably would have read The Testaments, eventually, but then it got picked for the Barnes and Noble Book Club so I had to read it right away to lead the group.

I did like the writing and overall book as a whole. But where The Handmaid’s Tale had bared teeth and outrage, The Testaments doesn’t really give us new ground. We get a lot of pedantic nuts-and-bolts about how Gilead came about and more detail about day-to-day women’s lives. Dirty secrets and double-dealing as expected. But it is readable and I did enjoy it. (And yes, mild spoiler, there is another epilogue from the Gilead symposium or whatever.)

In my opinion, you can read this without having read The Handmaid’s Tale, although you should really read that one anyway. Atwood sidesteps a direct sequel to Offred’s story here by choosing different narrators, although if you’re paying attention you can easily pick out the links to the earlier book (meaning: I guessed all the “twists” in the plot).

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book because no one got a galley.

stuff I read

The Penguin Book of Migration Literature: Departures, Arrivals, Generations, Returns edited by Dohra Ahmad, Edwidge Danticat (Foreword)

9780143133384_fbc9eSummary from Goodreads:
The first global anthology of migration literature featuring works by Mohsin Hamid, Zadie Smith, Marjane Satrapi, Salman Rushdie, and Warsan Shire, with a foreword by Edwidge Danticat, author of Everything Inside

Every year, three to four million people move to a new country. From war refugees to corporate expats, migrants constantly reshape their places of origin and arrival. This selection of works collected together for the first time brings together the most compelling literary depictions of migration.

Organized in four parts (Departures, Arrivals, Generations, and Returns), The Penguin Book of Migration Literature conveys the intricacy of worldwide migration patterns, the diversity of immigrant experiences, and the commonalities among many of those diverse experiences. Ranging widely across the eighteenth through twenty-first centuries, across every continent of the earth, and across multiple literary genres, the anthology gives readers an understanding of our rapidly changing world, through the eyes of those at the center of that change. With thirty carefully selected poems, short stories, and excerpts spanning three hundred years and twenty-five countries, the collection brings together luminaries, emerging writers, and others who have earned a wide following in their home countries but have been less recognized in the Anglophone world. Editor of the volume Dohra Ahmad provides a contextual introduction, notes, and suggestions for further exploration.

Penguin Classics has been knocking it out of the park these last few years with their anthologies and The Penguin Book of Migration Literature is no exception. It is a wonderfully solid and wide-ranging anthology of fiction, poetry, memoir, and personal essay on the subject of migration, whether voluntary or involuntary. The pieces are diverse geographically and chronologically (earliest works are from eighteenth-century writers and enslaved persons Olaudah Equiano and Phyllis Wheatley and the more recent are migrations from the Middle East and mid-2000s green card worries). My only complaint is that for excerpts of longer pieces (like from Zadie Smith’s White Teeth) there isn’t much context to orient the reader. The “Additional Reading/Watching” section at the back of the book is excellent.

The Penguin Book of Migration Literature is out now!

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

stuff I read

Inland by Téa Obreht

47878222Summary from Goodreads:
In the lawless, drought-ridden lands of the Arizona Territory in 1893, two extraordinary lives unfold. Nora is an unflinching frontierswoman awaiting the return of the men in her life–her husband, who has gone in search of water for the parched household, and her elder sons, who have vanished after an explosive argument. Nora is biding her time with her youngest son, who is convinced that a mysterious beast is stalking the land around their home.

Meanwhile, Lurie is a former outlaw and a man haunted by ghosts. He sees lost souls who want something from him, and he finds reprieve from their longing in an unexpected relationship that inspires a momentous expedition across the West. The way in which Lurie’s death-defying trek at last intersects with Nora’s plight is the surprise and suspense of this brilliant novel.

Mythical, lyrical, and sweeping in scope, Inland is grounded in true but little-known history. It showcases all of Téa Obreht’s talents as a writer, as she subverts and reimagines the myths of the American West, making them entirely–and unforgettably–her own.

I finally finished Inland, which I had to since I’m the book club leader tonight, but oof. Bit of a slog.

Téa Obreht’s lovely sentences saved this “novel” – which was comprised of two drastically different, cheaply foreshadowed, novellas that converged (finally) at the end of the book. In my opinion, she should have chosen either Nora’s story or Lurie’s story and developed an emotionally compelling, complete story. As it is, I found neither compelling. I would like to talk to her editor.

Content warning for racism toward non-white people on the page, particularly Native Americans (extremely to-period but it isn’t easy to read).

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

stuff I read

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

47517597._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
In this bravura follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning #1 New York Times bestseller The Underground Railroad , Colson Whitehead brilliantly dramatizes another strand of American history through the story of two boys sentenced to a hellish reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida.

As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is “as good as anyone.” Abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But for a black boy in the Jim Crow South in the early 1960s, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called The Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides “physical, intellectual and moral training” so the delinquent boys in their charge can become “honorable and honest men.”

In reality, The Nickel Academy is a grotesque chamber of horrors, where the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, corrupt officials and locals steal food and supplies, and any boy who resists is likely to disappear “out back.” Stunned to find himself in such a vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold on to Dr. King’s ringing assertion “Throw us in jail and we will still love you.” His friend Turner thinks Elwood is worse than naive, that the world is crooked and the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble.

The tension between Elwood’s ideals and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades. Formed in the crucible of the evils Jim Crow wrought, the boys’ fates will be determined by what they endured at The Nickel Academy.

Based on the real story of a reform school in Florida that operated for one hundred and eleven years and warped the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative that showcases a great American novelist writing at the height of his powers.

