Book Review: Goodbye, Paris

goodbye parisGoodbye, Paris
by Anstey Harris
Contemporary Fiction
277 pages
Published August 7, 2018

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m not a big fan of Contemporary Fiction. This, however, blew me away. Goodbye, Paris, is one of August’s Books of the Month, and as usual, it is outstanding. I don’t know how they consistently pick amazing books, but month after month they bring a bit of magic.

I started this book thinking “oh, she’s a musician, I can get into that,” but I didn’t know how much the author was going to explore that facet of her life. But right away, on page 14, our main character did something that made me gasp aloud and stop and actually write in my book. Which is a thing I don’t do. Grace plays cello the way I play piano. She’s far more skilled than I am, but – well just read:

My knees poke out, bony and white, cushioning the pointed lower bouts of the cello, and the scroll rests, where it belongs, against my ear. The cello takes up its rightful place and I become nothing more than a mechanical part of it.

This is what I have always done, how I have always found myself when I’ve been lost. When I first went to music college, eighteen years old and paralyzingly shy, when ringing my parents from the pay phone in the corridor just made me miss them even more, I would feel the strength in the neck of my cello, flatten the prints of my fingers into the strings, and forget.

I play and play; through thirst, past hunger, making tiredness just a dent in my soul. I play beyond David’s marriage, his holiday, even how frightened I was when he disappeared below the platform.

I play on until the world is flat again and the spaces between my heartbeats are as even as the rhythm on the stave in front of me.

This is how and why I play piano! To see it so gorgeously described on the page was breathtaking. I am not a concert-level pianist by any means, but I’m decent, and playing piano brings me back to myself. When I’m angry or frustrated or hurt or simply feeling down, the music centers me and makes me focus until everything else falls away. From this point on, I was enthralled with this book and with Grace.

Grace’s partner, however, I was not so enthralled with. Grace and David have been together for eight years when the book opens. David has been married for all of those years, which Grace knew the night they met. (Though after they fell in love – it was one of those lightning-bolt-from-above things) He had two children with his wife, though, and a third on the way, and because of the crappy way he grew up, he was absolutely unwilling to divorce and mess up his children’s lives. Which, okay. Noble. (Though honestly, most children know when their parents are unhappy and wish they’d just divorce already, as Nadia, one of Grace’s friends, illustrates.) He and his wife both know their marriage is only for the children at this point, and are totally okay with relationships outside the marriage. Grace, however, is unaware of this arrangement, and THAT’S where my irritation at David comes in.

I don’t talk about it much on this blog, (though I have mentioned it) but my husband and I are polyamorous. He’s had another partner for almost five years now, plus other occasional dalliances. But everyone knows this. His other partner and occasional flirtations all know about each other and about me. David, on the other hand – his wife appears to know about everything, but Grace only knows about his wife. We’re never told what his other girlfriends know about. This isn’t ethical non-monogamy. He lies to everyone about his intentions and relationships. I think he’s probably incapable of monogamy – some people are – but he needs to be truthful about it. There are ways to make that work without ruining peoples’ lives and breaking hearts!

So David is not a character I like.

Mr. Williams and Nadia, however, are amazing. So besides playing the cello, Grace also makes cellos. And violins, and double-basses. Nadia is her shopgirl, and Mr. Williams is an old man who brings her a violin to repair. These three become such an incredible little trio! Nadia and Mr. Williams are the ones who put Grace back together when her life gets turned upside down, and are saved themselves in turn. Nadia is a little prickly, but I think it was her way of protecting herself. Mr. Williams is too old for games – at eighty-six, he doesn’t fool around anymore.

I loved this book. Book of the Month has once more made an outstanding pick. The characters and emotions are beautiful and heart-rending and magical. I think this is one of my favorites of the year!

From the cover of Goodbye, Paris:

Will Grace Atherton fall out of love . . . and into life?

From the simple melody of running her violin shop to the full-blown orchestra of her romantic interludes in Paris with David, her devoted partner of eight years, Grace Atherton has always set her life to music.

Her world revolves entirely around David, for Grace’s own secrets have kept everyone else at bay. Until suddenly and shockingly one act tips Grace’s life upside down, and the music seems to stop.

It takes a vivacious old man and a straight-talking teenager to kick-start a new song for Grace. In the process, she learns that she is not as alone in the world as she had once thought, that no mistake is insurmountable, and that the quiet moments in life can be something to shout about . . . 

For fans of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and Jojo Moyes, Goodbye, Paris is the story of a woman who has her heart broken but then puts it back together again in the most uplifting and exquisite way.

