Friday, October 30, 2015

book review: The Midwife's Daughter by Patricia Ferguson

The backstory: The sequel to The Midwife's Daughter, Aren't We Sisters? was longlisted for the 2015 Baileys Prize, but I wanted to read this one first.

The basics: The Midwife's Daughter is the story of Violet Diamond, a midwife in pre-World War I England. When she visits the orphange her twin sister works at and spots a young orphan who bears a striking resemblance to her dead daughter, Violet adopts the girl and names her Grace. The key difference, as the cover indicates, is that Grace is black.

My thoughts: The Midwife's Daughter is a lovely piece of historical fiction. It is a character driven story featuring fully formed people, but it's also a fascinating insight into midwifery at a critical point in its history, as the advances in medicine are making fewer use midwives. As World War I looms, there is even more uncertainty for these characters and their lives.

Ferguson tackles a lot of themes in this novel. She is a trained nurse and midwife, and that expertise is felt in the story. The issues of race are interesting too. Ferguson shows many different experiences Grace faces over time and in different places.

The verdict: The Midwife's Daughter is an engaging historical novel. Despite the title, I found myself slightly more invested in Violet than Grace. Their relationship was fascinating, but Violet is the one I wanted to spend more time with. Still, I read this novel quickly, learned quite a bit about midwifery in England at the time, and I enjoyed the time I spent with these characters.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 390 pages
Publication date: October 30, 2012 
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Midwife's Daughter from Amazon (no Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Patricia Ferguson's website.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

book reviews: Ms. Marvel Vols. 2 & 3 by G. Willow Wilson

After enjoying the first volume of Ms. Marvel: No Normal, I was eager to continue with the series.

Ms. Marvel Vol. 2: Generation Why
If  the first volume had a weakness, it was a necessary one: Wilson had a world to build. Generation Why is able to pick right up where the action left off, and it covers a lot of ground. These collections feature several issues of the comics bound together. As someone who has never read traditional comics, I find the pacing interesting. Many of the issues end of cliffhangers, as the first volume did, but I was pleased this collection's ending felt like a satisfying end for a volume that's part of a continuing series.

Readers familiar with comics will find many familiar faces (I confirmed some with Mr. Nomadreader), but as relative Marvel neophyte, I never felt lost. Wilson manages to write for new and old fans simultaneously. Wilson also packs a lot of action into this volume. Thankfully, there is also a lot of character development. I enjoyed this one immensely.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Source: library


Ms. Marvel Vol. 3: Crushed
Crushed collects several volumes of Ms. Marvel as well as one volume of S.H.I.E.L.D. featuring Ms. Marvel. I was skeptical about the inclusion of something besides Ms. Marvel, but I found myself loving its inclusion (it comes last) and seeking out the first volume of its collection. (Does this make me a comics nerd?)

This volume begins with a Valentine's Dance. I appreciated the emphasis of distinguishing between Kamala and Ms. Marvel, particularly in terms of the rules Kamala's parents have for her. What could seem juvenile doesn't.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Source: library

Convinced? Start with Ms. Marvel Vol. 1: No Normal. Buy it from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

book review: How It All Began by Penelope Lively

The basics:  "When Charlotte Rainsford, a retired schoolteacher, is accosted by a petty thief on a London street, the consequences ripple across the lives of acquaintances and strangers alike." -publisher

My thoughts: I find myself drawn to novels that address the unlikely connections between people, so the premise of How It All Began appealed to me immensely. Lively uses the premise to trace connections of various levels that all begin with a mugging. As each new character was introduced, I was fascinated to guess the connections. Promising as this premise was, I didn't find all of the characters particularly interesting. And even the interesting ones got bogged down in odd subplots at times.

