Posts Tagged literary fiction
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.
Before Everything by Victoria Redel. Viking| June 2017| 288 pages | $26.00| ISBN: 9780735222571
In hospice for cancer, Anna’s old childhood friends gather at her house. Before Everything moves from present to past to provide the reader with details about each woman’s connection to Anna. Comfort, support and nostalgia connect this group of friends. Each woman has a specific relationship with Anna and with each other and then as a group. There’s the group think and then the individual’s thoughts. Whenever the novel veered into the precious and perfect I lost interest. Lovely crisp writing kept me reading. Author Victoria Redel powerfully chronicles Anna’s battle with cancer and hospice care and dying. This aspect of the novel interested me most. On fear of dying: “That was what Helen had never asked, what over all these years of treatment and periods of health Helen and The Old Friends have trained themselves not to ask. It was a tacit agreement. The answer was too obvious; it loomed in each moment’s specific worry.”
Despite caring so much there’s still a level of competition between the friends: “But Helen knows the answer. She’s known it since she arrived two weeks ago and began her adamant petition to pull Anna from hospice. She knew it back at the pond when she agreed to help Anna if Anna asked. Helen’s job all these years was to keep Anna away from fear and close to the yes. But Anna is not afraid. Again, Anna is doing something before Helen. It has always been this way. Boys. Drugs. Marriage. Children. Even the pregnancy that Anna ended. Over and over. Anna went first. Now this.”
I appreciated the realistic description of outsider views of these old friends: “He was glad for her yelp. Any dose of dark humor was better than all the treacly concern he heard from her visitors.” A newer friend thought: “The Old Friends. Whatever they called themselves, there was always a pecking order. Pretty pathetic considering the circumstance.” When my friend’s mom fought cancer, some of her friends kind of pushed my mom away when my mom wanted to help. I can’t imagine still being so connected to childhood friends. At every phase of my life I’ve lost friends and made new friends. I maintained friendships with high school friends into college and some college friends post-college and sure I am still connected to some high school and college friends via Facebook but if I really needed someone would these friends be there for me? The novel started strong and petered out toward the end. It seemed too much, these women and their near perfect lives and near perfect friendships. At the last high school reunion I attended a friend said that it was impossible to know what other classmates had endured despite outward appearances to the contrary. I get it. Unfortunately, I lost a connection to the various characters.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Viking.
The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami. Europa Editions| June 2017| 240 pages | $16.00| ISBN: 978-160-945-399-2
“Takeo arrived, again smelling of soap. For a moment, I wondered if I ought to have taken a shower, but I quickly pushed that thought aside, since had I done so, he might have thought I was expecting something. This was what made love so difficult. Or rather, the difficult thing was first determining whether or not was what I wanted.”
Such a gem of a novel. Author Hiromi Kawakami brings layers and depth to seemingly ordinary, routine lives. Lots of interesting characters plus solid descriptions to create strong setting & sense of place. I appreciated the novel as it allowed me to experience Japan –from the rainy season to love hotels–through these characters. The novel focuses on twenty-something Hitomo who works part-time at the thrift shop. Kawakami writes: “With its second-hand goods (not antiques), Mr. Nakano’s shop was literally filled to overflowing. From Japanese-style dining tables to old electric fans, from air conditioners to tableware, the shop was crammed with the kind of items found in a typical household from the 1960s or later.” Hitomo sort of dates her aloof co-worker Takeo and builds bonds with shop owner Mr. Nakano and his artist sister Masayo. Her relationship with Takeo reminded me of my current on-again/off-again situation. She’s intrigued by Takeo and attracted to him. Does she need to know what kind of relationship she’s going to have with her co-worker? Some people, most of society, feel the need to label something, to put it into a box, cross things off a list. Few people (including Takeo and this guy I was seeing) are willing to allow something to unfold organically and mindfully. You can make plans for the future and have goals but you can also enjoy the moment. Relatable: “We were so different from each other in the first place—it’s not surprising that two people with nothing in common would end up like this, I thought to myself as I threw caution to the wind and