Very mixed feelings. This star rating probably has a lot to do with my usual GoodReads generosity. I'm giving it a 4 because I consistently felt thisVery mixed feelings. This star rating probably has a lot to do with my usual GoodReads generosity. I'm giving it a 4 because I consistently felt this to be an engaging read. The only reasons I didn't finish this sooner were because of multitasking and relegating it to a "work lunch/metro" book. I also might have a soft spot for Alice Hoffman who, after all, wrote my favorite read of 2015, THE DOVEKEEPERS.
This book is much different than that, and in fact I'm wondering if I might simply prefer Hoffman's take on historical fiction. I'm glad that the other book I own by her is in that vein. :p. This was a contemporary novel (except that the names "Shelby" and "Helene" had me thinking that maybe it took place in the '70s) and Hoffman couldn't generate enough chutzpah on her own to make it remarkable. THE DOVEKEEPERS was twice the size of this and only spanned a few years, whereas this 250ish page work spanned a decade. There was none of the lushness, the attention to detail, in this book, either.
To be fair, for the first few chapters I thought I would love this. We were with Shelby, the teenage survivor of an icy road car accident that put her best friend, Helene, in a lifetime coma. She was the driver and got off with a hairline fracture. Except, of course, she didn't "get off" with anything, and instead spiraled into a deep depression that completely altered her life. The rest of the book moved by leaps and bounds to highlight her recovery.
Ok, I may be more drawn to broken people than healed ones, but I think if Hoffman had put more time into Shelby's twenties, I could have gotten behind it more. But it always seemed like swaths of time passed between chapters; we didn't get to witness her character arc. More accurate to say that it was reported to us after the fact.
The book was also rife with coincidences and convenient interactions, like how of course the blind dating website that she used set her up with the ex-boyfriend with whom she had a lot of unfinished business. Shelby also seemed to persist on a diet of takeout Chinese food sans health problems, which...well, major jealousy. :p. Speaking of personal biases, I wanted Hoffman to go back in time, too, to showcase the juxtaposition of Shelby then and Shelby now, and maybe to build up Helene's character when Helene had the capacity to be a character. :/. I'm not sure if this is me just superimposing my own will over the story that Hoffman wanted to tell, but like I've highlighted, it felt lacking.
The author blurbs on the book seem impressed by Shelby's continuous prickly nature, and I really liked that, too. I didn't necessarily think that the rest of the characters were that well developed (like when did Jasmine turn into such a goody goody academic?) but she is our protagonist and I liked her voice. She kind of reminds me of Yael from THE DOVEKEEPERS, except that Yael's story is much more fleshed out. Plus, the writing was so much better there, like when Yael went to free the Roman lion; and the magical realism sparkled. This novel teased us with magical realism, but...spoilers. :p. By the end of the book, I wonder if Hoffman was clocking out, too, because her writing became redundant and flat.
I probably would have enjoyed Shelby's endgame more if it was more show not tell, but I could go with it. I just feel like there's a better story in here. Maybe I forgot to take off my writing group critique persona. :p. I read this for my book club, actually, and I'm curious about that upcoming discussion. So at least this book serves a purpose for me! :p...more
A harrowing and disquieting read. Han Kang takes us back to 1980 when a protest against the military government in Gwangju, South Korea was viscouslyA harrowing and disquieting read. Han Kang takes us back to 1980 when a protest against the military government in Gwangju, South Korea was viscously suppressed. I had erroneously thought that most of the interconnected chapters (more like short stories) would all come from that time, but instead we move quickly forward to see how these events impact people up through the modern day.
Most of the characters are connected by being students and laborers who banded together in a government building as part of a last stand/appeal to personal dignity against the soldiers. The character of Dong Ho, our first protagonist, loomed large over all the rest, given the particular circumstances of his death. The final story, which may or may not be autobiographical, features "the writer" trying to find out about him based on some familial connections. (I also appreciate that this story pointed out that while many soldiers were horrifically sadistic, others found ways to help victims and show dissent--shades of grey in people).
