mini-review · stuff I read

Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

Summary from Goodreads:

Award-winning Nishnaabeg storyteller and writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson returns with a bold reimagination of the novel, one that combines narrative and poetic fragments through a careful and fierce reclamation of Anishinaabe aesthetics.

Mashkawaji (they/them) lies frozen in the ice, remembering a long-ago time of hopeless connection and now finding freedom and solace in isolated suspension. They introduce us to the seven main characters: Akiwenzii, the old man who represents the narrator’s will; Ninaatig, the maple tree who represents their lungs; Mindimooyenh, the old woman who represents their conscience; Sabe, the giant who represents their marrow; Adik, the caribou who represents their nervous system; Asin, the human who represents their eyes and ears; and Lucy, the human who represents their brain. Each attempts to commune with the unnatural urban-settler world, a world of SpongeBob Band-Aids, Ziploc baggies, Fjällräven Kånken backpacks, and coffee mugs emblazoned with institutional logos. And each searches out the natural world, only to discover those pockets that still exist are owned, contained, counted, and consumed. Cut off from nature, the characters are cut off from their natural selves.

Noopiming is Anishinaabemowin for “in the bush,” and the title is a response to English Canadian settler and author Susanna Moodie’s 1852 memoir Roughing It in the Bush. To read Simpson’s work is an act of decolonization, degentrification, and willful resistance to the perpetuation and dissemination of centuries-old colonial myth-making. It is a lived experience. It is a breaking open of the self to a world alive with people, animals, ancestors, and spirits, who are all busy with the daily labours of healing — healing not only themselves, but their individual pieces of the network, of the web that connects them all together. Enter and be changed.

Noopiming is an incredibly interesting and thought-provoking work blending fiction with Anishinaabe storytelling. It feels almost experimental, the way the characters – who are physical manifestations of Mashkawaji* in the modern urban world – interact with one another. All the characters connect with one another in their search for community and a connection to the natural world, even as White Western culture swallows it up and covers it up with roads and garbage. There is a beauty in how unmoored this story feels, with no discernible “plot” – I had to work to put all the pieces together but it was very worth it. I definitely would like to check out more of the author’s work.

*Mashkawaji is not a god, in the way the Western tradition would define a god-like being, but more a representation of community and tradition held in suspension; they are hard to explain as a character outside of the narrative but when reading their introduction at the beginning of the book that was the feeling I got.

Noopiming is out September 1! (Note: I’m not sure if this date includes the US, since I can’t find any pre-order links at this time, but if this changes I will update.)

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.
stuff I read · YA all the way

Don’t Read the Comments by Eric Smith

Divya Sharma is a queen. Or she is when she’s playing Reclaim the Sun, the year’s hottest online game. Divya—better known as popular streaming gamer D1V—regularly leads her #AngstArmada on quests through the game’s vast and gorgeous virtual universe. But for Divya, this is more than just a game. Out in the real world, she’s trading her rising-star status for sponsorships to help her struggling single mom pay the rent.

Gaming is basically Aaron Jericho’s entire life. Much to his mother’s frustration, Aaron has zero interest in becoming a doctor like her, and spends his free time writing games for a local developer. At least he can escape into Reclaim the Sun—and with a trillion worlds to explore, disappearing should be easy. But to his surprise, he somehow ends up on the same remote planet as celebrity gamer D1V.

At home, Divya and Aaron grapple with their problems alone, but in the game, they have each other to face infinite new worlds…and the growing legion of trolls populating them. Soon the virtual harassment seeps into reality when a group called the Vox Populi begin launching real-world doxxing campaigns, threatening Aaron’s dreams and Divya’s actual life. The online trolls think they can drive her out of the game, but everything and everyone Divya cares about is on the line…

And she isn’t going down without a fight.

