Dinosaurs by Lydia Millet (Literary Fiction)

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

Deceptively simple, deeply beautiful story about a man who learns to open himself up to the world of human connection. Gorgeous writing detailing nature, thoughts, and a continuum of effort to fight for and take care of other people, but never himself. Takes place in the Phoenix desert, where one neighbor lives in a “castle” overlooking another neighbor whose home is built entirely of glass.

This is the first book I’ve read by Millet, and I’m definitely going to seek out the others to see if they all have this iridescent writing. The story was slow paced (which is not usually my thing) but I couldn’t stop reading. Humor, kindness, friendship, confusion, love, and moments of great poignancy — the book had it all.

Thank you to W. W. Norton & Company and Net Galley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on October 10th, 2022.

Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee (Literary fiction / Audio book)

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

Casey Han — the daughter of Korean immigrants in Queens — craves a wealthy lifestyle she cannot afford, having been exposed to such while on a scholarship to Princeton. She craves “beauty and the illusion of a better life.” Casey balances pride, deeply embedded family traditions, and her emerging sense of self as she struggles to grow up and be the person she is slowly determining that she wants to be. While we follow Casey from graduation through the next five (or so) years, we are also treated to the developing stories of women who are important to her: her mother, a mentor, an acquaintance who rescues her and turns into a close friend. Rather than following a narrative arc, this book seems to follow a Life Arc — twisting and turning with sometimes rapid and surprising (to us and to Casey) shifts. The first novel by the author of Pachinko, you’ll recognize the style and treatment, while this book focuses on a Korean-American family and Pachinko is focused on 20th century Korea.

Although only covering a few years, this book felt epic because of its size and incredible depth. The characters are far too detailed and deeply introspective to even hint at stereotypes. Psychological analysis, philosophical musings, and cultural context (somehow never the same for any two people) help move the inner story along while the external story is utterly unpredictable.

The prose is beautiful, detailed, and rich. I love the way the author repeatedly and seamlessly contrasts the inner deliberations of each character with how his or her behavior appears to others. We are led through the minutiae of multiple lives that rarely go in the expected direction, but make do with the many, realistic tangents that comprise a life (regardless of any planning!). I appreciated the many domains that were brought to life by Casey’s experiences: investment banking and trading, millinery and fashion, church and faith, weddings, antiquarian books, and probably several others that I can no longer remember.

There were so many good quotes, but I listened to most of it as an audio book while driving and couldn’t write down a single one. 😦

Vigil Harbor by Julia Glass (Literary Fiction)

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

Vigil Harbor — an historic town on the Atlantic Seaboard — is a kind of safe harbor for many of its residents. It feels protected from the ever increasing calamities of the broader world — rising oceans, increased acts of terrorism, epidemics. When a spate of divorces and a couple of strangers arrive —each with a hidden agenda — suddenly the problems of the world seem to hit a little closer to home.

Only ten years into the future, many of the characters are understandably living in a constant state of fear, anxiety, and despair. In the world (too well) portrayed by the author, Survival Studies has become a college major, climate change has diminished songbirds and summer fruit almost to extinction, coastal towns have been triaged into oblivion, various groups are hunkering down in survivalist bunkers, and eco-terrorism is on the rise with frequent and deadly bombings. One character suggests that humankind is busy “unbuilding the ark.” Other characters are stubbornly optimistic or simply moving on with their lives, adapting to a constantly changing reality as we humans have been doing for millennia.

A set of deeply drawn characters — a despairing biologist who believes he works in “marine hospice”; a retired English high school teacher bent on revenge; an optimistic architect who considers himself “an architect for the future, not the apocalypse”; a college drop out back home after a narrow escape; a brilliant landscaper still terrified of possible deportation after 40 years in the country; and others — all wind around each other while living, reflecting, worrying, and hoping. They are having children and consciously considering what it means to parent in a rapidly deteriorating landscape. They are creating art, appreciating beauty, and finding people and places to love. They are finding ways to define and follow their passions to try to make the world a better place (for some definition of better and some definition of place).

