Right After the Weather by Carol Anshaw (Literary Fiction)

Thank you to Atria Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 1st, 2019.

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 2/5 Characters: 3/5

Cate is a single, forty-something, lesbian, set designer in Chicago whose friends and colleagues have largely moved on. It is 2016 — Cate’s ultra-paranoid, thrice divorced, ex-husband is shacking up in her extra room; she is struggling to end an ongoing affair with a married woman; and a new girlfriend she sees as her best shot at adult stability is exhibiting questionable ethical behavior. In this setting she simultaneously experiences the “worst event and biggest break”: she rescues a friend during a violent and traumatic home invasion and is offered the chance to work on an exciting off-broadway play.

The book is beautifully written and the characters (especially Cate) are portrayed with great depth. While being a lesbian is not the point of the book, Cate’s queerness (her selection of term) informs a great deal of her thoughts and actions. There is not a lot of action — the home invasion takes place about half way through the book and itself takes up few pages. Instead, it is a thorough portrayal of her life — thoughts, actions, interactions, and world events — during a few months late 2016 / early 2017. I appreciated the scenes about her theater work (I wish there had been more) and the writing is really excellent, but for me there was not enough insight or character change to warrant the book length (without any compensating action). Things moved on in a very slow-paced, realistic, and ultimately unsatisfying, way. I found Cate to be a weak character, still struggling with the same issues (all completely under her own control) at the end of the book as at the beginning.

This book does have great lines — here are a few:

“Living casually in the moment seemed so vibrant, but has left her looking over her shoulder at a pile of used-up hours and days, hearing the scratchy sound of frittering.”

“She has come to understand that room temperature in the demographic she aspires to is a more personally controlled business.”

“The other customers exist somewhere else on the dining matrix, all of them in parallel, convivial but hushed universes.”

“Now, though, the cat’s out of the bag. Now the cat is hopping all over the place, demanding attention.”

“A heavy, standing ashtray is surrounded by a population of emphysemic ghosts.”

“Something delicious about all the secrecy. Now everything’s so in the open, we’re free from fear and oppression, but we’ve traded up for being commonplace. Queer’s as boring as straight now.

“She understand she has arrived on another side of everything. No one is over here with her.”

“Everything about him is aimed at the greater good, but in matters of personal kindness, he often comes up short.

“Her thoughts these days are not her friends. Which doesn’t keep them from stopping by, particularly at night when she is too tired to fight them off.”

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4/5

A family drama told largely through recollection in a loosely ordered, but well-timed set of memories. Danny tells the story — full of recognition of his then-obliviousness — of himself, his older sister Maeve, and their sometimes senseless path through life. Much of the story centers around the Dutch House — the outrageously lavish estate purchased by their newly-minted real estate mogul father at the end of WWII) — which purchase begins the unraveling of their family.

I’m a big Ann Patchett fan — her insight into character and how it is expressed and molded by events and situations is incomparable. While sometimes frustrating in the cluelessness of characters (as seen from our safe reader’s perch) and lack of closure, the story is ultimately a realistic portrayal of the way lives and relationships evolve and what we do and don’t learn from the path. It’s one of those books that gets even better the more you think about it after reading, although to be honest it is not one of my favorite Patchetts.

Thank you to Harper Collins Publishers and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 24th, 2019.

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger (Fiction)

Writing: 4 Plot: 3.5 Characters: 5

11 year-old Reuben was born to witness. Coming into the world with troublesome lungs, his father called him to life after the doctors had long given him up for dead. In this book, he bears witness to the events in Roofing, Minnesota that cause his elder brother, Davy, to shoot two boys dead; Davy’s subsequent escape from prison; and the long search that Reuben, his father, Jeremiah, and younger sister, Swede, take looking for him.

Beautiful descriptions of a harsh landscape that yet evokes “home” to our characters and a moral undertone that is never preachy and yet fully covers each individual’s worried contemplation of the situation. Well-drawn and intimate characters — Jeremiah has a special relationship with God and performs miracles that only Reuben seems to see; Swede has an off-the-charts imagination and bangs away at her typewriter working her ideas into narratives and poetry; Roxanna Crawley runs a gas station in a remote town and is big, warm, and has possession of an astonishingly large vocabulary; and Andreesen — the “putrid fed” — chases Davy, but is slowly revealed to be honorable and compassionate.

I had some trouble getting started with this book. The first third — taking us through Davy’s escape — was slow, stressful, and full of (what felt to me as) injustice. I didn’t like it at all but kept plugging away as I was reading it for a book club. Then it simply took off into something wonderful. It’s rare that I read a book with that kind of composition (probably because I give up too soon) but I recommend skimming if necessary to get to the good part.

Good for fans of Ivan Doig or Markus Zusak.

The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall (Historical Fiction)

A slow-paced, deeply interior book about love, marriage, and faith. It follows a linear progression through the lives of four individuals, two marriages, and a forty-year shared ministry.

