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Reflection: The Reconstructionist by Nick Arvin

26 Mar

One of the most difficult things to do as a book blogger is write a review of a book that you didn’t love or hate, that you had “meh” feelings about. What’s worse is when you don’t know why you had those feelings. (I’m totally not making you excited to read this post, aren’t I?) With Nick Arvin’s new novel, The Reconstructionist I am torn about my feelings for sure, but I thankfully can point to the exact reasons. Which is why I’m writing this review only a few weeks after I finish the book, while it’s fresh. Aren’t you proud?

I absolutely loved half of this book – the first quarter and the last quarter. The middle half I was pretty much just pushing myself through it, in the hopes that there would be a pay-off at the end. And there was, a great, well-crafted pay-off. The middle though. It was rough. Here’s the synopsis from

At a loose end after college, Ellis Barstow drifts back to his home town and a strange profession: reconstructing fatal traffic accidents. He seems to take to the work immediately, and forms a bond with his boss and mentor, John Boggs, an intriguing character of few but telling words.

Yet Ellis is harbouring a secret. He was drawn to the reconstructionist’s grisly world by the fatal crash that killed his half-brother Christopher and that still haunts him; in fact his life has been shaped by car accidents. Boggs, in his exacting way, would argue that ‘accident’ is not the right word, that if two cars meeting at an intersection can be called an accident then anything can – where we live, what we do, even who we fall in love with.

For Ellis these things are certainly no accident. And he harbours a second, more dangerous secret, one that threatens to blow apart the men’s lives and which, as the story’s quiet momentum builds, leads to a desperate race towards confrontation, reconciliation and survival.

There is a lot of suspense built into this story, and Arvin does a great job at using the suspense of the story and giving the reader just enough to keep them going. I’m pretty sure that those little nuggets and hints are what kept me going through the very quiet middle to the end, where – as promised – all is revealed. Ellis is a complicated and well-rendered character, who is ultimately relatable and very real. His life is defined by a series of events on which he really has very little direct impact. But he is profoundly driven by them, whether he admits that to himself or not.

If you’re at all aware of the pattern of books that are…problematic… for me, you know that high on the list of issues I have is believability. Plot is usually my main motivating element as a reader, and while this had a strong undercurrent of plot complexity, a lot of it was character heavy. And character heavy in a way that, to me, was beyond my ability to take it seriously.

**SPOILER ALERT** (If you haven’t read it, skip this next paragraph.)

Most of the middle half of the book is a spiritual quest for Ellis and Boggs though it’s not clear exactly what each of them are seeking out. The moment at the lake when they meet over a dead body,  I actually said out loud, “Are you serious?” The journey until that point had been a stretch for me – why these men would start visiting old crash sites wasn’t a stretch, but I had a hard time understanding Boggs’ motivation. Ellis’ were clear enough – the man was totally and completely guilt driven – but I don’t think until Boggs went off the map, there was any sign of an impending breakdown. His drive wasn’t clear to me, and therefore Ellis’ reasons for following him started to go off the rails. The dead body that neither of them seem all that surprised to see was the point at which I mentally scoffed and stopped having faith in the narrative. And then the fact that neither of them call the cops until it’s basically an afterthought? The believability factor was a distant memory in that moment for me.


I do like the way that the book ended, and though it had the potential to feel hokey, I don’t at all think it was. It felt like the right and inevitable end to the story. The plot wrapped up neatly enough that the suspense created early in the book felt justified and logical. I think that I would’ve really liked this book had the middle half been significantly shortened and/or felt like less of a hallucination. I’m not sure if that was the intention – I know that unintentional sleep-deprivation is a huge part of Ellis’ journey – but I needed more from the story to justify that tonal and narrative shift from the beginning and the end. I know as I was nearing the end of the book I had a realization that it felt a little like the author had a page count to hit, so he fattened up the middle to meet that goal. I doubt very much this is actually the case, but that’s never a good feeling to have about a novel.

In the end, the means by which each of the characters arrives to their separate fates wasn’t enough for me. I didn’t see how the journey was necessary to reach some greater level of self-actualization or greater level of understanding about each other and the past. To me, Ellis could have reached the same conclusions without the epic quest and there wasn’t much new gained by that trip. Arvin certainly wanted there to be more, I could see that in the writing, but I didn’t see that it was realized successfully.

My poor review is all well and good, but I have seen great reviews of this book from several people I trust. I would encourage you to read it, and see if you agree with me. Was I too impatient was the subtly of the narrative? Did I miss something about the characters that made it all come together for you?

As I said, having mixed feelings about a book is tough. It’s tough as a reader, and it’s tough for someone who might think about picking it up. If it counts for anything, I have no compunction about not finishing books, and there was enough good and interesting in this book to make me finish it, and finish it quickly. The writing was beautiful, and I enjoyed the actual reading of it, if I was lukewarm about the final product as a whole.


