Posts Tagged book review
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Algonquin Books| February 2018| 320 pages | $26.95| ISBN: 978-1-61620-134-0
“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
The Days When Birds Come Back by Deborah Reed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt| January 2018| 272 pages | $24.00| ISBN: 978-0-544-81735-7
“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.
The Faerie Handbook by Carolyn Turgeon and the editors of Faerie Magazine. Harper Design| November 2017| 240 pages | $35.00| ISBN: 9780062668110
“The Faerie Handbook is for all those fairy lovers who want a delicious escape, who see that old-world oak with its moss-grown trunk, who love to read poetry and sip herbal tea on a fainting couch on a rainy afternoon in front of a fire, or walk in long dresses over dewy lawns, feeling the wet grass on their feet and watching the light break over the landscape.”
This striking and elaborate book might be the perfect gift for that fairy enthusiast you know. Popular fairy characters include Tinker Bell (Peter Pan), Galadriel (The Hobbit), Glinda the Good Witch (The Wizard of Oz) and Sookie Stackhouse (True Blood). The Faerie Handbook is divided into four parts: Flora & Fauna; Fashion & Beauty; Art & Culture; and Home, Food & Entertaining. In Flora & Fauna, there’s a list of fairy world inhabitants with descriptions of dwarves [“Dwarves were a powerful people who would be appalled to know they’ve been named for their allergies, shyness, unpleasant demeanor, or lack of intelligence.”], gnomes, pixies, leprechauns and others. There’s a section on herbs and flowers. On clover: “Fairies are attracted to clover, so if you come across a field of it, be on the watch for a fluttering of wings.” On wild thyme: “A patch of thyme was traditionally set aside in herb gardens for the fairies to live in, somewhat like birdhouses are placed in the garden today.” In Fashion & Beauty, there’s details about shoes, clothes, fragrances, bathing and more. In Art & Culture section there’s a part about Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream— “While Shakespeare drew from multiple sources for the play, mainly folk beliefs and medieval romance, most of the main plot was wholly imagined, which was unusual for him. And his romantic, diminutive fairies almost immediately became a convention of literature.” There are also sections on Victorian fairy painting, changelings and the Cottingley fairy hoax. In Home, Food, & Entertaining, you’ll find recipes for flower lollipops, lavender shortbread cookies, honey ricotta tart, frosted cranberries and fairy teacakes. There are sections on edible flowers, fairy drinks, hosting fairy-themed parties. There’s a section on artist and author Tasha Tudor— “Although the main subject of the books she wrote were her dolls and her beloved pet corgi dogs (regarded in Welsh folklore as a gift of woodland fairies, with markings on their flanks from fairy saddles), the curious blending of the natural and supernatural worlds in her life seeped into her writing and illustrations.” DIY throughout the handbook with instructions on crafting fairy furniture, flower pressing, making a fairy terrarium, making a fairy flower crown, making fairy dust and creating an arbor.
The Faerie Handbook includes four-color photographs and illustrations, silver foil patterning on full book cover, silver foil book edges and a satin bookmark.
Faerie Magazine is a quarterly magazine with a readership of 28, 000 and nearly 2 million followers on Facebook.
Carolyn Turgeon is editor-in-chief of Faerie Magazine. She’s the author of five books: Rain Village; Godmother; Mermaid; The Next Full Moon; and The Fairest of Them All.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.
Sisters by Lily Tuck. Atlantic Monthly Press| September 2017| 156 pages | $20| ISBN: 978-0-8021-2711-2
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.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Penguin Press| September 12, 2017| 384 pages| $27.00| ISBN: 978-0-7352-2429-2
“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.
The Burning Girl by Claire Messud. W.W. Norton| September 2017| 247 pages | $25.95| ISBN: 978-0-393-63502-7
“You get to middle school, and you think about these things. The world opens up: history stretches behind you, and the future stretches before you, and you’re suddenly aware of the wild, unknowable interior lives of everyone around you, the realization that each and every person lives in an unspoken world as full and strange as your own, and that you can’t ever hope entirely to know anything, not even yourself.”
