Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 5/5

Loved, loved, loved this book! It’s clever, witty, full of intra- and inter-personal insights and … it simply made me happy. Our narrator is a 26-year old writer for The Night Owls (TNO — think Saturday Night Live) whose goal is to one day write “non-condescending, ragingly feminist screenplays for romantic comedies.” The book opens with a grumpy and well depicted annoyance that her office mate — middle aged schlub writer Danny Horst — is engaged to a gorgeous and popular celebrity. Her curmudgeonly point? This could never happen if the genders were reversed. And this sets the stage for this laugh-out-loud and deeply satisfying examination of love, romance, gender stereotyping, and personal insight with plenty of grammar jokes, neuroses, soul baring and an extremely funny and yet poignant story of how she got her hamster tattoo.

It is a self-referential, Covid fueled, Romantic Comedy for our times. I always love Sittenfeld’s writing — it is clean, pointed, and intelligent (and allows her audience to engage intelligently) while never belaboring an obvious point and always remaining simultaneously funny and meaningful. I would love to see some of the SNL style skits her characters propose and the whole thing would make a great movie that would easily bear multiple rewatches. Great cast of characters.

Some great quotes — out of context and just a drop in the bucket:
“Did he realize I wasn’t yet wearing earbuds or did he not care? I suspected the latter; every day, things were said at TNO, often on camera, that would have constituted sexual harassment in any other workplace except the current White House.”

“Even with the baked-in sexism, even when I’ve barely slept. I just can’t imagine a job where I laugh more, or the people are more talented and hard-working. And to get paid to make fun of stuff that deserves to be made fun of and have this huge platform — what more could a misanthrope from Missouri wish for?”

“Another of my pet peeves is that the female characters used to all be sort of cutesy, like having flour on their nose after they baked cookies and not knowing it. And now they’re all a mess, like waking up really hungover and getting fired. I want to create characters who aren’t flawless but also aren’t ridiculous or incompetent at life.”

“Just to be clear, I do lead a life of quiet desperation. I wouldn’t want to be friends with anyone who doesn’t, or anyone who isn’t filled with ambivalence, because I assume they’d be incredibly shallow. But I’m sure I’d be ten times more quietly desperate if I were living in the suburbs with a two-car garage.”

“Aren’t we all just looking for someone to talk about everything with? Someone worth the effort of telling our stories and opinions to, whose stories and opinions we actually want to hear?”

“All of which was to say that the sketches I’d written over the years about the absurdity and arbitrariness of beauty standards for women had arisen not from my clear-eyed renunciation of them, but from my resentment at their hold on me.”

“I thought, not for the first time, that plainly expressing what you thought about fraught topics was significantly harder than writing banter between imaginary characters.”

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 11th, 2023

Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4.5/5
This third chapter in the Lucy Barton series (I am Lucy Barton and Oh William!) might alternately be titled Lucy Gets Through the Covid Pandemic as it extends from just before Covid slams into New York City and continues through the availability of vaccines. Lucy and her first husband, William (the parasitologist), head to Maine for what (very) naive Lucy is told will just be a few weeks to escape the ravages of Covid. William is — very simply — trying to save her life.

I’m a huge Strout fan and have read most or all of her books — I love her clean, clear writing and insight into personal experience. I did find this book a little more preachy than previous novels to the point where I liked the main character much less than I did previously. This is largely because the book took on political topics (Covid, George Floyd, the Capitol Riots) and manipulated the story to show how very correct her side of the political spectrum was in every case (the Capitol Rioters were all nazis and racists but the George Floyd riots were all peaceful; everyone in her book who did not adhere to strict covid protocols were rashly stupid and were all punished by death or hospitalization, etc.). While worrying about the state of democracy and bemoaning child labor in foreign countries, she has access to lots of money, and while befriending people with very different beliefs and professing love for her born again sister, she comes off as feeling superior to them. Of course, it is Lucy’s story and to be fair, the author does let some characters blast Lucy for just that! She even has Lucy (a writer) write stories about people very unlike herself so … overall I enjoyed the book, and it gave me a lot to think about (I think I’m still just sensitive to the many sanctimonious people I weathered Covid with, some of whom called me a “grandma killer” when I went out to run on deserted streets).

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 20th, 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 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 …

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich (Literary Fiction / Multi-cultural)

A Minneapolis bookstore is haunted by its most annoying (and recently deceased) patron. It’s not just any bookstore — it’s Birchbark Books — the very real bookstore owned by none other but the author herself who makes cameo appearances in the story. Tookie — a large, Native American woman who took up reading with a passion while serving a long prison sentence — is our narrator. Tookie is wonderful — she keeps her “to read” pile next to her bed in two stacks: the Lazy Stack and the Hard Stack — my kind of woman. The haunting story takes place while Minneapolis suffers first from Covid and then from being ground zero for the aftermath of the George Floyd killing.

It’s a tender, multi-faceted story with characters that are so real, so nuanced, and so vibrant it made me cry to know that I would never actually be able to meet them. Absolutely beautiful writing as always — see the quote sampler at the end. Louise Erdrich has gone from “never read because too depressing” to “favorite author” in the last year or two. I loved LaRose, I really loved The Night Watchman, and now I have fallen in love with her latest — The Sentence. By the way, I loved her use of the word “sentence” with multiple meanings, both literary and punitive.

The story follows personal lives through these bigger events — their fears, perspectives (not all predictable), frustrations, and actions — the impact on relationships. The long buried hurts that emerge at inconvenient times. The scenes in the bookstore with vignettes on various customers — their needs, conversation, and frequent crankiness — are priceless. Lots of great book references and lists interspersed — I was happy to find new authors (and I read a lot — this doesn’t happen to me very often). As always, plenty of historical and current information on Native Americans including (as an example) the statistic that Native Americans are the most oversentenced people currently imprisoned). The bookstore employs a great number of “indigerati” — a term I believe Erdrich coined because I can’t find it anywhere else — I love it!

One warning — reading the first chapter I thought this was going to be a very different kind of book, and I wasn’t thrilled. Once you get to chapter two everything works better (for me).

Quotes:

“Native Americans are the most over-sentenced people currently imprisoned. I love statistics because they place what happens to a scrap of humanity, like me, on a worldwide scale.”

“Pen is one of a mass of young Native people who have book-crushes and rich book life, a true Indigerati.”

“Actually, Penstemon is desperately romantic, deeply tied to her traditions, and I worry for her paper heart.”

“Sometimes she worked on the collage after plane trips, claiming that in hurtling through the stratosphere she’d lost brain cells. he couldn’t shake the conviction that pieces of her mind were scattered about in the sky.” When she came down to earth, she had the urge to glue things together.”

“Once free, I found that I could not read just any book. It had gotten so I could see through books — the little ruses, the hooks, the setup in the beginning, the looming weight of a tragic ending. I needed the writing to have a certain mineral density. It had to feel naturally meant, but not cynically contrived. I grew to dislike manipulations.”

“And so we sat there. Two haunted women. And one unhaunted baby trailing clouds of glory.”

“I put my hand on my chest and closed my eyes. I have a dinosaur heart, cold, massive, indestructible, a thick meaty red. And I have a glass heart, tiny and pink, that can be shattered. The glass heart belongs to Pollux. There was a ping. To my surprise, it had developed a minute crack, nearly invisible. But it was there, and it hurt.”

“The thing is, most of us Indiginous people do have to consciously pull together our identities. We’ve endured centuries of being erased and sentenced to live in a replacement culture. So even someone raised strictly in their own tradition gets pulled toward white perspectives.”

Thank you to Harper and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on November 9th, 2021.