Summer Book Reviews: 3 of 3
Strong female lead characters are abundant in this summer’s last installment of book reviews. There’s also a list of reviews on the audiobooks I listened to during long car trips. What a joy it was to dive into this pile of wonder. A few books in the stack I didn’t get to, left for another season. With Labor Day weekend behind us, it’s time to post the fall pile soon. Stay tuned.
FLORIDA by Lauren Groff
There is not a flabby word or an out of place sentence in this collection of eleven stories that use, literally and metaphorically, Florida as a backdrop to the mercurial human condition. Abandoned young sisters; a mother and her two young sons in France for all the wrong reasons; a woman alone on vacation in Salvador; homelessness; storms and sinkholes, snakes and secrets. The females in these stories are brazen and resilient and the reader roots for them even though they aren’t particularly likable. I love that about Groff’s characters. They’re fearless and fickle at the same time. Like many women I know. She writes on the head of a pin—the words like a sharp poke of pleasure and pain. I had so many favorite lines the novel is dog-eared on almost every other page. These are but a few:
Favorite line(s): “She’d never met a child with beady eyes before. Beadiness arrives after long slow ekes of disappointment, usually in middle age.”
“My parents are the same as ever, she said. Marching clenched and seething toward eternity.”
“She opened the window and smelled the queer dank musk of deep-country Florida. Out here, people decorated their yards with big rocks and believed they could talk to God. Here, “Derrida” was only French for rear end. She thrust her fist out the window and released it slowly. She could almost see her hopes peeling from her palm and skipping down the road in her wake: the books with her name on them; the sabbatical in Florence; the gleaming modern house at the edge of the woods. Gone.”
“When she peered at the coins in the dim light from the streetlamp, she found they were mostly pennies. Still, she went around again. She saw herself from a great distance, a woman stopping in knee-deep water for someone else’s wishes.”
“He’s like a perfect, windless pond, her husband once said. You throw something in just to watch it sink, and you’re going to see it on the bottom staring back at you for the rest of your life.”
Oh, yes. It’s that exquisite!
FIRE SERMON by Jamie Quatro
I forgot to add this book to the pile for the summer stack photo. After reading her collection, “I Want to Show You More: Stories,” (see review in Spring’s stack of books), I fell hard for Quatro’s brilliant writing and pre-ordered “Fire Sermon,” her debut novel. Similar themes from the collection, desire, religion, adultery, temptation, guilt, carry over into the novel. The stunning beauty of her words, “gathered years: grains of spilled salt brushed from a table into an open palm,” mesmerize on the page. Quatro can pull the reader into an image as if hypnotized. For instance: “The ancients, she says, disagreed as to whether we perceived objects, or objects perceived us. Do our eyes throw out a beam, like a lantern, that illuminates them? Or do the objects send out rays which, reaching our eyes, reveal them to us—as if they’re looking back?” Maggie’s world is upended when she falls hard for James. The problem is they’re both married to other people. Their story is one of desire and guilt and reconciling their devotion to God and family. I couldn’t put this book down. I would recommend not reading this one in fits and starts. Pick a lazy weekend and jump in. You won’t regret it.
Favorite line(s): I walked under the arch—Empire State Building in front, Freedom Tower behind—glorious to be here, on this day, some new beat in my vascular system, an anticipatory cadence that matched the wider pulse of traffic and construction noise. Life, life. Manhattan was saying it. In the interstices between tragedies, the spaces between the arrowing buildings, the rush of air in alleyways and tunnels, breezes across rooftops, life. So much sweat and energy absorbed by the inanimate, I thought, if you removed every human from this island the stones would cry out.
A PLACE FOR US by Fatima Farheen Mirza
This novel tells the story of an American Muslim family trying to honor their religion and culture while believing in the American dream. This reader felt invested in this family as they look to carve out a life for themselves in America pre and post 9/11. After an arranged marriage, Rafiq and Layla set down roots in northern California and start their family. Hadia, the eldest girl, is determined to do everything well; her sister, Huda, is patient and observant. Amar, the youngest, a son, rebels against the strict codes his parents abide by. There is sadness and beauty in the American born children growing up with their traditions while the outside world derides their beliefs. You’ll feel part of this family’s struggles with expectations and loss. It’s a heartbreaking novel.
Favorite line(s): Loving Amira was not just loving a young woman. It was loving a whole world. She was of the same world he had been born into but had only ever felt himself outside of, and sitting by her was the closest he came to feeling harmony with his own home.