I’ve followed Eric Smith’s career for a while so I was really tickled to see Don’t Read the Comments (which originally had a different title) out in the world. Took me a bit to read the galley – because life – but I plopped down last night and read the whole thing start to finish. This is a really great YA fiction about a professional gamer girl who is targeted by an organized troll squad (why the industry even entertains these bozos is beyond me) because she’s female and brown who meets a non-pro gamer boy who wants to write stories for video games and runs into problems with an indie game-maker who takes advantage of him. Divya and Aaron have really cute chat interactions but also great interactions with their IRL friends, Rebekah and Ryan. They also have some real-world problems to deal with as teens. Divya’s dad has walked out on her and her mom and it’s her sponsorships and sale of gaming gear she’s been comped that are helping pay the bills. Aaron’s parents are really pushing for him to be pre-med to take over the family practice and low-key threatening to not pay for college if he doesn’t follow that path. The one thing I wish this book did was have Divya and Aaron bonding a bit more over non-gaming stuff, because I feel like the parents and how the teens deal with the parent stuff isn’t quite as developed as the gaming plot. It’s a minor thing because the rest of the book is really good.

Eric very explicitly lays out the problems of sexual harassment, racism, abuse, trolling, doxxing, toxic dudes, IP and copyright infringement, and gatekeeping which are rampant in the industry. There are some really scary moments – such as when Divya’s mom is attacked by trolls at her place of work – and some bros pull the “I was nice to you why won’t you put out” at a pizza parlor. There’s also some description of Rebekah’s previous assault that happened before the book opens, but is used by the trolls to terrorize her. So just a brief content warning that Eric doesn’t soft-ball the scary bits, he just doesn’t describe them graphically.

Now, I’m not a gamer – the last actual video game I played was Myst III…or IV? Which one was Riven? on a PC running Windows 98, I’m an Old, lol – so it took me a little bit to adjust to the descriptions of in-game play for the MMORPG that Divya streams on the “Glitch” platform. But I got into it after a while and Angst Armada that has Divya’s back really sounds like fun, so don’t worry if you’re not a gamer. And, not gonna lie, I did a little squeal when Desi Geek Girls – a rad podcast run by Preeti Chhibber and Swapna Krishna – got name-checked late in the book.

Now I’m going to have a minor spoiler here, so if you want to stop reading here, heyo, Don’t Read the Comments is out now, you can buy it! Thanks for reading!

S

P

O

I

L

E

R

OK. The resolutions to the troll plot and trash game developer plot are both well-done (although if we actually got to see some real fallout for the bad actors in those plots in the form of lost jobs, lost investors, etc that would have been A+ but overall, yes, good plot climaxes). However, in the falling action of the book Divya decides to stop gaming professionally. She gives up her sponsorships, sells a lot of her gear, and so on so she and her mom are good for the financial short-term. And that made me a little sad. That even though she stood up to the trolls and “won,” the fun that she and Rebekah had with the Angst Armada has been ruined – what the trolls couldn’t stand was that Divya was engaging to fans because she had fun playing the game and made sure that others were having fun, too, and god forbid people love something unironically – and she and Rebekah are really going to have to rebuild their security and their peace-of-mind. It’s a very real-world outcome to this story. Don’t Read the Comments is not a fantasy where the Bad Guys are caught, Divya finds a Cute Guy, and every thing magically returns to normal like it had before the trolls and the doxxing. We are left with an “everyone is doing OK for now” where everyone is processing their trauma and doing their best. I think it really takes some bravery to write an ending like this, where it is not completely satisfying, because we readers do so want good things for characters we root for. And we root so hard for Divya and Aaron to dominate the bad guys so completely that they have to use dial-up to get on the Internet for the rest of their lives. So hats off to Eric for taking the risk with this ending. (And yes, I’m making a hat joke because he’s rarely without his flat cap, haha.)

Don’t Read the Comments has been out since January, you can pick it up wherever books are sold.

Dear FTC: I read a galley of this book we got at my store from the publisher.

audiobooks · Austenesque · stuff I read

The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner – audiobook review and Austenprose blog tour!

