Posts Tagged book review by Amy Steele

book review: An American Marriage

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An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Algonquin Books| February 2018| 320 pages | $26.95| ISBN: 978-1-61620-134-0

RATING: 4.5/5*

“Ours was a love story, the kind that’s not supposed to happen to black girls anymore.”

As its title suggests, this is a novel about marriage. About an American marriage. about the institution of marriage and how it fits or does not fit individual aspirations and dispositions. Recently married couple Celestial and Roy have promising careers in Atlanta—Celestial as an artist and Roy in business. Celestial earned an advanced art degree in New York. She’s focused and determined to excel in the art world. Both she and Roy graduated from historically black colleges. Growing up with weatlhy parents affords Celestial the ability to pursue her creative endeavors. Marriage often doesn’t align with a creative spirit.

“Celestial was a tricky woman to figure out; she almost didn’t marry me although I never doubted her love. For one thing, I made a couple of procedural errors with my proposal, but more than that, I don’t think she planned on getting married at all. She kept this display she called a “vision board,” basically a corkboard where she tacked up words like prosperity, creativity, passion! There was also magazine picture that showed what she wanted out of life. Her dream was for her artworks to be part of the Smithsonian, but there was also a cottage on Amelia Island and an image of the earth as seen from the moon.”

While visiting Roy’s parents in a small Louisiana town, Roy gets arrested and he’s sent to prison soon after. Celestial turns to Andre, her oldest and closest friend, for emotional support. Andre actually introduced Roy to Celestial during college. Celestial becomes immensely successful creating dolls.

Roy argues his innocence and remains focused on a return to Atlanta. He and Celestial exchange letters at least initially. Being in prison fuels Roy with self-doubt about the tenacity of his marriage. It’s difficult to maintain a relationship through letters and limited visiting time. Roy helps other prisoners write letters/emails to earn a bit of income and respect. The sections which focus on Roy’s prison time prove to be at turns upsetting and frightening. Roy meets his biological father in prison. After several years, Roy’s conviction finally gets overturned and he returns to Atlanta.

“A dozen of us were released that day. For a young cat, no more than twenty, a family waited with metallic balloons shaped like Christmas ornaments; a little boy wearing a red rubber nose squeezed the bulb on a bicycle horn, somehow causing the nose to glow. Another dude didn’t have anybody. He didn’t look left or right but walked straight to the gray van that would carry him to the bus station, as though pulled by a leash. All the rest were picked up by women; some mamas, others wives or girlfriends.”

At its core it’s a novel about the black experience. About what it means to be black in America. According to the NAACP, African Americans comprised 34% of the 6.8 million correctional population in 2014. African Americans are incarcerated at a rate of 5 times that of white Americans. It’s a reality that black Americans will be more likely to know someone in prison or be personally affected by the criminal justice system. It’s a reality that black men get targeted and get wrongfully accused or generally screwed over by the system.

As the novel progresses, the strong, vibrant writing allows readers to become absorbed in Celestial and Roy’s marriage and relationship as well as their relationship to their friends and family. Through these characters, author Tayari Jones explores family and love by delving into step-parenting, wandering biological fathers, fidelity and abandonment. How does the type of family the characters grew up in affect them as adults.

This is a beautifully written and thoughtful novel that should elicit some fascinating discussions. Oprah recently named An American Marriage her next book club pick. Tayari Jones will be at Harvard Book Store on Monday, February 12 at 7pm.

–review by Amy Steele

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book review: The Days When Birds Come Back

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The Days When Birds Come Back by Deborah Reed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt| January 2018| 272 pages | $24.00| ISBN: 978-0-544-81735-7

RATING: 4.5/5*

“Happiness had confused her ever since. It pulled like an adhesion across her chest, had no give, and burned. It made her anxious and fazed, and only afterward, when some distance was afforded her, could she feel pleasure in the form of relief. Joy was no better, coming for her with a deep roiling in the gut. The idea that she was not entitled to anything good had taken hold.”

