THE LAST SEPTEMBER by Nina de Gramont

The Last September by Nina de Gramont was one of my favorite reads of the summer. It’s hard to describe – it’s about the demise of a passionate marriage, but it’s also a suspenseful murder mystery. Brett and Charlie meet through Charlie’s younger brother Eli when Eli and Brett are in college together. Brett falls deeply in love with Charlie, despite Eli’s warnings that he is a womanizer who can’t commit to a relationship. After one night together, Brett doesn’t hear from Charlie again. She tries to move on, getting engaged to another man, but runs across Charlie a few years later (ironically through her fiance) and is simply powerless to resist him.

Meanwhile, Eli is diagnosed with schizophrenia. Brett and Charlie marry and have a baby, but their marriage is always under the cloud of Eli’s disease – the ups and downs, the dangerous episodes and hospitalizations. And Brett remains deeply insecure about Charlie’s love, an insecurity that is proven justified when she discovers that he has had an affair.

The Last September opens with Charlie’s murder, and the rest of the book traces Brett and Charlie’s relationship and marriage. It also eventually deals with the question of who killed Charlie. The obvious choice is Eli, off his meds and out of control, but Brett isn’t so sure.

I really, really enjoyed The Last September. de Gramont’s writing is understated but beautifully detailed. Her characters are flawed people trying to make the best of a really awful situation, finely drawn and utterly realistic. I had a hard time putting this one down. Brett is a tough character to like, in a lot of ways – she’s impulsive and self-absorbed, willing to sacrifice anything to be with Charlie. But if you’ve ever been crazy in love and desperate to be with someone, then you can start to understand why Brett does what she does. I thought the first 4/5 of the book was absolutely perfect, and then took issue with some of Brett’s actions that seemed out of character. But in the end, I still really enjoyed it. There were enough plausible suspects for Charlie’s murder that I was left guessing until the very end.

The Last September also provides a heartbreaking glimpse into the sad effects of mental illness on the afflicted and their families.

Highly recommended for fans of domestic fiction and/or mysteries. The Last September is a beautifully written combination of both.

 

AFTER BIRTH by Elisa Albert

After Birth by Elisa Albert is a biting, raw book about motherhood, childbirth and friendship. Ari is a new mom with a year-old son who has recently relocated from Brooklyn to upstate NY with her academic husband. After Birth is really two books – one that focuses on Ari’s son’s birth and one that traces the relationships in her life from her childhood to the present. (She’s pretty angry about all of it.)

On motherhood, Ari is ambivalent, to say the least. She loves her son Walker, but she is physically and emotionally scarred from his birth, which was an unexpected C-section. She blames her doctor for rushing her into a C-section and cannot seem to get over it. She feels that both she and her baby were damaged by the birth and talks about it in incredibly angry, visceral terms. She also describes the days and months of new motherhood (during which she was clearly suffering from post-partum depression) and the isolation and loneliness that often accompany that period.

I found Ari’s anger a little much. I had 2 C-sections and I am not angry about them in the least. Yes, motherhood is challenging, especially in the early months. Yes, breastfeeding is really painful. No, people aren’t always sympathetic about how hard it can be to be a new mom. Yes, motherhood takes a toll on one’s professional ambition. I get all of that. I just had a hard time with the intensity of her anger. No one told her any of this before she had her baby?

On the relationships in her life, Ari got much more interesting. Her (really awful) mother, who died when she was in middle school, her judgmental Bridezilla cousin, the girls with whom she shared intense friendships and flameouts – Ari’s analysis of these women was pretty entertaining. I understood her anger here better than in the motherhood part. There’s a current friendship in the book – probably the closest After Birth gets to a plot – with Mina, a feminist former musician-now-poet who is temporarily living in town and who just had a baby.  Ari and Mina become fast friends when Ari helps Mina cope with her own hellish introduction into motherhood (in part by nursing Mina’s baby when Mina’s baby isn’t latching well). But Mina moves away before the book ends, so there’s no promise of a really lasting, redemptive relationship here.

After Birth is short on plot, long on anger and a bit of a slog to get through. A lot of reviewers have hailed it as a feminist manifesto on motherhood that addresses issues that too many women don’t speak out about. Ok, fine – I get it – but I didn’t really enjoy reading this book very much and had a hard time relating to quite a bit of it.

SUMMERLONG by Dean Bakopoulus

I’ve seen Summerlong by Dean Bakopoulos on many 2015 summer book lists – usually enjoying glowing reviews – and it was positively reviewed by a few sources I trust (Book Chatter and Ron Charles), so I decided to give it a go.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work for me.

