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.

 

INNOCENTS AND OTHERS by Dana Spiotta

9781501122729 (1)Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others is a hot book these days, so I thought I’d give it a try and grabbed it from the library. It’s the story of three women: Meadow and Carrie – both filmmakers, who were best friends growing up in LA – and Jelly, a woman living in upstate New York who contacted powerful men in Hollywood as a hobby and engaged in longterm phone relationships with them under an assumed name. (Jelly is based on a real-life woman named Miranda Grosvenor (not her real name) who engaged in similar catfishing of famous men.) Innocents and Others tracks Meadow and Carrie’s careers and friendship, and weaves in Jelly’s story so that it intersects with Meadow’s as well.

Here’s what Innocents and Others has:

-A close female friendship where both women work in the same field, with the expected ups and downs, jealousies and betrayals, but abiding love and respect

-A fascinating look at a woman who is so afraid of real connection that she spends her days hiding behind a fake identity and living through the movies

-An exploration of the responsibility of a filmmaker to pass judgment on her subject (or at least acknowledge wrongdoing). Is it wrong, for example, for a documentarian to focus on the perpetrators of massive crimes against humanity (Argentine executioners who adopted the children of their victims) rather than on the victims, to try to understand who they were?

-A variety of narrative devices, such as transcripts, lists of movies, interviews, essays

-A lot about movies and the study of filmmaking

I mostly enjoyed reading Innocents and Others, but it’s also one of those books that made me feel like I wasn’t smart enough to really get it. Maybe it was the passages about the history of cinema or the mechanics of filmmaking – those are not areas I know a lot about and I ended up skimming a fair amount of them. But I did enjoy the rest of it. I like Spiotta’s writing – a little detached but wonderfully detailed about the things that matter. Unsurprisingly, I enjoyed the parts about friendship and connection more than those about filmmaking.

I went to a reading by Spiotta last week at Politics & Prose here in DC in the hopes that hearing her speak would enhance my understanding of the book, and it did. Here’s what she had to say:

-What does she like about writing? Having questions and trying to figure them out through writing. Just like reading, writing brings joy when you feel the self go away and you can imagine other experiences and have connections, even if you’re making them yourself.

Innocents and Others is full of connections and discovery through the imaginary and the observational.

-Jelly, Meadow and Claire are all strange women. Reading fiction can make our own experiences more clear (?).

-Spiotta is interested in outdated technologies, like landlines. How funny that you would pick up the phone and there would be a stranger there! We hate the phone now – there is something intimate and intrusive about being called on the phone rather than being texted. Using landlines in the book established a “slight location to the recent past” so that we could see it more clearly and precisely.

Innocents and Others also follows the theme of listening vs looking (phone vs film). Spiotta wanted to explore “the tyranny of the visual”, where what you’re saying doesn’t matter, but what you’re seeing that wins out. The power of the image overrides other senses.

-About the three plots in the book: Spiotta knew the stories would intersect, she just wasn’t sure when. She doesn’t like to write in a big line; she jumps from thing to thing as she’s going through. The rhythm of the novel comes from switching the stories around.

In the end, I liked Innocents and Others a lot and am glad I read it. (Just feel free to skim the filmmaking stuff if you’re not getting it.)

THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins

(I had some tech issues with my blog this week, but I’m back in business now. Phew.)

41bOj-am1RL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Our April mother-daughter book club read was The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. (Perhaps you’ve heard of it?) Yes, I managed to make it until 2016 without reading this juggernaut of a book, which is the first of a best-selling trilogy and a blockbuster movie that pretty much everyone other than me has seen. I decided to include it in the mother-daughter book club list this year because my daughters had been asking about reading it, and I figured that I would read it with them.

The Hunger Games takes place in a dystopian future. What was once North America is now a country called Panem, which is made up of a Capitol surrounded by twelve districts. The Capitol keeps the districts in line through controlled deprivation and an annual event called The Hunger Games. In the Games, each district sends a boy and a girl to compete in a televised fight-to-the-death in which only competitor can survive. In District 12, a sixteen year-old named Katniss volunteers to compete when her younger sister’s name is drawn in the lottery – the ultimate sacrifice.