Quick Hit: The Underside of Joy by Seré Prince Halverson

3 Feb

It’s really very difficult to suppress the urge to apologize at the beginning of every post I write now. Yes, my lapse between posts is ridiculous; yes, I’m super busy; and yes, unfortunately, this blog has to take a backseat. I wish it were different, but, alas it’s not. If you’re still reading my blog, I appreciate the loyalty, but we all just have to accept that the posts are going to be sporadic at best.

That being said, sometimes you stumble across a book that you just feel deserves the attention you’ve been neglecting elsewhere. Seré Prince Halverson’s debut novel, The Underside of Joy, is one of those books.

Halverson’s first book is notable not only because it was rescued from the slush pile where unsolicited manuscripts wait for an assistant to fall in love with them, but also because it IS her first. So many first books are clumsy or have odd pacing or feel forced. This book has none of that.

From the author’s website:

To Ella Beene, happiness means living in the Northern California river town of Elbow with her husband, Joe, and his two young children. For three years, Ella has been the only mother the kids have known. But when Joe drowns off the coast, his ex-wife shows up at his funeral, intent on reclaiming the children. Ella must fight to prove they should remain with her while she struggles to save the family’s market. With wit and determination, she delves beneath the surface of her marriage, finally asking the questions she most fears, the answers jeopardizing everything and everyone she most loves.

Rather than the fairy tale version of step-motherhood that pits good against evil, The Underside of Joy explores a complex relationship between two women who both consider themselves to be the children’s mother. Their conflict uncovers a map of scars — physical and emotional — to their families’ deeply buried tragedies, including Italian internment camps during WWII and postpartum depression and psychosis.

First of all, can I just say how much I adore the name “Ella Beene” for this character??

Secondly, the thing that I loved most about The Underside of Joy (and there were many things to pick from) is that, in a book that is set up as step-mother against mother, there really isn’t a good guy and a bad guy. Even though the book is told entirely from Ella’s perspective, Halverson manages to elicit empathy for both women – not an easy feat when the basic narrative structure invites a stark dichotomy between characters. But Halverson recognizes that life is not that simple, and nor are relationships and children. And because there’s no clear-cut winner or loser in this battle, there seems to be no easy answer or neat ending on the horizon. It is absolutely one of the most compelling conflicts I’ve read in a long time, and I absolutely ached for everyone involved.

Third, I have to admire an author that absolutely sells the story. I mean that in the best way possible, I promise. The time frame in The Underside of Joy initially feels too short for all the things that have happened, to happen. A mother gives birth for the second time, leaves her husband and children, the husband falls in love with someone else and gets married, and they are blissfully happy, all in three short years? I’m not sure why that felt like such a short timeline, but it did. Had Halverson not completely convinced me of why and how that was, not only feasible, but necessary for the story to progress as it does, I would’ve been much less impressed and far more dismissive of this as a typical first novel.

Highly recommended.

P.S. I really want to live in a town called Elbow. Just sayin’.

Must-Read: The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon

12 Oct

How is it possible that not long ago in this country the deaf were considered “feebleminded?” Or that those we now consider developmentally delayed or mentally challenged were institutionalized in facilities that employed people more like prison guards than caretakers? How is it that these people were treated so poorly, not so long ago, and considered so much less deserving of personhood to be denied the simple right to love? Rachel Simon’s novel The Story of Beautiful Girl not only asks these questions, it asks much smaller ones too. Ones about love and parenthood and loyalty and promises.

It is 1968. Lynnie, a young white woman with a developmental disability, and Homan, an African American deaf man, are locked away in an institution, the School for the Incurable and Feebleminded, and have been left to languish, forgotten. Deeply in love, they escape, and find refuge in the farmhouse of Martha, a retired schoolteacher and widow. But the couple is not alone-Lynnie has just given birth to a baby girl. When the authorities catch up to them that same night, Homan escapes into the darkness, and Lynnie is caught. But before she is forced back into the institution, she whispers two words to Martha: Hide her. And so begins the 40-year epic journey of Lynnie, Homan, Martha, and baby Julia-lives divided by seemingly insurmountable obstacles, yet drawn together by a secret pact and extraordinary love.

It’s difficult to overstate the impact that this book had on me. Not only is the opening scene of the book captivating – Simon sets the tone of the book beautifully – but the suspense factor of the book completely sucks you in – will this family ever be reunited? It’s a question that drives you through the story, as it takes turns you don’t expect and travels decades beyond the moment of surrender in Martha’s farmhouse. Under the surface, there’s always this force propelling you to the end; that not knowing gives the novel more suspense than many traditional thrillers or crime novels. Because in those genres, the expectation is usually that the story ends well, the good guy triumphs, and the bad guy loses. But The Story of Beautiful Girl doesn’t have a good guy or a bad guy and because it’s literary fiction, there’s absolutely no guarantee there will be a happy ending – or even an ending that wraps up neatly. So you keep turning pages hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.

