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book review: Disoriental

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Disoriental by Negar Djavadi. Europa Editions| April 2018| 352 pages | $18.00| ISBN: 978-1-60945-451-7

RATING: *****/5*

“Our memories select, eliminate, exaggerate, minimize, glorify, denigrate. They create their own versions of events and serve up their own reality. Disparate, but cohesive. Imperfect yet sincere. In any case, my memory is so crammed with stories and lies and languages and illusions, and lives marked by exile and death, death and exile, that I don’t even really know how to untangle the threads anymore.”

“I have become—as I’m sure everyone does who has left his or her country—someone else. Someone who has translated myself into other cultural codes. Firstly in order to survive, and then to go beyond survival and forge a future for myself.”

A gorgeous, exquisite, smart and meditative novel about an Iranian family and its struggles and triumphs. As Kimia Sadr sits in a fertility clinic in Paris she reminisces about family myths and ancestry. She ponders how she got to be where she is at this moment. She recollects her family history as well as Iran’s history and how it’s made her who she is today. Kimia is a lesbian and she’s decided to have a baby with a man that she met during her travels. He’s HIV+ and so they need to use the clinic. Kimia’s been wandering for years in an attempt to figure out where she belongs. It’s perhaps not in her birth country where she spent the first ten years of her life and it’s not in her adopted country to which she and her family exiled. Being in one’s twenties and figuring out our place in the world can be complicated enough but Kimia had her sexual identity and cultural identity to figure out.

“Raised in a culture where the community takes precedence over the individual, I’d never been so tangibly aware of my own existence. I finally felt like I was in control of my own life. I could make decisions that had nothing to do with the past, or the way an immigrant has to act in order to gain legitimacy in their host country.” And “I was putting myself back together again, rediscovering happiness, getting back on my own two feet, as if after a long illness.” It’s fascinating that Eastern society stresses community and Western society focuses on individuals. Kimia faces prejudices in facing stereotypes of Iran and the Middle East: “Then a long silence, during which I could see in my interlocutor’s eyes that their Iran was located somewhere between Saudi Arabia and the Lebanese Hezbollah, an imaginary country full of Muslim fundamentalists of who I suddenly became the representative.”

For those unfamiliar, it’s the ideal primer to Iranian revolutionary history. Abundant information gets beautifully shared throughout this novel in an accessible and manageable manner. It’s definitely a challenging yet completely rewarding read. In reading Disoriental I was reminded of the memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi which also focuses on the disdain for education and intellectualism and its impact on the Iranian Revolution. It’s not that different from our current political climate where well-educated people tend to be less likely to blindly follow a leader. You’ll understand and relate to this novel. Disoriental has been nominated for a National Book Award for Translated Literature. I’m rarely disappointed in Europa editions titles and I need to read them more often.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Europa Editions.

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book review: Crudo

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Crudo by Olivia Laing. W.W. Norton| September 11, 2018| 142 pages | $21.00| ISBN: 978-0-393-65272-7

RATING: 4.5/5*

The ecru cover with black lettering and a dismembered fly in the middle of Crudo’s cover pulled me in with its darkness. This might be a slim novel but it’s packed with provocative prose, eccentricities, witty observations and overall intellectual prowess not often accomplished through such brevity and through experimental style. It’s not easy to explain when nothing and everything occurs. It’s a feverish and daring stream of consciousness about our destructive and often restrictive society. Finding an element of safety and belonging can be overwhelming. Author Olivia Laing  (The Lonely City) impressively wrote her fictional debut in real time over the course of seven weeks.

Kathy, a recently-turned-40 writer contemplates existential issues, the horror of the Trump presidency, white supremacy, Brexit, impending nuclear war with North Korea, social media, marriage and love.  “She was at the middle of her life, going south, going nowhere, stuck between station like a broken-down engine.” She marries a man 29 years older than her (also a writer) and falls in love. Of this new marriage: “She was feeling panicky, she couldn’t quite remember how to be alone, ironic since she barely regarded herself as female. A fag with tits, statically improbable but not unheard of, especially in the conglomerate-building internet era of gender dismantlement.”

