Archive for category Books
Lonesome Lies Before Us by Don Lee. W.W. Norton| June 6, 2017| 336 pages | $26.95| ISBN: 978-0-393-60881-6
Despite talent, alt-country/Americana musician Yadin Park’s musical career never took off due to his insecurities, lack of charisma and stage presence and then Meniere’s disease, a debilitating hearing disorder. Being a musician, an artist of any kind isn’t an easy profession. The music industry and the entertainment industry subsist mostly on the youth. It’s easy to age out of the music industry as it places a premium on youth and beauty and not always talent. Of course to maintain longevity one must possess talent. The entertainment industry can afford to be fickle as support then drop artists that don’t pull in money. How long does someone want to scrape by in hopes of quitting the day job? It’s infrequent that someone can do that. As author Don Lee stated at a recent book reading at Newtonville Books: “You have to have a certain amount of luxury and leisure to pursue those arts.” It’s true. While the starving artist sounds romantic, in reality it’s not comfortable or feasible for most people long-term.
“It was a relief, really, to be out of the music business. He was glad to be done with it. He was satisfied with his life in Rosarita Bay—quiet and anonymous, with no ambitions other than to make an honest living and have a roof over his head and be with Jeanette and her family. He’d been certain that he would never return to making music again. That was why the emergence of the new songs had been such a surprise to him.”
As a child, Yadin listened to his father’s LPs—Emmylou Harris, Townes Van Zandt, Gram Parsons, John Prine. [For authenticity, Lee worked with indie musician Will Johnson who wrote some lyrics which appear in the novel.] He became drawn to these sad, expressive songs. Lee writes: “All these songs about longing, regret, and betrayal, about broken hearts and belated apologies, about drinking, cheating, and leaving, about the lonely road and cheap motels and drifters, dreamers, outcasts, and the forlorn—they changed Yadin in ways he could not express yet could feel.” Living in Chapel Hill, he soon joined a band but wasn’t thrilled about performing and most artists need to tour. He became romantically involved with his bandmate Mallory Wicks. After a record label signed the band, Yadin became overwhelmed and soon left completely.
Now living in California and working for a carpeting company, Yadin recently started writing and recording songs again. His girlfriend Jeanette Matsuda, laid off from a salaried position years ago, cleans hotel rooms. Both Yadin and Jeanette gave up career goals and remain a bit stagnant and settled in simple lives which don’t particularly satisfy them. Lee writes: “Without quite realizing it, she had fallen into a persistent low-grade funk over the years, which became more pronounced when she was laid off and then was being rejected for job after job. Incessantly she would interrogate the choices and decisions she had made, and had convinced herself that she was a failure, a loser. She had crimped inward, fearful that if she exposed herself she would be ridiculed and betrayed.” Lee said that last decade’s financial crisis influenced this novel. He wanted to write about privilege and class. He also explained: “There are a lot of working class Asians and you never see them portrayed in books.”
One day Mallory Wicks, now a well-known actress and musician, checks in to Jeanette’s hotel. Yadin visits Mallory and she suggests they collaborate together. She knows he’s talented and that she has the celebrity power but not that much talent. Her star power wanes and she knows that a strong new album might bring her back into the spotlight. As this happens, both Yadin and Jeanette find themselves doing quite a bit of existential examination. Is this all there is? How did we get here? Have I accomplished enough? Am I happy? Am I where I want to be or need to be? How can I live a fulfilling and satisfying life? As someone middle-aged re-evaluating her path, this novel resonated with me. In Yadin and Jeanette’s unfulfilled goals and unrealized ambitions, I see my own failings. This line in particular: “She could only mourn the life she had been unable to create.” How many people remain in comfortable yet unsatisfying relationships in order to avoid being alone?
“Granted, there wasn’t a lot of passion between them, and this was chiefly her fault, she knew. Both had been in love just once in their lives, while very young, and both had been heartbroken. Neither had ever married, nor had been in a relationship of any significant length. They might have been together more out of attrition than anything resembling ardor, but they cared for each other, they helped each other, they were companions. It was enough for Jeanette, and she had hoped it would be enough for Yadin, but lately she had begun to worry that it wasn’t.”
