Monday, May 21, 2018

An American Marriage

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (2018)

I just read Tayari Jones for the first time earlier this year. I had been wanting to read Silver Sparrow for quite a while and finally got around to it, coincidentally, right around the time her newest novel was released. I loved how Jones wrote about her characters and their relationships so I was eager to try An American Marriage. Plus, who wouldn't be enticed by that gorgeous cover?

The marriage is between Celestial and Roy, who have only been married for a short time when Roy is arrested for a crime they both know he didn't commit. He is sentenced to twelve years in prison. While he is gone, Celestial continues building her artistic career making realistic dolls she calls poupées. But the length of his incarceration may be too much on a fledgling marriage, despite how much Roy and Celestial clearly care for each other. Chapters alternate viewpoints between the two characters, joined later by chapters from the perspective of Celestial's long-time friend Andre.

I loved the characters in this book, how realistic and flawed they were and how painful it was to see the strain on their relationship. Worse was the fact that it was so unnecessary, Roy having been falsely accused of this crime. His life had been going so well, and I don't have to explain what a setback prison is to someone just getting started on a career and marriage. Both Celestial and Roy had promising futures and were hoping to start a family and it was incredibly painful to see it all come tumbling down.

Celestial was an independent and strong woman, and Roy appreciated that about her. I remember thinking at one point while reading that none of the men in this book deserved her, but I do have to say that Roy was actually a really good guy. Several times he reflected on his behavior toward Celestial and admitted that he should have acted a different way. He owns up to his mistakes and honestly sets a pretty high bar for himself. Some of this comes through in conversations he has with his biological father, who he coincidentally meets in prison, and some is just through his own thoughts.

Jones's writing is straightforward and conversational, allowing the focus to be on the characters and what is happening rather than the way she is telling it. This makes it so easy to become immersed in the story, which I did as soon as I began and I easily read the whole book in just a few days. If you haven't read this author before I highly recommend giving her a try.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Immortalists

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin (2018)

This book has been super popular for a while now and I haven't even read any of the reviews (which are apparently mixed), but I was very drawn in by the premise. Four young siblings visit a fortune teller who reveals the dates of their deaths, and the novel follows them through their lives. That was all I knew - it's intriguing, but would the story live up to this idea?

The novel begins with a chapter introducing us to the siblings when they were between the ages of 7 and 13. In descending age, they are Varya, Daniel, Klara, and Simon. One of them heard from a friend that a mysterious woman told her family when her grandmother would die, and it gave them all an opportunity to say goodbye to her and be prepared. The kids were intrigued and I think it was Daniel who convinced the others that they needed to visit this woman. They tracked her down and she took them into her apartment one by one and told them what they wanted to know.

The next four sections follow each of the siblings. First, Simon, who leaves home at the age of 16 for San Francisco in 1978 where he becomes a dancer. Then Klara, who follows her passion to be a magician. In the third section we learn that Daniel is a doctor who works for the military. Finally, Varya is a scientist studying longevity. Although they don't discuss their dates and sometimes seem to forget that visit altogether, it becomes clear that the choices they make - and their ultimate fates - are influenced by that information.

Although it's this idea that holds the story together, much of the pleasure is in reading about the lives of the siblings and becoming immersed in their worlds. And they're all so different. Simon's story is of a young man finally free of his family, who finds the gay community in San Francisco and revels it in. He originally goes there with Klara, who is driven to pursue magic, refining her art and finding a partner in life and business in a man named Raj. She struggles between her artistic vision and the kind of performance that will earn them a living. Daniel was most elusive character to me. We meet adult Daniel when he has been suspended from his job. He evaluates people going into the military to determine whether or not they are fit to serve. He does his job honestly, but it's clear his superiors want as many people approved to serve as possible. This event, combined with a visit from someone investigating the death of one of his siblings, sets him off in a downward spiral. Throughout most of the book we don't hear a lot about Varya; but it is her story that I think will stick with me. She works in a lab performing longevity experiments on monkeys, but it is clear she is also trying to control every little variable in her own life too. She's obsessed with cleanliness and order to an unhealthy degree, and holds secrets she has kept buried for quite a long time.

You could be the kind of person who believes in fate and read this book and think, yes, the woman was right. The dates of their deaths were predetermined. Or you could be a skeptic and think that they made sure - consciously or unconsciously - that they'd die on the dates they held in their heads. It really gives one a lot to think about.

(Side note: I love the cover. If I'm going to be honest, that was part of what made me want to read it.)