But the true power of these stories lies in the juxtaposition of the brutal, physical treatment of these human bodies, and the emotional and psychological morass of trying to make sense of humanity. There's also some beautiful language about souls as birds, which fits in well with the US cover. Kang often used second person narration to draw her readers closer to her characters, and there was a lot of creative storytelling with chapters jumping around in time and what not. Some of it got a little melodramatic and unmoored for my tastes, but a handful of biting entries will definitely stick in my memory. "The Boy's Friend" is narrated by a ghost and allows for some unnatural omniscience, but it uniquely expresses the loss of life in physical terms and the immediate dislocation from the old reality. "The Editor" deals with censorship and post-traumatic stress. "The Prisoner" describes torture and its long after-effects, and most concretely probes the idea of humanity or lack thereof. And "The Boy's Mother" deftly probes the long-lasting effects of grief.
In her preface, English translator Deborah Smith helpfully gives an international audience a bit of historical grounding since Han Kang is too busy with her characters to hold our hands. Smith also posits that the 2013 election of Park Guen-hye, whose father was a ruler up until just before 1980, and was indirectly connected to the Gwangju massacres, might have compelled Kang to write. So it felt a little surreal to be reading this while Park Guen-hye was deposed--with no violence this time, according to the New York Times. Hopefully, humanity really can swing towards being better.
Thank you to GoodReads and to Penguin Random House for a free copy of this book....more
I'm beginning to see a difference in "The Interestings" vs Wolitzer's earlier novels, where she starts with this conceit that an action that touches hI'm beginning to see a difference in "The Interestings" vs Wolitzer's earlier novels, where she starts with this conceit that an action that touches her characters holds some sort of cosmic significance. In this instance, it's in the 1970s, when the Mellow children look through their parents' recently published and highly popular book on sex. And yes, reading the book and imaging their parents in that way does have an effect on their future lives as adults (which we immediately jump to in chapter two) but it's not the only thing by far, or even the only relationship (romantic) that is portrayed in this book. The first chapter's self-important air is perhaps a little too much.
Thirty years later the Mellow parents are divorced, the children are scattered, and a plan to reissue the book with a more modern stylization is a bit more contentious. The mother, Roz, wants it, and the celebrity spotlight again, and the father, Paul, resists, largely out of resentment for the fact that she ended their relationship. Roz sends her older son, Michael, to deal with him. We also check in with the youngest daughter, Claudia, who is a bit restless in career and love. Adding more significant drama to the equation, the younger brother, Dashiell, is diagnosed with Hodgkin's, and he undergoes a treatment plan that maps a little too conveniently to the trajectory of the rest of the story.
And then there's Holly, the oldest daughter, who perhaps has the most visceral reaction to her parents' book--namely her bitterness over the fact that such pleasure can be fleeting. She removes herself from the family as an older teen, chasing the similarly fleeting high that drugs provide. Wolitzer weaves in the themes of relationships and sex lives and shifting age and personal identity with lyricism and compassion for her often flawed characters--the resentful ones like Holly and Paul, the more self-absorbed ones like Roz and Michael; Dashiell's struggles with his illness and Claudia's inability to privilege the present, preferring the soothing cocoon of her past.
It's a largely character driven novel, ranging from POV to POV, though it felt slightly disjointed to me, despite the fact that these are members of a family. Perhaps it's because their lives were so separate, and actually we caught them during an unusually dramatic time--like Michael, at the end of his chapter, secretly decides to go off his sex-killing meds while visiting his father; in the next scene, Claudia is wondering why he extended his stay by a week. But then we're into her issues, of course, where, in the course of interviewing old teachers for a film project, she meets the man whose parents moved into her old house. In the next chapter, within Dashiell's diagnosis, he's thinking about how Claudia has been emailing with this new guy for awhile. And time goes on, often doling out plot points in this way.