Summerlong is about an odd love square (is that a thing?) that forms one hot summer in Grinnell, Iowa. Claire and Don are married, in their late 30s, and at a precipice in their marriage. Don, a realtor, has hidden their dire financial situation from his wife, and the two now face foreclosure on their house and an inevitable bankruptcy filing. Meanwhile, Charlie, an underemployed actor in his late 20s, is back in town to go through his father’s papers and prepare his house for sale after his father is moved to a nursing home with dementia. And ABC, a recent Grinnell graduate, has returned to her college town after the death of her best friend/lover, mired in grief.

One night, these characters interact in an unexpected way: Don comes across ABC lying in the grass, smoking pot, and joins her for an intimate but chaste evening of sleeping next to each other and getting stoned. Claire goes for a midnight run and meets Charlie in the parking lot of a convenience store, where they share an instant attraction. Over the course of the next 3 months, the characters couple off in a variety of combinations, sometimes consummating their attractions and sometimes not. Don and Claire’s marriage deteriorates until they decide to separate, while ABC floats along in her grief and depression and Charlie tries, unsuccessfully, to find his father’s missing manuscript and redeem his academic reputation.

I really didn’t like Summerlong.  I did appreciate some of the insights into marital harmony and middle age that Bakopoulos infused into Claire and Don’s relationship. But I found the other relationships unrealistic and strange, and I had a really hard time with most of the dialogue in the book. I don’t think people talk to each other in real life like they do in Summerlong. Claire and Don were blunt and sharp to the point of meanness – do most married people act like that to each other?

Lots of drugs, lots of sex. I don’t have a problem with that, but they became a crutch for the author. These characters didn’t have much to say to each other or a genuine attraction, so he just had them get stoned and hook up. Problem solved! There are also too many unlikely coincidences.

There’s a feisty old grandmother type who says it like it is and eventually saves some of these doomed characters. Meh.

Didn’t these characters have ANYONE else to hang out with other than the other three?

Don and Claire’s kids – didn’t THEY find the whole setup kind of weird?

Why is Claire so angry all the time? And why hasn’t she worked for the last 10 years? For a feminist New Yorker, she sure depends on her man to make everything better.

These questions plagued me as I read Summerlong. I just didn’t get it. I know I am in the minority on this one – people seem to love this book. It just made me angry.

A WINDOW OPENS by Elisabeth Egan

This is what I learned about Elisabeth Egan’s A Window Opens at a BEA Hot Fall Fiction panel: it’s about a middle-aged mother of three who loves books and has to juggle the competing demands of work and family when she goes back to work full-time at a company purporting to reinvent the bookstore experience.

Um, yes. I would like to read that.

Alice’s cushy life with a part-time job as a book reviewer for a magazine comes to an end when her husband doesn’t make partner at his New York law firm. They need money, so she finds herself a new full-time job working at Scroll, a startup division of a corporate mall developer who has set out to create a new bookstore in which ebooks and “carbon-based books” coexist among leather recliners and gluten-free snacks packaged in biodegradable containers. Alice is hired to help build relationships with publishers eager to get their upcoming books into Scroll’s stores. Off to Alice’s new job she goes, leaving her three kids in the care of her (excellent) babysitter and husband, who is starting to drink more heavily than he used to and whose hang-a-shingle law firm isn’t getting off the ground very quickly. Meanwhile, her father, who has already been through a bout of throat cancer, gets a very troubling medical diagnosis and her middle schooler is getting moodier and more withdrawn by the day.

You can see where this is going: stressed-out working mom gets embroiled in new job while things fall apart on the home front as she tries to do it all. While Alice was frustrating at times – she was clueless in a lot of ways, and seemed not to care that she was trampling over her husband – I could definitely relate to many of the challenges she faced. Scroll was a bit overblown, but I have worked at companies with a lot of millennials and I smiled in recognition at some of  the company’s policies and jargon-laden meetings and emails.

There’s an inconsistency in A Window Opens, as Egan pendulums between humor/parody and the more serious theme of losing a parent while struggling to be a good one yourself. I definitely liked the more serious parts of the book better than the lighter ones. There are a lot of I Don’t Know How She Does It books out there already, so the passages with more emotional heft felt fresher to me than the ones where Alice goes on her first business trip or has to run out of a meeting because her daughter is sick. Egan really nailed the poignant moments throughout the book, and those are the ones I will most remember.