Each of the characters could easily become one-dimensional, particularly Lynnie and Homan, who are defined by the world in terms limited to their disabilities. But Simon deftly transfers the narrative point of view and gives each character an equal part in telling the story. And because we get first person POV from every major character, not only does the story come together in a really rich way, the narrators are deeply wrought and complex in their actions and emotional portrayal. My heart broke for Lynnie and Homan – and Julia. Like, I had my hand on my chest at points, holding my breathe, waiting for something good or something bad.

Beyond the emotional factor, the social commentary behind the novel is astounding. And that’s the part, I think, that has stayed with me most. The voices of the characters are fantastic, but the time and situation they are forced to cope with – no, not cope with – survive is harrowing. I knew that our country’s history of institutionalization was not good (understatement of the century), but I don’t think I really grasped what it was like, looking from the inside out. It was scary, plain and simple. Simon has some clout when it comes to the subject matter: she wrote a memoir, Riding the Bus with My Sister: A True Life Journey, about her mentally handicapped sister’s struggle with every day life. Lynnie’s voice – perhaps because of Simon’s personal experience – is nothing if not authentic. I really believed her narrative, and that belief lent weight and legitimacy to the rest of the story. (As as side note, I also loved, loved Kate’s voice as well. She’s an employee of the institution where Homan and Lynnie escape from, and I was rooting her on in her mission to end the injustices put upon the “inmates.”)

Lest you think me nothing but a fan girl, I had just a few issues with the book, namely in terms of the plot staying on track. There are a few places, particularly later in the timeline, that I felt the plot went off kilter and I wasn’t sure entirely how the jaunt related to the larger story. Also some of the timing, particularly with ages, threw me a little. But none of these concerns were enough to dissuade my adoration for the book by the time I was done.

As a final note, one of the themes that carried throughout the book was that of storytelling and books. I loved this quote in particular:

A book wasn’t something you could open anywhere and then flip to anywhere else. You opened it at the front and went forward, and the pages went from one to the next, each adding to the last, and the story grew more exciting with each page. It was like the way corn grew from the seed that got planted in spring to the tall rows you hid inside in the fall. A story grew.

Highly recommended.

One-Sitting Books: We the Animals by Justin Torres

22 Sep

Of all the buzzy books that I’ve read this year, Justin Torres’ debut We the Animals is the one that has most lived up to the hype. At only 128 pages, but filled with raw emotion and sparse language, the piece defies definition. Closer to a novella than anything else, the language and tone of the book is equally poetry as it is prose, a collection of moments as much as it is a story with a narrative arc. Torres has created, as it’s been described, “a gut punch to the soul.” Told from inside the world of three brothers in upstate New York, the children of a Puerto Rican father and a white mother, they are as tight and insulated as it gets. Their childhood, as narrated by the youngest of the three, is chaotic and confusing, but filled with love. Their father is abusive and their mother is depressive, but the boys survive together, each one a little wiser with age. The opening excerpt of the novella gives a good picture of the entire tone and sense of wonderment embedded in the sentences:

We all three sat at the kitchen table in our raincoats, and Joel smashed tomatoes with a small rubber mallet. We had seen it on TV: a man with an untamed mustache and a mallet slaughtering vegetables, and people in clear plastic ponchos soaking up the mess, having the time of their lives. We aimed to smile like that. We felt the pop and smack of tomato guts exploding; the guts dripped down the walls and landed on our cheeks and foreheads and congealed in our hair. When we ran out of to­matoes, we went into the bathroom and pulled out tubes of our mother’s lotions from under the sink. We took off our raincoats and positioned ourselves so that when the mallet slammed down and forced out the white cream, it would get everywhere, the creases of our shut-tight eyes and the folds of our ears.

Our mother came into the kitchen, pulling her robe shut and rubbing her eyes, saying, “Man oh man, what time is it?” We told her it was eight-fifteen, and she said fuck, still keeping her eyes closed, just rubbing them harder, and then she said fuck again, louder, and picked up the teakettle and slammed it down on the stove and screamed, “Why aren’t you in school?”

It was eight-fifteen at night, and besides, it was a Sunday, but no one told Ma that. She worked graveyard shifts at the brewery up the hill from our house, and sometimes she got confused. She would wake randomly, mixed up, mistaking one day for another, one hour for the next, order us to brush our teeth and get into PJs and lie in bed in the middle of the day; or when we came into the kitchen in the morning, half asleep, she’d be pulling a meat loaf out of the oven, saying, “What is wrong with you boys? I been calling and calling for dinner.”

The prose is lyrical and raw, but the thing I found most consuming was the way Torres handles revelation. I felt like I’d been dropped in the middle of this work and I had to use both hands to figure my way through it all. In a lot of books that would be a serious problem, but Torres’ writing has a way of being both elegant and concrete, relatable and still poetic. I have a hard time not saying too many good things about this book. It truly is a gut punch, but a word of warning: you’re not gonna get it for the first 98% of the book. You’ll be tempted to send me an email, and go, “Um Rach, what are you smoking? This is pretty good, but where can all this possibly be headed?” Keep going. The pay-off is coming, and it’s worth it, I promise. The not understanding and the lack of plot will come together. Pinky swear.

