Saturday, June 27, 2015

Bellweather Rhapsody, by Kate Racculia

I know a book and I are going to get along when it references The Shining three pages in. The story opens in 1982 when twelve-year-old Minnie Graves slips away from her sister's wedding and witnesses a horrifying crime that will leave her scarred into adulthood.

This book is my first introduction to Kate Racculia and I loved it. Her writing reminds me of Maggie Shipstead's in that throws a huge cast of characters at us and then proceeds to form them all into living, breathing people. Just when we think we've got someone figured out we're popped into their head and realize that we didn't really have a clue.

After the shocking start of the first chapter, we're rocketed fifteen years in the future for the remainder of the book, though we get to see the ways the past has affected every character. We see Minnie Graves again the first time she returns to the site of her trauma, the Bellweather Hotel. The anniversary of that day coincides with the Statewide festival for the best teenaged musicians and singers in New York. These include Alice and Rabbit Hatmaker in their senior year of high school. Alice is reeling from a break-up and terrified that all signs point to her twin brother choosing a different college from her. Rabbit is steeling himself to finally admit to Alice that he's gay. Their chaperone and teacher, Natalie Wilson, seems like a nasty piece of work, but we gradually learn her history of abuse and guilt and rage. She comes literally face-to-face with a demon from her past in the form of Viola Fabian, who's running the festival. We also get Viola's daughter Jill, whose dramatic disappearance sets an insane series of events in motion.

Let's be clear--there are some hijinks in this book. There are some wacky turns. There are lots and lots of Teachers Behaving Badly. There are some capital-C Coincidences. In the hands of a lesser writer, this book could have come off silly, ridiculous, even. But Racculia has so much compassion for her characters, you get the sense that she understands them so well, that even when they do things that seem frankly insane, she manages to show her work so the actions become understandable. (There is a notable exception; I can't quite decide how I feel about the villain of the book, who is so irredeemably evil as to feel out of place among so many characters who defy simple descriptors. This character could have been cartoonish or the type you love to hate, but her actions towards others did such real damage that she really was frightening.)

I don't want to get into too much detail about the plot because it unspools so gleefully, but I did want to say how much I appreciate what a questioning novel this is. It asks whether we can move on after trauma, and how. It asks how and if we can be forgiven for the damage we do to other people along the way. This is a story with lots of talented teenagers and it asks how they can ever possibly live up to all the potential they're supposed to have. How can the world ever live up to that early promise to them? Are they actually special, like they've been told, and if so, what does that even mean? For me, I find it's the questions a character grapples with that helps me identify with them the most, even when I first thought them unlikeable. I guess I'm such a questioner myself that any character who does the same feels like a kindred spirit. This isn't a book with a lot of answers, but it's still a hopeful one that I can tell I'll be thinking about for a long time.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Come As You Are, by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D.

Can we all agree that this book has a magnificent cover?

I wasn't really sure what to expect when I started this book. I tend to take claims like the surprising new science that will transform your sex life (exclamation points implied) with a couple grains of salt. It sounds a little-lot like a headline on an issue of Cosmo. (Maybe? Is that even still a magazine? Sorry I am behind on the times and also writing this at 5am.)

Anyway. I wound up really enjoying this book. I am continually annoyed, as an adult, by how fascinating science is. Why was this never conveyed to me in school, guys. It's not that most of the science Nagoski presents is actually all that shocking. But there was a sort of over-writing process going on in my head while I read. The goal of the text is not just to transform everyone's sex life; it's to prove that all our weird sexual idiosyncrasies are perfectly fine. She says repeatedly in the text: If you're experiencing pain, see a medical professional. If not, what you're experiencing is normal and healthy. It's a really comforting book in that way. How often do we hear that we are normal and healthy?

The book is divided into four sections. First up is The (Not-So-Basic) Basics, with anatomy lessons and an outline of the sexual response mechanism in the brain, along with how those mechanisms interact with the other systems in your brain and environment. Part Two is Sex in Context, because it turns out we don't have sex in a vacuum--our lives and body image and attitudes are all crucial to our sex lives. In part the third, Sex in Action, she writes about sexual response, and both the ways we think it is "supposed" to work, and how it actually works. There's vital information in this section dealing with sexual assault victims that needs to gain traction in how we look at this issue as a culture. Automatic biological response is not indicative of desire, okay. And then part four is cheerfully titled Ecstasy for Everyone (implied exclamation points again) and ties everything together in terms of how we might use the book to work its transformational magic on our own sex lives.

Throughout the book, Nagoski tells the stories of four women. They aren't actually real women, or rather each woman is an amalgamation of many real women she has known over her years working as a sex educator. These were some of my favorite parts of the book since they satisfied my desire for narrative in anything I read. I also thought there was a decent range of experience portrayed, and I imagine most if not all women could find a situation they could relate to.