BOOK DESCRIPTION:

Just after the Second World War, in the small English village of Chawton, an unusual but like-minded group of people band together to attempt something remarkable.

One hundred and fifty years ago, Chawton was the final home of Jane Austen, one of England’s finest novelists. Now it’s home to a few distant relatives and their diminishing estate. With the last bit of Austen’s legacy threatened, a group of disparate individuals come together to preserve both Jane Austen’s home and her legacy. These people—a laborer, a young widow, the local doctor, and a movie star, among others—could not be more different and yet they are united in their love for the works and words of Austen. As each of them endures their own quiet struggle with loss and trauma, some from the recent war, others from more distant tragedies, they rally together to create the Jane Austen Society.

AUDIOBOOK NARRATED BY ACTOR RICHARD ARMITAGE:

The full unabridged text of THE JANE AUSTEN SOCIETY was read by the distinguished English film, television, theatre and voice actor Richard Armitage for the audiobook recording. Best known by many period drama fans for his outstanding performance as John Thornton in the BBC television adaptation of North and South (2004), Armitage also portrayed Thorin Oakenshield in Peter Jackson’s film trilogy adaptation of The Hobbit (2012 – 2014).

Link to YouTube audiobook excerpt: https://youtu.be/OJ1ACJluRi8

AUTHOR BIO:

Natalie Jenner is the debut author of THE JANE AUSTEN SOCIETY, a fictional telling of the start of the society in the 1940s in the village of Chawton, where Austen wrote or revised her major works. Born in England and raised in Canada, Natalie graduated from the University of Toronto with degrees in English Literature and Law and has worked for decades in the legal industry. She recently founded the independent bookstore Archetype Books in Oakville, Ontario, where she lives with her family and two rescue dogs.
WEBSITE | TWITTER | FACEBOOK | INSTAGRAM | GOODREADS

So, if you hadn’t already noticed, I’m pretty down for all things Jane Austen. I definitely had The Jane Austen Society on my list of spring releases very early on after St. Martin’s Press catalogs came available on Edelweiss. Historical novel about the creation of the Jane Austen society? Sign me up. And then Laurel Ann of Austenprose invited me to not only be part of her incredible blog tour but also review the audiobook read by Richard (Freakin’) Armitage. Would I like to listen to Mr. Thornton read me a book? YES PLEASE. I already loved his narration of three of my favorite Georgette Heyer novels (Venetia, The Convenient Marriage, and Sylvester, or The Wicked Uncle) so I was prepared to be delighted with this book.

Now, I haven’t finished it. I’m about 2-3 hours from the end of the audiobook. We can thank the coronavirus for disrupting my reading. I usually read audiobooks while commuting back and forth to work in the car/on the bus and, well, my commute right now is the distance from my French press in the kitchen to my desk in my home office, approximately 40 feet. What also makes this harder is that the app used for the audiobook galley doesn’t play through my car speakers as well as an inability to listen to fiction audiobooks while I’m working. So even though I planned some extra listening time with a review slot at the tail end of this blog tour, I’m a tad bit behind. But, oh, I do love this book.

The Jane Austen Society is a character-driven tale about the foundation of the real Jane Austen Society that saved Jane Austen’s Chawton cottage as a major landmark and site of literary pilgrimage. Each main character here – the town doctor, a laborer, a school teacher, a housemaid, a lawyer, a movie star, the last descendant of the Knight family – has their own tale of loss in this post-World War II setting. And underlying all that loss is an incredible love for the work of Jane Austen. This is the love of Austen that goes beyond admiration for the books. This is looking beyond the books to see themselves in the characters. And it’s a love that pushes them in an uphill battle to preserve a fast-disappearing legacy in a dying rural English town. (Note: I did check the Historical Note in a print copy of the book and all these characters and events are made up for this book. The Jane Austen Society is real, as are Jane Austen’s cottage and the Knight estate in Chawton, of course.)

