Sunday, June 5, 2016

Book Review: Single, Carefree, Mellow by Katherine Heiny

  

I love short stories. I read them and I write them, but I'll freely admit that short story collections are not most readers' first choice.  It's not easy to tell a complete story, to make the world of your characters seem full-blooded, in just a few pages, but when a short story is good, it tends to stick with me longer than some full-length mediocre novels. 

I sought out Katherine Heiny's Single, Carefree, Mellow at a library several towns away because of a story of hers I read years ago in an old New Yorker magazine. The story, "How to Give the Wrong Impression," included in this collection, is told in the second person and focuses on the relationship between two roommates, Gwen and Boris.  I fell in love with the end of the story when Boris finds Gwen cleaning the bathroom late at night while she's wearing an old pair of his boxer shorts.  The language is true and tender, and it is not only something I want to read over and over but it's a perfect example of the type of writing I strive to create.

Single, Carefree, Mellow did not disappoint. Every story was interesting and entertaining in a wonderful way. I flew through the book, then went back and re-read a few favorites. There are three really great stories that feature a woman named Maya, each at a different point in her life. There are nosy neighbors and precocious children and older husbands and loyal best friends. And there's a ton of infidelity. In fact, almost every story features adultery in some way or another. I usually hate when cheating is used as a major plot point but Heiny's characters are flawed and very aware of their mistakes. Like in the real world, no one is perfect and there's nothing wrong with that.

This was one of the best short story collections that I've read in the last few years.  Heiny is able to find humor in even the most ordinary situations, making Single, Carefree, Mellow a real joy to read. Heiny has a novel in the works and I'll definitely be keeping that on my radar for sure.
 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Book Review: The Virgins by Pamela Erens



I can't remember the last book I read that won me over with its tone and narration from the first page.  Taking place during the 1979-1980 academic year at a prestigious prep school in New Hampshire, Pamela Erens' The Virgins follows Aviva and Seung, a couple who has the entirety of Auburn Academy watching as they fall in love all over campus. Is their affection more of a distraction because he is Korean-American and she is Jewish? All signs point to yes, but there's much more to the story. 

The Virgins comes off as simultaneously retro and modern. Pay phones are a necessity and computers don't yet exist, but there's a current day feel in the way the teenage characters operate independently (perhaps that's just a result of the prep school setting).  Aviva is confident in her right to express herself as a sexual being.  Seung is a frequent dabbler in all sorts of recreational drugs. The sex throughout is frank and raw, but never raunchy.  The teens' emotions, fears and interactions are even more frank and raw. Every move, good or bad, makes them more human and even more relateable to the reader.

One of the best parts of The Virgins is that every word is perfectly placed and important to the story. The fact that Erens is able to make almost all of the characters in The Virgins sympathetic in some way is no easy task because so many of them are not terribly likeable.  The narrator, Bruce Bennett-Jones, a classmate of Aviva and Seung, is extremely unreliable as he tells the story as a third-party looking on from afar.  He's infatuated with Aviva, jealous of Seung, and unable to understand why he is not admired or popular among his peers even though he is from a prominent family.

Having Bruce Bennett-Jones as the narrator makes the book feel as though it's a glorified game of 'Telephone' in the best way possible.  Is Bennett-Jones making up these stories? Are they just tidbits of real tales that he's heard that he's spinning into what he wishes had really happened?    Either way, The Virgins is a quiet, tragic novel that makes you think twice about what is really happening behind every closed door and inside every person's mind.


Saturday, April 2, 2016

Book Review: Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

I read Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon in one night. Yoon's debut novel contains a mix of traditional chapters, gchat conversations, lists and graphics, and it hooked me immediately.  The story of Maddy, a girl who is literally allergic to everything and unable to leave the house, was real and captivating right from the start.  When she falls in love with the new boy next door, Oliver, she quickly  realizes that she could never have a 'normal' life with him.  She can't even touch him due to her health condition, and as their relationship grows, I truly felt for Maddy. Her world is small but she is relatively happy until she actually knows what she is missing.