Despite my questioning of some of Lively's storytelling choices, her observational prose frequently took my breath away:
"Time was, long ago, pain occasionally struck--toothache, ear infection, cricked neck--and one made a great fuss, affronted. For years now, pain has been a constant companion, cozily there in bed with one in the morning, keeping pace all day, coyly retreating perhaps for a while only to come romping back: here I am, remember me? Ah, old age. The twilight years--that delicate phrase. Twilight my foot--roaring dawn of a new life, more like, the one you didn't know about. We all avert our eyes, and then--wham! you're in there too, wondering how the hell this can have happened, and maybe it is an early circle of hell and here come the gleeful devils with their pitchforks, stabbing and prodding.
Except that life goes on in parallel--real life, good life with all its gifts and graces. My species tulips out and blue tits on the bird feeder and a new book to look forward to this evening and Rose ringing up and a new David Attenborough wild life program on the telly. And the new baby of Jennifer next door. A baby always lifts the spirits." 
As I looked back over my favorite passages to write this review, I realized all are from Charlotte's point of view. This realization makes sense, as in retrospect, Charlotte was the most interesting character. Her insights into old age moved me, and her narrative never lost its way.

Favorite passage: "She’s odd these days--some Rose I don’t know has surfaced. But who knows their own child? You know bits--certain predictable reactions, a handful of familiar qualities. The rest is impenetrable. And quite right too. You give birth to them. You do not design them."

The verdict: Despite a strong premise and often exquisite writing, How It All Began wasn't executed well enough to make this a great read. It felt like an idea book, but it was executed as a character book. I just never felt as though any of the people other than Charlotte were real, so the conveniences of the story felt trite instead of clever. Still, Lively's observations on aging and her prose make this one worth reading.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 240 pages
Publication date: January 5, 2012
Source: purchased (at Parnassus Books!)

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy How It All Began from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Penelope Lively's website.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

audiobook review: Primates of Park Avenue by Wednesday Martin

narrated by Madeleine Maby

The basics: Wednesday Martin is an anthropologist, originally from Michigan, who moves from the West Village of New York City to the Upper East Side and turns her anthropological training on Upper East Side mommies.

My thoughts: Since having a baby, I find myself drawn to narratives I might not have been before. I'm fascinated by how people raise their children, in this country, throughout different times in history, and around the world. (See also: How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm, How Not to Calm a Child on a Plane and Bringing Up Bebe.) As a mom, I find myself remarking, "these people are crazy!" as often as I do "I can't believe I think this is normal now!" So much of parenthood seems to be finding people with whom you agree and finding people whose choices make you feel better about your own. To that end, Primates of Park Avenue is both.

It's entertaining,  at times alarming, and informative. A few chapters dragged a bit for me (most notably the Birkin chapter, which felt overly long and dull, but I'm not one drawn in by fashion or purses.) There are things I could relate to in it, even as raising a single child in Des Moines is so different from raising children in Manhattan. But there are also plenty of outrageous rich people stuff to make me feel superior at times. In many ways, this book reminds me of why I so loved several of the Real Housewives franchises for many years: rich people doing crazy things they think are normal and finding the shared humanity in unlikely places.

There's also enough anthropology of both primates and other cultures to make me feel smarter about raising children in different cultures. I learned things about other cultures and creatures, I was able to gawk at rich New Yorkers, and I was able to find some common ground with both.

The verdict: I was surprised not only by how much I enjoyed Primates of Park Avenue but also by how much I learned from it. I was entertained and enlightened, and Maby's audio performance made me feel like I was gossiping with an old friend over wine.

The controversy: Shortly after I finished this book, The New York Post fact-checked it and found some inaccuracies. Some of the inaccuracies bother me more than others. While I still quite enjoyed the book, some of these inaccuracies are so completely unnecessary, I find myself baffled by Martin's motivations.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 8 hours 9 minutes (256 pages)
Publication date: June 2, 2015
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Primates of Park Avenue from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Wednesday Martin's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Monday, October 26, 2015

book review: Women by Chloe Caldwell

The basics:  "Women is a novella about falling in love with a woman, about loving women, about being a woman. It is a novella about a mother and a daughter. A novella about female friendships that blur the line of romance. A novella about a woman who, after having her first sexual relationship with a woman, goes on a series of (comical) OK Cupid dates with other women. A novella about a woman in her twenties who doesn't know if she's gay or straight or bi. A novella about falling in love and having your heart broken and figuring out what to do next. The book is an urgent recall of heartbreak, of a stark identity in crisis."--publisher

My thoughts: Despite many people assuring me I couldn't possibly read as much once I had a baby (I hit 100 books for the year last week), I still read a lot. I read differently. I listen to more audiobooks than I used to. And I read in short spurts, with the exception of weekend naps. Despite still carving out a lot of time for reading, I find I miss one-sitting books. There's something magical about sitting down to read a book and finishing it before you get up again. So when I decided to read Women, I strategized. I wanted to read it one sitting. I picked a night when Mr. Nomadreader was working, and after I put Hawthorne to bed, I sat down with a glass of wine and this novella. An hour later, I paused because I didn't want it to end. This book had different ideas for me.

