The Escape Artist by Helen Fremont (Memoir)

Very well-written memoir about the author growing up in a dysfunctional family full of mental illness and big-time secrets. Raised as a Catholic, her discovery that her parents and aunt were instead Jewish holocaust survivors was the subject of her first book — After Long Silence (1999).  The Escape Artist starts with the aftermath of the previous work — estrangement from her family and an invitation to her father’s funeral only to find that she had been cut out of his will with the phrase “as if she had predeceased me.” The narrative bounces between 1965 and the present (well-labeled and easy to follow) and follows the wild dynamics of a sister who is alternately her best friend and a foaming-at-the-mouth crazy person vowing to kill her. While the first book uncovers the Catholic / Jewish secret, this book uncovers a second large family secret (which truthfully is not the main purpose of the book and is not over dramatized in any way — it’s just something we find out / figure out near the end). The primary focus is on her relationship with the family, particularly her sister, and her own slow self-discovery of the person she wants to be.

I enjoyed reading this book — it was well-written and the characters were deeply portrayed — intentionally from the author’s perspective. Exactly my kind of memoir where the author makes plain her interior logic, experiences, and even her own doubt as to what actually happened vs what she remembers happening. My only complaint might be that it was a tad too long — I was ready to be done about 40 pages from the end. I admit that there is also something that disturbs me about one person writing a memoir that exposes the secrets of others. There was a good reason her family did not want people to know they were Jewish and I can see being equally unhappy about the family exposure in this book.

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.”

Non-Binary Lives by Jos Twist, et al (Non-Fiction)

An interesting collection of essays by and about non-binary persons. From wikipedia:  Non-binary is a spectrum of gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine — ‌identities that are outside the gender binary.

Most of the authors are living and working in the UK, though a few were from other countries. My impression is that most are therapists and / or gender study students or professional academics.

While a few of the essays proved to be overly jargonistic or borderline offensive (one railed against the “ableist, capitalist, patriarchal, white supremist, cisgenderist dominant society” and another kept mentioning “toxic gender binary notions”), most were well-written and explored aspects of the non-binary gender concept that were new to me. Many examined the intersectionality of being non-binary within different cultures or religions as experienced by (for example) a Vietnamese Confucianist, a Jewish feminist, a Quaker, and an Hispanic. One essay explored the effect of motherhood (via the traditional biological pathway) on someone who self-identified as non-binary.

I was naively surprised by the references to infighting between differently gendered groups. Said one author: “…the phenomenon of self-identified transsexual folk who are vehemently opposed to non-binary as a concept as they feel it undermines the realness of their own identities. The vitriol they express is nearly as bad as the right-wing opponents of ‘gender ideology’ who are freaking out about the end of gender and gender roles.” Another bemoaned the fact that as a non-binary person, they were no longer able to benefit from the many women-only groups and privileges they had been enjoying. They had been happy to be part of women’s theater companies who were “dedicated to presenting lesser-told stories” as compared to the more “mainstream” companies, “dedicated to working their way through the safe Western dramatic canon of plays by dead cishet white dudes,” and were now unhappy to be automatically lumped in with the outsiders.

I’ve been fascinated with the concept of gender and gender fluidity ever since reading Gender Mosaic by Daphna Joel and Luba Vikhanski, and I enjoyed many of the essays in this book. They forced me to examine my own perceptions and actions: Why do I care what gender a person is? Or whom they prefer as a sexual partner? And yet I notice that if I can’t tell at a glance, I spend time trying to figure it out. For some reason I feel I need to know. Does this mean I treat people differently based on gender or simply that I have a great need to keep things categorized in my head? I have no idea!

I do know that I am greatly in favor of more inclusion in society, but not at the expense of other groups. Let’s hear more stories and give more opportunities to previously unrepresented groups — but why is it necessary to exclude people simply because some perceive them to have been part of a “privileged” group? Today’s white, cishet, men should not have to suffer because in the past *some* white, cishet, men benefited at the expense of other groups. And why on Earth would we want to belittle the great works of the past simply because their creators were white men when there were others at the time who did not have the same opportunities? Shakespeare’s plays are still amazing as are the works of Mozart, Rembrandt, and Sir Isaac Newton. Let’s work on making the world a place where we can have more greatness, not less.