In the end, it absolutely lived up to my expectations. I think it would be great to discuss with a book group too, because you can really spend a lot of time going in circles about destiny and causation and how much control you really have over the trajectory of your life. Fascinating.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Wedding Date

The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory (2018), narrated by Janina Edwards

Drew Nichols is in town for his ex-girlfriend's wedding, and his date has cancelled, leaving him to attend alone. But then he gets stuck in an elevator with a stranger, Alexa Monroe, who agrees to pose as his fake girlfriend for the weekend. They have a great time together, after which they both return to their normal lives - his as a pediatric surgeon, and hers as chief of staff to the mayor of Berkley. The weekend stays with them though, and soon they're traveling back and forth most weekends to see each other. But is it just a bit of fun, or something more?

Drew is not the boyfriend type. In fact, he almost always breaks off relationships just when they're getting good. Unfortunately for him, Alexa learns this from some of his exes and tries to preemptively get out of the relationship (is it even a relationship?) before she gets hurt. This is the main point of tension in the story: Drew's reputation as a commitment-phobe vs. their need to be together. There are other, more minor, tensions as well. Alexa is black and Drew is white, and it takes him a bit to realize she would really like to know if she's going to be the only black person at events they attend together. (Oh, not to mention some of the stupid things some of his white acquaintances say to her!) Plus Drew doesn't understand the importance of the youth-at-risk program Alexa is trying to get started because he doesn't realize that some kids really have more privilege than others based on circumstances entirely beyond their control, like race. He's also a terrible communicator. To be honest, he's kind of a jerk? I mean, he's a bit insensitive and more than a bit oblivious.

He's basically a good guy though, and he makes Alexa happy. I do think she's too good for him, but that didn't detract from my enjoyment of their story. And I found their relationship believable. Their problems weren't based on ridiculous neuroses but realistic problems like poor communication and not knowing what each other actually wants out of the relationship.

I liked the arc of their relationship, but one of my favorite things about the story was all the food Drew and Alexa consumed together. Crackers and cheese, tacos, burritos, doughnuts. So many meals and snacks! I always love female characters who have actual appetites like real people and Alexa did not let me down. She didn't try to make herself fit what she thought Drew would like - make no mistake, she was very aware of his type and that she didn't seem to fit, aware of every spare bit of flesh on her body, but that didn't stop her from eating a big dinner.

All in all, it was fun, entertaining, and satisfying. I was invested in Drew and Alexa, their careers, their friendships, and of course their relationship. I listened to the audio version, narrated by Janina Edwards, who did a great job. I've never listened to her before, but I would again. Speaking of which, there is apparently a sequel to this book which stars Drew's friend Carlos, a minor but very endearing character in The Wedding Date. It's not out until fall of 2018 by which time I will have forgotten that it exists and will get excited about it all over again.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Pro

Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights by Katha Pollitt (2014)

A former coworker, with whom I enjoyed many feminist rants, recommended this book to me a couple of years ago and I put it on my list. Recently I was inspired to finally pick it up after reading a novel in which a character has an abortion, and starting the second season of The Handmaid's Tale.

I've always been pro-choice, from the time I learned that abortion was a thing that existed and that some people thought it shouldn't be allowed. In my case, my position has a lot to do with the fact that I've never been interested in having children (again, from the moment I learned about pregnancy and childbirth I wanted nothing to do with it.) But I know many women who do have children and are still pro-choice and, as Pollitt points out in her book, the majority of women who have abortions already have children.

Pollitt is preaching to the choir, but she lays out her reasoning for maintaining legalized abortion in a way that it would be hard to argue with. (Obviously people will try to, but they won't win on logic.) One of the reasons I no longer engage in debate on this topic is that anti-choice people believe that abortion is murder. I do not. And I don't see any way to get past that fundamental difference. However, Pollitt shows that people who claim to think abortion is murder usually feel that you can make an exception in the case of rape or incest. In which case....it's not murder? You're still removing the embryo that could have grown into a baby, right? But as Pollitt shows, the issue is not so much that people think abortion is murder, but that they think it should be allowed only in circumstances in which they approve. From here, she easily builds her case that it is not about the embryo at all but about controlling women. I've always kind of thought that, but never considered it as comprehensively as she does here.

For instance, middle-class mothers have been pressured to stay home with their children, and shamed for placing importance on their careers and putting their kids in daycare. Meanwhile, poor mothers - many of whom, not coincidentally, are women of color - were under the opposite sort of pressure, being criticized for being on welfare and at home with their kids and expected instead to go to work and spend most of their meager paycheck on child care. This kind of hypocrisy is highlighted again and again throughout the book.

