Archive for category Books

book review: societal expectations and the 40something woman in the novels who you think i am and All Grown Up

who you think i am

who you think i am by Camille Laurens. Other Press| March 2017| 208 pages | $14.95| ISBN: 978-1-59051-832-8

RATING: ****/5*

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Other Press.

all grown up

All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg. Houghton Mifflin| March 2017| 208 pages | $25.00| ISBN: 978-0-544-82424-9

RATING: *****/5*

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

I decided to review these books together as they focus on how society makes 40something women about their life choices. Both characters in who you think I am and All Grown Up question their place in a patriarchal society where they choose not to check off the boxes like most people. These women aren’t embracing motherhood and being partnered up. They question their value and place in society. Both novels read as feminist meditations on how unmarried women over 40 contribute to society and where they might fit in when societal standards dictate woman over 40 aren’t supposed to be living independent and solitary lives.

In reading these novels I found both characters possessed qualities to which I could completely relate: the odd woman out who chooses that less-traveled path. Perhaps these women aren’t completely satisfied with their imperfect lives but they’re doing their best and they’re fighting stereotypes along the way. Both women aren’t quite sure where they belong. Both women strive to be comfortable in their bodies. By literary standards one would define these characters as unlikable.  Both are easily relatable in varied ways. I’ve never been married and don’t have children and don’t always feel grown up despite being in my 40s just like Andrea Bern in All Grown Up. Like Claire Millecam in who you think I am I often feel undervalued, unwanted and misunderstood. Also I’ve done a considerable amount of online dating/ meeting men online. Both women approach their circumstances in different manners. Authors Camille Laurens and Jami Attenberg utilize  a sharp, witty tone to make these immensely readable and provocative novels. Both novels, although short, are packed with insight and intelligence.

“I wasn’t interested in being seen, or even seen in a good light. I wanted to be recognized. For someone to say: there she is!” – who you think i am

In who you think I am, Claire Millecam, a 48-year-old divorced teacher, poses as a 20something online in order to befriend a younger man who happens to be her boyfriend’s friend. They end up having a relationship and later on her catfishing, I guess you could call it, gets exposed. Claire flipped the switch on what someone expected of her and created the woman that she felt she needed to be at that time.

The beginning of the novel opens with Claire speaking to a therapist in a mental health facility. Claire’s quite angry and frustrated that women over 40 aren’t seen or heard or valued by society. At one point Claire tells her therapist: “women are condemned—by force or by contempt, to die. That’s a fact, everywhere, all the time: men teach women to die. From north to south, fundamentalist or pornographic, it’s the sole same tyranny. Existing only in their eyes, and dying when they close their eyes.”

This intriguing, intelligent, unique novel is a meditation on age, beauty standards, relationships and mental illness from a feminist perspective. It’s also an examination of online dating. Writer Camille Laurens allows Claire’s story unfold through the eyes of Claire, her therapist and her younger lover. About her lover, Claire shares: “I was used to more intellectual connection with me, I was one of those people who wonder how anyone can live without reading Proust.” Claire’s psychiatrist falls in love with her and this is what he reveals: “She touches me and captivates me, yes, I’m a captive. I want to see her. . . And I like being there for her. I’d like to bandage her wounds. She may be mad after all, in the way we understand the word. Certainly. But it’s the mad who heal us, isn’t it?”

“But most days I can’t see through the pain to the truth.”—All Grown Up

In All Grown Up, Andrea Bern gave up her dreams to be an artist to take a salaried position in advertising. She lives in an apartment in New York. Her friends are getting married and having children. She rotates through lovers. She does drugs. She feels pain while living somewhat messily and unapologetically. She’s in a safe spot professionally and socially which fits her goals and interests. Her work isn’t challenging but it’s steady and consistent. She isn’t committed to any one man and maintains her independence. She’s coping and she’s living a life that makes sense to her. In the meantime, everyone she knows seems to be changing their lives or moving around and doing new things while she remains in the same place doing what she’s pretty much always done.  Her brother and sister-in-law move to rural New Hampshire to care for their terminally ill child. Andrea’s mother moves up there to help them leaving Andrea feeling abandoned. This brilliantly written novel features deft characterizations and dark humor.

