Bettyville is the real thing. It's the perfect memoir---the sort of book you want to press into people's hands and say, "I know you'll love this," andBettyville is the real thing. It's the perfect memoir---the sort of book you want to press into people's hands and say, "I know you'll love this," and if they are a writer, "Here is how you write a book."
I know George Hodgman from working in publishing together. That's not why I'm recommending this one. Because of my job, lots of books come across my desk, and I have stacks of them I haven't finished. It's a rare pleasure to come across a book this good.
One of the great things about Bettyville is there is a way in for so many readers, helped in no small part by its perfect mix of humor, good storytelling and enormous generosity. It's the story of gay man who's lived in New York for decades who returns to his small hometown in Missouri to take care of his mother, a formidable woman battling dementia. I can imagine giving Bettyville to someone older who isn't quite comfortable around gay people, and knowing they'll fall in love with George---not just for his charm and wit, but for his obvious love for his mother and his appreciation of small-town virtues. I'd give it to someone dealing with an aging parent, or to anyone who loves small town life, and to anyone who got out of their small town as soon as they could. Oh, and if you believe rescue dogs rescue us, then this is the book for you.
Bettyville is unusually well-crafted. Betty and what her world means to George are mysteries to be solved, and each reveal and realization is so well-timed and well-earned. The central mystery of the book deeply moved me, and it's one I think so many readers can relate to: how do you love a parent who will never fully understand you? How do you love, and accept, across your differences?
There is so much I loved and admired about this book, but perhaps it's greatest gift to me is how it made me think of my own family. Reading Bettyville made me want to be a better daughter---kinder, more understanding, more forgiving. Perhaps because it's narrated with such honesty and humility---by a character who is anything but a scold or a saint, I closed it thinking, "I could do this. I could love more." ...more
KISS ME FIRST is so accomplished and affecting it's hard to believe it's a debut. Most simply put, it's a literary thriller about a suicide cult and iKISS ME FIRST is so accomplished and affecting it's hard to believe it's a debut. Most simply put, it's a literary thriller about a suicide cult and identity theft, which makes this book sound rather cheesy, a gimmick propelled by cyberparanoia. It's not, and I say this as someone whose eyes glaze over at the mention of cyberpunk. At the center of the story is a deliciously unreliable narrator named Leila, a loner who spends a lot time online. Moggach is too sophisticated of a writer to give her characters diagnoses, but one of the things I love about this book is how she makes Leila weird in ways that seem both quite believable and completely unique. She's the odd kid in every class photo, the undiagnosed Aspie cousin. And even though Leila is up to something appalling, Lottie Moggach's gift is making Leila's decisions understandable and ultimately heartbreaking. That, I think, is KISS ME FIRST's greatest accomplishment: it manages to be an ideas-driven thriller---in the vein of William Gibson or even Michel Houellebecq---yet it has surprising heart.
It's particularly thrilling that this is Moggach's first book. I think she's a Gillian Flynn level talent, particularly in terms of her eye for social detail and deep, yet effortless characterization. I can't wait to read what she comes up with next. ...more
I liked The Interestings and at moments, loved The Interestings. Perhaps because I found the characters so familiar and so relatable, the ways in whicI liked The Interestings and at moments, loved The Interestings. Perhaps because I found the characters so familiar and so relatable, the ways in which the writing fell short were a bit painful to read. A novel so explicitly about talent forces you to think about the author's talent, her strengths and weaknesses. In interviews, Wolitzer has compared herself to two of the novel's characters: Jules Jacobson, the novel's wry, empathetic protagonist who realizes she doesn't have what it takes to make it in the arts as well Ethan Figman, the Matt Groening-like animator who is meant to be a genius (as well as a warm and likable person, a character complication I rather liked. I'm so tired of asshole geniuses in novels). Like Jules, Wolitzer is an empathetic and big-hearted writer, as non-judgmental as a therapist, and it's fitting that's what Jules becomes. I tend to like books that show good people feeling bad things---in this case, envy. I think Wolitzer captured something really special here and something I'm not sure I've seen in a novel before: how you can really be envious of someone and really love them to. Another character commits a heinous crime, and his family remains blind to his guilt and full of love for him. You totally get why, and