The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy: A Review and Recognition.

rules

Every reader knows the acute and unique pain of going through a book rut – when nothing interests you, you can hardly finish a page before getting distracted, and it seems like there will never again be a book that hits you straight in the chest and lives on forever under your skin. That was me recently.

Maybe it’s the quickly warming new spring air, but finally, the fog of my book rut started to lift. And then I found this book.

Reading Levy’s memoir is not a clear spring day. It’s a dark, heavy winter. It’s cold and gray and raw. And yet, like any winter, it has those moments of perfect blue clarity and just the right amount of sun. Levy is a woman of self-described “too much”. She lives in a world where she wants what she wants and she goes out and gets it; from a career in journalism, to the bright-eyed and all-American blonde named Lucy, who in a tumultuous and yet wholesome relationship, later becomes her wife.

She gets it all. She gets her career, her wandering years of youth, a family, and all of it rounded out by a pregnancy. She sets out to cover a story in Mongolia and when she returns, nothing in her life is the way she thought it would be.

Levy’s clear voice and her searing honesty have led some people to bristle against the book, or at the very least, state that she is an unlikable narrator. I disagree with this, but also ask – why? Why is Levy’s acute honesty about her pain, and her choices and her mistakes, inherently unlikable? Isn’t that who we all are, deep down at our core? Instagram and various other social media forms would have us all believe in a perfect universe, one where sunsets are abundantly vivid and food perfectly served and life carefully aligned exactly the way we want it to. It eludes no one, I think, that all these images are so carefully curated that they may scarcely even resemble the lives from which they came.

In Rules, Levy takes off the filter. She takes herself to task for the things that she has done. She leaves no memory in rose-colored glasses, but instead, acknowledges the light and darkness that makes up every life.

The book is also a meditation on the realization that everyone comes to somewhere between their twenties and thirties: my life is not what I thought it would be. This is not what I had planned. Her descriptions of finding yourself in a place of uncertainty are unflinchingly real and relatable. She captures that moment and feeling of realizing that you don’t recognize your own life, and that maybe it’s your own fault. That may make her, in some views, an unlikable narrator. But aren’t we all?

Levy refuses to live in a Valencia-filtered world, but her memoir reminds us that in every dark and cold winter, there is always the promise of spring.

Advertisements

Siracusa by Delia Ephron: A Review.

 

9780399165214

Cool cover, right?

Reading this book was like going on vacation. No, seriously. It was like buying a ticket and sitting down next to a group of people that you NEVER want to go on vacation with. But it’s a book, so hey, you just get to enjoy the drama!

I have admittedly never read a Delia Ephron book before this one; although of course I am aware of her and her sister’s prolific legacy, but I will absolutely be looking up her backlog after this read. The story follows two couples, not necessarily close but with a tied history, who go on vacation together. There’s Lizzie and Michael, married, successful, with no children. Lizzie is a bit of a free spirit and Michael is a famous writer best known for his wildly successful first play. They decide to go on vacation to Italy with Finn and Taylor, and their mysterious daughter, Snow. Taylor is stylish and tightly wound and entirely too close to Snow, who suffers from (is this real?) Extreme Shyness Syndrome. Top all this off with the fact that Finn and Lizzie have a romantic history together (and their spouses secretly suspect that this trip with a cover for them to be together) and you’ve got some serious drama.

Ephron absolutely nails these characters and that’s what I think I love most about the book. Chapters are told from alternating voices of all the adults and they are distinct. There’s something frustrating when you’re reading and the characters all sound the same. This is not that. Michael is calculating, with a secret, Lizzie is carefree and a little aloof, Finn is a suave playboy, and Taylor is a little snobby and definitely smart. The only character without a voice is Snow, and I’m sure this is on purpose. Snow is CREEPY. She is twins-from-The-Shining creepy. Her creepiness is really what carries the story along. How much does she know, and what will she do with the information she has?

In an obvious trend, I am a fan of deep character studies and listening in on the inner thoughts that make people tick, and if you like that, too, you’ll definitely enjoy this book. But if you’re a fan of other things; I wouldn’t write this book off. Ephron manages to cover a whole host of things that would appeal to a number of readers: suspense, mystery, marriage, raising children, and the choices we make to protect ourselves and the ones we love. It’s a fun read, without a doubt, but would you expect anything else from The Royal Ephrons?

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney: A Review of Rich People Problems

51lomflbcvl-_sx329_bo1204203200_

Honestly, I love this kind of book. I know that I shouldn’t, and that I should have more to say about the problematic rich-people-problems it perpetuates, but really, this book is just about everything you’d want in a “summer read”. It’s light but not without substance; serious while also funny, and has just enough of a mix of “ oh God, I’m glad that’s not me” and “God I wish I had these problems!”.