After her recent divorce and loss of her grandparents, June returns from living abroad to the Oregon coast. Being back in the house in which she grew up elicits memories and regrets. June hires Jameson for restoration work during the summer. They’re connected in unexpected ways (because expected ways wouldn’t make for a compelling read). Jameson lost his twin boys in a random shooting. He and his wife currently foster a child they hope to adopt. June is a writer and an alcoholic and has been unable to write for quite some time. Author Deborah Reed writes about June, “She had lived a fairly solitary life since childhood, and grew up to spend her working life alone, yet a sense of loneliness seemed attached to everything now. She felt small, vulnerable, as if the world had expanded without warning, everything exposed and raw, distorted, like looking through a crooked aperture that was meant to remain closed.” I relate to June and this solitary existence. But as much as we might choose to be alone that doesn’t mean we want to relinquish connections to others.

When June was young, her father killed himself and perhaps that’s why June turned to alcohol? There must be a reason why people became alcoholics and addicts. It’s not simply liking something or liking the taste of something. It’s more about numbing one’s thoughts and feelings or forgetting something. There’s both romanticism and tragedy associated with drinking: “She imagined shelves of liquor down in Wheeler, all those beautiful glass bottles, such lovely works of art, every one filled with a promise, a story, gifts to be opened and shared in celebration of love and life, holidays filled with peace and joy. How pretty they were, how delightfully they kept company with each other in those colorful rows. The darker stories they housed, like genies, had not been let loose, and at first glance were nowhere to be seen. Where were the blackouts and bruises? Where was the infidelity and depression? Show me divorce and broken bones and lost careers, June thought. Show me the troubled children at the bottom of every bottle.” Powerful and astute. The carefree, celebratory times people relate to drinking become easily eclipsed by horrendous tragedy and loss. It’s impossible to move beyond addiction and tragedy without addressing its core. By expressing her vulnerabilities and weaknesses and recognizing her faults and flaws, June becomes an empathetic character. As Jameson knocks down walls he finds things which make June re-examine her relationship with her late father and grandparents. As June remembers, Jameson also delves into something which has burdened him for a long time. They slowly find connection and empathy in each other. This is a gorgeous, quiet and melancholy novel about understanding and belonging.

In addition to presenting these complicated characters and their budding friendship, Reed writes lovely descriptions, such as: “Hydrangea, lavender, and euphorbia encircled the immediate area of the house, and out to the sides of each property spread a thick cluster of trees, acres of conifers casting long shadows from the sun. The familiar, acidic scent of pine reached him in waves, the way it used to every morning when he opened the patio doors and stepped out with a cup of coffee to watch the juncos and towhees vie for the feeder.” What a clear, pretty picture that paragraph conjures. I’ve never been to Oregon yet this novel and the brilliant writing transports me there.

–review by Amy Steele

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

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book review: Sisters

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Sisters by Lily Tuck. Atlantic Monthly Press| September 2017| 156 pages | $20| ISBN: 978-0-8021-2711-2

RATING: ****/5*

In this well-crafted, potent novel, a woman shares her marital insecurities. The unnamed woman lives with her husband and his two children. Author Lily Tuck deftly brings us into this woman’s world and into her mind as she competes with her husband’s first wife. She questions everything about her relationship with her husband, from not having her own children [“The girl, slightly older, was hostile. Not having children of my own, I tried too hard to please them. I wanted them to like me– to love me–and I allowed them liberties that, in retrospect, I should not have.”] to not having the right career [“I have a career, but I am not a pianist or an artist. My career gives me some financial freedom, it gets me out of the house, but it is not all consuming. If I had to give it up tomorrow, it would not matter much. I am not passionate about my work.”] She explains that not having children even affected her relationship with her sister–“Eloise is a few years younger than I am and we have never been close. Less so once she got married and she had kids, reasons I suppose for her to act superior to me. I’ve met her kids. Her kids are surly and overweight.” She’s so obsessed with her husband’s first wife that she’s perplexed that he doesn’t seem to care about her past romances–“And despite my own reservations about speaking of it, I have to admit that his lack of curiosity about my love life was not flattering.”

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Grove Atlantic.

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book review: Little Fires Everywhere

little firesLittle Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Penguin Press| September 12, 2017| 384 pages| $27.00| ISBN: 978-0-7352-2429-2

RATING: ****/5*

“She had, in short, done everything right and she had built a good life, the kind of life she wanted, the kind of life everyone wanted. Now here was this Mia, a completely different kind of woman leading a completely different life, who seemed to make her own rules with no apologies.”