Book Review: Clock Dance

clock dance book clubClock Dance
by Anne Tyler
Contemporary Fiction
300 pages
Published July 2018

Clock Dance was the second pick for Barnes & Noble’s  nation-wide Book Club. (The first was Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion, back in May.) Like the first one, it was contemporary fiction, which I’m pretty meh about. When I learned it was set mostly in Baltimore, and written by a local author, I became more interested. I’m originally from Oregon, but Baltimore has become my home, and I enjoy reading about it. We had a slightly larger group than last time, but I was the only returning attendee besides the store employee, Sam, who led the discussion.

Sam opened the discussion with the same question that she started the last one with – “Did you like the main character?” It’s an interesting question because most people ask “Did you like the book?” which can have a different answer. I don’t usually read books in which I don’t like the main character, but that’s usually because I choose my books. I’m not choosing my Book Club books, so it’s a good question. Unlike last time, I did like Willa. I disagreed with her judgment when it came to husbands, but I still sympathized with her. I mentioned that I didn’t like that she just floated through most of her life without any real ambition, but to be honest, I’ve done that too. I’m not a very ambitious person – or my ambitions are quite low. I think that, perhaps, is the difference. I find a lot of fulfillment in being, effectively, my husband’s personal assistant. It’s fun. Willa did not seem to find it fulfilling, she just – didn’t want to rock the boat.

I like how we saw each of Willa’s “defining moments” – the book opens on her as a child, her volatile mother having stormed out of the house during an argument. Her mother really does a number on her as a child. I think it’s why she hates to rock the boat so much. From here, we fast forward to college, and Willa’s boyfriend proposing to her after gaslighting her about an event that happened on the plane. Willa’s mother disapproves. Vehemently. I think that’s part of why Willa accepts. Our next view of Willa’s life is the accident that takes her husband’s life, and its aftermath.

Then we finally start into the real meat of the book, twenty years after the death of her first husband. Her sons have grown and moved away, she has remarried, and both of her parents have passed. Her husband is a little distant, and she seems rather untethered. Then she gets the strangest phone call. It turns out her eldest son lived with a woman (Denise) and her daughter for a little while in Baltimore; he has since moved on, but “Sean’s mother” is still a phone number on Denise’s emergency contact list. So when Denise is shot in the leg and put in the hospital, a neighbor lady sees it, assumes Willa is the grandmother of the child, and calls her to come take care of her. It’s a little convoluted, and Willa can’t even adequately explain to her husband why she’s decided to fly to Baltimore to take care of a child she has no relation to, but she does so anyway.

This is where we get to Baltimore, and, in Anne Tyler’s own words, “when her story changes to Technicolor.”

I actually live just outside Baltimore myself, but one of my best friends lives in Charles Village, and I could SO EASILY envision Willa’s neighborhood as a street of rowhomes. (Turns out it’s probably based on a neighborhood in Hamilton, according to the Baltimore Sun.) I was even mapping locations in Willa’s house to my friend’s rowhome! Anne Tyler really captures the spirit of Baltimore, and now I want to read more of her books, even if they are contemporary fiction!

Overall I enjoyed Clock Dance; Anne Tyler is very good at subtle character growth, which is quite realistic. People don’t often change all at once. Sometimes it takes a lifetime of being told what to do before finally waking up to what you WANT to do.

From the cover of Clock Dance:

An inspiring novel of one woman’s transformative journey

Willa Drake can count on one hand the defining moments of her life. In 1967, she is a schoolgirl coping with her mother’s sudden disappearance. In 1977, she is a college coed considering a marriage proposal. In 1997, she is a young widow trying to piece her life back together. And in 2017, she years to be a grandmother but isn’t sure she ever will be.

Then, one day, Willa receives a startling phone call from a stranger. Without fully understanding why, she flies across the country to Baltimore to look after a young woman she’s never met, her nine-year-old daughter, and their dog, Airplane. This impulsive decision will lead Willa into uncharted territory – surrounded by eccentric neighbors who treat each other like family, she finds solace and fulfillment in unexpected places.

A bewitching novel of hope, self-discovery, and second chances, Clock Dance gives us Anne Tyler at the height of her powers.

Book Review: Less

LessLess
by Andrew Sean Greer
Contemporary Fiction
261 pages
Published 2017

Less is a good name for this book, because that’s how I found it. Less than the love story it is purported to be. Less interesting than people say it is. Less funny than reviews would have me believe. Less than I was expecting. It’s a Pulitzer Prize winner, apparently? Maybe I just don’t “get” contemporary fiction. Because unless it’s YA, I very, VERY rarely like it. I didn’t like Arthur Less. None of his misadventures were that funny.