continued to steal glances at Takeo’s face.” Also relatable: “When I thought about the idea of spending the rest of my life like this—going through my days I a fog of anxiety and fear—I felt so depressed I could have laid down on the ground and gone to sleep right then and there. But despite all that, I loved Takeo. When I scrutinized love, I still found myself in a world that felt empty.” On her boss Mr. Nakano’s lover: “’The Bank’ was pretty. To call her a beauty might have been going too far, but she had a delicate complexion—she seemed to be wearing hardly any make-up yet her skin was flawless. Her eyes might have been narrow but her nose was straight. There was something inexplicably vibrant about her lips. At the same time, she had purity about her.” Besides beautiful, thoughtful writing, I’m often attracted to the Europa book covers. Look at that cover! Book design credit goes to Emanuele Ragnisco.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Europa Editions.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. Riverhead Books| March 7, 2017| 231 pages | $26.00| ISBN: 978-0-7352-1217-6
After finishing college, Nadia questions her faith and decides, to her family’s dismay and disdain, to move out on her own– “She secured a room of her own atop the house of a widow, a record player and small collection of vinyl, a circle of acquaintances among the city’s free spirits, and a connection to a discreet and nonjudgmental female gynecologist.” Nadia enjoys her independence as much as possible: she works at an insurance company; smokes pot and does shrooms and maintains connections through social media. She soon meets Saeed and they clandestinely date and slowly fall in love as the country and everything they know crumbles around them. They both work their different jobs during the day and meet at night at cafes and then at Nadia’s apartment. She throws down a black robe for him to put on and enter the apartment without raising suspicions or backlash about a single woman entertaining a male visitor. Slowly the country becomes less safe. Nadia and Saeed lose their jobs. Then it becomes impossible to communicate. Author Mohsin Hamid writes: “But one day the signal to every mobile phone in the city simply vanished, turned off as if by flipping a switch. An announcement of the government’s decision was made over television and radio, a temporary antiterrorism measure, it was said, but with no end date given. Internet connectivity was suspended as well.” Nadia and Saeed decide to escape the country as refugees.
First they land at a refugee camp in Mykonos —“It was said in those days that the passage was both like dying and like being born, and indeed Nadia experienced a kind of extinguishing as she entered the blackness and a gasping struggle as she fought to exit it, and she felt cold and bruised and damp as she lay on the floor of the room at the other side, trembling and too spent at first to stand, and she thought, while she strained to fill her lungs, that this dampness must be her own sweat.” They then move on to London –“It was here that Saeed and Nadia found themselves in those warmer months, in one of the worker camps, laboring away. In exchange for their labor in clearing terrain and building infrastructure and assembling dwellings from prefabricated blocks, migrants were promised forty meters and a pipe: a home on forty square meters of land and a connection to all the utilities of modernity.” They finally end up in Marin, California– “Saeed made it a point to smile with Nadia, at least sometimes, and he hoped she would feel something warm and caring when he smiled, but what she felt was sorrow and the sense that they were better than this, and that together they had to find a way out.”
The couple drifts apart despite their best attempts to stay together. It’s an attempt to keep something familiar nearby, to keep their country in their hearts. They adapted to their new country and living situations in varied ways—Nadia relishes the personal freedom while Saeed becomes focused on religion– which makes their relationship untenable and unsustainable. A beautiful, thoughtful, intelligent novel about refugees that couldn’t be timelier. Using mystical realism, Hamid tells a potent and poetic story of love and freedom in this short novel. Lovely reflections on connectivity and choice and circumstances. Hamid beautifully contemplates very human desires to achieve, to thrive, and to share oneself in order to make sense of an often nonsensical, violent and cruel world. It’s absolutely essential reading.
–review by Amy Steele
Mohsin Hamid will be reading at Harvard Book Store on Wednesday, March 8 at 7pm.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Penguin Random House.
quite delayed on posting my year-end list.
here are the best books of 2016 [not ranked]:
An Abbreviated Life: a memoir by Ariel Leve [Harper]
–gorgeous writing, sad story. resilience. My parents got divorced when I was around the same age and I only have a few isolated or vague memories.