When Kathy meets a friend at a pub, “They talked about marriage, how to do it so it didn’t bury you beneath its baggage. They thought they had a handle on it, they thought they could see a way to maintaining their dignity independence autonomy style, but it was touch and go they both admitted.” Completely relatable to me as I’m 49 and I haven’t been on a date in a year and I’ve never been married and struggle to find someone intellectually and culturally compatible. Someone who can support and comfort without control or stifling. “You think you know yourself inside out when you live alone, but you don’t, you believe you are a calm untroubled or at worst melancholic person, you do not realize how irritable you are, how any little thing, the wrong kind of touch or tone, a lack of speed in answering a question, a particular cast of expression will send you into apoplexy because you are so unchill, because you have not learnt how to soften your borders, how to make room.” Sheer brilliance throughout.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from W.W Norton.

 

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book review: Blood Highway

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Blood Highway by Gina Wohlsdorf. Algonquin| August 7, 2018| 320 pages | $16.95| ISBN: 978-1-61620-563-8

RATING: 3.5/5*

–review by Amy Steele

Scrappy teenager Rainy Cain knows how to fend for herself even though she’s still in high school. She manages to be independent and to present herself a certain way so that no one will ask too many questions. She’s been through an awful lot in her life and she’s yet to graduate from high school. She’s developed protective coping mechanisms that enable her survival. Her severely mentally ill mother neglected her long ago. They still live in the same house but don’t communicate with each other (sounds like me and my stepfather). After her mother commits suicide, Rainy’s felon father, recently released from prison, kidnaps her in hopes that she’ll lead him to money that he believes her mother hid when he was sent off to prison for a series of armed robberies. He’s a violent, ruthless man. Rainy wasn’t even aware he existed. Blaine, a seemingly good guy and police officer, with more in common with Rainy than one might suspect, pursues them. I love this sentence about Blaine: “His interior was this packed, cluttered museum of guilt and regret.” Author Gina Wohlsdorf spent a decade writing the novel. When she started she wasn’t that much older than her central character, strong-willed and determined feminist Rainy. As I dove into this thriller, which really skirts into horror, I didn’t know what was going on for quite a bit but the compelling writing kept me reading. There’s a cinematic edginess to the characters and this riveting and scary cross-country chase.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Algonquin.

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book review: My Year of Rest and Relaxation

my year of restMy Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. Penguin Press| July 2018| 289 pages | $26.00| ISBN: 978-0-525-52211-9

RATING: *****/5*

–review by Amy Steele

“Oh, sleep, nothing else would ever bring me such pleasure, such freedom, the power to feel and move and think and imagine, safe from the miseries of my waking consciousness.”

Before I discovered yoga and meditation I would often isolate from the world by downing a bunch of pills. After a bad break-up, I spent three weeks consuming solely Diet Coke and Klonipin. Not advisable but I wanted to shut everything out as quickly as possible and for as long as possible. It was inherently easier to sleep through the misery in hopes I’d eventually feel better. It wasn’t the best coping mechanism. In case anyone’s wondering, I no longer drink soda and rarely rely on Klonipin. I still have terrible agoraphobia and anxiety but numbing myself isn’t going to fix that and there are much more productive uses of my time.

Everything appealed to me about the novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation, from the title to the cover—a portrait of a sullen Victorian woman—to the description to this sentence in the opening paragraph: “I’d get two large coffees with cream and six sugars each, chug the first one in the elevator on the way back up to my apartment, then sip the second one slowly while I watched movies and ate animal crackers and took trazodone and Ambien and Nembutal until I feel asleep again.”  

