THE AFTER PARTY, by Anton DiSclafani

9781594633164The After Party is a buzzy book this spring, one that I’ve seen on a few “Summer Must Read” lists, and I jumped at the chance to get the audio version a few weeks ago. I never read DiSclafani’s earlier novel, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls, but had heard great things about it.

The After Party takes place in the mid-1950s in Houston, and it is about two women: CeCe Buchanan, the narrator, and Joan Fortier, her best friend. CeCe and Joan grew up together, inseparable. CeCe always admired Joan’s wealth and beauty, but felt she fell short on both counts. When CeCe was fifteen, her mother was diagnosed with cancer and passed away. Her father had moved out of the house earlier to be with another woman, so CeCe moved into Joan’s huge house and was supported by Joan’s parents until she reached adulthood and married.

The After Party is about the strange, tortured relationship between CeCe and Joan, which followed a similar pattern: Joan acted out, CeCe tried to tame and protect her, Joan pushed CeCe away, Joan left for some significant period of time, Joan returned without warning and Joan kept CeCe at arm’s length but permitted just enough closeness to keep CeCe in her life, but always wanting more. This pattern continued for years. CeCe got married and had a son, but Joan was always a looming presence – or absence – in her life. The book is about CeCe’s coming to terms with this imperfect friendship, and her ultimate understanding of why Joan acted the way she did.

So here are my issues with The After Party:

  • CeCe was frustratingly inconsistent. She’d insist that she didn’t care about Joan anymore, that she was through with her, and that she loved her husband and son more than anything, and then a paragraph later she’d contradict herself. I understand that this was DiSclafani’s way of conveying Joan’s power over CeCe, but it was frustrating as a reader.
  • I didn’t buy into the Joan Fortier mystique. She was self-centered and not a particularly supportive friend. I did understand why CeCe felt so indebted to Joan (I won’t spoil that here in the review), but why she was so enthralled, I don’t know. This is the type of friendship that runs its course when people grow up.
  • The book needed more editing. There were certain phrases that were repeated over and over. Aside from my eventual fatigue with hearing the name “Joan” so many times, I also grew tired of hearing CeCe say the same things. Perhaps she was trying to convince herself that she was happy in her life? Whatever the reason, the book needed another good read-through with a red pen.

That said, I do think DiSclafani is a good writer, the repetition aside. She expertly conveyed CeCe’s loneliness and her anxiety about her young son, who had not spoken a single word well into his 3s. There were two chapters that I found incredibly moving: when CeCe’s mother was dying, and when CeCe meets up with her childhood nanny, ten years later. Those two chapters were excellent. I also liked the author’s depiction of high society Houston in the 1950s, and how it trapped women into certain roles and expectations.

But I was angry by the time I finished The After Party – angry at CeCe and angry at the book. My friend Nicole called it “claustrophobic”, which is a perfect description for it.

I listened to The After Party on audio. I thought the narrator, Dorothy Dillingham Blue, did an excellent job. I loved her Texas accent. (It’s not her fault that I had to hear the name Joan so many times!) I would definitely recommend the audio if you want to give The After Party a try.

THE HEART by Maylis de Kerangal

613bnEcJUxL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal follows one day – 24 hours – in the life of a heart.

One Saturday at dawn, 19 year-old Simon Limbres goes surfing with his friends on a beach in France. En route back home, the driver falls asleep and crashes into a guardrail, instantly rendering Simon brain-dead. What follows from there in de Kerangal’s gorgeous novel is the path that leads from the heart still beating in Simon’s chest to its transplant into a recipient 24 hours later.

The Heart is a meticulous, moving depiction of organ donation from many perspectives: the doctor who declares the donor dead, the donor’s family, the organ coordination nurse, the surgeons who participate in the organ removal, and the recipient. This is not an easy book; it is at times extremely painful and sad, not to mention bloody. But it is also fascinating. Do organs take with them anything of their original owners – their memories, their personality? How does one convince a family to allow their deceased loved one to donate their organs in the absence of a specific directive, when they are awash in new, raw grief? What is it like to receive an organ that was in another person’s body just four hours earlier?

