Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler (Literary Fiction)

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

Vinegar Girl is ostensibly a retelling of Shakespeare’s classic Taming of the Shrew, but really it is a recasting of the story — and one which makes you wonder if it isn’t what Shakespeare meant in the first place (couched in terms of the culture of the times).

29-year old Kate Battista is a blunt preschool teacher assistant with little interest in the social niceties. She’s been caring for her father (a man devoted to his research in autoimmunity and supposedly on the verge of a breakthrough) and her younger sister Bunny (the epitome of the eyelash batting, pouting, childish demeanor that’s apparently quite “alluring to adolescent boys”) since her mother’s death fifteen years earlier. When her father hatches a plan to marry her off to his assistant — a brilliant Russian whose visa is about to expire — she is appalled. And yet, at times she is almost drawn to his equally blunt and direct manner and his alien perception of American culture and conventions.

Great dialog, hysterical at times, fascinating social commentary, and impossible to put down (at only 237 pages I gobbled it up in an afternoon). The speech at the end, where Kate defends her husband against her sister’s accusations is worthy of the bard himself. The writing quality is not surprising — Tyler has been nominated for the Pulitzer three times and won once.

Loved this book and really did not expect to (I’m not a fan of rewrites in general).

This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub (Literary Fiction)

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

On Alice’s 40th birthday, she finds herself working in the admissions office of the private Upper West Side school she attended as a child, single, and facing the death of her only parent — an unconventional single dad who earned his keep with a best selling science fiction novel about time travel. But here is where things take a sharp 90 degree turn: after a drunken blow out of a birthday, she falls asleep in the shed outside her father’s house and wakes up … as her teenage self on her 16th birthday.

This was an impressive book in that we have all the character depth, insight, and good writing of a literary novel with the fantastic philosophical considerations made possible by the opportunity to potentially impact the future with some targeted behavior shifts on this one, important night. I loved her wry tone and engaging reflections, and I greatly enjoyed her descriptions of New York City from the perspective of a native. As a diehard SF fan, I was also pretty impressed with the breadth of time travel stories Alice ponders as she tries to come to terms with her situation. Some impressive thoughts about the nature of grief as well. I both enjoyed reading this book and feel like I gained some understanding from it as well.

Some fun quotes:

“In the real world, and in her own life, Alice had no power, but in the kingdom of Belvedere, she was a Sith Lord, or a Jedi, depending on whether one’s child got in or not.”

“Her pants were so long that they dragged on the ground, creating a seismograph of filth along the raw bottom edge.”

“It was like there were two of her, the teenage Alice and the grown-up Alice, sharing the same tiny patch of human real estate.”

“Everyone was gorgeous and gangly and slightly undercooked, like they’d been taken out of the oven a little bit too early, even kids that she’d never really looked at too closely, like Kenji Morris, who was taking the SAT class a whole year early, like he was Doogie Howser or something.”

“Her vision was clear, but it was coming from two different feeds. Alice was herself, only herself, but she was both herself then and herself now. She was forty and she was sixteen.”

“Like many transplants from small towns around the world, Matt seemed to look at New York City as a set to walk through, not thinking too much about what had come before.”

Thank you to Riverhead Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on May 17th, 2022.

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld (literary fiction)

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

An extremely well-written novel based on the life of Laura Bush. Alice Lindgren (the names have been changed to emphasize the fictional nature of the story) has been an inveterate reader since childhood (my kind of girl!). The story takes us from a relatively normal childhood to working as a librarian to meeting Charlie Blackwell (George W Bush) to becoming the First Lady and enduring the ensuing celebrity.

Each of the four sections in the book is based on a real life event in Laura’s life (accidentally killing a classmate in a terrible car accident; George drinking heavily and then becoming religious, etc.) but everything else is purely fictional. Sittenfeld’s aim is to explore what it is like to “lead a life in opposition to itself” based on the liberal tendencies of Laura Bush as compared with her ultra conservative leader-of-the-free-world husband. As far as I can tell, this liberality is deduced from Laura’s (non-elaborated) support for gay marriage and a woman’s right to choose (abortion) along with a smattering of donations to liberal style causes (soup kitchens, etc). (Spoiler alert) Sittenfeld went a step further (too far IMHO) by giving the fictional Alice a gay grandmother and an abortion. I guess the author felt Alice needed personal reasons to support those more liberal policy decisions — which is a shame as I like to feel that people can have political opinions that aren’t necessarily based on their own needs and experiences.