But the personal explorations into what it means for these adults to be human beings longing for sexual and interpersonal desires still rang realistic and true. I even think Wolitzer ultimately pulled off describing Dashiell as a gay Republican without making it feel like a gag. But the most moving scene in the book--or at least something I responded to by tearing up a bit--didn't involve his lover, Tom, but a moment with his mother when he was very sick. In the end, I suppose this story undoubtedly wraps up as portraying an exploration of sex and romance. The family relationships were a little more fleeting--spot on, though not as ruminated upon. Maybe the novel could've afforded to have a few more edges shaded in, but I leave it feeling pretty contented with the complex characters, too. Wolitzer has her finger on the pulse of probing largely ordinary but highly significant circumstances....more
This is a novel about motherhood that speaks more to me than, say, Elisa Albert's sardonically self-righteous "After Birth," which I read last month.This is a novel about motherhood that speaks more to me than, say, Elisa Albert's sardonically self-righteous "After Birth," which I read last month. Wolitzer is thoughtfully funny without giving into all of that.
This is also a better book, I think, than the last Wolitzer one I read--"The Uncoupling." She made a passing reference to Lysistrata here as well, but it worked better as an anecdote in Amy's life, I believe, than as the construct for a magical realist novel.
Amy is definitely the protagonist of this story, with her best friend, Jill, as a close second. Two other mothers in their circle, predominately Roberta but also Kim, have little subplots, if you can call them that, as well. The jacket copy talks about "a series of startling events" basically acting as the climax of the book, but since this is character-driven literary fiction, for the most part events are rather subtle, if sudden (like--spoiler!--Roberta's husband's big break in the entertainment industry. That reminded me of a much more watered down version of Ethan Figman's life in Wolitzer's "The Interestings.")
Overall this book was a little more flighty and less expansive than "The Interestings," which follows a group of friends from their teenage years to middle age. Here, we mostly have some passages of backstory amidst the present day action around this group of New York-area mothers who, for various reasons, left the work force once children entered their lives. I wonder if in the beginning Wolitzer was pontificating a bit too much, making her premise much too broad as she laid out a thesis about how "most" American women start their days. With time, she moves away from that. Her characters think about how even in this country, many women can't afford to stay home. Every other chapter, in fact, is a vignette about how other women connected to the novel, mostly the mothers of the main characters, lived their lives in middle age. In part, Wolitzer talks about the advent of the feminist movement, and certainly the pressures these stay at home moms (and a couple of their working counterparts) feel about how they should live their lives vs how they are living their lives, etc.
For living such similar lives, I appreciate how different these women were as well. Amy has a slight penchant for literature (and as usual Wolitzer peppers her novel with literary references. I wonder if I'm too cynical to think that a place like this actually exists, but I chuckled when a grammar aged boy at the childrens' private school was walking down the halls quoting TS Eliot poems. I remember studying "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock" in high school....Oy gevalt). But mostly, Amy feels bored and listless, and latches onto an obsessive relationship with a relative newcomer. Wolitzer references adolescence a lot in this section, and I remember how important these matters felt to me back in the day, peoples' love affairs and who was in the know about them.
Elsewhere Jill, who lost her own mother to suicide, spends much of the novel in a self-involved funk about her adoptive daughter's undiagnosed learning disabilities. Certainly stirred up a few of my emotions since I was once that child, albeit diagnosed. Roberta, perhaps, speaks most to my adult self and striving for artistic meaning in life (she also has some of my flaws, particularly in lack of discipline and sometimes accountability). Kim felt the most removed for me--she was definitely the least defined of the main characters, and she was also so analytical and unemotional. I should read more characters like her, who basically exist on the other side of the spectrum from me.
Throughout the novel Wolitzer creates a community for these women, and probes the questions of identity, relationships and security (both personal and, in a vaguer sense, global,) that make up the lives of many ladies of the US middle class. A thoughtful and engaging read....more
I was hoping that this novel would be more like Wolitzer's latest, "The Interestings," but instead it reminded me more of her YA fare, "Belzhar." ExceI was hoping that this novel would be more like Wolitzer's latest, "The Interestings," but instead it reminded me more of her YA fare, "Belzhar." Except that in that novel, the magic realist conceit made more sense. It was a way to transcend the unusual traumas of the main characters. But there was nothing really unusual about the emotional issues of this book. For millennia, women have been grappling with the ebbs and flows in their sexual identities, without the help of any magic play.