I put off writing this review for months. Sometimes when I love a book so much, I find I have little coherent to say about it. This novella made me feel like I was falling in love with a writer and a character. I confess to always being fascinated by what's 'true' and what's not, but in Women, I didn't really care. If Caldwell was writing about her own experiences or fictional experiences, it didn't matter. The emotions and actions on the page were so real, I felt comforted. This is a novella that made me feel like I wasn't alone in the world.

Favorite passage:  "There is so much out there I don't know, never knew, have to learn, will never understand."

The verdict: Women is a bold, honest, raw novella. It's ostensibly the story of one young woman and her experiences, but there's a universality to Caldwell's prose I could not shake. Women changed me. It connected me to this fictional character in a beautiful way.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 144 pages
Publication date: October 15, 2014
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Women from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Chloe Caldwell's website and follow her on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Saturday, October 24, 2015

page to stage: Bad Jews by Joshua Harmon

The backstory: After taking a few years off, Mr. Nomadreader and I have resubscribed to season tickets for StageWest, a local "bold, cutting-edge, contemporary theater." This year I had the brilliant idea to read each of the plays before seeing them. The first play of the season was Bad Jews.  I promptly got the play from the library, went on vacation for a week and a half, came home to remember our tickets were for the next day, and managed to pick it up to read only after seeing the play.

The basics: Bad Jews take place in a studio apartment in New York City after a funeral. Its four characters are brothers Liam and Jonah, their cousin Daphna, and Liam's girlfriend Melody.

My thoughts: Over the years, I've realized I appreciate plays (and films and television shows) with a writer's dialogue. Meaning: I'm okay with art being more eloquent and faster paced than those people would actually speak in life. Bad Jews has this dialogue throughout. At times the pace seems relentless--there are so many ideas and emotions flying that as I watched the play, I found myself wishing for a pause button. Later, as I read the play, I was able to pause, but I found that such a reading took me out of the moment's emotion.

My favorite character in the performance was Daphna. I guessed she wasn't supposed to be likable, but I found her enchanting. She is the perfect representation of a 22-year-old college senior who thinks she's completely comfortable embracing her identity. When I read the play, I wasn't as drawn to the character, so clearly Rachel Salowitz's performance was even better than I originally realized.

The play is smart and funny, but it's also laced with personal digs that will make you wince. Cousins can fight hard, and here they do. At issue: who will inherit the grandfather's chai, an artifact whose full import isn't initially known. Surrounding this debate are so many questions about what it means to be Jewish, both religiously and by identity. Harmon also infuses discussions of class, politics and family. There's a lot going on, but it never feels like too much.

The verdict: Having seen the play before I read it, I found I enjoyed the performance more. Perhaps if I read it first, as I intended, that wouldn't be the case. In this case, it's the performance that will stay with me, but the words of Harmon made me think and made me feel. I'll keep contemplating the play's themes for quite some time.

Rating: 4 out of 5 (performance: 4.5 out of 5)
Length: 66 pages
Publication date: January 5, 2015
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Bad Jews from Amazon. Want more? Check out this video of the StageWest cast discussing the play and rehearsing.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Friday, October 23, 2015

book review: Every Fifteen Minutes by Lisa Scottoline

The backstory: Every Fifteen Minutes, a stand-alone thriller from the prolific Lisa Scottoline, was one of my book club picks this fall.

The basics:  "Dr. Eric Parrish is the Chief of the Psychiatric Unit at Havemeyer General Hospital outside of Philadelphia. Recently separated from his wife Alice, he is doing his best as a single Dad to his seven-year-old daughter Hannah. His work seems to be going better than his home life, however. His unit at the hospital has just been named number two in the country and Eric has a devoted staff of doctors and nurses who are as caring as Eric is. But when he takes on a new patient, Eric's entire world begins to crumble."