The only complaint I have – and it’s one that many others have made as well – is that I wanted more. Not in that, omg I don’t want it to end, wanting more. I mean that the story and the ending could’ve supported another 50-100 pages and still been a thoroughly enjoyable and equally gut-punching book.  Granted, by the end, I was ugly-crying because of how blown away I was, but I still wanted more. I read the last few pages several times, because I was hoping that if I flipped the pages enough, another chapter would magically appear.

Sadly that didn’t happen, but it pretty much guaranteed that I would be in line to read whatever Justin Torres publishes next. We the Animals is searing. And at fewer than 150 pages, it’s a book I’ll come back to again and again.

Summer Reading: The Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert

6 Sep

Confession: sometimes I write reviews of books that I only have vague memories of because I’m a horrible procrastinator but I kind of wing it because I remember how the book made me feel and I can recall the details as I write. Not so with Timothy Schaffert’s novel, The Coffins of Little Hope. Published by Unbridled Books, I bought the ebook of Coffins for my nook, and it was – hands down – the first book I’ve read on my nook that made me forget that I was not reading an actual book. That’s how complete and enchanting the experience Schaffert creates is. Narrated by Essie, the spunkiest obit-writing octogenarian I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading, The Coffins of Little Hope tells the story of a small town embroiled in big drama. While the town seems like an Everytown on the outside, the characters that populate are anything but ordinary. There is so much plot in this novel and so much I want to discuss, but don’t want to give away, that I’m cheating a little and using Unbridled’s plot summary:

When a young country girl is reported to be missing, perhaps whisked away by an itinerant aerial photographer, Essie stumbles onto the story of her life. Or, it all could be simply a hoax, or a delusion, the child and child-thief invented from the desperate imagination of a lonely, lovelorn woman. Either way, the story of the girl reaches far and wide, igniting controversy, attracting curiosity-seekers and cult worshippers from all over the country to this dying rural town.  And then it is revealed that the long awaited final book of an infamous series of YA gothic novels is being secretly printed on the newspaper’s presses.

In most books, the story of a missing child would seem to be the main plot focus, the details of which every other narrative arc in the story would revolve around. But that is not the case here. Schaffert manages to make the disappearance a minor detail; it is the actual existence of the child in question that becomes the crux of the story. It’s one of many unexpected but charming twists that make up this tale. The multiple narrative arcs at times appear to be confusing but in actuality are all so intertwined that it’s difficult to pick apart all the threads that make up the larger story. There are elements that I personally love – the downfall and impact of a small-town newspaper’s closing, the power of shared experience in reading, the attitude of a teenager that means well but is still a teenager – but there are so many other pieces that it’s impossible to pin them all down. In this way, Schaffert manages to do what few authors (at least in my opinion) accomplish: he tells a story.

I find a distinct difference in being a storyteller rather than a novelist, and I honestly can’t explain the distinctions. It’s more of a “know it when you read it” kind of style, but I felt like I was being told a story, and the emotion I felt while reading it was akin to the feeling of being a child and listening to a bedtime story. I was charmed and bewitched by the tone, the setting, the characters, the plot — even the way Schaffert describes the seasons is enchanting! Here’s an excerpt:

This began not as a book but as an obit of a kind for a little girl who up and went missing one simple summer day. On this girl we pinned all hopes of our dying town’s salvation. The longer we went without seeing her even once, the more and more dependent upon her we grew. She became our leading industry, her sudden nothingness a valuable export, and we considered changing the name of our town to hers; we would live in the town of Lenore. Is it any wonder that we refused to give up hope despite all the signs that she’d never existed, that she’d never been anybody—never, not even before she supposedly vanished?

By the time Daisy, the mother of that vaporous Lenore, finally called me to her farmhouse, after all the weeks of bickering and debate that enlivened our town yet ruined its soul, after most of the events of this book had passed, no one anywhere was any longer waiting for word of Lenore’s death. For some of us, Lenore was nothing but a captivating hoax, while for others, she was a grim tragedy, a mystery cynically left unsolved.

You were either one of the ones who truly believed in Lenore or you were one of the ones who believed in the same way you believe in the trickling stigmata of a plastic Virgin, with a trust in magic and miracle mostly for the thrill of it. Or you were one of the ones with no faith at all. Those were the ones, the ones with disbelief, who benefited the most, who made the most money on the sad pilgrims who skulked in and out of our town.

Some of you may say I’m just as bad as the worst of the people who’ve exploited the summer, fall, and winter of Lenore, that I’ve played this story like an accordion for the purposes of melodrama, squeezing and stretching, inflating and deflating scenes and events at will. But I stand behind all the truths in this story of deception. Maybe because I’ve so long looked so old, even when I was relatively young, that people feel they can be revealing around me, that they can unbutton their lips and let slip intimate facts and trust that I have the maturity to keep my mouth shut.