The book was a little meta; Arthur is told that the book he’s writing isn’t that interesting because his protagonist, a middle aged gay white man, isn’t interesting and no one cares about him. Which is exactly how I feel about Arthur Less. He’s a middle aged gay white man with the means to travel the world, and a boyfriend who would have married him if he’d only, I don’t know, asked. But he just floats through his life a little melancholy and woe is me. And not in the like actually depressed kind of way. Just – meh.

Arthur is BORING. Arthur is privileged, and boring, and annoying as all hell. This book just makes me want to avoid Pulitzer Prize winners. Who awards these prizes, and WHY? Also why does everybody rave about books like this?

Blargh. Don’t bother with this book. People who say it made them laugh out loud don’t know what they’re talking about, or perhaps haven’t read actually funny books. They should read something by Ellen, or Trevor Noah, or Tiffany Haddish. THEY’RE ACTUALLY FUNNY.

From the cover of Less:

Who says you can’t run away from your problems?

You are a failed novelist about to turn fifty. A wedding invitation arrives in the mail: your boyfriend of the past nine years is engaged to someone else. You can’t say yes – it would be too awkward; and you can’t say no – it would look like defeat. On your desk are a series of invitations to half-baked literary events around the world.

Question: How do you arrange to skip town?

Answer: You accept them all.

What could possibly go wrong? Arthur Less will almost fall in love in Paris, almost fall to his death in Berlin, barely escape to a Moroccan ski chalet from a Saharan sandstorm, accidentally book himself as the (only) writer in residence at a Christian retreat center in southern India, and encounter, on a desert island in the Arabian Sea, the last person on earth he wants to face. Somewhere in there: he will turn fifty. Through it all, there is his first love. And there is his last.

Because, despite these mishaps, missteps, misunderstandings, and mistakes, Less is, above all, a love story.

A scintillating satire of the American abroad, a rumination on time and the human heart, and a bittersweet romance of chances lost by an author the New York Times has hailed as “lyrical,” “elegiac,” and “ingenious,” as well as “too sappy by half,” Less shows a writer at the peak of his talents raising the curtain on our shared human comedy.

Book Review: The Book of Essie

book of essieThe Book of Essie
by Meghan Maclean Weir
Contemporary Fiction
319 pages
Releases June 12, 2018

It’s so hard to decide where to start with this book. First: it’s amazing. Second: Content Warning. For a number of reasons. Rape. Incest. Gay Conversion Therapy. Suicide. Nothing extremely graphic; the most graphic concerns the conversion therapy, which is where the suicide occurs. That section was hard to read. A lot of sections were hard to read. But the book was SO GOOD. It’s about Essie and Roarke’s escape from all that, so ultimately it focuses on the future, and it’s a hopeful, light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel kind of book. But daaaaang these topics.

I loved so many of the characters here. Essie and Roarke, Roarke’s best friend Blake, Liberty, the reporter, her boyfriend and her camerawoman. They’re all amazing. Essie’s determination, Roarke’s courage, Blake’s understanding – every character has something to offer in this book. The way Liberty’s history entwines with Essie’s, so she knows where she’s coming from and can offer advice from experience, and how Liberty flashes back to her childhood so the reader understands her conflicts – it’s all just so amazing.

I identify pretty closely with a lot of this book myself; I was raised very conservative Christian, though at least not in a crazy cult like Liberty was. But the way Liberty talks about her boyfriend challenging her beliefs and waking her up from them hit very close to home. It was weird to see it on the page.

“I had been home as well, a painful few months during which I began to see my parents, our family, and our church as Mike might see them, as anyone who was not us would see them. I still loved my parents, very much, but I was also deeply ashamed. I began to wonder what would have happened if I’d seen it earlier….I decided that I would not go home again.”

I was cheering for Essie as she broke free of her bigoted family. Every step of the way. And Roarke – oh, Roarke, who my heart broke for, who stepped up to the plate and loved Essie in his own way, and gave Essie what she needed. It helped that Essie offered him precisely what he needed, too, but I didn’t expect how their relationship evolved.

I loved this book, start to finish. This is definitely one of my favorites of 2018.

I received this book a little early, through the Book of the Month club. It releases this Tuesday, June 12.