My thoughts: From the description, Eric sounds like a smart, admirable person, right? Unfortunately, both at work and at home, his actions fail to show intelligence. This disconnect was incredibly distracting and made me lose faith in the narrative very early on. I can tolerate a frustratingly stupid narrator given an appropriate reason (i.e. age, trauma, psychoses), but as I read I could not understand how this man made it through medical school let alone is successfully running the number two psychiatry ward in the country.

There aren't a lot of characters in this novel, and there is the obvious straw person character we are supposed to believe is the bad guy. Except if you ever read mysteries, you read thinking the obvious person is not the actual perpetrator. Given that there aren't a lot of options left, the twists were pretty easy to deduce, and they weren't particularly interesting.

Reading this book was a slog for me. There was only one character I liked, Eric's lawyer. He appears far too late in the book to be a main character, but it was incredibly satisfying to see him say to Eric many of things I was thinking. The only other thing I enjoyed in this novel was the insight into psychiatry and its treatment. With a different cast of characters and agenda, that would have been a fascinating set-up for the book.

Favorite passage:  "There was so much mental illness among the criminal population, and so much mental illness being criminalized, that it was impossible to see where one problem ended and the other began."

The verdict: I found this book overly long, the main character both unbelievable and annoying, the plot twists obvious and rather dull. It was a quick read, despite its length, and I finished in a day. For what its' worth, the rest of my book club enjoyed it, despite disliking Eric. So perhaps I was just feeling especially curmudgeonly that day.

Rating: 2 out of 5
Length: 448 pages
Publication date: April 14, 2015
Source: library

Curious? Try it for yourself! Buy Every Fifteen Minutes from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

book review: Snowden by Ted Rall

The basics: Snowden is a graphic biography of Edward Snowden. Rall traces his life from birth to both understand why he chose to become a whistle blower and to shed light on what our government knows about us and how.

My thoughts: I thought I had followed the story of Edward Snowden pretty carefully, but I find both him and his actions, as well as the repercussions, fascinating. I wasn't sure how much I would learn from Snowden, but I actually learned quite a lot. This book is a nice reminder that following something in real time is quite different from taking a step back, understanding the layers of context, and trying to see the bigger picture. Snowden provides that big picture beautifully, but it's also a gripping tale that reads like fiction.

I didn't expect Snowden to be such a page-turner, but I was instantly hooked. Rall chooses his words carefully, and he uses art to powerfully tell this story. The absence of words makes those that appear more powerful, and my eye would linger on single sentences. More than once, I found myself saying "really?!" out loud. More than once I was wowed, and I found myself stopping to ponder before picking the book up again. I still managed to read it in a day, and I'm so glad I did.

The verdict: Snowden is both informative and thought provoking. It offers keen insights into Snowden, both personally and professionally. It's also raises powerful ideas about what government should look like. This book will entertain you and make you think, which is a perfect combination.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 224 pages
Publication date: August 25, 2015
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Snowden from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Ted Rall's website, like him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

book review: The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff

The backstory: After loving both of Lauren Groff's other novels, Arcadia and Fates and Furies, I finally made time to read her debut novel, which was a finalist for the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers.

The basics: Willie Upton, a direct descendant of the founding family of Templeton, New York (based on Cooperstown, New York, where Groff grew up), returns home after having an affair with her married archaeology professor while on a digging trip. She's surprised to find her hippie mother, Vi, has become a conservative Christian. She's even more surprised to learn her mother has lied to her about her father's identity all her life, so she puts her academic research skills to the test to figure out his identity.

My thoughts: I spent a magical summer in Cooperstown, New York in 2009 when I interned at the Baseball Hall of Fame's Research Library. The town remains one of my favorite places in the world, and while visiting for an all-intern reunion earlier this month, I finally started The Monsters of Templeton. To read the first half while overlooking Lake Otsega was a magical experience:
The view from the Adirondack chairs in front of my
room at the Lake Front Motel.

One view from the Glimmerglass Queen boat tour
of Lake Otesaga (a.k.a Glimmerglass Lake)
This novel has so many things I love in it: Cooperstown, family history, research, and an smart, imperfect, and independent female narrator. It also had one thing I don't typically love: magical realism. But it works here. It feels authentic to the story rather than a convenient trope. By the end of this novel, it proves to be essential and had me questioning if it was magical realism at all.