The real center of the book is the place of God in people’s lives. Each character has his or her own relationship (or lack thereof) with God: Charles knows absolutely that there is a God and that he has a calling to the ministry; his wife Lily is equally certain that there is no God and has no affinity with the tasks expected of a minister’s wife, preferring an academic life. Nan is a minister’s daughter and has never questioned her faith; James is not religious and has doubts about God, but feels the ministry would be a good platform for his drive towards social justice.

As each character grows into his or her life and faces difficulties both large and small, God is at the center of many thoughts and actions and is present on most pages. This was surprisingly non-repetitious, and the arguments, discussions, reflections, and historical references were balanced and intriguing, even to someone like myself who has no interest in religion.

The characters are all very earnest — even in their doubt and questioning, there is no cynicism (or any humor which I’m now realizing is often predicated on cynicism). It was somewhat refreshing and made me realize how very cynical the world feels today and how it wasn’t always that way.

The prose is beautiful, though at times over wrought. It is a philosophical and reflective look at life and marriage and documents the details of a healthy approach to personal growth — listening, discussing, reflecting, and resolution.

I was initially quite put off by the number of references to God and faith — it really isn’t my thing — but I found myself quite taken by the four individuals and their personal quests for understanding and a fulfilling life. I learned quite a bit more than I expected.

Thank you to Simon & Schuster and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 13th, 2019.

The Swallows by Lisa Lutz (Fiction)

Characters: 3 Story: 4 Writing: 5

Another wild ride from Lisa Lutz. The setting: pervasive sexual harassment at a New England prep school and the girls who decide not to put up with it any longer. The boys at Stonebridge have a long standing practice of ranking the girls’ sexual prowess on a secret web site. It’s been going on for years, handed from one head boy to the next and tacitly approved by an administration that seems to know all about it.

Alternating between four first-person perspectives, Lutz’ hysterical and sardonic writing puts us in the heads of four characters: Ms. Witt, a new teacher who is appalled by what she sees (and who feels like my favorite — Izzy Spellman — with a new name and career); Mr. Ford, a long-time teacher who is writing a novel based on the school; Gemma Russo, a scholarship student hiding her background from the others; and Norman Crowley, the weak, guilt ridden, webmaster who supports the secret website even though he hates everything about it. Lots of other fun characters — newby Linny who takes matters into her on hands in delightfully inventive ways; Claudine Shepherd the bitter librarian; Martha Primm, the world’s worst guidance counselor; and Greg Stinson, the well-meaning but completely inadequate Dean of Students.

The female characters are well-developed; the male characters are stereotypes — like the old madonna / whore dichotomy, the men in this book are either evil or weak and ineffectual. I did enjoy one section where Gemma tells Jonah (one of the weak and ineffectual variety) that he is sweet — maybe too sweet. He responds that it is hard to know how to be a guy and that he was always confused. A small tip of the hat to how the new “norms” of behavior can be difficult and confusing for men. Ms. Witt takes the education of the girls in hand when she creates the Blowchart — a cartoonish flowchart that helps a girl understand when she should give a guy a blowjob (spoiler alert: the chart leads to “No” a lot more often than it leads to “Yes”). I have no doubt that this graphic will spread rapidly on the web once the book is published.

It’s over the top and lots of fun to read, if not totally plausible. Plenty of good messages exhorting girls to take matters into their own hands and not succumb to pressure or tradition.

Great quotes:
“The young may have a better excuse for cruelty, but they are no less capable of it.”

“I have a visceral memory of our fight to the death over the title. It feels like a migraine in my solar plexus.”

“She got up close to the coffeepot and was watching the drip, like a kid staring at her pet goldfish.”

“I also have a few strong and well-documented theories associating personality disorders with specific tie knots.”

“He looked exactly like I thought he would. Shaggy blond hair, skinny, with Mr Potato Head lips and a nose that should have been on a girl.”

“Having a marginally intelligent teenager regard you with superiority can put a man into a deep psychological trough.”

“Some people count sheep. What finally sent me to sleep was cycling through possible job alternatives in alphabetical order. For soporific purposes, you can’t leave anything off the table. I fell asleep sometime after carpet installer”

“Shame is cunning. Even if it doesn’t come from a rational place, it sticks. But that doesn’t mean it’s real.”

“You can keep telling girls to be polite, to keep a level head and it’ll all work out in the end. But don’t be surprised when they figure out that you’ve been feeding them lies. Don’t be alarmed when they grow tired of using their own voices and playing by your rules. And don’t be shocked when they decide that if they can’t win a fair fight, they’ll just have to find another way.”

The Night Visitors by Carol Goodman (Fiction)

Plot: 5 Characters: 4.5 Writing: 4

A taut thriller and (ultimately heart warming) family drama all in one.

Alice and 10-year old Oren are running away from an abusive man. A call to a hotline sends them to Delphi, NY where they are taken in by Mattie. Mattie is a spinster living in a decaying mansion who puts all of her time, energy, and money into The Sanctuary. Alice is highly suspicious of all do-gooders; Oren is a boy who seems to always know things he shouldn’t.