If ignoring the effects of this spell (which sadly Wolitzer reminded us of all the time) these characters made sense to me. I love the honest way that Wolitzer writes about this topic--no prudishness and no sensationalism for the sake of shock value; the women of this novel, from teens to older adults, are simply sexual (or burgeoning sexual) beings in the midst of various relationships. The questions that they asked themselves when they stop the deed--will this last, will this change, am I getting what I want here, etc--could have happened organically. Probably not at the same time, though, which was Wolitzer's gimmick to make us look at a variety of people at once.
But there's still so much good--the disconnect between the lives of the different generations, which at the end, of course, Dory Lang (closest approximation to a main character) realized isn't really such a rift. I even ultimately liked how Farrest, Wolitzer's version of a virtual world where teens hung out as fantasy avatars, had some poetic nuance. I liked that I didn't like Fran Heller, or that at first didn't like Abby Means of the vividly realized poodle skirts, because these people seemed real to me. So did most of the ones I did like. :p
Teen Marissa was unfortunately sacrificed a little bit for the plot. She was described as a level-headed girl, but once the spell hit, she was suddenly staging a thinly realized anti-war protest that she didn't even plan before enacting? I thought the spell affected her sex drive, not the rest of her brain. :p. But I really liked her sexual journey as well, the awkward loneliness of it; I think many women might be able to relate to the complexity of striving for that experience and finding its not all it's cracked up to be, or that you're missing a key component. I'm dancing around spoilers but I'll say that Wolitzer doesn't make this a moralizing message, thank goodness.
I just have trouble rating this under 4 stars, though maybe I should. But it was consistently a pleasurable read, and I still think Wolitzer is a keen mind on sex and relationships. Still planning to make it through more of her backlist. :p...more
I read this book and wrote a paper on it for my contemporary fiction class in college. I struggled with the paper, and that was reflected in my grade,I read this book and wrote a paper on it for my contemporary fiction class in college. I struggled with the paper, and that was reflected in my grade, if I remember correctly. :p. Now I remember very little about the novel, but I think that reflects more on my state of mind than anything having to do with Morrison. I remember my mother coming to visit me shortly before this paper was due; we sat in a coffee shop for a bit, discussing the female friendships and reworking my thesis (needed special permission for that, Oy. Been looking over my old journal entries). Mostly, I wish I could go back to that coffee house with my mother now--well out of college and past the other academic demands and social angst of that age--to re-read and dig into the book again....more
Surprisingly quick read, thanks to being at the beach! :D. And I'm giving it a higher rating than I usually have lately, if for no other reason than nSurprisingly quick read, thanks to being at the beach! :D. And I'm giving it a higher rating than I usually have lately, if for no other reason than nostalgia. But it was also a refreshingly thorough family story.
Actually, when it comes to nostalgia, despite growing up in the Baltimore area, the only place I could remember with perfect clarity is Penn Station, and of course, like the Whitshanks who live far away, I'm there pretty often. :p. Tyler jumped around in time a lot--starting in 1994 and then careening until 2012, and then making a couple of pit stops in the 1950s and 1930s to flesh out vague backstory. I thought it was an interesting technique, that laid bare the beginnings of relationships, and particularly exploded the mythos around the first Whitshanks to arrive in Baltimore. (Also, of course, it was quite cool to imagine all of the boarding houses and street cars and yadda yadda).
Junior and Denny in particular could be a bit contemptuous, though of course the narrative fleshed out their stories so they and their relationships weren't quite one dimensional. Jeanine and Amanda had an intriguing sisterly relationship in the midst of their parents' troubles of growing old. Stem's origin story could have skewed into the melodramatic but it didn't, and it ended with a nice, understated coming to terms with his brother, Denny. I also liked the relationship between Abby and her daughter-in-law Nora; that it was frustrating for the matriarch but that she also struggled with that, and although Nora was religious and slightly eccentric in her ways, she wasn't an evangelizer. Though her in-laws were also annoyed by her magnanimous graciousness.
