I had dinner at Northfield's pizza farm last night. We ate pepperoni pizza, drank Surly, and played frisbee. I also finished this book. As I brainstormed for the review, I realized that nine of my last ten reviews cover books written by women. I hope to maintain this gender imbalance. This is also the second book in a row written by a woman named "Claire" (I just finished Claire Messud's Burning Girl ) This was unintentional (and not important or interesting). This review is about Claire Fuller, English author of three novels. Swimming Lessons is her second book. Her third novel, Bitter Orange, will be released this month.
Fuller's Swimming Lessons came on my radar last year when it was a Book of the Month pick. I didn't choose it, for whatever reason, but considered returning to it at some point. The first thing to know about Swimming Lessons is that the entire plot feels open to reader interpretation. For that reason, it's hard to give an accurate synopsis. The gist is that a Norwegian woman, Ingrid, disappears from her home. She has a husband (but resents him because he's a pompous asshole) and children (but resents them because they are boring and always hungry). Yes-- this is another story about a woman who gives up a degree/ financial security in order to care for husband/ children...and it makes her miserable. Ingrid writes a series of (v. depressing) letters to her husband describing the gloom of motherhood, but she never actually gives him the letters. Instead, she hides the letters in books lying around the house. One morning, Ingrid walks towards the sea and simply disappears. Is it an escape? Suicide? Drowning?
This book is simply OK/fine. The characters don't feel interesting or complex enough to draw me in. I also hate Ingrid's husband, Gil. I sense that Fuller wants us to sympathize with him at points (I refuse). Gil is a jerk and a terrible husband. I've seen this book compared to Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You. I can see the similarities, though I think Ng's novel is so much better.
For what it's worth, I read this as a tale of extreme marital discord, depression, and suicide. As I mentioned, Fuller leaves plenty of space for interpretation, so I'd love to discuss this with other people.
I was in Chicago this weekend. It was a great trip (lots of running, pizza, beer, gelato). My flight back to Minneapolis was at 5:30am. The only benefit of this (very) early wake up is that I finished Claire Messud's most recent novel, The Burning Girl, on the plane. I read Messud's older books (The Emperor's Children and The Woman Upstairs) in high school / college. I loved both of them, though my taste has likely changed (at least slightly) since those years. I initially picked up Burning Girl for two reasons (1) I remember really liking Messud's stuff, and (2) the book has very mixed reviews on Goodreads (FWIW, Dwight Garner also gave the book a very lukewarm review in the NYT in August 2017).
Claire Messud, who is now a Senior Lecturer in Harvard's English department, has generally focused her writing on relationships between women (most books with female protagonists tend to focus, at least partly, on the woman's relationship with a man). In The Burning Girl, Messud tells the story of an intense friendship (then falling out) between Julia Robinson and Cassie Burnes, both teenagers living in suburban Boston. This is a tough subject to write on in 2018: it's been done (over and over). The topic is tired. That said, there is depth to The Burning Girl: Messud ponders fundamental questions about loyalty, adolescence, and family ties. I just couldn't get past the fact that I've read ten other books with similar plots (best friends-->one girl has a difficult family situation / acts out in school--> no longer best friends --> everyone is sad).
I like Claire Messud. My three star rating here does not change that. I just enjoyed her other books so much more!
Sleep felt productive. Something was getting sorted out. I knew in my heart-- this was, perhaps, the only thing my heart knew back then-- that when I'd slept enough, I'd be O.K. I'd be renewed, reborn. I would be a whole new person, every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant, foggy memories.
Finishing this book is like emerging from a long movie in a dark theater-- it takes awhile to readjust to the lights and sounds of the real world. I just kind of sat on my couch for awhile, feeling really weird.
The first thing to know about Moshfegh's new novel is that the narrator is asleep for more than half of it. While we never learn her name, we do learn that she is very rich, very blond, and very thin. She is also a recent Columbia grad. Her "beauty" and privilege are at odds with her lack of employment, extreme laziness, and complete loneliness. The narrator briefly holds down a job at an art gallery in Chelsea after graduation, but then gets fired for taking (long) naps in the storage closet. She has exactly two friends in the world: an irritating, shallow roommate from Columbia and an asshole ex-boyfriend who uses her for sex. Both her parents are dead.
Have you ever had the feeling when something really sad happens (a terrible breakup, death of a loved one, loss of a job, etc) that you'll eventually feel better but the next year is going to be especially shitty? Most of us have had that feeling, and that's exactly how our narrator feels. The difference between us and our narrator, though, is that our narrator actually attempts to "skip" an entire year by sleeping through it.