I loved this novel. To see Cooperstown through the eyes of a native was fascinating. To read Groff's first novel after reading her two newer novels was also a fascinating experience. But all of that is almost a disservice to a novel extraordinary enough to stand on its own.

Favorite passage:  "I knew, even then, what I couldn’t admit that I had known: that now that I could lay claim to more predecessors, to more history, it wouldn’t vastly change the course of my future. Because before a little humanoid came striding across the Bering Strait, and died and left a tiny smidgen of his existence in the tundra to be dug up by people in the unimaginable future, there had probably been a good number of humanoids before him who had also stridden over those same ancient rocks. Because, even though I now had a father, he brought with him such thicknesses of ancestors that it would be impossible to dig and understand them all, and they would be stamped only in the DNA of whatever future children I could have. It was too much. It was impossible to understand it all. And yet, we cling to these things. We pretend to be able to understand. We need the idea of the first humanoid in North America though we will never find him; we need a mass of ancestors at our backs as ballast. Sometimes, we feel it’s impossible to push into the future without such a weight behind us, without such heaviness to keep us steady, even if it is imaginary. And the more frightening the future is, the more complicated it seems to be, the more we steady ourselves with the past. I looked at my father, Sol Falconer, and felt an impossible relief. It didn’t matter, not really, that I had him at last. It didn’t matter, and yet, in my illogical, unfathomable heart, it did. I was glad to have his real, breathing self on that long road behind me. I was glad to know he was there."

The verdict: Part of what drew  me to The Monsters of Templeton was Groff's portrayal of Cooperstown. To read part of this novel there was a special experience, and I felt as though I carried a bit more of Cooperstown with me as I read from afar. But this novel is so much more than an ode to one of my favorite towns. It's a powerful exploration of family and history. It's a beautiful character study. It uses a fictional version of a real place, along with a large cast of fictional characters, to speak large truths about how we shape our identity through history.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 384 pages
Publication date: February 5, 2008
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Monsters of Templeton from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Lauren Groff's websitelike her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

audiobook review: An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

narrated by Robin Miles

The backstory: An Untamed State is a 2015 finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and was on the 2014 First Novel Prize longlist.

The basics:  "Mireille Duval Jameson is living a fairy tale. The strong-willed youngest daughter of one of Haiti’s richest sons, she has an adoring husband, a precocious infant son, by all appearances a perfect life. The fairy tale ends one day when Mireille is kidnapped in broad daylight by a gang of heavily armed men, in front of her father’s Port au Prince estate. Held captive by a man who calls himself The Commander, Mireille waits for her father to pay her ransom. As it becomes clear her father intends to resist the kidnappers, Mireille must endure the torments of a man who resents everything she represents." (publisher)

My thoughts: I knew going into this novel that it was about a kidnapping, yet I did not expect the opening scene to be the kidnapping. The initial pace of this novel left me breathless in the best way. Gay is an ambitious storyteller. Again and again, she pushes the reader to the brink. As I listened, I found myself wondering, "how much more can I take?" as Mireille endured physical, psychological, and emotional pain. Blessedly, Gay gives her readers the break Mireille cannot have. During the thirteen days of Mireille's captivity, Gay breaks up the present with glimpses into Mireille's past, including the early days of her relationship with her husband. For a novel that at times seems unrelentingly grim, there are beautiful moments of hope, joy and anticipation. That Gay can balance these two is impressive. The reader has another advantage of Mireille: we know from very early on that her captivity will last only thirteen days. By infusing a specific end point, along with the seed that Mireille will find a way out, Gay keeps this story from being

Audio thoughts: Robin Miles is an experienced narrator. I appreciated the accents she gave to the Haitian characters. Initially, her narration took some getting used to, as at times she has an affectation that can be distracting. Yet as the novel continued, and as Mireille encountered horrors, Miles' performance grew on me. She was unflinching, and listening to this book meant I couldn't escape. She also infused a beautiful combination of strength and weakness into her characters. She excels at capturing emotion. Ultimately, I'm glad I opted to listen to this book.

Favorite passage:  "A different accident of birth could put you in my place."