Writer Claire Messud adroitly explores themes such as friendship, what it means to be a woman, opportunity, choices, class, perception and artistic personalities with thoughtfulness and precision. The Emperor’s Children stunned me with its near perfection and it remains one of my favorite novels. I tore through her brilliant novel The Woman Upstairs. I realize now I need to read Messud’s back catalog. Messud’s known for writing what many consider unlikable characters. She excels at it. It’s the strength of a talented writer to write unlikable characters in a readable, magnificent and emotive manner. We may all possess unlikable qualities. Sometimes likeable characters are just too perfect, just too likeable to make for a satisfying read.
In this compelling novel with a realistic portrayal of female friendship in all its infatuation, moodiness and competitiveness, childhood friends Julia and Cassie fall out in high school, not surprisingly as we often change and need different things at different stages of our lives. Something terrible happens to Cassie. How much can one remember about our childhood friendships and what drew us to that person and what pushed us apart? Julia, the narrator of this novel, acknowledges that her memories might be murky way back when she and Cassie first met and “became friends in the second week of nursery school when we were four years old.” Julia recalls what drew the girls together and ultimately pushed them apart.
It’s rare the childhood friendship that carries into adulthood. Most of us evolve so much that those relationships fall to the side. This novel will make you reminisce about your childhood friendships. I’ve seen some childhood friends at high school reunions, while others I’ve lost forever, some for no reason then that we grew apart, we went in different directions as we developed into adults. It’s comforting to have this intelligent, masterful author write about these things because those were challenging times for many of us. Messud divided the novel into three sections. In the first section, the girls are children. This section’s influenced by fairy tales, Messud explains. In the second section, time passes and events have wider consequences as Julie and Cassie move into adulthood. In the third section, Julia and Cassie are “nominally into adulthood” and are both making up stories.
It doesn’t bode well for Cassie that she lives with only her mom Bev, a hospice nurse struggling to make ends meet. Messud writes: “It wasn’t hard for Cassie, who never confided in her mother. Bev Burnes wasn’t reliable; she was moody and weird in spite of her perma-smiles, and even if she seemed cool about something, it didn’t mean she’d stay cool with it, and weeks or even months later she would throw it back in Cassie’s face, or blab like it was nothing. Cassie had learned the hard way not to trust her mother.” Julia lives comfortably with two parents who earn enough money to allow Julia the comfort to not worry about daily necessities. Both work from home which means Julia always has her parents around for guidance, security, etc. Julia’s father is a dentist with an office in the (no longer used) stables on their property [“When he goes to work, he walks a hundred feet out the back door.”] and her mother “is a freelance journalist, a vagueness that seems to mean she can be a journalist when it suits her. She writes restaurant and movie reviews for the Essex County Gazette, and for the past few years she’s written a literary blog that has a following, including an adult English class in Tokyo that writes very polite comments.” Julia recalls: “Even when I was alone, I liked to know that I wasn’t really entirely alone; but that wasn’t how it was for Cassie.”
It seems clear that something will happen even if we aren’t already expecting it from the book jacket because these two girls are from such different family situations. When you’re young you can ignore those differences and how they may shape your future and your development. There’s this astute observation: “With someone you’ve always known and have loved without thinking, there’s the strangeness of knowing everything and nothing about them at the same time.” Julia’s the “good girl” and Cassie’s the “bad girl.” At least as literary characters. Cassie lives on the edge. She’s delving into everything and anything she can without hesitation and without considering any consequences for her action and behavior. Developing brains and all. It’s hard to be a teenage girl. Some girls want to grow up quickly. Some girls want to be more adult than they are. Some girls are more adult than their age. It happens. I had lots of friends who got fake IDs so they could drink before they turned 21, both in high school and in college. My brother got my friends the fake IDs. I had no desire to do so.
Messud, at a recent book reading, explained that as teenagers we have “a choice to opt out of the sexual economy.” Such a brilliant way to describe that phase when we hit puberty or start liking boys (or girls). Julia isn’t hurrying into sexuality as much as Cassie and that definitely separates them in junior high and high school.In high school, I had a group of friends who didn’t date or hook up with boys. Of course, this was a while ago, in the 80s. There were others who always seems to have boyfriends. Teens become sexually active even earlier these days. Julia focuses on her future outside of the town while Cassie focuses on her future outside her house and apart from her mom. This friendship won’t last once these girls become independent young women.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from W.W. Norton.
Madame Zero: 9 stories by Sarah Hall. Custom House| July 2017| 192 pages | $23.99| ISBN: 9780062657060
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.