I have always been interested in organ donation, and when I saw The Heart written up in The Washington Post, I knew I wanted to read it. It was very informative, especially on the medical front. But I had no idea it would be so beautifully written. The Heart is translated from the French by Sam Taylor, but even in English it is just a gorgeous book. I love how de Kerangal changes perspectives so fluidly, and her descriptions are exquisite. This is not a book to skim or absorb quickly! It should be savored, each word treasured and digested.

Heartbreaking: Simon’s mother, when deciding whether to allow the harvesting of his organs, thinking about his heartbeat through various stages of his childhood: “Simon’s heart, a round belly rising gently at the bottom of a portable crib; the bird of night terrors flapping distraught inside a child’s chest; the staccato drumbeat syncopated with Anakin Skywalker’s destiny; the riff under the skin when the first wave rises – feel my pecs, he said to her one evening…”.

I loved The Heart, even if I didn’t race through it or stay up late to finish it. I suspect it will be one of my standout reads of 2016.

 

RED THREAD SISTERS by Carol Antoinette Peacock

51V1x2hEuoL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Our May mother-daughter book club read was Red Thread Sisters by Carol Antoinette Peacock. I’ve always been interested in Chinese adoption, so I was excited to add this title to our reading list.

Red Thread Sisters is about two Chinese girls who are best friends growing up in an orphanage. Wen was abandoned at age 6 by her family at the orphanage after her father lost his job and they couldn’t afford to keep two children, while Shu Lin was left at the orphanage as a baby because of a deformed foot. While the two often dream of being adopted, in the end, it is only Wen who is picked by an American family. When the book opens, Wen is meeting her adoptive family for the first time and having to say goodbye to Shu Lin.

Wen moves to the Boston area and tries to get used to life with her new parents and at her American school. She has a lot of trouble trusting that her parents will keep her and that she won’t be sent back to China if something goes wrong. Wen tries to reciprocate her younger sister’s affection, but she doesn’t know how to be a member of a family, or how to express love for someone other than Shu Lin. Meanwhile, she misses her best friend terribly, and feels guilty that she is in America living a comfortable, privileged life while Shu Lin is still at the orphanage.

Before she left, Wen promised Shu Lin that she would find her a family in the United States. She soon realizes that that is a hard promise to fulfill. At first, she tries to talk her new parents into adopting Shu-Ling too, without understanding how big of a commitment an adoption is. She then starts to learn more about the adoption process and how she can help Shu Lin’s chances of being adopted.

Red Thread Sisters prompted a good discussion among the group about girls in China, international adoption and the challenges of being integrated into a new family. We also talked about friendship and responsibility, and whether Wen should have made her promise to Shu Lin. The girls liked the book – it held their interest and they felt compassion for the characters. We all agreed that there wasn’t enough detail in the book: Wen seemed to have little problem understanding what was happening at school, and the months just seemed to fly by with no sense of her daily life in America. She was also pretty inconsiderate of her adoptive parents’ feelings, but that was in part due to her inability to connect emotionally.

Overall, Red Thread Sisters was a good perspective-broadening book, even if it wasn’t the best-written book we read this year. It led to a robust discussion between the girls and mothers, and that’s usually the sign of a good book club book.

BEA 2016 Wrapup

Life has gotten busy the last few weeks, but I was able to spend 36 hours in Chicago last week for BEA 2016. The annual publishing industry conference has been in New York for the last several years, but they decided to move it to Chicago this year to make it easier for booksellers located outside of NY to attend. As a result, there were fewer people, fewer parties, and fewer books at the show, but it was still a good time.