I was so excited when The Nickel Boys was announced because The Underground Railroad was one of the best books I read in 2016. So much is packed into this little book. Now, it didn’t wreck me like The Underground Railroad – I was a sobbing mess by the end of that book. The Nickel Boys was more quietly devastating. Whitehead didn’t pull his punches but instead slipped them around from behind. The violence doesn’t hit you in the face, it come from the side, stabs you in the back. I also thought a lot about Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, currently streaming on Netflix, of all the years and opportunities schools and jails like the Nickel Academy steal from young black men.

Read for the Barnes and Noble Book Club – the best book they’ve picked for the program by far.

Dear FTC: I read an advance galley sent to my store for the book club discussion leader (me).

mini-review · stuff I read · translation

Käsebier Takes Berlin by Gabriele Tergit, translated by Sophie Duvernoy

38911927._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
In Berlin, 1930, the name Käsebier is on everyone’s lips. A literal combination of the German words for “cheese” and “beer,” it’s an unglamorous name for an unglamorous man—a small-time crooner who performs nightly on a shabby stage for laborers, secretaries, and shopkeepers. Until the press shows up.

In the blink of an eye, this everyman is made a star: a star who can sing songs for a troubled time. Margot Weissmann, the arts patron, hosts champagne breakfasts for Käsebier; Muschler the banker builds a theater in his honor; Willi Frächter, a parvenu writer, makes a mint off Käsebier-themed business ventures and books. All the while, the journalists who catapulted Käsebier to fame watch the monstrous media machine churn in amazement—and are aghast at the demons they have unleashed.

In Käsebier Takes Berlin, the journalist Gabriele Tergit penned a searing satire of the excesses and follies of the Weimar Republic. Chronicling a country on the brink of fascism and a press on the edge of collapse, Tergit’s novel caused a sensation when it was published in 1931. As witty as Kurt Tucholsky and as trenchant as Karl Kraus, Tergit portrays a world too entranced by fireworks to notice its smoldering edges.

Käsebier Takes Berlin jumped out at me when I was looking through the New York Review Books Classics catalog. “Cheese beer” is the literal translation of “Käsebier” – what is that name? This is the first English translation of a satirical novel from 1931 Germany, whose author fled the rise of Nazism in 1933, eventually ending up in London. OK. I’m in.

Käsebier Takes Berlin shows us a “year-in-the-life” of what happens when a mediocre Jewish Everyman (Käsebier) becomes an overnight cabaret sensation (look, it was a slow news day). He becomes a media darling, despite singing lukewarm 1930s dancehall music, and lends his name to everything from shoes to rubber dolls to the construction of a luxury apartment building by a shady speculator. Then it all falls apart. T

This is the driest satirical look at the Berlin intelligentsia and upper class of 1930. Gabriele Tergit spares no one, not even Käsebier. Tergit skewers the capitalist drive to make as much money as possible off the hot shit for the moment – a drive that still exists in ever-increasing amounts of media tie-in rubbish and branding in the 21st century. She also gives part of the narrative to Miss Kohler, also referred to as Dr. Kohler, a woman with a doctorate who is severely under-employed at a middling newspaper and is repeatedly strung along by an old boyfriend. It’s an interesting look at a woman stuck at the crossroads between the modern and the traditional roles for women just as Germany the country is about to start on the long road to atrocity. An interesting book for me to read and contrast with the Germany of Fritz Lang’s M (a favorite movie) and Isherwood’s Berlin Stories.

Käsebier Takes Berlin is out on Tuesday, July 30!

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

mini-review · stuff I read

The Vexations by Caitlin Horrocks

42283234Summary from Goodreads:
A kaleidoscopic debut novel about love, family, genius, and the madness of art, circling the life of eccentric composer Erik Satie and La Belle Époque Paris, from a writer who is “wildly entertaining” (San Francisco Chronicle), “startlingly ingenious” (Boston Globe), and “impressively sharp” (New York Times Book Review).

Erik Satie begins life with every possible advantage. But after the dual blows of his mother’s early death and his father’s breakdown upend his childhood, Erik and his younger siblings — Louise and Conrad — are scattered. Later, as an ambitious young composer, Erik flings himself into the Parisian art scene, aiming for greatness but achieving only notoriety.
As the years, then decades, pass, he alienates those in his circle as often as he inspires them, lashing out at friends and lovers like Claude Debussy and Suzanne Valadon. Only Louise and Conrad are steadfast allies. Together they strive to maintain their faith in their brother’s talent and hold fast the badly frayed threads of family. But in a journey that will take her from Normandy to Paris to Argentina, Louise is rocked by a severe loss that ultimately forces her into a reckoning with how Erik — obsessed with his art and hungry for fame — will never be the brother she’s wished for.
With her buoyant, vivid reimagination of an iconic artist’s eventful life, Caitlin Horrocks has written a captivating and ceaselessly entertaining novel about the tenacious bonds of family and the costs of greatness, both to ourselves and to those we love.

The Vexations is a very intimate novel about the life of Erik Satie and his sister, brother, and two friends who knew him well. The writing is beautiful, particularly in those chapters from Satie’s perspective talking about “touch” or music, and Horrocks described the Montmartre that Satie inhabited so well. The chapters from his sister Louise’s perspective are interesting. These chapters are the only ones told using a first-person narrator; all others, including Satie’s chapters, are told using a close third person perspective. I think I figured out why the author made that choice – Louise outlives every else involved in Satie’s life – but I don’t quite think it was needed. I would also argue that while Satie is the focus of the novel, as a man writing music that needed the world to catch up to him, Louise is as important a character. She brings to life a woman who was a talented pianist, who may have blossomed given the instruction and encouragement that Erik is given (that he rejects), but is instead relegated to the roles of mother, widow, and then branded an unfit mother by the French legal system and a greedy brother-in-law.

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