From the cover of The Book of Essie:

Esther Anne Hicks – Essie – is the youngest child on Six for Hicks, a reality television phenomenon. She’s grown up in the spotlight, both idolized and despised for her family’s fire-and-brimstone brand of faith. When Essie’s mother, Celia, discovers that Essie is pregnant, she arranges an emergency meeting with the show’s producers: Should they sneak Essie out of the country for an abortion? Pass the child off as Celia’s? Or try to arrange a marriage – and a ratings-blockbuster wedding? Meanwhile, Essie seeks her salvation in Roarke Richards, a senior at her high school with a secret of his own to protect, and Liberty Bell, an infamously conservative reporter. 

As Essie attempts to win the faith of Roarke and Liberty, she has to ask herself the most difficult of questions: What was the real reason her older sister left home? Who can she trust with the truth about her family? And how much is she willing to sacrifice to win her own freedom?

Written with blistering intelligence and a deep, stirring empathy, The Book of Essie brilliantly explores our darkest cultural obsessions: celebrity, class, bigotry, and the media. 

Book Review: The Dirty Girls Social Club

the dirty girls social club

The Dirty Girls Social Club
by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez
Contemporary Fiction
308 pages
Published 2004

So in trying to read more inclusively, I had been looking at some prominent minority writers like Junot Diaz or Sherman Alexie (I actually had one of Alexie’s books out from the library when I realized where I’d heard his name). When the news broke about Junot Diaz, and I remembered that Sherman Alexie also had sexual harassment accusations against him, I decided instead of reading their books, I’d look up the books of the women calling them out! The Dirty Girls Social Club is the first book of what I’m calling my “Wronged Women” list. Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez wrote an article titled “I tried to warn you about Junot Diaz” about her experience with him. Others on the list include Erika Wurth, Elissa Washuta, Zinzi Clemmons, Carmen Maria Machado, and Monica Byrne. I’ve built a shelf on Goodreads for my list, and I’m sure more names will wind up on it. (Unfortunately.)

The Dirty Girls Social Club is the story of six college friends who decide to meet every six months for the rest of their lives, no matter what. The book covers one six month period, from one meeting to the next. It took me a few chapters to sort out who was who, and throughout the book I occasionally had to flip back to the first chapter, where Lauren gives a rundown of names and professions. All six are Hispanic of some flavor, whether that’s Dominican, Puerto Rican, Colombian, Spanish, or Southwestern Native American. That’s why they banded together in college. Each one has her own storyline – dealing with an abusive marriage, leaving a loveless marriage, being forcibly outed as a lesbian and learning to adjust to her new visibility, or becoming a rock star. I enjoyed how each of the six had a very individual story; they have interesting jobs and complicated love lives and unique problems.

Each of the women reflects on her Hispanic heritage in some form, whether that’s taking lessons in how to love from their parents, or fighting for recognition for their minority, or writing columns about their lives for the local newspaper. The book both shows and tells us about the differences in various Hispanic cultures.

I especially enjoyed Amber/Cuicatl (the rock star) and Elizabeth (the lesbian). The rest of the book was a little slow going at times, but I think that’s largely because I’m not a fan of contemporary fiction. I did enjoy it, though, and I’ll probably check out more of the author’s books.

From the cover of The Dirty Girls Social Club:

Meet the Dirty Girls – Lauren, Sara, Amber, Elizabeth, Rebecca, and Usnavys – six friends whose mutual support and (mostly) admiration society sorts out and celebrates the complications and triumphs in each other’s lives. No matter what happens to each of them (and a lot does), the Girls dish, dine, and compare notes on the bumpy course of life and love. There’s always a lot of catching up to do.

Book Review: The Female Persuasion

the female persuasionThe Female Persuasion
by Meg Wolitzer
Contemporary Fiction
454 pages
Published April 2018

So this book came to my attention through an ad on Facebook for Barnes & Noble’s first official book club meeting. I tossed around the idea of going – I haven’t had good experiences with book clubs (nor bad ones, just – ambivalent experiences) – but we wound up at a Barnes & Noble on Sunday, because we were bored, so I decided to snag the book and read it. And then I went to Book Club on Wednesday! We had a small turnout at my Barnes & Noble – only four of us, including the employee leading the discussion. But after seeing a couple photos of larger turnouts, I’m glad for it – I wasn’t afraid to speak up in the small group. I’m a pretty shy introvert, a bigger group would have led to me being pretty quiet.