Isn’t that language gorgeous?? I’ve tagged this as Summer Reading, and the book begins in the summer – the kind of hot and hazy summer feeling that’s so familiar in DC – but it transitions through the seasons over the course of a year or so and it’s perfect right now, as we move from summer to fall. And while I read it in the peak of summer, I am sorely tempted to read it again now to get an entirely different seasonal effect. I have no trouble at all calling this one of my favorite books of the year. Check out some of the other accolades it’s gotten here and buy a copy here or here. Highly recommended.

Just My Type by Simon Garfield

22 Aug

I’m super excited to be a stop on the TLC Book Tour for Simon Garfield’s Just My Type: A Book about Fonts. It’s also my first ever TLC Book Tour and what a great way to start! I’m such a font nerd and when I heard about this book, I could hardly contain my excitement. I’m by no means a design professional – my font love is purely amateur but well-honed. I know what I like and what I don’t like, and I suspect that most people are like me, even if they don’t realize it. Garfield is the perfect guide for us amateur font geeks, providing an informed but not too advanced line through the history of typography and the beauty of type design. He explains the construction of font and the basics of type, like the difference between serif and sans serif, though quickly goes beyond the “what” and delves into the “why” and “how.” He takes the reader through Gutenberg all the way through modern typography in the age of the Internet.

I thought I knew a lot about typography but I hadn’t even scratched the surface of what goes into creating type. I found myself saying, fairly often and to the annoyance of whoever was nearby, “Did you know that…”

For example, did you know that despite Benjamin Franklin’s support of John Baskerville’s font, the first mass-printed Declaration of Independence was printed in Caslon?

And did you know that, according to most type foundries, the best display phrase (a phrase the shows off the style and beauty and uniqueness of a new font without listing out the alphabet, one letter at time) is Hamburgers or Hamburgerfont?

Did you also know that the (at) symbol, @, which is such a part of our digital lives now, has its origin in trade, and is called an amphora or jar, a unit of measurement? And that in other languages, it’s often linked to food or cute animals? My favorite is French – it’s called escargot.

Simon Garfield breaks down our society’s fonts in such a way that, by the end of the book, I was examining the font on the Washington Metro System and trying to determine what it is (a combination of Helvetica Neue and Frutiger, depending on what signage you’re looking at). I’d never really taken into account typography as something that is created for a specific purpose, but I discovered that many of the fonts we use on a daily basis were designed for a specific intention, usually government or corporate use. My unawareness of the exact type in everyday life is exactly what some type designers would call a success: for the font to be nothing more than a container for the meaning of the writing and that, if you notice the font, it hasn’t done it’s job. Which is to disappear.

One of the great things about this book is that at the first mention, the font name is printed in that font – and usually when a chapter is about one font in particular, the first paragraph is printed so you can examine the font and it’s readability in more detail. In that way, the book is incredibly user-friendly even if your knowledge of typography is limited.

I could go on and on about the intricacies of typography that I learned from Garfield’s book, but the book itself is a much better teacher than I am. Fonts surround us in ways we don’t even take into consideration, and design and spell out our lives (usually in Helvetica).

Thanks to TLC Book Tours and Gotham Books for the review copy – I highly enjoyed the chance to nerd out and relish in my dorkiness. Check out the rest of the tour schedule below:

The book goes on sale September 1st, and is available for pre-order here.

Review: Domestic Violets by Matthew Norman

8 Aug

Prepare yourselves: Matthew Norman’s debut novel, Domestic Violets, is that book that I’m going to be really annoying about for the rest of the year (and probably some of next, as well). And this is going to be less of a review than a fangirl gushing session. Okay, not entirely true. I’m going to try to review it, but I’ll tell you right now, it’s going to be all good.

In stores tomorrow, Harper Perennial is responsible for this funny, wry, and incredibly poignant look at modern family life and the frustrations we all feel about existing in a workforce that seems to be falling apart around us. In particular, Norman’s book takes place in DC during the height of the recession, and it looks shockingly familiar to me as someone who worked in DC during the height of the recession. It also looks brilliantly like the plausible fantasy of anyone who has hated their job (or not hated their job) and has decided to do something about it. I feel like I’m rambling, but Harper’s more eloquent and informative summary states:

Tom Violet always thought that by the time he turned thirty-five, he’d have everything going for him. Fame. Fortune. A beautiful wife. A satisfying career as a successful novelist. A happy dog to greet him at the end of the day.

The reality, though, is far different. He’s got a wife, but their problems are bigger than he can even imagine. And he’s written a novel, but the manuscript he’s slaved over for years is currently hidden in his desk drawer while his father, an actual famous writer, just won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. His career, such that it is, involves mind-numbing corporate buzzwords, his pretentious archnemesis Gregory, and a hopeless, completely inappropriate crush on his favorite coworker. Oh . . . and his dog, according to the vet, is suffering from acute anxiety.

