book review: Find Me by André Aciman | BookBrowse

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FIND ME by André Aciman
★★★★★
FSG, October 2019

 

In Call Me by Your Name, first published in 2007, André Aciman introduced Elio, an adolescent boy living with his family in the Italian Riviera, and Oliver, the charming graduate student houseguest with whom he falls in love. The book charts their passionate affair and concludes with a bittersweet crescendo; a tricky ending to expand into a sequel without sacrificing the perfect balance of realism and romanticism that caused Call Me by Your Name to resonate with so many readers. Find Me not only rises to that challenge but exceeds it. While a prior attachment to these characters is arguably necessary to get the full emotional payoff of the sequel, it could otherwise be read as a standalone; knowledge of the first book’s plot is not essential.

You can read the rest of my review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I did on popular literary sequels HERE.


You can pick up a copy of Find Me here on Book Depository, and Call Me By Your Name here.

book review: I’m Afraid of Men by Vivek Shraya

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I’M AFRAID OF MEN by Vivek Shraya
★★★★☆
Penguin Books Canada

 

A worthwhile, sobering account of Shraya’s own experiences with toxic masculinity and societal expectations of gender roles; hardly unfamiliar topics if you read a lot of this kind of nonfiction, but Shraya’s perspective as a queer trans woman of color is a valuable addition to the discourse, and I’d highly recommend this over a lot of similar books, especially if you’re looking for something short and punchy.

My only issue is that at 96 pages (or under 2 hours on audio, which is how I consumed it) this text sort of awkwardly sits in between long-form article and book in a way that suffers occasionally for its brevity.  Shraya’s societal observations are where this book shines, consistently; it’s in the details of her own life that the reader is left a bit wanting.  But as this is more essay than memoir it’s hard to fault it too much for that.  This was a very eye-opening read that I can see myself revisiting again and again.


You can pick up a copy of I’m Afraid of Men here on Book Depository.

book review: Cleanness by Garth Greenwell

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CLEANNESS by Garth Greenwell
★★★★☆
FSG, January 14, 2020

 

Cleanness is a sparse and melancholic novel about an American man living in Bulgaria.  His sexual encounters with other men – some of these encounters loving, some purely transactional – mostly take center stage in this story that unfolds across nine vignettes, in which the narrator reflects on the time he’s spent living and teaching in Sofia.

Greenwell’s linguistic prowess is this book’s greatest strength; I think On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is an obvious enough comparison, though they vary in subject matter – but these are the kind of novels that won’t appeal to anyone who grows weary of lyrical prose and introspection, who instead need a diverting plot or a strong attachment to characters.  (I have to wonder if I’m becoming such a reader, because my only qualm with this book was a certain lack of narrative cohesion that seemed to be beside the point entirely.)  But the writing is worth the price of admission alone:

“But none of this was right, I rejected the phrases even as they formed, not just because they were objectionable in themselves but because none of them answered his real fear, which was true, I thought: that we can never be sure of what we want, I mean of the authenticity of it, of its purity in relation to ourselves.”

The narrative mostly centers on the protagonist’s relationship with a man he calls R. – his ideal, pure image of R. in stark contrast to the degrading sex he seeks from other men after his relationship with R. crumbles.  This tension between cleanness and toxicity underscores his interactions, and the alienation he feels as he grapples with shame and desire can be acutely felt.  Cleanness is a challenging, sexually explicit book that isn’t going to be for everyone, but I found it fascinating for its insight and the prolonged sort of aching sadness it sustains.

Thank you to Netgalley and FSG for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.


You can pre-order a copy of Cleanness here on Book Depository.

book review: A Natural by Ross Raisin

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A NATURAL by Ross Raisin
★★★★☆
Random House, 2017

 

The thing that should not be underestimated as you read through my thoughts on A Natural is just how much I hate sports – which probably raises the question of why I decided a book about football/soccer to begin with, to which I can answer: if I had understood the extent to which this book is about football/soccer, I probably would not have picked in up in the first place. Instead I’d seen it billed as a coming-of-age novel about a gay footballer, and I suppose I thought the football/soccer would be mostly backdrop. Reader, it was not backdrop.

There’s a reason this book is 400 pages, and it’s because Ross Raisin details just about every single match, every single inner working of this low-level soccer club, with unerring precision. And for the first half of the book, it was frankly driving me mad. But then in the second half of the novel, when we start to dive into the meat of the story – our protagonist Tom beginning a relationship with the club’s groundskeeper – I found that my frustration with Raisin’s narrative choices was beginning to abate. Yes, I still found the soccer talk endlessly tedious, but the criticisms that I’d had (that soccer was the foreground, Tom’s story was the background, how does this make for a compelling narrative at all, why hadn’t an editor come at this manuscript with a machete) started to mostly* fly out the window, because it’s impossible to deny how well-crafted this book is. It’s a slow burn in every sense of the phrase: it’s a slow-paced story, and (unless you’re riveted by soccer) it withholds its rewards until you get to the end.

