Archive for category Books
The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung. Ecco| June 2019| 304 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-257406-0
–review by Amy Steele
“A mathematical proof is absolute once it has been written and verified: if the internal logic of a proof holds, it is considered unassailable and true. The underlying structure of my family was something I’d never questioned. It had formed the foundation of my life. When it suddenly dissolved, I was unmoored. It had never occurred to me to question my mother’s love for me, or our relationship to each other. I had believed these things were absolute.”
Who would expect a novel about a young math prodigy working on the Riemann hypothesis and uncovering her family history in the process to be so riveting? The Tenth Muse is the best novel I’ve read this year. It’s an engrossing work of historical fiction with gorgeous writing, unforgettable characters and events. It’s a sprawling page-turner set in academia.
Katherine always loved problem-solving and equations and that’s what drew her to math: “Math had always seemed miraculous to me because of the beauty it revealed underlying nature, because of the deep sense of rightness that came over me when I understood something all the way through, as if for a moment I’d merged with the grace I only ever caught glimpses of.” Katherine is a brilliant mathematician working in a male-dominated field. During college and graduate school, her classmates remind her that there are few noted female mathematicians throughout history, notably Emily Noether and Sofia Kovalevskaya. She recalls: “But by then I was resigned to these jokes, to the constant reminder that I was an anomaly, an outsider, a kind of freak. I was aware that even if I contributed to our field, my name would also become a punch line. I didn’t know how to resist, except to make clear that I wasn’t trying to fit in, that I knew I was different and to highlight that difference to make it clear.”
I especially loved all the scenes focusing on Katherine’s academic studies. Reading about books, academia, college and university settings greatly appeal to me. Author Catherine Chung provides plenty of real-life math references and establishes a clear sense of Katherine’s struggles as well as her inspiration. Being one of the few women in a male-dominated field, Katherine is constantly questioned, undermined and often taken advantage of by her colleagues. She has several pivotal love affairs, one with a professor during graduate school.
The novel ultimately centers on Katherine’s identity and I can’t reveal too much. It gloriously unfolds. When Katherine decides to tackle the Riemann hypothesis and it leads her to discover her family story and its connection in World World II. Her Chinese immigrant mother remained an enigma to Katherine throughout her life. Living in Michigan and married to Katherine’s white father, she faced extreme prejudices in post-WWII America. “I heard her called a dirty Jap once, and China Doll, and Red China, and while I flushed red with shame, my mother never so much as flinched at the slurs, so that I was never sure that she heard them.” When Katherine travels to Germany to study abroad, she discovers some shocking information about her family connected to both mathematics and WWII. Don’t think you need to be a math whiz for this book to make sense. There’s so much beauty and bravery within these pages.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Ecco.
Although I read this back in March, The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone makes the ideal summer read with its dreamy, cinematic imagery. It reminds me of Jane Campion’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. It’s part mystery and part coming-of-age story.
Raised by religious, strict parents, the three Apfel sisters disappear one summer in Australia in 1992—“We lost all three girls that summer. Let them slip away like the words of some half-remembered song, and when one came back, she wasn’t the one we were trying to recall to begin with.” Were they killed or did they run away? Tikka Malloy was 11 years old in 1992. She and her sister were best friends with the Van Apfel sisters. Tikka returns home because her sister has been diagnosed with cancer. The never-solved disappearance of Ruth, Hannah and Cordelia Van Apfel 20 years ago still haunts Tikka and her sister.
This area of Australia seems one in which children got easily get lost—“Back in those days the valley had only been developed in pockets. It was dissected by a cutting where a skinny, two-lane road wound down and around and across the river and then slithered out again, but the real excavation world had been done long ago by something much more primitive than us. The valley was deep and wide. Trees covered both walls. Spindly, stunted she-oaks spewed from the basin, swallowing the sunlight and smothering the tide with their needles. Higher up there were paperbacks, and tea trees with their camphorous lemon smell. Then hairpin banksias, river dogroses and gums of every kind—woolybutts, blackbutts, bogongs, blue mallets, swamp mallets and craven grey boxes, right up to the anemic angophoras that stood twisted and mangled all along the ridge line.”
