Posts Tagged book review
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. Penguin Press| July 2018| 289 pages | $26.00| ISBN: 978-0-525-52211-9
–review by Amy Steele
“Oh, sleep, nothing else would ever bring me such pleasure, such freedom, the power to feel and move and think and imagine, safe from the miseries of my waking consciousness.”
Before I discovered yoga and meditation I would often isolate from the world by downing a bunch of pills. After a bad break-up, I spent three weeks consuming solely Diet Coke and Klonipin. Not advisable but I wanted to shut everything out as quickly as possible and for as long as possible. It was inherently easier to sleep through the misery in hopes I’d eventually feel better. It wasn’t the best coping mechanism. In case anyone’s wondering, I no longer drink soda and rarely rely on Klonipin. I still have terrible agoraphobia and anxiety but numbing myself isn’t going to fix that and there are much more productive uses of my time.
Everything appealed to me about the novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation, from the title to the cover—a portrait of a sullen Victorian woman—to the description to this sentence in the opening paragraph: “I’d get two large coffees with cream and six sugars each, chug the first one in the elevator on the way back up to my apartment, then sip the second one slowly while I watched movies and ate animal crackers and took trazodone and Ambien and Nembutal until I feel asleep again.”
The novel focuses on a 24-year-old Columbia University graduate in the year 2000 in New York City and her intention to essentially hibernate through the year with pharmaceutical assistance. She’s recently lost her art gallery job. Her parents died while she was in school. Her on-again-off-again relationship with a guy who works on Wall Street doesn’t satisfy. So what’s so bad that she needs to shut out the world. She explains: “I can’t point to any one event that resulted in my decision to go into hibernation. Initially I just wanted some downers to drown out my thoughts and judgments, since the constant barrage made it hard not to hate everyone and everything, I thought life would be more tolerable if my brain were slower to condemn the world around me.”
She lives in an inherited apartment with few financial concerns. Her friend Reva, who she met in college, stops in once a week for a wellness check. Of Reva: “I don’t know what it was about Reva. I couldn’t get rid of her. She worshipped me, but she also hated me. She saw my struggle with misery as a cruel parody of her own misfortunes. I had chosen my solitude and purposelessness, and Reva had, despite her hard work, simply failed to get what she wanted—no husband, no children, no fabulous career.” She spends any waking hours watching movies, particularly those starring Whoopi Goldberg and Harrison Ford. She also finds questionable psychiatrist who unwittingly assists her sleep plans by prescribing an arsenal of drugs.
“I went to the bathroom and took stock of the medicine cabinet, counting all my pills on the grimy tile floor. In all, I had two Ambien but thirty more on the way, twelve Rozerem, sixteen trazodone, around ten each of Ativan, Xanax, and Valium, Nembutal, and Solfoton, plus single digit amounts of a dozen random medications that Dr. Tuttle had prescribed only once…”
One might wonder how an entire novel could revolve around this subject. Author Ottessa Moshfegh delves into the narrator’s past—her previous relationships, her family, her relationship with Reva, as well as her aspirations as an artist. About her parents: “And I’d feel sorry for myself, not because I missed my parents, but because there was nothing they could have given me if they’d lived. They weren’t my friends. They didn’t comfort me or give me good advice. They weren’t people I wanted to talk to. They barely even knew me.”
Dark humor, a self-deprecating tone and astute details and brilliant writing makes this novel work so well. There are strong Sylvia Plath vibes throughout. If you’ve dealt with mental illness, a major loss or being an outcast then you’ll likely appreciate this character. I found her to be immensely relatable. It’s a complicated, challenging world and some of us find solace in darkness.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Penguin Press.
Any Man by Amber Tamblyn. Harper Perennial| June 2018| 304 pages | $15.99| ISBN: 0978-0-06-268892-7
“But more than any of that, as you know, I loathe feminists. It’s by no small miracle that all feminists in America haven’t been stoned to death by now. I’m just telling you the truth. Feminists are pollution, taking a stance, against what exactly, no one in their right mind knows. They are angry, bitter, saggy chauvinists masquerading as supportive, loving sisters.”