The novel focuses on a 24-year-old Columbia University graduate in the year 2000 in New York City and her intention to essentially hibernate through the year with pharmaceutical assistance. She’s recently lost her art gallery job. Her parents died while she was in school. Her on-again-off-again relationship with a guy who works on Wall Street doesn’t satisfy. So what’s so bad that she needs to shut out the world. She explains: “I can’t point to any one event that resulted in my decision to go into hibernation. Initially I just wanted some downers to drown out my thoughts and judgments, since the constant barrage made it hard not to hate everyone and everything, I thought life would be more tolerable if my brain were slower to condemn the world around me.”

She lives in an inherited apartment with few financial concerns. Her friend Reva, who she met in college, stops in once a week for a wellness check. Of Reva: “I don’t know what it was about Reva. I couldn’t get rid of her. She worshipped me, but she also hated me. She saw my struggle with misery as a cruel parody of her own misfortunes. I had chosen my solitude and purposelessness, and Reva had, despite her hard work, simply failed to get what she wanted—no husband, no children, no fabulous career.” She spends any waking hours watching movies, particularly those starring Whoopi Goldberg and Harrison Ford. She also finds questionable psychiatrist who unwittingly assists her sleep plans by prescribing an arsenal of drugs.

“I went to the bathroom and took stock of the medicine cabinet, counting all my pills on the grimy tile floor. In all, I had two Ambien but thirty more on the way, twelve Rozerem, sixteen trazodone, around ten each of Ativan, Xanax, and Valium, Nembutal, and Solfoton, plus single digit amounts of a dozen random medications that Dr. Tuttle had prescribed only once…”

One might wonder how an entire novel could revolve around this subject. Author Ottessa Moshfegh delves into the narrator’s past—her previous relationships, her family, her relationship with Reva, as well as her aspirations as an artist. About her parents: “And I’d feel sorry for myself, not because I missed my parents, but because there was nothing they could have given me if they’d lived. They weren’t my friends. They didn’t comfort me or give me good advice. They weren’t people I wanted to talk to. They barely even knew me.”

Dark humor, a self-deprecating tone and astute details and brilliant writing makes this novel work so well. There are strong Sylvia Plath vibes throughout. If you’ve dealt with mental illness, a major loss or being an outcast then you’ll likely appreciate this character. I found her to be immensely relatable. It’s a complicated, challenging world and some of us find solace in darkness.

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

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: Joanna Luloff

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While on assignment in India, Clare, an international journalist, becomes stricken by an illness which destroys her memory. Once back in the states she’s forced to rely on her husband Charlie and her best friend Rachel to reconstruct the past and her memories. Does she remember specifics of her marriage and her friendship, the things that sustain these relationships? Claire senses that something isn’t right but doesn’t know if it’s her marriage or her friendship or a combination. Can she even trust Charlie and Rachel. The novel is effectively told in different points of view and jumps back and forth from present to past and back again.

I spoke with author Joanna Luloff by phone earlier this month.

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

Joanna Luloff: My mom and I talked about her memory loss and how she had to borrow other people’s memories. A lot of years later when I was actually in graduate school, we started to have this correspondence where I would send her a photograph and I’d ask her what she saw in it and she’d do the same for me. I also did an experimental project for a class that I was taking.

I became more interested in the people surrounding someone with memory loss and how it affects them. To lose the confirmation from other people. The story got shifted away from just a person with memory loss to those people surrounding that person and it started to shift away from my family into fictional characters and what it meant to gradually recover their love for each other and the secrets and all this conflict.

Amy Steele: A lot of times you want to let things go from the past and live in the present but obviously there are certain connections which affect how you’re fitting in with certain people.

Joanna Luloff: The idea that memory is very subjective anyway. We frame the story as we remember it. My brother and I have very different recollections of the same event. As a fiction writer, I love to elaborate and add to the story. I know my stories are often changed through imagination.

Sometimes I think you can rewrite and event or create the situation you’d want to have or rework a situation/ investigate it.

Amy Steele: Did you prefer writing a certain character?

