Books of the Month: May 2018

IMG_9694Troubling Love, by Elena Ferrante. Like many others, I read all four of the Napoli novels by Elena Ferrante. Like Troubling Love, they troubled and entranced me simultaneously. Ferrante’s depiction of a lifelong friendship between two women in the Napoli novels–if friendship is the right word– a friendship that covered five decades of life and love and hate and hardship, will be with me always. People talk about the beauty of Ferrante’s writing, but I don’t find it beautiful. I do find it mesmerizing, though, to the extent that I stood outside the door of Magers & Quinn on the day the fourth and final novel came out, waiting to buy it and devour it. She is an unsparing writer who writes with a kind of calm brutality. Nothing slips by her. Such is the case with Troubling Love. It’s a slender novel about a daughter trying to unravel the mystery of her mother’s death, and by extension, the mystery of her own childhood. This novel reads like a dream/nightmare, and I couldn’t put it down. 

IMG_9685Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng. Damn. This is a hell of a novel. I was instantly absorbed into the lives of this Shaker Heights community and its denizens. Ng writes with such clarity about every one of her people, no matter who they are, weaving issues of class and race into the powerful themes of the book in such a way that I empathized with everyone. That’s not an easy task. You know what else is an inordinately difficult task? To write in the third person omniscient (in which you’re inside the heads of everyone) and pull it off, the way Ng does, seemingly without effort. And her portrayal of Mia, the photographer artist at the core of every scene, was astonishing in its powerful take on what drives an artist and her art. I loved this book. 

 

IMG_9636Long Way Down, by Jason Reynolds. Jason Reynolds can do no wrong in my eyes. He’s changing the world, one book and one speech at a time, and Long Way Down is no exception. The structure of the book is cool –it takes place in a single elevator ride from the 13th floor to the lobby of the building in which the main character lives–and it’s told in near-verse. Few words, huge power. This novel shook me up and made me want to reach into its world and wrap my arms around everyone, living and dead, who is given a voice here. 

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What I Leave Behind, by Alison McGhee. Yup, this is my own book. While on book tour for this new novel, about a sixteen year old boy named Will who works in a dollar store and is trying to figure his way through some tough times, I’ve had to re-read it. Much to my surprise and relief, this hasn’t been a soul-damaging experience. Maybe because it’s such a brief, poem-like book, and maybe because readers are responding to it straight from the heart, which is how I wrote it. Here are a few of the things they’ve said on Goodreads. 1. I can’t believe a book this small managed to touch my heart so completely. 2. Will’s compassion and kindness ripped my heart out. 3. . . . a beautiful look at trauma, what to do when you feel powerless in the world, and how to do more than just move forward. 4. One of the most profound, poignant books I’ve read in a while. Very few books make life feel so real and precious.

IMG_9866Looking for Alaska, by John Green. This is my third John Greene novel, and when I finished it I decided to read everything else he’s written. The man deserves his bestselling and critically acclaimed status. The way he gets straight to the heart of the matter, the matter being life and its big questions in the face of tough situations, especially in his brilliant dialogue, is the way I wish we all were, all the time, in real life. His people are so real and so lovable, and they care so much about each other. Hilarious, painful, heart-opening.

Books of the Month, April 2018

Screen Shot 2018-04-30 at 7.08.45 PM.pngBorn a Crime, by Trevor Noah. I listened to Trevor Noah read his memoir aloud to me as my tiny little car and I cruised along the highways of Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma. What a wonderful book. Noah was born to a black South African woman and a white British father in South Africa – his birth was literally a crime back in the waning days of apartheid, hence the title of the memoir. Like Sherman Alexie’s You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, this book is as much an homage to his fierce, brilliant, take-no-shit mother as it is his own story. Listening to Noah talk about race, class, the city vs. the townships, and his coming of age on the mean streets of both made me think about my own country and upbringing. This book is by turns hilarious, enraging, enlightening, and always utterly absorbing. Highly recommend – and if you’re an audio fan, get the audio version. Noah is an uncanny mimic. 

IMG_9434 Today Will Be Different, by Maria Semple. This was my first sampling of Maria Semple, and damn, she’s good. A few pages into this novel, I was both immersed and sure that it would fit into a category of novels that in my head I think of, rightly or wrongly, as Funny Contemporary Novels About Funny Contemporary Women. Brain candy-ish but smart. I was wrong. Today Will Be Different is far less categorizable and far more complex, multi-layered and deeper than I initially expected. Much of the novel centers around a middle-aged woman who’s trying, against her own predilections, to be a good and kind person. She’s haunted by the loss, due to a complicated estrangement, of her beloved younger sister, and as the novel progresses, this loss is shown to affect everything about her daily life and her relationships – with her husband, her son, her friends. An unexpectedly moving novel, with an uncomfortably acute sense of the human psyche, that I had a hard time putting down. Also, it’s hilarious. Highly recommend.

IMG_9492How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, a novel by Mohsin Hamid. Such a poignant, bittersweet, moving novel this is. It’s been kicking around on my bookshelves for a couple of years now, because even though I knew it was a novel, every time I looked at it I would tilt my head and think How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising AsiaJust doesn’t sound like a novel. And because I don’t care about getting filthy rich in rising Asia (or anywhere else for that matter), it stayed on the shelf. But once I finally cracked the cover and began reading, wow. Structured like the get rich quick self-help books that are apparently wildly popular in Asia, with each chapter heading a different aspect of how to get rich, the book charts the life of one unnamed man. We follow him from early childhood in rural Pakistan (I’m assuming, because the country, like the main character, is never named) to old age in a sprawling, tentacled, ever-growing city, every step of the way alighting, like a hummingbird, on the various aspects of his life and longings that never change. A delicate, painfully-wrought, beautiful book. I loved this novel and will now seek out Hamid’s other books. Highly recommend.

Screen Shot 2018-04-19 at 3.41.10 PMThe House Without Windows: And Eepersip’s Life There, a novel by Barbara Newhall Follett. Reading this brief novel was an experience unlike any I’ve had before when reading. The author, who was born in 1914 and vanished at the age of thirty, was eight years old when she wrote the novel and twelve when it was published. After reading an article about her on NPR I tracked down her novel and read it as an e-book. The House Without Windows is about a child desperate to live alone in the wild. She runs away from her family, never to live with them again, and dances and sings and swims and climbs her way from forest to sea to mountains. She lives on roots and berries, she weaves clothes from ferns and leaves and flowers. In the end, she vanishes from human sight and becomes a nymph of the woodlands. As I read the book I had the constant feeling that I was inside the mind of its writer, even that she was writing a dream of her own life that portended her disappearance (death? suicide?) as a young woman. When I finished the book I went in search of more information about her. Barbara Newhall Follett was a badass from start to finish – she did not live by the rules of society and she did not care to. Reading her novel, and then about her, has left me unsettled. It’s almost as if she’s calling to us from a century ago, at this particular time in the life of women in the world, with a fierce message. Highly recommend, if only because it’s essential to jolt yourself out of your habits every once in a while, and this novel will do that.