Go Read This! | The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

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Book: The Interestings
Author: Meg Wolitzer

Goodreads Synopsis:
The summer that Nixon resigns, six teenagers at a summer camp for the arts become inseparable. Decades later the bond remains powerful, but so much else has changed. In The Interestings, Wolitzer follows these characters from the height of youth through middle age, as their talents, fortunes, and degrees of satisfaction diverge.

The kind of creativity that is rewarded at age fifteen is not always enough to propel someone through life at age thirty; not everyone can sustain, in adulthood, what seemed so special in adolescence. Jules Jacobson, an aspiring comic actress, eventually resigns herself to a more practical occupation and lifestyle. Her friend Jonah, a gifted musician, stops playing the guitar and becomes an engineer. But Ethan and Ash, Jules’s now-married best friends, become shockingly successful—true to their initial artistic dreams, with the wealth and access that allow those dreams to keep expanding. The friendships endure and even prosper, but also underscore the differences in their fates, in what their talents have become and the shapes their lives have taken.

Wide in scope, ambitious, and populated by complex characters who come together and apart in a changing New York City, The Interestings explores the meaning of talent; the nature of envy; the roles of class, art, money, and power; and how all of it can shift and tilt precipitously over the course of a friendship and a life.

My Review:
Dot recommended this book to me, and I’m so happy she did. I listened to the audiobook, which immersed me in the characters’ lives and gave me a sense of place that I find normally takes a few chapters (or doesn’t take at all). And while Rowell knows how to make her secondary characters sing, Wolitzer seems to know how to work with multiple main characters without anyone feeling left out or second fiddle. Throughout my listen, I was surprised by how engaged I was in everyone’s lives, even if they hadn’t been the primary focus – and how adept Wolitzer is at characterization. Interactions and other characters’ observations provided insight about our current character of focus, as well as others. In my opinion, it’s rare for an author to do this so well and so consistently throughout a novel.

I do, however, have to add an imaginary asterisk to this review. See, after I finished it I recommended it (with much fanfare) to my mother. She couldn’t even finish it! In her words, “perhaps it’s a generational thing.” She also made some pun about the book’s title. This book is similar to The Girl in the Road, where I want everyone to try it, but I don’t think everyone will like it.

…but you should definitely, definitely try it!

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Go Read This! | The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne

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Book: The Girl in the Road
Author: Monica Byrne

Goodreads Synopsis:
Stunningly original and wildly inventive, The Girl in the Road melds the influences of Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, and Erin Morgenstern for a dazzling debut.

Meena, a young woman living in a futuristic Mumbai, wakes up with five snake bites on her chest. She doesn’t know how or why, but she must flee India and return to Ethiopia, the place of her birth. Having long heard about The Trail — an energy-harvesting bridge that spans the Arabian Sea — she embarks on foot on this forbidden bridge, with its own subculture and rules. What awaits her in Ethiopia is unclear; she’s hoping the journey will illuminate it for her.

Mariama, a girl from a different time, is on a quest of her own. After witnessing her mother’s rape, she joins up with a caravan of strangers heading across Saharan Africa. She meets Yemaya, a beautiful and enigmatic woman who becomes her protector and confidante. Yemaya tells Mariama of Ethiopia, where revolution is brewing and life will be better. Mariama hopes against hope that it offers much more than Yemaya ever promised.

As one heads east and the other west, Meena and Mariama’s fates will entwine in ways that are profoundly moving and shocking to the core. Vividly imagined and artfully told, written with stunning clarity and deep emotion, The Girl in the Road is a true tour de force.

My Review:
I have so many thoughts about this book. The shortest thought: I love it. The next? I want to read it again. Because I can’t help myself: I want to write like this, honest and fearless and beautiful.

TGITR is on the shortlist for my favorite book of the year. A book that counts Gaiman, Morgenstern, and Atwood on its list of influential authors might be reaching, but Byrne isn’t. She’s comfortable walking among the greats, authors I love. Byrne pulls it off, with beauty and subtlety and honesty. She seems to have an innate understanding for when to go big and when to reign back. Her writing is beautiful, and she gives equal weight to mundane moments and life-changing seconds. There’s a lovely transparency – I checked out her blog and the person and the author share the same voice. That may sound silly, but sometimes I feel like writers have a tendency to take on a voice that just isn’t true to them, and it feels inauthentic to me. It takes something from the writing.

Byrne understands that personal heroes can be deeply flawed. I appreciate a layered, challenging story, and that’s what this is. You will love and hate the characters sometimes, but you’ll understand them. They are real people, with flaws and goals. They have coping strategies and solutions for obstacles. They also come across as familiar but unique – I felt like I already knew pieces of them, but they didn’t seem like a permutation of another character I loved. Meena can be frustrating and obstinate, but there’s something soft and sad about her. Mariama comes across as naive and childlike, but she has a hard streak in her that comes out at the best and worst times.