their ignorance and even arrogance about this fallen son is somehow quite moving. And like the "genius" in the novel, Wolitzer is clearly gifted at creating believable, character-rich worlds. I just wish this novel was more artful, that Wolitzer seemed more in control of her own narration. One this novel's themes is the passage of time, yet time is handled in such a herky-jerky fashion it gave me the occasional headache. The narrator can't quite decide how omniscient she wants to be. The prose has none of the polish of, say, A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD or THE PRIVILEGES, which touch on similar themes, and I think Wolitzer could have benefited from some of that glitter, or at least some sharper editing. Complaints aside, the ending had me tearing up, and I immediately texted my best friend to say she had to read it. It's a book about friendship, its pleasures and frustrations, and I wanted someone to share my pleasures and frustrations with The Interestings with an old friend. ...more
Dellarobia Turnbow is a heroine made to love, and I love that Barbara Kingsolver isn't afraid to give us a character like that. Though Flight BehaviorDellarobia Turnbow is a heroine made to love, and I love that Barbara Kingsolver isn't afraid to give us a character like that. Though Flight Behavior deals with the most contemporary of problems, climate change, there's something almost nineteenth century about Kingsolver's brave but rarely ham-fisted attempt to tackle a big picture problem straight on. Lots of recent novels have addressed climate change in elliptical ways, often by setting themselves in the future (Odds Against Tomorrow, Year of the Flood, even The Hunger Games). The words "climate change" are rarely used in these books, putting the challenges their characters face at something of a distant. Dellarobia, however, is very much a creature of our moment and her Tennessee farm life is rendered in rich, wry detail that feels very contemporary and deeply observed. It's the novel George Eliot would write if she were living in 2012 and decided to take up climate change as a subject. Characters make speeches about climate change; facts are thrown about it. I could have used about 25% less of these moments, but the novel is so rich and rewarding in other ways, I couldn't help but cut Kingsolver some slack. Its strengths really rest with Dellarobia, whose narrow life gets blown open after a huge host of (view spoiler)[ butterflies shows up on her property to overwinter. All sorts of people start showing up on her doorstep too, including the hunky West Indian scientist Ovid Byron. Dellarobia's kids blossom thanks to the heady atmosphere the butterflies and the newcomers create. (One of the most touching scenes in the book is when Ovid Byron comes over for tuna casserole with the Turnbows. Dellarobia's bright, serious young son is transfixed by this new sort of grown-up.) The butterflies are sublime---terrible and strange. Although Dellarbobia is inexorably drawn to their beauty (as is the rest of the town), she comes to learn that they're a sign of a world deeply out of whack. Hers is a doomed love, a motif that recurs in a number of ways throughout the novel. Fortunately, our love for Dellarobia is more rewarding. I can't remember the last time I rooted for a character the way I rooted for Dellarobia, especially when reading a contemporary novel. I think that's part of Kingsolver's sly purpose---she makes us want to remake the world so it's one worthy of Dellarobia and her children. (hide spoiler)]...more
In interest of full disclosure, I'll say first that Ophira's my client---I'm her literary agent. By way of saying what I love about her work and her bIn interest of full disclosure, I'll say first that Ophira's my client---I'm her literary agent. By way of saying what I love about her work and her book, I thought I'd say a bit about what attracted me to Lady O in the first place.
I started working with Ophira after seeing her perform on-stage with the Moth, the live storytelling group (also recommended!). I thought she was hilarious, as did my husband, who said, "You should track her down and ask her to do a book." I was intrigued, in part because my husband's book ideas usually involve things like the CIA or wars in countries I've barely heard of. In other words, if my serious-minded husband thought this lady was funny, and I also thought she was funny, I knew Ophira was a rare find.
When we met in person, we instantly started trading dating stories, and I loved that Ophira was honest about her many (many) experiences without ever devolving into bitterness or self-pity. She never apologized for having had so much experience between the sheets or for having gone through lots and lots of men before she met her husband. Instead, she was so funny about the whole thing, so open and celebratory and even wise. All that time dating didn't make her damaged or bitter (which is how it usually works in rom coms). It made her really smart, and it also helped Ophira appreciate the real thing when it came along. As you can guess, that conversation gave birth to the book.