Alligator Candy: a memoir by David Kushner [Simon & Schuster]
—David Kushner’s older brother Jon disappeared one day on a bike ride to get candy and two men savagely murdered him, sodomized him postmortem and mutilated his body. It’s a horrific event to happen in one’s family. Only four at the time, Kushner didn’t quite understand the full impact. He missed his brother but didn’t know the complete details. Now a journalist, he decided to revisit the case and provide a voice for and memory of his brother. Through compelling prose and devastating emotion this memoir potently addresses murder and its effect on the family. full review.
Future Sex by Emily Witt [Farrar, Straus and Giroux]
—Future Sex reads as a fascinating sociological study on sexuality that delves into orgasmic mediation, internet porn, webcams, Burning Man and polyamory. Witt combines personal experience with research and reporting in a darkly amusing, honest and real manner. Witt investigates sites I’d barely heard of: Chaturbate; Porn Hub; Kink.com; Fetlife. She attends an orgasmic mediation workshop [looked up on YouTube and there are tutorials] and travels to Burning Man. She interviews tons of people such as polyamorous Google employees, the founder of OKCupid, a 19-year-old webcammer as well as a woman who creates female-centered porn. Witt doesn’t make a spectacle of what may be absurd. Instead she writes analytically, astutely with brevity and a sharp edge. full review.
Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson [Harper]
—A former ballet dancer, Wilson provides intimate details about New York’s ballet scene. While this isn’t solely a novel about the ballet world, girls straddling the line between youth and adulthood provides fascinating reading. The novel flawlessly describes the razor sharp focus on becoming the best, earning a particular status and securing one’s place in this strange world overflowing with beauty and sacrifice. And what happens to all those girls who aren’t’ quite the best? Those girls who do not make the right school or earn a place in a prestigious ballet company? This absorbing, riveting novel does what a wonderful novel can do: it completely transports readers to a specific time and place in such an effective and specific manner that one thinks about the subject and characters well past finishing the last page. full review.
Heat & Light by Jennifer Haigh [Ecco]
—Returning to Bakerton, Pennsylvania—the setting for the 2005 best-selling novel Baker Towers—author Jennifer Haigh again focuses on an energy source and its effects on a small community. full review.
Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer [Farrar, Straus and Giroux]
–phenomenal writing. for some reason I waited to read this (maybe because it’s quite long and dense). immediately engulfed in the story of a family coming apart. numerous other elements including being Jewish and Middle East politics. amazing.
Lazaretto by Diane McKinney-Whetstone
—Set in post-Civil War Philadelphia, this historical fiction novel beautifully explores race, class, gender and family. full review.
Leaving Lucy Pear by Anna Solomon [Viking]
—An engrossing and gorgeous work of historical fiction, this novel effectively weaves together issues of class, feminism, wealth, power, mental illness and motherhood. The setting: Cape Ann, Massachusetts, a working class fishing community as well as a lovely coastal summer getaway for Boston’s wealthy. In 1917, the unwed teenage daughter of a wealthy family abandons her newborn daughter under a pear tree outside her uncle’s estate on Cape Ann. A decade later, Beatrice finds herself unexpectedly reunited with the Irish woman raising the determined and spunky Lucy Pear. full review.
Modern Girls by Jennifer Brown [NAL]
–The novel focuses on a strong mother-daughter relationship. Brown incorporates historical details which strengthen the plot, setting and characters. For instance in a meeting Rose attends, she urges her comrades to write letters to their Senators to repeal 1924’s Johnson-Reed Act which instituted quotas on the number of Jews that could enter America. While Rose and Dottie don’t share every detail with each other they’ve developed a solid bond and care deeply about each others well-being. Mother and daughter respect and support each other. Despite the decade, the restrictions against women and standard domestic expectations, these women remain strong feminist characters. A sequel set 10 or 15 years on would be greatly welcomed. These characters must be followed up on. Clear your schedule and brew a pot of tea. Once you start this wonderful, detailed novel you’ll want to read straight through. full review.