She touches on a lot of issues - women's sexuality, poverty, race - and makes thorough and well-crafted arguments. Ultimately, she wants pro-choice people to stop making excuses. Stop coming up with worst-case scenario situations to justify why abortion needs to remain legal, stop defending Planned Parenthood based on the other services they provide, and just come out and say that we should trust women to make decisions about their own bodies, in any situation.

This book isn't going to sway the minds of the most stalwart anti-choicers, but those are a very small percentage of the population. (Chapter 2: "What Do Americans Think About Abortion?" goes into the numbers in great detail.) It could, however, convince those who approve in some situations but not others that it's ok to get off their high horse and put some trust in responsible adults to make their own decisions. For the rest of us, she's connected the dots and solidifying arguments that could come in quite usefully the next time we decide to open a conversation about abortion, and getting us fired up about protecting our rights.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Little Fires Everywhere

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (2017)

This book has been incredibly popular since even before it came out last fall. The description didn't really grab me - a bunch of people in a snooty suburb and a controversy involving a white couple adopting a Chinese-American baby. Meh. Not having read Celeste Ng before, I wasn't sure what the great appeal of this book was, but I impulsively decided to put myself on the hold list to find out.

It is indeed about lots of white people in a suburb, and not just any suburb. Shaker Heights is a planned community with extremely strict rules. There are only 3 styles of houses, and there are laws about what colors can be used to paint each style of house. Trash is not brought to the curb where it looks unsightly, but left behind the house to be collected by people on scooters. (Although this is a work of fiction, I don't think Ng made this stuff up. She's lived in this community.) In other words, this community places a very high value on appearance.

The story opens with the Richardson family standing outside what used to be their house, but which is now a burned-out shell. They all seem to know that Izzy, the youngest of the Richardson family, is responsible. It's quite an opener. It then goes back to the beginning of the story, when a single mother and her daughter move into a rental house owned by the Richardsons. Teenage Pearl befriends Moody Richardson, while her mother Mia starts working for the family. At this point, very little happens for quite a while. As much as I liked getting to know these characters, I started getting bored. However, once the real action starts, it's easy to see how important all that setup was.

A couple who is friends with the Richardsons are in the process of adopting a baby who had been abandoned, and who they've been caring for now for several months. They've been desperate for a child for years, and it seems that finally their dreams have come true. But then, it seems less sure that the adoption will go through because of something that I won't go into in detail. Mia is involved, and the Richardsons are involved, and everyone who isn't directly involved has an opinion, often a pretty strong one. There are several plotlines that involved pregnancy, birth, and motherhood, and the different choices that women make. Ng doesn't judge anyone - rather she reveals the complexities involved in all the situations.

There were also a lot of class issues, both in the story of the pending adoption and in the relationship between the Richardsons and Mia and Pearl. I disliked Elena Richardson, the mother of the family, who was apparently pretty progressive as a young person, but now that she lives a conventional and comfortable life, seems to think it's the only way to live. She also seems to think that she and her family and their ilk are better than people in other socioeconomic spheres. (Spoiler: they're not.) Her kids, though, were mostly better people than she was, though to some extent they were also products of the environment in which they were raised. I liked Mia and Pearl a lot. Mia was an artist who initially was supporting herself by working as a waitress until Elena insisted she come work for the Richardsons. Then, of course, Elena expected incredible gratitude and loyalty from her, because in her world social relationships contain a complex system of debt and payment. Ugh.

When all is said and done, I was very satisfied with the book. The characters and the plot were well-crafted, and it leaves the reader with a lot to think about. Just reading Ng's writing is quite a pleasure. This would be a great pick for a book group - there's so much to talk about!

Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Lottery and Other Stories

The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson (1949)

Although I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle and the short story "The Lottery" when I was a teenager, it is only recently that I've become somewhat of a die-hard Shirley Jackson fan. I even read a biography about her a couple of years ago. So this year I decided to revisit "The Lottery" and read some of her other short stories as well.

The stories are divided into four sections. In the first section, most of the stories are about someone taking liberties in someone else's home. For instance, in "Like Mother Used To Make," a meticulous man has prepared dinner to share with his neighbor, and while they're eating someone enters their building to visit his neighbor. She ushers him into the apartment, inviting him to join them, and then pretends as though it's her own apartment and she has cooked the meal. The man who actually lives there, is left to go to his neighbor's messy, disordered apartment and stay there until her friend leaves and he can return to his place.