Tom’s life is crushing his soul, but he’s decided to do something about it. (Really.) Domestic Violets is the brilliant and beguiling story of a man finally taking control of his own happiness—even if it means making a complete idiot of himself along the way.

Tom Violet is an Everyman; but he’s an Everyman unlike any I’ve ever read before. He’s that guy we all know (or wish we knew) – sarcastic, trouble-making, flirty, sensitive, insecure, authentic. He’s vulnerable, but his vulnerability is comforting and familiar because we’ve all seen that kind of vulnerability staring us in the mirror. It’s funny, but not pathetic. It might sound strange to say that I can relate to a man in his mid-thirties who’s struggling to stay afloat in his marriage and in his career – our vulnerabilities are quite different on paper. This is the genius of Matthew Norman.

Matthew Norman – I know – would deny my use of the term “genius” but I think it most definitely applies. I have actually had the pleasure of meeting Norman. Independent Virginia bookstore One More Page Books and Harper Perennial hosted several local bloggers to meet and talk to Matthew and his wife, and that event only served to confirm for me that Matthew Norman is exactly the kind of guy I want to have a bestselling novel, if for no other reason than he doesn’t take himself too seriously and he’s written a novel that absolutely deserves to be read by lots and lots of people. In the vein of Tom Perrotta and Jonathan Tropper (not my comparison, but apt and accurate nonetheless), Norman has created a character – and around him, a life, a family, a job, an ambition, a wife, a father, a host of insecurities, and physical and emotional hurdles – so complex and so relatable, I was rooting for him from page one.

Take this excerpt, from

I creep down the stairs holding my nine-iron, which is the best weapon I can come up with. This seems like a better option than Anna’s hair dryer or, for that matter, it’s better than leaping from our bathroom window and fleeing off into the night by myself. I’ve got some clothes on now, a T-shirt and pajama pants, and Anna is at the top of the stairs in her sexy outfit with her cell phone.

“Who is it?” she whispers. Apparently she believes that I can see through walls and ceilings.

I’m nervous, but, more than that, I’m annoyed with the cosmic order of things because there isn’t an adult here to take care of this — a real adult, instead of an impostor like me. At this moment, I’m clearly fooling no one.

See what I mean? I often think, I need a real adult, because clearly, I am not one and rarely feel like I’m fooling anyone. (Go read the rest of the excerpt – it’s just as wry and astute as these three paragraphs).

I love this book. I laughed out loud many, many times in the process of reading this book, and I’ve been waiting to write and publish this review until the week of publication because I cannot state more clearly: GO BUY THIS BOOK. And I want you to do it right now. Here’s the most glowing review I can give this book: I was given a review copy by the publisher, but I am going to buy this book. I’m going to spend my money and buy this book, because I believe in it and in Matthew Norman. I also think it’s damn funny. And isn’t a good laugh reason enough to buy a book?

Review: Faith by Jennifer Haigh

28 Jul

During the early part of this century (that would be 2000’s), nothing rocked the country in a post-9/11  era like the priest sex-abuse scandal, especially in its epicenter of Boston. There was a sense that the trust inherent in the priesthood – of course you can leave your children alone with a priest! – shifted dramatically. And the expectation of innocence was shattered. Confidentiality was no longer a privilege and secrets became dangerous things in the Catholic church.

It’s hard to imagine a book with more secrets in its pages than Jennifer Haigh’s new novel, Faith: A Novel. Set during the scandal in Boston, Faith is narrated by Sheila, the half-sister of an accused priest and told as an epilogue to the unfolding of Father Arthur Breen’s tragic fall. Sheila knows only what she’s been told – by her and Arthur’s mother, by Arthur, by her other brother, and by the clergy secretary that worked for the priest (who is also the grandmother of the victim). She doesn’t live in Boston, though she grew up there, and her geographic distance creates an actual distance from the events of the book. As a reader, I also felt that distance which allowed for a bit more objectivity when judging Father Breen’s innocence or guilt. Sheila for her part believes that her brother is innocent. Until the moment that she almost doesn’t.

Let’s be clear: this isn’t Doubt. In John Patrick Shanley’s play (and in the subsequent Oscar-nominated movie), you just never know if the accused priest is guilty or not; you’re right along side the everyone else who suspects, but cannot prove, guilt. Haigh’s major conflict is not about abuse – though you do always feel a twinge in the process of reading it of not being sure; the central conflict is about trust. No one in the book doubts that Father Breen has been a dedicated member of the clergy and has served his community in the way that the very best priests can and should do. There’s a niggling feeling, like, maybe…no…no…well…maybe. Father Breen is an upstanding guy, but there a few things that make you wonder. Or at least make you understand how he could be accused of such a horrible thing.

