I've somehow taken to only writing about books that I feel strongly about. It's hard to make myself sit down and write about a two star novel (unless I feel incensed by the author or topic -- I like writing about that too). Increasingly, I've been feeling like I have to love or hate something to be bothered to think about it for any significant amount of time. Claire Lombardo's debut, The Most Fun We Ever Had, falls squarely on my love list. Like many of the talented writers I've read lately, Lombardo is a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop. Her novel is, hands-down, one of the best family dramas I've ever read. Friends know that I am entirely incapable of passing on a juicy, multigenerational family story (and that's exactly what this is). Quick overview of the four Sorenson sisters at play in this 500 page behemoth: (1) oldest sister, Wendy, lost her husband to a quick moving cancer and has responded by drinking her way through the rest of her days (2) second daughter, Violet, is a brilliant, emotionally repressed, lawyer turned stay-at-home Mom who is harboring a huge secret (3) third daughter, Liza, is pregnant with a baby she doesn't want by a man who is too depressed to do anything but play silly video games all day, and (4) youngest daughter, Grace, is pretending to be enrolled in law school across the country to get her helicopter family (three older sisters included) off her case. I'm going to be honest and say that I've spent too much time thinking about (1) what sister I most resemble--Violet and (2) what sister I would choose to be if given a choice-- Grace. I also spent a lot of time thinking about MY three younger sisters, and the ways they do / do not appear in these lovely (though undeniably self-involved) characters. All this to say, if you have sisters, you will love this book. If you have close female friends who are like sisters, you will love this book. Lastly, I just sent a copy to my Dad who is the father of four (very different) daughters. I'll try to update this post with his comments on the book in the next few weeks. I'm specifically interested in his read on the father character here.
I've read several books this month (a few have been impressive), but somehow I haven't cared to write about any of them. At the beginning of the month I read Queenie, by Candice Carty-Williams. I loved it. It's hilarious and, at times, "unputdownable." I also read The Gifted School, the third novel by Bruce Holsinger (an English professor at UVA). By the end I couldn't spend any more time thinking about K-12 magnets for "gifted" (mostly white/mostly affluent/all test-prepped) kiddos. I do enough of that in my day to day. All to say, I punted on the opportunity to spend any further time thinking/writing/talking about Holsinger. Today, I finished Brodesser-Akner's first novel, Fleishman is in Trouble. And I guess I will write about it because I do have a few things to say.
Most critics describe Brodesser-Akner's book as some sort of "twist" on the typical marriage novel (the New Yorker claims that it's a marriage novel "turned inside out," which is a sort of twisting-- my claim stands). A few people describe the book as a "twist" on the typical divorce novel. I won't quibble with terminology here, as it has become clear to most millennials that "marriage novels" and "divorce novels" are merely separate fragments of the same story: marriage novels don't extend enough for readers to understand that this too might simply be a divorce novel, and divorce novels don't extend enough for readers to understand that this too might still turn back into a marriage novel. All this to say, Brodesser-Akner's debut is a marriage novel and a divorce novel (and then, in the last few pages, maybe a marriage novel all over again). It's "twist"-y because Brodesser-Akner paints the woman (the Mom!) as the career-obsessed money monger while her husband is the always suffering "good parent" who remembers to pack lunches, limit screen time, and help with science fair projects. Yes-- this is still a revolutionary choice in 2019.
Anyhow, to close, Brodesser-Akner is very clever here because she spends almost the entire 350-page novel tricking the reader into feeling bad for this stellar, gold-star husband: he walks the kids to the bus every morning! he makes dinner every night! he puts the kids to bed! WHAT A FUCKING HERO. Also, an aside: HIS WIFE MUST BE A FUCKING MONSTER IF SHE WANTS A DIVORCE. It's only at the very end of the book that we get to hear about the marriage from the woman's point of view, and her story confirms all my suspicions about her NOT-SO GOLD STAR husband. I definitely recommend this book for lovers of Franzen, Updike, and Groff. There are a few minor things that bother me: I struggled with the third person narrator-- I didn't want to hear the story from this person outside the marriage. That said, some people seem to think this is a brilliant tactic, so....