It’s a powerful novel with phenomenal writing and quiet, intense characterizations. As a music critic and book critic, novels about musicians always appeal to me. This novel draws the same emotions as aI also adored Don Lee’s gorgeous novel The Collective. One of my favorite authors, Lee’s writing dazzles me.
–review by Amy Steele
The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. Flatiron Books| May 2017| 336 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 978-1-250-08054-7
Some people are true crime fanatics. I’ve read In Cold Blood and some other true crime books but don’t often gravitate toward them. Memoir appeals to me and that’s what drew me to The Fact of a Body. I also may or may not have wanted to go to law school.
Both a memoir and a true crime book, The Fact of a Body is a riveting page-turner but also a disturbing read I had to step away from a few times. To apply to Harvard Law School, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich wrote the admissions essay about her opposition to the death penalty. During a summer internship at a New Orleans law firm, Marzano-Lesnevich begins to question that stance when she’s tasked to the re-trial of convicted murderer and child molester Ricky Langley. He’s been on death row for years. Not only does her research cause Marzano-Lesnevich to question the death penalty it also brings up her own past family trauma.
Meticulous research and painstaking detail allow readers into the life and crime of Ricky Langley as well as into Marzano-Lesnevich’s terrifying childhood when her grandfather molested her and her sister. Now a law student, she wants to comprehend the why and how. Her grandfather got away with it. Ricky got sentenced to death row. While it could be academic and legal in tone, it’s a compelling, shocking, devastating, frightening and phenomenal read. There’s this chilling line: “The room where now, in the closet, Jeremy Guilory’s body stands rigid, wedged in, wrapped in the blue blanket from Ricky’s bed, a white trash bag covering his head and shoulders.” Or this: “The camera doesn’t linger. It catches the blond hair and then falters in the face of the boy. But on Jeremy’s lip right now—too small for the camera to catch, and no one’s looking at him that closely, no one wants to look at a boy that closely—there is a single dark pubic hair.” Marzano-Lesnevich balances the narrative and the facts just so. It’s a truly powerful reconciliation of past and present.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Flatiron Books.
Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich will be in conversation with Kristen Radtke on Thursday, June 1, 2017 at Brookline Booksmith
The Leavers by Lisa Ko. Algonquin Books| May 2017| 338 pages | $25.95| ISBN:
An intense mediation on race, culture, identity, sense of place and belonging, The Leavers by Lisa Ko is a gorgeous and thoughtfully written debut novel that should resonate with progressives and allow others insight into the struggles of undocumented immigrants. It’s not that they don’t want to follow protocol. It’s often that they have few choices. It’s the story of what happens when Deming Guo’s mother Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, fails to return from her job at a nail salon. She just vanishes. She doesn’t contact the family. No one knows if she’s been deported or if she just took off. As a single mother she struggled to cover expenses as a nail technician. After a month or so, her boyfriend’s sister sends Deming off to a foster home in the suburbs where two dogged white professors adopt Deming and change his name to Daniel Wilkinson. They mean well and want Daniel to have the best educational opportunities afforded to him. They want him to have choices for his future.
The story’s told from Daniel’s perspective as well as that of his mother Polly. Daniel struggles to fit in at this white enclave in upstate New York. He doesn’t do well in school and he develops a gambling problem. His parents aren’t happy and Daniel moves to Manhattan to live with a friend and join his band. Although Daniel is now in his late teens he still wonders why his mother abandoned him and never tried to find him. This definitely affects the relationship with his parents as well as his ability to figure out where he fits in. He often thinks about his birth mother and wonders why she doesn’t care enough about him to track him down. That’s enough to make a young man become wayward and develop a gambling addiction.
In the United States, Polly had created a challenging but routine life for herself. She lived with her son and a boyfriend named Leon. Ko writes: “I didn’t want a small, resigned life, but I also craved certainty, safety. I considered suggesting to Leon that we marry other people, legal citizens, for the papers, and after a few years we could divorce our spouses and marry each other.” Now back in her homeland China, she lives a rather comfortable life working as an English teacher. She’s married and lives in a nice apartment. Readers also finally discover what happened when Polly went to work that day at the nail salon. Polly went through a horrific ordeal after ICE placed her in a camp for illegal immigrants. The harsh and nearly inhumane conditions could easily break someone down. It was shocking to read about these middle-of-nowhere holding facilites. Just harsh.