Julia Glass is one of my favorite writers — as in the actual use of words to describe, set a mood, bring to life. Her vocabulary is both large and up-to-date (it’s possible that she made up several of the more modern slang words). She creates these amazing turns of phrase — the words literally turning / tumbling around in the phrase — and so many of her sentences are gorgeous little nuggets that I grew tired of underlining. She does a pretty interesting job of describing nature, pieces of art, and different architectures. I say “interesting” because I typically don’t enjoy descriptions — I don’t visualize from words well — but her descriptions touch on more than just the visual, and I find myself reading slowly, rapt. Her depiction of technology evolution and the resulting shifts in human behavior over the next ten years was seamlessly and utterly believably done.

I valued the personal reflections, discussions, and general interactions between characters — each with sometimes wildly different perceptions of reality — what was happening, what was important, what could be done, who to blame. I appreciated the sometimes subtle differences between generations, culminating in a last few pages describing the thought processes of a young (middle school age) boy whose worldview had obviously been molded by the events of his short life.

Overall, a book that made me think, made me understand other people a little better, and gave me a set of characters that I would enjoy knowing better. I did stick to reading during the day because I am easily anxietified (my word) and wanted to be able to sleep.

Some good quotes:
“The slivers of grief in your flesh dissolve or work their way out. One day they’re gone, even if they leave you with tiny, whisper-thin scars.”

“Celestino is not a man who thinks that thorough knowledge of a person’s history, much less his or her emotional “journey,” equates with greater trust or deeper love.”

“The art she made was the obsession reaching for a language.”

“Did all intelligent, creative people need to be tangled up in thickets of neurosis, their psyches riddled with the stigmata of previous heartache?”

“She was living on less than a shoestring; she was living on a filament of fishing line.”

“I am a living redundancy. I realize: the wife not so much replaced as deleted, just as I might take my green pen … and blithely score through a student’s unnecessary adverb when the verb can stand on its philandering own.”

“Time will tell,” said Margo. “As it alway does, the fucker.”

“Is this the beginning of old age, this irrepressible pull of futility? My own father lapsed into a storm cloud of silence once he retired.”

“But that was one of my worst faults: fretting over past choices when they have been chiseled into history.”

“His step father refers to his generation as Generation F: failure, fuckup, fatalist; take your pick.”

This book will be published on May 3, 2022. Many thanks to the author for giving me an early reader copy

Ashton Hall by Lauren Belfer (Literary and Historical Fiction)

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

A fabulous book full of all the literary things that I love.

Hannah Larson and her neurodiverse son, Nicky, move to a historic manor house outside of Cambridge to care for a beloved, elderly relative. Hannah uses the opportunity to take up her abandoned dissertation while simultaneously escaping a recent and devastating betrayal. While there, Nicky, through his “oddities” discovers a skeleton (dated ~late 1850s) in a bricked up room.

It’s a rich, multi-layered novel delving into both the mystery of the female skeleton, the historical context of her life, and the historical research process by which Hannah uncovers the story. In the current day story, Hannah faces a pretty major problem in her marriage and some real difficulties in raising her son who appears to be on the autism spectrum though is never officially labeled as such. He is finding a place — and friends and interests — in the new world he inhabits while continuing to have “incidents” that she is not able to control. In the past, our skeleton inhabits a world rife with religious conflict, plague, and famine. A strong theme running through both time frames is the choices women have made and the options they were given over the centuries. Interesting parallels and the author never slips into anti-man territory (thank you — so sick of that).

The author does a brilliant job at bringing to life both the world of the1800s for our bricked in skeleton and the current world of an American on leave from her “real” life in a place that opens her eyes to new possibilities. While each of these “worlds” is a context, it is a context experienced by people with different wants, desires, personalities, and situations. I love a book filled with individuals who not only don’t fall into the stereotypes of their culture, but actively question their decisions and roles!

Great for fans of Julia Kelly and Carol Goodman.