Richard Armitage’s narration is perfect for this book. He is adept with accents, from the country accent of a farm laborer, to an upper class middle-aged woman, to a Scots auctioneer, to an American movie star. His reading speed is good – he doesn’t do that annoying thing where he pauses between sentences so the conversation between characters feels natural – and while he does feminize his voice a bit for the female characters it’s not a cloying falsetto. And when he has to provide the sexy voice of Mimi’s rich American boyfriend/fiancee/backer/whatever he thinks he is because he’s kind of a jerk…well, one of Armitage’s best voices in the Heyer books is whenever he gets to voice a rake. Yummy.

I will give a small content warning that grief is a major part of this book. Several characters lose spouses or family members. There is also a traumatic pregnancy loss and stillbirth, so if you are sensitive to that kind of event there are several chapters that deal with Adeline’s loss and grief at about the 25% mark (the birth itself is mostly kept off the page but it is described in medical terms).

For fun, Natalie Jenner put together a Spotify playlist! If you use Spotify, you can find it here: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/5Q1Vl17qyQQIvvPGeIPCkr?si=-iMhVz8uRk2v2mTdolrPdg. The playlist includes music from various film adaptions of Jane Austen’s books, as well as film scores by such incomparable artists as Hans Zimmer, Ennio Morricone, Rachel Portman, and Michael Nyman.

Now, I’m coming in at the end of the blog tour, but feel free to look back at all the different reviews and features (75 blogs!) linked at the bottom of the Austenprose review here.

Thanks so very, very much to Laurel Ann for inviting me to the blog tour and providing me with the opportunity to listen to and review this audiobook.

Dear FTC: I listened to a digital galley of the audiobook provided by the publisher.

audiobooks · mini-review · stuff I read

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Thomas Cromwell Trilogy #2), read by Simon Vance

17304636 (1)Summary from Goodreads:
The sequel to Hilary Mantel’s 2009 Man Booker Prize winner and New York Times best seller, Wolf Hall, delves into the heart of Tudor history with the downfall of Anne Boleyn. Though he battled for seven years to marry her, Henry is disenchanted with Anne Boleyn. She has failed to give him a son and her sharp intelligence and audacious will alienate his old friends and the noble families of England. When the discarded Katherine dies in exile from the court, Anne stands starkly exposed, the focus of gossip and malice. At a word from Henry, Thomas Cromwell is ready to bring her down. Over three terrifying weeks, Anne is ensnared in a web of conspiracy, while the demure Jane Seymour stands waiting her turn for the poisoned wedding ring. But Anne and her powerful family will not yield without a ferocious struggle. Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies follows the dramatic trial of the queen and her suitors for adultery and treason. To defeat the Boleyns, Cromwell must ally with his natural enemies, the papist aristocracy. What price will he pay for Anne’s head?

I bought Bring Up the Bodies in hardcover when it came out, but never got to it. (And it won a Booker, what is wrong with me, lol) But the third book in the trilogy is out this month so I decided to knuckle down and read it. Meaning, I put the audiobook on hold through the library Overdrive because I had such problems sorting out who was speaking in Wolf Hall (when almost all the characters are dudes, “he” doesn’t help much). The narrator of Bring Up the Bodies, Simon Vance, really helped keep the characters straight with excellent variation in voices and accents. Mantel also helped this problem by stating “he, Cromwell” or “he, Henry” which gave a very formal sense of history to the story as well. It felt like a more zippy book since the plot place over a much shorter timeline – approximately a year versus what seemed like 40 years of Cromwell’s life in Wolf Hall.

Not sure when I’ll read The Mirror and the Light but I’ll get there.

Dear FTC: I borrowed the audiobook from the library overdrive, but I also bought it in hardcover.

stuff I read

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

46263943Summary from Goodreads:
Named one of the most anticipated books of the year by Entertainment Weekly, Harper’s Bazaar, BuzzFeed, and more.

A novel of startling intimacy, violence, and mercy among friends in a Midwestern university town, from an electric new voice.