Tikka recalls that summer and the sisters. The Van Apfel family has plenty of dark secrets. Maybe these memories of this friendship and growing up will mean something now to adult Tikka that she’d never recognized as a child. The father seems to have most difficulty controlling middle-sister Cordelia, the most beautiful of the sisters and the most independent. That summer, Cordelia falls out of a tree and breaks her arm. That summer, a new male teacher, named Mr. Avery, arrives at their school. He’s the only male teacher. When Cordelia sleepwalks one night, Mr. Avery brings her back home. She’s only wearing her swimming outfit. Cordelia often talks about getting away from her father. She has a plan to leave.
Then there’s Mr. Van Apfel and his suspicious behavior. He seemed to have the most problems with Cordelia. He cruelly killed her pet mice by pouring bleach on them. Another time, when Cordelia was bathing, Mr. Van Apfel held her head under water “to cast away all her sins. Swimming costume sins. Sleepwalking sins. (Cold-car-engines-in-red-hatchbacks sins.) He was careful to keep her cast arm dry, and it protruded like a plaster periscope. While the rest of her shameful body was submerged and washed clean. Baptism among the bath salts and bubbles.” There’s this particularly creepy memory. On the last day of school, Mr. Van Apfel tells Tikka that Cordelia and Ruth aren’t feeling well and won’t be going. She notices that the seats are folded down in the back of the car and she sees “three long black bags zipped securely to the top.” Chills.
Nuanced and more of a character study and a contemplation on memory and experience, it’s quite the page-turner.
–review by Amy Steele
I received this book for review from Algonquin.
I Guess I’ll Write It Down by Beth Evans. William Morrow| June 11, 2019 | $14.99| ISBN: 9780062796134
If you follow Beth Evans on Instagram, you know how relatable and supportive her comics can be. Social media can be difficult but it can also provide a particular sense of community, a place to realize that you’re not alone in your struggles. Beth’s comics allow empathy and encouragement. She’s open about her mental health especially dealing with anxiety which can be scary and frustrating and debilitating for many. It’s also especially lonely to be side-lined by anxiety. Fans of Beth’s work will particularly appreciate this journal. This journal contains 28 never-before-seen cartoons which will inspire people to share their thoughts and desires. Writing can be therapeutic and many people understand the importance of writing down our emotions. Carry around this compact and pretty journal or keep it in a bedside drawer to write down all the feelings when you need to reflect or keep a record of events. Beth Evans has more than 280, 000 followers on Instagram. Her comics help people feel a bit less alone and a bit less anxious. She’s the author of I Didn’t Really Think This Through.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from William Morrow.
The Ten Loves of Nishino by Hiromi Kawakami. Europa| June 4, 2019| 240 pages | $17.00| ISBN: 978-160-945-532-3
“I loved the idea of falling in love with someone, but the actual being in love part was difficult. I was all too familiar with my own desires. And I was very straightforward about asking myself what it was that I really wanted.”
Hiromi Kawakami gorgeously writes about love in a dark, amusing, charming and weird way that I find impeccable and engrossing. As the title suggests, ten women recount their relationships with a man named Nishino. The novel delves into the absurdities of any love relationship. Nishino is an enigmatic man that never married or had children. He’s had a strong effect on many intelligent, accomplished, fascinating women. One lover describes his physical appearance: “Thick hair. An angular but not too prominent chin. Deep dark eyes. A mouth always turned up at the corners.” We learn a bit more about Nishino yet never really know him completely.
Although married at the time, Parfait fell in love with Nishino who is 12 years older than her: “When I think of Nishino’s embrace, I am struck with a fleeting wistfulness, but I cannot recall in which way I had been in love with him.” Another woman fell in love with him when they were in school together: “I would always remember clearly what happened in the grass between our fourteen-year-old selves, in the elusive space between adulthood and childhood.” When she was working as his superior at a company, Manami had a relationship with the Nishino: “We were anxious. We were light. We had been rapturously happy. We had been in despair. We had been on the verge of loving one another. But, incapable of doing so, we found ourselves on the precipice, doomed to remain there forever.” One woman met Nishino at the Energy-Saving Cooking Club: “I was surprised that men like Nishino existed in the world, the type of man who could slip so smoothly into a woman’s sensibility. I was surprised by the way, before even being aware of it, I was trying to act out the rule of the “alluring older woman.” I was surpsied by how easily emotions such as jealousy or possessiveness could be aroused with regard to a person for who I harbored not even the slightest feelings.”