Quotes:

“The talents possessed by women had been overlooked, denigrated, dismissed, and suppressed for centuries. The diseases they might have cured. The technological advanced they might have made, the cruelties righted, works of art created, buildings designed — all denied. The tragedy and failure of it affected not only individuals but communities and societies. The women who’d found meaning by devoting themselves to their families had also been silenced by history, erased, the importance of their household labor unrecognized.”

“Even as I said this, I knew that one of the biggest roadblocks to understanding history was the false notion that the individuals of the past were more or less like us, thought like us, and would only do things we would do. I realized that I’d been thinking about Isabella this way all along. I had to stop seeing her through the filter of myself.”

“Her reign is referred to as theGolden Age, but it was a flowering of culture against a backdrop of religious suppression, torture, disease, and waves of starvation.”

“The first year of nothing, 1593, was the year when Catholics were required to have a license to travel more than five miles from their homes. It was also the year when a bill was introduced in Parliament calling for the removal of children from Catholic families, so they could be raised in Protestant homes. The bill was withdrawn, but the point had been made, brutally.”

“Such energy expended, to arrive at this restrained intimacy.”

“Four hundred years from now, was this how Anne Frank’s attic would be viewed? After enough time had passed and the trauma had faded, would the attic evolve into something fun for kids to see because it was gruesome in a shivery, Halloween sort of way, the horrifying truth rewritten to make the site more visitor-friendly? I prayed we’d never reach a day when kids could tour Anne Frank’s hiding place and after ward receive smiley-face stickers for their shirts”

“Bringing starvation and war into this discussion was like saying is was okay to cheat on an exam because the exam was insignificant compared to the atomic bomb. Individuals as well as societies needed moral standards.”

“Ah, yes, 1545 to 1610. Years of traumatic religious upheaval, played out against crop failures, famine, smallpox, sweating sickness, plague. Also, a flowering of culture, of poetry, music, and drama.”

“I wished I could view the world as Christopher did , a place where the most mundane errands were part of an adventure story.”

Thank you to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 7th, 2022.

French Braid by Anne Tyler (Literary Fiction)

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

A classic Anne Tyler novel following the lives of a Baltimore family through generations from 1959 to the present (including the Covid lockdown). Blending family dynamics with individual personalities in the context of the times, it is a study in the ways that families simultaneously work and don’t work.

Naturally well-written (Pulitzer prize winning author!) with a set of characters drawn in depth and with a high degree of verisimilitude. The characters were not always likable — in fact, I was struck by how few of these people I would actually enjoy spending time with. Not that there was anything terrible about them, but their very realness reminded me of the difference between live people with their selfishness, tiny cruelties, and obliviousness to the interests of others, and my favorite book characters who seem to always have their best foot forward even when making mistakes. This may be more of a commentary on why I don’t have more friends than anything else!

Thank you to Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 22nd, 2022.

The Candy House by Jennifer Egan (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 5+/5

This is one book where the marketing blurb is spot on, so I’m going to quote from it rather than trying to describe it myself: It is “an electrifying, deeply moving novel about the quest for authenticity and meaning in a world where memories and identities are no longer private.” Own Your Unconscious — a technology that enables recording your own unconscious memories, and the attendant Collective Unconscious arising from the blending of millions of such externalized memories is transforming the world — for better or worse. In a set of tangled vignettes connecting characters who are, in their way, each pursuing the answers to their own existential dilemmas, we follow their reactions, reflections, experiences, and goals in this rapidly changing dynamic.

I loved this book — full of the complexity and layering of life where we are all spinning in and out of our each others’ stories. Egan has fantastic insight into so many wildly different characters — full of depth and quirk with none of the shallow explanations for behavior we (too often IMHO) accept in fiction. Each vignette is written in a slightly different style, depending on the “voice” of the main character — I liked them all but my favorites were those told from the perspective of a troubled (and troubling) child, one from an autistic perspective, and one told in a set of text / emails spreading out to include ever more surprisingly (to them) connected characters. I wish I had drawn out a character map from the beginning because I sometimes lost track of current (and past) relationships. If you read Welcome to the Goon Squad, you will recognize several of the characters.