If you’re looking for an intense, intelligent and engulfing feminist thriller, you must read ANY MAN. Author Amber Tamblyn challenges rape culture and the problematic treatment of victims and glorification of violence and misogyny through this thriller about a female serial rapist. The novel follows six men: an English teacher, a struggling standup comedian, a bi-racial web designer, a high school student, an alt-right media personality and a transgender man. A uniquely irreverent and impressively original novel, social commentary and crime thriller meld with insightful, sharp prose and diverse writing styles. She weaves in tweets, poetry, internet chat room, a radio talk show. She also flips everything one expects in thriller. [As a companion read, I recommend Dead Girls by Alice Bolin– an essay collection addressing society’s infatuation with violence against women]. Whether she’s using tweets or poetry or an internet chat room or journal entries, it grabs you from the first page and is impossible to put down. If you’re a woman who has been attacked on social media or elsewhere for expressing her opinion, you’ll really get it. Tamblyn wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times, “I’m Done with Not Being Believed,” which cemented her place among influential feminists who are changing the narrative around trauma and victimization. I found myself nodding and smiling and cringing and marking passages while proclaiming Tamblyn’s genius and reading as fast as possible.
Amber Tamblyn will be at Harvard Bookstore on July 24, 2018.
–review by Amy Steele
There are No Grown-Ups: A Midlife Coming-of-Age Story by Pamela Druckerman. Penguin Press| May 29, 2018| 274 pages | $27.00| ISBN: 978-1-59420-637-5
–review by Amy Steele
“What are the forties? It’s been my custom not to grasp a decade’s main point until it’s over, and I’ve squandered it. I spend my twenties scrambling in vain to find a husband, when I should have been building my career as a journalist and visiting dangerous places before I had kids. As a result, in my early thirties I was promptly fired from my job at a newspaper. That freed me up to spend the rest of my thirties ruminating on grievances and lost time.”
I don’t have much of a career or a personal life. I have no long-term partner and by choice, I have no children. I live in the suburbs and I’m pretty miserable and frustrated. Maybe it could be much worse. Author Pamela Druckerman writes in the introduction: “Obviously, the forties depend on the beholder, and on your family, your health, your finances and your country.” Reading Druckerman’s amusing, thoughtful and moving memoir made me feel a bit less alone. It’s comforting that someone else has had the same thoughts I’ve had about middle age and aging. Everyone goes through it. Maybe some better than others. Does everyone go through a midlife crisis? Probably not. I’m definitely a late bloomer so there’s that although in the end it won’t matter. Also we have greater longevity so maybe you can fuck up more.
Exploring the social, psychological and biological aspects of one’s forties, Durckerman combines topical research with her astute and amusing observations and experiences. She writes about her journalism career, her engagements as a speaker, battling cancer, her marriage and children as well as general thoughts on what one should be doing at a certain age. In the essay How to Turn Forty, she writes: “But I still don’t feel like a grown-up, in part because I haven’t found my tribe.” I feel the same. In the past year, I joined a yoga studio but I’m wedging myself into places I’ll never fit.
Each chapter is titled How to ___. Some of the chapters include: How to Find Your Calling, How to Choose a Partner, How to Turn Forty, How to Raise Children, How to Plan a Menage a Trois, How to Have a Midlife Crisis, How to Be Jung, How to Get Dressed, How to Age Gracefully, How to Think in French and How to Make Friends. Each chapter ends with little jokes which start with Your Know You’re in Your forties when… Two great ones: You know you’re in your forties when … You’re not considering Botox, but you are considering bangs.” And “You know you’re in your forties when . . . You no longer care (or remember) how many people you slept with.” I hooked up with a much younger guy who seemed quite annoyed that I’d had so many more sexual partners than him. I stopped counting at a certain point because it really doesn’t matter.
“We’ve actually managed to learn and grow a bit. After a lifetime of feeling like misfits, we realize that more about us is universal than not. (My unscientific assessment is that we’re 95 percent cohort, 4 percent unique.) The seminal journey of the forties is from “everyone hates me” to “they don’t really care.”
The essays on midlife crisis and that address wisdom and intelligence are particularly interesting. Druckerman brings in some Jung theory. She discusses cultural differences. As an expat loving in Paris, she writes from a unique perspective. Druckerman lives in Paris with her British husband and French children. French women are much more glamorous and elegant than Americans. I participated in a French exchange program in the 80s and I remember how stylish in navy and black the mom always appeared.
