The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (Literary Fiction)

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

Brit Bennett’s second novel is just as good, if not better than, her first (which I already loved).

Identical twin sisters grow up in the 1950s in Mallard: a small Southern town that doesn’t even make it onto a map. Mallard is “colorstruck” — a town inhabited by colored people, all obsessed with lightness.

The twins leave Mallard, each for her own reasons. One disappears overnight — “passing” into the white world; the other rebels, marrying a well-educated, sweet-talking, and very dark man . From these beginnings emerge a narrative that spans the 50s through the 80s, extends across the U.S., and incorporates expanding family and friends. It’s an exploration of characters who aren’t completely comfortable in their own skin: a colored woman passing as white; a transgender man in a time predating legal surgical options; a dark child shunned in a negro community valuing lightness above all else.

What I loved about this book was that any dramatic events (e.g. domestic abuse, lynching, cruelty in many forms) were tied to individual characters — how they felt, how they reacted, how their personality was modified — shifting how they made decisions, protected themselves, and made the most of their lives. The point was not the drama of the acts themselves, but how they impacted the characters. The author also embedded the impact of societal trends of the time as well — feminism, civil rights, and many blunt and subtle inequities. I so appreciated that each character was a true individual — no stereotypes — and that no single group was demonized. Each character was both interesting and likable (to me) and I loved watching them develop, learning about their own strengths, disappointments, and fears. The ending was quite realistic — no pat finish artificially tying up all the loose ends — but lives continuing with some aspects resolved and some ongoing.

Incredibly skilled writing — the stories emerge and twine together as each character develops and builds / evolves relationships with others. I didn’t find a lot of quotable sentences in this book as I did with the first — but it’s quite possible this is because I was devouring the book too quickly.

Highly recommended.

Thank you to Penguin Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 2nd, 2020.

 

Afterlife by Julia Alvarez (Literary Fiction)

Antonia Vega: recently and painfully widowed, recently retired Professor of English, of Dominican descent, the second of four sisters with wildly divergent but equally strong personalities. While trying to focus on her Afterlife — “No longer a teacher at the college, no longer volunteering and serving on a half dozen boards, no longer in the thick of the writing whirl — she has withdrawn from every narrative, including the ones she makes up for sale. Who am I? the plaintive cry.” — she is reluctantly drawn into the here and now.

Her eldest sister is behaving erratically and is now missing; a pregnant, illegal, Mexican teenager has shown up at her doorstep and needs help; the local Vermont dairy industry is dependent on illegal labor but with ICE encroaching, her translation and leadership skills are in demand. People keep expecting her to rise to the occasions, and she really doesn’t want to.

The writing is absolutely beautiful, the focus internal. The book doesn’t follow a typical narrative arc — while all of the plot lines progress, the real story is Antonia — how she copes and how she struggles with decisions: what is the right thing to do? who is most important? how does she feel about the decisions she is forced to make? I love that Antonia herself defies stereotype, and in fact, spends a great deal of time considering her own stereotypes — both positive and negative — of herself and those around her. Examples:

“Embodied in a man who could so easily fall into the stereotype where Antonia and friends often banish the Jesus folks, the political right-wingers, the gunslingers and xenophobes. Her own othering of others. Whatever is driving him, Sheriff Boyer’s not going to turn off the tide of meanness sweeping over the country, but at least he’s saved a handful of “her” people from being carried away.”

“Just because she’s Latina doesn’t automatically confer on her the personality or inclinations of a Mother Teresa. It irritates her, this moral profiling based on her ethnicity.”

Her characters have depth and variability and she explores their personalities in different contexts. How much personality is expressed or subdued depending on your circumstance? How is behavior judged externally based on cultural norms for the time and place? Fascinating and very well done.

The writing is wonderful — I feel like I underlined something in every paragraph but here are a few good ones in addition to those above:

“Like opera, farm art is an acquired taste. There she goes again, shoving someone down her othering chute.”

“In their small town, it seems everyone wants to tell Antonia their Sam story. A testament to how much he was respected and loved. These narratives are a kind of offering — to what god Antonia cannot guess. All she knows is that for the moment she is its reluctant priestess.”

“Her sisters are doing what they always do when they depart a scene, parsing the meat off its bones, analyzing, judging, exclaiming over the different personalities, a kind of sisterhood digestive system.”

“Does suffering hurt less if you’re poor? she asked the room full of young students. Only the silent dark looks of her two minority students signaled to Professor Vega that they got what she was talking about.”

