Lucy spends nine suffering weeks in a NYC hospital during her rocky recovery from an appendectomy. Much to her surprise, her estranged mother shows upLucy spends nine suffering weeks in a NYC hospital during her rocky recovery from an appendectomy. Much to her surprise, her estranged mother shows up at her bedside to comfort and watch over her. For five days, they talk about people from their hometown. They do not talk about Lucy's life now, nor about the trauma that lined Lucy's childhood.
And that's it.
The beauty of this book is in the tension between wanting to protect oneself from digging deeper into pain already inflicted and wanting to protect that pain itself as what has borne you: the only you you will ever have, so something precious by default. The tension between acknowledging and the different ways of not acknowledging. Strout walks a thin line here, between something recklessly emotional and something far larger & darker than can be handled by her clear, declarative sentences and stubbornly drifting memories. She managed that balance for me, but I can see how it might tip toward being too wafflingly melodramatic without enough concrete payoff for some readers.
What worked for me was that the ambiguities, and the secrets that get sheltered in the novel, aren't the point. At times, Strout deftly uses vivid bursts of memories: the snake and the truck, the clothes her brother steals and what happens afterward (I'm being vague, though, because the intensity of these moments are close to the experiential point of the book, I think, so probably falls under the umbrella of what counts as "spoilery"). But there is a more significantly unspeakable trauma that occurred during Lucy's childhood that we only know as the Thing, and it can't be completely reconstructed in the reader's imagination even when the absence of this information is delineated and marched around in Lucy's narrative. I could make guesses at who the trauma involved, what happened, who was complicit…but that's all it would be. Guesses.
But the process of understanding what it all meant to Lucy is the point of the book. And it's done without the baggage of slotting characters into roles of victims and instigators.
I feel like a broken record whenever I state this, but I love, love, love books that highlight the narrative forces in our lives. Books that make it clear that what we know about others, what we know about ourselves, is through the medium of storytelling. This is a book of gossip and seeing through others' eyes and doubting your own, and oh the tyranny of family stories,and about celebrity magazines and writing fiction with truth in it. Lucy is telling this story of the story: how she's come to write this story down, and a little bit about the process of doing so. It's not explicitly, wink-y type of meta: it's fairly stolid meta with overt lampshading going on, what with a writing workshop where Lucy finds she does not need to shy away from the cliche of poverty-and-abuse, when she's told to brace her story with acknowledgment of its weaknesses (which I think happens frequently throughout the book, and that was part of the book's charm for me). It's not a particularly clever or fun game played with the reader; it's just what it is. And I really appreciated that heavyhanded straightforwardness is a book otherwise concerned with ambiguities and preciously pedestaled feelings.
One of the more interesting aspects of this book to me was something that I was surprised by. Normally I'm pretty skeptical of characters for whom other people's tragedies are part of the backdrop for their own story. Throughout the narrative, Strout evokes three genocidal-level, modern-day tragedies: the destruction of Native Americans during the "settling" of the west, the Holocaust, and the '80s AIDS epidemic. We hear the stories told about these events, guilt over complicity, shame about romanticizing aspects, the struggle of living with continued echoes. The Little House books. Lucy's shame about being jealous of victimhood community. The dark shadows cast by (and over) the characters who were veterans of WWII. The revelation of a Swiss bank account.
Strout lays out the act of not looking away from these things, these events marked by contemporaneous complicity and contemporary guilt. These are murky, awful waters, but they're the waters that we swim in. A gurneyed Lucy in a hospital corridor, forced to meet the burning gaze of a man quietly, angrily dying of AIDS; later, horrifiedly wondering if she should have recognized him. The excavation of a childhood memory: attending the Black Hawk Festival with her father, who watched the dancers with genuine interest and a desperate empathy. A recurring dream where she and her daughters--descendants of a man who once killed two German boys during WWII--are to be killed by Nazis. Her brother, once cradled in his bed by their father after something awful, who now sleeps with condemned farm animals on the night before they're killed.
Strout ties together all these things--Lucy's personal suffering, her suffering that intersects with these epochal tragedies, and the larger imprint these events have left on generations of those who suffered and those who inflicted suffering--loosely but with graceful, insistent repetition.