The verdict: An Untamed State is a beautiful, confident, and haunting novel. It has a thrilling plot that reads like a mystery. It has beautifully formed, flawed, characters. It offers nuanced insight into Haiti. By telling a story about one person and one family, Gay sheds light on many larger themes that resonated deeply with me.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 
Length: 11 hours 35 minutes (368 pages) 
Publication date: May 6, 2014
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy An Untamed State from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Roxane Gay's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Monday, October 19, 2015

book review: Mislaid by Nell Zink

The backstory: Mislaid, Nell Zink's second novel, was on the 2015 National Book Award longlist. I previously enjoyed her first novel, The Wallcreeper.

The basics:  "Stillwater College in Virginia, 1966: Freshman Peggy, an ingĂ©nue with literary pretensions, falls under the spell of Lee, a blue-blooded poet and professor, and they begin an ill-advised affair that results in an unplanned pregnancy and marriage. The couple are mismatched from the start—she’s a lesbian, he’s gay—but it takes a decade of emotional erosion before Peggy runs off with their three-year-old daughter, leaving their nine-year-old son behind." (from the publisher)

My thoughts: That description sets up the novel well, but it's somewhat impossible to discuss the novel without giving away a bit more plot than I normally. But Mislaid is not a novel one reads for the plot. Once Peggy takes her daughter, they begin living under assumed identities. She dresses like a man, and she procures the birth certificate of a dead black girl slightly older than her daughter. She figures it's the perfect way to stay in hiding: no one will find them if they're black. This premise is wickedly clever and allows Zink to explore race and ask big questions. What does it mean to be black? For Karen, it becomes all she's ever known. Her conception of race is shaped by the way she's treated.

Obviously, these issues of race, gender, and sexuality are serious, and Zink manages to make this novel a black comedy:
“I’m blond,” Karen objected. “There’s no blond race,” the clerk corrected her. “But it don’t matter. All God’s children attend the very same school. We like to know who’s black so we can help them out with affirmative action and a free hot lunch.”
Except sometimes it isn't. As a novel and a concept, it's extraordinarily clever. At one point I referred to it as wickedly divine and thought it should be mandatory reading for everyone living in the United States. Yet as the novel wore on, it lost steam. Zink's writing continued to shine, but the characters, who always struck me as a means to tell this bold story rather than as authentic people, seemed to try to be real people. It was oddly unsatisfying and quite boring. How, I pondered, could a novel about this topic possibly be dull? As a vehicle for Zink to make points about race and sexuality, it succeeds, both humorously and seriously:
“It’s like people used to just get it on, but modern science started sorting us into categories. So you get assigned this identity, like ‘straight woman,’ meaning woman who likes men. Except ninety-nine guys out of a hundred, if they touched you, you’d scream."
Yet when it tries to be more, I found myself not wanting to be on the ride. None of the characters were real to me, and I didn't want them to be. I didn't care what happened to them. Instead, I cared how Zink used them to make me think and make me laugh at preposterous, but serious, things.

Favorite passage:  "To be perfect (adorably wee and blond) yet marked for failure (black and dressed in rags)—don’t we all know that feeling? The principal, who had voted for George Wallace for president, couldn’t watch her bounce away across the schoolyard without musing that a petite female with a white body and a black soul might in ten or twelve years’ time be a sort of dream come true, assuming she moved away to the city and pursued a career in show business, broadly defined."

The verdict: Mislaid is at times brilliant, both in story and writing. Unfortunately, at times it is also downright dull, which is problematic, both for such a slim book and for one that relies on dark comedy. It's certainly worth reading, as there is much to discuss and also to pick apart. This novel will stay with me. I'll continue to mention it in conversation. I'll continue to wrestle with its themes. And I'll continue to recommend it. I just wish it all were as strong as the first half. As Ron Charles so succinctly says in his review, "Her comic sense is stronger than her narrative sense, which makes the book as a whole less satisfying than the outtakes and drive-by cultural hits."

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 256 pages 
Publication date: May 19, 2015
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Mislaid from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Follow Nell Zink on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

audiobook review: Not My Father's Son by Alan Cumming

narrated by Alan Cumming

The basics: Not My Father's Son is actor Alan Cumming's memoir of his childhood and his experience learning about his family's history on the genealogy reality television show Who Do You Think You Are?