And this: Her reflection. Her tired face. She touches her dry bottom lip and thinks of how odd it is to experience a secret loss. A loss without a name. The loss of a potential version of her life. Of what she never had, and now never will. The realization that, in her own small and sustained way, she had loved someone for years that she had only looked at in glimpses, only spoken to in passing, only thought of in secret, only ever touched when they passed a cup of lassi or a stick of gum between them.
LOOK ALIVE OUT THERE: Essays by Sloane Crosley.
What a wise, funny, and irreverent take on everything from crazy neighbors to freezing her eggs for future children she’s not sure she wants. Crosley is an observant interloper and a fearless and persistent writer who sees the absurdity of human behavior with laser beam steeliness. Her metaphors caused this reader to laugh out loud. The essay, “Cinema of the Confined,” about the difference between writing about her medical issues and her subsequent diagnosis of Meniere’s disease versus travel writing is funny and satirical and sadly true. If you’ve ever waited an eternity for test results, you’ll understand Crosley’s angst. “Writing about illness is a form of travel writing. The writer’s mind stands at attention, even when her body cannot because she has entered a new environment—in one case voluntarily, in the other not. Everything feels as if it’s of note. As it is in travel writing, the difficulty is not in taking a small incident and expounding upon it but in whittling a new world down to a manageable size.” Crosley is like everyone’s smart-ass funny best friend. You’ll love this book.
Favorite line(s): . . .I know for certain that focusing on the math as the defining moment of one’s life only perpetuates the idea of fertility as identity. This isn’t the seventeenth century. Nor is it the dystopian future. There doesn’t have to be social meaning. There only has to be personal meaning. Tell everyone, tell no one. Read the articles, don’t read the articles, find kinship or alienation in them, it doesn’t matter. By virtue of them being written by someone else, none of them are prescribed for you and you alone. When it comes to your own life, there is only one location in the world where the right decisions are being kept.
VISIBLE EMPIRE by Hannah Pittard
In 1962 a plane carrying over 100 of Atlanta’s prominent citizens crashed after takeoff at Paris’s Orly Airport. “Visible Empire,” tells the story of some of the friends and family of the perished. Robert loses his mistress on the doomed flight. Lily, her parents. Ivan, the mayor of Atlanta, must convince his wife to attend the multitude of funerals for the cities lost souls. Piedmont gets mixed up with those grieving in the days after the crash. Anastasia and her brother Skylar pretend to be the offspring of a couple lost on the flight. It’s a tightly woven tale of loss, privilege, racism, and identity taken from the headlines of a nation at the precipice of the Civil Rights movement.
Favorite line(s): No, he had taken her up and into the hospital as though color didn’t exist, that’s how much he was thinking only of her and what she needed. The existence of color had disappeared for Piedmont for the first time in his life and in the most unexpected of ways as he’d lifted Lily from the car (not bothering to lock it, not even bothering to close that rear door) and taken her through the glass entrance and into the arms of those nurses in their still uniforms and ridiculous hats, which was when—as if a great wave had come crashing over him—color came blindingly back into view. Those nurses had taken Lily from his arms, and the moment her skin no longer touched his, he’d been pushed from the hospital, shoved out, thrown out, by two large men—white men, because such terrible things as color once again existed and had never truly stopped existing in the first place—who’d called him names and, as though he were an animal with limited understanding, repeated over and over again: “Out. Out. Out.”
THE FEMALE PERSUASION by Meg Wolitzer
Nobody writes about young adult contemporary angst better than Wolitzer. Well, maybe Donna Tartt? Wolitzer doesn’t disappoint with her latest collection of characters in this novel. Greer, the smart high achiever, follows her mentor, the feminist author Faith Frank, famous for her book, “The Female Persuasion,” to NYC and goes to work at Frank’s start-up company. Greer’s childhood friend and lover, Cory, whose trajectory in finance and economics after graduating from an ivy league college is aborted after an unimaginable loss. And Zee, Greer’s best friend, who admirably moves through jobs looking for her calling while trying to find her way as a gay woman.
The questions the story raises are about duty to friends, to family, self-identity and female power—or power in general: “To live in a world of female power—mutual power—felt like a desirable dream to Zee. Having power meant that the world was like a pasture with the gate left open and that there was nothing stopping you, and you could run and run.”