Almost everything about Wallace is at odds with the Midwestern university town where he is working uneasily toward a biochem degree. An introverted young man from Alabama, black and queer, he has left behind his family without escaping the long shadows of his childhood. For reasons of self-preservation, Wallace has enforced a wary distance even within his own circle of friends—some dating each other, some dating women, some feigning straightness. But over the course of a late-summer weekend, a series of confrontations with colleagues, and an unexpected encounter with an ostensibly straight, white classmate, conspire to fracture his defenses while exposing long-hidden currents of hostility and desire within their community.

Real Life is a novel of profound and lacerating power, a story that asks if it’s ever really possible to overcome our private wounds, and at what cost.

About four or five (six? what is time?) years ago, someone RT’d a reaction gif of Pride and Prejudice (from the miniseries) into my Twitter feed. It was clever and spot on, from a guy named Brandon who was a biochem grad student. He had a whole string of gifs from a live-Tweet of the miniseries so I hit the follow button. I have never regretted it as Brandon shared more and more of his writing, beautiful short stories and personal essays, and his quietly sarcastic humor with us on Twitter and in various literary publications. After he moved to my town for the MFA program in writing, our paths crossed often on campus and at literary events. And I’m absolutely floored by Brandon’s debut novel Real Life. (I’m not surprised, since he’s so damn talented and has a heck of a work ethic, but the book is still a stunner.)

Real Life is a campus novel about a character who is always on the periphery of campus novels – a gay, black, and broke young man named Wallace in a prestigious biochemistry program at a very (very) white Midwestern university. This is not funny like Lucky Jim or navel-gaze-y like The Marriage Plot or Stoner. This is about one weekend in Wallace’s career in graduate school. Three days. One choice (accepting an invitation to hang at the lake with friends after his summer project goes wrong and he just doesn’t have the spoons to restart it that evening) that is the first domino in a chain of many to fall and lead him to the ultimate decision: should he stay in his graduate program and endure all manners of microaggressions and macroaggressions and continue to work doggedly toward his PhD or should he leave and take a chance on the unknown? Underlying all of Wallace’s actions is the knowledge that his estranged father died several weeks ago; no matter how much Wallace might try to keep the past buried safely in the past it bubbles up to confront him.

Wallace’s story is lovely, quiet, and so very, very real (Brandon always says he writes domestic realism and he isn’t wrong). Wallace is the kind of character who feels conditioned to keep an even keel and keep himself to himself, no matter how angry or happy or sad he might feel on the inside, because if he does drop the facade and express emotion he’s immediately smacked down for it. He’s picked on for his “deficiencies” – an absolutely maddening term and one I’ve heard used by faculty in the past to describe students from less-privileged (i.e. often code for “black”) backgrounds – and snidely dismissed by his adviser. His keep-your-head-down-and-work-hard ethic is thrown back at him as arrogant. Even though these events might seem like high drama, Brandon’s prose has such a calm beauty in his description. Even a description of breeding and plating nematodes has such beauty that we are hit with dismay when it’s revealed the plates are colonized by fungi, ruining the project. But it all feels so intimate, so quiet, particularly an extraordinary stream-of-consciousness chapter where Wallace narrates his childhood history to a lover (hook-up? lover? Booty-call isn’t right, either). Such a beautiful character study.

*Edit to add: at Brandon’s reading at Prairie Lights on Wednesday, he mentioned that some white reviewers see this novel as “raw” (or various similar descriptors) which…definitely not Wallace. I might concede rawness when it comes to showing the racist and homophobic micro and macroaggressions from his friends and colleagues, including one really awful scene where a fellow graduate student (and I absolutely despise this character) uses the n- and f- words before accusing him of misogyny. Brandon isn’t interested in coating their treatment of Wallace in politeness, to make white people feel better. There’s no window-dressing or walking-back to soften these characters. It feels raw because the “nice” and “who mean well” has been removed from the Nice White People Who Mean Well. They’re presented in all their ickiness.