The Hunger Games is a stressful book. As a reader, you feel the ever-present brutality of the Games on every page. Some of the deaths are pretty gruesome. But the violence, while considerable, is manageable, at least in book form. Katniss is a formidable heroine – smart, physically strong and stoic. One of the main themes of the book is her relationship with the other competitor from District 12 – Peeta. She and Peeta ultimately decide to work together to help each other stay alive, and concoct a plan to ensure that they don’t have to try to kill each other at the end. The question, of course, is whether Peeta and Katniss can garner enough viewer and sponsor support to make it through the Games, and whether The Capitol will be persuaded by their story to allow them each to live.

I am impressed with Suzanne Collins’ ability to conjure this bleak society yet make it feel like a place that we can relate to today. The reality TV/mass entertainment aspect of the Games really hit home for me and made me embarrassed for the hours of reality TV I’ve watched over the years. While people may hate the Games and what they represent, they tune in and watch. Their allegiances and reactions impact the outcome, which is partially in the hands of the Gamemakers. How much has reality TV anesthetized us to violence and danger in the name of entertainment?

I found The Hunger Games more stressful than my daughters did. They really liked it, and picked up the sequels immediately upon finishing it. I have a hard time with any book in which kids’ lives are in danger, so this one ranked high up there in the stressful/disturbing camp for me. My daughters didn’t have as hard a time with the violence. Maybe it seemed too unrealistic to them?

We had a good discussion of the book at our meeting – we covered a lot of questions, including several about loyalty, strategy and what the girls would do if they were in the same situation at Katniss. We also discussed Peeta and Katniss’ relationship (was it for real?) and The Capitol’s motivation in holding the Games every year.

I’m glad I read The Hunger Games and will likely take a look at the sequels and the movies too. I can understand why it has done so well.

 

I WILL ALWAYS WRITE BACK by Martin Ganda and Caitlyn Alifirenka

Our March mother-daughter book club read was I Will Always Write Back by Martin Ganda and Caitlyn Alifirenka. It was a rare non-fiction pick for the group, but I think it was one of the most-liked books so far this year.

When Caitlin Stoicsitz was 7th grader in suburban Pennsylvania, she was assigned a pen pal in Zimbabwe to correspond with named Martin Ganda. This random assignment turned out to be life-changing for both Caitlyn and Matin. Their correspondence, at first rather sporadic, grew increasingly more substantive, as Martin gradually revealed to Caitlyn just how poor his family was. He eventually explained that he was forced to drop out of school because his family couldn’t afford the fees, and shared some details about the home in which he lived (two adults and four children in one room, with only one bed and no shoes). Caitlyn, a typical self-absorbed and relatively spoiled American teenager, was shocked by what she heard from Martin, and started sending him her babysitting money in the form of $20 bills.

Well, those $20 bills were frequently enough to pay Martin’s fees and make a serious difference for Martin’s family. Caitlyn and Martin grew to care a lot about each other, and Caitlyn got her family involved after confessing that she had been sending him cash through the mail. Meanwhile, Martin’s family situation got more desperate as Zimbabwe’s economy deteriorated and his father lost his job.

I Will Always Write Back is about the difference that Caitlyn and her family made in Martin’s life, ultimately paving the way for him to go to college in America. It’s also about the importance of understanding different cultures and having your eyes open about how other people live. Caitlyn was continually amazed by the hardships and deprivations suffered by Martin’s family, while he was amazed by Caitlyn’s American lifestyle.

I Will Always Write Back is a great book for middle schoolers. The writing is pretty simple, and kids have a lot to learn from Martin and his drive to learn and succeed. The book also prompted a good conversation among the girls about what they would have done in Caitlyn’s shoes. How much would they have done for Martin? Did they think their parents would have helped the way Caitlyn’s did? Is it better to help one person, or try to contribute to a school or another cause in Africa?

This was perspective-broadening book that put global income disparity into sharp relief for kids. Our book club is now looking into ways to raise funds to similarly situated kids in Africa, and I’ve already had a few conversations with my daughters about ways that they can help. Readers might be a little bored by the repetition in the letters (and frustrated with some of Caitlyn’s letters about parties and fights with friends), but I Will Always Write Back was overall a very worthwhile read.