Overall, I recommend A Window Opens despite its uneven tone. It’s entertaining, well-written and surprisingly moving.

A Window Opens comes out next week.

THE GRIND by Barry Svrluga

If you don’t like baseball, stop reading right now.

The Grind, by Washington Post sports reporter Barry Svrluga, is a collection of long articles about the 162-game baseball season, told through the prism of the Washington Nationals. The book opens in winter 2014 with an article about The Veteran, a longtime baseball player getting ready to start spring training. It then moves to The Wife, a chapter about what it’s like to try to raise a family when you’re married to a baseball player who is on the road so much of the year. Other chapters are devoted to baseball scouts, starting pitchers, the players who go back and forth from the majors to the minors, the players who seem to hold the team together, the guys who are in charge of getting all the players and equipment where they need to be (and so much more), relief pitchers and general managers. The book roughly covers the chronology of one year in the life of the baseball team, from winter 2014 to winter 2015.

If you’re a baseball fan, The Grind is a great read, and if you’re a Washington Nationals fan, The Grind is a must-read.

I have always enjoyed going to baseball games, and I’ve been a Nats fan since they came to DC, but in recent years I have become pretty much obsessed with the game and the Nats. I can’t get enough of them. So I loved reading The Grind. I got a lot of behind-the-scenes information, which I have always craved, and I loved hearing the different perspectives of the people that make up the team, even beyond players. I also came away with a new appreciation for the drudgery of the season. Yes, the players make it look fun, and it’s certainly an enviable career in so many ways – most make a ton of money doing something fun. But there are a lot of challenges, and it’s hard to stay focused and in shape for that many days on end, especially if you’re losing.

I loved The Grind. If you’ve read this far, you probably will too. Svrluga’s writing flows nicely and his journalistic style is perfect for the subject.

Svrluga was at Politics & Prose for a Q&A a few weeks ago. I was planning to write up the Q&A here, but it’s very Nats-focused so it might not have a wide appeal to this audience. :) Suffice it to say, it was a packed house and it went on well beyond the allotted hour. People have a lot to say about baseball!

MAMBO IN CHINATOWN by Jean Kwok

Jean Kwok’s first novel, Girl in Translation, told the story of Kimberly Chang, a Chinese immigrant living with her mother in Chinatown and trying to assimilate into an unfamiliar Western world of privilege

Kwok’s second novel, Mambo in Chinatown, addresses some similar themes. It’s about Charlie Wong, a woman in her early twenties living with her father and younger sister in Chinatown. She works alongside her father in a noodle shop washing dishes, but aspires to do anything else that would get her out of the restaurant. She was not a good student and has had a bad track record in other jobs, so she feels particularly stuck. Meanwhile, her 11 year-old sister Lisa, who is bright and engaged, has started developing some strange medical problems that are worrying Charlie and her father.

The novel takes off when Charlie applies for a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dancing school. Unexpectedly, she gets the job. She works as a receptionist until one of her mistakes causes an upcoming class to be left without an instructor available. With no other options, the school management decides that Charlie must teach the class. She gets a crash course in ballroom dancing, and her new life as a dance instructor is born.

Mambo in Chinatown is a gentle, slow-paced story about Charlie’s breaking away from her strict Chinese father and embracing a Western life, one that comes with showier clothes, non-Chinese men, and a lot of Latin rhythms. At the same time, she has to balance her new life and interests with looking after her sister and trying to unearth the problems behind Lisa’s troubling symptoms. She is very loyal to her father, a widower, and has many familial and societal expectations to live up to which come into conflict with her newly-discovered love of dancing.

I liked Mambo in Chinatown, though perhaps not as much as Girl in Translation. Where Kimberly was stubborn and focused, Charlie was at times frustratingly scattered and meek. I understood the tension she faced over the Eastern and Western forces in her life, but I thought some of it seemed a bit extreme. (Would no one – especially Charlie – have insisted that Lisa see a Western doctor?). I did enjoy the glimpses into life in Chinatown – the witch doctor, the tai chi instructor, the matchmaking – and was moved by the difficult economic circumstances that the Wongs were in, which prevented the family from enjoying almost any luxuries. I think dance is a hard thing to convey in writing, but Kwok did a good job of communicating what Charlie and her partner were doing without getting too mired in steps and dance terminology.

I listened to Mambo in Chinatown mostly on audio, and thought the narrator, Angela Lin, did a great job. She had good accents, particularly for Pa, and I liked her depiction of the different dance instructors. I wasn’t crazy about her voicing of Lisa, who was perhaps more whiny than necessary. But her voice overall was soothing and calm, which was a good match for Kwok’s tone and her style of writing.