I still have some unformed thoughts about how names are used in this book. I have to admit I found the title offputtingly declarative and encompassing, but it indicated to me a need to look closer at names and labels in the book. The nickname her mother has for her ("Whizzle") and the nickname her husband has for her ("Button") go unexplained, and the frequent discordant use felt like little pinches, a reminder of the distance between Lucy and two of the people whom she wants most be loved by and connected to. And it's the nurse nicknamed "Toothache" who comforts Lucy during one of her lowest moments at the hospital. Some recurring characters are named, and others are not, and this doesn't map onto their significance in either the story or in Lucy's life. The artist, Jeremy, Molla, Kathie Nicely. Sarah Payne. Mom and Mommy. Stepmother versus father's wife. Cookie, Toothache, Serious Child. The best woman friend that Lucy ever makes, she's present only briefly and not even named. How Lucy's mother knew of Christina's birth but did not know her name--and how this lack of knowledge was so significant to her. Her mother-in-law, making tongue-in-cheek introductions: "This is Lucy. Lucy comes from nothing."
That quotation drew my attention to what, I think, this book is so concerned with: the (un)knowability but intimately, undeniably shared nature of the formative forces of one's personhood. The title of an unrelated, newly released book that caught my attention recently: The Mother is Known . Those words stuck in my mind while reading this book. Only very infrequently can mothers hide the connection between themselves and who they bore. But how do we even know our mothers? How does she know herself? What can she trust that she knows? One of the book's saddest moments, for me, was Lucy's recounting of her telephone-based relationships with her siblings after their parents' deaths, how none of them knew each other or how to explain themselves or their parents. Here are the people who were molded in the same clay and shaped by the same hands, and they don't know each other. Or:
I kept thinking of my brother and my sister and the bewilderment in their faces when my father died. I kept thinking how the five of us had had a really unhealthy family, but I saw then too how our roots were twisted so tenaciously around one another's hearts. My husband said, "But you didn't even like them." And I felt especially frightened after that.
The structure, exacting self-examination, and NYC-ness of this book reminded me of Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation. I think it's also tempting to say this book reminded me a bit of Alice Munro's work--girl grows up rural poor has a reckoning about her childhood--but Munro's more ruthless than Strout. And this is a sticking point inside the book, a writer's ruthlessness--specifically, that Lucy is accused of ruthlessness by virtue of being a writer.
But, no, neither Lucy nor Strout is ruthless. They're full of ruth. That ruth is what gives us this story....more
This is some smart, funny chick lit (not a romance novel, though (view spoiler)[it has a happy ending (hide spoiler)]), unafraid to be a bit twisted aThis is some smart, funny chick lit (not a romance novel, though (view spoiler)[it has a happy ending (hide spoiler)]), unafraid to be a bit twisted and a bit unreal (this is set mostly in L.A., after all) in pursuing its commitment to its characters. I read this in a series of quick gulps, each plot twist and emotional sea-change making me want to read faster.
It's particularly bright and agile about identity--race and color in particular--and just about brilliant about high school archetypes and about the narratives we use to try to make sense of ourselves and to tame/control/understand our ideas of love. Readers wanting a martyred, able-to-pick-up-the-pieces-in-healthy-ways Cinderella/Molly Ringwald of a heroine might be disappointed, but I enjoyed Davie's complexity and complicity immensely. How is this not a movie yet?
This does have some unfortunate language usage: a slur about transgender people is used at one point, and the term "crazy" is pointedly used throughout the narrative in ways that doesn't explicitly map onto mental illness (a repeated meme, for example, is "Invitation to Crazy.") I point this out because while this book is great at looking at the identity issues it does look at, it may fall short in other ways.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Enjoyable. I especially liked Nyree, with her determination (and hard work to back it up, not just wishful thinking) and her assertiveness. Dale's strEnjoyable. I especially liked Nyree, with her determination (and hard work to back it up, not just wishful thinking) and her assertiveness. Dale's struggle with believing he wasn't good enough--and the circumstances behind that--was also movingly depicted.
