Sunday, December 10, 2017

My Education by Susan Choi

I admit it: I have a thing about academic novels.  And by that, I  mean novels that occur on campuses and are about characters that are entrenched in academia (think Donna Tartt's The Secret History or I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe). Combine this proclivity with my penchant for getting book recommendations from NPR and I'm in.  That's how I got to this book.

This isn't Susan Choi's first book - it's the most recent release by her but the first that I've read - and it's kind of typical in some ways. At the beginning of the novel, we are introduced to the young protagonist, a first year graduate student, who is taking literature classes at an East Coast University- I assumed it was the Northeast but that could totally have been my own experiences and biases coming into play. She's taking classes with Nicholas Brodeur, a celebrated academic, and Choi seems to set up a relationship between Brodeur and our main character, until a scene at a dinner party where Brodeur's wife, Martha, eclipses him by swooping in and hooking up with our main character!

This book details, in a painfully intimate fashion, the unfolding of this relationship between our main character (Regina) and Martha - Regina's almost teenage exuberance and expectations of it (she is only 21 or 22) and Martha's guilty ambivalence (married, thirties maybe and with a new child). This book is, thematically, most of all, about how different people navigate different relationships at different points in their lives.  This is driven home most poignantly by the book ending with Regina, fifteen years later, trying to navigate a wide variety of things from her marriage, to her career and other obligations that have given her a new perspective on what occurred when Regina was a mere 21.

What was also particularly interesting is how Choi takes on the sexual interests and love of two women who identified as straight.  In some ways, it's really interesting - she takes it seriously and tries to provide some literature about people who are bisexual (is it REALLY so that literature has been about straight or lesbian/gay couples but not about bisexual attractions? Maybe that's a loaded question for another time). Regina says, interestingly, that the sex of her lover wasn't an issue and was very nonchalant about it.  I got the opposite feeling from Martha. So in that sense, I respect this - this is LOVE BETWEEN TWO PEOPLE, not two women or two men or a man and a woman.  Their life stages - one married with the children and the other a 21 year old grad student - is what is problematic for them, not that they are in a same sex relationship.

That being said, I simply loved reading this novel.  Choi writes beautifully, elegantly and breathtakingly about this and I want to read her previous novels simply because of the grace and beauty of her writing. 

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Full Frontal Feminism by Jessica Valenti

Many know Jessica Valenti as the founder of Feministing, a feminist blog and website.  However, she's also a successful author. This book is more of a primer on feminism than an in depth analysis of the subject and is aimed at those who don't consider themselves feminists (think: "I'm not a feminist but..." and then insert something that is totally feminist, like equal pay for equal work.).

The book is written in a very colloquial style, which initially I really liked but then which really got on my nerves.  I understand and appreciate a more simple style of writing, but the overuse of curse words really took away from the valuable points that Ms. Valenti was trying to make. I feel like she lost credibility along the way. That being said, the point of the book was to ensure that the younger generation, who tends to believe that feminism is dead or not needed or not for them, understands why feminism is so important.  And since this was the goal, I found that Ms. Valenti adequately accomplished that goal. She provided numerous examples of why, even in this day and age, feminism is extremely important and necessary even where it might look different than what it did in our mothers' or grandmother's time.

Generally, a decent first shot, but I hope to find something better out there.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Last Policeman by Ben Winters

I have a confession:  I got this book out because I worked with Ben's brother, Andy and because it takes place mostly in Concord, NH, a city that I now work in and know somewhat well. That being said, I don't regret getting this book out at all and I actually really loved it.

It's not unusual to have a murder in a mystery.  A cast of unique and quirky characters with interesting backstories and even insurmountable odds. However, the insurmountable odd in this series is an asteroid that is inevitably going to hit the earth but no one knows where on the earth is going to hit exactly. In spite of this, Detective Palace of the Concord Police Department is investigating what he believes to be the homicide of a local insurance agent that was found hanging in the bathroom of a local fast food restaurant.  The fast food restaurant is obviously a Mickey D's although the company itself has gone out of business, as has Dunkin' Donuts (a sacrilege in New England). Cell phone service is getting more and more spotty. Many employees are going "bucket list" - they are quitting their jobs and their lives and trying to do everything that they wouldn't have done during their normal lives under normal circumstances.  This includes many police officers. Who wants to solve a murder when the world is going to end by the close of the year?

The insurance agent's body is found hanging in a seeming suicide but our protagonist thinks that it was a homicide and not a suicide and is dead set on proving that he's right. I found myself starting off thinking that Palace was just going to be a regular, dogged grunt.  But then I found myself giving him more and more respect as the very well written novel progressed. He followed his instincts and was persistent, dogged even, in attempting to find justice for his victim in the light of much heel digging and joking. The novel itself moves quickly and with confidence. I loved Detective Palace and I loved the premise of the book: in a time when everyone has an "I Don't Give a F***" attitude, I  was very happy to see someone who just went about his business.

Go get this - I'm about to go get the second novel in the trilogy!  :)

Monday, September 4, 2017

American Fire by Monica Hesse

As with most of the books I read, I heard about this one on NPR.  I am also on a true crime kick right now - think Making a Murderer, the Keepers, the disappearance of Maura Murray and Adnan Syed. So when I heard about this book, I was intrigued.