Moshfegh's novel tackles this dark (and quasi hilarious) question: is it possible to escape existential despair by remaining in an unconscious state for as long as possible? Does time really heal all wounds? With the inane help of a very dumb psychiatrist, our narrator takes all kinds of pills (Valium, Prozac, Benadryl, Neuroproxin, Silencior, Infermiterol--some of them are made up) to make her sleep as much as possible during her year of R&R. Ultimately, she figures out a concoction that will put her to sleep for three days at a time. Then, she wakes up, eats one slice of mushroom pizza, showers, and goes back to sleep for another three days.
There is a lot to this book that I'm not covering here, such as her unlikely friendship with the pitiable Reva (her friend from Columbia) and the deep sadness related to her parents' untimely deaths. Ultimately, My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a story of depression, a mockery of our modern fascination with "self care" / "me time," and a dark portrayal of "adulting" in New York City. Honestly, I think Moshfegh is brilliant (she does too!!). She's also from Boston, so...
This is definitely worth a read. It's perhaps the opposite of uplifting.
I woke up this morning thinking about how much I admire Madeline Miller. She spent the first decade of her career teaching Greek and Latin to high school students. While ushering adolescents through years of Greek instruction, she finished her first book, Song of Achilles. It took her ten years to write. Those of you who spend most of your waking hours with teenagers understand how impressive this is. In April, Miller released her second book, Circe.
I don't remember much about Greek mythology. I'm embarrassed about this for two reasons (1) my Dad was a Classics major and gave me SO MANY collections of myths when I was a kid (hope he doesn't read this post--sorry, Dad) and (2) most American students complete entire units on Greek mythology in high school (we did this in Hingham, but I barely recall our discussions of the "Odyssey" in Joan Silver's English class). Perhaps this is why I held off on reading Miller's new book for a few months: I wasn't sure if I would be able to fully appreciate her writing.
Even with my lack of knowledge re: Greek mythology, I loved this. If you remember the "Odyssey," you know that Circe is the badass witch who turns Odysseus' men to pigs when they trespass on the island of Aiaia (for what it's worth, Circe is also the first witch in Western literature!). As a child, Miller was fascinated with Circe's story because the Goddess seemed to be "the embodiment of male anxiety about female power." Miller was unsatisfied with knowing Circe only through the eyes of a male protagonist. In her new novel, Miller allows the Goddess to tell her own story (which spans thousands of years). Though Odysseus does appear in the novel, Circe's story does not center on her relationship with a man. If you have any free time in summer 2018, this is worth picking up.
Every one of these 'you are beautiful' campaigns sends women down the road to thinking more about how they look. Most people imagine that paying a woman a compliment on her appearance will make her feel better about how she looks. But anything that draws a woman's attention to the appearance of her own body or makes her feel as though her body is being evaluated can result in body shame. Even when commentary on a woman's appearance is meant to be a compliment, it still reminds her that her appearance is being monitored
Over the past few weeks, I've been borrowing books from Carleton's library. They have some of the best current reads, both fiction and nonfiction. I picked up Renee Engeln's new book last week. As a tenured professor of psychology at Northwestern, Engeln has spent her life studying how our culture's focus on beauty and appearance harms American women.
Engeln argues that because American women focus so much on appearance, they are unable to deeply engage with more important aspects of daily life. This focus on beauty to the detriment of more meaningful pursuits (such as career success or relationship building) causes depression, anxiety, disordered eating, compulsive exercising, and a shocking increase in plastic surgery among American women.
The most important take away here is that we should stop constantly praising girls' appearances. Instead, we must praise their bravery, sense of humor, athleticism, and intellect. Significant research has shown that just the act of commenting on a woman's appearance (regardless of whether the comment is positive or negative) causes her to score higher on tests of self-objectification. On that note, Engeln totally (and successfully) shits on Dove's "Real Beauty" campaign: the message should NOT BE "You are more beautiful than you think/ Everyone is beautiful." The message SHOULD BE: "INTELLECT, KINDNESS, AND HARD WORK MATTER MORE THAN BEAUTY."
If I ever have a daughter, she will read this book and we will discuss it. Until then, hoping my sisters (and some of you) might pick it up.
I've been walking around in a bookish haze since Thursday, when I started Wolitzer's The Interestings. I had a hard time putting this down. It's smart, perceptive, and engaging. Coming in at about 550 pages, it is also one of my lengthier reads this year.