What can I say about a novel that’s already garnered immense praise? Reese Witherspoon chose Little Fires Everywhere for her book club and plans to turn it into a miniseries. I adored Celeste Ng’s exquisite debut novel Everything I Never Told You. An immensely talented writer, Celeste Ng addresses race, class, youth, perception, expectations and family dynamics through gorgeous, thoughtful and tender writing.

At the outset of the novel, there’s a colossal fire and the why, who and how slowly unwinds throughout the novel. We start with the preppy picture-perfect Richardson family. Mr. Richardson is an attorney, Mrs. Richardson is a freelance reporter for the local newspaper. She grew up in Shaker Heights and convinced her husband to move back to the community to raise a family. The couple has four teenage children: Izzy, Moody, Lexie and Trip. Izzy’s the unpredictable one, Moody [aptly named] is the sensitive and cerebral one, Lexie is pretty and smart and popular one and Trip is the athletic one. I’d not heard of the idyllic Shaker Heights community –sounds like a gated community with its rules and regulations and standards–and this novel definitely provided me with a detailed visual. Growing up, I didn’t live in a neighborhood and at high school reunions always feel a bit excluded [not the only way that happens] when people connect through whatever neighborhood they resided in.

A single artist mother, Mia, and her daughter, Pearl, become tenants in a two-family home owned by the Richardsons, the disparate siblings develop connections with either mother or daughter or both. An itinerant pair, seemingly due to Mia’s artistic temperament, Mia promises her daughter Pearl that they’ll stay in Shaker Heights for a while. How difficult for a girl to have to constantly move about. There’s a romanticism to an artistic life but it’s the mother’s choice and not the daughter’s and understandable that she’d be attracted to the Richardson family’s stability and prosperity. Ng writes: “They knew important people, the Richardsons: the mayor, the director of the Cleveland Clinic, the owner of the Indians. They had season tickets at Jacobs Field and the Gund.” In comparison: “Mia and Pearl got as much as they could used—or better yet, free. In just a few weeks, they’d learned the location of every Salvation Army store, St. Vincent de Paul’s, and Goodwill in the greater Cleveland area.” There’s a moment where Lexie lends Pearl one of her tops and Pearl seems to be stepping into Lexie’s body and into the family by wearing the garment.

To supplement her inconsistent income from art sales, Mia finds part-time work at a local Chinese restaurant and with Mrs. Richardson’s encouragement starts cleaning and preparing meals for the Richardson family. By then Pearl and Moody have become close and Pearl hangs out to watch television at their house after school. In the same classes, Moody and Pearl develop a close friendship while she develops a crush on Trip, a junior and a jock, and longs to be more like Lexie. A fascinated Izzy soon begins work as Mia’s art assistant. Lexie confides in Mia in a way she’d never confide in her own mother. Quite understandable as these are moody teenagers striving to both fit in, express themselves and figure out who they want to be. Most everyone sacrifices something in their path to adulthood or to career success or family desires

When one of Elena Richardson’s oldest friends attempts to adopt a Chinese-American baby, it drives a wedge between Elena and Mia and finds their children questioning what’s fair. At that point, Pearl and Trip and Lexie and her boyfriend Brian are all sexually active. There’s a pregnancy scare to align with the adoption efforts. This is a lovely description of Pearl from Trip’s perspective: “Pearl was smarter than any of them and yet she seemed comfortable with everything she didn’t know: she lingered comfortably in the gray spaces.” Pearl possesses the wisdom of a girl who’s had to adapt to varied settings and too often make her place as the new girl. She’s adept at adapting. She’s observant and feeling. And now she’s feeling safe and comfortable. Elena starts to delve into Mia’s past and doing so will dramatically change her children’s lives forever.

Throughout the novel, Ng deftly takes the reader inside these family’s homes and into the depths of her characters’ minds and hearts. How can you separate your goals from those of others around you? What do you need to do to find yourself and to be satisfied with that? If fitting in means you have to give up your dreams will you ever be truly content? Several times as a plot twist clicked, I had to stop a moment to admire Ng’s cleverness. This is a must-read– a wonderful, graceful and moving novel.