The Plumb family is an eccentric clan, made up of a wisely-investing father and a distant, cold mother. The children are Leo, a notorious playboy, Bea, a once-successful and now down-on-her-luck writer, Jack, who is in a (probably?) happy relationship with Walker, and Melody, a perpetual housewife who is never happier than when stalking her teenage daughters through an app that keeps track of their whereabouts. The four have a tenuous relationship that centers around the Nest-  their slang name for the wildly and unexpectedly successful trust fund that their father set up for them years ago. The catch is that it can’t be touched by any of them until the youngest, Melody, turns 40. Against their thrifty father’s warning, each of them has counted their chickens before they’ve hatched, relying on the money to come through.

Until it doesn’t.

Leo is perpetually and notoriously a bad-boy womanizer and it’s these traits that cause him to get drunk and drive with a 19-year-old cocktail waitress in the passenger seat. Needless to say, things don’t quite work out. And the only thing that can help him? The Nest.

The characters are flawed, and not always likable, but personally that’s something I enjoy in books. I have a hard time with too-perfect characters in books; so this story did it for me. Leo is the center of everyone’s universe, whether they like it or admit it, or not, and each of them has their own way of working through realizing that things may not work out the way they’d planned and relied on. Rich-people characters aside, that’s something that everyone can relate to on some level. And even if you can’t, it’s pure escapism with a little bit of substance, and what more could you want to sit by the pool with?

For The Love of Books: Making Time in a Busy-Obsessed World.

little-girl-reading-book

Isn’t Matilda the best?

If you’re a pretty avid reader like I am, maybe you’ve had this conversation before. You find yourself chatting away with an acquaintance or friend, maybe at the office water bubbler or a cocktail party or something of the like, (do people really go to cocktail parties? Have I not hit this stage of adulthood yet or are they simply mythical?) and the conversation topic turns to hobbies.

“Oh, I love to read!” You might say, or perhaps maybe you mention a book you read recently and enjoyed, hoping to form a secret little connection that comes from a shared book. The other person sighs dramatically, and there it is:

“Oh, I’d just love to have the time to read! But I just don’t!” Look. Let’s pause here for a minute to acknowledge that this can be a totally true statement. I get it! Of COURSE there are people out there who just don’t have the time, or for whom it’s just not an enjoyable activity or a priority and hey – that’s fine! It’s your life, buddy. This isn’t about you. You go on and enjoy your golf or football or taxidermy or whatever it is that you like to do in your free time.

No, this particular sentiment is most usually uttered when people really want you to translate their words as this: “Gosh, reading, what a luxury! See, I’m saying words that sound agreeable, but really, I want you to know how busy and important I am. I am SO busy I’ve scarcely got the time to be having this condescending conversation with you, but here I am! How lovely for you, you have lots of unimportant time to diddle away reading!”

downloads3

Spoiler: all your favorite shows and movies were based on books, anyway!

 

I’d like to call bullshit on this whole conversation. Because really, it’s an indication of that strange phenomenon that’s slowly become the norm in today’s society: busy is better. To-do lists stretch on forever, planners must always be crammed to capacity, and a simple conversation sparked by “how are you?” turns into a one-upping contest about who has gotten less sleep and who is more exhausted.

How, exactly did we get this way? Was it choice or circumstance, or, most likely, both? I am no stranger to circumstance – I have a job that keeps me VERY busy and I understand the demands that people are often put under to complete, to show, to always be going. But I also know what I like to do, and most of the time, that’s read. I’d like to say that I have long, uninterrupted stretches of time to just luxuriate in and read, but that’s not exactly true either. What is true is that there are pockets of time that I find and that’s when I do. That is, after all, what I really love about reading: it’s totally under my control (does that accidentally reveal my slight control-freak tendencies? Oops.) Hear me out!

Movies, TV shows, sports, etc, all these things require a commitment and a time frame and an adherence to someone else schedules. Books ask nothing of you other than to open them: how long, where, when, is all up to you. Read a page? Sure! Finish a book in one sitting? Why not! It’s all about your choice. You don’t have to be swimming in free time to read. And here’s a little secret: no one’s giving out gold medals for being too busy to read.

If it’s not your thing, then by all means, don’t do it. All I’m saying is this: if, next time you are at a mythical cocktail party and the conversation comes up, and you are overwhelmed with the urge to burst out about your busyness, try this one instead: “You like to read? That’s great – got any recommendations?”

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel: A Review and Foray Into Science Fiction

sleeping-giants-sylvain-neuvel

So for as much of a voracious reader I am, and also pretty omnivorous, I don’t tend to pick up science fiction books as much as I do contemporary fiction. I like to fancy myself a pretty smart person, but sometimes the scientific jargon and numbers just prove too much for me (I failed math quite a bit as a child. I know, I’m a walking stereotype).