Binnie Kirshenbaum has a dark (edging on v. dark) sense of humor. Her writing is in the vein of Ottessa Moshfegh. If you liked My Year of Rest and Relaxation, you will love Rabbits for Food. Kirshenbaum, current professor and chair of the writing program at Columbia, had not written a novel in ten years. She more than makes up for her decade-long absence with Rabbits for Food which is chock-full of psych ward drama. Plot in a nut-shell: main character, Bunny (wealthy/white/artistic/female), has a complete and total breakdown at a fancy (pretentious) restaurant on New Year's Eve. She is sent to a prestigious psychiatric unit at a New York City hospital where she is forced to participate in group activities such as board games, arts and crafts, and "pet therapy (dog)." Drama ensues.
It's real interesting getting sucked into Goodreads reviews here. People who hate Kirshenbaum's writing clearly just don't understand anything about depression, anxiety, or dark humor. Here's a secret: we're all way closer to that psych ward than we like to admit. Humans pretend that mental health and mental illness are mutually exclusive: you fall into one category or the other. In reality, we all fall somewhere on a shiftable/ tiltable/ changeable spectrum. Kirshenbaum gets that, and that's why this book is so funny. We all see just a little bit of ourselves in Bunny and her friends.
What happens when a woman's desire for independence and romance outweighs her desire to care for her five year old daughter? In Nicole Dennis-Benn's most recent novel, the protagonist simply leaves her child in Jamaica in hopes of finding love and success elsewhere. I can't pretend that I even vaguely sympathize with this move-- but then again, why would I? The trauma that characterized Patsy's life as a black, queer woman in Jamaica is entirely unknown to me. If I have a child, it will be on my own terms and my own timeline. Patsy has never had her own terms, nor has she had her own timeline. She was repeatedly sexually assaulted, and then abandoned by Tru's father to raise a child on her own. Patsy never wanted to be a Mom. She never had a choice. This is the type of trauma that might make a loving parent abandon a loving child.
At the outset of the novel, Tru is already a bouncy, imaginative five year old who idolizes her mother, Patsy. When Patsy leaves Tru to pursue a new life in New York, Patsy promises that she will one day return to Jamaica to fetch her daughter. This a lie. This lie haunts Patsy for the next decade. I'm not sure how you turn your back on your five year old daughter. I'm also not sure how you look in a child's eyes and promise her something you will never give her. But then again, why would I understand any of this?
I loved this book so much. I'm actually embarrassed to say that I've never read Dennis-Benn's first novel, Here Comes the Sun. I will certainly read it later this summer.
This is one of those books that I can't (in good conscience) just casually recommend to people. I loved it, but it's also deeply devastating. Parents of young children, especially, may have trouble reading Jayson Greene's story. In May 2015, two year old Greta Greene was sitting with her grandmother, Susan, on a bench on the Upper West Side. As they chattered on the bench, a brick fell from a facade eight stories above, killing Greta and injuring Susan. Once More We Saw Stars opens with a description of this tragic accident and it's unimaginably hard to read. The rest of the book, though, is a message of hope and a story of survival in the darkest circumstances. It has now been four years since the accident and Jayson / Stacy Greene have a new baby, Harrison Greene. Jayson's instagram is jam-packed with adorable photos of Harrison. I spent thirty minutes recovering from this book by just scrolling through Jayson's instagram (which is all post-Greta).
If you can stomach this type of memoir (as in, it won't send you to bed in tears for two days), you should read Once More We Saw Stars. It's not often that I read anything with such emotional depth.
"Nearly flawless...Brilliant." — The New York Times
"Ingeniously dismantles the conventions of detective fiction." — The New Yorker
"Stunning." — NPR
"Engrossing." — The Wall Street Journal
"Mesmerizing." — Vanity Fair
Do you need another endorsement from me? Get this book in your hands as soon as possible. It is truly a "nearly flawless" debut from an incredible new voice in fiction. I've been in touch with Julia Phillips on Goodreads/Instagram and I am SO EXCITED ABOUT HER CAREER. She did a Fulbright in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky (map below) and lives in Brooklyn now. I'd love to meet her in New York sometime. Also, Julia, if you happen to read this review: I'm teaching myself Russian so that I can visit Kamchatsky (I'm aware this will take several years).