–review by Amy Steele

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

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book review: Madame Zero

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Madame Zero: 9 stories by Sarah Hall. Custom House| July 2017| 192 pages | $23.99| ISBN: 9780062657060

RATING: ****/5*

In this brilliant collection of dark and strange stories, author Sarah Hall deftly examines relationships, sexuality, existence, nature. She dips into different characters and POVs with exquisite writing throughout, making for a compelling and rewarding read. Leaning into middle age, I’m immersed in existentialism and appreciated the subject matter as well as Hall’s bold, often disturbing and unique writing style.  It’s easy to become engulfed in each story. I prefer to read a short story and let it settle a bit before delving into another. These stories seethe into your mind and you need time to fully absorb the details.

A woman transforms into a fox and her husband attempts to sustain a relationship with her in “Mrs. Fox.” At first he brings her home and tries to co-exist but the fox yearns for freedom. He resigns himself to this new reality. Later, he runs into her out in the woods and they develop a comfortable, respectable bond of sorts. Hall writes: “To be comfortable inside one’s sadness is not valueless. This too will pass. All things tend towards transience, mutability. It is in such mindful moments, when everything is both held and released, that revelation comes.”

In “Wilderness,” a woman on a dangerous, challenging hike with her boyfriend and one of her boyfriend’s friends [ “Zachary’s prevailing mood was melancholia bordering on despair.”] contemplates her mortality. Hall writes: “The railway tunnel had a strange industrial eeriness, a primed feeling, like its memory of trains hadn’t faded or it was convinced trains were still coming. The clinker ground underfoot like old bones.”

An epidemiologist examines guilt during a deadly viral outbreak in “One in Four:” “The truth is, we’re all so desperate to carry on, but we’re nothing really, just specs on the glass.”

In “Evie,” a woman’s sexually charged behavior turns alarming for her husband. And Hall really delves in. She GOES THERE: “The man on the screen pulled out of the woman. She presented herself, wider. Her genitals were depilated, the flesh dark purple. The man knelt, put his face between her legs and began to tongue the crease. Evie rolled on her back, held her head up so she could still see the screen.”

–review by Amy Steele

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

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book review: Mrs. Fletcher

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Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta. Scribner| August 2017| 320 pages | $26.00| ISBN: 9781501144028

RATING: *****/5*

It’s amazing sometimes that you read the right book at the right moment. In reading you might feel connected with and find solace in characters on the page. It’s comforting to read relatable characters. Although I’ve never been married and don’t have any children I felt a kinship with Eve Fletcher. She’s figuring out what she wants to do next. Me too. She’s taking a class. Me too. She works as executive director at the senior center. I’ve worked in elder care. An apt description: “It was hard sometimes, dealing with old people, having to cast out the unfortunate souls who could no longer control their bladders or bowels, trying to reassure the ones who couldn’t locate their cars in the parking lot, or remember their home address. It was hard to hear about their scary diagnoses and chronic ailments, to attend the funerals of so many people she’d grown fond of, or at least gotten used to. And it was hard to think about her own life, rushing by so quickly, speeding down the same road.”

After Eve’s son went off to college, she felt a bit adrift and disconnected. She’s looking for meaning. Eve enrolls in a gender studies class at the community college which is taught by a trans woman. Once she starts class she finds how much she enjoys being part of this intellectual experience and academic community. At night she scrolls though her Facebook feed “reminding herself that she wasn’t really alone.” She also finds herself hooked delving into porn. And why not? She’s exploring her sexuality. Her marriage ended after her husband met a woman through the Casual Encounters section of Craigslist.

As he’s effectively done in previous novels, author Tom Perrotta details the tragicomic trials and travails for Eve and those around her. On her family: “Her only real alternative was to drive down to New Jersey and spend a couple of days with her widowed mother and never-married sister, who were living together in the house where Eve had spent her childhood. She was overdue for a visit, but it was always so exhausting to see them—they bickered constantly, like an old married couple—and she just didn’t have the patience right now.” He provides biting and relevant commentary on suburban life– from its quiet moments to its meticulous homogenous appearance. Mrs. Fletcher contains several points of view: Eve Fletcher; Eve’s colleague Amanda; Eve’s son Brandon and Brandon’s classmate Amber. Perrotta excels at developing colorful, flawed characters in an amusing yet warm manner.