“Call her what you want, Mario says, a snarky insolence in his voice Antonia has never heard before. It grants her a rare glimpse of who the young man might be in a world where he could be the macho, wielding power.”

“Into the vacuum of her considerations he would step with his big, clunky certainties.”

Thank you to Algonquin Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 7th, 2020.

 

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney (Literary / Historical Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 5/5

What a wonderful book! The novel follows 85-year old Lillian’s perambulation around her beloved New York City on New Year’s Eve 1984/85. Alternating chapters expand on her memories of the city beginning in 1926 when she started as an assistant copywriter for RH Macy’s and continuing through her meteoric rise to the “most highly paid woman in advertising.” Walking is not an unusual activity for the elderly Lillian — she has claimed the ancient Greek motto “Solvitur Ambulando — it is solved by walking” as her own.

The exquisite language — completely evocative of the age — folds in bits of the history of New York, the history of advertising and the history of feminism into the story. Lillian’s stunning rebuttal to her younger colleagues’ endorsement of shifting advertising from clever and witty to manipulative and infantilizing is worth the entire price of admission.

This novel is a love song to the beauty of language, the city of New York, and to Lillian’s idea of civilization. Her true religion is “civility” (see full quote below) and she practices this — and her delicious grasp of language — with everyone she meets: the family that encourages her to join them at dinner, the young immigrant manning his parent’s all night bodega in a dangerous part of town, the night watchman, the young bohemians who invite her to their New Year’s party, and even the thugs who want her money.

Lillian’s character is loosely based on Margaret Fishbeck — the original “most highly paid woman in advertising.” The poems, ads, and two letters are hers, though the story around them is complete invention.

While I’ve listed some of my favorite quotes below, the entire book was filled with language that communicates complex ideas clearly and is utterly stylish — a delight to read and a perfect book on which to end my reading year.
Some quotes:
“For though I was raised Protestant, my true religion is actually civility. Please note that I do not call my faith ‘politeness.’ That’s part of it, yes, but I say civility because I believe that good manners are essential to the preservation of humanity — one’s own and others’ — but only to the extent that that civility is honest and reasonable, not merely the mindless handmaiden of propriety.”

“Then she and I got to work, sprinkling each page of copy, mine and others’, with irresistible little eyedrop-sized points of wit.”

“In the 1950s, when I was freelancing, I was often enlisted as a grocery-aisle Cyrano, a ventriloquist for the new and improved, repeatedly making the case that the way Mother did it was not, in fact, best.”

“The city is dazzling but uncompassionate. It always has been, but I feel it more now.”

“Solutions of style have a greater moral force than those of obligation.”

“A disco rhythm, I suppose. I never warmed to disco — which always struck me as crass yet flaccid, all buildup with no payoff — but rap I like. That’s because of the words, of course, which instead of being chained to some inane melody are freed to lead the rappers where they will, by way of their own intrinsic music.”

“Among the many unsurprising facts of life that, when taken in aggregate, ultimately spell out the doom of our species is this: People who command respect are never as widely known as people who command attention.”

“I’m afraid I’ve arrived unprepared to defend my approach to writing ads, never mind the very concept of professional responsibility, or the practice of simply treating people with respect. Therefore I’m compelled to defer to the au courant expertise of my two successors. Please, ladies. resume the accounts of your efforts to unwind the supposed advances of civilization and return us consumers to a state of pliable savagery. Who knows, perhaps some young lady who watches this program will take up where you leave off and find a way to ease us all back into the trees with the orangutans, who I gather are deft hands at the fruit market. With luck and hard work, perhaps we’ll even recover our old gills and quit terrestrial life entirely.”

“We chat about the things New Yorkers chat about — the constant low-grade lunacy of life in the city — but I am surprised to find, and I think they are too, that our stories emphasize the serendipitous, even the magical. Our tone is that of conspirators, as though we are afraid to be overheard speaking fondly of a city that conventional wisdom declares beyond hope.”

“It went by the name of Radio Row before the Port Authority — that practically paramilitary factotum of the odious Robert Moses — demolished it all in 1966, citing eminent domain.”

“We drift — all of us — farther from the fraught spasm of midnight, settling into the fog of another year.”

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern (Fantasy / Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 World building: 5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 3.5/5

A compelling and intricate urban fantasy that explores the myriad ways stories pervade our lives. The narrative is “gamer style” — space and time gateways, bizarre characters and messages, and mysterious options for the traveler. Theatric and literary references abound — and there is no filler — every sentence counts in this elaborate and labyrinthine tale.