My thoughts: I've enjoyed Alan Cumming's performances in various things over the years, but it wasn't my enjoyment of his craft that made me pick up this audiobook from the library. Instead, I was fascinated by the genealogy and the insight into his experience on Who Do You Think You Are?, a show I've thoroughly enjoyed in the past. The show allows librarians, archivists, historians, and museums to show their value by helping celebrities research their family histories. It's a far more fascinating glimpse into how alike we all really are. I had not, however, seen Cumming's episode. If you have, some of the reveals won't be a surprise, but there is still enough intrigue to make this book worth your while.

I think it's safe to say Cumming's father is a mean and terrible father. In that sense, this memoir is difficult to listen to, but it also offers inspiration, as Cumming was able to overcome the difficulty of such a horrid father. While filming Who Do You Think You Are?, Cumming's estranged father drops a bombshell: he isn't his biological father. While Cumming explores his family's history, he's also working with his brother to investigate his parents. Against all of this backdrop, Cumming continues to perform, both on film and on stage, and he highlights interesting parallels as he travels, works, reflects, and learns about family.

The verdict: Not My Father's Son is a fascinating exploration of how our family impacts who we are. It also offers a glimpse into the life of a famous actor. It's Cumming's searing honesty and reflection that elevate this memoir far above a celebrity memoir. Cumming's performance is exceptional. Definitely opt for this one on audio.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 (5 out of 5 for the audio performance)
Length: 6 hours 28 minutes (304 pages)
Publication date:  October 7, 2014
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Not My Father's Son from Amazon (Kindle edition.) 

Want more? Visit Alan Cumming's website and follow him on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Friday, October 9, 2015

audiobook review: Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg

narrated by Tavia Gilbert

The backstory: After loving Jami Attenberg's last novel, The Middlesteins, I was excited to read her new one.

The basics: Set in Jazz Age New York City's Bowery neighborhood and based upon a real person, Saint Mazie is the story of Mazie Phillips, a young woman who loves to party. When the Depression hits, Mazie can't help but help.

My thoughts: The premise of this novel checks so many of my boxes, yet as I listened, Mazie never quite came alive for me. I think it's a combination of Attenberg's structure and Gilbert's narration style. The novel is structured as a documentary film, so there are numerous excerpts from Mazie's diaries, as well as interviews with descendants of those she knew. Perhaps especially on audio, this structure made the narrative feel fractured. I really wanted to love this book, but over all, I feel mostly 'meh' about it. It's such a great concept, and Attenberg is a great writer. This book has some great passages, but it never came together for me. Perhaps I should have opted to read this one instead of listen to it.

The verdict: Saint Mazie offers a fascinating glimpse into its time period. I wish I would have connected more with Mazie as a character, as the entire novel depends on doing so. Attenberg uses Mazie's story to explore themes of good and bad, particularly in a historical context, but it failed to ring true for me. Gilbert's narration of Mazie made her come across as melodramatic, and that likely helped hinder my connection to Mazie.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 9 hours 38 minutes (336 pages) 
Publication date: June 2, 2015
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Saint Mazie from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Jami Attenberg's website and follow her on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

book review: Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

The backstory: Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff's third novel, is on the 2015 National Book Award longlist. I loved her last novel, Arcadia, so very much.

The basics: Fates and Furies is the story of a marriage and two lives. The first half is told from the point of view of the husband, Lotto. The second half is from his wife Mathilde's point of view.

My thoughts: I had high expectations going into Fates and Furies. Arcadia  is both brilliant and moved me emotionally. And the buzz around Fates and Furies is huge. It's the book of fall. Plus, it was longlisted for the National Book Award (hooray!)

This novel is a book in two parts. Because Groff chooses to split it into halves (Lotto's is a bit longer) rather than interweave the chapters, there's a fair amount of setting the stage the first half of the novel takes on. It builds up this fateful, epic love story, and in some ways, the second half tears it down. In that sense, the first half was slightly more laborious. Groff's writing is beautiful, and these characters are fascinating, but I did find myself eager to get inside Mathilde's head. It's hard to know if I would have felt the same way if i went into this novel not knowing it's told in two pieces. Because I knew Mathilde's voice was coming, I was eager to get there. Still, I found myself savoring Lotto's section because of passages like this one:
"He had loved her with all his might these two weeks and, in so loving, had considered her transparent, a plate of glass. He could see through to the goodness at her quick. But glass is fragile, he would have to be careful. "You're right," he said: thinking, No, thinking how deeply they belonged. How surely. Between his skin and hers, there was the smallest of spaces, barely enough for air, for this slick of sweat now chilling, Even still, a third person, their marriage, had slid in."
And I correctly intuited many of these early details would matter later.