The second part seems to be about propriety and convention, and the way people in communities judge each other and their behavior. A couple of them were about race and I'm sorry to say that things haven't changed as much as they should have between the present day and time in which the stories were written. "After You, My Dear Alphonse" begins with a woman's young son bringing a friend home for lunch. The friend is black, and the woman keeps making assumptions about him and his family. She asks questions and seems surprised at the answers, like when she learns that his mother doesn't have a job. Her own son points out that she herself doesn't have a job, so why would Boyd's mother? She then assumes that he has lots of brothers and sisters. It culminates with the woman trying to give the boy some of their old clothes, and when he says that they have plenty of clothes, she gets angry and points out that "many little boys like you" would be grateful for the offer.

The theme of the third section is less clear to me, but the stories contain disorientation or unease or minor slights against others. I can't pick a favorite from this section, but I think I was most struck by "Seven Types of Ambiguity," in which a couple visits a bookstore hoping to buy large quantities of books, sets of books, presumably more for decorating than reading. While they're there, a boy comes in to spend time reading a book that he comes in for every day but hasn't been able to buy. Before they leave, the couple add that book to their purchase.

The final section ends with "The Lottery," but also contains several other stories about fear or being trapped. (Honestly, it's an interesting but difficult exercise to look at groups of stories and try to coax out the common thread.) In "Pillar of Salt" a young woman looks forward to vacation in New York with her husband and enjoys it for a while, until they find a disembodied leg. The incident casts a pall over everything, and the woman comes a bit unmoored, suddenly afraid of everything around her until one day she can't even manage to cross the street by herself and ends up calling her husband to come get her. Now that I think of it, the stories in this section all start out with a fairly everyday vibe and then take an unexpectedly dark turn.

"The Lottery" is the story Jackson is undoubtedly most famous for, but stands out from the other stories in the book in that it takes place in a kind of dystopian village and the others are more firmly rooted in our own society. But some of the themes are the same - societal norms, traditions, the expectation to conform. Don't go into this book thinking the stories will all be like this one, but there are definitely some common threads. There were only a couple of stories in the collection that left me feeling like I had no idea what they were getting at, and I imagine that's my own shortcoming, not Jackson's. Mostly, I found a lot to think about, particular in the ways our culture has changed, and how it has stayed the same, since Jackson's time. I'm very glad to have finally read this collection.

This book is part of my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge. It's actually one of my alternates, though now I don't know why it wasn't on my main list. It also feels like I shouldn't be reading my alternates before I've even tried reading all of my regular list, but this is just what I felt like reading at the time. Plus, somehow I managed to put a lot of long books on the list, and I wanted something shorter to read. At any rate, the challenge is going very well so far. Check the page I linked to above to see my whole list, and links to posts about the books I've read so far.

Friday, April 27, 2018

All the Beautiful Lies

All the Beautiful Lies by Peter Swanson (2018)

Just days before his college graduation, Harry Ackerman learns that his father has died. He returns home to Maine, to his stepmother Alice, where he learns that his fathers death may not have been an accident. A mysterious young woman attends his father's funeral, and Harry befriends her because he's convinced there's a connection. Meanwhile, his relationship with Alice is a bit awkward as Harry tries to dampen the attraction he's always had to her. As the story progresses, chapters alternate between the current time and Alice's youth, until the full story is revealed.

In true Swanson fashion, the twists and turns the story takes are often surprising and in that way it lives up to his other books that I've read, The Kind Worth Killing and Her Every Fear. I think I was less shocked at some of the reveals this time, but that's likely because I'm familiar with Swanson's work and I know by now to expected the unexpected. I had a lot of fun guessing what was going on.

Unlike with his other books, I got mightily creeped out for a while here. I tend to read before bed and I had some strange dreams, and once I even had to stop myself and put the book down for the night because I saw where it was going and I wasn't ready to experience it just before sleeping. I could barely put the book down, but was also motivated to finish it quickly so I wouldn't have many sleeps while reading it. Once I got past a few of the parts around the middle of the book, I was less affected by the rest. But of course I kept plowing through it because it was good and I needed to find out the truth!

Aspects of this story will likely turn off some readers who are easily icked out by certain taboo relationships, and there were moments where I wondered at some of the coincidences. But ultimately it didn't much matter and the story was completely engrossing. I think I liked his other two books more, but just by a hair. I can't imagine why Swanson isn't more popular. There was a waiting list at the library when it came out, but it was modest. I know crime is popular and in my opinion Swanson's books surpass - or are at least equal too - those by popular authors like Ruth Ware and Gillian Flynn. If you like crime novels, Peter Swanson is a must-read.