“I don’t see myself as having anything conventional. But still I date. I fuck. I see.” She adds: “People architect new lives all the time. I know this because I never see them again or they move to new cities or even just to new neighborhoods or you hate their spouse or their spouse hates you or they start working the night shift or they start training for a marathon or they stop going to bars or they start going to therapy or they realize they don’t like you anymore or they die. It happens constantly. It’s just me. I haven’t built anything new. I’m the one getting left behind.” When Andrea’s friend goes through a divorce: “Then she calls me and she’s crying and we talk for a while about her marriage and while I am sad that my friend is sad, it makes me happier than ever that I’ve never been married and never will be, because marriage sounds like a goddamn job and why would I want another one of those?” And of her sister-in-law in New Hampshire: “Gun racks, Trump lawn signs, and no bookstores. She has to get into a car and drive everywhere.” Andrea also recognizes an alternate reality: “sometimes I cry, too, for who I was as an artist and what my life could have been like if only I had kept going. I weep for my lost identities. I weep for my possibilities.”

 

 

 

 

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: Dan Chaon

Reasonably settled in Cleveland, Ohio, psychologist Dustin Tillman learns that his adopted brother, Rusty, will imminently be released from prison. DNA evidence cleared Rusty, who received a life sentence for the murder of Dustin’s parents and aunt and uncle. While mentally preparing himself for Rusty’s release, a patient draws Dustin into a potential serial murder case involving the drowning of drunk area college students. Dustin becomes progressively focused on this case as memories churn from that evening he violently lost his parents. What does Dustin remember and how accurate are his memories? How did this sensational murder and trial in the 1980s affect Dustin and his surviving family members? Ill Will is a riveting, contemplative thriller about memory and deception. Past and present collide in a dark, disturbing and creepy manner.

Dan Chaon is the author of Stay Awake, Await Your Reply, You Remind Me of Me, Fitting Ends and Among the Missing.  He teaches creative writing at Oberlin College.

We recently spoke by phone about Ill Will.

dan chaon

Amy Steele: Where did you get the idea for this novel?

Dan Chaon: There was an urban legend in Minnesota and Wisconsin. My brother-in-law went to school at the University of Wisconsin and he told me the there were all of these mysterious drownings of these drunken bros and the college kids all thought it was a serial killer. I thought it was cool. I put it on the back burner. It was the early 2000s that I heard that story. It got tangled up in this other story I was writing—this  brother that gets out of prison. Then I thought: ‘can I have two murders in the same book or not/’ and they start to knit together after a while.

Amy Steele: You write from different points of view. Is that difficult and why did you decide to write in that way?

Dan Chaon: I have always liked novels that do that. Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories or Tom Perrotta’s Little Children. It’s a really good technique and for someone who came to the novel having started out as a story writer, that makes sense to me because it helps me to compartmentalize. Thematically because this book is so much about deception and multi-bookends of the same story, it made sense that we saw the story from different eyes.

Amy Steele: You went from writing short stories to writing novels and you also teach writing. How did that influence you? It’s a long novel but a page-turner. I read it quickly and I read it on the Kindle which I don’t like that much.

Dan Chaon: And it looked okay on the Kindle with the weird things. The typographical things. Random House put a front note on the Kindle edition so people know the Kindle isn’t glitching.

Amy Steele: I still don’t understand the columns. I don’t understand why you did that.

Dan Chaon: I wanted to create this effect where multiple things were happening at once. I liked that idea of having almost a split-screen thing. The sophomore in college in me was really thrilled by it. I thought it looked cool. It has parallels across and down. I feel good about it. I know some readers will be like: ‘Hmm. Pretentious. Weird.” But I don’t care.

Amy Steele: It provides more information. You have the text messages and all this other stuff.

Dan Chaon: That felt organic. It’s part of our daily life. Sometimes you shouldn’t do things that are too contemporary and date the book and make it less universal. It’s true to some extent that texting maybe in five years won’t be a thing or people won’t use Facebook as much any more. If you leave it out you’re leaving out a big chunk of what it’s like to be alive today.

Amy Steele: You have to stay true to the time period and be representing whatever time it is.

Dan Chaon: I also feel like there’s something about that mode of communication that fits with the elliptical quality of the book. It feels like it fits with the mood of the book. All those ghostly floating balloons on the page.

Amy Steele: It’s really dark. How did you get to that point? [note: asks the woman who is extremely dark in mood and interests]. I feel like your other work wasn’t as dark.

Dan Chaon: Oh really. You think this is the darkest?

Amy Steele: It’s pretty dark. Have you read David Vann?  I really like David Vann. Very dark.

Dan Chaon: David Vann’s dark feels heavier and more serious in some ways. There’s an element here that’s a little more playful. I think Aaron is often funny and Rusty’s funny. There’s still a more playful quality to this than any of my other novels. It’s both darker and a little more comic in some weird way.

Amy Steele: How do you keep track of different characters and flipping back and forth with the time? Did you know how it would end up?