Overall, Mambo in Chinatown was an enjoyable and memorable read. I am a big fan of Kwok’s, and will read anything she writes!

Q&A

Q&A with Hilary Liftin, author of MOVIE STAR BY LIZZIE PEPPER

A few days ago, I reviewed Hilary Liftin’s new novel, Movie Star By Lizzie Pepper. Hilary was gracious enough to answer some questions I had for her about writing the book.

mail_image_preview-180x180Q: How much of your affinity for writing can you attribute to your role as Features Editor of The Discus (our high school newspaper)?

HL: Well, all I can really say is that it was when working for The Discus that I first began to understand that nobody thinks I’m as funny as I think I am.

Q: I read that you knew nothing about writing fiction before Movie Star By Lizzie Pepper. How hard was it to develop the plot structure and the pacing of the novel without having done it before?

HL: I had never tried my hand at fiction, but I read enough (and was an English major, etc.) so at least I had a sense of what I wanted to achieve. Also, when I ghostwrite memoirs, I’m always thinking about the narrative structure and pacing–it’s just that I’m limited by the real stories and timeline of my clients’ lives. So in part I relished the freedoms of fiction–I could create a story to live up to my ideals. On the other hand, I had to create it. That was the part that was most new to me. I’m used to writing celebrity books on a tight deadline. I had to slow down and try to develop the skill of actually having ideas out of thin air. It’s a muscle I haven’t exercised much.

Q: You and I share a love of candy. What do you eat while you’re writing?

HL: I wrote most of this book at the charming chain restaurant, Le Pain Quotidien, where I could drink green tea refills punctuated with obscene helpings of their proprietary version of Nutella. Which is basically candy.

Q: Do you have a preference between writing fiction and non-fiction?

HL: The non-fiction books I do are more fun and in some way less challenging because, as I suggested above, the material is mostly handed to me. They are easier and I pretty much have endless energy for them. Fiction is more grueling for me, but having freedom and control — and being involved through publication — has been fun in a different way. I just don’t think I could ever be as prolific at fiction, but it’s been a very exciting shift.

Q: (spoiler ahead) I thought the saddest part of Movie Star By Lizzie Pepper was when Lizzie found Emil’s scripts in Rob’s office.  Did you base that element of the story on something you’d read elsewhere, or was that your creation?

HL: That element of the story has no basis in fact. In fact, I have to say that even though it’s one of my favorite parts of the book, the idea actually came from a friend of mine, Esta, who thought of it for me in a spin class. What a gift that was! As a professional collaborator, I have no shame in sharing the credit where it’s due! All writers should have friends like Esta. Or we should all spin.

Q: How do you think Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper would have been received if Tom Cruise had never married Katie Holmes? Do we as readers need to project this story onto real life people that we can picture or is a good story a good story regardless of its origin?

HL: If we weren’t fascinated with celebrity culture in general, I never would have written this book. It’s fiction–I don’t think we need to feel like this is or is meant to represent actual people–but so much of it is about fame, how it looks from the outside versus how it feels from the inside, that I think you have to have some level of curiosity about that notion to get drawn into the book.

Q: I love that Stevie Nicks is one of your dream ghostwriting clients. I think those rock stars approaching their 60s must have incredible stories to tell. (I decided I needed to write a book about a reuniting girls’ rock band after seeing the Go-Gos in concert last summer). Who else’s memoir would you like to pen?

HL: There are a few older stars whom I don’t think have done books–Barbra Streisand! Bruce Springsteen!–and of course there’s Caitlyn Jenner. I’m really open to anyone who has a story with interesting turns that have never been fully explained.

Q: Talk about your writing process. Lots of drafts? Or do you get it right the first time? How much did you cut out before the book was finished?

HL: I threw away chunks that weren’t working as I went–it’s hard to say how much, I don’t know, sixty pages? I’m also a big editor. I move and add whole chapters, paragraphs, sentences. Thank God for word processing. My husband, who is also a writer, did a very heavy edit over a three-day weekend that was supposed to be half-vacation but ended up being all work. And, finally, I love tightening prose, and I did that endless times with this book. I was finding things I wanted to fix up until the very end. I wrote very apologetic letters to my editor and did everything I could to persuade her that I was sane.

Q: Finally, when will you be in DC next and will you sign my book?

HL: I don’t know when I’m next coming to DC! But I’d be delighted to send you a signed copy.