Monday, May 25, 2020

Two Heart-Wrenching (Yet Very Different) Studies of Women: Thin Girls (Clarke) and A Woman Is No Man (Rum...a mini-review)

Quarantine has my "to be reviewed" pile growing quicker than my "to be read" pile... My job is always behind a keyboard. But while many people seem to be more closely tied to their devices and using them to connect, I'm even more of the "get me outta here" ilk than usual.

Still, I DO enjoy reviewing....I just need some discipline to do it...

I was very unsure about starting this one. I have a history of binge eating (only recognized as a distinct disorder in recent years DESPITE being oh so common...and very different from occasional overindulging or even comfort eating) and some degree of body dysmorphia. I wasn't sure this was a wise read...and, while it is an insightful and at time stunningly beautiful novel...I'm still not sure it was. I'm not one for a million trigger warnings...never frown on the ability to find out what one's getting into, but sometimes it goes too far...but this is tough territory (and includes a few "tips" of the pro-ana variety).

Anyway, twin sisters Rose and Lily are all but one. Lily is a bit more gregarious, but Rose follows closely and is always Lily's number one. Until. As it is wont to do, the girlworld social hierarchy rears its ugly head. And Rose finds a connection in her ability to perfect her anorexic tendencies. Which, sadly, propel her to the top of the pyramid. Lily, initially to "cover" for her sister, eats for two. The book peers back at these adolescent years from their twenties as Rose approaches a full year at an in-patient clinic and Lily dives into a painful-to-watch relationship in which she changes herself, including becoming an adherent to an eating disorder billed as a lifestyle group.

There's a LOT here. And the author either has firsthand experience or delved deep into her topic because so much of the girls' actions and thoughts (we are more privy to Rose's mind than Lily's, but their twinhood makes Rose privy to Lily's mind) ring real (said from some experience of my own and from talking about these issues with some amazing warrior women). True, as another reviewer noted, Rose is more self-aware than most, but she gets at a lot about the intersection of body, selfhood, and sexuality. If you want to get a sense of how someone can disappear down this rabbithole...move from casual dieting to something wholly other...this is a good place to start. The author is certainly a talented wordsmith and an insightful creative mind. I'd love to see another novel from her...and maybe I'd be able to evaluate that more clearly.

But, I can't way it enough, tread with care if you are at all vulnerable. There's a beauty in feeling understood, but if there's any chance it'll feel like validation, then steer clear. 

Rating is hard...3.5 simply b/c it is a default value for me. It probably deserves more....danger doesn't negate beauty, and it is deeply beautiful but also dangerous in the wrong head. Thank you to HarperCollins for the ARC.

I'll catch up more soon...but I need to admit that a few books that won't get the full reviews they deserve. So I want to try and accompany more complete reviews with brief remarks on a book or two rather than leave them out entirely...The plot details are available elsewhere, just some short remarks...
  • A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum - Strong four stars. Beautiful and heart-wrenching at times. But, I'd love to have seen a few counterexamples...not every Muslim woman is as controlled as some of these characters. Many thanks to Harper for the ARC.

Two in the To-Be-Published Queue: Paris Library and Benediction

  • The Paris Library

If you like literary fiction of a certain sort, then it's easy to get a sort of WWII fatigue.  It makes for a good setting...recent enough to be felt but far enough to be fictionalized, and certainly lots of fodder with the wrongs we can do to each other and the pain people can experience so clear, it almost feels fictionalized from the start (or maybe one simply wishes it was).

This book does manage, however, to hit on a unique sliver of history. It focuses on Paris from shortly before the war through Nazi occupation. That's a less common setting than most, but the unique element is a sharp focus on the efforts of library staff to keep the American Library in Paris open and supply books to all...even (especially) frowned upon distribution to French POWs and Jews.  We get a small glimpse of a soldier's story and that of French police, but it's a book about books and book lovers. Oh, and a small modern day thread tossed in.

It's a good little story. I enjoyed the lessons it has to teach...obviously fictionalized but well researched with roots in real people and real actions.  I couldn't not love Olide...a young woman trying to stretch her wings (much to her father's chagrin). Like many, I had less interest in the current day storyline...I saw some of the reason for it but feel like a coda would have handled those.

Well crafted setting. Decent characters...could have been a bit fleshier in some ways (the wrinkles were plot related...characters were round for the sake of plot, not simply for the sake of character)  but that's ok sometimes.  Sometimes you just need a good story to tuck into and this is that.

Notable but eventually dated element: I saw more than one parallel bw life amid a pandemic and life amid a very different "infestation."

Teetering between  3.5 ... that's my go-to rank for "good not great" and books that are more than mass market fodder (though some great books do indeed get deserved attention) but not quite "literature" in my eyes) ... and 4 stars.  Rounding up bc it did what I needed it to do and took me elsewhere for a bit. Not so immersive that I couldn't easily step out to go to sleep etc, but still looked forward to visiting Odile each night).

Thank you to Goodreads, the publisher, and the author. I won this in a giveaway but they never put any restraints on my reviews.