Joanna Luloff: I probably had the easiest time writing Rachel’s character because she gets to be an observer and be on neutral ground but she also has her own secrets. She sees so much so it was fun. And Charlie might have been the hardest because he’s a man from England. I lived in England for a really short time and I was really struck by the reserved politeness and stoicism. I tried to channel a bit of that restraint which British men seem to have.

Amy Steele: Do you think writing his character was the greatest challenge in the overall writing of the novel?

Joanna Luloff: I think the biggest challenge I had was not about character or voice but the structure. I needed to figure out the story’s chronology. For Claire, obviously her memories were super jumbled and the characters are constantly moving from the present to the past. My first drafts of the novel were disjointed.

Amy Steele: I was skeptical of everyone involved. How do you organize? How long did it take you to write the novel?

Joanna Luloff: It didn’t take me a long time to write the first draft. I was at least able to knock out the basic foundation of the book. It was a lot of revisions and layering in the mystery or base suspicion of what the truth might be.

I wrote it out longhand and it worked out well because I was able to rip out pages and lay them out on the floor and play around with what needed to go where and I think it helped to be able to see it in different forms. Once that was in place then I did some adding and subtracting where I thought there needed to be more questioning of the character. I was able to play a bit more with how much the characters were withholding from each other, why they were doing that, all the secrecies and the past injuries to layer in eventually.

Joanna Luloff received her MFA from Emerson College and her PhD from University of Missouri. She teaches at the University of Colorado.

She’ll be appearing at Harvard Book Store on Monday, July 16, 2018.

 

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: author Meredith Jaeger

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Boardwalk Summer is the perfect summer novel and not just because its title includes summer. The novel features two timelines of young women in Santa Cruz. In 1940, Violet Harcourt is crowned Miss California and wants to pursue a film career in Hollywood. In 2007, Marisol Cruz begins working for the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History for its Beach Boardwalk Centennial Celebration. While doing research she discovers Violet Harcourt’s obituary and becomes intrigued.

“With her light skin and dazzling green eyes, Lily likely wouldn’t experience the same level of discrimination that Mari had. In fact, most kids at Lily’s preschool thought she was white. Your father is white, Mari had offered to Lily in explanation. Her whole body tensed whenever Lily asked about her dad.”

As the novel unfolds, readers discover the connection between the women. Marisol learns that Violet knew her late grandfather Ricardo who worked as a performer on the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. Both women face varied obstacles in pursuing their goals. Violet’s possessive husband keeps close ties on her. She’d entered the pageant without his knowledge. The prize included a screen test. Marisol struggles as a Latinx single mother who had to give up her academic aspirations to care for her daughter. She also doesn’t have a relationship with her daughter’s father although they both live in Santa Cruz.

There are plenty of twists and the novel topically delves into domestic violence, sexual assault, immigration and racial discrimination. It’s the perfect novel to sink into at the beach or at a café. Author Meredith Jaeger takes readers to Santa Cruz during two different time periods and effectively links the women. As a graduate of University of California, Santa Cruz, Jaeger is familiar with the setting.  I recently spoke with her about Boardwalk Summer.

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

Meredith Jaeger: I got the idea for this novel from a newspaper article in the San Francisco Chronicle titled “Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk’s Lively History Lives on.” It featured a photograph of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk archivist standing in a windowless room full of boxes and memorabilia collected over a century. The archivist was standing in front of a photograph of the first ever Miss California pageant held on the beach in Santa Cruz in 1924. That gave me the idea of Violet being a participant in the pageant. Also, as soon as I saw that windowless room, I had an image of my modern character, Mari, coming into contact with one of the artifacts from the Boardwalk (Violet’s obituary) and unraveling a 70-year-old mystery.

Amy Steele: You went to UC Santa Cruz and grew up in the Bay Area, how did that influence you? Were you drawn to the place and setting and then added the characters or did you come up with the characters first?

