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.

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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.

mini-review · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

33621427Summary from Goodreads:
Isma is free. After years of watching out for her younger siblings in the wake of their mother’s death, she’s accepted an invitation from a mentor in America that allows her to resume a dream long deferred. But she can’t stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister back in London, or their brother, Parvaiz, who’s disappeared in pursuit of his own dream, to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew. When he resurfaces half a globe away, Isma’s worst fears are confirmed.

Then Eamonn enters the sisters’ lives. Son of a powerful political figure, he has his own birthright to live up to—or defy. Is he to be a chance at love? The means of Parvaiz’s salvation? Suddenly, two families’ fates are inextricably, devastatingly entwined, in this searing novel that asks: What sacrifices will we make in the name of love?

Home Fire is the first Shamsie book I’ve managed to finish, which is a shame because I love her actual sentences. She’s always lost me when she jumps settings/characters from one time point to another – I just lose interest. This novel is much more intimate, more compressed so I didn’t feel like I was starting over with each section. I wished I had more of the story from Isma’s point-of-view, though, because I found her perspective most interesting: she is the good daughter, the “good immigrant,” the one who raised her siblings, did everything right, got herself to graduate school in the US.  Her earnestness contrasts so much with the suspicion which all Muslims, especially those with familial ties to jihadists, etc., are viewed. It is a heart-breaking story about fanaticism on both sides of the terrorism divide, the hard-liners who create policies that condemn those who step out of line no matter which side of the divide you wish to escape or repent of. The last 20 pages or so are superb.

Shamsie borrowed the frame of Sophocles’s Antigone for her characters to rail against.  Now, don’t worry.  You don’t need to have read the play to understand what’s going on. I vaguely remembered Antigone from the Oedipus cycle and had no trouble with the plot of Home Fire. I did, however, read through the play after reading the novel and Shamsie did a wonderful modernization/retelling; the character parallels are very deftly done. I wouldn’t recommend the reverse, reading the play first if you haven’t already, since I think that might spoil a plot point or two.

Comment specific to the Man Booker 2017 longlist: this is the 3rd of the 13 longlisted books I’ve read, the other two being The Underground Railroad and Lincoln in the Bardo. While I liked this one a great deal, the other two destroyed me while I was reading them (one with raw power of truth through fiction, the other with exquisite rendering of language and setting). I’ve got the other long-listers on my reading list but Home Fire is in a runner-up position for me.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss (the Sophocles I already owned).

mini-review · stuff I read

New People by Danzy Senna

33275357Summary from Goodreads:
From the bestselling author of Caucasia, a subversive and engrossing novel of race, class and manners in contemporary America.

As the twentieth century draws to a close, Maria is at the start of a life she never thought possible. She and Khalil, her college sweetheart, are planning their wedding. They are the perfect couple, “King and Queen of the Racially Nebulous Prom.” Their skin is the same shade of beige. They live together in a black bohemian enclave in Brooklyn, where Khalil is riding the wave of the first dot-com boom and Maria is plugging away at her dissertation, on the Jonestown massacre. They’ve even landed a starring role in a documentary about “new people” like them, who are blurring the old boundaries as a brave new era dawns. Everything Maria knows she should want lies before her–yet she can’t stop daydreaming about another man, a poet she barely knows. As fantasy escalates to fixation, it dredges up secrets from the past and threatens to unravel not only Maria’s perfect new life but her very persona.

Heartbreaking and darkly comic, New People is a bold and unfettered page-turner that challenges our every assumption about how we define one another, and ourselves.

New People was a really interesting novel but I feel like I got lost midway through. Maria is a fantastic character – a woman who has always adopted identities starts to lose herself as her wedding date draws near and she finishes her dissertation about Jonestown. You don’t like her (actually, the only character I liked was her mom, Gloria) but you want to know what she’s doing next. But about midway through I started wondering where the plot was going – is Maria going to break up with Kamil? Shag this poet dude? Yell at Lisa? Go crazy? I really enjoyed Senna’s writing, though, so even if Maria’s narrative got a bit wonky I was enjoying the way Senna described the action.

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