Greetings from Vanderbilt. It is too hot here. The Magnolia trees are in bloom all over campus though, making me infinitely less cranky about the stifling heat (I think it's possible that I'd never seen a Magnolia tree in bloom before today). I finished Kiese Laymon's memoir last week and immediately recommended it to half my friends on goodreads. Kiese's mother, a black woman with a PhD who taught Political Science at Jackson State for years, is a central figure in this memoir. She taught Kiese how to write thoughtfully and think critically. He credits her with providing the foundation for his academic success. Kiese's mother also beat her son regularly (with shoes, belts, hands, etc). To this day, he has physical scars from the beatings. In a CNN interview after his book was published, Kiese explains that his mother beat him in fear of what white folks would do to him if he didn't learn to be submissive:
"We grew up in a part of this country where parents, black parents especially, taught their children that whatever they did to our bodies was going to be less harmful than what the police might do to you, what the teachers might do to you, what white mobs might do to you. My mom was very physically aggressive, trying to discipline my body in anticipation of what white supremacy and white people will do...She really believed that she could protect my body by beating my body...She did exactly what culture taught her to do. Discipline her son into submission so that he is not killed by white people...I never got a beating in my life when my mother didn't talk to me about what white people were going to do. I never just got a beating. The beatings came along with a critique of the nation, with a critique of white supremacy...Like, 'what I'm doing to you is nothing compared to what they will do.'"
This was perhaps the most important part of this book for me: understanding the cultural connection between these beatings and white supremacy. Obviously, this is an intense read, with detailed descriptions of physical and sexual abuse. It's an important book. Kiese Laymon is a talented writer. I'd love to meet him someday.
I read both of Sally Rooney's books this week. These are one-bite books, as in they don't take long to finish. Both received stellar reviews from critics (Normal People even snagged a spot on the Man Booker longlist). Also (just because I feel like y'all should know), Rooney was born in 1991.
I'm not going to summarize either of these books (I'm realizing that Goodreads does a better job at that than I do, yeah?), but I want to discuss one specific scene in Rooney's second book, Normal People. One of the main characters, Connell (equal parts hot and emotionally stunted), leaves a literary event disgusted by all the shameless self-promotion (the guests have fancy education backgrounds and love to talk at people about what they read). Connell ponders to what extent the literary scene exists to fuel folks' carefully curated identities as "book people." The idea that books exist as commodities to express class privilege has become a very dispiriting thought tangle for me (abstractly and personally). To what extent do our bookshelves exist to symbolize our identities as "intellectuals"? To what extent do I use my weird (and objectively bad) instagram as a symbol of a cultured / educated existence?
Rooney explains in an interview after publishing Normal People, "I'm very skeptical of the way in which books are marketed as commodities, almost like accessories which people can fill their homes with. Like beautiful items that you can fill your shelves with and therefore become a sort of 'book person. It makes me feel that books have no potential to speak truth to power. They have no potential as political texts because of the role they play in the culture economy that's already predetermined how people are going to read them. So even if the book is full of Marxist propaganda, it's still sealed off from any real political potential because of its position as a commodity in this market."
I want to believe that, even in 2019, there is space for the book as a political statement / for the book as a personal statement/ for the book as a sign that authentic love between humans is a real, honest, true possibility. I share what I read on social media to find community in literature. I read, in the first place, because I tend to get lonely. Turns out, books are incredibly low-maintenance companions. Anyhow, Rooney's books are especially great companions. Read both.
I spent this past week talking to a whole bunch of New York families about college. It was fun, but also draining and didn't leave me with much energy for the emotional intensity of Buntin's debut. I read Marlena in small doses, as to scatter the story's tragedies throughout the week. This is a tale of female friendship, both created and destroyed through opioid addiction. Set in rural Michigan, the book centers on the short but intense friendship between Cat and her neighbor / classmate Marlena. The story is narrated by Cat as an adult, living in Brooklyn with a "traditional" (boring) career and a "reliable" (boring) boyfriend. For Cat, who continues to struggle with substance abuse issues well into adulthood, this boring life is an immense achievement. I liked this book, though felt like some chapters (the drug scenes, in particular) read as repetitive and lengthy. Ultimately, Marlena is a stirring reflection on the intensity of adolescence, that impassioned time when every emotion feels like a separate, little bomb exploding in your chest. Buntin is talented and this is entirely worth reading. I'm looking forward to her next book.