Despite all that, I kept hearing about Sleeping Giants on various podcasts and blogs, and when I walked into my library and saw an available copy on the new fiction shelf, I figured it was pretty much fate, right? Even without all the fated advertising, the premise itself was enough to hook me – a girl on a bike ride wanders into the woods and falls into a hole, straight into the palm of a giant, robotic, possibly other-wordly hand. Fast forward a few years, and body parts are being excavated all over the word, seemingly to put together a giant glowing robot capable of demolishing cities in one fell swoop.

I can get down with this kind of science fiction/fantasy type premise because of how it roots itself in reality – Neuvel very clearly extrapolates on what it would be like if this ACTUALLY happened in today’s society. It may still be far-fetched, sure, but he etches the events into the backdrop of what we know the world to be right now. He maps out the foreign relation consequences, as well as the personal consequences that befall the people who essentially devote their lives to the robot and making it work. The book manages to operate on a very high, broader-sense level as well as a personal level.

There’s also a kitschy, who’s-the-narrator theme going on. The book is a sort of pseudo-epistolary setup; a series of journal entries and interview transcripts between the characters. The primary interviewer is a nameless, faceless, characteristic-less man who appears to be in charge of the whole operation while never having to actually lay a hand in the process. He doesn’t work for the government, or anyone, it appears, and Neuvel plays into your curiosity by stringing you along wondering who he is. Tantalizingly small bits of information are dangled, but none are enough to fully bait the hook.

The book eventually concludes with a significant cliff-hanger (so beware if you’re a fan of tidy endings) and sets itself up for a sequel, and I will say this much: it’s not the sort of book I normally pick up, and I’m so glad I did. Neuvel’s world is not a bad place to be.

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay: A Review and Another Slightly Creepy Stalker Letter…

18467818

When it comes to writers, Roxane Gay is up there with Curtis Sittenfeld for me. You’d better believe you’ll be seeing her name here again, especially later this summer after I get my hands on her new book coming out June 14th. I read Bad Feminist a couple years ago, and it was like sitting down and having lunch with your best friend. I don’t just mean that in a sort of superficial and bubbly way either – although there is definitely that. Gay writes with an intimacy and honesty that makes you feel as though she’s opening up only to you: and that’s why you connect and relate to what she writes about. If you haven’t read Bad Feminist, I’d highly recommend that one as well. On a different note, I’d go ahead and follow Roxane on Twitter as well. She’s absolutely adept at navigating the highs and lows of popular culture society in a perfectly wry and witty 180 characters.

An Untamed State follows the story of Mireille, a transplant from a well-off family in Haiti who now lives primarily in America with her American husband, Michael, and their son. During a visit to her parents in Haiti, Mireille is kidnapped; a startlingly commonplace occurrence among the social higher-ups of Haiti. The book chronicles the harrowing days of her imprisonment and some time thereafter; although I don’t want to give too much away.

The book is precise and honest in its language – Gay is herself Haitian, and the book is as much a portrait of that place as it is a story about a kidnapped wife and mother. The stark contrast in Haiti of extreme wealth and extreme poverty creates the background onto which Mireille’s story is painted. It’s a story of extremes: health and sickness, poverty and wealth, happiness and despair, and somehow, across everything, hope.

I loved the richness of the characters in this book and their relationships, from Mireille’s crackling but complicated relationship with her husband in the before and the after, to the wonderfully written character of Michael’s mother, to Mireille’s father, a staunchly proud man who refuses to pay the kidnappers, even for his daughter. Every character in the book is flawed and real. They are humans. There are no white-horse knights in this book, or even, as you might expect, absolutely evil villains. There are only people, and that, perhaps, is what I loved most of all. I would dare anyone; any gender, race, age, to read this book, and not find a piece of themselves within it.

Where They Found Her by Kimberly McCreight: Review.

where-they-found-her

Here’s what you should know about me as a reader: I am down with the weird. Give me gory, give me twisted, give me thriller and I’m all about it. Yes, I love Gone Girl, and yes I liked it better than Girl on the Train, although that was still a good read. Want a good lesser-buzzed thriller in the same vein? In a Dark, Dark Wood. Ruth Ware. Crazy-awkward bachelorette party gone wrong – what more can you want? My whole point being: When I picked up Where They Found Her, which debuted last year and I somehow missed, I was okay with the slightly (okay, very) uncomfortable premise of a deceased baby found in the river in a stereotypically “totally normal!” town. It had my library’s “thriller” sticker stuck on the side, and that was enough for me.

