The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 3.5/5

A low-cost housing complex (The Rabbit Hutch) in a dying small town in Indiana, a set of disconnected neighbors, and a build up to a freakish act of violence that somehow weaves them together. It’s a bizarre and convoluted story that races from humor to creepy and back again without a second thought, culminating in an act that brings all the loose strands together. The writing is stunning (see the quotes below), the wildly diverse characters rendered in full technicolor detail with ongoing and minutely documented social commentary attached to individual observations. The characters: a lonely online obituary moderator, a young mother with dark thoughts, a 70ish couple decidedly not keeping up with the times, and a group of four teenagers who have aged out of the foster care system, including Blandine who is seeking meaning in the writings of the mystics — Hildegard von Bingen from the 12th century in particular.

It’s brilliantly done, bringing psychology, philosophy, and reflection to bear on the ways all of these people trying to make sense of their own lives. The author has a pointed ability to see into the motivations, experiences, and fears of those who appear rather anonymous on the outside. From the mystics to sexual grooming to isolation to the environment to the effects of noise pollution (my favorite) — the book was intellectually interesting and humorous in places, but — I admit — overall had a doomed, hopeless feel. I made it a “daytime only” read. However, I did not find the end depressing — I think that is important to note, and I wish I had known that ahead of time!

New words (for me):
Misophonia — People with misophonia are affected emotionally by common sounds — usually those made by others and usually ones that other people don’t pay attention to. The examples above (breathing, yawning, or chewing) create a fight-or-flight response that triggers anger and a desire to escape.
Balayage: a technique for highlighting hair in which the dye is painted on in such a way as to create a graduated, natural-looking effect.

A few quotes, but there are a million more…

“Joan apologized three more times, then returned to her seat, feeling evil. As usual, when she confronted the world about one of its problems, the world suggested that the problem was Joan.”

“…the cackles and squawks of three tween girls overthrow the words on the page, infuriating her. They sound like chimpanzees. Just when Joan thinks the tween cackling will stop, it gets louder, engulfing her flammable peace along with the compartment.”

“Tiffany is insecure, cerebral, and enraged. Pretty in an extraterrestrial sort of way. Addicted to learning because it distracts her from the hostility of her consciousness; she has one of those brains that attacks itself unless it’s completing a difficult task.”

“She did bring a book, but she wasn’t reading it, just bullying the ink into sense.”

“And then on top of that — weaponzing a person’s isolation — it convinced every user that she is a minor celebrity, forcing her to curate some sparkly and artificial sampling of her best experiences, demanding a nonstop social performance that has little in common with her inner life, intensifying her narcissism, multiplying her anxieties, narrowing her worldview.”

“It’s moments like these when Joan fears she is a subject in some elaborate, federally funded psychology experiement.”

“She feels like a demanding and ill-fated houseplant, one that needs light in every season but will die in direct sun, one whose soil requires daily water but will drown if it receives too much, one that takes a fertilizer only sold at a store that’s open three hours a day, one that …

“They are elite, climate controlled, dentally supreme.”

“Frequently, Hope wondered what it would be like to vacation in her cousin’s psychology.”

“She always knew that she was too small and stupid to lead a revolution, but she had hoped she could at least imagine one.”

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb (Memoir)

This memoir is as gripping as a good novel.  Hall-of-mirrors style, we experience therapy from the perspective of the therapist with carefully selected stories that highlight both the therapeutic process and the impact on the therapist herself. At the same time, we’re along for the ride as Gottlieb enters her own therapy as the result of a (surprisingly) bad breakup. She has a real talent for insight — into herself and into others — and the training and background to understand that insight. Even better, Gottlieb can write — the prose is clear and succinct and gets to the essence of complex feelings, motivations, and awareness. My favorite one liner: “The nature of life is change and the nature of people is to resist change.”

This memoir is one of the bravest and most honest I’ve read. I never would have had the courage to bare my soul, warts and all, in such a genuine and authentic manner. The narrative embeds her personal story — the path through journalism and medical school to a combined career as therapist and writer — as well as relevant bits of the history of psychology. She references several psychologists — some famous, some new to me, and a few favorites — as she leverages their teachings in her own work. The one that hit me hardest was this quote from Victor Frankl, Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

Apropos of nothing, another interesting tidbit: the countries with the most therapists per capita (in order) are: Argentina, Austria, Australia, France, Canada, Switzerland, Iceland, US. Would not have been my guess!

Did this book make me want to enter therapy? She included a definition that I hadn’t heard before — Counseling is for advice whereas therapy is for self-understanding. I’m always interested in self-understanding and working with a *good* therapist who has great skill and insight would be (I’m sure) both interesting and beneficial — but the process is long, expensive, and doesn’t appear to be very efficient — I think I’ll stick to my “self-taught” approach and continue with ongoing internal exploration.

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung (Memoir)

Incredibly well-written and insightful memoir about the author’s trans-racial adoption (white family, Korean birth family), eventual reunion with her birth family, and the birth of her first child. I was constantly impressed by her ability to so clearly distill and express complex emotions and experiences. This is a testament both to her writing ability and her capacity for deep introspection and self-awareness.

This is a memoir — a deeply personal and honest account of the way she experienced her life. It is not a treatise on the pros and cons of adoption or the prejudice experienced by a person of color in an all-white community— there is no political agenda here. I absolutely loved her writing — the search for her birth parents and discovery of a sister is superimposed on her own pregnancy and the birth of her child, making sense out of the disparate pieces of her background, decisions, and plans.

Great for fans of Anne Lamott.

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.”