The Other Woman by Therese Bohman [Other Press]
—This novel bursts with intellectual prowess. It’s witty, provocative and thoughtful about money, class, what it is to have less and desire more, to be educated and smart but not particularly suited to anything. Swedish author Therese Bohman examines societal expectations of what makes a complete life: a good job; a happy coupling; a nice place. All the things by which we define ourselves but realize the innate superficiality of it all. If we focus on the having and not the feeling and the experiencing then we lack integrity, depth and strength of character. full review.
Pull Me Under by Kelly Luce [Farrar, Straus and Giroux]
—Pull Me Under is an exquisitely dark psychological thriller which examines identity and place through its compelling protagonist and story. read my complete review.
Rare Objects by Kathleen Tessaro [Harper]
–lovely historical fiction set in Boston. Author Kathleen Tessaro adeptly describes both the immigrant North End and wealthy mansions with vivid detail. Superb writing and research merge to tell this wonderful story. a page-turner about class, friendship and the things and people we value most. full review.
The Sun in Your Eyes by Deborah Shapiro [William Morrow]
–There’s that saying that you can’t tell a book by its cover. Book covers visually connect a potential reader to the book. The cover image makes you wonder what the book will be about. A beautiful, cool book cover sets expectations. On the cover of The Sun in Your Eyes is a photo of two women with a definite 70s rocker chic. What’s going on between these two women? It’s a 1974 photograph by William Eggleston and drew me right in. I’d also just seen the photo in the documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me which features this photo. The blonde was Alex Chilton’s girlfriend. full review.
The Vegetarian by Kang Han [Hogarth]
–I’ve been a vegan for about eight years and am not too thin. Due to psychiatric meds I need to lose weight. I stopped eating red meat at 12!/everything but fish at 18 then went vegetarian to vegan. So the being deprived and malnourished because she’s not eating meat is bothering me a tad. Otherwise, the writing is great. It’s dark and suspenseful. Entirely original and engrossing.
We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge [Algonquin]
–a thoughtful and provocative novel which effectively and creatively winds together numerous subjects from coming-of-age, first love, adolescence, sisterhood, race, anthropology, history and family dynamics. In 1990, a family relocates from Dorchester, Massachusetts to the Berkshires to teach sign language to a chimpanzee at the Toneybee Institute for Great Ape Research. full review.
Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson. Harper| January 2016| 304 pages | $25.99| ISBN: 9780062326270
Utilizing the ballet world in 1970s and 1980s New York, author Sari Wilson provides a fascinating and dark character study in her debut novel Girl Through Glass. Readers are introduced to 11-year-old Mira, a talented ballerina with immense potential. She’s forced to become savvy and self-sufficient after her mother and father divorce. Perhaps Mira develops an unusual [and rather disturbing] relationship with 47-year-old Maurice because she’s essentially without parental guidance and attention most of the time. Mira’s mom isn’t like other ballet moms – perhaps the equivalent of today’s helicopter parents—but she’s rather a free spirit occupied by her own interests rather than those of her daughter. Wilson writes: “Ballet mothers pack tiny, neatly wrapped sandwiches of sardines (good for the bones), little plastic bags of celery and carrot sticks, and yogurt with prunes.”
“But Mira’s mother makes Mira chickpea sandwiches on bread that crumbles when she touches it. Mira’s mother wears orange jumpsuits and culottes, and drops her off and leaves her to do errands, floating in at the end of class, smelling fresh and sour, lie the ocean and a cloudy day.”
Dance becomes Mira’s escape and addiction. This warps her self-esteem and sense of self. She begins investing as much time as she can to ballet and her body, even counting calories with anorexic obsession as she earns a spot at the prestigious School of American Ballet under the direction of legendary George Balanchine. At this point she’s living with her father and his new wife while her mother searches for self-fulfillment in California. While Mira might be a street-smart New Yorker she’s also still a teenager when something unimaginable shatters her idyllic cocoon.
In present day, Kate, a professor of dance and dance historian at a midwestern college. concentrates on illuminating the cutthroat world of ballet—that Black Swan-type competitive focus on perfection, being the best at all costs and winnowing out the wheat from the chaff. Kate re-invented herself after a tumultuous event and retreats into a new career although she remains involved with dance in another facet. She’s not abandoned her passion, she’s merely grown-up and into a fresher perspective on it. Kate’s liaison with a student shifts her trajectory. She also receives a mysterious letter from a man she knew in her childhood. She travels to New York to sleuth out what happened to this man who nearly destroyed her 30 years prior.