I'm envious that there are statues like this made of boys, but none of girls. Statues of girls are always doing something feminine or unfun, like lounging half-naked by a spring, gently dipping elegant fingertips in the water, or standing stone faced for Justice or Liberty or some other impossible human ideal. Why can't girls with muscular legs in leggings stand on a hilltop and release a bird?
I've been doing more running than reading lately. I won't sugarcoat it: marathon training is tiring and I've had trouble staying awake to read much of anything. That said, I tore through The Falconer. The book is named after one of Central Park's bronze sculptures (seen in photo above), installed in 1875 near West 72nd St. Though the sculpture has changed over the years (there has been significant vandalism and the original bronze falcon was sawed off and stolen in 1957), parts of the original sculpture still exist in the same location. Czapnik's main character, a middle-class, Italian-Jewish baller named Lucy Adler, loves the sculpture. Set in Manhattan in 1993, the book follows Lucy as she (1) grapples with the complexities of her female identity as an elite athlete and (2) experiences her first stomach-wrenching/heart-racing/hands-shaking crush (on a boy who is entirely unworthy of her attention). Even in post-run hunger/ exhaustion, I didn't want to leave Lucy's side.
The Falconer is yet another bildungsroman of sorts set in New York City in the nineties, but you haven't heard this story before. Czapnik's debut has everything: pointy elbows to the face during pick-up games on public courts, navel-gazing artsy types who paint with Pepto-Bismol to make a political statement, confusing attraction to a (very hot)(very asshole-y) boy who is also your best friend, and late nights in diners with french fries that taste like freezer burn. Both a love letter and a break up with New York City, The Falconer is a must-read for anyone who has ever realized that you might love home more when you're not actually living there.
You've probably heard of Elizabeth Holmes, founder and CEO of the fallen Silicon Valley startup "Theranos." If you're familiar with the story of her demise, you should skip the rest of this review and just read Carreyrou's book, Bad Blood. It's immensely entertaining. I couldn't tear myself away, except to go to work and even then I was just thinking about when I could start reading again. If you haven't heard of Elizabeth Holmes, here's a quick primer: she dropped out of Stanford at age 19 to start a health tech company called "Theranos." Fueled by money and a desire to revolutionize healthcare diagnostics, Elizabeth aimed to create a blood testing system capable of completing 200+ tests using blood from one, tiny finger prick. In 2015, Holmes graced the cover of Forbes magazine and was named the youngest female, self-made billionaire (at this point, her estimated net worth was $4.5 billion). Until the company's demise in 2016-17, the Theranos board included some HUGE names, such as James Mattis, William Foege (former director of CDC), and George Kovacevich (former CEO of Wells Fargo). Ultimately, of course, the Theranos company was a massive scam. Just last spring, Elizabeth Holmes was indicted on federal wire fraud charges. She awaits trial, and reportedly believes that she will be able to start another company once this blows over (LOL). As a human, Elizabeth Holmes is endlessly entertaining (in an evil villain sort of way) and Carreyrou does a great job capturing her incredible vanity.
Gray's debut, The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls, has generated significant (mostly positive) buzz among readers in the last few months. It was formally published two weeks ago and marketed as, "American Marriage meets The Mothers" (for those unaware, I have deep admiration both Tayari Jones and Brit Bennett). So...I ran out to Magers and Quinn to spend $23.00 on this (I know, I'm weak).