Haigh handles each revelation of information – by both the narrator and by Father Breen – so carefully and precisely that you never see the bombs coming. It is such a skillful way of constructing a story. The suspense is inherent though you’re never sure whether Haigh is actually going to reveal whether Breen is guilty or not. But the beauty of the story and the way she writes it is that it almost doesn’t matter. I just kept turning pages – not to find out guilt or innocence – but to find out the fate of this man and his family. It is absolutely captivating, in a very real and human way.

One of the things that struck me about this book is the way it stays with you. I have said before about books as soon as I finished them, Oh this will be in my top five of the year. And then two weeks later, I’ve forgotten them. But this one, it’s haunting, and I’m still churning it over and over in my head. One thing that’s risen to the surface in all that tumbling is a reflection on the way that popular sentiment has a way of convicting people before they even get a chance to say a word. It’s heartbreaking that, throughout Sheila’s narration, we get everyone else’s opinion or verdict before we hear from Arthur. Even Sheila, who believes to her core that her brother is innocent, can’t bring herself to ask him out right. We’re so used to condemning the accused in the public eye before official judgement is given – and that is as much a lesson of this novel as anything else. I was reminded of this book once again when the Casey Anthony verdict was handed down. That is the mark of a successful novel, in my opinion. One that makes  you think about your place in the world, and how you treat everyone else in it. Beautiful, remarkable novel. I can say with certainty, this is going to be in my top books of 2011. Highly recommended.

Review: Your Voice Inside My Head by Emma Forrest

26 Jul

Pretty much everyone is calling this the Colin Farrell book right?

Emma Forrest’s memoir Your Voice in My Head is getting a lot of press because she dated notoriously non-monogamous Colin Farrell and she details the relationship while still trying to retain a level of anonymity for all her partners, including Farrell. It’s not difficult figuring out which of the men in her memoir he is, and if you really wanted to focus your reading on the celeb-worshiping part of this book,  you definitely could.

I didn’t really know about her relationship with Farrell until I was mid-way through this, and truth be told by that point, I didn’t really care. Sadly, that was my overwhelming feeling about this chronicle of Forrest’s mental health/personal relationships. In the end, I just didn’t care. I know now, after I’ve finished it, that Forrest has quite the career as a writer, having penned columns for some of the biggest magazines in all the land like Vogue, Vanity Fair and Time Out, as well as several novels and screenplays. Her style is distinctive and recognizable to those who are looking out for her in the first place. But in the process of reading the ebook, I was mostly confused at first and irritated by the end.

The premise – not that you really need one for a memoir – is this: Forrest discovers that her long-time psychiatrist, Dr. R,  has died unexpectedly from an illness no one knew he had and she struggles to cope with the loss of that relationship. This is presumably what I thought it was about, but it is equally and unsuspectingly about the break-up of a significant relationship (Farrell) in the wake of Dr. R’s death. It attempts to join the grand tradition of mental illness memoirs, and in many ways it succeeds in painting a vivid picture of the author’s struggle and failure to regulate her bipolar disorder, in which she repeatedly succumbs to depression and bouts of eating disorders and suicide attempts. To say I didn’t care is too simplistic, and I fear it sounds cold-hearted. I can certainly relate to and empathize with someone suffering from a mental illness, but the way in which the book itself was written left me feeling very little sympathy in what should be a gimme situation for a memoirist.

My issues with this memoir are pretty simple.

First of all, the title suggests that the main focus will be Forrest’s reaction to and subsequent coping with the death of her psychiatrist. And while there are cursory attempts to remind the reader that this is in fact what she’s trying to do by including comments by patients left on a message board about Dr. R, it feels more like a gimmick. Like this death was the impetus for writing a book that in the end didn’t make any concrete statements about what losing that relationship is really like. She touches on it in the beginning, but by the end, it feels like an entirely different book, a break-up memoir, and I would have liked to see some sort of meaningful conclusion that tied it all together. Because there was no attempt to come full circle, Forrest gave the impression that she actually didn’t care about Dr. R’s death in any way beyond how it personally affected her, which was extremely off-putting.

Secondly, the way Forrest structures the book in terms of narrative arc was one of the most chaotic things I’ve ever read. She jumps between time periods with no warning whatsoever, and while I understand that the intention might have been to replicate her chaotic mind, as a reader I was confused, all the time. At one point, I compared my ebook version to a print copy to make sure there wasn’t something wrong with the digital file that caused the chapters to get shuffled. I’m not asking for much, but even tiny transitions would have gone so far in my level of understanding. It’s distracting to have to reorient yourself ever time there’s a section break on the page.

I have no doubt that Forrest battles a very real and, at times, very debilitating mental illness. But these two major problems I had with the memoir made me perceive her as neurotic, instead of ill. And I ended up not liking her at all. The potential is there, for sure, for this to be a brilliant memoir, but the gaps and the poor narrative choices left me annoyed and ultimately uncaring.