A former ballet dancer, Wilson provides intimate details about New York’s ballet scene. While this isn’t solely a novel about the ballet world, girls straddling the line between youth and adulthood provides fascinating reading. The novel flawlessly describes the razor sharp focus on becoming the best, earning a particular status and securing one’s place in this strange world overflowing with beauty and sacrifice. And what happens to all those girls who aren’t’ quite the best? Those girls who do not make the right school or earn a place in a prestigious ballet company? This absorbing, riveting novel does what a wonderful novel can do: it completely transports readers to a specific time and place in such an effective and specific manner that one thinks about the subject and characters well past finishing the last page.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper.
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Tightrope by Simon Mawer. Other Press| November 2015| 512 pages | $15.95| ISBN: 978-1-59051-723-9
In Tightrope, author Simon Mawer focuses once again on Marian Sutro, the central figure in 2011’s Trapeze which details Marian’s experiences during WWII. It’s a novel I recall fondly—a magnificent story that tracks Marian’s training and challenges working in espionage during the war.
Bilingual [French mother and English father] and well-educated Marian Sutro worked in Special Operations for Britain in WWII. After her release she returns to her parents’ home in Great Britain and begins to forge a post-war existence for herself. As many returning from a war, she finds herself distant from her family and unsure about her place in the world. She wants independence but isn’t sure about her identity at times. Is she a war hero—she has the awards to prove it—or is she just another woman chasing contentment? She finds work for a peace-keeping organization.
While I adored Trapeze it came out three years ago and I don’t remember minute details so I’m not sure how this can qualify. Is it a sequel? The novel stands alone so I’m not sure I’d call it that. However, it’s the second novel about the same character so by definition, it’s a sequel. When I tweeted about this I got a response from the author himself so it should be considered sequel. I got slightly confused by the narrator at times, a man who knew Marian when she was a teenager. He’d always had a crush on her. I’m not sure why the novel needed this narrator. At one point I forgot who he was and had to turn back to the novel’s beginning for a reminder. But then I decided I’d not let it bother me and just appreciate Marian Sutro and this novel. Mawer writes exquisitely and Tightrope draws you in to Marian’s life, the consequences of her actions during WWII and how she copes in the present.
Why is Marian Sutro a superb literary character worth revisiting? Mawer writes: “Try to see yourself as this lot see you. A stunning woman, dressed like a film star, who has done things no one here would dream of. Parachuted into occupied territory, lived a secret life, been captured and I don’t know, tortured probably.” She’s an independent spirit. She’s a feminist. She has lavish style and intensity. You want to be her or be friends with her. She exudes a magnetic charm and fierceness. Her military experience forces her into a gray zone. Whose side is she on? She was a spy and POW in WWII. She has sex with whomever she wants. She married a man who intensely pursued her, not particularly for love but perhaps for companionship. It doesn’t keep her from affairs with other men during her travels. On the cover, Marian looks like she’s in a Tamara de Lempicka painting. She’d be an ideal subject for the bold artist.
Mawer includes cold war fears, atomic bombs, a gay scientist (Marian’s brother) as well as Marian’s love affair with a Russian Jew. On this relationship, Mawer writes: “In Absolon’s presence she no longer thought of Benoit, or Clement, or Veronique or Alan. They all seemed irrelevant. And she no longer contemplated death and betrayal but speculated instead on the possibility of staying with this man, Absolon, for the rest of her life, in Canada maybe, under an assumed name. Absurd, of course, but she had these thoughts.” Marian’s brother is one of the scientists working on weapons and, more importantly, bombs. He’s gay during a particularly dangerous time to be gay in England. Marian scoffs at his choice of lover: “Her brother queer, the lover of some skinny, common youth.”
Plenty of elements keep you intrigued. It’s not the confusing John Le Carre-type espionage plot which I could never follow. This novel remains character-driven with lovely descriptive passages and a riveting narrative.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Other Press.