Plenty to think about — lots of philosophy, psychology, linguistics, and anthropology applied to the social media ++ of shared memories and identities within a well thought out slightly speculative fiction setting. Some interesting multi-generational family dynamics and a particularly thought-provoking examination of the role of fiction in a world which has the actual recording of experience as opposed to those crafted by authors. Egan’s writing — as always — is flawless.

Some good quotes:

“He was known not to curse; his mother, a sixth-grade grammar teacher, had heaped such withering scorn on the repetitive dullness and infantile content of profanity that she’d managed to annul its transgressive power.”

“Gazing up at the lighted windows on one, Bix thought he could practically hear a potency of ideas simmering behind it.”

“I never know what’s going on, and because my attempts to find out lack the tactful goo that typicals smear all over their actions and words to blunt their real purpose, I come across as lurching and off-putting.”

“But whereas in music, a prolonged pause adds power and vividness to the refrain that follows it, pauses in conversation have the opposite effect, of debasing whatever comes next to the point that a perfectly witty riposte will be reduced to the verbal equivalent of a shrunken head, if too long a pause precedes it.”

“… no one escaped the roving, lacerating beam of my judgement. I can access that beam, even now, decades later: a font of outraged impatience with other people’s flaws.”

“In this new world, rascally tricks were no longer enough to produce authentic responses; authenticity required violent unmasking, like worms writhing at the hasty removal of their rock.”

“Social media was dead, everyone agreed; self-representations were inherently narcissistic or propagandic or both, and grossly inauthentic.”

“Here was his father’s parting gift: a galaxy of human lives hurtling toward his curiosity. From a distance they faded into uniformity, but they were moving, each propelled by a singular force that was inexhaustible. The collective. He was feeling the collective without any machinery at all. And its stories, infinite and particular, would be his to tell.”

Thank you to Scribner and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 5th, 2022.

The Last Dance of the Debutante By Julia Kelly

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4.5/5
A description of the London debutante season during the last year at which debs were presented to Queen Elizabeth (March 1958). Told from the perspective of Lily — a young woman who would much prefer furthering her studies in literature but nevertheless obliges her mother and grandmother by being the best deb she can be. While there are plenty of descriptions of gowns, parties, and balls (as one would expect), what I liked was the perspective of someone for whom the daily activities were — while pleasurable at times — more chore than treat. Utterly exhausting at times, in fact. The Season had a purpose and it was to be pursued with brutal focus: meet the “right” people and find an eligible man with whom to start the “right” kind of life. Lily has principles and gains a greater understanding of what those principles are and how to handle the conflicts that arise when her principles meet her family’s goals. We gain access to a variety of characters through an unusual take on the lives of “quality” women during this time period. Some secrets are unearthed, some surprising events occur, and the story is engaging from start to finish. The author describes her interviews with various debutantes of the time — very well put together!

Unlikely Animals by Annie Hartnett (Literary Fiction)

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

Wonderfully fun and engaging book — one of the most creative I’ve read in a long time.

Emma was born with “The Charm” — magic hands that could heal injuries in her small New Hampshire community. But the charm appears to have deserted her as she is called back from medical school (which she never exactly started) to “heal” her rapidly declining father. As part of his degenerative brain disease, he sees things — hordes of rabbits, stray cats, and a long-dead naturalist (Ernest Harold Baynes — the real life Dr. Doolittle!) who keeps him company. You would assume these were all hallucinations but then the narrator of the book is the collective “we” of the local grave dwellers who provide occasional opinionated commentary on events. And from here it just gets weirder and more fun. Despite tackling a number of disturbing issues: the opioid crisis, degenerative brain disease, a missing person, and drastic and unintentional life plan changes, this novel is always cheerful and always fun. A highly responsible stray dog, an expensive imported Russian fox, and some pretty adorable 5th graders join the living and the dead in the cast.

Some random fun quotes:
“That’s why we like living with animals so much; they exhibit their joy so outwardly, remind us how to be better alive.”

“Emma found that Moses had ripped open a bag of flour on the couch, another way the dog was dealing with his separation anxiety: challenging himself to make messes that were increasingly difficult to vacuum up.”