Amanda: “Without realizing it, she’d been part of a hipster reverse migration, legions of overeducated, underpaid twenty-somethings getting squeezed out of the city, spreading beyond the pricey inner suburbs to the more affordable outposts, like Haddington, transforming the places they’d once fled, making them livable again, or at least tolerable.”

Amber: “You were supposed to love the weekend, that all-too-brief window of freedom, your only chance to wash away the stink of boredom with a blast of fun. Use it to drink and fuck yourself into a state of blissful oblivion, the memory of which would power you through the work week that followed, at the end of which you could do it all over again, ad infinitum, or at least until you met the right guy (or gal) and settled down.”

Eve: “It had been like this all winter long. She found it difficult to relax after dark—couldn’t curl up with a book, or settle down long enough to watch a movie from beginning to end. She was full of nervous energy, a nagging jittery feeling that there was somewhere she needed to go, something else—something urgent and important—that she needed to do. But that was the catch: there was nowhere for her to go, and nothing to do.”

Definitely one of the best novels I’ve read this year. Perfect summer reading.

–review by Amy Steele

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

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book review: Girl Ghosted

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Girl Ghosted by Lucy English. New Sun Press| August 15, 2017| 285 pages| ISBN: 9780692882238

RATING: ****/5*

Social worker Penny Wade connects with a guy she met online but then doesn’t hear from him. Has he ghosted Penny? Ghosting occurs when someone abruptly ceases all communication with a person they’ve dated. It’s the worst. In my experience men are terrible at communicating and it’s easier for them to just not communicate at all. Most women appreciate respect and honesty. Penny reflects: “It takes months, if not years, to get to know someone well enough to decide on a partnership. Maybe. Or maybe you can know kind of quickly.” My therapist has said that to me a few times after telling me I bail on guys I’m dating too early. I think that being in my 40s I know what I like and what I don’t like. While I’m open to letting a relationship develop as it will, I’m not going to invest a ton of time in an unworkable situation.

Relatable conversation between Penny and her roommate:

[Penny] “Is he hot?”
[Gloria] “Pretty hot.”
“Smart?”
“Very.”
“Thoughtful?”
“Yep. He makes suggestions about what we should do but lets me know he’s open to other ideas. I like it when guys take a little initiative instead of saying ‘what d’ya wanna do?’ you know?”
Yeah. I definitely know. And you learn some stuff from their ideas and also how they react if you suggest adjustments.”

Penny’s a friendly, determined, earnest 30something who works for Community Counseling Services which often assists the Department of Children and Families (DCF). Penny’s tasked with investigating a neglect case involving a young mother named Ashley and her two children, eight-year-old Olivia and six-year-old Noah. School administrators reported that the children were “dirty, hungry, and often missed school.”

Author Lucy English worked as a sociology professor and she provides extensive detail and an authenticity to this case and Penny’s work. This novel appealed to me with its focus on the germane subject of online dating as well as its Boston setting. English peppers the novel with plenty of Boston area locations such as Henrietta’s Table in Harvard Square, Mela in the South End, Kickstand Café in Arlington, Granary Tavern in the financial district, Trade on the waterfront, the New England Aquarium and Panificio Bakery on Charles Street. Penny visits some prime spots.

This is the third novel in the Penny Wade mystery series and the first I’ve read. It definitely reads as a stand-alone. There’s plenty of character development and description which allows readers to become invested in Penny, her work and her social life. Her supervisor Nathan gives Penny sage dating advice: “What if you started with evaluating a man’s ability to see and love you for who you are, to communicate well, to practice give-and-take. If he doesn’t get gold stars on those, you move on, no matter how good-looking or otherwise compelling he is.” Absolutely. It’s challenging but it’s the best thing to do. Wish I’d learned it in my 30s instead of my 20s. After reading Girl Ghosted I’d absolutely read another Penny Wade mystery.

–review by Amy Steele

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