Our main character is Zachary Ezra Rawlins — two months shy of his twenty-fifth birthday, the son of a fortune-teller, and a graduate student doing a thesis on gender and narrative in gaming. He is gay (or as his friend Kat says, “orientationally unavailable”) and a nice love story forms a narrative arc through the adventures, intrigues, and quests in the book.

It’s all story — no real messages, the characters are all interesting though not terribly deep (they are all seeking purpose — who isn’t?). The world is fascinating, the pacing is perfect, and the writing flows. Great for fans of Harrow’s Ten Thousand Doors of January, Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and Setterfield’s Once Upon a River.

I liked the writing a lot but didn’t find a lot of specifically awesome lines — here are some quotes to give you a flavor of the writing:

“Much of it revolves around an underground library. No, not a library, a book-centric fantasia that Zachary missed his invitation to because he didn’t open a painted door when he was eleven.”

“Zachary takes out the book. He turns it over in his hands and then puts it down on his desk. It doesn’t look like anything special, like it contains an entire world, though the same could be said of any book.”

“Spiritual but not religious,” Zachary clarifies. He doesn’t say what he is thinking, which is that his church is held-breath story listening and late-night-concert ear-ringing rapture and perfect-boss fight-button pressing. That his religion is buried in the silence of freshly fallen snow, in a carefully crafted cocktail, in between the pages of a book somewhere after the beginning but before the ending.”

“He tells her about moving from place to place to place and never feeling like he ever belonged in any of them, how wherever he was he would almost always rather be someplace else, preferably somewhere fictional.”

“The pay phone next to me started ringing. Seriously. I didn’t even think those worked, I had them categorized in my mind as nostalgic street-art objects.”

“I accepted because mysterious ladies offering bourbon under the stars is very much my aesthetic.”

“Sometimes life gets weird. You can try to ignore it or you can see where weird takes you.”

Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles (Historical and Literary Fiction)

Thank you to William Morrow and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 14th, 2020.

Plot:  4.5/5  Writing:  5/5  Characters:  5/5

The best kind of historical fiction — a deep, richly painted, description of life in East Texas at the end of the Civil War. It’s an everyday adventure story — not about mythical heroes but about people trying to reclaim their lives in the chaotic aftermath of a devastating war.

Simon Boudlin — the titular fiddler — has simple goals after the war: find a piece of land, marry a woman with similar desires, and make a living with his music. But life after the Civil War is anything but simple. The novel is gritty with detail painting the turmoil of that time with a full sensory experience. While some semblance of government is trying to establish itself and put the country back together again, displaced and ruined people are scrambling to survive and make new lives. From my modern perspective life then was impossibly hard — but in this book it isn’t described in an emotional, complaining way. It just is the way it is. This is the story of people getting on with it — making their way by whatever means necessary, while still not losing their way morally.

Included are beautiful descriptions of music at the time: Simon’s lusting for new sheet music that he can’t afford, the way music draws yearning and memory from the new mash of people from disparate backgrounds, and the business side — how to get gigs, what needs to be played, and how to handle the drunks and disorderlies who insist on disrupting.

If you liked The News of the World, you’ll be just as captivated by Simon the Fiddler (in which Captain Kidd makes a surprise, cameo appearance!)

Beautiful writing that gets to essences. Some quotes:

“His worrying kept him awake. The country was in chaos, there were no rules, law was a matter of speculation, nobody knew how to buy land or put savings in a bank since there were so few banks, how to get a loan, register a title to land, or legalize a marriage, everybody was dubious about the new federal paper money, there was little mail service, and nobody seemed to know where the roads led.”

“So he lived in the bright strains of mountain music and the reflective, running pool of the Irish light airs that brought peace to his mind and to his audiences; peace soon forgotten, always returned to.”

“Every song had a secret inside. When he was away from shouting drunks and bartenders and sergeants and armies, he could think his way into the secret, note by note.”

“He knew that he did not play music so much as walk into it, as if into a palace of great riches, with rooms opening into other rooms, which opened into still other rooms, and in these rooms were courtyards and fountains with passageways to yet more mysterious spaces of melody, peculiar intervals, unheard notes.”

“His first problem was to find a girl who would fall in love with him despite his diminutive stature and his present homelessness.”

“People always tired him, always had, always would.”

“He was ragged, a man of a defeated army and at the dinner he had played his heart out in a borrowed shirt. In short, very like the Irish.”

“So it’s dog eat dog and Devil take the hindmost. So it has been in human memory, wild places where the only law is the strength of your good right arm.” He lifted his arm and made a bony fist. “That’s how it is in all human memory. ‘Vastness and Age! and Memories of Eld!’”