Dan Chaon: There were definitely surprises along the way. I did a timeline for when everybody was born and different stuff happened because it’s covering 30 years. I knew I wanted to have multiple points of view so I blocked it out so each character would have their own section. And then I started to write the different sections and see how they rubbed up against each other. The second section with Dustin as a kid was the first section I wrote. Aaron came late in a weird way and I wasn’t expecting him to be such a huge part of the story until I feel in love with his voice.

I also felt really compelled to write about heroin addiction. It’s really been a scourge here. My students have friends that are overdosing and it seems like it suddenly has become this middle-class thing and it wasn’t when I was growing up it– like Kurt Cobain but not college kids. Something about Aaron’s voice and the way he was dealing with grief was really compelling to me. In the end I ended up giving him half the book when I was originally just planning on him having one section.

Amy Steele: You came up with the idea and dropped the characters into the situation.

Dan Chaon: The premise or idea is there and then the characters grow up around that. The twins–Kate and Wave–there’s a lot of various places that they come from and to some extent my family makes fun of me because there are avatars or parallels. I am a widower. I was raising two teenage boys. My sister said, “You just did this weird thing where you killed your whole family and turned yourself into this creepy sucker.” And I said, “Yeah that’s how fiction works.”

Amy Steele: You based a lot of this on people you know?

Dan Chaon: I wouldn’t say it’s based on their personalities. If you’ve been to my house, Dustin clearly lives in my house. Aaron clearly lives in my younger son’s bedroom. Dustin is not me and Aaron and Dennis aren’t my sons in terms of personality. Kate is definitely not my sister in terms of personality. There’s an element of me and my family in this even though the whole thing is fictional. You always have to have a touchstone of some sort.

Amy Steele: What did you like best about writing this novel?

Dan Chaon: I always wanted to write a straight up crime novel. I read a lot of serial killer books when I was in college. It was during that time that every other book was a serial killer book. I thought I really want to do this. It was fun to take that form and mess around with it and play in that playground. That was exciting and fun for me.

ill will

Ill Will by Dan Chaon. Ballantine Books | March 2017| 480 pages | $14.99| ISBN: 9780345476043

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book review: A Piece of the World

piece-of-the-world

A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline. William Morrow| February 2017| 309 pages | $27.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-235626-0

RATING: 4.5/5*

“Do our natures dictate the choices we make, I wonder, or do we choose to live a certain way because of circumstances beyond our control? Perhaps these questions are impossible to tease apart because, like a tangle of seaweed on a rock, they are connected at the root. I think of those long-ago Hathorns, determined beyond all reason to leave the past behind—and we, their descendants, inheritors of their contrarian tenacity, sticking it out, one generation after the next, until every last one of us ends up in the graveyard at the bottom of the field.”

In the gorgeous and mysterious 1948 masterpiece Christina’s World, Andrew Wyeth depicts a woman crouching on a hill looking toward a weathered farm house. Looking at the painting, one might wonder whether the woman is coming or going. She seems far away and in such a twisted, crouching position with her hair blowing a bit in the wind. I never knew that Wyeth painted this on a farm in Maine. Author Christina Baker Kline creates a riveting story of the artist’s muse. Christina Olson lives a rather solitary, quiet and isolated existence in the small coastal town of Cushing, Maine on her family’s farm with her brother. Christina lived at a particular time in particular circumstances and suffered an illness as a child which led to increasingly physical debility. At school she develops an affinity for Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Her father insists she quit school after eighth grade to help on the farm. Christina wanted to be a teacher. When young painter Andrew Wyeth asks if he can paint the farm, Christina and her brother welcome the distraction and attention.

This masterful work of historical fiction—told through first-person narrative– allows readers to feel Christina’s pain, disappointment and glimmers of hope throughout. In her youth, Christina dates a young man who summers nearby. But after several years he becomes engaged to another woman. He never intended to foray into a serious relationship with Christina. She’s devastated as she’s looking to be understood and accepted and just seen by somebody. Something many people seek. Readers feel empathy for Christina but not pity. She’s resilient and resourceful. She’s managing her situation.  Writing with exquisite detail, Kline transports us to Maine and effectively moves from 1940 to the early 1900s to reveal the personal history of the woman immortalized by a classic American work of art.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from William Morrow.