I’m a bit worried I am not doing Real Life justice in my review. Sometimes, you finish a book and just sit in wonder. This book speaks to me on many levels and on other levels I know I have missed nuances. As a nice, white, straight, middle-aged lady, there are corners and layers in Wallace’s story that I will never uncover, no matter how hard I try because I just don’t have the experience or background to see them. To make up for this, allow me to link to three incredible reviews of Real Life, all by men who are both black and queer: Michael Arceneaux in Time, Jeremy O. Harris in The New York Times, and MJ Franklin also in the Times.

Real Life is an early contender for one of my best books of 2020 (and 2020 publishing is bananas, y’all). Please, please buy it, read it, recommend it for your library to purchase. Meanwhile, I’ll be waiting on pins and needles for Brandon’s short story collection, Filthy Animals. Real Life is available everywhere in the US today!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss and will be buying a copy at Brandon’s reading tomorrow. Also, he’s a friend, so take that as you will.

 

Austenesque · stuff I read

Sanditon by Jane Austen and Kate Riordan: A blog tour review with Austenprose!

Riordan_Sanditon(TP)

BOOK DESCRIPTION:

In the vein of Downton Abbey, Jane Austen’s beloved but unfinished masterpiece-often considered her most modern and exciting novel-gets a spectacular second act in this tie-in to a major new limited television series.

Written only months before Austen’s death in 1817, Sanditon tells the story of the joyously impulsive, spirited and unconventional Charlotte Heywood and her spiky relationship with the humorous, charming (and slightly wild!) Sidney Parker. When a chance accident transports her from her rural hometown of Willingden to the would-be coastal resort of the eponymous title, it exposes Charlotte to the intrigues and dalliances of a seaside town on the make, and the characters whose fortunes depend on its commercial success. The twists and turns of the plot, which takes viewers from the West Indies to the rotting alleys of London, exposes the hidden agendas of each character and sees Charlotte discover herself… and ultimately find love.

AUTHOR BIO:

Kate Riordan is a writer and journalist from England. Her first job was as an editorial assistant at the Guardian newspaper, followed by a stint as deputy editor for the lifestyle section of London bible, Time Out magazine. There she had assignments that saw her racing reindeers in Lapland, going undercover in London’s premier department store and gleaning writing tips (none-too subtly) during interviews with some of her favorite authors. After becoming a freelancer, she left London behind and moved to the beautiful Cotswolds in order to write her first novel.

When Jane Austen died, she left behind six completed novels (four published) and fragments of several more, including the beginning of Sanditon, a novel about a young woman visiting an up-and-coming resort town. Only about sixty pages exist, several of them more in the vein of “plot-bunny problems for Future Jane to solve later,” definitely not enough to determine Austen’s intention for the resolution of the plot but just enough to establish her cast of characters: Miss Charlotte Heywood, the many Parkers, Lady Denham and her household, and Miss Lambe.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century and Sanditon has been adapted as an eight-part television series airing in the US on PBS January 12 – February 23, 2020. Screenwriter Andrew Davies – responsible for Colin Firth’s wet-shirt scene in Pride and Prejudice (at the very least) – took on the task of fleshing out Austen’s world of seaside resorts and invalids and creating a plot where not had existed. And it is a very pretty adaptation, with lovely costumes and beautiful British actors (oh, hello, Theo James). It is a very sexy adaptation, too, which is to be expected in a Davies adaptation and it, uh, goes rather beyond wet shirts. There’s a gorgeous companion book in the vein of the Downton Abbey tie-ins that looks behind the scenes of the show (this show is totally Regency era catnip for Downton Abbey fans). I haven’t watched more than the first few episodes of the show because I finished the novelization by Kate Riordan.

And I didn’t like the ending.