Debut author Lisa Ko said that this novel was inspired by real-life stories of undocumented immigrant women whose United States-born children were ultimately taken from them and raised by American families. She states: “With The Leavers, I want to decenter the narrative of transracial adoption away from that of the adoptive parents.” It’s an important topic when our current president wants to keep people from entering the country as well as crack down on undocumented immigrants, even ones living quiet hard-working lives who have young American-born children.
READ THIS NOVEL. It provides insight and empathy in the plight of immigrants in this country. It’s utterly heartbreaking yet often optimistic and shows resilience among the characters. I can’t recommend this novel enough. Lisa Ko utilizes lovely prose, a riveting story-line and relatable, flawed characters to highlight the challenges immigrants face today.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Algonquin.
Lisa Ko will be reading at Harvard Book Store on Wednesday, May 17 at 7pm.
When You Find Out the World is Against You by Kelly Oxford. Dey St.| April 2017| 310 pages | $26.99| (ISBN13: 9780062322777
Kelly Oxford is described as “the famed blogger, named one of Rolling Stone’s Funniest People on Twitter… one of the most followed and beloved Twitter celebrities.” Sometimes tweets can transfer to writing essays but often the short, pithy style at which one excels on Twitter can’t be transformed into a detailed essay. This collection is definitely hit or miss. It’s an easy quick read and sometimes an essay collection is cool as you can skip around and pick it up here and there to read an essay. Most of these type essays aren’t for me. I’m not one that finds humor in every situation. The essays on parenting definitely didn’t appeal to me and it’s not that I don’t read about parents. I do. it needs to be a well-written and compelling piece. The essays on anxiety are pretty good and I wish there were more of those. I think maybe she tackled too many subjects here. I prefer intellectual/existential essays.
I’d tangentially heard of Kelly Oxford but I don’t think I follow her on twitter. I’m aware of the #NotOkay hashtag campaign. creating a trending hashtag seems the pinnacle of online social media success. If your tweets, Instagram pics or Facebook posts don’t go viral then what’s the point to even post them? It seems that way at least. I respect and appreciate that Kelly Oxford created this hashtag which allowed women to feel safe in reporting their stories of sexual abuse after the Donald Trump/Billy Bush tape. She wrote: “I immediately open my Twitter account and see everyone tweeting about this. This is huge. This leaked tape is demanding a response.” Then: “My tweet is instantly being retweeted, but I feel like what I wrote isn’t as clear as I want it to be. So I tweet again.” Later she tweets another and says: “If no one responds, I’ll delete that tweet.” So if nobody immediately responds it’s not worth tweeting? this mindset I don’t comprehend. I tweet a lot. I’m sure my tweets get seen but they’re not always liked or RTed. That’s the way it goes. On people’s bios you see them say that they started such and such hashtag. I’m not jealous of this.
Here are a few good quotes:
on her father: “Whisker burn was his nice way, with skin abrasion, of telling me it was time to get up. I put up with it, because I worried this could be my only interaction with him for the day.”
being a hypochondriac and frequent visitor to doctors: “When I was eight, I’d stolen several thousand of those long Q-Tip strep-throat things from under that sink, you know, to practice swabbing my throat at home, to rid myself of the gag it caused.” (useful in many ways)
on anxiety: “When I reached the top of the stairs, I instantly felt panic. Like from the very pit of my soul I felt I was worthless and everyone knew it and I would never every climb out and feel better. That even if I did climb out, it would still be as terrible as it felt right at that moment. I felt like I was jailed inside by own sick body and my body was definitely going to kill me.”
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from William Morrow.
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 by Camille Laurens. Other Press| March 2017| 208 pages | $14.95| ISBN: 978-1-59051-832-8
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Other Press.
All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg. Houghton Mifflin| March 2017| 208 pages | $25.00| ISBN: 978-0-544-82424-9
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.”
A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline. William Morrow| February 2017| 309 pages | $27.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-235626-0
“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.