When she traveled to Brazil to speak at a conference, she noted: “Crying is the mark of a successful gathering in Brazil and a sign that you’re connected.” It’s challenging to make new friends as you get older. Are they your own friends or other parents at your children’s school or the spouses of your partner’s colleagues? She also compares Eastern culture to Western culture. Asians are high context and understand they need to comprehend interaction of everyone involved to fully understand something. Americans are (not surprisingly) low context. Americans are mostly concerned with themselves, on individuals. Quelle surprise.
Druckerman wrote a NYT column entitled “What You Learn in Your 40s” and its popularity led to four years researching and writing this memoir. If you’re in or near your forties you’ll definitely find many simpatico elements in this memoir. If you’re younger maybe it should eliminate some of the stigmas associated with aging.
Pamela Druckerman will be at Brookline Booksmith on Wednesday, May 30 at 7pm.
A Theory of Love by Margaret Bradham Thornton. Ecco| May 2018| 275 pages | $27.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-274270-4
–review by Amy Steele
“Bermeja was the name given to the eight-mile stretch along Mexico’s Pacific coast halfway between Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco. Surrounded by a thirty-six-thousand-acre nature preserve, Bermeja was referred to as the land where nobody was born and nobody died. Protected by high cliffs and jungles and wetlands, it was often separated on its eastern boundary by flooding rivers.”
Although the couple in this novel hasn’t fabricated a relationship, A Theory of Love reminded me of Glimpses of a Moon, one of my favorite novels by Edith Wharton. In it, a young couple decides to marry so that they can travel around on an extended honeymoon staying at their friends’ lovely homes. In A Theory of Love, Helen, a British journalist, meets lawyer turned financier Christopher while she’s on assignment in Bermeja. He’s there for a bit of relaxation on his surfboard. Author Margaret Bradham Thornton takes readers to Bermeja, Saint Tropez, London, Sussex, Fontainbleu, Chamonix, Tangier, Milan, Havana and New York.
She’s a journalist in the trenches and he’s interacting with financial elite. That could be why the relationship doesn’t fare well. Could also be the jetset nature of their relationship. His company is rather new and he’s working long days, seven days a week and isn’t able to invest the time in the relationship that Helen desires. Perhaps they’d have fared better if they’d worked out these logistics before marrying. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? Figure out where you want to live and if you’re both morning people or night owls and if you want to have children and such.
The characteristics which attract them to each other may be the details that drive them apart in the end. I particularly enjoyed the ritzy scenes. They’re elaborate but not grossly obscene. For instance, Christopher’s mother is involved in equestrian affairs: “She finds talented working students and gives them good horse to ride, and that works for a while until she feels they have been disloyal or unappreciative, and then that relationship falters.” They attend a fancy dinner party hosted by a French businessman (he’s CEO of his family’s chemical company) and his artist wife Penelope–“She was a photographer, and while she spent more time on the decoration of her seven houses than on her photography, she had resisted the cliched hallmarks of the wealthy wife and dressed in a bohemian style.”
Helen wants everything upfront and laments that she didn’t know everything about Christopher before they married which seems impossible and also rather dull. If you already know each other than what do you talk about? Christopher is in the let’s see what happens mode. Thornton writes: “He had come to value, maybe even cherish, a sense of patience—of letting things play themselves out. Perhaps his ability to see how things would develop or unravel allowed him this equanimity. He understood that events had their own interval sense of motion.”
Thornton writes: “She was thinking about how they seemed to be moving away from each other and wondering why neither one of them tried to do anything about it. there were times when it felt as if he had lost her, as if he were thinking so intensely about what was in front of him that he would forget her, as if his mind were emptied of all thoughts of her.”
Sounds like mindfulness to me and honestly, I didn’t particularly like either character but that’s never been essential to my enjoyment of a novel. A good writer makes you continue to read despite the characters. I liked their non-relationship relationship and pondering if they’re getting what they feel they should from each other. There’s mysterious elements to it all. In addition, Christopher thinks his business partner may be involved in illegal activity and as Helen faces an unexpected pregnancy, he’s engulfed in an investigation. This novel effectively ponders attraction and love while languishing in beautiful scenery and prose. It’s a wonderful indulgence and escape.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Ecco.