Now. I had also prepped for this release by re-reading Austen’s original fragment (I have multiple editions of her fragments and juvenilia but the Penguin Classics edition that includes The Watsons and Lady Susan is the most readable, in my opinion). So I had Austen’s sentence structure and style fresh in my mind when I started Kate Riordan’s adaptation of Andrew Davies script. The two styles do not mesh well in my mind. Modern prose is very prescriptive, telling you what characters are touching and doing as if describing a movie scene to the reader. In addition, this adaptation and novelization is rather…earthy. Austen would have known all about sex and what people get up to when alone (she was a Georgian, not a Victorian, and spent more than enough of her time helping her sisters-in-law during their confinements) but she certainly wouldn’t have put it on the page, even as a fade-to-black scene. So it was a bit jarring.

Then there’s the ending. I’m not going to totally spoil it, but quit reading now if you want to finish out either the show or the novel without a whiff of spoilage. So. If one is a show runner, who wants to keep Sanditon going for more than one season, you go for this ending. Look at the mileage Downton Abbey got for three seasons with the will-they-won’t-they antagonism of Mary and Matthew. If one is a reader who reads Austen extensively, owns multiple editions of her novels, and regularly imbibes Regency romance novels? This ending is so unsatisfying. I sincerely hope the show gets second season pickup because I can’t believe this is where Austen would have left her characters. (Well, to be honest, she wouldn’t have put some of them in some of these situations in the first place, in my opinion.)

Verdict? Enjoy the TV show but don’t re-read Austen’s original right before reading the novelization.

I’m participating in a blog tour organized by Lauren Ann of Austenprose! Visit her site to read Laurel Ann’s review of Sanditon and find a list of other bloggers featuring Sanditon on their pages. Thanks Laurel Ann for the review opportunity!

Dear FTC: I received finished copies of Sanditon and The World of Sanditon from the publisher for participating in the blog tour.

mini-review · stuff I read

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano

50621280._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
After losing everything, a young boy discovers there are still reasons for hope in this luminous, life-affirming novel, perfect for fans of Celeste Ng and Ann Patchett.

In the face of tragedy, what does it take to find joy?

One summer morning, twelve-year-old Edward Adler, his beloved older brother, his parents, and 183 other passengers board a flight in Newark headed for Los Angeles. Among them is a Wall Street wunderkind, a young woman coming to terms with an unexpected pregnancy, an injured vet returning from Afghanistan, a septuagenarian business tycoon, and a free-spirited woman running away from her controlling husband. And then, tragically, the plane crashes. Edward is the sole survivor.

Edward’s story captures the attention of the nation, but he struggles to find a place for himself in a world without his family. He continues to feel that a piece of him has been left in the sky, forever tied to the plane and all of his fellow passengers. But then he makes an unexpected discovery–one that will lead him to the answers of some of life’s most profound questions: When you’ve lost everything, how do find yourself? How do you discover your purpose? What does it mean not just to survive, but to truly live?

Dear Edward is at once a transcendent coming-of-age story, a multidimensional portrait of an unforgettable cast of characters, and a breathtaking illustration of all the ways a broken heart learns to love again.

Dear Edward is a very moving and well-crafted novel about the trauma of loss. Napolitano balanced the alternating storylines – the narrative of the flight itself and Edward’s life after the crash – very well. It’s one of those few novels where the two storylines are fighting one another. We know that the end of the “flight narrative” will end in a crash, there will be few surprises so it serves to fill out Edward’s narrative moving forward. The descriptions of how grief feels, how one carries around trauma like that are spot on. I’d never read Napolitano’s books before but this one makes me think about picking up the others some day.

I think this might be a hard book to read for someone who has experienced a sudden loss like Edward’s or has PTSD but Napolitano doesn’t use the story of the crash as spectacle. There are no gory descriptions and only 3-4 pages of description of the crash itself near the end.

Dear FTC: I read a galley of this book provided to the book club leader (me) at my store.

stuff I read

Cleanness by Garth Greenwell

45892271Summary from Goodreads:
In the highly anticipated follow-up to his beloved debut, What Belongs to You, Garth Greenwell deepens his exploration of foreignness, obligation, and desire

Sofia, Bulgaria, a landlocked city in southern Europe, stirs with hope and impending upheaval. Soviet buildings crumble, wind scatters sand from the far south, and political protesters flood the streets with song.