“Auggie rolled his eyes toward his skull, and Emma regretted hoping Auggie could pull his life together. In fact, she didn’t care if anything good ever happened to him.”

“It was her wedding china, but she didn’t care. Her marriage wasn’t doing her any favors lately.”

“And Clive knew he was loving, really loving, when he remembered to be.”

“Nothing to be embarrassed of. Just the imperfect human body having a hard time.”

Thank you to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 12th, 2022.

Metropolis by B. A. Shapiro (Literary Fiction)

Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5 Writing: 4/5
The Metropolis is an old fashioned self-storage unit in Boston — with variable sized units many of which have windows. The best part of this book is the peek into the lives of those who have found themselves in need of excess storage space and the way they use said space. Liddy Haines, wife of the uber wealthy (and not terribly nice) Garrett Haines, keeps her children’s things in the unit when they are shipped off to boarding school courtesy of the not-nice daddy; Jason, the black Harvard educated lawyer who found himself at odds with his corporate employer, houses his office there; Marta, a beautiful Venezuelan on the run from ICE, has moved in, feverishly focussing on her Sociology PhD thesis on how disparities at birth play out in life; and Serge, a brilliant and increasingly mentally disturbed photographer.

The unit is owned by Zach as an effort to go legit and managed by Rose who has her own set of issues. Everything is going along tickety-boo until an “incident” occurs in the unit elevator…

I love the premise of the story — who doesn’t think about all the diverse lives contained in such a collection of rooms with no other commonality? The characters were well-drawn and relatable, though I found their situations were all over-the-top and each was a little tropish. I always love her art commentary, in this case focused on Serge’s extraordinary photographs.

A fun read!

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 May 17th, 2022.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (Literary Fiction)

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

A retelling of Austen’s popular Pride and Prejudice: Sittenfeld did a masterful job at “modernizing” the characters while keeping their essential personalities and issues intact. (As a quick recap, one could summarize P & P as about a family with five daughters that tries to marry them off, although the book is much more interesting than that). Jane, the eldest, at 40 is trying to have a baby via artificial insemination, while Liz (#2) has been dating a married man, having been led on for decades. While Jane and Liz both live in Manhattan, they are home in Cincinnati to help care for their father who is recovering from a heart attack. It is from this setup that they meet newly local doctors Chip Bingley and Fitzwilliam Darcy. What follows is hysterically funny and completely engaging, including Reality TV shows, tech millionaires, Atherton estates, and — wait for it — a trans husband. My absolutely favorite part, though, oddly enough, is Mr. Bennet with his ROFL sardonic one liners.

Sittenfeld is a seriously good writer. While this review may make this sound like a light weight beach read, it really goes much deeper than that — full of the insight, reflection, and social commentary featured in the original. I guess I’m going to have get over my prejudice against modernizations because this was hilarious, fun, and a good piece of literature. Put me in a great mood for the New Year.

Quotes:
“There’s a belief that to take care of someone else, or to let someone else take care of you — that both are inherently unfeminist. I don’t agree. There’s no shame in devoting yourself to another person, as long as he devotes himself to you in return.”

“The truth, however, was that he did not seem egomaniacal to her; he seemed principled and thoughtful, and she felt a vague embarrassment that she worked for a magazine that recommended anti-aging creams to women in their twenties and he helped people who’d experienced brain trauma.”

“At the table, Caroline was on Darcy’s other side and had spent most of the meal curled toward him in conversation like a poisonous weed.”

“Liz felt the loneliness of having confided something true in a person who didn’t care.”

“‘Fred’, the nurse said, though they had never met. ‘How are we today?’ Reading the nurse’s name tag, Mr. Bennet replied with fake enthusiasm, ‘Bernard! We’re mourning the death of manners and the rise of overly familiar discourse. How are you?’”

It occurred to Liz one day, as she waited on hold for an estimate from a yard service, that her parents’ home was like an extremely obese person who could not longer see, touch, or maintain jurisdiction over all of his body; there was simply too much of it, and he — they — had grown weary and inflexible.”