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book review: Exit West

exit-west

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. Riverhead Books| March 7, 2017| 231 pages | $26.00| ISBN: 978-0-7352-1217-6

RATING: 4.5/5*

After finishing college, Nadia questions her faith and decides, to her family’s dismay and disdain, to move out on her own– “She secured a room of her own atop the house of a widow, a record player and small collection of vinyl, a circle of acquaintances among the city’s free spirits, and a connection to a discreet and nonjudgmental female gynecologist.” Nadia enjoys her independence as much as possible: she works at an insurance company; smokes pot and does shrooms and maintains connections through social media. She soon meets Saeed and they clandestinely date and slowly fall in love as the country and everything they know crumbles around them. They both work their different jobs during the day and meet at night at cafes and then at Nadia’s apartment. She throws down a black robe for him to put on and enter the apartment without raising suspicions or backlash about a single woman entertaining a male visitor. Slowly the country becomes less safe. Nadia and Saeed lose their jobs. Then it becomes impossible to communicate.  Author Mohsin Hamid  writes: “But one day the signal to every mobile phone in the city simply vanished, turned off as if by flipping a switch. An announcement of the government’s decision was made over television and radio, a temporary antiterrorism measure, it was said, but with no end date given. Internet connectivity was suspended as well.” Nadia and Saeed decide to escape the country as refugees.

First they land at a refugee camp in Mykonos —“It was said in those days that the passage was both like dying and like being born, and indeed Nadia experienced a kind of extinguishing as she entered the blackness and a gasping struggle as she fought to exit it, and she felt cold and bruised and damp as she lay on the floor of the room at the other side, trembling and too spent at first to stand, and she thought, while she strained to fill her lungs, that this dampness must be her own sweat.” They then move on to London –“It was here that Saeed and Nadia found themselves in those warmer months, in one of the worker camps, laboring away. In exchange for their labor in clearing terrain and building infrastructure and assembling dwellings from prefabricated blocks, migrants were promised forty meters and a pipe: a home on forty square meters of land and a connection to all the utilities of modernity.”  They finally end up in Marin, California– “Saeed made it a point to smile with Nadia, at least sometimes, and he hoped she would feel something warm and caring when he smiled, but what she felt was sorrow and the sense that they were better than this, and that together they had to find a way out.”

The couple drifts apart despite their best attempts to stay together. It’s an attempt to keep something familiar nearby, to keep their country in their hearts. They adapted to their new country and living situations in varied ways—Nadia relishes the personal freedom while Saeed becomes focused on religion– which makes their relationship untenable and unsustainable. A beautiful, thoughtful, intelligent novel about refugees that couldn’t be timelier. Using mystical realism, Hamid tells a potent and poetic story of love and freedom in this short novel. Lovely reflections on connectivity and choice and circumstances. Hamid beautifully contemplates very human desires to achieve, to thrive, and to share oneself in order to make sense of an often nonsensical, violent and cruel world. It’s absolutely essential reading.

–review by Amy Steele

Mohsin Hamid will be reading at Harvard Book Store on Wednesday, March 8 at 7pm.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Penguin Random House.

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book review: On Turpentine Lane

lipman

On Turpentine Lane  by Elinor Lipman. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt| February 2017| 305 pages | $24.00| ISBN: 978-0-544-80824-9

RATING: ****/5*

Faith Frankel, a thirty-two-year-old single woman, moved back to her hometown and works in stewardship at her alma mater, a private school. She recently purchased a house with a questionable history. Faith’s fiancé quit his job to trek across the country living off of Faith’s credit cards. He’s not walking for a cause but to find himself and Faith’s rather bothered by the photos with various women  he keeps posting to social media. Faith’s father has become a painter, specifically making Chagall knock-offs and personalizing them. He becomes involved with a younger woman setting off some issues with her parents and the rest of the family (mainly Faith and her brother). While juggling her fiancés antics with her father’s new career and her mom’s meddling, her brother hustles with his snowplow business in the small western Massachusetts town.

Why someone so smart and independent would remain engaged to this unaware guy? What’s appealing about Faith is that she’s not obsessed with getting married even though she did get engaged to her boyfriend before he embarked on his cross-country walk. She enjoys her work but isn’t obsessed with it. While her friends can’t understand why Faith moved back home from Manhattan, she’s thrilled to make a cozy home on Turpentine Lane. She’s content with her straightforward comfortable career and her new house.

Author Elinor Lipman describes Faith’s position as writing thank-you notes (by hand!) to donors. I have worked in stewardship and never wrote notes by hand. But I let it go as it’s a small town and a private school and a novel. In the Q & A that arrived with the press materials for the novel there’s this question: “Faith works at a private school as Director of Stewardship. Is that a real job?” Do people, particularly in publishing and writing, not know about it? At another point in the novel there’s mention of a landline. I don’t know anyone under 50 who still uses a landline.