This was this reader’s book selection for the One Brainers to discuss in August. Half loved it. The others not so much. “The characters didn’t engage me,” was a common complaint. Read it so you can be the judge!
Favorite line(s): At the podium Faith said, “Whenever I give a talk at colleges I meet young women who say, ‘I’m not a feminist, but . . .’ By which they mean, ‘I don’t call myself a feminist, but I want equal pay, and I want to have equal relationships with men, and of course, I want to have an equal right to sexual pleasure. I want to have a fair and good life. I don’t want to be held back because I’m a woman. . . And I always want to reply,” said Faith, “’What do you think feminism is, other than that? How do you think you’re going to get those things if you deny the political movement that is all about obtaining that life that you want?’”
THE MARS ROOM by Rachel Kushner
What a gifted writer. What a sad subject. It’s a “prison” novel. Set in a female penitentiary in Central California the story centers on Romy Hall, a twenty-something serving two life sentences for killing her stalker who she met at the Mars Room, a seedy San Francisco strip club where Hall gave lap dances. The narrative is interwoven with other inmates stories. What this reader took away from the novel as a whole was the injustices of the poor. Unable to afford decent attorneys the downtrodden seem to occupy most of the penal real estate in our country. In this author’s deft hands, sentimentality is given only to the tormented and parentless children in the novel. It’s a hard read but so important.
Favorite line(s): People say holidays are depressing in prison. It’s true. It’s because you cannot help but think of the life you once had, or did not have. Holidays are an idea of how life should be.
Porter Wagoner was his foster father’s favorite. Porter Wagoner wore denim jackets with cutaway tails to showcase his fry-pan-sized rodeo buckle. His face was tall and oval-shaped like the canvas opening of a covered wagon. His slack creases could have sliced ham, slacks that were too form-fitting to need any belt, much less a rodeo buckle, and the idea that a dandy like Porter Wagoner had been a winner or even a contestant in any legitimate rodeo was not realistic, but it was part of the culture.
AUDIO-BOOKS: Summer is all about driving back and forth from southeast Michigan to the tip of the pinky finger (if you think of the outline of the state as a mitten). When my playlist gets stale, I turn to audiobooks. Here’s what I “listened” to this summer.
BRAVING THE WILDERNESS by Brene Brown.
I know many women who live by the Brene Brown gospel. She has a strong following and sells out public appearances all over the country. I can see why. Based on her research studies, Brown explores and delivers explanations for the importance of belonging in an age of constant distractions. Its friendly and wise narrative was engaging. I’m usually not a self-help reader, but I enjoyed listening to this one.
GO ASK ALI: HALF BAKED ADVICE (AND FREE LEMONADE) by Ali Wentworth.
Self-deprecating and easy to laugh along with, Wentworth is like all your girlfriends wrapped together in one perfect charade partner. Married to ABC’s Good Morning America’s George Stepenapolous you can’t help but love the subject matter: a quiet and contemplative husband and father, a wife and mother (Ali) bouncing off the walls—and their two daughters and dogs as fodder for these comic vignettes. She’s easy on the ears!
THE LYING GAME by Ruth Ware.
I thought this story would never end…seriously. The audio was wonderfully executed by Imogen Church who did a phenomenal job distinguishing the characters through voice. But the narrative went on and on without really reading like a mystery to me but more like a prolonged gaze as the layers were peeled back on a long-held secret between four friends that really wasn’t surprising in a page-turning kind of way. Ware gets the mother/baby relationship down perfectly, but I got bored with the descriptions of the Tide Mill and wished there was more of the beginning when the main characters were friends at boarding school. The ending, however, was satisfying and unpredictable.
SOMETHING IN THE WATER by Catherine Steadman
The author is young and so multi-talented. Along with the success of this, her debut novel, Steadman is also a British actress on Downton Abbey. Her voice hooked me from the start, like a cold glass of pinot grigio—crisp and smooth going down on a warm summer evening. So what’s it about? A couple on their honeymoon discover a duffle bag of dirty secrets—the something that’s in the water—and proceed to conspire and conceal information from one another. The twists and turns kept this reader engaged, but I figured out where the plot was headed early on in the story. I’m wondering if it would have been a better book without the grave digging scene in the Prologue? Or maybe it was the first chapter with the dead body? I remember one favorite line: “Sometimes you’re the lamppost. Sometimes you’re the dog.” The perfect audible read for a long summer drive.