In this atmosphere of disquiet, an American teacher navigates a life transformed by the discovery and loss of love. As he prepares to leave the place he’s come to call home, he grapples with the intimate encounters that have marked his years abroad, each bearing uncanny reminders of his past. A queer student’s confession recalls his own first love, a stranger’s seduction devolves into paternal sadism, and a romance with another foreigner opens, and heals, old wounds. Each echo reveals startling insights about what it means to seek connection: with those we love, with the places we inhabit, and with our own fugitive selves.

Cleanness revisits and expands the world of Garth Greenwell’s beloved debut, What Belongs to You, declared “an instant classic” by The New York Times Book Review. In exacting, elegant prose, he transcribes the strange dialects of desire, cementing his stature as one of our most vital living writers.

A quick up-front disclaimer: I know Garth socially, and through Twitter, and absolutely love to hear him discuss books and have conversations with other writers. His first book, What Belongs to You, is incredible.

Cleanness is comprised of a series of vignettes narrated by the narrator from What Belongs to You, an unnamed, gay American teacher in Sofia, Bulgaria. He is lonely, aching in the aftermath of a breakup with his long-distance boyfriend, and trying to find connection in a city he will soon leave. The longing for true companionship as an openly gay man is palpable.  At times, it seems the city itself, Sophia, is the narrator’s only real friend. In the third vignette (“Decent People”) the narrator joins in a protest march and even in this large crowd, even when he finds friends and one of his students, he still remains apart but his narration about the path of the march reveals a hidden depth of affection for his adopted city.

The central three vignettes of the book present the arc of the narrator’s long-distance relationship with a Portuguese man, “Loving R.” These stories are tender, beginning with the exuberance of finding a person who is so right for your heart and ending with the bittersweet realization that age and distance might be insurmountable odds. Greenwell has bookended this section with two incredible chapters of the narrator seeking sexual release in D/s encounters found through dating apps. In the first encounter, “Gospodar,” the narrator is the submissive, seeking release through willing humiliation, to be nothing, until the scene turns terrifying; in the second, “The Little Saint,” the narrator is the dominant in the scene with a younger sub who invites the narrator to use him as needed. Both of these scenes are breathtaking in the beauty of their sentences and the honesty of the narrator’s desire. By placing them either side of the “Loving R.” section, they underscore the different types of connection we seek as humans, without judgement for desire or kink. But in looking back on those chapters, we also feel the narrator’s loss of R. very acutely. At times I thought of Jane Eyre, Rochester’s idea of the cord, tying him to Jane somewhere under his ribs, and were it to break he would bleed inwardly. The narrator of Cleanness bleeds inwardly and, as a gay man in a country that is unwelcoming to those who fall outside of the cis/het binary, he bleeds silently or, at times, with shame (the final story, “An Evening Out,” is incredible).

“But then there’s no fathoming pleasure, the forms it takes or their sources, nothing we can imagine is beyond it; however far beyond the pale of our own desires, for someone it is the intensest desire, the key to the latch of the self, or the promised key, a key that perhaps never turns.” (~p 38, I don’t have a finished copy to check the page number)

Cleanness is beautiful, emotionally naked, raw, frank, tender, and explicit. A book to sit beside Edinburgh and How We Fight For Our Lives. Even though Cleanness is a sequel of-sorts, you don’t have to have read What Belongs to You to read Cleanness but I highly recommend that you do because it puts several of the narrator’s experiences into perspective.

A content warning for brief sexual violence on the page (neither long nor gratuitous, perhaps two pages at most).

Cleanness is out today, January 14!

Dear FTC: Thank you so much FSG for the review copy.

Edited to add: Please read Colm Toibin’s review of Cleanness in the New York Times Book Review. I could never do Cleanness the justice it deserves.