I really dislike the presence of overprotective brothers in romance novels (guess whose sexuality does not fall under your purview, men? well, no one's except your own, actually, but that definitely means you do not control or oversee the sex lives--or lives in general--of the women you're related to!), but Rochon made it work in this context, not just because Nyree solidly rejected it, but also because the way her brothers--and not just themselves, but also their status in her family, in her community--controlled and affected her life negatively--was portrayed in a nuanced and effective way....more
I need to stop reading contemporary cozy mysteries. I keep trying, though, because I worry that it's internalized sexism that keeps me from liking orI need to stop reading contemporary cozy mysteries. I keep trying, though, because I worry that it's internalized sexism that keeps me from liking or appreciating them. But I'm coming to understand that I bristle at the constructed bubble of safety~ that the crime occurs in but doesn't actually threaten. It's not a fantasy I enjoy or believe in or find worthwhile, either in real life or in the world of the story. I find too much in the narrative that undermines it: the way protagonists undermine law or order in their own investigations; the way crime is not something that leaves a lingering effect on the community; the way victims are frequently people who are not missed, and so that allows the cast of recurring characters to get on with their lives until the next murder. And I get that cozy mysteries aren't meant to deal with any of that, that the crimes featured are specifically constructed to avoid touching cyclic violence or the systematic forces of poverty and racism that dominate the way people deal with the criminal justice system.
But I can't let it go. But I keep going back to cozy mysteries because I want to read less gore and less exploitation and sensationalism in my crime fiction, and because I want to make sure I'm not just being sexist in recoiling from a woman dominated subgenre.
I. Just. But nearly every contemporary cozy I read just whips me up into a hostile frenzy.
Magical, clue-finding cats? Yes, I'm down that. I like these cats and the magical digestive systems that allow them to eat tons of human food. I find that charming. I like them.
What's not charming? The librarian protagonist, when building a case to her detective boyfriend that she suspects someone could be a thief/murderer, includes in her reasoning that the person in question checked out "A Coffin for Dimitrios and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Eric Ambler and Agatha Christie. Mystery classics."
what. the. fuck.
In real life, I'd hope nothing short of the Patriot Act (and even THAT, but I recognize that the Patriot Act is law and whatever) would get a librarian to be that shitty to a) think reading mysteries makes someone suspicious (among other things, but SERIOUSLY), b) voluntarily and proactively violate a patron's privacy by--without court order, without the law enforcement office even requesting it--reveal to a law enforcement officer what a patron checked out.
Nothing. Cozy. About. That.
(Also, I thought the mystery was boring. The characters are all right if bland, the worldbuilding is nice, and I like the cats.)...more
A little too emotionally indistinct, especially in the majority of its depiction of Memory's relationship with Lloyd, but the ending and the revelatioA little too emotionally indistinct, especially in the majority of its depiction of Memory's relationship with Lloyd, but the ending and the revelation of Memory's family's full story hit me with the sort of emotional wallop I'd been craving. ...more
Reason #1739002 I want a time machine: so I can fast-forward to the time when Alyssa Cole has a gigantic backlist of historical novellas for me to gloReason #1739002 I want a time machine: so I can fast-forward to the time when Alyssa Cole has a gigantic backlist of historical novellas for me to glom. She packs a lot of emotion (and history) into these short works, but even with the high-stakes and high-tension of this one (she's a post-Dunmore proclamation Loyalist camp follower! he's a Patriot fighting in his owner's place, with the promise of freedom after the war--only now he's been taken prisoner!), things didn't get melodramatic, and Cole focused really engagingly on two people being kind and strong and opening themselves up to one another....more
Whenever I first start reading Octavia E. Butler, I worry that my brain isn't big enough to fully understand where she's going. By the end, however, IWhenever I first start reading Octavia E. Butler, I worry that my brain isn't big enough to fully understand where she's going. By the end, however, I worry that my heart isn't big enough to encompass the multi-faceted emotional impact of that destination: that the terrible, awful things happening--and the wonderful, miraculous things happening that are basically the same as the terrible, awful things--are going to rock me too much and leave me so disconcerted and maybe too much adrift.
To recap the first book the trilogy: aliens rescue lone human survivors upon the destruction of Earth after a war nearly wipes out all of humanity, but it's at the cost of human-human fertility: any human who wants kids will have a construct child, blending alien and human. (As you might imagine, humans don't take this well.)
This book is set many years later, and it follows Akin, Lilith's son, when he is kidnapped by human resisters.
Akin is such a compelling protagonist; he belongs everywhere and fits in nowhere, and with not a lot of resources, he has to continually save himself--that self that is both Oankali and human--in a tricky balancing act. He has to keep asserting, to others mostly, that because he is Oankali doesn't mean he can't be human, and vice versa. That just because he is a baby (and later, child and young adult) doesn't mean he is not-a-full-person, doesn't mean he's not-mature. Akin blurs a lot of lines, and his comfort in himself and his discomfort in the world are really evocative.