This book is not for everyone, but I can see my Gender Studies professors from Northwestern adding this in a mad rush to the fall syllabi. It explores a lot with gender and sexuality, topics not everyone is comfortable reading about or discussing. Byrne writes fearlessly, queuing up a slew of uncomfortable truths that the characters have to confront about themselves. It’s refreshing and engaging, and the tiny mysteries she embeds into their histories are unraveled slowly and well. I carried this book around for the better part of a week, and I’m already eager for Byrne’s next novel.

Disclaimer: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review. I selected the book based on my own preference, and all opinions are my own. 

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Go Read This! | Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas by John Scalzi

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Book: Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas
Author: John Scalzi

Goodreads Synopsis:
Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union since the year 2456. It’s a prestige posting, and Andrew is thrilled all the more to be assigned to the ship’s Xenobiology laboratory.

Life couldn’t be better…until Andrew begins to pick up on the fact that (1) every Away Mission involves some kind of lethal confrontation with alien forces, (2) the ship’s captain, its chief science officer, and the handsome Lieutenant Kerensky always survive these confrontations, and (3) at least one low-ranked crew member is, sadly, always killed.

Not surprisingly, a great deal of energy below decks is expended on avoiding, at all costs, being assigned to an Away Mission. Then Andrew stumbles on information that completely transforms his and his colleagues’ understanding of what the starship Intrepid really is…and offers them a crazy, high-risk chance to save their own lives.

My Review:
I really, really don’t want to spoil this novel. I really don’t. I will post a very short review without spoiling this novel. Because really, I just want to talk about how this novel succeeds on so many levels, but in doing so I would have to reveal some key details that everyone should have a chance to discover through reading. You should just go read this book. Or better yet, listen to the audio – Wil Wheaton kills it.

Redshirts is a great addition to humorous sci-fi. It’s hilarious, but it is also a novel with depth and nuance. There’s a lot going on below the surface, and it blossoms and expands as you’re reading.  Fans of the sci-fi genre, both books and film, will appreciate some of the meta aspects of the dialogue and plot. As a writer, I appreciated the driving force of “the Narrative,” a mysterious, dangerous force that compels the Intrepid. Scalzi wields his genre knowledge well, and he uses familiar tropes to his advantage.

Oh, and he won the Best Novel Hugo. So Redshirts has that going for it.

Go Read This! | Serena by Ron Rash

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Book: Serena
Author: Ron Rash

Goodreads Synopsis:
The year is 1929, and newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton travel from Boston to the North Carolina mountains where they plan to create a timber empire. Although George has already lived in the camp long enough to father an illegitimate child, Serena is new to the mountains—but she soon shows herself to be the equal of any man, overseeing crews, hunting rattle-snakes, even saving her husband’s life in the wilderness. Together this lord and lady of the woodlands ruthlessly kill or vanquish all who fall out of favor. Yet when Serena learns that she will never bear a child, she sets out to murder the son George fathered without her. Mother and child begin a struggle for their lives, and when Serena suspects George is protecting his illegitimate family, the Pembertons’ intense, passionate marriage starts to unravel as the story moves toward its shocking reckoning.

Rash’s masterful balance of violence and beauty yields a riveting novel that, at its core, tells of love both honored and betrayed.

My Review:
Macbeth acted as the inspiration for Serena. If you’re wondering how you can translate Scottish madness and monarchy into Southern Depression-era lumberyards, I can tell you Rash does it, and he does it well. Serena herself is a brilliantly executed character – shades of Lady Macbeth are still there, but Serena is her own woman (and honestly, I’m not sure who would win in any kind of fight). Somehow, Rash manages to pull all of the elements that people love about Macbeth and transport them to a new time and place. The supernatural element is there. The revenge is there. The insanity is there. It’s all there, and I just can’t get over it  because books like this are why I love reading and writing. Serena is an immersive experience, and it takes a truly talented writer to reconstruct iconic characters into new ones with their own identities and motivations.

An added bonus: Serena will be the next Bradley Cooper/Jennifer Lawrence film adaptation. I am looking forward to seeing both of them just crush it onscreen.

Go Read This! | Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

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Book: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
Author: Jamie Ford

Goodreads Synopsis:
In the opening pages of Jamie Ford’s stunning debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Henry Lee comes upon a crowd gathered outside the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle’s Japantown. It has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has made an incredible discovery: the belongings of Japanese families, left when they were rounded up and sent to internment camps during World War II. As Henry looks on, the owner opens a Japanese parasol.

This simple act takes old Henry Lee back to the 1940s, at the height of the war, when young Henry’s world is a jumble of confusion and excitement, and to his father, who is obsessed with the war in China and having Henry grow up American. While “scholarshipping” at the exclusive Rainier Elementary, where the white kids ignore him, Henry meets Keiko Okabe, a young Japanese American student. Amid the chaos of blackouts, curfews, and FBI raids, Henry and Keiko forge a bond of friendship–and innocent love–that transcends the long-standing prejudices of their Old World ancestors. And after Keiko and her family are swept up in the evacuations to the internment camps, she and Henry are left only with the hope that the war will end, and that their promise to each other will be kept.