I kind of wish there was more fleshing out between Amanda and her husband, Hugh--she being this kind of no-nonsense lawyer and he being almost like her brother, Denny, who can't sit still for long and keeps starting and leaving business ventures. Amanda had a little bit of annoyance with that, but it was quickly dropped. Probably Jeannine would be my favorite for being easy going, though she also had a history with postpartum depression and was closest to her problem sibling, Denny. I guess she signified the giving streak that his mother mentioned at the beginning. I also wish there was more fleshing out with the grandkids, but most of them were still pretty young at the end. Though it didn't make the story feel like it was chronicling four generations--more like two, in fact.
The house itself was as much a member of the family as anything, and the two main story arcs revolved around Junior and Linnie Mae moving in, and then their son, Red, ultimately moving out in old age. Tyler's descriptions really shone here, and she wove a nice tapestry of the house as a stand-in for the Whitshank's desires of upward mobility, success and comfort (or in Denny's case, entrapment, perhaps). It also was a stand in for residential and commercial life in Baltimore--at least for white people, because Tyler touched correctly on the deep segregation between Baltimore neighborhoods. The novel did a good job of making a time and place come to life behind a fully realized cast of characters. Maybe there could have been something more universally transcendent, if the story had had a tighter focus, but overall it was a thoughtfully engaging read....more
I liked it, though it felt a little incomplete to me. Maybe if it was a conventional novel it could have such a tight focus, but with interconnected sI liked it, though it felt a little incomplete to me. Maybe if it was a conventional novel it could have such a tight focus, but with interconnected short stories I was sort of hoping each story would be a little more expansive, tell us new things about the worlds these characters inhabited.
It's not really fair to say that this collection didn't travel widely, especially in the end when Amy was in Thailand. Thematically I may have enjoyed her stories the most, particularly "Braiding Bread," where she started out so desperately trying to document her experiences abroad, ending up back at her mother's house, reliving old memories in an attempt to preserve them. I think character wise I appreciated Ginger the most, and the way Pietrzyk probed her resentment, regret and alcoholism.
I almost wish the story was just told from their perspectives. Rose's letters home as a new immigrant in the '20s were interesting, but it's kind of been done before. Her story was the most stereotypical, though I did like the cultural/generational clashes in "Wedding Day." Helen was perhaps the most stagnant for me. "Those Places I've Been," where she used the conceit of comparing rooms in her house to different states so as to signify her desire to travel was a bit overdone. I suppose I also wish we could have seen more of her life--beyond just her mother and sisters, surely she had other formative experiences in. Detroit, even if she was the only woman not to leave.
I appreciate the recurring theme of having to find ways to define yourself separately from your mother, and yet the only "present" time in the story seemed to revolve around these multigenerational stories in Detroit. I found it telling that Ginger herself didn't reminisce over the fact that she was closest to her cousin Theresa in childhood--Helen did--and we learned almost nothing about the Phoenix family branch's memories in that place until Amy went to Thailand. I think that's what frustrated me, and made the world building less real.
It was also intriguing to learn a little more about Polish immigrants. I'm used to stories where "the old country" remains permanent through relatives that still live there and occasional trips back, but here it was all about memories and food. I appreciated, too, how these ties obviously became more lax with each generation, but Pietrzyk always found subtle, believable ways to tie them back to their heritage....more
This novel did what I tried to do with my short story, "Skydiving," in how it dealt with the aftermath of a suicide on the surviving family. Sophie, tThis novel did what I tried to do with my short story, "Skydiving," in how it dealt with the aftermath of a suicide on the surviving family. Sophie, the girl who killed herself, was largely indistinct, save for generalities about being bound for college and having a teenage social circle at her summer home. I struggled for the same with my character, Andrea; I didn't want to go too deep into what she did (or why) and even who she was as a person, and the reason for that choice is explored so wonderfully in this novel. The "who, what why" is because our family members, in some ways, are always unknowable. The story was about the impact on the living.