This is a complex, family drama chronicling various fractured relationships within a black family living in small town Michigan. The Butler siblings (Althea, Viola, Lillian, and Joe) congregate at the family's old house as the eldest sister, Althea, and her husband, Proctor, are charged with defrauding their community (Gray doesn't really flesh out the motives behind their crimes, which bothers me throughout the book). When Althea and Proctor are sentenced to spend years in prison, their "troubled" (traumatized) teenage twins, Kim and Vi, are left to live with their aunts, Viola and Lillian. These middle-aged women are dealing with their own smattering of unresolved issues related to disordered eating/OCD/PTSD and are less than fully equipped to raise their struggling nieces.
Gray's debut features a marriage interrupted by a prison sentence (as in Jones' American Marriage) and muses on the nature/ purpose of parenthood (as in Bennett's The Mothers). I can't say that I liked it as much as either of those books. The plot feels scattered and the characters feel somewhat superficially sketched. There are aspects of the book that should have been fleshed out (Viola's disordered eating stuff/ Lillian's OCD/ Joe's abusive tendencies/ Kim's self destructive personality). Instead, I was left guessing as to characters' motives, choices, and feelings. I didn't feel a pull to keep reading this...That said, this is a solid debut from a talented African American voice in the writing community. I will certainly buy her next books.
Last weekend, Rob baked some bread. The bread baking is a new-ish hobby for him and I feel lucky that I get to benefit from it at that point in marathon training where 90% of my diet seems to be bread and pasta. I still don't entirely understand how he manages to craft these pretty loaves, but something that I appreciate about the entire process is that it literally takes all day. Before the bread goes into the oven, it seems like a lot of things have to happen (and the process is painstakingly specific, resulting in the need for peculiar thermometers, scales, scrapers, wraps, and baskets). All this to say, while Rob wrangles pounds of flour, water, and yeast into something resembling a loaf, I get to read a lot. I read R.O. Kwon's debut novel during the creation of the pictured loaf (above).
The Incendiaries has been on my TBR list for months and was "the hot debut" last summer. I contemplated buying it from Magers and Quinn in August, but couldn't justify spending $26.00 on such a slim book. You can read it in a day. If you love Emma Cline's The Girls, you will like Kwon's debut. Both novels tell the story of of a young woman's involvement in a violent cult. While Cline's novel describes the experience from the POV of a teenage girl, Kwon's main character is a freshman at an elite American university. I liked this book. I just wish there was more of it! Perhaps the book was too thin for me? I wanted more context, more detail. The story is told entirely from the main character's (Phoebe) boyfriend's point of view, which generally irritated me. I wanted to hear Phoebe's story from Phoebe. I assume Kwon does this to make Phoebe's character all the more unknowable, which I understand. Anyhow, I am definitely excited to follow R.O. Kwon's career. She's a talented writer. This is 3.5 stars rounded up to four for me.
I read this for a few reasons: (1) Roxane Gay gave it four stars on Goodreads and I love Roxane Gay, and (2) Book of the Month selected it as a January choice. I read it quickly--Land's resilience is inspiring. Here's a quick list of a few things Stephanie Land and her daughter, Mia, lived through in this five year period:
Stephanie Land is nothing less than a hero for putting her story out there. Take Maid for what it is, but be aware of the people who are barely mentioned in her story.
This is Lily Bailey and she is a hero. Her first book, Because We Are Bad, was published in the US last spring, but I only recently got my hands on it (thanks to a certain goodreads friend who brought it to my attention). Lily's book is an authentic, raw account of what it's like to live with OCD. Perhaps the most important thing Lily does here is help rescue OCD from its pop culture reputation as the disease of "constant hand-washing super clean bedroom organized desk neat and tidy everything." She paints OCD as it really is: profound psychological distress that often has nothing to do with cleanliness and order.