Forty years later, Henry Lee is certain that the parasol belonged to Keiko. In the hotel’s dark dusty basement he begins looking for signs of the Okabe family’s belongings and for a long-lost object whose value he cannot begin to measure. Now a widower, Henry is still trying to find his voice–words that might explain the actions of his nationalistic father; words that might bridge the gap between him and his modern, Chinese American son; words that might help him confront the choices he made many years ago.

Set during one of the most conflicted and volatile times in American history, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is an extraordinary story of commitment and enduring hope. In Henry and Keiko, Jamie Ford has created an unforgettable duo whose story teaches us of the power of forgiveness and the human heart.

My Review:
I smiled, I laughed, I cried, I gasped. “Bitter and sweet” is the perfect descriptor, because it’s not bittersweet. It’s not both at once. These feeling alternate. At some points, you will feel like bitterness is heaped upon you; there will be times when small moments just keep adding up. Then there will be that one sweet moment that takes it all away. It will not be a grand, dramatic gesture – it will be that perfect bit of humanity that reverses cynicism and restores faith.

Henry is one of the most compelling characters; despite odds and obstacles he continues to do what he feels is best – for his family, for Keiko’s family, for himself, and for his country. Ford’s ability to depict him as both a boy transitioning into adulthood and as an elderly man is a real strength of the novel. Without such a strong protagonist, the book simply would not have worked. Keiko is special to Henry, and Ford expertly uses “show, don’t tell” to convey that. His decades-long affection is a touching centerpiece, and there’s a nice bit of mystery as we wonder what happened to Keiko. This novel is beautiful and touching in every way.

Go Read This! | The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

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Book: The Snow Child
Author: Eowyn Ivey

Goodreads Synopsis:
Alaska, the 1920s. Jack and Mabel have staked everything on a fresh start in a remote homestead, but the wilderness is a stark place, and Mabel is haunted by the baby she lost many years before. When a little girl appears mysteriously on their land, each is filled with wonder, but also foreboding — is she what she seems, and can they find room in their hearts for her?

My Review:
I experienced such a range of emotions while reading The Snow Child. It is painfully beautiful, and it focuses on different topics with an almost easy familiarity. This not to say that her handling of themes is superficial; rather, Ivey makes difficult, heavy topics accessible to others. A big aspect of the novel involves parenting, what it means to be a parent, and how one’s life shifts when the choice to be a parent is presented (or not) at different times. As someone who has not been a parent, I was able to connect and understand the characters who grappled with emotions around parenting. Their struggles with (re)defining themselves and (re)defining their lives were central to the novel; it’s a huge undertaking handled well in relatively few pages.

The Snow Child succeeds in offering readers equals doses of happy and sad, bitter and sweet. It is delightful and depressing, and it now occupies a permanent spot on my “must read” recommendations list.

Book Review | Domestic Violets

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Book: Domestic Violets
Author: Matthew Norman
Format: Audiobook
Length: 11h 0m
My Rating: 5/5
2013 Reading Challenges: 2013 Audio Book Challenge; New Authors Challenge 2013; 2013 Books About Books Challenge
I’d Recommend to: My bestie, the guys of The League

Goodreads Synopsis:
Tom Violet always thought that by the time he turned thirty-five, he’d have everything going for him. Fame. Fortune. A beautiful wife. A satisfying career as a successful novelist. A happy dog to greet him at the end of the day.

The reality, though, is far different. He’s got a wife, but their problems are bigger than he can even imagine. And he’s written a novel, but the manuscript he’s slaved over for years is currently hidden in his desk drawer while his father, an actual famous writer, just won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. His career, such that it is, involves mind-numbing corporate buzzwords, his pretentious archnemesis Gregory, and a hopeless, completely inappropriate crush on his favorite coworker. Oh . . . and his dog, according to the vet, is suffering from acute anxiety.

Tom’s life is crushing his soul, but he’s decided to do something about it. (Really.) Domestic Violets is the brilliant and beguiling story of a man finally taking control of his own happiness—even if it means making a complete idiot of himself along the way.

My Review:
Domestic Violets may be my favorite book this year. First off, the book starts with a scene that is equal parts heartbreaking and hilarious: an in-depth look at Tom Violet trying to have sex with his wife. Norman captures the neuroses and melancholy through the lens of dark comedy – and that’s just the first scene. It gets better from there.

Tom Violet is one of those guys that you kind of dislike, but can’t really commit to full-on hating. There’s just too much about him that reminds  you of someone you know (maybe even yourself). Tom’s an underdog to everyone, even himself. Watching him try to figure out how to overcome his own insecurities – and, let’s face it, mistakes – is not only entertaining, it’s thought-provoking. His supporting cast and archnemesis are well-rounded, well-developed characters. The few moments with literary giant Zuckerman (the “rival” for Tom’s father, Curtis) are some of my favorite, and his interaction with Tom involves a huge reveal I didn’t see coming, but made sense in the context of Norman’s world. This reveal has huge implications for almost all of the characters, and the reactions by some brought tears to my eyes.

The Last Line:
Domestic Violets has something for everyone – in spades.