book review: Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

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FLEISHMAN IS IN TROUBLE by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
★★★☆☆
Random House, 2019

 

This book was a bit of a rollercoaster for me: I loved it and I hated it, I found it brilliant and I found it frustrating.  I was actually expecting very little from it (books about rich people’s marriages failing just aren’t my thing; see: Fates and Furies) so on the whole I’d categorize it as a pleasant surprise, though I do have a few too many qualms to raise my rating higher than a solid 3 star.

What I found brilliant about this book was the character work.  As others have said ad nauseum, every character in this book is deplorable, and if that’s a problem for you, you aren’t going to get anything out of this.  I didn’t like Toby and Rachel, I didn’t find them sympathetic, and I found the stakes (how ever will this family survive on Toby’s $200k salary alone!) mind-numbingly low.  So I suppose it’s to Brodesser-Akner’s credit that I was invested.  I did care about whether these annoying kids would have to be uprooted from their life.  I did care about whether Rachel would resume the mantel of motherhood, or whether she had abandoned her family for good.  And I think the reason for that is that every major character in this book felt so thoroughly fleshed out and human.  This is a book about fallible people failing; it’s a train wreck that you can’t look away from.  That’s exactly what it sets out to be, and it succeeds magnificently in that regard.

What I found frustrating about this book was the structure.  For one thing, it was overly long: this could have been an intimate, thorough excavation of this marriage, and still been 150 pages shorter.  It wasn’t the page-count alone that bothered me: it was the fact that flashbacks were awkwardly woven into the narrative in a way that was like ‘Toby saw a family with three kids get on the subway.  He and Rachel used to want to have three kids.  [Cue 8 page backstory about that.]’  Incessantly.  It felt rather amateurishly constructed in this regard.

My biggest problem though was the book’s choice of narrator.  Full disclosure: first person minor rarely ever works for me, and this was not the book to change my mind.  It’s not narrated by Toby or Rachel, but rather Libby, one of Toby’s college friends who becomes invested in their marriage.  I found this to be such a flimsy framing device that ultimately didn’t add very much, and there were a few painfully on the nose moments where the author aimed for a larger commentary about how Libby’s role in the narrative was being sidelined (middle aged women are invisible, etc), but the fact that it was the author’s own narrative choice to sideline Libby made the whole thing a bit of an eye-roll.

So anyway, a mixed bag, but I certainly got a lot more out of this than I had expected to.  I do think it’s a brilliant commentary on marriage and the sort of contradictory societal expectations placed on women, and if that sounds appealing to you and you’re willing to navigate through it with loathsome characters, I would recommend it.


Women’s Prize 2020 reviewsDominicana | Fleishman is in Trouble | Girl | Girl, Woman, Other | How We Disappeared | Red at the BoneWeather


You can pick up a copy of Fleishman is in Trouble here on Book Depository.

not a book review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

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A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM by William Shakespeare
★★★★★
originally published in 1595

 

This is more of a diary entry than a book review which I have never done before, but… times are weird!

One of my friends had a BRILLIANT idea to organize a Shakespeare read-through over Zoom this weekend. (The irony is lost on none of us that we’re essentially reenacting Station Eleven.) A group of us divvied up parts and read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which, incidentally, is the play in which I made my acting debut as Mustardseed the fairy when I was 11. I was angling for Puck so that casting decision came as quite the blow. It felt redemptive to read as Hippolyta last night, a slightly meatier role.

Anyway, all silliness aside, times are tough right now and I know a lot of us are having difficulties concentrating on our usual sorts of escapism, which for most of us includes reading. This virtual Shakespeare production amongst a group of friends was such a fun distraction that we’re going to make it a weekly thing, proceeding with The Tempest next weekend. If you have a friend group who’d be down for this kind of thing (it doesn’t have to be Shakespeare – you could do any play or movie script), I HIGHLY recommend it. It’s the only 2 hours this week that I’ve felt truly switched off from the constant news stream and existential dread that’s been eating away at me. That’s why I thought I’d share – there’s so much discourse floating around about how you need to Make The Most of this quarantine to clean your house and learn a new language and write the next great American novel, but I think what we really need are lower-stakes, delightfully distracting and unproductive projects like reading Shakespeare with your friends around the globe with a glass of wine.