The local police keep searching Faith’s basement for murder evidence based on an anonymous tip. After finding a creepy photo album in her attic, Faith invites her handsome coworker, who recently split with his live-in girlfriend, to become her housemate. It’s not long before the longtime friends become romantically involved. Her brother and her mother end up helping Faith investigate the strange photo album and its connection to the past owner. This all sounds rather madcap and it could go terribly awry. In Lipman’s hands it’s a clever and delightful read.

A native of Massachusetts, Lipman graduated from Simmons College. I am also an alumna. I’ve read every one of Lipman’s novels. My favorite is The Inn at Lake Devine. I also really like Isabel’s Bed and Then She Found Me (which was adapted into a film starring Helen Hunt). Her novels tend to be witty, engaging and feature multifaceted, appealing and flawed female characters. Is there any more intriguing kind of woman? If you’re looking for a sharp and entertaining read, On Turpentine Lane will definitely satisfy.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Elinor Lipman will read at Porter Square Books, Cambridge, Mass. on Thursday, March 2, 2017.

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book review: VICTORIA

victoria

VICTORIA: The Heart and Mind of a Young Queen by Helen Rappaport. Harper Design| January 2017| 304 pages | $29.99| ISBN: 9780062568892

RATING: 3.5/5*

Currently the Masterpiece series Victoria airs on PBS and Victoria historical consultant Helen Rappaport wrote this companion book. The book includes a forward by novelist and series screenwriter Daisy Goodwin, who writes: “There were plenty of people who thought that an 18-year-old girl could not be an effective monarch. But it is clear when you read Victoria’s own words that she was a woman with an extraordinary sense of her own identity.”

The author delves into the queen’s writings to provide scholarly insight. Throughout the book there are quotes from Queen Victoria’s diaries as well as letters from the Queen, her family, confidants and Prince Albert. There’s a useful House of Hanover Family Tree [1714-1837] and plenty of beautiful pictures of the Victoria cast throughout the book. It includes these sections: Little Drina; From Kensington Palace to Buckingham Palace; The Maiden Queen; Lord M; The German Pauper; Her Majesty’s Household; The Court of Queen Victoria; The Welfare of My People; Becoming a Mother; Behind the Scenes.

When I watch historical television series [such as The Crown] I often find myself googling information on people and events. I enjoy researching and perhaps reading additional books based on something I’m watching or reading. This book contains a bevy of information and details which may enhance one’s enjoyment of the program.  It’s a magnificent resource—all in one attractive coffee table book– for fans of the program Victoria, the British monarchy and the Victorian era. This likely is only something that the most avid fan would actually buy/own but it’s worth checking out.

Years ago I bought the Sense and Sensibility companion screenplay and diaries by Emma Thompson. I’m not an Austen-phile but I do love Emma Thompson and loved the film. In the past 20 years the book travels from apartment to apartment and looks good on my bookshelves. I don’t look at it often but I like knowing I own it.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.

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notable Boston-area book readings in February 2017

bishop

Megan Marshall
Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast
Harvard Book Store
Tuesday, February 7 at 7pm

30753707
Michael Bennett, MD and Sarah Bennett
F*ck Love
Brookline Booksmith
Tuesday, February 7 at 7pm

really-good-day

Ayelet Waldman
A Really Good Day
Brookline Booksmith
Wednesday, February 8 at 7pm

harvester

John Darnielle
Universal Harvester
Harvard Book Store
at Brattle Theatre
Wednesday, February 8 at 6pm

american-hookup

Lisa Wade
American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus
Harvard Book Store
Thursday, February 9 at 7pm

pachinko

Min Jin Lee
Pachinko
Harvard Book Store
Friday, February 10 at 7pm

stand-your-ground

Caroline Light
Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense
Harvard Book Store
Thursday, February 16 at 7pm

lipman

Elinor Lipman
On Turpentine Lane
Brookline Booksmith
Thursday, February 16 at 7pm

difficult-women

Roxane Gay
Difficult Women
Porter Square Books
Friday, February 17 at 7pm

stolen-child

Lisa Carey
The Stolen Child
Brookline Booksmith
Saturday, February 18 at 7pm

news from the end of the world.jpg

Emily Jeanne Miller
The News from the End of the World
Harvard Book Store
Tuesday, February 21 at 7pm

bucky-dent

David Duchovny
Bucky F*cking Dent
Brookline Booksmith
Wednesday, February 22 at 12pm

bishop

Megan Marshall
Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast
Brookline Booksmith
Wednesday, February 22 at 7pm

rise of the rocket girls

Nathalia Holt
Rise of the Rocket Girls: the Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars
WorkBar Cambridge
Monday, February 27 at 6:30pm

girl-at-baggage

Gish Jen
The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap
Harvard Book Store
Tuesday, February 28 at 7pm

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