Once I started Mathilde's section, I stopped savoring and starting devouring this novel. I correctly guessed a few of the surprises, at least partially because I knew to expect some, and partially because Groff gives the reader clues that present two likely explanations. Discovering which explanation is true was a delight. Groff also drops a few unexpected bombs that made me feel like I was reading a crescendo in a mystery novel.

Yet while this novel is very much the story of Lotto and Mathilde (and their marriage), it is so much more. Groff deftly infuses wisdom into minor characters and passages:
"She was still a teenager in the soap opera. She'd be a teenager until they killed her off and then she'd play mothers and wives. Women in narratives were always defined by their relations."
This passage spoke to me as I read it, and as I read it again while writing this review, I see it in a different late after Mathilde's story.

Favorite passages: "Please. Marriage is made of lies. Kind ones, mostly. Omissions. If you give voice to the things you think every day about your spouse, you'd crush them to paste. She never lied. Just never said."

"Even then, she knew that there is no such thing as sure. There is no absolute anything. The gods love to fuck with us."

"Most operas, it is true, are about marriage. Few marriages could be called operatic."

The verdict: Through these two characters, Groff offers a fascinating glimpse into marriage. Mathilde's story is one for the age, even as I acknowledge there are allusions to Greek mythology in this novel I did fully appreciate. Groff shows masterful control of voice, character, and storytelling in Fates and Furies. As I reread passages I highlighted for this review, I found myself seeing them differently, which made me want to read this novel again immediately to find even more layers and connections. And with Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff enters a very special place: I've rated more than one of her novels 5 stars. Welcome to the club, Lauren.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 400 pages
Publication date: September 15, 2015
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Fates and Furies from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Lauren Groff's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

book review: The Hopeful by Tracy O'Neill

The backstory: The Hopeful is Tracy O'Neill's debut novel. It was longlisted for the 2015 First Novel Prize and named a National Book Award 5 Under 35 pick.

The basics:  "A figure skating prodigy, sixteen-year old Alivopro Doyle is one of a few "hopefuls" racing against nature's clock to try and jump and spin their way into the Olympics. But when a disastrous fall fractures two vertebrae, [it leaves] Ali addicted to painkillers and ultimately institutionalized." (publisher)

My thoughts: The Hopeful is one of those novels I love a little bit more because I discovered it through the First Novel prize longlist. Somehow, I'd never heard of it, even though it's fantastic, so I hope this review will introduce many more readers to it. Of course, while I was reading it, Fiona Maazel picked it as a National Book Award 5 Under 35 pick. That will probably help too.

But back to The Hopeful and why you should read it. On the surface, there's a lot going on: ice skating, adoption, Native American identity, addiction, family, eating disorder, painkillers, mental hospitals. And even though O'Neill introduces all of these themes relatively early, the novel never feels cluttered. Each thread of the story is essential to the whole. O'Neill opts for a somewhat complicated construction. Each chapter begins with part of Ali's conversation with her therapist in a mental institution. From there, it jumps back in time to how she got to the present. Even though the reader knows big moments are coming, they still have shock value. O'Neill is simultaneously bold and restrained, which displays a remarkable maturity in her storytelling.

While this novel is unequivocally Ali's story, O'Neill skillfully aligns it with a rich history of ice skating's evolution. I wouldn't call myself a fan of the sport, although I have enjoyed it in the past. This book made me want to watch it again, albeit with a much more critical eye. This book shines a critical light on figure skating in a smart and balanced way.

Favorite passage: "I thought of the moves no one had though possible until some genius came along and upgraded everyone's sense of possibility."

The verdict: The Hopeful is bold, accomplished, beautifully dark and utterly unexpected. It's an incredibly smart novel. It's hauntingly written, and its construction demonstrates beautiful command.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 257 pages
Publication date: June 9, 2015
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Hopeful from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Tracy O'Neill's website, follow her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!