This book is non-fiction written by journalist Monica Hesse, in which she tries to determine the question of what really happened in a rural Southern county. In November, 2012 in Accomack County, Virginia, the first abandoned house went up in flames. It was a long night, even though no one died.  There were two further fires that night in the area, so firefighters were extremely busy. Over the course of a few months, firefighters were seemingly called out every night as further homes blazed - it was quickly determined that these were the works of an arsonist or arsonists.

What I particularly enjoyed about this book was Hesse's attempt to delve into the reasons that an arsonist would commit arson.  It's not just a property crime. In many ways, it's an emotional and psychological crime too - think pyromania or control issues or a desire to please or all three! It also impacted, in this case, the other residents of the community - while the structures that were set on fire were abandoned, the residents lived in fear that the fires could easily spread to their own homes and there was a tremendous amount of anxiety over not knowing who was committing the crimes.

Even though we learn very early on who did it, it is still unclear as to what the motivations were.  The buildings burned were abandoned and the arsonists didn't have insurance policies on them, so money wasn't the motivation. Hesse speculates it was about the intersection of things like poverty, codependence, hope, pride, sexual performance and risk.  The defendants - Charlie and his girlfriend Tonya - led extremely difficult lives. They lived hand to mouth.  Tonya's three children demanded a lot of attention for various reasons (even though all children demand attention).  At the end of the day, while both were ultimately convicted of their crimes, we still don't have a clear answer from them as to their motivations.

I found this book fascinating and very readable.  I couldn't put it down.  Highly recommended.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Ernest Hemingway by Mary Dearborn

I think like every American school attendee, I had to read Hemingway.  I clearly remember reading The Old Man and the Sea in 8th grade, but I didn't read any other Hemingway until recently. I admit, I hated The Old Man and the Sea, in part because I didn't get it.  After reading A Farewell to Arms, and knowing that Hemingway was troubled (at best on a good day) and downright psychotic at his worst, I wanted to learn more about him as a person.

Dearborn's book was very well researched - thorough and exacting - and yet, her story was compelling and her writing style accessible.  I learned a lot, in particular, about Hemingway's relationship with his mother Grace (who he really seemed to dislike and whom he blamed for his father's eventual suicide-that's another thing I learned.  It seems that for four consecutive generations, people in each generation of the Hemingway family committed suicide!). Hemingway was not able to write very much after World War II and his physical and mental health precipitously tanked during that time period. He had everything from high blood pressure to manic episodes and, it sounds like, a psychotic break, that Dearborn attempted to link to a traumatic brain injury that Hemingway received during the Second World War.

Ultimately, Dearborn was successful in describing a man that was tremendously flawed but also tremendously compelling. It was such a great read.  Definitely worth each and every page.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Widow by Fiona Barton

For a debut novel, this one wasn't too bad actually.  It is a mystery in the vein of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, with a female protagonist.

I'm not giving anything away here when I say that at the outset, you learn that a possible kidnapper and child molester has just died. All of England had been riveted by, obsessed even (think OJ here in the States), this trial - mainly because it involved a 2 year old girl and lots of intrigue. In the immediate aftermath of his death, his widow is a a very popular subject for an interview and reporter, Kate Waters, is really trying to get an interview with her - it's popularly believed that the widow knows more than she has let on.

I don't want to get too much into the plot because a novel like this relies upon slowly revealing tidbits of information, like peeling back the various layers of an onion.  The story comes out in pieces, told by the three main players that still remain alive: the widow, the reporter and the main detective on the case.  In a case and story such as this, this particular method of story-telling proves to be very effective. The chapters are short and quick, letting a busy reader take in the story in short bites (which, for me, was perfect!). And somehow, Ms. Barton manages to create a smooth continuum to the story, even though the chapters are told from different perspectives.

I enjoyed the novel because it caused me to think about a few topics:  how much spouses really and truly know about each other, when they find out that knowledge, how they react to it and what they decide to do with that knowledge.   For instance, would I stay with a person that was simply accused of such a thing?  What if I had a gut instinct that it was true but no hard evidence?  After the person's death would I willingly sell what knowledge I had for my own personal gain?  What would it cost me?

This is a deceptively simply written book that challenges the reader to think about all of these things while entertaining at the same time. 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Too Fat Too Slutty Too Loud by Anne Helen Peterson

I've always bee interested in gender studies. When I was in college, the study of gender was called women's studies and I'm happy that the name was changed to gender studies, because really, it's a study of both men's and women's roles and everything in between.  So when I saw this book, I was intrigued.

Anne Helen Peterson is a cultural critic at Buzzfeed and in this book, she creates a catalog of sorts of women who are "unmangeable" in the sense that they do not act in accord with the rules that society has placed on their gender. For instance, she looks at women who have been classified as too strong, too slutty, too shrill, too gross. She has everyone from Serena Williams to Lena Dunham and in each chapter, she dissects why these women have drawn sometimes negative attention, even though they've stayed close enough to the mainstream to be highly successful.

Each chapter starts out the same way - short statement of the problem and then a pretty in depth analysis of the societal norms that they defy. She doesn't push as far as she can, however and in some ways, that's disappointing to me.  At the same time, she can't really be blamed because perhaps she's trying to make her points to as many people as she can and change as many minds as she can. This can't be done if she's considered to be outside the pale.

This is an understated and brilliant book that should be added to your collection.

My Education by Susan Choi

I admit it: I have a thing about academic novels.  And by that, I  mean novels that occur on campuses and are about characters that are ent...