I really liked Kawakami’s previous novel The Nakamo Thrift Shop and now after reading The Ten Loves of Nishino I know I’m a fan.
–review by Amy Steele
I received this book for review from Europa.
<em>The Wonder of Lost Causes</em> by Nick Trout. William Morrow| April 2019| 440 pages | $16.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-274794-5
Dr. Kate Blunt is a single working mother. She’s a veterinarian at an animal shelter. Her son Jasper, who has cystic fibrosis, forms an instantly strong bond with a problematic dog that’s recently arrived. Whistler seems to communicate with Jasper and he also has a strikingly similar cough. It seems obvious that the boy and this dog belong together. If nobody adopts the dog in two weeks, the dog will be euthanized. He’s been badly mistreated and doesn’t trust anyone but Jasper, who desperately wants to adopt Whistler. Kate doesn’t want to adopt any dog. She’s overwhelmed with work and taking care of her chronically ill son. Jasper plans to convince his mother to adopt Whistler. While this is happening, someone contacts the shelter to claim the dog. Apparently, he’s a trained service dog. He’s trained to detect seizures in children. It seems that even if they wanted to adopt him, he belongs to someone else. A child needs him and his special skills. Kate and Jasper travel to deliver the dog to the organization. Will they or won’t they be able to let go of the dog? It’s clear that Jasper’s happier with Whistler.
“I admit it: I’m afraid of change. Living with this disease has rendered me fluent in fear. Change apartments—how hard can it be? Take your dog to work—what’s the problem? You’re a vet; you’ve even got the health insurance issue covered. But let’s say I find a new home that’s perfect for Jasper and money pours into the shelter so I don’t need to look for a new job, I’ve still got to worry. And it’s more than who’s going to clean up an accident because our doctor’s appointment ran late of where on earth the dog will stay when we’re trapped in the hospital for three weeks at a time. It’s the guarantee that a dog will influence my focus on Jasper, distracting me in small, innocent ways, forcing decisions, unnecessary considerations, and, worst of all, extra responsibility. This sounds trivial because it is trivial, but for a single mom with a sick child, the prospect of caring for something, anything more, feels like a burden, a final straw, guaranteed to make our already precarious existence bow, falter, and crack.”
Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease which causes persistent lung infections and limits the ability to breathe. Alternating between Jasper and Kate’s viewpoints, there’s plenty of insight on what it’s like to struggle with cystic fibrosis and what it’s like to be the caretaker for someone with the disease. Jasper spends lots of time in the hospital. He’s weaker than other children. Jasper comes across as a laid back, savvy, determined child. He’s rather matter-of-fact about cystic fibrosis. His mother understandably worries about her son, maintains a rigid care schedule and remains vigilant about his health and safety. The novel emphasizes how important animals can be to our emotional well-being. I appreciated that author Nick Trout is also a veterinary surgeon in Boston. He brings vast experience to his writing. This novel seems particularly personal as Dr. Trout has a daughter with cystic fibrosis. He’s British and so is Jasper’s absent father, amusingly making Jasper an anglophile to his mother’s dismay. Even if you’re not a dog person, you’ll find yourself rooting for Jasper and Whistler in the end.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from William Morrow.