I hate identity politics, and I’m happy to say that most of this book was focused more on individual experiences and perceptions than on politics. Worth a read if you’re curious about the concept.

Thank you to Jessica Kingsley Publishers and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 21st, 2020.

The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead (Children’s Fiction)

10-year old Bea has largely adjusted to the big changes in her life — 2 years before her parents divorced so that her father could be the gay man he had always known himself to be. Bea alternates living with each parent day by day and weekend by weekend. Now her father and his boyfriend Jesse are getting married and Bea might be getting a sister — something she has always wanted.

While not as creative as some of Stead’s earlier books, this is a well-done dive into the experiences of a young girl struggling to understand the massive changes in her life. The book serves as an excellent template for how to handle a divorce. The eponymous “List of Things That Will Not Change” is for Bea when she finds out about the divorce — my favorite item: “We are still a family, but in a different way.” And indeed, that is how they behave.

Bea also sees a therapist — Miriam — and the advice she recollects at various points is clear and useful. I’m not a big fan of therapy, but I found this summary of the process and techniques for Bea to be excellent. This would be a useful book for both the target 8-12 year olds and their parents. If I had one small complaint about the book, it is that the focus is all on Bea and the new life of her gay father. Her mother doesn’t get to have much of a new life and although portrayed lovingly, doesn’t get a lot of air time (and she deserves some!).

Thank you to Wendy Lamb 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.

Right After the Weather by Carol Anshaw (Literary Fiction)

Thank you to Atria Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 1st, 2019.

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 2/5 Characters: 3/5

Cate is a single, forty-something, lesbian, set designer in Chicago whose friends and colleagues have largely moved on. It is 2016 — Cate’s ultra-paranoid, thrice divorced, ex-husband is shacking up in her extra room; she is struggling to end an ongoing affair with a married woman; and a new girlfriend she sees as her best shot at adult stability is exhibiting questionable ethical behavior. In this setting she simultaneously experiences the “worst event and biggest break”: she rescues a friend during a violent and traumatic home invasion and is offered the chance to work on an exciting off-broadway play.

The book is beautifully written and the characters (especially Cate) are portrayed with great depth. While being a lesbian is not the point of the book, Cate’s queerness (her selection of term) informs a great deal of her thoughts and actions. There is not a lot of action — the home invasion takes place about half way through the book and itself takes up few pages. Instead, it is a thorough portrayal of her life — thoughts, actions, interactions, and world events — during a few months late 2016 / early 2017. I appreciated the scenes about her theater work (I wish there had been more) and the writing is really excellent, but for me there was not enough insight or character change to warrant the book length (without any compensating action). Things moved on in a very slow-paced, realistic, and ultimately unsatisfying, way. I found Cate to be a weak character, still struggling with the same issues (all completely under her own control) at the end of the book as at the beginning.

This book does have great lines — here are a few:

“Living casually in the moment seemed so vibrant, but has left her looking over her shoulder at a pile of used-up hours and days, hearing the scratchy sound of frittering.”

“She has come to understand that room temperature in the demographic she aspires to is a more personally controlled business.”

“The other customers exist somewhere else on the dining matrix, all of them in parallel, convivial but hushed universes.”

“Now, though, the cat’s out of the bag. Now the cat is hopping all over the place, demanding attention.”

“A heavy, standing ashtray is surrounded by a population of emphysemic ghosts.”

“Something delicious about all the secrecy. Now everything’s so in the open, we’re free from fear and oppression, but we’ve traded up for being commonplace. Queer’s as boring as straight now.

“She understand she has arrived on another side of everything. No one is over here with her.”

“Everything about him is aimed at the greater good, but in matters of personal kindness, he often comes up short.

“Her thoughts these days are not her friends. Which doesn’t keep them from stopping by, particularly at night when she is too tired to fight them off.”