*I did have another criticism that never fully faded, though I began to understand it more in the second half: why certain chapters were given to the perspective of a married couple, one of Tom’s fellow footballers, Chris, and his wife Leah. Their story does dovetail with the central narrative and I do understand the decision to include their point of view, but I’m not convinced that we needed as much detail here as we got.

I know I’m doing a pretty poor job of selling this or explaining my 4 star rating (hang in there!), but the thing is, I’m not sure that this is a book I’d widely recommend. It takes patience and perseverance and if I were in the habit of DNFing I probably would have called it quits at the halfway mark. But if this sounds at all like a story you’re willing to commit to, it gets really, really good. Raisin navigates the homophobic world of professional sport with a deft hand, meditating with perception on themes of performative masculinity, shame, and the tension between the inner and outer selves. I think Raisin is a tremendously gifted writer, and the way he renders the relationship between Tom and Liam is so palpably fragile that it’s almost painful to read at times.  So while this book wasn’t perfectly targeted to my preferences as a reader, I do think it’s a gem of a book that I’m glad to have read… and ultimately to have stuck with.


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

book review: Lie With Me by Philippe Besson

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LIE WITH ME by Philippe Besson
translated by Molly Ringwald
★★★★☆
Scribner, April 30, 2019

 

Lie With Me felt to me like a cross between Call Me By Your Name and Tin Man, but stronger and less heady than the former, and more bitter and perhaps more ambitious than the latter. Translated beautifully from the French by Molly Ringwald (yes, that Molly Ringwald), Lie With Me tells the story of a love affair between two teenage boys in 1984 rural France, narrated years later by Philippe with the kind of mature perception that only time can bring.

Nothing about this story is new; homophobia, class disparity, and shame all chart the course for this short novel, whose inherent tragedy makes itself apparent to the reader in an exchange between Philippe and Thomas, the latter of whom lays their dynamic out plainly the very first time they speak (“you will leave and we will stay”) – but it felt immeasurably fresh nonetheless. Probably most interesting is the sharp contrast between Philippe, whose candid narration reads as more of a confession than a monologue, and Thomas, who remains largely unknown except for the parts of himself that he allows Philippe to see. The character work is deceptively impressive, and Besson’s unrelenting attention to these characters’ similar and disparate vulnerabilities effectively cultivates an atmosphere of longing and regret and anxiety.

There’s something I can’t quite put my finger on that’s holding me back from the full 5 stars (maybe I should have read this in one sitting, I think that might be it), but this is a very strong 4.5, and one of the more accomplished novels that I’ve read recently. Ultimately it’s an intimate, erotic, sparse yet hard-hitting read that ends with one of the saddest sentences that I think I’ve ever read, and if that doesn’t make you want to rush out and read this 160 page book immediately, I don’t know what will.

Thank you to Netgalley and Scribner for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.


You can pre-order a copy of Lie With Me here on Book Depository.

book review: The Parting Glass by Gina Marie Guadagnino

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THE PARTING GLASS by Gina Marie Guadagnino
★★★★☆
Atria, March 5, 2019

 

What a lush and lovely book. I picked up The Parting Glass partially on a whim, but it captivated me practically from the first page. It tells the story of lady’s maid Maire O’Farren, alias Mary Ballard, an Irish immigrant employed by the beautiful young mistress Charlotte Walden in 19th century New York. Maire is captivated by Charlotte to the point of obsession, but Charlotte is having an affair with the stable groom, who happens to be Maire’s twin brother. Through this awkward love triangle of sorts, The Parting Glass explores passion and obsession and sexuality and corruption and social unrest in a turbulent period of American and Irish history, and it does so with a gripping, pacy story that I could not put down.

One thing I loved about this book was its rich historical detail. In the afterward you can get a sense of the amount of research that Gina Marie Guadagnino put into this novel, and it really does show the whole way through. Though she never pulls the historical context to the forefront in a distracting way, she still firmly establishes the setting, which she could have easily downplayed in favor of the various romantic subplots. Instead, this is actually an impressive piece of historical fiction that focuses on the reception of Irish immigrants to America in the 19th century – not exactly untread territory, but it’s handled in a way that feels relevant and immediate.