I was generally underwhelmed by Wolitzer's newest novel, The Female Persuasion. I recently came across a review for one of her older books and wanted to give Wolitzer's stuff another try. I should preface this review with the fact that I unabashedly love books like this: multi-generational, family epics with lots of drama. Critics compare The Interestings, published in 2013, with Franzen's Freedom and Eugenides' The Marriage Plot. I'm in the minority with my continued fascination re: Franzen novels (I get it--he can be a pompous asshole), but I tend to love books that fall in the broad realm of Franzen-esque fiction. I love Eugenides' work almost as much. So perhaps it's not that surprising that I give Wolitzer five stars on this one.
The Interestings opens in the summer of 1974 at a camp for "gifted" kids in New England. It is here that we meet our main characters in the variously awkward blooms of adolescence: Ash (thoughtful and serious, also beautiful), Ethan (homely and brilliant, vaguely lovesick), Jonah (timid and deeply scarred), and Jules (awkward and self-conscious, with a witty streak). In the next 500 pages, Wolitzer follows this group of friends for 40 years (through the excitement of college and first love, the angst of difficult breakups, the chaos of parenting, and the loneliness that tends to stick with us, even in healthy marriages).
At the core of this book is the question of what it means to lead an "interesting" life. Why do we feel the need to label our children as talented, gifted, and special? Is it not enough to raise children to be self-sufficient and joyful? Why do we often praise children for talent, creativity, beauty, and artistry, when they ultimately must grow to be level headed, self-reliant adults?
Upon publication, The Interestings received overwhelmingly positive feedback from critics (The New York Times, NPR, The Guardian, and The Boston Globe all gave glowing reviews-- just to name a few). It was not as big of a hit among Goodreads reviewers: The Interestings now averages 3.55 / 5 stars, and has received a fair number of 1 and 2 star ratings. There are some common criticisms. People describe the book as too "self-conscious and ironic," with unnecessarily "lofty" language (this is a strange critique to me because the core of the book is in the irony of these characters thinking that they're "interesting" when they're actually not). Another common critique is that The Interestings is unapologetic in its focus on lives of the white and privileged. I get that. I hear you. It's entirely fair to say that this book is narrow in scope and topic. This book does not do everything, but very few books do. The Interestings is beautifully done. Bravo, Wolitzer. I'll take you over Franzen any day.
I don't love this book, but I understand why people are excited about it. Kamila Shamsie, a Londoner raised in Karachi, has written seven novels. With the exception of her most recent publication, Shamsie's novels are significantly more popular in England than in the US. Home Fire has been on my reading list for the past month because it received the 2018 Women's Prize for Fiction, one of the UK's most distinguished literary awards (for what it's worth, Home Fire was also longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker). Shamsie beat out some literary giants (such as Jesmyn Ward--Sing, Unburied, Sing) to win the 2018 Women's Prize, so I figured I should read her stuff.
Home Fire follows a British family of Pakistani descent that gets mixed up with ISIS. The book is a modern retelling of Sophocles' Antigone--so if you know Antigone there aren't many plot twists here. At the crux of the story is a young woman's attempts to bury her twin brother, Parvaiz, who is a "traitor to the state." Aneeka and Parvaiz are best friends until Parvaiz decides to follow his father's jihadist legacy by joining the media arm of ISIS. Though Aneeka begs him to return home, Parvaiz can't escape. Eamon, the son of the British Home Secretary, eventually falls in love with Aneeka, vastly complicating an already dire situation. Eamon attempts to convince his father (the powerful politician) to pardon Parvaiz, though his efforts fail spectacularly. There is somewhat of a twist at the end (the heartbreaking, final scene is one of the best parts of the book).
Ultimately, the construction of Shamsie's novel prevents me from fulling engaging with these characters. The book is split into five parts, each from a different point of view. I generally appreciate the reworking of Sophocles' Antigone, but every time I finally got "into the book" the perspective shifted. I also struggled with some of the writing. I got confused several times (with the shifting perspectives, run on sentences, etc). I just didn't enjoy reading this. I was worried that I was alone in some of these more negative reactions to Home Fire, but many reviewers expressed similar feelings.
The judges for the 2018 Women's Prize are correct in their assessment that Home Fire is "the story of our times." The premise itself (reworking Sophocles' Antigone to include the story of a British family's connection with ISIS) is kind of brilliant. I look forward to hearing more perspectives on Home Fire-- I know a lot of people loved it.