Acts of Infidelity by Lena Andersson. Other Press| April 23, 2019| 336 pages | $16.99| ISBN: 9781590519035
As with Willful Disregard, Swedish author Lena Andersson’s second Ester Nilsson novel, Acts of Infidelity, examines love and its complications, challenges and painful consequences. Writer Ester Nilsson meets actor Olof Sten and immediately falls in love with him. Olof isn’t exactly available, he’s married, but that doesn’t deter either of them from embarking into a relationship. Unfortunately, Ester doesn’t want to be the other woman, she wants to be Olof’s central focus. His one and only. Olof makes it clear that he’s not planning to leave his wife but Ester remains hopeful. “This was exactly what married people said when someone else had shaken their foundations, Ester thought. When people felt an intense desire, they might insist otherwise. The trick was knowing when they meant what they were saying and were saying it to be clear and honorable and when they meant the opposite. The question demanded a far-reaching and risky act of interpretation, work to which Ester was always willing to subject herself.” Unfortunately, Ester becomes Olof’s mistress. It seemed that unless she wanted to eliminate all contact with him that it was inevitable.
The overall darker tone and humor appeals to me. This novel is extremely relatable as is Willful Disregard, in which Ester experienced unrequited love. I often fall for unavailable men or those that just want to be friends with me or just have sex with me. When you’re emotionally vulnerable, it’s easy enough for men to string you along. It’s not that men and women can’t be friends. It’s just that if there’s chemistry or sex involved that definitely complicates things. He lets her know that he merely wants to be friends. He really likes her and wants to spend time getting to know her. But to what end Ester wants to know? When you’re a single woman over 40, how much time and energy should you spend on platonic relationships with men?
I completely empathize with Ester. We’re a lot alike in choosing inappropriate men or having bad timing in meeting men to whom we’re attracted. There’s also the over-sharing: “Those unlucky in love and of a certain temperament are compelled to talk about it, all the time and with anyone. Speaking eases the pain.” It’s this need to know that either we’re not alone in having these relationships or over-analyzing everything. It makes us feel better. When you’re insecure, you need others to occasionally remind you that it’s not you, it’s him or something like that. It’s also just a need to be intimately seen, to be cared for, to be loved. Andersson writes: “But what was the point of living if there wasn’t any hope for intoxication or vivacity? There was no point. You could only grind away because life had been bestowed upon you without you having any say in the matter.”
Olof possesses the arrogance and ability to take advantage of Ester’s vulnerability. He’s bold because he already has the wife, the long-term relationship. Anything that happens with Ester will be a bonus for him. So, they fall into an affair that’s extremely push/pull, stop/go, hot/cold. TOTAL MIXED MESSAGES. At one point there’s this: “The next morning, too, was devoted to erotic enjoyments.” And then this: “The absence of physical contact was worst when they had come so close to it.” Make up your mind Olof! It’s rather frustrating and I felt angered for Ester.
Eventually after this has gone on for years, Ester decides that she needs to push Olof to decide between her and his wife so she emails his wife. It backfires as Olof accuses her of being a stalker and calls her “psychotic, psychopathic and a crazy cunt.” Both Olof and his wife accuse Ester of mental illness and attack her reputation and character. He denies that he ever had an affair. He tells people it was a drunken one-night stand. In this patriarchal society with all the misogyny and toxic masculinity, people generally accept his version of events—“Because a man has urges that require his full stoic and rational powers to shut down, and a woman has her age-old ability to trick men into impregnating her while being irrationally unreliable, once was as good as never.”—which might be amusing if it weren’t so sad and true and disheartening. Women get blamed and shamed and men walk away with reputations intact.
–review by Amy Steele
I received a review copy from Other Press.
Under the Table by Stephanie Evanovich. William Morrow| April 16, 2019| 272 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 9780062415929
Sometimes you crave a light read, a brain palette cleanser. I read this one back in September when I needed just such a reading break. It’s an easy, unoffensive, cute, rather predictable read. I liked it enough to finish it but didn’t find it particularly memorable. Zoey Sullivan escapes her stagnant marriage by moving in with her single and carefree (naturally) sister in New York. She pursues her passion for cooking and works as a caterer. Of course she meets a millionaire named Tristan Malloy who has the perfect model house kitchen. He’s handsome and successful but rather reclusive and socially inept so Zoey decides to help him by giving him a makeover. She finds herself falling for Tristan of course and then must decide whether to choose the hot millionaire or her Midwesterner, possessive husband Derek. It’s a really difficult decision—“Sweet, sexy, chivalrous to a fault, Tristan. They had no real history. There had been no declarations of love, just a gradual buildup of attraction that inevitably exploded in passion.” In the process of falling in love with the millionaire, Zoey does discover herself and own independence and strength and that’s admirable. Under the Table is the perfect fantasy and will make a perfect beach read.