I found the story gripping — I had a paperback with small print (difficult for me to read) and I still couldn’t put it down, reading late into the night. Alice is a delightfully introspective character and her internal commentary and ponderings brought her life into full perspective for the readers. At the same time, I really dislike fictionalized history — regardless of the careful name changing and outright statements of FICTION FICTION FICTION, it is hard (impossible) to leave this book without a strong idea of what these people were like, despite the fact that the characterizations were a complete fabrication on the part of the author. While “Alice” comes off as a sympathetic and engaging character, “Charlie” comes off as a complete buffoon. I’m no George Bush fan, but this doesn’t really seem like a full and complete portrayal of a man!

Some sample quotes:
“This is our implicit agreement, that we can suggest or recommend but that we never force, never make ultimatums. It’s why we don’t resent each other.”

“I’ve thought often since Charlie became governor that it isn’t a surprise so many famous people seem mentally unstable. As their celebrity grows and they’re increasingly deferred to and accommodated, they can believe one of two things: either that they’re deserving, in which case they will become unreasonable and insufferable; or that they’re not deserving, in which case they will be wracked with doubt, plagued by a sense of themselves as imposters.”

“I had the fleeting thought then that we are each of us pathetic in one way or another, and the trick is to marry a person whose patheticness you can tolerate”

“He had told me I had a strong sense of myself, but I wondered then if the opposite was true — if what he took for strength was really a bending sort of accomadation to his ways, if what he saw when he looked at me was the reflection of his own will and personality.”

Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner (Historical Fiction)

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

I loved this book — a great story that manages to combine a fascinating bit of history and early feminism with a literary mystery, historically accurate relationships, insightful writing, in-depth characters, and some great historical characters tossed in (Peggy Guggenheim, Daphne DuMaurier, Samuel Beckett to name a few)!

The story: three women are working at Bloomsbury Books in 1950. Vivien Lowry is a budding novelist with skill, drive, and determination who bristles at the male dominated store where nothing (including any promotion for women) has changed in years; Grace Perkins is married with two sons and grateful to have a job at all as her husband is an unemployed malcontent — “a difficult man, needing the whole of daily life joylessly cut into pieces to fit his unpredictable moods;” Evie Stone (my favorite) has one of the first Cambridge degrees bestowed on a woman but is denied an academic position in favor of a less-skilled man who will nonetheless manage to capitalize on her work. She has a wonderful plan in mind, though, and her position at the bookstore is not an accident!

What I loved about this book is that it depicts an accurate, not overly dramatized, portrayal of life for intelligent woman who sought to live outside the restrictive norms of the day. The three primary female characters each have their own talents, motivations, and personalities — and through them we can understand the experiences and frustrations of different women in this time period — because after all, not all women are the same, then or now. I absolutely loved Evie’s passion for literary history and bringing neglected (not obscure!) 18th century women writers back into print. The author (who once ran an independent bookstore herself) knows her stuff and it comes out with delightful depth in every aspect of the story. I also appreciated the fact that, while a few of the men were simply two-dimensional jerks, many of the others were more ignorant than mean, and the author included some nice analyses of the motivations different men had for behaving the way they did and adhering to what were, after all, the norms of the time. Tossed into the mix were a gay male couple and a high-caste Indian gentleman in charge of the science section of the bookshop — all facing their own issues resulting from not fitting into the expectations of the time.

This is what I call a new breed of women’s fiction — there is some romance (though the developing relationships are formed based on compatibility and mutual trust and admiration rather than looks and money) but romance is but one component of a happy life, not the only ultimate goal. The book did have the requisite happy ending and while it may not have been completely realistic, surely it’s nice to enjoy the possibility.

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on May 17th, 2022.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (speculative fiction)

Characters: 5/5 Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5
Piranesi is a simple being who lives in a massive world called The House, populated by vast quantities of Statues, one friend (The Other) and the bones of 13 others whom Piranesi has named and cares for as one would their dead. Piranesi is a rationalist and has set himself the task of documenting as much as he can about his world — the Statues, the various Halls, the incoming tides, etc, carefully logging everything in his journals with a special cross reference index. Whenever he is troubled, he remembers that he is a Beloved Child of the House. Until one day, something triggers him to look into some of the older journals…

This book is a kind of Robinson Crusoe of the mind, full of philosophy, madness, and surprising resolution. It is a fascinating possible answer to the question “What happens to old ideas as they leave the world?” The start was a bit slow for me but I finally got into the rhythm of the book and finished it in almost a single sitting. (To be fair, it is a relatively short book at 245 pages, and I am home, sick). The ending was thought provoking and a little bittersweet. Definitely worth a read.