Even as a child, Lily always felt like there were two people inside her (the real Lily and the OCD Lily). In the book, Lily often uses "we" instead of "I" to explain these dueling identities. She describes a childhood overrun by exhausting routines and rituals. As a 7 year old, Lily woke up 12+ times per night to confirm that her little sister, Ella, was alive and breathing:
What if Ella stops breathing? What if she is dying upstairs right now, gasping for her last breaths and no one knows because they aren't there to hear? Thankfully, Ella's door is open, because she is scared of the dark. We creep to the side of her bed. We can hear her breathing, but to be sure, we hold our palm an inch from her mouth. We can feel her breath on our palm, so she must be alive. We count nine of her breaths. Then we lower her duvet till it is just above her tummy. We place our hand on her chest. Her heart is beating. We count nine beats, but we're still not sure, so we count another nine beats, which takes us to eighteen...We think we must be done. It doesn't feel quite right, but if we stay here she might wake up. We pull the duvet up under her chin. We repeat the words:
The rest of the book is as genuine, raw, and distressing to read. Lily brings the reader through her years at a posh, English boarding school and then through her first year at university. All the while, she is still consumed with exhausting routines, obsessions, and rituals. Today, Lily lives in London. She still struggles with some OCD symptoms, but with the help of medication and therapy they take up much less brain space. Lily is an outspoken mental health advocate, a model, and a writer.
And, from this reader's perspective, a hero.
I wonder where she keeps the knife. I never come across it, except in those moments when I am looking down at the bleeding body before me, and sometimes I don't even see it then. For some reason, I cannot imagine her resorting to stabbing if that particular knife were not in her hand; almost as if it were the knife and not her that was doing the killing.
It's misleading to call Braithwaite's debut "a mystery," or "a thriller." There's not much mystery here. The book's title reveals the identity of the killer and the strange tale evolves to be more hilarious than heartbreaking. Sure, the story is dark. Braithwaite, who is from Nigeria and currently lives in Lagos, spins a tale of blood and guts and really, really big knives. But more importantly, she describes a pair of sisters who will do anything to protect one another from the neighborhood's shallow suitors. The youngest and most traditionally beautiful sister, Ayoola, has the awkward habit of murdering her boyfriends when she tires of them. Korede, Ayoola's older sister, only hopes to keep her sister out of jail in the aftermath of these slashings. The first few chapters describe Korede hunched over, scrubbing blood off Ayoola's white, bathroom tiles. Sounds gloomy, I know, but Braithwaite somehow makes the story mostly funny. My Sister, the Serial Killer is short (it's almost skeletal) and you can read it in one or two sittings. I generally appreciate this type of deliberately thin novel, but there's just not enough space here for Braithwaite to deeply develop her characters. Perhaps I'm just greedy and wanted the story to last longer. So much good fiction coming out of Nigeria this year (and probably every year, but I'm especially excited about this year).
Last week I was in the mood for a fluffy, thick mystery. I'm not entirely sure why. Perhaps it's because I've been reading lots of applications lately, and those feel mostly serious. I wanted to lose myself in pages of secret passageways, abandoned summer homes, lurking strangers, and missing children. Kate Morton's The Lake House was the perfect choice for this mood. Reading it was more like watching TV and less like reading a book (definitely the closest I've come to a Netflix binge with reading). It's a lengthy novel (weighing in at just under 500 pages), but it's a total page turner. Almost every chapter ends with some type of cliff hanger that makes you want to stay up way past bedtime for "just one more chapter." I felt like an eight year old again, opting to read by flashlight when adults made me turn the lights out.
I was planning to give The Lake House four stars until the very end. I docked it half a star for the far too convenient ending (it was way too neat to be convincing) and then rounded down to three stars. There's an argument to be made that I should have rounded this up to four stars, but then again, three stars felt right here. I really liked The Lake House though. Definitely not my last Kate Morton.
There's not much sunlight in Minnesota right now. We wake up in the dark and drive home from work in the dark. The hours in between are grey. Not my favorite time of year. I just finished Elliot Ackerman's National Book Award Finalist, Waiting for Eden. It is similarly dark. You can read it in one or two sittings. There are only three significant characters in the book: Eden (an American solider burned beyond recognition in Iraq), his wife Mary, and an omniscient narrator (Eden's dead friend from the war). Eden and Mary also have a young daughter, Andy (the story of Andy's conception is a main story line here). In the opening pages, we learn that Eden has lived the past three years in a hospital burn unit, entirely unable to communicate. The nurses refer to him in hushed tones as "the worst wounded guy in both wars." He is less than half his original body weight and has lost everything below the torso ("No one knows what to call him, except for Mary. She calls him her husband"). Suddenly, as a result of a stroke, Eden regains the ability to communicate with people through a simple clicking of his jaw. Ackerman forces the reader to reckon with some big questions here: Who decides how much suffering is too much? What are a woman's obligations to a husband in this type of emotional and physical distress? Can extreme physical debilitation ever be reason enough to end a life? Is the ability to communicate simple desires and needs to loved ones reason enough to stay alive? Waiting for Eden is more than just a story of war. It's also a tale of marriage. The book opens with a discussion about Mary, Eden's wife: "I want you to understand Mary and what she did. But I don't know if you will. You've got to wonder if you'd make the same choice, circumstances being similar." This is a book about parenthood, spousal loyalty, patience, and sacrifice. I'm not someone who particularly likes war literature, but I really enjoyed this.