Review: The Ninth Wife by Amy Stolls

29 Jun

I feel like I should start this review with a disclaimer. But it’s not really a disclaimer since it’s really part of my review. I read this book a solid month and a half ago, and have since read 12 books in that month and a half. My memory of this book is hazy (Note to self: review books right after reading them), but in a lot of ways, my haziness is reflective of my general feelings of the book as well. But I’ll get to that.

Despite the popularity of plural marriages and polygamy as a pop culture fascination right now, Amy Stolls’ novel The Ninth Wife is not about a man married to nine women at the same time. Instead it asks the question, “What would you do if you found out the man you love has been married eight times before? And he’s just asked you to become number nine?”

It’s a wholly unique supposition for a novel, and when I initially read the blurbs about it, I admit I was really intrigued. Because you can’t help but ask yourself, What would I do?? Considering I haven’t been married even once, I also wondered if Bess Gray, Stolls’ protagonist, was going to be a character I would be able to relate to.  For better or worse, she absolutely was. Bess is 35, single, living in DC, dating mostly unsuccessfully, and trying desperate things to meet men, like throwing Singles’ Parties, where everyone brings someone else that it is single too. (As much as I tried not to get all neurotic about books I’m reading, I definitely set this down a few times and went, holy crap, that could be me in seven years! Quick, someone set me up on a blind date! Moving on…). I really liked Bess. Despite all her insecurities, she’s a really good person and the cast of characters that surrounds her are feisty and unique as well. And everyone it seems has as much backstory as she does (sometimes more) which is a refreshing change from a lot women’s fiction, wherein only the main character has any depth. Each one of the characters in this – Bess’ grandparents especially – have stories that could be the basis for their own novels. They all seem to have secrets and lives and rationales that we as readers (and Bess as an element in their lives) don’t always get to be privy to. Stolls does this revealing of information quite well and manages to build suspense even just in each character study.

While the characterizations were a high point for me, the framework and plot structure were problematic. The initial prompts for this book – the back cover and the publisher’s site – state: “Bess Gray has just learned that the man she loves, the man who asked for her hand in marriage, has been married eight times before.” But structurally, this isn’t entirely true. Part I takes up the first almost-half of the book and it alternates chapters between being told from Bess’ point of view and from what we come to find out is Rory’s point of view. Rory is the important crux of the story – he is the once-husband of these previous eight wives. In Bess’ chapters, we find out her backstory, how she meets Rory, and how they fall in love. Rory’s chapters are him telling the story of each of his previous wives. Alternating these chapters worked for me; its not always a successful tactic and in some cases, it becomes distracting as a reader because you’re just waiting to be returned to the chapters you care about, but I enjoyed it in this case. It was tempting in some places to jump ahead to Rory’s chapters because his voice is really wonderful, but I refrained. The flow and pattern made sense.But Bess doesn’t find out until the end of Part I, over 200 pages into the book, that Rory has been married eight times already. She finds out well after we, the reader, find out that her story is not what she thinks it is.

As Stolls moves into Part II, I found myself longing for those flip-flopping chapters. Because the structure shifted completely – no more alternating narratives – I was thrown off, and it felt like a completely different book. I understand the point of Part I and Part II, but it was too drastic in structural shift and I had a hard time readjusting to the new point of the story. Because in Part II the book does move in an entirely different direction. Bess goes on a roadtrip with her grandparents, who have a complicated marriage of their own, accompanied by her gay friend Cricket, to move her grandparents to Arizona where they will retire. Along the way, Bess decides to find and question each of Rory’s wives to answer that question, Do I really want to be someone’s ninth wife?

In a lot of ways, this book is a gem: the characters are multi-layered, the premise is unique, the initial structure creates suspense, the writing is smart and accessible. On top of that, the larger picture of the story once you’ve closed the book is an honest one of family and marriage and love, and it was a realistic view on what it takes to sustain a partnership beyond the initial honeymoon phase of falling in love. So many novels – especially those targeted toward women readers – either lead up to a marriage (happily ever after is practically a disease) or chronicle the dissolution of a marriage. In the grand scheme of things, Stolls’ novel illustrates that real marriage and real love take more work than that, and that it doesn’t always look like we think it’s supposed to, but that doesn’t mean it’s any more or less valid or any more or less functional.

I realized just now that I used a lot of “forest for the trees” language in that last paragraph (“The larger picture…,” “In the grand scheme…”). Telling, since a lot of the details were problematic for me. As I said, the shift in structure from Parts I to II threw me off. Also, the plausibility of some of the situations Bess finds herself in, in Part II, were slightly eye-roll inducing. So while I got the point at the end, and I was engaged and entertained in the progression of the novel, the problems I had with the book overshadowed my enjoyment in my remembering of it. I was frowny-facing it when I sat down to write this review initially, because I wasn’t overzealous in any one direction. It’s also probably why it took me a month and a half.

So, the short answer?

I liked this. It’s worth reading, especially since it’s a paperback original – I don’t know that I would spend the money for a hardcover – and the story and characters are great partners in getting to the final conclusion, but maybe try to see this as forest, rather than trees.