I'm hesitant to say more because the plot twists in the second half of Everything, Everything are truly great and I would hate to ruin that for anyone. Trust me when I say that this is the perfect book to devour in a single sitting.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Cooking with Other People's Grandmas

I caught this episode of My Grandmother's Ravioli the other day and have been thinking about it ever since.  Many of my own childhood memories involve my grandmother and we spent much time in her kitchen; Guelda reminded me of her and I even found myself tearing up at several points.

I've seen the show several times before and just love how Mo Rocca really makes an effort to get to know these grandparents.  He spends time cooking with them, listening to their stories and learning about their hobbies and interests. It's clear that he genuinely cares about these lovely people, which is really what makes the show so enjoyable to watch. 

The Cooking Channel cancelled My Grandmother's Ravioli just a few weeks ago actually.  It seems like a random show that was on a strange channel but trust me when I tell you it's so worth a watch. Hopefully, the reruns will run for a long time to come.


Thursday, March 17, 2016

Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders by Julianna Baggott

 

In many of the books that I read, the setting becomes a character.  Maybe the world is fictional but based on a real city so I can picture that skyline, those sidewalks, the noise that penetrates even through closed apartment windows. Sometimes an author details so vividly the home or office building where their main characters spend much time that I feel like I've walked through that front door before or sat at that conference room table.  The overarching theme in Julianna Baggott's Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders is 'home,' either searching for one, dreaming of one, returning to one, etc. and my favorite parts of the book are her descriptions of the many places where Harriet Wolf has lived and survived before returning, finally, to her parents' house outside Baltimore, where she lives until she dies in the same room where she was literally born.

Perhaps that sounds morbid, but Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders is actually a beautiful story of four women, three generations of the Wolf family. Harriet's story is told in a flashback diary entry way while her daughter, Eleanor, and her granddaughters, Ruth and Tilton, narrate from a present day when Harriet is no longer alive. The present day chapters are interesting, but I'll admit that it was Harriet's story that kept me captivated.

The main storyline of the book focuses on Harriet Wolf as the famous writer.  She wrote a series of six books that have a cult following and there are many devoted fans who believe that Harriet wrote a seventh book that is hidden inside the familial home.  Part of the novel is the 'search' for this seventh book but most of it is just delving into Harriet's past so that her family knows where she came from and why she was the way that she was.  There were so many twists and turns in this woman's life and she overcame so much, from lost love to growing up in a home for mentally disabled children to being an unexpected single mother later in life; these delicate tales that Baggott shares as Harriet almost have heartbeat of their own.

Early in the book, there was a passage that stayed with me:

"Each molecule of story is a universe--grotesque and stunning, all sunlit steam and engines laboring in the chests of trains and creatures with small pink hands and horns...."
A little further down, Baggott as Harriet writes,
"I hope, my dear readers, that your hearts haven't stiffened, rind-tough, or gone dowdy with flab--poor neglected hearts, a tragic crime. May you keep yourselves trimmed--hair, nails, suit jackets--but untamed within. (Be curious)."  (Page 72)

So much is said and so much can be learned from just those few lines.

It took Baggott almost 20 years to write this book, which is easy to believe after reading it. Every story loops back around in some way, every mention of a historic event is deliberate and meaningful to the story and when I finished Harriet Wolf, a book that had an unresolved ending to a certain extent, it didn't feel like there were loose ends.  I feel like every scene in the book probably played out in Baggott's mind hundreds of times before finalized.  It's not easy to write a book about downtrodden events and unfortunate individuals without being depressing but Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders is full of compassion in the very best way.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Book Review: "Why Not Me?" by Mindy Kaling


I took Mindy Kaling's Why Not Me? on the road to Portsmouth, New Hampshire this weekend where I read it in two nights while curled up on the awesome hotel room couch (seriously, I wanted to steal this couch, throw it on the roof of my car and drive the three hours home with my arm out the window holding it down, trying to convince myself that I could actually catch it if it started to slide off the moving vehicle while speeding down the highway).  It's a great fast read, touching on serious topics but mainly containing dating and friendship-related stories that will make you laugh aloud.