With the exception of a short run, I did not get off the couch on Saturday. It was snowy and I wanted to finish Diana Evans' new book. The snow has stopped and I finished the book, so I've made the two mile trek to Sun Street Breads (I haven't exhausted the grilled cheese options in Minneapolis yet, but this one is hard to beat).
You've probably heard John Legend's song "Ordinary People" (if you haven't, watch the music video above before you read this review). It's a love song, of sorts, and describes couples with young children who are "past the infatuation stage, in the thick of love." According to Legend and Evans, this part of marriage involves a lot of fighting, forgiving, and then more fighting (all while trying to grow healthy, small humans in the house). Evans tells the story of two struggling couples, both African-American and living in London with young children. Love exists in both these relationships. Regardless, there's anger and hurt and words children should never hear. The main characters in the book, Melissa and Michael, have been together for over a decade and have just had their second child. As the children grow older, the romance sours. Far after bedtime, the little ones sneak into the stairwell and listen to grown-ups scream and break things. Evans and Legend both hint at the importance of forgiveness, though, and argue that real love can rise above this domestic strife. So the book, and the song, do end up as kind of love stories.
Ordinary People received mixed reviews on Goodreads, which doesn't surprise me. Many readers don't take well to plodding, detailed accounts of family or relationship drama (we saw this reflected in the reviews of Elif Batuman's The Idiot as well). With Evans' ability to sharply dissect domestic discord, she reminds me of Franzen and Eugenides. Forgive me for comparing this black woman to two white men, but there are some similarities in style here. I loved this book and contemplated giving it five stars. For some reason, four feels right.
I finished The Windfall last week, but I'm just now getting around to posting a review. I'm a little slower with mediocrereads (not too much slower, hopefully) now that I'm back to reading applications. I came across Diksha Basu last month, after reading her scathing NYT review of Shobha Rao's Girls Burn Brighter. I love Basu's review and entirely agree with her criticisms of Girls Burn Brighter ("all the brutality becomes, frankly, boring"). I bought Basu's book, The Windfall, at Moon Palace Books. If you like beer and books (and you live in Minneapolis), you should visit Moon Palace. There's a bar in the store, so you can browse books with a beer in hand (you can't bring your drink in the children's section-- fyi for those with kids). Halfway through my IPA, I decided to buy The Windfall, which tells the story of a middle class family living in New Delhi. Unexpectedly, this family (the Jhas) comes into an unimaginable sum of money when Mr. Jha sells his web company. In the months following their ascent to the upper crust of Delhi's social scene, the family moves from their humble, East Delhi neighborhood to an ultra rich enclave across the city. In the next 200 pages, the Jha family has a million awkward social interactions as they try to "act like rich people" (spoiler: they don't succeed in acting like rich people). Basu's book is a comedy / social satire and I entirely understand the appeal of stuff like this. That said, I could care less. I truly, honestly don't care about any of this. I'm actively disinterested in the ultra rich and the various ways they feel compelled to waste their money. I kind of felt like I was polluting my mind and soul while reading this. I've read that The Windfall will soon have its own TV show (this ranks among one of the least surprising facts I've learned this week). It's that type of book. It's been a few weeks since I've read a book that I really enjoyed. I just started Diana Evan's Ordinary People, and I'm liking it so far. Fingers crossed that I have a more positive review to post this weekend.