The subject matter and the way it is presented--here's lots of information, and now here's how to make it help you--makes for a very personal reading experience. I found myself confronting biases I hadn't even realized I'd internalized, assumptions that make me beat myself up on a regular basis. One of these was how we as a culture deal with stress; or rather, how we don't deal with it. So often I tell myself to just relax, it'll all work out, overlooking the fact that stress is a natural biological response. But we used to have a simple means for completing the cycle of stress, like so: Look, a lion! Run!...whew, made it, what a relief! These days, lacking (mostly) a threat as obvious and immediate as a lion, we often get stuck at the fearful reaction, or in freeze or flight or fight, whatever our response to the stressor. And, shocker, this kind of anxiety and stress isn't great for many people's sex lives. Nagoski gives a few techniques for actually getting to the other side of stress, if only temporarily. Exercise is good. Crying is good. If you feel like having a little screaming fit, also good. (I read this chapter and thought about how nice it would be to just be able to go have a little cry and get it out of your system when you're feeling stressed. Must be nice, I scoffed, not being much of a crier myself. And then, lo and behold, twenty pages later and apropos of nothing I was reading at the time, I burst into tears. It was very...lucid crying, I guess. I was very aware that I wasn't actually sad and so it felt a little strange. But after? Totally felt better. Points to biology.)

I don't think you need to have a specific concern to get a lot out of this book; curiosity was enough for me. The science parts could have gone over my distinctly un-sciencey head but never did. Nagoski keeps things at a very human level that really worked for me. Recommended.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Astonish Me, by Maggie Shipstead

"Astonish Me is the irresistible story of Joan, a young American dancer who helps a Soviet ballet star, the great Arslan Rusakov, defect in 1975. A flash of fame and a passionate love affair follow, but Joan knows that, onstage and off, she is destined to remain in the background. She will never possess Arslan, and she will never be a prima ballerina. She will rise no higher than the corps, one dancer among many.
After her relationship with Arslan sours, Joan plots to make a new life for herself. She quits ballet, marries a good man, and settles in California with him and their son, Harry. But as the years pass, Joan comes to understand that ballet isn’t finished with her yet, for there is no mistaking that Harry is a prodigy. Through Harry, Joan is pulled back into a world she thought she’d left behind—back into dangerous secrets, and back, inevitably, to Arslan."
-From the Hardcover edition, at least according to Powell's website 
Sorry for the blurb, but this isn't an easy book to sum up! It's the kind of novel you'd call "sweeping," as it follows Joan for over two decades from one side of the US to the other, flashing forward and back in time, with chapters narrated by over half a dozen characters. There's so much to say, so let's start with ballet.

I tend to enjoy books about dance (well, I can think of a whopping two novels I've read on the subject, including this one and excluding Sweet Valley Twins #2: Teacher's Pet, but I liked both of them). They're inspiring in a weird way; I guess it's fun to read about the crazy-long hours practicing in dance studios from the comfort of my couch. It's satisfying, like watching a training montage in a film. But I digress. I loved reading about all the dance and it's put me in the mood to watch any and all documentaries out there on the subject, as I find it fascinating. Astonish Me gives us several perspectives on the dance world, starting with Joan, a ballerina coming to terms with the fact that she'll never be truly great. Then there's her roommate Elaine, who would never so much as contemplate leaving the dance world. Their friendship is one of my favorite parts of the novel, by the way. Shipstead adds in so many of the layers that make up a decades-long friendship: the small resentments, the familiarity that changes as two friends' lives diverge dramatically...I really loved this aspect of the story. We later get chapters from the points of view of Harry, Joan's son, who grows into a ballet prodigy, and from Chloe, Harry's best friend and dance partner, and finally from Arslan, Joan's enigmatic Russian former lover. (Whew. You see how this is a hard book to sum up?! Also, I definitely just typed his name as "Aslan," which would make for a very different story!)

Shipstead's strength is in her characters. As I listened to the book (had to go for audio rather than physical with this one), I found myself hating a character one chapter and rooting for them the next. Everyone is allowed complexity and no one behaves well all the time. The characters in this book do some truly awful things to each other, but I found I could never really condemn them for it. They were so well developed and just human that by the end of the book I felt completely wrung out. It's not the most pleasant sensation but I find it takes a writer at the top of their game to make me feel so deeply. It was more than enough to help me look past a few slightly soap opera-ish developments toward the end. I'll definitely be watching to see what Maggie Shipstead comes back with next.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Persona, by Genevieve Valentine

Genevieve Valentine's book The Girls at the Kingfisher Club was one of my favorite reads last year, so I was pretty damn excited for her newest offering, Persona. And there's so much to like! A plethora of the elusive Strong Female Character! Like pretty much no white main characters, but rather Actual Diversity! Women helping women! And so many ambiguous characters; oh, my heart could sing! Love me an ambiguous character.