The other huge strength of this book for me was Maire’s relationship with her brother Seanin. With a mother who died in childbirth and a father who died when they were young, growing up in Ireland Maire and Seanin were inseparable, and it’s not until they move to the US that cracks in their relationship begin to form, Charlotte only acting as a catalyst for a rift that runs much deeper. I thought it was a fantastic depiction of a close, intense relationship that can easily flip the switch from love to hate. While Maire and Seanin’s characterization was brilliant, I would have liked to have seen a bit more of Charlotte, though I’m wondering if her character was kept deliberately hazy as a reflection of Maire’s idolization.

I will say, to anyone picking this up because of its Fingersmith comparison, don’t expect Sarah Waters’ quality of prose (I haven’t read Fingersmith, but I have read Waters before). Though I do think Guadagnino has a fantastic command of language, this isn’t quite on that same literary level, which I point out only because I imagine that’s going to be the main criticism held against this novel. It almost feels overly dismissive to call this a beach read for Waters fans, but there may be some truth to that; it’s certainly a clever book, but not half as dense as Waters. But I’d recommend you just ignore that comparison and enjoy it for what it is – a gem of lesbian historical fiction with compelling characters and a well-developed political backdrop.

Thank you to Edelweiss and Atria for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

You can pick up a copy of The Parting Glass here on Book Depository.

book review: Disobedience by Naomi Alderman

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DISOBEDIENCE by Naomi Alderman
★★☆☆☆
Penguin, 2007

For the most part I enjoyed reading Disobedience, but it’s one of those books that’s somehow greater than the sum of its parts. I was having a hard time putting my finger on what exactly was working for me about this, because when I started to pick it apart, I realized there wasn’t a whole lot to praise. It wasn’t the writing, certainly, which I found rather sophomoric (more on that in a minute); it wasn’t the plot, which was quite paint-by-numbers; and it wasn’t the characters, who were pretty flat archetypes and essentially just mouthpieces for Alderman’s ideas, completely with stilted dialogue that doesn’t even begin to resemble how real human beings converse. But it was something, I guess, because it had a very readable quality to it and I certainly wouldn’t dissuade others from checking it out.

I think if I had to choose the one thing that really stood out to me about this novel, it was the setting. It takes place in an Orthodox Jewish community in London, and focuses on the romance between Ronit (the rebellious, wayward daughter of a renowned Rabbi who’s recently died) and Esti (the submissive, conservative housewife who’s miserable from deeply internalizing religious doctrine). While neither of these characters felt as fleshed out as they could be, what did feel very rich and textured for me was each of their relationships with Judaism; this community did feel very real to me and the sermons which began each chapter were an effective tool for immersing the reader in these characters’ ideologies.

I haven’t yet read Alderman’s Women’s Prize-winning novel The Power, which received a lot of critical praise but which is not particularly adored among my circle of reader friends. I still intend to read The Power, but if the writing style is anything like it was in Disobedience, I think I’m beginning to understand the criticism. There were some individual sentences in here which I highlighted because I thought they were striking, but there were even more which caused me to roll my eyes, if only because Alderman has a habit of repeating the same words and phrases and ideas ad nauseum. On a sentence-by-sentence example, let’s take this:

Far away, very very far away, I made a sleek black telephone on a pale wood desk ring.

I thought okay, that’s an interesting way to describe making a phone call. But then Alderman does the exact same thing again:

I dialed the number and, a quarter of the way across the world, I made a British number appear on a black telephone on a blond-wood desk.

This whole book had a circuitous nature to it, where it felt like Alderman was taking the longest possible way to make a simple point. On the more thematic level, we’re frankly bashed over the head with Alderman’s pontifications on man’s capacity for disobedience, and the societal expectation of silencing women. It’s not that I disagree with anything that she’s saying – in fact, several of these points I did find rather stimulating to mull over – but when you use the word ‘silence’ a grand total of sixty-six times in your novel, maybe you should consider that you’re laying it on a bit heavy.

And then there’s the ending – admittedly this critique is tied up inextricably in my personal preferences, but if there’s one kind of ending I cannot stand, especially in literary fiction, it’s when everything is wrapped up neatly in a nice bow; all conflicts resolved and all character arcs completed. I think there’s something so dissatisfying about following characters on a journey through a novel and essentially being told ‘their story ends here, no need to think about this any further, everything’s fine’ at the end. I can’t tell you how much I hate that. Coupled with the downright corny resolution, I did not finish Disobedience on a high.

So, I don’t know. It started around 4 stars for me, dropped to 3 stars somewhere in the middle when the repetition got to be a bit much, and ended up around 2 because of how much I hated the ending. But I didn’t hate this book, I just didn’t think it lived up to its potential. Solidly 2.5 for me – I may reevaluate and change to 3 later.