Maud’s line by Margaret Verble (Literary Fiction)

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

This is a beautifully written, character-driven story of Maud, a young woman coming of age in Eastern Oklahoma in 1926 on an allotment parceled out to the Cherokee when their land was confiscated for Oklahoma statehood. It is a hard life, filled with violence, dirt, and hardship but also with family and love. When she meets a white peddler whose cart is full of (among other things) books, she sees a chance to escape her lot.

I love the characters in this book — Maud, her sensitive brother Lovely, and her bundles of relatives — all working to survive in this hardscrabble land. Maud’s voice is clear, compelling, and foreign. This chronicle of life is eye-opening and feels utterly real. There are no ridiculous plot devices and no political agenda — just a richly depicted existence with all the nooks and crannies of both an internal life lived among external circumstances.

This was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 2016 (The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen won). While I have not read the winner, I would have been very happy to see Maud’s Line win.

Some quotes:

Quotes:
“She liked books, learning, and clean things. She liked folks being nice to one another. But most of all, she wanted to live in a place where people died of natural causes when they were old and were dressed up in suits and laud down in wooden boxes.”

“Maud began to feel a growing hatred for who she was and where she lived. She was sick to death of dirt, sick of dead bodies gnawed by animals. Her only chance for escape had been that bright blue canvas rocking hr way. She cursed Booker out loud. “

“She felt comfortable with her body taking its pleasure and giving it back. And she discovered right there next to the porch that her pleasure was in her own control and not entirely linked to a man who had up and left her with no warning.”

“Yes, Cherokee women have high standards. We only marry into whites to keep y’all from killing us off.”

“Maud thought those kinds of questions were worth asking, but she never came to the same conclusions her friends did. She thought God, if there was one, didn’t give a shiny penny for what they were doing or what happened to them. And he seemed particularly unpartial toward Indians.”

Booth by Karen Joy Fowler (Fictionalized History)

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

What an unusual book. It is a fictionalized history of the Booth family from 1822 to 1865 when its most infamous member — John Wilkes — shot Abraham Lincoln. John Wilkes is kept as an important but minor character throughout until his action at the end tears everything apart. The story is told from the perspective of three of his siblings: “poor” Rosalie, the eldest daughter who remains a spinster family caretaker for life; Edwin, who becomes the leading tragedian of the 19th century; and Asia, the youngest daughter and eventual poet and writer.

Fowler is a fantastic writer — every book she writes is completely different and spans topics and genres easily. In this — her first fictionalized history — she brings the place and time to life in incredible physical, political, and every day life detail. Following their lives in rural Maryland, Baltimore, and later Philadelphia, New York, and then California (including a harrowing description of the trip across the 40-mile Panamanian isthmus, pre-canal) we are immersed in the attitudes and experiences of a very different time.

Fowler doesn’t modernize sentiments — we are treated to multiple attitudes towards women, immigrants, and slavery. Having read a lot about the time period, I found them to be accurate and comprehensive. As examples, the family’s patriarch — Junius Brutus Booth (a famous Shakespearean actor of the time) — didn’t like slavery but had two slaves; John Wilkes declaimed frequently on the value of slavery and the tyranny of the North; and various speeches (including Lincoln’s, Douglas’ and others) offer additional viewpoints.

I had to keep remembering I was reading a book which while novel-like had to adhere to actual history so while some details seemed extraneous to the plot, they were not extraneous to the lives of those living through them. For me it was a bit of a slow start — I let myself be unhappy that I was having to read a book about someone I did not want to know more about and of course, knowing what happens at the end, I had a kind of dread creeping up on me. However, if you can avoid the kinds of destructive thoughts I was having, it really is gripping reading, and the assassination and aftermath actually takes up a very small part of the end of the book.

Thank you to Penguin Group Putnam and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 8th, 2022.

Adult Assembly Required by Abbi Waxman (Fiction)

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

A light and fun novel that allows us to inhabit a happy, kooky world full of lovable characters with more intellectual curiosity than I typically expect in this genre.

Laura Costello has abruptly moved cross-country to study physical therapy much to the dismay of her academically-oriented family and charming but domineering ex-fiancee. Within days of her arrival, her apartment house has burned down along with all of her belongings. Luckily for her, as an uncharacteristic downpour converts her to utter bedraggledom, she wanders into Nina Hill’s bookstore (the star of the utterly delightful The Bookish Life of Nina Hill) and things take a sudden turn into the neighborhood of charm, quirk, and delight.

I love Waxman’s writing — it’s simultaneously funny and thoughtful. While none of the story is particularly realistic, it also isn’t stupid — it creates a world I’d like to inhabit even if I don’t ever expect to do so. In addition to the plot (which is engaging), there are lots of interesting descriptions of various fields of study from the perspective of someone who really knows and cares about it. For example, I loved the descriptions of the human body and what it does mechanically during every day activities.