  • Benediction by Kent Haruf 

This wasn't my favorite Haruf, I'm quite certain of that. But any Haruf is loads better than 95 percent of the books out there...and that's guessing low. And it still gets 5 stars without hesitation

As always, you can touch the characters in Benediction. Feel Dad's slackening skin, Alice's rough pigtails (a tad slick from sweat). It's not about plot, it's about plopping back down in Holt, smelling the scent of Willa and Ailene's home (after a certain point, mother and daughter look like sisters...the home smells only every so slightly of potpourri), hearing Reverend Lyle clear his throat. It's quite familiar to those who've been to town before, but also new because only small bits connect this novel to Plainsong and Eventide (those share much more...I'd read those two in order bug this can come before, between, or after the others even if they are a trilogy of a sort)

Quiet. Simple. Perfectly imperfect. Utterly beautiful.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Catching Up (b/c social distancing should mean tackling some to dos...and reviews are more fun than laundry...): The Astonishing Life of August March (Jackson) and A Good Marriage (McCreight)

I'm sitting here with awkward, semi-usable time on my hands. We, like much of the U.S. and much of the developed world, are working remotely amid concerns about COVID-19. I've told my team that I'm here, but have no current assignments ... ironically, in part because others are too busy to do what needs to happen before I can do my job (and I've offered to help with their duties too). I'd RATHER be working, in part b/c I want to demonstrate that I can work effectively on a fully remote basis and partly b/c I just feel like I should be. But after trying to do some relevant reading much of yesterday, my boss and I agreed I'd be actively on call. So I'm not necessarily doing work, but I'm ready to jump when called upon (and was once today)...

So, it's a good time to try to catch up with myself a bit...that is, for my reviews to keep pace with my bookshelf. Honestly, I simply don't have it in me most nights (maybe it is odd, but (for me) reviews do require energy). I'm going to start with two of my most recent reads from the kind folks at Harper -- the first was finished in the era when reading on the couch is suddenly good for humanity, I feel like I read the second in another world (which is to say, about a month ago). I'm hoping to go back and share at least some passing thoughts on other books on my "to review" list, including some I purchased or that came from the "anyone want this" table in the office pantry, but I may eventually decide to sweep off the self and start anew. Or compromise with a few super quick ones on Goodreads. I'd rather say nothing or keep it short than have a review that is less than genuine because my memory is less than accurate.  (Note: As I finished up the second review, work is coming my way. Which is very much a good thing and not just because I don't have to make that decision yet.).

August is a child of the theater. He quite literally grew up in one. His mom was an actress in post WWI London. She played her role, gave birth backstage, and made it to the curtain call. A seamstress found him and raised him...she loved him but her parenting style was freer than free range and she left him behind every night (see below re suspension of disbelief). His life carries him from the theater to the streets to a fancy prep school and beyond (I'll avoid going further than the blurb does). He finds a mentor and a woman does enter the scene eventually.

This was a fun read, albeit one that didn't go all that deep. At times, it seemed like the author was asking a bit much...I understand suspending disbelief, but it goes a bit farther afield than this reader could comfortably travel (at least for a book that wasn't of the fantasy or even magical realism genre). I didn't really develop an affinity for August, but I still found his story fun to "watch." I appreciated August's sense of loyalty...and his anger when he felt it wasn't being returned. I enjoyed August's childhood and his somewhat unconventional love story, but didn't care as much for the years (and the pages) in between. 

It would require some time travel, but I have this lovely mental image of a young Freddie Highmore (think Finding Neverland) as young August tucked away in a tiny forgotten nook and watching in awe as his mentor-to-be took the stage and made August truly fall in love with drama. I'm not quite sure I see Highmore in the adult role...he feels a bit too distinct to fit the bill...but I imagine the author already has someone in mind. 

3.5 stars. A solid read. Enjoyable escape but didn't envelop me enough to go beyond my "good not great" score. And I'm now thinking it might be a rare case where the film (screenplay by the author) could outshine the book. Many thanks to the publisher for supplying an advance copy in return for an honest review.

Lizzie is an unhappy big firm attorney (gosh, that sounds familiar) who left behind a career she loved as a prosecutor when her husband's drinking problem left them in dire need of more than her public service salary (to be clear, that part was NOT my story). She gets a call from an old friend from law school who may be technically in jail for a scuffle with a cop but is really there as a suspect in his wife's murder. The case leads Lizzie into the world of New York City's elite and the perfect couples that populate her client's world. We also follow the wife in the weeks leading up to her death, which we obviously see coming while she's preoccupied with continuing to play her part in a world that is wholly unfamiliar to a girl who grew up poor with a devil of a father.

Were there always this many twisty thrillers out there or did the genre explode after Gone Girl? Regardless, this fits into that world. Each character comes with doubts about the person they appear to be and the person they really are. Each person...and each marriage...has its secrets. The book mixes in the murder mystery with the legal and relationship drama. And there are more twists than a country road.

Ultimately, you get what you expect from the genre. The characters have dimensions because they have secrets, but there are almost too many storylines and too many secrets to keep track of them all without notes. It goes a bit too far. It is...and these books are supposed to, but I couldn't fully give myself over to it because keeping it all straight became too much work. I did enjoy picking it up and I did want to find out whodunit. Yes, no person and no marriage is exactly as it appears from outside...but I didn't need the point made quite so many times and the ending didn't really satisfy me (I did like the very last turn, but the main mystery reveal was both disappointing and overly complicated).

3.5 default "good but not great" rating. It'd keep you busy during an airplane ride, but you need to be willing to page back a bit now and then to catch up (and not just because the beverage service and your seat neighbor's bladder distracted you). Thank you to the publisher for the advance copy in exchange for an honest review.