Except my overall feeling upon finishing the book was "...meh." What?!

So let's break down where things went south for me. Because all that great stuff I mentioned? Is really great. One of our two narrators is Suyana Sapaki, the Face for the United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation in the International Assembly. Faces are pretty much exactly what they sound like--they represent their countries, but have basically no power to make decisions themselves. From page one, Suyana chafes in her position. She's smart and she genuinely cares about her country. Even with all the bullshit she has to put up with--even her own romantic relationships must be under contract for political gain--she still sees the value of showing up to vote and be counted. Even when she's told how to vote. She has so many humiliations to endure, from being all dolled up by her Handler (again, just what it sounds like) to try to entice the American Face into a romantic contract with her, to being dressed in hideous quasi-tribal garb that's supposed to represent her culture but is just super racist. Neat. And then, on top of it all, someone goes and tries to  kill her.

This is when we meet Narrator #2, Daniel, a photographer. He's trying to become a "snap," the paparazzi of this world, and has been tailing Suyana in hopes of getting some shots of her and the American Face together for the first time. Instead, he witnesses the shooting, and, to his own annoyance, can't resist helping Suyana escape. He winds up torn between a real growing respect for her and his own selfish desire to follow this story as it develops without revealing to her who and what he really is. I enjoyed Daniel overall. I like some good internal turmoil and it's always kind of fun to watch an essentially decent character have to do some shitty things and live with themselves. So well played, Persona.

As for Suyana, she's constantly forced to decide who to trust. Her default is pretty much "no one," but she turns out to be surprised a few times. There's some excellent interaction between her and some of the other Faces, all women, but this is also where things started to fall apart for me. Because I wanted MORE. We kept sidling up to these secondary characters and getting these glimpses of fascinating complexity but then Suyana would have to go on the run again and their storylines would just be dropped, with the briefest of mentions at the end. MORE GRACE/MARTINE/KIPA, PLEASE.

And it wasn't just them; the book kept dropping vague mentions of past events--what happened to Hakan, Suyana's previous Handler, how she wound up involved with the ecoterrorist group Chordata and developed her relationship with her contact Zenaida, Daniel's past...I mean, it's all technically explained, but it felt underdeveloped to me. We kept getting short flashbacks or Daniel or Suyana would have a brief memory that hinted at what happened and I'd sort of gloss over it, honestly, assuming we'd get the story in full later. This might be my failure as a reader but this is also a fairly fast-paced book so I wasn't doing the closest of reading here. By the end I felt a bit unsatisfied, like I'd missed a big chunk in the middle. It's not the worst criticism ever, wanting more of the story, but I think it will keep this book from having much staying power with me.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay

I'm struggling. It's usually so easy for me to recommend books I love to friends and family. Generally there's a nice plot hook to reel them in, or it's a specific genre they love or something. But here I am with An Untamed State, feeling strongly that everyone should read it, but running up against a basic plot summary: Woman is kidnapped while visiting her parents in Haiti. She's held prisoner and raped repeatedly for thirteen days.

Even Chef blanched when I told him to read it. "That sounds so painful," he said.

He's not wrong. I read a good chunk of this book with tears streaming down my cheeks. It's not exactly a fun read. But.

But but but but.

There's so much to unpack in this novel. My plot summarizing skills--limited to begin with--don't make a dent. Yes, it's about a kidnapping and rape. Rape isn't easy to read about, or at least it shouldn't be. I can't remember it ever being handled precisely like this. I've been trying to think of how I've read it in the past, and surprisingly I had trouble coming up with specific examples. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I suppose. I hated that book. But I read it so long ago I can't remember many specifics, except the rapes didn't seem to be all that well done, and there were an awful lot of shopping lists. Otherwise it seems rape is used as a tool to describe men--we see how awful this character is because he's a rapist. Or this man is spurred into action because someone he cares about is raped (I may be thinking of movies here more than books, honestly). But I don't remember many cases where the focus stays with the woman (or man) who is raped.

It's oddly refreshing.