The stories in the book are genuinely hilarious (I read it at work and it's the most I've ever laughed while at my desk), but also so refreshing and relatable. I got married in my thirties, lots of my female friends aren't married and don't necessarily plan to, and I feel we're surrounded by stories about women who are looking for love and are therefore desperate or demanding or just crazy. We're told to play hard to get, or to settle, to make a bee line to the altar or not to worry so much. All the advice kinda sucks (and IS crazy-making), and Ophira's genius is that she threw it out the window. The result is a happy ending as well as a madcap journey. I'm so glad she decided to share it. ...more
Margaret Atwood is a smart writer. She makes smart literary choices, particularly in terms of plot and pacing, but she also has fascinating, often proMargaret Atwood is a smart writer. She makes smart literary choices, particularly in terms of plot and pacing, but she also has fascinating, often provocative things to say about the way we live now, and where we are heading. I enjoyed Oryx and Crake on a plot level but also felt intellectually engaged---even if I often disagreed with Margaret Atwood's speculations about our future or wanted to scream at her for imagining, in 2003, that that twenty-second century would have CD-roms or print outs. (Who are you, my mom?)
My rage at these very occasional miscalculations only underlines how total and convincing Atwood's vision is. So much of it is so good, especially in terms of world-building, that the bad sticks out like a sore thumb. Her depiction of upper-middle class life in the near-ish future feels a bit dated, all very McMansion and Botox rather than locavore fetishism and ABC Home and Carpet cosmopolitanism. (Really, rich people would be happy not being able to travel?) I wished that this imagining of a future full of nightmare GMOs and sanitized ultra gated communities made more of the fact that artisanal, back-to-the-land and small batch are often a sign of class privilege. But her disturbing, deeply real evocation of a world of deep class divides, hallucinogenic weather and global networks of exploitation feels both right-on and never op-ed column dull. The relationship between the two main characters---boyhood friends---also felt real and unexpected. I could totally see Jimmy's easy, compulsive charm (I imagined a young James Spader) and the brilliant Crake felt all too real, both in his dismissal of the "neurotypicals" and in his rationalism bordering on psychopathology. The woman in the piece (Oryx of the title) was a bit a plus-one, almost beside the point. The friendship between two men is really the emotional heart of this book. Bold move and of a piece with this bold, assured novel by a writer at the top of her game....more
This is one of those books that made look up every twenty minutes or so and say to my husband, "I really like this book!" CAPITAL is very smart and enThis is one of those books that made look up every twenty minutes or so and say to my husband, "I really like this book!" CAPITAL is very smart and entertaining, well-plotted and beautiful written without ever coming across as "writerly." The novel moves across social classes and races in a gentrifying London neighborhood, but the feel is more George Eliot than Zadie Smith. Lanchester is a master of free indirect discourse (which I always enjoy and admire) and while we feel he really understands, even sympathizes, with each character he portrays, he also manages to keep a sort of ironic distance. This is a novel for grown-up people, as Virginia Woolf said of Middlemarch, perfect for those who love to read and feel they are part of a generously conceived world but also in the hands of authorial master. ...more
A lot of reviews of Gillian Flynn's work, and DARK PLACES in particular, focus on the unlikability of her characters. Flynn is commended for her superA lot of reviews of Gillian Flynn's work, and DARK PLACES in particular, focus on the unlikability of her characters. Flynn is commended for her superb plotting and ruthless dissections of the dark side of humanity, but readers are warned that if they need to root for someone while reading a book, to stay away.