Anders most resembled my protagonist, Carol, who took to skydiving as life affirmation as he did to scuba diving. His wife and daughter were slightly more removed in their grief, taking cues from an eerily similar tragedy that occurred ten months after Sophie's death, at their beach house. Daughter Eve became obsessed with how this tragedy occurred, convinced that the authorities weren't giving it proper attention, and wife/novelist Joan became somewhat embroiled in the lives of the surviving family members. Perhaps somewhat egotistically, Winthrop made Joan the most pensive and nuanced of all of her characters--able to consider various aspects of human emotional complexity thanks to her profession as a writer. :p. Though it was Eve, perhaps, who reminded me most of myself--her thought processes were so clear in her head, but whenever she tried to do any real investigating, things kind of fell apart.
Overall, these characters were of a rather subtle variety--no one had a particularly sharp tongue or crazy fetish or anything to make them incredibly distinctive from one another. They were all rather introverted and absorbed in their own little worlds, which works (and is often where I write, particularly in writing short stories,) but can lack the ability to be transcendent with the bigger world and larger issues. You know, besides these individuals grappling with the meaning of life and death. :p. So I can't exactly dislike Winthrop's choices; these are just matters I thought about in the periphery while reading.
Sometimes I think the writing got a little indulgent--again, the way mine does--when a character gets lost in thought and suddenly all of the specifics of a domestic task are described in minute detail. I felt this specifically while Joan was resting her hands on the rumbling washing machine for a few paragraphs. :p. But one thing I wish I were better at--where Winthrop excels--is physical description. I tend to gloss over that stuff, but I made myself go back and re read sections, to picture their outer world more completely.
It was a great conceit to set the novel at their summer house, where the family, recently getting back to normal routines, would have to face Sophie's death anew by the stuff she left behind last summer. The town of Gloucester, and all of their annual routines there, were described down to the quick, and it was almost disconcerting that they didn't know more people, except of course that they'd retreated into themselves after their tragedy. Still, again with indulgence, I thought Winthrop maybe had her cake and ate it, too. The family only resided here for three months out of the year, but this was where they stored all their historic valuables? Also--I didn't like that they referred to the location of their other home as "Maryland". I am, of course, somewhat biased, because I've lived in Maryland all my life. I know we are a small state, but we can get as hyper-local as the rest of the country. :p. Surely they would think of their home as "Bethesda" or "Frederick," and not just "Maryland." I realize how concretely the story focused on the summer home, for obvious reasons, but a slight tweak would have made their backstory feel more real....more
Shockingly, and perhaps embarrassingly, I believe this was my first time reading some of Judy Blume's adult fiction. It's been awhile since I've readShockingly, and perhaps embarrassingly, I believe this was my first time reading some of Judy Blume's adult fiction. It's been awhile since I've read any of her work, though the prosaic, straight-forward style seems familiar. It's true that Blume frankly examines sex, relationships, and perhaps mental health, insofar as it was understood in the '50s, but there's not quite an artistic flair.
I did enjoy the story, though it took awhile for me to get the names straight. I think I may have been distracted by outside forces, though. There's a lot of character POVs that deal directly, indirectly and then unrelated to the plane crashes in Elizabeth in the '50s. The crashes themselves were horrific, and I felt ashamed, that when putting this book on my TBR, I did not give the loss of life much thought; I thought of the crashes in ridiculously clinical terms. Blume has us right on the ground, with the loss and terror happening short term on the planes and long term in the town. Some of her POVs only existed briefly to chronicle one crash. I may have removed them and focused more concretely on the main families and their company--the Ammermans, Osners, McKittricks--but they certainly packed a punch either way.
Some of the unrelated drama revolved around what it meant to be Jewish, or Greek, in an assimilating society, but this didn't really feel like a cultural book on the whole. Still, maybe I appreciated this even more, the way Judaism plays into the lives of characters that I wouldn't classify as being part of a Jewish novel. It reminded me a bit of "Are You There, Gd? It's Me, Margaret," of course.
Though Margaret appeared to exist out of time--maybe it's because I was her age and self-centered while reading the book--but this novel's arguable protagonist, Miri Ammerman, is definitely a girl of the '50s. It was refreshing to get a taste of her world--the fashion, the music, the politics, the adolescent conspiracy theories around plane crashes (I was a senior in high school during 9/11, and the paranoia was surprisingly relatable). It's a nice reminder about how the topical details of society might change, but the things that make us human stay the same....more