The setting of Larchmont Village (a real LA neighborhood that sounds like a place I’d like to visit) along with a lovely boarding house run by an even lovelier landlady reminds me a bit of Maupin’s Tales of the City books, albeit with a little less focus on sexual experimentation and discovery.

Some fun quotes:
“What had been tobacco and paper was now dog vomit, and Herbert was sitting under the kitchen table regretting his life choices.”

“Anything’s interesting when it’s explained by someone who cares about it.”

“I’ve learned recently that my mind isn’t the safest neighborhood to go into alone.”

“Laura looked at the cat. The cat looked at her. Neither of them said anything, Laura because she didn’t speak cat and the cat because she was mentally composing a letter to her senator.”

“Ferdinand was no longer pregnant, but she was still built along capacious lines.” (bookstore cat)

“Anxiety lives in the unknown future, depression lives in the unforgettable past, and peace lives in the acceptance of the present moment.”

Thank you to Berkley Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 17th, 2022.

Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen (Literary fiction / audio book)

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

Russ Hildebrandt is the (unhappy, and frankly to me fairly unlikeable) associate pastor at a suburban Chicago church. Set in the early 70s, the story follows a year or two in the lives of Russ, his wife, and his three oldest children through their multiple perspectives — each in searing, fully introspective, sometimes cringeworthy but always honest detail. Each seeks to balance desires, morality, and a need to belong in the world into which they are born. Russ finds his marriage joyless and finds passion in thoughts of a young, divorced parishioner, his wife Marion has a terrible and secret history which fills her with shame, Clem struggles with the moral luxury of his Vietnam deferment, Becky finds God in the counter culture, and young Perry — an insufferable genius — tries to find ways to calm his brain.

It is a masterful undertaking with broad strokes painted through millions of tiny perceptions, struggles, self-doubts, and experiences. The culture of the time comes to life in this way as well — the interactions and expectations between men and women and the birth of Women’s Lib, the awakening of the counter culture which itself had many guises, Vietnam, and the approach to helping the “poor.” Very strong themes on faith, religion, and relationships with God, though I wouldn’t call this an overly religious book.

The writing was amazing. As I listened to this on audio, I was not able to capture any of the outstanding lines which frustrated me as there were many. On the other hand, listening to the book forced me to “read” it slowly so that I was able to savor the language in a way my normal reading speed does not allow. On the first hand, some of the sections inspired recoil. Sometimes it feels like its best to not know what really goes on inside a person’s head — especially a person prone to self-analysis and neuroses as these people all are. If I had been reading, rather than listening to, this book, I might have skimmed a little of this, though in truth I would have missed the experience of truly inhabiting a mind completely unlike my own — I’m sure that is good for me!

Apparently, this is the first of a multi-generational trilogy, which I did not know until after I finished it. This book provides closure on the story — no cliffhangers.

Thank you to Macmillan Audio and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on October 5th, 2021.

The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny (Mystery / Literary fiction)

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

Chief Inspector Gamache is asked to provide security for a statistics lecturer at an abruptly scheduled speaking engagement between Christmas and New Years. But this isn’t just any lecturer. Abigail Robinson is drawing large crowds with her message of a simple solution to all the misery and pending economic collapse threatening the post-Covid world. It is a simple message (clothed in psuedo-compassionate language): just kill all of the weak and defective people soaking up the majority of the world’s resources.

The topic is masterfully handled. There is an attempt on Robinson’s life at the lecture, and later there is an actual murder to solve, but the backdrop of the plot is the way an unpopular message can be skillfully turned into a popular delusion. The “delusion” (I believe) is that the proposal would be a mercy and a kindness to everyone, including those who are to be euthanized. The philosophical discussion takes place throughout the book as different characters struggle with the concepts of burden, empathy, and fear in their own personal lives. Robinson is friendly, soft spoken and earnest. She knows how to paint the terrifying picture and then soothe it with easy solutions, tempering the calls for murder with the promise of compassion and pity and “all will be well.”

As always, Penny’s crime fiction is impossible to put down. Her writing is on a par with good literary fiction, her plots twisted and surprising, and of course it’s difficult to not be in love with all the characters we’ve come to know throughout the previous 16 books (an interesting new character is introduced — an “Asshole Saint” in the form of a curt woman from the Sudan who is up for the Nobel Peace Prize).

There have been a few recent Penny books that I haven’t loved, but this isn’t one of them. I’m already waiting for number 18 …