I missed the first half-day, but landed early on Thursday and made it to the conference center before the floor opened. I spent most of Thursday and Friday running around picking up galleys, getting autographs, attending sessions, and generally obsessing over books. Nicole of Readerly and I made a spreadsheet beforehand of the books we wanted and the times they were coming out, so we were pretty organized and got almost all of the books on our list, thanks to some teamwork and coordination.

We also went to a Sourcebooks party at the top of the John Hancock building on Thursday night. The views were unbelievable.

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Here’s my haul.

Adult books:

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Middle grade books:

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I also got new books for my almost 4-year old son from his favorite authors – Carson Ellis, David Shannon and Rosemary Wells. He was very happy when I brought them home for him.

I am most excited about Carolyn Parkhurst’s Harmony, Brit Bennett’s The Mothers, Noah Hawley’s Before The Fall, Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko and Uaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. (But they all look pretty good.)

All in all, I thought that the quality of the books coming out this fall was very high. Lots of highly anticipated titles from big names as well as debut authors. There wasn’t as much wattage at the show in terms of celebrities, but the books look great. And that’s what we were there for!

So that’s where I’ve been. Over the next few days I have a middle grade book to review, a Curtis Sittenfeld Q&A to post, and hopefully a book (The Heart) to finish.

THE TWO-FAMILY HOUSE by Lynda Cohen Loigman

91-3B6rcodLWhen you blog about books, every now and again a friend will ask you if it would be OK if their friend, who has just written a book, sends you a copy of their book to take a look at. At first, you might resist, thinking about the piles of books you haven’t gotten to yet, and wondering if it will be worth the time and effort. Well, in my experience, it is usually worth it. I’ve read and reviewed several books that were recommended to me by friends of the author – such as When Love Was Clean Underwear by Susan Barr-Toman and The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. by Nicole Bernier – which I have really enjoyed.

The most recent addition to this list is The Two-Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman, which my friend Tracy told me about. The Two Family House tracks two families – connected by two brothers – who live above and below each other in a two-family house in Brooklyn in the 40s. Mort and Abe own a box company, and Mort, his wife Rose and his three daughters live below Abe, his wife Helen and their four sons. It’s all very cozy until Rose and Helen get pregnant at the same time. After their babies are born, for complicated reasons, the two women drift apart, causing reverberations through both families that have implications for years to come.

Loigman’s story is engrossing, realistic and suspenseful. She writes in simple, engaging prose that conveys her characters’ emotions and personalities with skill and subtlety. (Did I mention this is a debut novel?) I grew to care about the characters and how they fared as the years passed. I also enjoyed the shifting narration, which Loigman used to her advantage to share different perspectives on the same events. There are some plot twists that are somewhat implausible, but they certainly make for a good story. There are moments of sadness and poignancy in The Two-Family House which will stay with me a long time.

I listened to The Two-Family House on audio, and I didn’t love that version. The narrator, Barrie Kreinik, used some pretty strong Brooklyn Jewish accents that I found ultimately distracting. She did a good job of consistently differentiating the various characters, but I still found the accents a little off-putting. I think I would have preferred reading the print version straight through.

If you like engrossing family dramas with shifting perspectives, particularly those set in the past, then I think you’ll like The Two-Family House. Give it a try. Congrats to Lynda Cohen Loigman on a great debut!

DAYS OF AWE by Lauren Fox

9780307268129Days of Awe by Lauren Fox is one of the best books I have read so far in 2016.

Isabel Moore is a fortysomething teacher in Wisconsin facing loss on a number of levels. Her best friend Josie died a year ago in a car accident. Her marriage has fallen apart and her husband Chris has moved out. Her daughter Hannah has hit adolescence and is pulling away. And she’s still grieving a series of miscarriages that denied her the second child she always wanted. Sounds like a real downer, huh? Parts of it are very, very sad. Izzy’s grief is so real, and its debilitating effect on her life is pervasive and relentless.