Meredith Jaeger: I love to write what I know and I’m influenced by the world around me. Growing up in the Bay Area, I often visited the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. I have fond memories of riding the Giant Dipper rollercoaster and the Looff Carousel as a kid (and eating funnel cake!). It’s the oldest surviving amusement park in California, so any old timer will tell you all about their favorite childhood memories at The Boardwalk. I choose my setting first, and then the characters populate that setting. Because I set my first novel The Dressmaker’s Dowry in San Francisco, I wanted to set my second in Santa Cruz, a breathtakingly beautiful place I was once lucky enough to call home. I like to write dual narrative fiction, so Mari and Violet came into my head as soon as I knew where my story would take place.

Amy Steele: How much do you draw from your own personal experience do you bring in and how much research do you do?

Meredith Jaeger: I wrote two novels that were never published before I sold The Dressmaker’s Dowry. Those novels drew heavily from my personal experience because I think it’s natural to do that when you’re first starting out as a writer. My novels now are influenced by places I’ve lived and issues I’ve read about, but they don’t necessarily feature things that have happened to me in real life. I put a lot of research into my work, involving hours of reading historic newspaper articles which have been scanned into the California Digital Newspaper Collection online, watching YouTube clips of films, advertisements or anything I can find from the era I’m researching, reading library books and poring over old photographs.

Amy Steele: In your notes at the end you say that you weren’t initially interested in Hollywood’s Golden Age until your editor suggested it and then you became intrigued by its “dark underbelly.” Could you explain a bit more how that aspect captivated you and work into Violet’s journey?

Meredith Jaeger: My editor was the one to suggest that Violet should go to Hollywood. Growing up in California and being in close proximity to Hollywood, it never held the sort of magic for me that it might for other people. When I was eighteen, I took a Greyhound bus to West Hollywood with my friends to go to a Halloween party on Sunset Boulevard and I definitely saw the sleazy side of Tinsel town! (I made out with a B-list celebrity that night). I’m drawn to the gritty underbelly of cities in contrast to their glitz and glamour. With my first novel, The Dressmaker’s Dowry, which is set in Victorian Era San Francisco, the photojournalist Jacob Riis and his nineteenth century photographs of impoverished New Yorkers living in tenements inspired me.  With Boardwalk Summer, I took my memories of Sunset Boulevard and then combined them with research from a fabulous book called The Story of Hollywood by Gregory Paul Williams. Everything I describe about Hollywood Boulevard from the scam artist agents to the panhandlers, to the disheveled men wearing advertisements for plays and psychic shops posing as churches came from my research. The second aspect to Hollywood’s dark underbelly comes in the form of powerful men in the industry committing sexual assault. I worked this into Violet’s journey and it was very timely in terms of the #MeToo movement.

Amy Steele: You bring in many topical themes including the immigrant experience, domestic violence, single mothers. Why did you want to write about these issues?

Meredith Jaeger: Social justice is important to me. Though I’m not an immigration lawyer or a social worker, I have the ability to reach readers through my books and to potentially open their eyes to what’s going on in our country.  It can be so painful to watch the atrocities taking place that it’s tempting to look away. But I urge readers to look closely at themselves and how their actions impact the world. I’m the daughter of an immigrant, so the immigrant experience will always be important to me. The link between mass shootings and men with a history of violence against women is something I find very disturbing. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, an estimated 45% of female homicide victims were killed by an intimate partner in 2007. I hope readers will be encouraged to read not only my books (I’m a white cisgender woman fully aware of my privilege), but also books by marginalized authors: people of color, LGBTQ authors and authors with chronic illness and disability. Reading opens your mind.

Amy Steele: Did the story unfold as you wrote it or do your map it out ahead of time?

Meredith Jaeger: I mapped it out ahead of time. I used to be a pantser (as in flying by the seat of my pants!) but because my first two novels never found me an agent and never sold, I have since turned into a plotter! I write out a detailed synopsis and chart out my story on butcher paper so that I can visualize the dramatic action. I use Post-Its for different character arcs and I have different colors for each character. I admire anyone who can successfully allow the story to unfold without plotting.