This book also continues the interesting thematic work about freedom and consent and survival, and it leaves me as despairing as ever about the Human Contradiction: "[i]ntelligence at the service of hierarchical behavior."
I read the first book in this trilogy, about a year and a half ago, but the focus of this second book is different, and I found no problem grasping this world and these characters. Actually, for readers like me, who might get impatient with Butler's writing when at its most exposition-by-dialogue bare-bones state, waiting between the two books probably made it a better reading experience. I think it's possible to read this book first and still enjoy it, but I wouldn't recommend it that way....more
I love Aimee Bender's work. Love. The Girl in the Flammable Skirt was my first favorite adult book, I believe; I discovered it as a high school sophomI love Aimee Bender's work. Love. The Girl in the Flammable Skirt was my first favorite adult book, I believe; I discovered it as a high school sophomore and reread it obsessively (I have "The Rememberer" very close to memorized, still), and her work has majorly influenced my literay tastes for a long time now. Her stories and her imagery and her depiction of all our weird & sad & sweet human desires (and the strange places those desires take us) and the fierce momentum & scattered humor of her sentences, that's all part of my reading-and-writing bloodstream.
So I was an ideal reader for this collection, and I don't quite know how to explain her style, its limitations and its acrobatic expertise, in a detached way. Anyway, the stories in The Color Master are real world fairy tales, where both the literal and the metaphorical are murky but hit hard. She does whimsy like I like whimsy: disconcerting and enchanting in equal measure. She writes family relationships and romantic/sexual relationships with equal care, and there's a whole-ness to her work that gives even the smallest little interactions an evocative depth.
My very favorite story in this collection was the final one, "The Devourings," about a human woman, her ogre husband, and the time that he unintentionally eats all six of their children after being tricked into it by a plucky human girl. It's a turned-inside-out fairy tale, because we don't care, not even a little a bit, about the clever girl who tricked the monster and saved herself: we follow the grief and the survival of the woman and her ogre husband, and we see their fantasy world with both the logic of the fantastic or the stark realness of what it means to survive after the unimaginable. It's a beautiful, brutal jewel of a story....more
Lovely, clear writing: nothing clunky, nothing too showy. It was a good family drama, just the right amount of humor and bittersweetness along with paLovely, clear writing: nothing clunky, nothing too showy. It was a good family drama, just the right amount of humor and bittersweetness along with pangs of recognition, and it kept in mind that the stories families tell about themselves are such a force in our lives. I liked how the book focused on just a few specific knots to untangle, and even those weren't loosened all the way by the time the narrative ended....more
While it doesn't hit the "fake dating" trope very hard, Passion's Song does deliver a solid friends-to-lovers relationship. I loved that April and DamWhile it doesn't hit the "fake dating" trope very hard, Passion's Song does deliver a solid friends-to-lovers relationship. I loved that April and Damien already had great respect for each other and an interesting history with each other, and that April's dedicated toughness, especially, was a valued part of their dynamic. This was my comfort read during jury duty this week, and I appreciated its low-drama romance and the focus on recognizing & building community....more
So, Nguyen knocked it out the park with a literary technique that, when executed well and with purpose, I really enjoy: dialogue without quotation marSo, Nguyen knocked it out the park with a literary technique that, when executed well and with purpose, I really enjoy: dialogue without quotation marks. This is a novel about double-consciousness, internal-external divides, and the creation & maintenance of self- and social-narratives, and Nguyen's text--barren of quotation marks, refusing to over-grant significance to what is said--scrupulously gives equal weight to the internal and the external, to what is thought and what is acted. Also, it adds a slipperiness and a need-for-alertness to the reading experience, which was also evocative for the thematic work the novel was doing. This added a layer of enjoyment to the novel. (I'll admit, I often find the lack of quotation marks unnecessary or pretentious, but this is a great use of the technique. Attention, MFA hacks: The Sympathizer is now the gold standard for justifying its use.)
The last parts of the novel also had some excellent slipperiness in POV and in structure, and I thought Nguyen was really rocking the technical things: not too showy, always weaving in with the thematic stuff being developed. There was some five-star writing going on (I kinda want to quote the entire passage about the clock as an example), but at times, there was just too much writing, too much repetition, and even considering the conceit of the novel (most of the book is in the form of a confession), I think I'd have appreciated some trimming.