Hope you all are staying safe and healthy!  Tell me something fun and silly you’ve done to help you through the pandemic?

book review: Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden

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LONG LIVE THE TRIBE OF FATHERLESS GIRLS
by T Kira Madden
★★★★★
Bloomsbury, 2019

 

Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls was a breath of fresh air.  If you isolate many of its thematic elements and you read a lot of this type of memoir, there’s plenty of familiarity – coming of age, coming to terms with queerness, racial identity, sexual assault, trauma, drugs, love, family ties.  But T Kira Madden does something completely unique with it, revealing enough of her life to the reader in each chapter to keep us absorbed, yet employing a non-linear structure so faultlessly that its full impact cannot be felt until you turn the final page.

Set mostly in Boca Raton where Madden grew up, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls chronicles a childhood marked both by privilege and instability (she grew up with many material comforts being related to the Steve Madden shoe dynasty, but under the guardianship of neglectful parents battling addiction).  Each chapter, charting a different period of Madden’s life, is in its own way fresh, dynamic, and heart-wrenching, but the titular chapter is probably the stand-out – the depiction of the tight bonds of teenage girlhood underscored by Madden’s burgeoning sexual awakening made my heart hurt – as well as the final chapter that so brilliantly ties the whole book together.

It’s hard to talk about this book without getting into specifics which would neuter some of the impact if you know too much of what to expect, but I can’t say enough good things about it and about Madden’s prose.  It was gentle, visceral, intricate, and structured with a kind of careful deliberation that ultimately elevates what was already going to be an exquisite book.


You can pick up a copy of Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls here on Book Depository.

book review: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee

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HOW WE DISAPPEARED by Jing-Jing Lee
★★★★☆
Hanover Square Press, 2019

 

Set in Singapore, How We Disappeared centers on Wang Di, an elderly woman who survived Japanese occupation during WWII by being forced into serving as a comfort woman.  We follow her present-day narrative as well as seeing flashbacks to the war, which comprise the bulk of this novel.  Meanwhile we also follow Kevin, a teenage boy whose grandmother has just made a shocking confession on her death bed, which propels Kevin to dig into his family history.

I found this to be an occasionally frustrating and messy yet ultimately satisfying read.  Its main strength was Jing-Jing Lee’s skill at immersing the reader, and the chapters set during WWII really came to life.  I do think a bit too much of the narrative focused on Kevin – not to the detriment of Wang Di’s narrative, as I felt that her sections were properly fleshed out – it’s more that Kevin himself added very little as a character.  I tend to prefer historical fiction that doesn’t have a past/present framing, and this was no exception; I kept wishing it would stay in the 1940s.  That said, I do feel that Jing-Jing Lee ultimately justified this narrative decision with the way the story wrapped up, even if it wouldn’t have been my first choice of how to tell it.

But where I felt this book really excelled was Jing-Jing Lee’s descriptions of Wang Di’s life as a comfort woman, but then also in the depiction of the aftermath.  The shame and stigma attached to these young women after they returned home was a heartbreaking thing to reckon with, but I felt the book was strengthened by Lee’s willingness to confront this head-on.  I know that we in the book community collectively feel a bit of fatigue where WWII novels are concerned, but I felt that this one was a worthwhile read – impeccably researched and harrowing while still providing a strong and compelling narrative.  (If you’re going to read one book about sexual slavery off the Women’s Prize longlist, make it this one instead of Girl.)


You can pick up a copy of How We Disappeared here on Book Depository.


Women’s Prize 2020 reviewsDominicana | Fleishman is in Trouble | Girl | Girl, Woman, Other | How We Disappeared | Red at the Bone | Weather

book review: The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

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THE SPINNING HEART by Donal Ryan
★★★★★
Doubleday Ireland, 2012

 

The Spinning Heart is just tremendously, unbelievably good.  Set in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, Donal Ryan chronicles the impact of the recession on a close-knit rural community.  With about twenty different points of view, the chapters are short, each a couple of pages long, and the novel is bookended by chapters from a married couple, Bobby and Triona.  Bobby is the novel’s central character, each of the other characters connected to his story in some way, but it’s hard to give a plot synopsis without giving anything away.  Suffice to say it opens with the brilliant lines “My father still lives back the road past the weir in the cottage I was reared in.  I go there every day to see is he dead and every day he lets me down.”

Though The Spinning Heart is Ryan’s debut, this is my third novel by him, and I think it’s safe to say that it’s cemented him as one of my all-time favorites.  His prose is just top-notch, lyrical and evocative, and he has a way of capturing the distinct voice of each of his narrators while still allowing his own style to creep in – I just find it so compelling and pleasurable to read any of his books.  The plot isn’t heavy in this one, though there’s a kidnapping and a murder going on in the background, but it was still hard for me to put it down.  In fact, I’d recommend reading it in as few sittings as possible, lest you begin to forget the hundred names you’re meant to be keeping track of.  Though I’d argue that if you forget who’s who a couple of times, as long as you remember who Bobby is, the impact won’t really be lessened.  This ultimately succeeds as a portrait of a community economically depressed, and is more about the overall effect that Ryan achieves with the panoply of voices, rather than the intricacies of the characters’ lives.

