Posts Tagged book review
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.
Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta. Scribner| August 2017| 320 pages | $26.00| ISBN: 9781501144028
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.
Girl Ghosted by Lucy English. New Sun Press| August 15, 2017| 285 pages| ISBN: 9780692882238
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.”
“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
Morningstar: Growing Up with Books by Ann Hood. W.W. Norton| August 2017| 192 pages| $22.95| ISBN: 9780393254815
I meandered my way through these essays because that’s generally what I do with essays and short stories. I read one, read something else and then read another. It’s quite a thoughtful mediation on reading and growing up with books. Ann Hood [Comfort, The Obituary Writer] recalls memorable and influential books. Hood writes: “How can I describe what reading gave me? An escape from my lonely school days, where girls seemed to speak a language I didn’t understand. A glimpse into the possibilities of words and stories. A curiosity about the world and about people—the young Amelia Earhart seeing her first airplane, Helen Keller’s silent world, Nancy Drew solving mysteries, David Copperfield surviving the streets of Victorian London.” She provides plenty of insight into her personal life, family and growing up in a mill town outside Providence, Rhode Island. I’ve read some of the books mentioned and will likely read many others she referenced. Bookworms will find much in which to relate in these essays. She writes: “…whatever book it is, it falls into your hands at just the right moment when you need to read it. It transforms you. Perhaps it lifts you up when you are at your lowest; perhaps it shows you what love is, or what it feels like to lose love; perhaps it brings you places far away or shows you how to stay put when you need to.” When I finished these essays I semi-smiled and nodded knowingly about the power in reading and the comfort one finds within the pages of books.
on Marjorie Morningstar:
“Maybe that’s why i reread it every year. Maybe. as time beats me up and grief or loneliness or a new kind of bittersweet melancholy take hold, I need to remind myself to keep going, keep reaching, to not forget the girl who believed she could have everything and anything at all.”
On The Bell Jar:
“An immediate bestseller, Plath’s story of beautiful, brilliant Esther Greenwood’s breakdown spoke to my generation. The minds of women were just being discussed openly as feminism soared. Questions of career, sex, marriage, and finding yourself were, I suspect, what kept me up at night.”
On The Grapes of Wrath:
“When I finished reading The Grapes of Wrath, so many things about writing a novel became clear to me. Plot. Character. Conflict. Escalating stakes. Metaphor. The Grapes of Wrath begins with a drought and ends with a flood.”
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from W.W. Norton.
Impressions of Paris by Cat Seto. Harper Design| April 2017| 176 pages | $19.99| ISBN: 9780062493071
A lovely adult picture book. The perfect gift for someone who appreciates art and beautiful things. Cat Seto sketches her way through museums, cafes, gardens, bookstores and the streets of Paris. Recalling her time in Paris through watercolor illustrations, she divides the book into four chapters: color; pattern; perspective and rhythm. There’s a reason so many creative types find inspiration in Paris. Culture, art, architecture. There’s art in everything from the buildings to the food to the streets to the fashion and to the residents.
Seto shares her personal experiences and connections to Paris as well as various art principles. It’s a combination memoir and art class within these pages. My strongest memories of Paris include chocolate crepes, art museums and impressive buildings. And eating Chocolat chaud and French bread for breakfast every morning.
On Le Boutique de Saint-Paris: “I have sketchbooks filled with etchings of flowers, and many a pattern has emerged from these tiny discoveries.” On Jardin des Plantes: “I was going to visit the Jardin des Plantes for only a few minutes. I instead spent days there, sketching among all the wanderers, art students, and schoolchildren.” Whether you’ve visited Paris or long to visit, this striking book provides a wonderful examination of the artistic sensibility that attracts so many artists, authors and musicians to the City of Light.
Cat Seto is a San-Francisco-based artist and the founder and creative director of the stationary collection Ferme a Papier. She holds a BFA in painting and an MFA in fiction/creative writing from the University of Michigan.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.