Aaaaand I guess starting my review with a rave about technique is a clue that I was underwhelmed by the content. The plot was interesting, the world-building was vivid and engaging, but the characters weren't dynamic enough--no one did anything unexpected, really, and I wasn't surprised by any plot-mandated character motion, either--to keep me from really loving this, and most of the women in particular got the short shift in terms of hinting at their own subjectivity. ...more
A solid, satisfyingly complicated mystery. I haven't read any other books from this series, and I found this one did stand alone well. There were niceA solid, satisfyingly complicated mystery. I haven't read any other books from this series, and I found this one did stand alone well. There were nice flashes of humor and enjoyable historical engagement. I loved how photography was used, too.
I prefer my crime fiction to have either a stronger voice or a stronger emotional heft, however, and this didn't really stand out on either of those qualities. ...more
I went into this more interested in it as a historical artifact (Nora Roberts's first published book! Three years older than me!) than as something II went into this more interested in it as a historical artifact (Nora Roberts's first published book! Three years older than me!) than as something I was expecting to enjoy, but STILL. Not just vintage misogyny (though there was plenty of that) and the bloodline of current misogyny in romance novels, but WORSE.
I liked some of the story at first, enjoying noticing all the proto-Nora at work, enjoying the excellent baseline of sure & confident writing she started at, and then my reactions started getting more and more profanity-laden at the content. Horrifying, abusive relationship (beyond just punishing kisses--lots of violent imagery in the hero's threats to her, lots of emotional abuse--marry me, your uncle is on death's door and he wants you to, don't be so selfish! holy omfg), creepy infantalization of the heroine (like, seriously, quote: "You look like a child. A child can’t be bundled off to bed without a goodnight kiss" and musings about how she looks like she's fifteen), and man. And I know that the romance genre has plenty of this shit going on and in fact lauded right now (and, I mean, lots of misogyny and this strain of alpha dickery in Kristen Ashley, but at least Ashley has an entertaining voice and heroines who aren't infantalized), so I point this out but am not exactly feeling like pop culture / the romance genre right now is in great health, either....more
Not as fluffy as a whimsical wedding cake cover might suggest, but neither is it as dark or raw as Shake Down the Stars. It shares with that book, thoNot as fluffy as a whimsical wedding cake cover might suggest, but neither is it as dark or raw as Shake Down the Stars. It shares with that book, though, a seriousness about its protagonist and her agency, and it sets its arc the protagonist's ability to live--survive, thrive--after terrible things happen, after mistakes have been made. It can be harrowing to know your own heart and not look away, and like in SDtS, Swindle describes that journey very beautifully. The last few chapters felt more sketchy and stereotypical than fully-realized, but I still believed in them as the ending to Abbey's arc.
The tone of this book was a delight, from the jazz song titles for chapter titles to the brief interruptions of imagined dialogue and imagery and other sudden breaks in reality--a fantasy Terry Gross interview sequence, brief visits and benedictions from ghostly jazz legends. I also really adored how Swindle portrays and examines the idea of family in this. In the author interview at the end, she says her "intention was to explore the idea that family is whatever want it to be," which kind of sounds simple and obvious, but in truth, it feels kind of radical to imagine it, and to act upon it when there are social conventions trying to demand otherwise....more
I enjoy a whodunnit as much as anybody, but the kind of mental/emotional banquet I crave most from crime fiction--the genreSo, that was a good book.
I enjoy a whodunnit as much as anybody, but the kind of mental/emotional banquet I crave most from crime fiction--the genre of human misery, of the problematic romanticizing of it and the painful dismantling of it and the choreographed game of playing archaeologist & anthropologist & curator of our societal disaster--is less whodunnit and more whatchagonnado. Whatcha gonna do, knowing what you know, walking where you've walked? Make me remember there's no end to our cycles of violence. Make me remember there's no neutral. Make me remember that the justice system is named for an unattainable ideal, not for a product it claims to produce, and that all our human imperfections crush everybody. Build up interesting characters who think and evaluate in interesting, compelling ways, and then make them face impossible choices they--and no one, really--are prepared to make.
And The Whites was exactly what I wanted when I picked it up. Brandt/Price writes densely and vividly, and the story is bursting at the seams with character details--and sometimes that worked for me in kaleidoscopic brilliance and sometimes it didn't with its clutteredness, and sometimes I didn't like how the primary women in the story all seemed too similar on the page. But it was still added up to something compelling, to solid crime fiction. I'm glad to put the book down because I'm worn out from all the overwhelming brokenness, but I also feel like it's not going to let me step away....more