Anyway, as I’m sure you can tell, I loved this. Maybe not QUITE as much as I loved All We Shall Know, but it’s close.


You can pick up a copy of The Spinning Heart here on Book Depository.

book review: Girl by Edna O’Brien

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GIRL by Edna O’Brien
★☆☆☆☆
FSG, 2019

 

Girl is a novel which should have been an essay.  I think Edna O’Brien’s conviction and passion for the Nigerian women abducted by Boko Haram does shine through – that was the main thing I was worried about when approaching this book.  I still remain unconvinced that Edna O’Brien (a white Irish woman) was the right person to tell this story, but I’m somewhat mollified by the fact that she demonstrably did her homework and put quite a lot of research into this endeavor.  However, the result, to me, was something that would have worked better as a long-form essay than a fictional book; it felt like the novel’s central conceit was to show the horrors that these girls went through, which did not translate to particularly believable characters or compelling storytelling – I just kept asking myself why I wasn’t seeing a different version of this project as an essay in the New York Times.

One struggle I was not expecting to have with this book was with O’Brien’s prose, but that actually ended up being one of the main issues for me.  Structurally it left a lot to be desired; every time a new character was introduced, Maryam’s first-person narration would be interrupted, and we would switch to an italicized segment, also first-person, where the character would narrate their life story for several pages.  It felt like the linguistic equivalent of flashbacks – a storytelling convention that I always find lazy.

What was even odder was the disjointed fusion of past and present tense.  As a veteran author I want to credit O’Brien with the benefit of the doubt here and say she was trying to achieve something with this, but to me it just felt like the book hadn’t been proofread.  Example:

‘They don’t.  They can’t.’  She was trembling so badly she had to hold on to a pillar.  She refuses a drink of water.
‘I want to be normal,’ she says, the voice urgent.
‘You are normal,’ I say, although I too am jangled.
‘Maybe we can meet up,’ she said and for the first time, she smiled.
‘I am going home, Rebeka.’  I blurted it out, I had to.
‘They will reject you… They will turn you out,’ her voice ugly and spiteful.
‘I have a baby,’ I said, thinking it wiser to tell her.
‘A baby!’  She was aghast.  It was all she wanted.

There’s a lot more that didn’t work for me: the pace of the first half of the novel hurtled by at breakneck speed as if it were running through a checklist of every horror imaginable, and the second half slowed to such a standstill all momentum was lost.  I felt emotionally numb reading this, which is particularly noteworthy given how graphic it is (trigger warnings for everything imaginable apply).  The exploration of trauma only ever felt surface-level; all I ever really learned about Maryam was about her identity as a mother; the more I read the less I understood O’Brien’s aims with this book.

Ultimately well-intentioned but too unfocused to make a huge impact.


If you think you will fare with it better than I did, you can pick up a copy of Girl here on Book Depository.


Women’s Prize 2020 reviews: Dominicana | Fleishman is in Trouble | Girl | Girl, Woman, Other | How We Disappeared | Red at the BoneWeather

book review: Weather by Jenny Offill

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WEATHER by Jenny Offill
★★☆☆☆
Knopf, 2020

 

I don’t think this is a bad book at all, I want to make that clear right away.  I think Jenny Offill is a talented writer, and that she achieves everything she set out to achieve with this little book, a potent commentary on the impossibility of balancing every day domesticity with encroaching anxiety about the climate crisis.

But with that said… I didn’t particularly like it?  I mostly found this book incredibly forgettable.  It was a short, breezy read, but for whatever reason I didn’t have time to read it in a single sitting, and every time I put it down and picked it back up, I couldn’t remember where I had left off.  I had to constantly remind myself who was who – Ben, Eli, Henry, I think were their names, but even now I couldn’t tell you who was the husband, brother, and son – and there was nothing about Lizzie’s story in particular that justified to me why this was the particular story that Offill chose to tell.  I ultimately just needed a bit more from it, but I think that’s on me rather than the author.  Maybe I’ve just read a few too many navel-gazing literary novels lately for this to shine through.


You can pick up a copy of Weather here on Book Depository.


Women’s Prize 2020 reviews: Dominicana | Fleishman is in Trouble | Girl | Girl, Woman, OtherHow We Disappeared | Red at the Bone | Weather