To Night Owl from Dogfish by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer (Middle Grade)

I’ve been reading a lot of depressing (but very good – stay tuned) books lately and decided I needed a happy break — enter To Night Owl from Dogfish. An impressive, fully epistolary (email style) novel, following the grudging friendship developing between two 12-year old girls who have been sent to summer camp by their romantically involved, single, gay dads in order to get to know each other. What follows is a touching and simultaneously funny (and convoluted) story reminiscent of The Parent Trap.

Californian Bett Devlin is afraid of nothing, loves animals, sports, and a lack of rules. New Yorker Avery Bloom is afraid of everything, likes the indoors, and loves for things to be under control and absolutely safe. As their dads head off for a motorcycle trip across China, they communicate via iPad having already decided that they will under no circumstances be friends or even speak to each other at camp! Things head off in unexpected directions (I really didn’t see *any* of the plot developments coming) and include Avery’s previously unknown biological mother and Bett’s (somewhat loony) grandmother from Texas.

A fun read!

The Matchmaker’s List by Sonya Lalli

Thanks to NetGalley and Berkeley Publishing Group for an advance reader copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Book to be released on Jan. 22, 2019.

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

Women’s fiction pairing romcom humor with a smart, capable, protagonist. Complex themes with authentic resolutions. Multi-cultural and sexual diversity interest.

29 year-old Raina Anand is under constant pressure from her beloved Nani to get married. Her best friend is about the tie the knot and the close knit Indian community in her Toronto suburb is all geared up to help her follow suit. However, Raina is keeping a shameful secret — she is still in love with the man she left (in another country) 2 years ago. In order to protect this secret, she allows her Nani to believe she is gay — with broad and surprising consequences.

This is not your typical romcom. There are no firemen, no Fabios flexing muscles, and no ditzy but lovable blondes prepared to make some man very happy. The story continually veers off into unexpected territory and allows the main character to experience real emotional growth while trying to find her way in the world. Opening on Raina’s 29th birthday, the narrative carries through to her 30th, interspersed with reverse-order flashbacks to previous memorable birthdays. Her family is not typical (is anyone’s?). Half Indian, half caucasian, she was raised by her grandparents and only rarely saw her mother who bore her when only 16. But even this is not exactly as it seems — there is depth and nuance in this story.

There is a strong theme of sexual orientation diversity — portrayed in an interesting way because while our first person narrative protagonist is not gay herself, this “small” white lie highlights the clash of tradition and modernism simmering beneath the surface of her small, tight-knit, community.

Fun, witty, writing. Well structured with good messages about diversity, values, and the danger of letting shame drive you into making bad decisions.

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

Writing: 5 Plot: 4 Characters: 4+

On New York’s Lower East Side in 1969, four siblings seek a psychic who is rumored to be able to tell you the exact date of your death. Ranging from 1978 – 2010, the rest of this captivating book takes us through the lives of each of these children as they live their lives in the shadow of this knowledge.

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, it really is the tour de force claimed on the book jacket. The scope is huge, and the detailed descriptions of everything from primate-based aging research to the world of magicians to the gay scene in San Francisco in the 80s are incredibly impressive.

On the other hand, I found the book depressing. These are not happy people and their life stories are full of tragedy, guilt, and angst. In some ways this book reminds me of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (which I could not finish). Beautiful writing, intricate stories with believable characters and captivating twists — and yet the main character is a f*** up who squanders every opportunity to make something of his life. Similarly, The Immortalists is more of a cautionary tale of how not to live, rather than a story of personal growth or redemption. (*** tiny spoiler alert — one character does manage to learn the lesson, but this comes in the final pages and too late for anyone else ***).

Overall an absorbing book — excellent writing, in depth characters, and vivid depictions of a wide variety of times and places. I read the 300+ quickly and didn’t want to put it down; however, I was not happy while I was reading (I had to read an uplifting children’s book before bed so I wouldn’t wake up in a bad mood). If you read with your head, prepare to be fascinated; if you read with your heart, prepare to mope. While the overall message is life affirming — embrace life and spend your time living rather than focusing on how to forestall death — that lesson comes too late for most of our poor characters.