I’d forgotten how much I like Carol Goodman — she is a fantastic writer. The story is paced perfectly, with completely unpredictable twists and turns. No cliches or stereotypes (with one exception — see below)! The story of domestic abuse, the social structures and people who try to help, and the attitudes and interactions of the participants have depth and variety. I liked the balanced views — not all abusive relationships are the same, not all the male characters are scumbags, and not all the social workers are competent or effective.

Big themes are woven throughout — Justice; Vengeance; Forgiveness. Goodman has a Classics background and that figures in as well — Greek mythology keeps popping up, and I particularly liked the story of Orestes, Athena, and the Furies as the introduction of the concept of Justice replacing Vengeance in the scheme of human affairs. Lastly, the feeling of a ghostly presence lends an otherworldly quality to the story.

The only part of the book that didn’t quite work for me were the two nasty, abusive men. They are the only two characters whose behavior and dialogue felt like stereotypes rather than real people. I guess Ms. Goodman really didn’t want to be in their heads any longer than necessary. However, this was an issue in only a tiny fraction of the pages. This was one of those books that is almost impossible to put down (although due to the tense nature of the story I didn’t let myself read it too close to bedtime!)

Highly recommended!

Some quotes:
“I’m a woman on the wrong side of fifty, back where she started, with no way out but one.”

“Some people look up at the night sky and see random scatter, others read stories in the chaos. That’s what I do when I adjudicate a case. I make sense out of chaos.”

“She looks up when she reaches the shelter of the porch, and there’s so much anger and resentment in her eyes that I flinch, I’ve seen that look in abused women, that look that doesn’t just expect the next blow but says, I know I deserve it. But I’ve never gotten used to it, or liked how it made me feel, that little split-second flicker of Maybe you do.”

“But at some point I catch a satisfied smile on Oren’s face and realize that here is a child who takes on the weight of the emotions around him by playing the peacemaker.”

Hope and Other Punchlines by Julie Buxbaum (Young Adult)

Writing: 5 Characters: 5 Plot: 4

16-year old Abbi Weinstein is known to the world as “Baby Hope” — she was the one-year old birthday girl clutching a red balloon fleeing the towers in the arms of a day care worker in an iconic (fictional) photograph from 9/11. Noah Stern is obsessed with that photo because he holds the secret hope that one of the background figures is his father, presumed dead. Both hail from Oakdale, New Jersey, a fictional town loosely based on Middletown, New Jersey, with the dubious honor of having the largest number of 9/11 fatalities outside of New York City. Together, they slowly put together the missing pieces from that day, and the ongoing impact ripples on the people affected.

Despite the subject matter, this is an uplifting book. It’s full of humor, friendship, and love as well as a lot of heartfelt and sob inducing stories. It is a way forward from tragedy, not a hopeless and depressing fixation on it. I like YA fiction because somehow the issues are clearer — less muddied by the accreted neuroses and mental sluggishness of age — and I am able to learn more easily from it.

I think Julie Buxbaum is brilliant — I love her characters and her humorous, banter-rich, prose. Each of her books focusses on real and difficult issues — and helps the characters work on making sense of the world and their place in it. This book is easily the best of all — I read it in one sitting. The stories woven together were touching, personal, and inspiring. I sobbed through a lot of it, but finished feeling centered and hopeful.

There are so many great lines in this book — here are a few:
“I think our stories are actually what make us people. We each have a history… Stories are like the … currency of connection. And all your stories woven together might tell some larger story about the history of our country from that moment to now.”

“I was fashionably late to the existential panic party.”

“She’s the one who gave my mom her stoicism. In my mother it takes on a cheery perversion, but my grandma is all strong, clean lines, when it comes to the difficult stuff. She’s stating a fact, true words without any sentimentality.”

“My mother has always liked to outsource our difficult conversations. It was my dad, not her, who sat me down last spring and asked if I’d be interested in going on the pill.”

“Well, the good news is that awkward phases help with long-term personality development.”

“All it takes is a tiny, inexplicable tear in the fabric of the moral universe.”

Abbi’s grandmother is suffering from the beginnings of Alzheimers — this is what she tells Abbi: “You know what I think about sometimes? I think about how all the little bits of me that I’m losing will somehow find their way to you. Like they are … what’s the word … tangible. Like they are tangible things that can crawl from my bedroom to yours and so as I become less me, you will become more you, and I will continue to march on within you when I’m not me anymore. You’re going to keep growing. That’s how it’s supposed to be.”

“Life can really suck, right? So why not make it at least a little bit fun whenever we can? I mean, think about it. There are few things that a well-timed joke can’t solve.”

“Pretty much everything about being in high school is embarrassing. Not only the hours spent jerking off behind locked doors, the days cooped up in windowless classrooms — not to mention the greasiness of it all. I’m talking our very existence. We are a reminder to grown-ups of how far they’ve come and how much further they wish they could go.”

“When you have a kid, it’s like letting your heart walk around outside your body. You never get used to it.”