“You expect the government and the diplomatic corps to proceed at some foolish breakneck pace! There are substatutes to argy over and rewrite! And meantime the politicians must be paid their stipends and their travel expenses. Become wise, young man, and cynical, and life will be far more understandable.”

Barker House by David Moloney (Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 5/5

A set of interconnected stories as told by prison guards in New Hampshire’s Barker County Correctional Facility or “The House.” Each unfolds specific events, though the import of the story comes not from the events themselves but from what they uncover about the life of the person telling the story: a sexual attraction, a fellow officer’s suicide, a softball game between law enforcement branches, the attempted suicide of an inmate, the processing of an accused child killer, etc.

This is way outside of my comfort zone — everything I’ve ever learned about prison comes from documentaries, bad TV shows, and sensationalized news stories. I liked this book because it didn’t appear to come with any specific political agenda — the focus was far more on individual lives. And there were no real stereotypes — each guard is a distinct human being with his/her own motivations, coping mechanisms, and personal context. Some are withdrawn, some mean, some afraid. Many are dealing with their own personal issues while trying to maintain an acceptable demeanor. Not your typical adventure story, it’s all character. It also includes detailed descriptions of typical days in a correctional facility from the perspective of those who run it: the tiers, transportation, property management, and booking. I have no idea how accurate it is, but I found it fascinating and full of depth. Couldn’t put it down.

Thank you to Bloomsbury and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 7th, 2020.

The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay (Literary / Historical Fiction)

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

A beautifully written book — a kind of delayed coming-of-age story about a naive young women from a privileged class. Shalini grows up in Bangalore with a successful businessman for a father and a manipulative depressive for a mother. After her mother dies during Shalini’s last year of college, she seeks to combat the ennui of a life without purpose by searching for a dimly remembered Kashmiri merchant — a frequent childhood visitor to her home.

As her search takes her deep into the Kashmiri conflict of the early 2000s, a parallel narrative unfolds the details of her childhood. Strong themes of cowardice and courage, misplaced love, friendship, injustice, and the impact of depression on a family weave through the story.

The writing is outstanding with deeply drawn characters and profound reflective insight dappled with (sometimes scathing) social commentary. While this ticks all my boxes, I did find the overall experience to be somewhat depressing, primarily because I didn’t like the main character. She is privileged and guilt-ridden but spends most of the book being too cowardly (her words) to really do anything about the injustice she sees. The story is her “memoir” — six years after the events — to go public about what happened. To me it felt more about her attempt to expiate guilt rather than actually draw attention to things that happened. If the purpose was to highlight atrocities that had been kept under wraps, there was far too much middle-class angst taking center stage; and if the story was about her own development, I wish she had managed to develop a little further.

Having said that, I read the whole quickly, completely immersed in a masterfully depicted world.

A few quotes:
“His whole lanky body seemed to be one nervous tic: his knees bounced, his shoulders shook, his toes curled. But his hand, I noticed, rested quietly on the bulky, complicated-looking camera beside him, as if it were an infant that drew comfort from his touch.”

“I glanced at my mother, but she was unreachable now, offering no clue. It was the single most devastating habit she had, to withdraw, to take back the thrilling gift of her joy as casually as she bestowed it.”

“Was this what made her tilt her chin back and gaze down at you with contempt and say those unfeeling things? This terrible, ungovernable anger, which threatened to sizzle a hole through her veins unless she turned around and poured it into somebody else?”

“She was smiling, but I could sense the loneliness that lay behind her smile, and I could hear, too, the entreaty in her voice, for a woman’s understanding, a woman’s sympathy. And to my lasting shame, I denied her both.”

“I had not expected to like college. I wasn’t sure why. But from the minute my parents drove away, my mother’s hair snapping in the wind, I was armored, prepared to dismiss each of my lecturers, my fellow students, to look down on all of it. I suppose it was, like so many other things, a trick I’d learned from my mother. To keep approval in reserve, to lead with mockery and distrust, for to reveal affection was to reveal weakness.”

“A manic, holy gleam in my eye, as in the eyes of hose ragged, hippie Westerners I sometimes saw around Bangalore, with bare feet and billowy clothes, matted blond dreadlocks, consecrated by their first exposure to yoga and the poor? Prayer beads around my wrist, a curly Om tattooed on my shoulder, and a cache of photos in which I smiled next to a pair of gaunt village women, to whom I would later casually refer, at dinner parties or in bed with new lovers I wished to impress? They have so little, you know, but that just means they’re more connected to the things that really matter.”