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.

mini-review · Read My Own Damn Books · stuff I read

The Shadow of the Wind (The Cemetery of Forgotten Books #1) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, translated by Lucia Graves

1232Summary from Goodreads:
The international literary sensation, about a boy’s quest through the secrets and shadows of postwar Barcelona for a mysterious author whose book has proved as dangerous to own as it is impossible to forget.

Barcelona, 1945 – just after the war, a great world city lies in shadow, nursing its wounds, and a boy named Daniel awakes on his eleventh birthday to find that he can no longer remember his mother’s face. To console his only child, Daniel’s widowed father, an antiquarian book dealer, initiates him into the secret of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a library tended by Barcelona’s guild of rare-book dealers as a repository for books forgotten by the world, waiting for someone who will care about them again. Daniel’s father coaxes him to choose a volume from the spiraling labyrinth of shelves, one that, it is said, will have a special meaning for him. And Daniel so loves the novel he selects, The Shadow of the Wind by one Julian Carax, that he sets out to find the rest of Carax’s work. To his shock, he discovers that someone has been systematically destroying every copy of every book this author has written. In fact, he may have the last one in existence. Before Daniel knows it his seemingly innocent quest has opened a door into one of Barcelona’s darkest secrets, an epic story of murder, magic, madness and doomed love. And before long he realizes that if he doesn’t find out the truth about Julian Carax, he and those closest to him will suffer horribly.

As with all astounding novels, The Shadow of the Wind sends the mind groping for comparisons—The Crimson Petal and the White? The novels of Arturo Pérez-Reverte? Of Victor Hugo? Love in the Time of Cholera?—but in the end, as with all astounding novels, no comparison can suffice. As one leading Spanish reviewer wrote, “The originality of Ruiz Zafón’s voice is bombproof and displays a diabolical talent. The Shadow of the Wind announces a phenomenon in Spanish literature.” An uncannily absorbing historical mystery, a heart-piercing romance, and a moving homage to the mystical power of books, The Shadow of the Wind is a triumph of the storyteller’s art.

I’ve been trying to finish The Shadow of the Wind for years. It was one of the first books to end up on my “Read My Own Damn Books” list. For some reason, I just couldn’t get any steam going to actually make headway in the book beyond the first few chapters.

Thanks to a combination of paper and audio book, I finally finished! Once I go into the meat of the study I really liked the labyrinthine plotting – even if it did slow the reading down. The recreation of the Spain and Barcelona of the Spanish Civil War and Franco was very atmospheric. The ending was both climactic (action!) and anti-climactic (because I’d guessed all the reveals since those bits were all very Victorian-Gothic-ish). And now I can read the rest of the books in the series.

Or at least try to – I may have three more entries in my list.

Dear FTC: I read my own trade paper copy and borrowed the audiobook via the library’s Overdrive site.

mini-review · stuff I read

Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini with illustrations by Dan Williams

untitledSummary from Goodreads:
The #1 New York Times-bestselling author of The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and And the Mountains Echoed responds to the heartbreak of the current refugee crisis with this deeply moving, beautifully illustrated short work of fiction for people of all ages, all over the world.

A short, powerful, illustrated book written by beloved novelist Khaled Hosseini in response to the current refugee crisis, Sea Prayer is composed in the form of a letter, from a father to his son, on the eve of their journey. Watching over his sleeping son, the father reflects on the dangerous sea-crossing that lies before them. It is also a vivid portrait of their life in Homs, Syria, before the war, and of that city’s swift transformation from a home into a deadly war zone.

Impelled to write this story by the haunting image of young Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed upon the beach in Turkey in September 2015, Hosseini hopes to pay tribute to the millions of families, like Kurdi’s, who have been splintered and forced from home by war and persecution, and he will donate author proceeds from this book to the UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) and The Khaled Hosseini Foundation to help fund lifesaving relief efforts to help refugees around the globe.

A beautiful and gutting “picture book for adults” that takes the form of a prayer, offered up by a father escaping from his war-torn country for his son to arrive at their destination in safety. The watercolor work is stunning.

Dear FTC: I borrowed this book from the library.

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 · stuff I read

The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon

untitledSummary from Goodreads:
A powerful, darkly glittering novel of violence, love, faith, and loss, as a young woman at an elite American university is drawn into acts of domestic terrorism by a cult tied to North Korea.

Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall meet their first month at prestigious Edwards University. Phoebe is a glamorous girl who doesn’t tell anyone she blames herself for her mother’s recent death. Will is a misfit scholarship boy who transfers to Edwards from Bible college, waiting tables to get by. What he knows for sure is that he loves Phoebe.

Grieving and guilt-ridden, Phoebe is increasingly drawn into a religious group—a secretive extremist cult—founded by a charismatic former student, John Leal. He has an enigmatic past that involves North Korea and Phoebe’s Korean American family. Meanwhile, Will struggles to confront the fundamentalism he’s tried to escape, and the obsession consuming the one he loves. When the group bombs several buildings in the name of faith, killing five people, Phoebe disappears. Will devotes himself to finding her, tilting into obsession himself, seeking answers to what happened to Phoebe and if she could have been responsible for this violent act.

The Incendiaries is a fractured love story and a brilliant examination of the minds of extremist terrorists, and of what can happen to people who lose what they love most. who lose what they love most.

When I downloaded the galley for The Incendiaries I wasn’t quite sure if I was ready for an intense literary novel about religious faith and cults. (I mean, look around at the garbage fire of the news.) But I was intrigued after reading a bit of Kwon’s interviews where she talked about growing up with an intense religious faith, then losing that faith, so I decided to go for it.

The Incendiaries is a hallucinatory, violent debut that grapples with the line between faith and fanaticism. I have never been a particularly religious person, especially as an adult (although I was raised Lutheran and I am the child of a church organist, which is just one-off from being the pastor’s kid), and the way Kwon constructed the circuitous religious logic displayed by Phoebe and John Leal was particularly fascinating. I’m not sure I’m completely on board with the structure of the novel as the narrative jumped between Will, Phoebe (reconstructed by Will), and John Leal but I couldn’t put it down. I do wonder what the Phoebe sections would have looked like had they actually been in her voice, but Kwon’s choice does give a very illusory, unsettled feel to the character.

TW: rape. It does occur on the page later in the book. The scene does not feel gratuitous, but it could definitely be triggering.

The Incendiaries is out now.

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

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.

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.