Amy Steele: I like the 1940/ 2007 connections and POVs. You used first person for Violet and third person for Mari. Why did you decide on that?

Meredith Jaeger: Before I signed with my agent, Jenny Bent, I sent her my dual narrative POV novel The Dressmaker’s Dowry. She suggested I change one of the voices to third person to help differentiate them. Jenny is a fantastic agent and she gives great advice, so it was a tip that I stuck with for Boardwalk Summer!

Amy Steele: What attracts you to writing historical fiction?

Meredith Jaeger: I’m a very nostalgic person. I find myself staring at old houses, or antiques, and wondering about the people who once lived there, who once owned these things, and what their lives were like.  I love how writing historical fiction gives me the opportunity to lose myself in the past. And the fashion! Though I’m grateful we live in an age where I can wear flip-flops and yoga pants to the grocery store, I love researching the incredible fashions of the late 1800s and early 20th century. I go a little nuts on Pinterest.

Amy Steele: What’s your greatest writing challenge?

Meredith Jaeger: Finding the time! I worked full-time for a San Francisco startup when I wrote my first novel, so I was only able to write on weekends. Now I’m the mother of a very feisty almost two-year-old, and that presents its own challenges. I plot so heavily because it means I don’t get writer’s block, and I can make the most of the time I do have, when I get a few hours during my daughter’s nap, or I have a babysitter.

Amy Steele: When and where do you write?

Meredith Jaeger: I write at home, in the library or in a café, and I write whenever I can! I write when I have a babysitter for my daughter, and I write whenever I have an uninterrupted stretch of free time, like getting my car serviced. They have Wi-Fi at the dealership and coffee, so what’s not to love?

Amy Steele: What’s on your summer TBR?

Meredith Jaeger: Something In The Water by Catherine Steadman, The Lost Family by Jenna Blum, The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis, Sold on a Monday by Kristina McMorris, Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras and If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim. (And the other books on my shelf I haven’t gotten to!)

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book review: ANY MAN

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Any Man by Amber Tamblyn. Harper Perennial| June 2018| 304 pages | $15.99| ISBN: 0978-0-06-268892-7

RATING: *****/5*

“But more than any of that, as you know, I loathe feminists. It’s by no small miracle that all feminists in America haven’t been stoned to death by now. I’m just telling you the truth. Feminists are pollution, taking a stance, against what exactly, no one in their right mind knows. They are angry, bitter, saggy chauvinists masquerading as supportive, loving sisters.”

If you’re looking for an intense, intelligent and engulfing feminist thriller, you must read ANY MAN. Author Amber Tamblyn challenges rape culture and the problematic treatment of victims and glorification of violence and misogyny through this thriller about a female serial rapist. The novel follows six men: an English teacher, a struggling standup comedian, a bi-racial web designer, a high school student, an alt-right media personality and a transgender man. A uniquely irreverent and impressively original novel, social commentary and crime thriller meld with insightful, sharp prose and diverse writing styles. She weaves in tweets, poetry, internet chat room, a radio talk show. She also flips everything one expects in thriller. [As a companion read, I recommend Dead Girls by Alice Bolin– an essay collection addressing society’s infatuation with violence against women]. Whether she’s using tweets or poetry or an internet chat room or journal entries, it grabs you from the first page and is impossible to put down.  If you’re a woman who has been attacked on social media or elsewhere for expressing her opinion, you’ll really get it.  Tamblyn wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times, “I’m Done with Not Being Believed,” which cemented her place among influential feminists who are changing the narrative around trauma and victimization. I found myself nodding and smiling and cringing and marking passages while proclaiming Tamblyn’s genius and reading as fast as possible.

RATING: *****/5*

Amber Tamblyn will be at Harvard Bookstore on July 24, 2018.

–review by Amy Steele

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