This is Mindy's second book--I read her first book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, when it came out a few years ago and enjoyed it but there is something about this new one that I really love. Mindy's voice is more confident and her essays are more evolved.  Overall, there is a maturity that was kind of missing from her last book.  Although there is a section on Hollywood beauty routines, this book is focused on a smart, strong woman who has had funny, crazy experiences and wants to share these tales with other women.

As I read, there were a few lines that really jumped out at me and compelled me to mark them with stickies.
  • With regard to her dislike of weddings: "If you're my best friend and the only way I get to have dinner with you is by traveling thousands of miles, selecting a chicken or fish option, and wearing a dress in the same shade of lavender as six other girls, I will do that. I won't love it. But I love you." (page 27)
  • On being at Dartmouth and wanting to join a sorority: "When I arrived at Dartmouth College in 1997, my attitude toward alcohol was that it was a delicious and dangerous treat that, when obtained, needed to be ingested quickly in case someone tried to take it away.  You know, the way a raccoon eats from a garbage can." (page 28)
  • The section entitled "The Sexiest Thing That Has Ever Happened to Me." It's a short few paragraphs but definitely sexy and well worth the read. (page 93)
  • The essay called "Soup Snakes" is about Mindy's relationship with B.J. Novak. There is a great anecdote about the play Doubt and B.J. falling asleep on Edward Albee but at the end, Mindy talks about her mother and that page is the most touching part of the book. (page 132)
  • About a male acquaintance who might want more of a relationship but was sending mixed signals: "What did I do to deserve this? I was just a friendly thirty-four year old tv actress looking for a boyfriend who didn't have a neck tattoo." (page 150)
  • On being brave: "I do idiotic things all the time and I say crazy stuff I regret, but I don't let everything traumatize me. And the scary thing I have noticed is that some people really feel uncomfortable around women who don't hate themselves." (page 221)
  • How to be confident: "Work hard, know your shit, show your shit, then feel entitled." (page 223)
My main takeaway is that Mindy Kaling may be funny and sweet, but she also works hard, very hard, and probably harder than most people. This is definitely the read for you if you are looking for a confidence boost or if you love funny ladies who are great with words. And the behind-the-scenes photos that are included in some of the essays don't hurt either.


*Page numbers are from the hardcover version of Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Book Review: The Rocks by Peter Nichols




For the last few months, it seems like every 'Must-Read Summer Books' list included The Rocks by Peter Nichols. Over and over, this book has been compared to Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins, and since most of the story takes place along the rocky cliffs of Mallorca, it's the quintessential beach read, if you aren't going on vacation this year and want to pretend you are sitting by the Mediterranean sea. It's not really a breezy book but I definitely felt transported just a few chapters in.

The Rocks starts off in 2005 with a short chapter detailing a tragic accident. From there, the book is told in descending order, moving backward from the present into the past where there are layers and layers of history between the four main characters.  Lulu and Gerald had been married for a very short time after World War II, but after an incident (details which are unknown to everyone), they separate, and although they live within a few miles of one another, they manage to only run into each other three times over sixty years. Luc is Lulu's son from her second marriage, and Aegina is Gerald's daughter from his second marriage.  The heart of this story lies with Luc and Aegina.

This book is lovely and heartbreaking and crushing all at once. As I read and the years went further and further back, I started to fear that Nichols wouldn't give the reader another 'present day' chapter at the end, but I was wrong to worry. The second-to-last chapter of The Rocks was the emotional payoff for which I'd been waiting.  It made me cry, and then later when I shared the end with my husband, I teared up again.

I think the thing that got to me most is that The Rocks is all about misunderstandings and missed connections. Life for Lulu, Gerald, Luc and Aegina would have been so different if they had known some big, important things. Maybe they could have had happier lives; maybe they would have been more miserable. There's no knowing and that's true in our real, everyday lives as well.

I will say that there are some slow sections. Every time a new year began, it took some time to settle into the new story that was being told. And there was a point when I had a bit of trouble keeping all of the names straight--there are a ton of supporting characters with interesting backstories and European names that start to sound alike around page 250. Keep going, push through and you'll figure out who everyone is eventually (or not, but as long as you remember the main foursome, you'll be fine).

Final verdict: yes, I'd recommend The Rocks, whether you're reading on a beach or not.