Lemon Jail by Bill Sullivan. University of Minnesota Press| April 2017| 160 pages | $22.95| ISBN: 978-1-5179-0169-1
“When we arrived in a town on tour I would take flyers from the club and cruise the area handing them to any young people who would take them. My promotion theory consisted of one thing: guys wanted to go where women were, and women wanted to go where guys were. the better looking the boy or girl the better chance they would sway other people. I was skinny and cute with guyliner, so I could easily slip across gender lines.”
I like The Replacements and appreciated the band’s music but don’t know that much about them. This memoir isn’t the best way to find out that much about the band. This isn’t a tell-all. There’s mention of drinking and drugs and sexual encounters but not with salacious detail. It’s also not about specific albums or songs. It’s a non-sequential tour memoir by one of the band’s roadies, Bill Sullivan, who went on to be tour manager for many music acts including Bright Eyes, Spoon, Cat Power and Yo La Tengo. It’s his experience and recollection which makes for an interesting read. As a Boston-based music journalist, I appreciate the details about touring in Boston in particular. He mentions lots of popular venues such as The Rat in Kenmore Square. He writes: “The last show on the itinerary for the first tour was in Boston at the Rat in Kenmore Square. Boston is well known as a confusing city to navigate even with GPS. For us, in 1983, we would just look for the Citgo sign and keep turning toward it. The Rat itself played host to so many cool bands it’s impossible to list them. The stage was stocked with speakers and lights, and they didn’t care if you turned up.” Lemon Jail reminds me of a long piece I wrote about touring with The Charlatans in the 90s. The bibliophile/book nerd appreciates the font, the cover, the paper quality and overall look and feel of this book.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from University of Minnesota Press.
EVENTIDE by Therese Bohman. Other Press| April 2018| 191 pages | $15.95| ISBN: 978-159051-893-9
“She didn’t love Stockholm, and she probably never would. Every time someone said they loved Stockholm, she assumed they were lying. She regarded the city as a necessity, often an unpleasant one, but she also thought that everything it was accused of was probably true—snootiness, fearfulness, coldness, regimentation. She had never really felt at home here, but she had never really been unhappy either. Much the same could be said of her life as a whole.”
With an emphasis on culture and art, Eventide is a meditation on solitude, success and meaningfulness. Working in a male-dominated field, art history professor Karolina Andersson begins working as thesis advisor to a male student who claims to have discovered new works of art by a female artist in the early twentieth century. He’s attractive and intriguing to Karolina who recently ended a long relationship and finds herself wondering if she wasted her prime years with this man and if she’s even doing what will make her the most fulfilled. She’s plateaued in her career and doesn’t have as much interest in it as she had when she was younger. As a woman who also wasted many years in a bad relationship, who never married or had children and in her late 40s, I found myself completely commiserating with Karolina. Author Therese Bohman writes: “Her ability to emphasize quickly with other people was the quality that had most frequently led to her being hurt.” Or writes: “Maybe she actually was tragic, one step away from living in the gutter, wandering around the city in a woolly hat and shouting at people.” Or this: “She wanted to give her body to men who definitely didn’t deserve her mind.” The novel strongly traverses through academia and the art world while illuminating both the personal and professional life, desires and challenges for this woman. Society sometimes doesn’t know what to do with a woman of a certain age who failed to check off the boxes along the way. Bohman writes about educated, smart, disappointed single women over 40 so brilliantly that I’m a massive fan and will read anything she writes. I loved her novel The Other Woman and quickly devoured Eventide. I read it in a day in early January. Realistic, observant, dark and macabre in the best way, Eventide is a dazzling novel.
Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao. Flatiron Books| March 2018| 304 pages | $25.99| ISBN: 978-1-250-07425-6
–review by Amy Steele
Girls Burn Brighter is a devastating, provocative and beautiful novel which illuminates the horrific reality of sex trafficking and domestic abuse. Growing up in an impoverished village in India, Savitha and Poornima lack choices such as furthering their education. Instead, they’re expected to marry young and start families. After Poornima’s mother dies, she’s expected to care for her father and younger siblings. Which she’d rather do than be shipped off to marry. The bright spot remains the strong friendship that Savitha and Poornima established. They create saris on looms which Poornima’s father owns. The women initially think that they might be able to succeed on their own and not have to agree to an arranged marriage. Savitha’s independent spirit and veracity inspires Poornima. Together the women become determined to forge a better reality. Although these women face repeated horrific abuse at the hands of men, author Shobha Rao makes readers both root for the women and wonder what they’ll do next to escape their predicament.