–review by Amy Steele
I received an ARC from William Morrow for review purposes.
The Little Girl on the Ice Floe by Adelaide Bon. Europa| March 2019| 224 pages | $17.00| ISBN: 978-1-60945-515-6
“She has everything a person needs to be happy. Her childhood is privileged, sheltered. She’s healthy, pretty, intelligent. She lives in Paris, goes skiing in winter and swimming in the summer, visits museums abroad. She comes from a good family in a nice neighborhood; she’s been well brought up,she knows how to behave in polite society. She’s white, with French roots going all the way back to Charlemagne and to Morvan I, king of Bretons.”
Two decades after being assaulted, a detective re-opens the case of “The Electrician” and DNA analysis identifies a man who police recognize as a serial offender. He’s charged with assaulting 72 minors between 1983 and 2003. French author Adelaide Bon goes to court and testifies in the case and confronts the man who brutalized her so many years ago. Translated from the French by Tina Kover, The Little Girl on the Ice Floe is a remarkable memoir about sexual assault and its aftermath. (I truly enjoyed reading Disoriental which Tina Kover also translated.) There’s a conscious connection between subject, author and final product and therefore, becomes somewhat metta at times. Told in third person with the occasional first person, it’s powerful, raw, thoughtful, angry and exhilarating. It’s a revelatory and stunning depiction of how a woman copes after sexual assault. The author candidly depicts her struggles. The rape affects her in a myriad of ways for decades—from overeating to alcohol abuse to isolating to self-esteem issues to sexual relationships. “She convinces herself that she is made up of two completely separate parts: the disgusting, treacherous body and the pure, bright, joyous mind.”
What do you do when you’re hurting so much, when your suffering becomes unbearable? She becomes an avid reader as books provide the perfect refuge. She goes to therapy. She tries pretty much everything: “She participates in four more family constellation weekends; she tries holotropic breathing, rebirth, primal screaming, kinesiology, floral extracts and St. John’s Wort. She consults an etiopath and makes an appointment with an astrologist. She reads countless books on personal development, Indian spirituality, and nonviolent communication; she studies Jung and Schopenhauer. She’s like one of those trick birthday candles that relight themselves endlessly until you drown them in a glass of water. She is the granddaughter of a legionnaire, and as long as there is a war on, she will return again and again to the front line.”
This potent creative masterpiece is a must-read.
–review by Amy Steele
The Quintland Sisters by Shelley Wood. William Morrow| March 5, 2019| 384 pages | $15.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-283909-1
“Their similarity to one another is eerie, even with nothing but their tiny heads poking out of their blankets. All of them have black hair and long, dark eyelashes, too thick, it seems, for their sunken cheeks. The longer I watched them, the more I could see that each one of them has something distinct, something to tell her apart from her sisters. I took out my scribble book in the hopes of capturing them. The one that came first has one eyelid bigger than the other. The second has a tiny crinkle in the upper cusp of her right ear. The third has the smallest nose, and the fourth has the most hair, which seems to curl in the opposite direction from that of her sisters. The fifth and last—she has nothing that looks markedly different, but she is the only one with any wriggle in her.”
Long before Kate Plus Eight or the Octomom, there were the Dionne Quintuplets, the first quintuplets to survive their infancy. They were born in French-speaking, rural Canada in 1934. Their parents had five other children. They were shamed for it. People also sent money and fan mail. The government took custody of the girls, leading to many disputes over the years. A doctor and his crew of nurses took over care of the girls.
The Quintland Sisters tells the story of the first few years of the quintuplets lives from the perspective of a young woman, Emma Trimpany, who works as a nurse to the girls. Born with a large birthmark on her face, Emma is used to being overlooked and disregarded. “This is something I’ve managed to pull off my whole life, to make myself invisible and unremarkable—no mean task with a crimson stain covering half my face.” Her mother sends her over with the midwife the night that the quints are born, thinking it might be a suitable profession for her disfigured daughter.