But I loved Days of Awe. First, Fox is a beautiful writer. The plot meanders from present to past frequently and fluidly, layering in Izzy’s memories of her funny, complicated best friend and her happy marriage with the much bleaker reality she is currently living. This is not a book to skim or race through, but rather one to savor so as not to miss a single of Fox’s words. She has a very keen eye for little details that make her scenes so perfect that you feel like you are living them.

Second, Izzy is so sarcastic and funny that even though she has flaws and makes mistakes, I just loved her. I want to hang out with her. (I figure Lauren Fox must be equally as funny and sarcastic as her heroine – how can a writer not be as funny as her funny characters? She came up with their jokes.)

Ultimately Days of Awe about the unexpected ways in which our lives can change – suddenly, gradually, with or without our involvement – and how to come to terms with those changes. It’s sad but so poignant. I just loved this book!

Go read it.

PS. I should have known I would like this book when I saw that it was blurbed by Christina Baker Kline, Jennifer Close and J. Courtney Sullivan!!

NOOKIETOWN by V.C. Chickering

download (26)I have been putting off writing this review of Nookietown by V.C. Chickering for several days, mostly because I am not sure where I stand on the book. While some parts of it were entertaining, some parts were enraging, and I felt like I had to collect my thoughts on it before I wrote them down.

Here’s the premise: in a suburban New Jersey town, a bunch of married women friends sat at dinner one night complaining about having to keep up with their husbands’ sex drives. They were tired, they said, and just weren’t up to having to satisfy their husband’s needs. Meanwhile, the one divorced woman at the table, Lucy, complained about the opposite problem: not having a man in her life to sleep with. Then came the inevitable peanut butter-and-chocolate epiphany – why not have Lucy sleep with one of the husbands so that the wife doesn’t have to? Then everyone would be satisfied.

Lucy, incredulous at first, warms to the idea and makes an “appointment” with her friend Nancy’s husband Ted. The appointment goes so well that Nancy and Lucy decide to go into business, matching up sexually frustrated husbands with needy divorcees. There are a lot of rules – no money can change hands (but the divorcees enjoy all sorts of perks like free yardwork, homemade meals, and good deals on cars); no one can get emotionally involved; no one can get pregnant. The business takes off, and by the middle of the book, all of the people enrolled in The Program are walking around happy and harmonious.

What could go wrong? Well, a million things, and of course they do, and the second half of the book is about Lucy trying to put the pieces of her life together after it implodes.

So here’s what’s good about Nookietown. It can be pretty funny, and there are lots of wry observations about suburban married life, dating after divorce, and, of course, sex. It’s thought-provoking, for sure. And it’s a pretty breezy read. It certainly made my commute go by faster.

Yet Nookietown also me angry. Chickering tries really, really hard to establish that what Lucy and the other divorcees is doing is not prostitution, and that they are in control and in fact benefiting just as much as the wives and husbands. But Lucy – who vacillates between wounded ex-wife, devoted mother, oversexed woman-on-the-prowl, and single woman with low self esteem – ultimately turned into a pretty anti-feminist woman. She was passive, letting things happen to her without much affirmation or choice, or even the realization that she could say no. On the other, she jumped into The Program with desperation to be with someone (anyone!), which bothered me. She didn’t have much respect for herself, and she didn’t have much respect for the men she was with either. She was insecure around the few available (single) men, dismissive of the married men in the program, and oh, I forgot to mention the married man she was involved with while all of this was going on… AND her desire to have another baby!

Sigh.

I think you probably know by now whether this book appeals to you or not. It can be a funny, interesting read at times, but it can also be irritating at the same time. There is also a lot of sex in this book so if you’re not comfortable with that, then don’t read it.

I listened to Nookietown on audio. The narrator, Julia Duvall, was very good. I kept wondering what she must have been thinking as she recorded the audio.  I guess if you’re an audiobook narrator who performs a lot of romance novels (which she appears to do), you get used to it.

Mixed bag, Nookietown was. Still glad I read it.