“She walked to the edge of the terrace and looked at the first stars, and she thought of how many years she had left to live. Or maybe she had none at all. It was impossible to know. But if she didn’t die tonight, if she didn’t die within the amount of time a human being can readily foresee, can honestly imagine (a day? a week?), What, she wondered, will I do with all those years?”
In one of the worst betrayals and examples of abuse, Poornima’s father, a nasty alcoholic, rapes Savitha. Villagers sadly require that she marry him. She runs away. Soon after, Poornima enters into an arranged marriage with an awful man and family who treats her like a servant. Her husband and his mother “accidently” burned Poornima’s face with cooking oil, leaving her with terrible scarring—“And if she had ever been pretty, she certainly wasn’t anymore. She stepped closer, and then she raised her hands to her face and removed the bandages, one by one. The left side of her face and neck were just as she imagined them, or worse: flaming red, blistered, gray and black on the edges of the wide burn, the left cheek hollow, pink, silvery, and wet, as if it’d been turned inside out.” Someone has the audacity to tell her that as long as she has “proper breasts” her husband won’t leave her. This reminds me of a dark, wonderful film called Lady Macbeth where the man made his young wife face the wall while he penetrated her. She flees the situation, determined to find her friend.
Many of us have been used/abused/disrespected by men. So what keeps us going? What motivates us every day and brings us moments of joy? Connection. Many will relate to these women and their bond as well as their will to thrive in some way in this bitter, brutal world that devalues women.
“And now, she realized, that’s all she’d ever be in the eyes of men: a thing to enter, to inhabit for a time, and then to leave.”
Savitha gets drugged and forced into prostitution. She’s locked in a room and required to service numerous men daily in a brothel. There’s a particularly disgusting moment when they want to sell Savitha to a wealthy man in the Middle East with a proclivity for amputees. They amputate Savitha’s arm but then the man decides on someone else. Savitha gets shipped off to Seattle to clean houses. She’s told if she tries to leave or tell anyone about her situation that there will be dire consequences for her and her family back in India.
“Savitha was seated in front of his desk, but she still slumped. She was tired. She was tired of deals. Every moment in a woman’s life was a deal, a deal for her body: first for its blooming and then for its wilting; first for her bleeding and then for her virginity and then for her bearing (counting only sons) and then for her widowing.”
A resourceful and determined Poornima ends up working as a bookkeeper for the sex traffickers. She’d managed to pick up enough from studying her husband’s spreadsheets. She learns that Savitha might be in Seattle so she makes plans to get there. She enrolls in an English class and secretly obtains a passport. Soon she convinces the people she works with to let her be a chaperone when they ship girls off to other countries. Apparently, they make most of their money by selling girls to wealthy men in the Middle East and United States. After several years, a reunion with her friend no longer seems farfetched.
Women have long been viewed as a commodity in many parts of the world, particularly in impoverished Third World countries like India. There’s also a vast disparity between the wealthy and the poor in India which seems to be happening in the United States with the middle class disappearing. According to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, “the most common form of human trafficking (79%) is sexual exploitation. The victims of sexual exploitation are predominantly women and girls. Surprisingly, in 30% of the countries which provided information on the gender of traffickers, women make up the largest proportion of traffickers. In some parts of the world, women trafficking women is the norm. The second most common form of human trafficking is forced labour (18%), although this may be a misrepresentation because forced labour is less frequently detected and reported than trafficking for sexual exploitation.”
This novel made me, and likely many other readers, realize that my situation could be far worse. I have very little to keep me going some days and can’t imagine being part of a sex trafficking operation. Girls Burn Brighter takes readers into that shadowy world. With the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, there’s a cultural shift for women. If men can get away with taking advantage of women they’ll find a way. We’re developing better ways to combat it. We must support one another. We must speak up for injustices and brutality.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Flatiron Books.