I feel like I was more intrigued by our book club members than the book! S., who led the group, was a natural at it, and really got us talking. I.R. opened the meeting with “I want you guys to change my mind about this book” but wouldn’t tell us her original opinion of it! And T, who was the oldest of us, brought a completely different viewpoint to the discussion, which was invaluable. (I’m pretty sure IR and S, like me, are millennials.) At the end of the discussion, T revealed she has a Ph.D. in Sociology, specialized in Gender and Sexuality, and she’s writing a book! We all agreed we wish the Book Club was monthly instead of quarterly, so S. is going to talk to her bosses and see if we can’t do a monthly book club at our location, which would be AWESOME. She also said Barnes & Noble was hiring and encouraged us to apply, and – not gonna lie – that was tempting. It’s a bus ride and a short walk away, though, and while my health and energy levels are improving drastically, I’m not sure they’re quite up to holding down a job yet. Not and get anything done around the house.

Anyway. On to the book! The Female Persuasion was billed as a feminist novel, and in some ways it is, but we all agreed it’s not REALLY about feminism. The main character, Greer, works for a feminist foundation, but you could have changed what the foundation’s purpose was, or made her work for a corporation, and the essence of the book would have been exactly the same. It was only tangentially about feminism. It was about women supporting each other, though, and the mentor relationship between an older woman and a younger woman, so in some ways, yes. If I was asked to make a list of books about feminism, though, it certainly wouldn’t make the cut.

All of the characters have some major flaws. Greer is selfish, and doesn’t understand when things don’t go according to plan. Cory’s life gets entirely derailed by a tragedy he couldn’t prevent, but in some ways he lets the derailment happen. If he’d really wanted what he said he wanted (and perhaps he didn’t) he could have fixed his trajectory. Zee is a little brash and headstrong, but the most likable character in the book. Faith – oh, Faith. Faith is the older feminist mentor who turns out to be far more jaded than expected.

I have lots of conflicts about Faith. She is one of those feminists who doesn’t seem to care for individual women – she can’t even remember most of the women who credit her with changing their lives – but she keeps her eyes on the big picture. And as I brought up in book club, the movement does need people who see the big picture. Those people are important – but they still need certain principles that I think Faith lacks.

IR mentioned that Cory was a good foil to all the female characters in the book, and he needed his flaws, because otherwise he would be the perfect feminist boyfriend. And no one is perfect.

We were all a little disappointed with the ending; it felt like Wolitzer skipped a whole section of the story. How did Greer get from point A to point B? (Well, really, it’s more like the book covers Points A, B, C, and E. And skips D.)

I think one of my favorite quotes from the book (I misattributed it to Faith at the book club, it turns out it came from Greer) was the one about being given permission:

“I think that’s what the people who change our lives always do. They give us permission to be the person we secretly really long to be but maybe don’t feel we’re allowed to be. Many of you here in this room…..had someone like that, didn’t you? Someone who gave you permission. Someone who saw you and heard you. Heard your voice.”

I think that really sums up mentorship, in some ways. Women are often still socialized to not trust their own instincts, to lean on outside opinions for validation. (I know I was.) To be given permission and encouragement to trust yourself can be a life-changing event.

I really enjoyed this book. I saw bits of myself in all four characters – Faith’s practicality, Greer’s impressionability, Zee’s idealism, and even a little of Cory’s foggy despair and lack of ambition. I wouldn’t call it a feminist classic. But it was a good book.

From the cover of The Female Persuasion

Sometimes the person you admire most recognizes something unusual in you and draws it out, opening a door to a bigger, electrifying world.

Greer Kadetsky is a college freshman when she meets the woman who will change her life. Faith Frank, dazzlingly persuasive and elegant at sixty-three, has been a pillar of the women’s movement for decades, a figure who inspires others. Hearing Faith speak for the first time, in a crowded campus chapel, Greer feels her inner world light up. She and Cory, her high school boyfriend, have both been hardworking and ambitious, jokingly referred to as “twin rocket ships,” headed up and up and up. Yet for so long Greer has been full of longing, in search of a purpose she can’t quite name. And then, astonishingly, Faith invites her to make something out of her new sense of awakening. Over time, Faith leads Greer along the most exciting and rewarding path of her life, as it winds toward and away from her meant-to-be love story with Cory, and the future she’d always imagined. As Cory’s path, too, is altered in ways that feel beyond his control, both of them are asked to reckon with what they really want. What does it mean to be powerful? How do people measure their impact upon the world, and upon one another? Does all of this look different for men than it does for women?

With humor, wisdom, and profound intelligence, Meg Wolitzer weaves insights about power and influence, ego and loyalty, womanhood and ambition into a moving story that looks at the romantic ideals we pursue deep into adulthood: ideals relating not just to whom we want to be with, but who we want to be.