I had the opposite response to this powerful book, and DARK PLACES I think part of its force is one comes to root for these superficially repugnant characters, to feel as close to them as family. Fittingly, unlikability is at the heart of what puts Ben Day, the teenage boy accused of the horrific "Satanic Panic" murders that propel the plot, in jail. He's a West Memphis Three kind of guy, an awkward, angry teenager that no one likes and his town seems almost giddy but not surprised when they find out the Day boy is up to no good. I remember families like the Days when I was growing up---the poorest kids in a not-rich town, never properly dressed or brushed or cleaned, kept at arm's length even by teachers and principals, let alone status-conscious fellow kids. Flynn takes us inside the Day family, its petty grievances and mounting desperation, with incredible believability and sympathy. Her depiction of their meals, their clothing, and their love makes it hard to believe Flynn was raised by middle-class academic parents. A great part of the book's emotional force comes through its unflinching portrayal of the Day family matriarch, Patty. She's the opposite of a tiger mom---sometimes she's too overwhelmed to take her kids to school, much less monitor their homework---yet her failings aren't presented through any lens of judgment. In fact, when her tough (and also sympathetic) "women's lib" sister calls Patty a superwoman, it almost feels true. So while most judgmental yardsticks, Patty is a terrible mom, yet her tender, ferocious love of her children feels completely true, and the lengths she goes to protect them are beyond tragic.
This make you--or at least, me---root for these kids, too, especially sensitive, emasculated "satanic" Ben. I really wanted to step in, stop the madness, and make them all something for dinner other than ketchup and condensed milk tomato soup. When that axe finally falls, and you know it will, I was heartbroken.
I'm always looking for books that push all the buttons The Lifeboat does: it's just the right mix of smart and creepy, suspenseful yet not constrainedI'm always looking for books that push all the buttons The Lifeboat does: it's just the right mix of smart and creepy, suspenseful yet not constrained by the genre demands of Suspense with a capital S, literary but not precious or writerly. I also love a well done unreliable narrator, and Grace Winter is a wonderful gift in that department. You complete believe her as a character without entirely believing her testimony.
This is historical fiction of the best sort, without a whiff of sentimentality or fetishism of the past. I very much enjoyed the constraints and particularities the 1914 setting gave the book---particularly the canny use of the women's suffrage movement (normally so dry, no pun intended)---but I never felt the historicism got in the way of the book's or the characters' depth, or the tight plotting.
Read The Lifeboat if you wished Titanic was directed by Roman Polanski. If you liked the literary creepiness of Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger, or the manipulative self-consciousness of the narrator of We Need to Talk About Kevin, than this one is for you.
In other words, The Lifeboat is delicious treat, and just the sort of beach read that will make you appreciate the dry land at your feet and look at your fellow beach goers with a bit of a shudder. ...more
Picking up GONE GIRL is like winning the lottery when you're in the mood for a smart, literary thriller. GONE GIRL does that great thing the thrillersPicking up GONE GIRL is like winning the lottery when you're in the mood for a smart, literary thriller. GONE GIRL does that great thing the thrillers: it's a world of incredibly heightened plotting and dangers, yet so many of the fears---not knowing the people you love, that others' charms are just manipulation, that your own weaknesses are as readable as a book---hit very close to home. This is in part because the plotting is so virtuosic, while the characters, in all their dark flaws and compulsions, hit creepily close to home. I kept thinking, "I know that girl," "I've dated that guy." and then wanting to make sure my door was locked and my computer thoroughly password protected. The sharpness of the social and gender politics observations made the boa constrictor tightness of the plot all the more gut punching. Who hasn't been advised to "fake it until you make it"? GONE GIRL's (and the gone girl's) resolutions are the pathological conclusion of that maxim. I also thought Flynn's vision of the insidiously competitive side of dating in bourgeois-bohemian New York felt right on, as did the equal toxic desperation of the Missouri exburb where our characters end up.
I felt a kind of relief after I put the book down, to return to my world of trustworthy people, but what a dark, wonderful trip. ...more
How de-lightful this one was. The pleasures of RULES OF CIVILITY were so unexpected. Sure, it promised a good quotient of Old New York glamour, and deHow de-lightful this one was. The pleasures of RULES OF CIVILITY were so unexpected. Sure, it promised a good quotient of Old New York glamour, and delivered, but its real pleasures were a little more beneath the surface. I can't remember the last time I read a contemporary book with a heroine this likable and believable. Ambitious and striving, witty and self-aware, it's as if Peggy Olson got to be the star of her own novel. I also love that Katey Kontent's story wasn't simply a love story but about something much bigger, a kind of amiable dissection of how we become who were are. I also can't remember anything that captured so well what it's like to live in New York in your twenties, and then, to look back on it, not with regret, but with appreciation.
If you love THE GROUP, Whit Stillman movies or Edith Wharton, pick this one up.