Mireille Duval Jameson is visiting her parents in Haiti with her husband Michael and son Christophe when she is kidnapped for ransom. Her father is rich, which is an inadequate word to describe the economic divides in play in Haiti. Imagine the most gut-wrenching poverty you can, and then imagine the most extravagant wealth. Then stick them right next to each other. This juxtaposition is disturbing in real life, and is something Mireille can never quite forget. Roxane Gay, daughter of Haitian immigrants herself, clearly struggles with the reality of such luxury existing next door to this kind of poverty. It's a--pardon the pun--richer story for it. Even while the kidnappers are committing these brutal acts, we're never quite allowed to forget their humanity. Gay manages to give both the reader and Mireille herself flashes of who these men are that make you almost pity them. But she does it in a way that never ever excuses the horrible things they're doing, if that makes sense. At one point, the leader of the kidnappers, a man called the Commander, tells Mireille a story about his father, who had been a chauffeur for a wealthy family. He would sometimes drive his children around in his employer's Mercedes.
They would roll slowly past the presidential palace and head high into the hills where the wealthy lived. His father often said, "Look how these people live. Never forget what they choose to deny you."
I rolled my eyes. "My father grew up in a shack with a dirt floor, never had a moment to himself, shared that tiny place with his parents and twelve siblings. You are not the only man to grow up wanting or hungry or angry. My father earned everything he has."
And let's talk about Mireille. I love this character. She's smart, she's tough--even as she's broken down by her kidnappers, even as her father refuses to pay her ransom, she still fights back, but in a totally human, believable way. One thing I brought up to Chef when I was trying to convince him to read this was that it was refreshing to read a book in which a brutalized woman doesn't recover by, like, becoming an assassin. This is not a vengeance book. It's not really a spoiler to say that Mireille does get away from her captors (she says as much on the first page). The structure of the book is really interesting; Mireille tells most of the story, sometimes from a distance after the fact, as a sort of fairy tale, sometimes with an immediacy in the moment. There are also many flashbacks showing her relationship with her husband Michael. Honestly, this is one of the most romantic books I've read in a long time. Michael and Mireille, again, are so damn human. They both screw up, badly (as does every other character in the book), but they love each other so much and I just had so many feelings reading about them, oh man. Michael is an American and it's painful to witness his helplessness as his wife is held for ransom. It's painful to watch him try to deal with the very changed woman who returns to him. It's painful to watch him fuck up again and again.

But I think ultimately this is a hopeful book. It's not an uplifting book, it doesn't all work out. Shit goes down, some things-people-relationships can't be put back together the same once they've been broken. It's just one hard truth in a book full of hard truths. But we also see things get better. People, relationships that have fallen apart can pull back together, if in new ways. Mireille's refrain throughout the book is that she hasn't been broken. Sometimes she forgets that, but we all see that it's true.

There's so much more I could write about--her fractured relationship with her parents. Her relationship with her in-laws, particularly Michael's mother Lorraine. Mireille and her sister. Michael and his parents. Motherhood and poverty and patriarchy and there's just so damn much, and so well done. No wonder my awful summary wasn't enticing. This isn't a book you can sum up. This is a book that embraces complexity. (I'll just say that from now on, I'm sure that'll work. Ugh.)

But I must have said something right because the next morning there was a new bookmark in the book, forty pages in.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Audio book round-up

In my old life of managing a coffee shop, I'd get up at 4:55 everyday. I dressed in the dark, brushed my teeth, etc, and was out the door by 5:15, at work by 5:25. I never thought I'd say this, but--those were the days.

These days I can sleep all the way until 6:20. I can drink a cup of coffee, maybe eat some oatmeal, turn on a light to see if my clothes match...and then I spend 35-45 minutes in the car getting to work. It's not a super stressful drive (at least, it won't be if it ever stops snowing), but it is very. dull. Which makes it extra embarrassing how long it took me to finally try audio books. I guess I was thinking I'd have to buy every book I listened to. I forgot for a minute that my city has one of the best public library systems in the country and that we're home to the headquarters of OverDrive, a company that specializes in getting e- and audio books out to book stores and libraries. No purchase necessary. Score.

My first foray into the wonderful world of audio books was written by BJ Novak.
Yes, that BJ Novak.

Turns out he studied creative writing at Harvard and in between writing for The Office and acting in The Office (and whatever else he was up to during this period in his life, which I'm totally not Googling right now), he was writing down the ideas that eventually turned into this short story collection.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt (in which I am long-winded)

I wasn't in a hurry to read this book. 
It's silly, really; I loved Donna Tartt's The Secret History, and everyone's been raving about this book since it came out. I guess the description just left me cold. I mean, boy loses his mother, boy feels alienated, boy has some weird connection to a painting that leads him into criminal society somehow....(I'm paraphrasing from the book jacket here, if it wasn't obvious). It just didn't sound like something I needed to run out and read immediately. But then I got not one but two copies for Christmas, so I figured what the hell. 
This is why I should never read dust jackets. This one was definitely a fail. Because this book? This book, guys. It's nothing like the dry coming-of-age novel that stupid blurb would like us to believe it to be. Stupid blurbs, with their nefarious, blurb-y plots!
In fact, this book is both gorgeously written and brilliantly plotted, and populated with some of the most memorable characters I've ever read. I finished the novel over a week ago and I can't stop thinking about it. I kind of want to live in this book.
I'll back up. I know I usually skip the plot summaries, but I just want to see if I can right some of that terrible blurb's wrongs. Mild spoilers ahead.