Molly Sanderson is a reporter dealing with her most recent pregnancy ending in a stillbirth. She’s got a cute kid, a loving husband, and a whole ton of guilt. When the baby turns up in the river, she finds herself covering it for her paper, and the rest unravels into a series of sometimes believable and sometimes far-fetched lies and deceptions ranging from the past to present. Molly’s story is paralleled along Sandy Mendelson’s, a teenager born on the “wrong side of the tracks”, and trying to track down her equally low on the totem pole mother, who has gone missing. The other important characters range from Steve, the stoic police chief, and Barbara, his slightly manic wife, to their angelic daughter Hannah, and the rest run the gamut from creepy campus cop to a possibly off-kilter attention-craving housewife.

Part of the pleasure of the beginning of this book is finding out all the connections between the characters. McCreight weaves them all together tightly, and each time you are introduced to one, you pick up threads from other’s stories. I appreciated McCreights ability, as in other similar books I’ve enjoyed, to write women characters in every type of role. They’re good, they’re bad, they’re evil, they redeem themselves, they make mistakes, they contain gray areas. The main character is, presumably on purpose, the most likeable character, but even she struggles with her own demons and imperfections. She is by no means a boring, plucky-and-determined main character who falls into a bad situation and does everything right.

The plot is twisty, and keeps you interested as you find out more about the layered connections between the characters, but there was a certain point where I felt like I could predict the ending. Credit where it’s due, though: there’s a final twist that I didn’t see coming. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t, but it’s a fun ride getting there.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld: A Review, or, My Stalker-esque Love Letter to Curtis Sittenfeld.

25852870

Look, growing up, I was a reader, and an obvious one. I was reading during the day, at night, in trees, and in the car, before I grew up and lost that superpower to a propensity towards carsickness. But my favorite reading memories are of reading illicitly. Whether it was by rooting around people’s bookshelves after they fell asleep (I’m incredibly nosy, I know) or stealing out of the abandoned box of books that mysteriously lived in our basement, I was constantly reading things I wasn’t supposed to. Thankfully, my reading wasn’t much monitored, otherwise I wouldn’t have had the glorious experience of reading Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone at way too young an age. And it was by this way that I came across Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, stolen from under someone’s bed during a sleepover when they fell asleep and I couldn’t. It just looked so deliciously grown-up and salacious and appealing, with it’s ribbon-belt cover (a highly coveted accessory at the time, I might add). I read it over a series of carefully planned sleepovers, and was hooked. I had never related to a character that much; with all of her painful awkwardness and thinly-veiled inferiority complex. I had the same experience when, years later in high school, I read The Man of My Dreams.

Now, listen, anyone who dismisses Sittenfeld as a dithering chick-lit author (although honestly nothing is wrong with those books, either), especially based on this title alone, is sorely mistaken. She is a keen observer of human emotion and the complexity of choices and relationships, and when I re-read her entire collection this past summer, I spent the entire time in the blissfully good company of her writing and her characters. So, when I heard she had a new book coming out, I about staked out my local library for a copy.

Eligible is billed as a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and is part of a project that seeks to reinvent some of Austen’s most popular classics with modern authors. Before we go any further, I should probably confess something. I am not a Jane Austen fanatic, and although I did revisit it in preparation for reading Sittenfeld’s new book, my knowledge and interest in the characters are of a rudimentary high-school-paperback-stuffed-in-your-backpack quality. I recognize that this is a Cardinal English Major sin, and I hope Her Highness Sittenfeld can forgive me.

That said, Sittenfeld did not disappoint. Elizabeth Bennet is Liz, living in New York City but transplanted home to Cincinnati with her sister Jane after their father experiences health complications. Lydia and Kitty are hilariously vapid Crossfitters, Mary is on her third online Master’s degree via her childhood bedroom, and Jane is a yoga instructor. Enter Chip Bingley, doctor and recent reality TV star, and his brooding friend Fitzwilliam Darcy, also a brilliant but entirely stodgy doctor, and you’ve got Austen’s characters perfectly launched into the future. I loved Sittenfeld’s ability to bring the characters to a new age without losing their key characteristics. Mr. Bennet is sardonic and Mrs. Bennet is just as marriage-obsessed. The most interesting thing was considering how much and yet how little women’s relationships with marriage have changed. Sure, it’s not as essential that women are married off as it was in Austen’s time, but the airs of suspicion around unmarried women, especially older women, perseveres. It was shocking how little Sittenfeld had to change Mrs. Bennet’s character in order to be a believable member of today’s society.

The book is thick, but Sittenfeld’s choice of short, snappy chapters bounces the plot along as it culminates in a wildly hilarious and up-with-the-times reality TV event. Is this book going to change your life? No. Is Jane Austen turning in her grave? No. Besides, I think we all know that Jane would’ve watched the Bachelor in secret along with the rest of us (and probably live-tweeted it, too).