Emma gets sent to nursing school so that she’s properly trained to assist in their care. She becomes attached to the girls and friendly with several nurses, particularly Yvonne Leroux (known to everyone as Ivy), who she remains friends with even after she leaves. Emma enjoys drawing and this turns into a side-gig as she sells pictures of the girls to advertisers. Someone suggests she apply to art school and it seems this smart and determined young woman will find contentment. The story unfolds through journal entries, letters and news reports.
“I am the one the girls turn to now. A stubbed toe, a puzzling toy, a masterpiece of finger painting that requires praise and admiration—it’s me they seek out. Nurse Noel is the game master who won’t take no for an answer, Miss Beaulieu is the instructor with strict rules and plastic smile. Nurse Sylvie Dubois is the latest practical nurse they’ve brought in to help with all the record-keeping and measurements—she has not yet earned the girls’ trust, let alone their affection, although she is cheery and pretty. Meanwhile Mme. Dionne has been scarce since the autumn, every since Nurse Nicolette’s departure, and I haven’t seen M. Dionne since that awful moment in the courtroom. How ridiculous, but also wonderful, that I, who have always insisted I was not cut out for motherhood, have ended up as a de facto mother of five.”
It’s fascinating to read about their care. Can you imagine caring for so many infants? It definitely takes a team. No one even believed they’d survive past the first week. It was humorous to read the doctor and some of the nurses commenting on the likelihood of the girls’ survival. They gave one of the girls rum to “stimulate” her heart. Before they received a shipment of breast milk, the girls were fed a mix of corn syrup, cow’s milk and boiled water. They kept records of everything.
The quintuplets generated income from visitors as well as through endorsements. It’s not a new Instagram era thing to earn money this way. There was a court case between several corn syrup companies to determine who would have exclusivity. [“The ridiculous thing is, we don’t even feed the babies corn syrup. Dr. Blatz believes sugar in any form is bad for children. I should tell that to the newspapers.”] Several films were made about them. There was a custom-built playground that allowed for spectators. There were 6,000 daily visitors! Celebrities such as Amelia Earhart visited. They sold souvenirs! It was a real money-making business. Unfortunately, not everyone cared for the girls and their future. Celebrity and money attract deceitful people wanting to take advantage of the situation. Many nefarious incidents occurred over the years.
It’s a meticulously researched novel and why I’m a fan of historical fiction. I love having a fictional character introduce me to real people and actual events. I really want to know what happened to the quintuplets as adults. What were their lives like at that time?I made myself not Google while reading. But I’m intrigued and need to investigate.
Any Means Necessary by Jenny Rogneby. Other Press| February 2019| 442 pages | $16.99| ISBN: 978-1590518847
“I had my reasons for living like that. I had done it because I knew society doesn’t accept nonconformity. If you deviate from the cookie-cutter norm, you are left out in the cold. Worthless. From there on out, you’re on your own.”
When a terrorist survives a suicide bombing outside the Swedish Parliament building, he will only talk to police investigator Leona Lindberg. He’s insistent on it. She’s tasked to find out why the former member of the French Foreign Legion did it and if there will be other attacks throughout the city.
After work, Leona also gathers a bunch of criminals to teach them how to beat the system. She’s providing them with inside information on police tactics and the best tips to outwit them. To take minimal risks for maximum gains. She carefully selected them to participate in this program of sorts because she’s looking for a reliable crew to carry out a major theft.
I found Leona to be extremely compelling. She’s an outsider, she’s smart and she’s rogue. Leona’s in that gray zone. She’s a fairly good person doing bad things. She’s had it rough over the past few years. She lost custody of her daughter to her ex-husband. Rogneby definitely makes readers see both sides of the situation. Even if you don’t like Leona, you’ll empathize with her. Why is she doing what she’s doing? Will she be caught? How will it affect her career in the police department?
There’s definitely a slow burn with this novel. The Nordic setting makes it uber appealing. I don’t read a lot of thrillers but this one appealed to me because author Jenny Rogneby brings a unique perspective through her experience as an investigator with the Stockholm City Police Department.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Other Press.