PERFECTLY BROKEN by Robert Burke Warren

Perfectly Broken by Robert Burke Warren is a debut novel about Beth and Grant, a couple who leaves New York City after 9/11 when Beth loses her job at a magazine. Grant, whose days as a rock star are behind him, has been staying home with their 4 year-old son Evan, growing increasingly numb, medicated and depressed. With no income to pay the rent on their East Village apartment, they reluctantly move upstate, where they move into a farmhouse owned by their best friends, Christa and Trip.

Perfectly Broken is raw and gritty, full of flawed characters grappling with midlife and its attendant stresses – professional failures, parenting struggles and anxiety. They are on drugs, but their drugs are the prescription type – antidepressants and sleeping pills. There is simmering tension between most of these unhappy characters, tension that surfaces in the climax of the novel during a dramatic storm. Grant and Beth are forced to confront some secrets in their marriage, while Christa and Trip’s relationship implodes, ignited by Christa’s drunken tirade.

I know this all sounds really depressing, and some of it is, but Warren is a funny, observant writer who has added a nice entry to the oeuvre of contemporary dad fiction. (See also Fathermucker by Greg Olear, Domestic Violets by Matthew Norman and pretty much anything by Jonathan Tropper). I loved the rock elements of the book, from Grant’s jealousy about others’ hits to the role that music plays in his life and relationships. I also loved the little details and observations in Warren’s writing – he has a very sharp eye. I felt like I was in the room right next to these characters as the action unfolded.

There is a lot of pain in Perfectly Broken, but also hope, as these characters try to confront their issues and figure out how to leave their pasts behind and move on. One character quotes Lily Tomlin: “Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.” I think that’s a good theme for this book. Accepting our imperfect pasts, as hard as it is, is the best way to move on to a better future.

I don’t usually participate in blog tours, but TLC Book Tours reached out to me about Perfectly Broken, thinking I would like it, and they were right. I’m glad I read it.

AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE by Helen Ellis


41AFpxXA1KL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_American Housewife
 by Helen Ellis is a pretty dark collection of stories about, yes, American housewives. Some are writers, some just stay home, but most of them are sort of disturbed, but in a funny, wry way.

There’s one story about the wife of a bra fitter, who is so good at what he does that women come from great distances just to meet with him. The wife, who ironically has breast cancer, finds herself fending off women who fall for The Fitter when they see how he’s transformed their bodies.

Another story is about a Manhattan book club that turns out to be a mechanism for older, infertile women to find surrogates among younger book club recruits.

Another is about a novelist whose second novel is sponsored by Tampax, a corporation that becomes more evil and manipulative by the page.

What connects these stories is the subversive undercurrent that courses through these seemingly acceptable lives. The evil Tampax, who takes corporate sponsorship to extremes. The string of dead doormen in a fancy New York City apartment, killed by the wife of the co-op board president. These poor women here are trapped by others’ expectations and demands – the wife of The Fitter, the Tampax novelist, the co-op board wife – and are left fighting to held on to their men and their livelihoods. It’s pretty dark. But through it all, Ellis is keenly observant and quite entertaining. Even when some of her stories got absurd, I found myself laughing throughout the book.

My favorite story is “Dumpster Diving With The Stars”, about a rather obscure novelist who ends up on a reality competition show where celebrities compete to scoop up deals on antiques and collectibles across the country. It’s very entertaining if you’re a reality competition show fan.

There are a few very short chapters as well, most of which are compilations of lists and observations. My favorite is the translation of what Southern women say vs. what they mean.

American Housewife is a quick read, but it’s funny and memorable. Not every story works, but most of them do.  And you have to love a writer who opens her book with this quote and mentions “Sixteen Candles” on the first page:

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I listened to American Housewife on audio. It was narrated by four women: Kathleen McInerney, Lisa Cordileone, Rebecca Lowman and Dorothy Dillingham Blue. I recognize McInerney and Lowman from other audiobooks I’ve listened to, and I think Lowman was my favorite narrator here. She performed “Dumpster Diving With The Stars”, and I loved her spare, unemotional delivery. Perfect for the absurdity inherent in the stories. The other narrators were strong too, especially the one with the perfect Southern accent.

Check out this interview with Ellis from The Frisky.

AFTER YOU by Jojo Moyes

Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You was a big hit when it came out a few years ago, and I really liked it too. It’s the story of Louisa Clark, a working-class young woman in England who is hired to take care of a wealthy paraplegic named Will. Louisa and Will develop an improbable friendship that deepens into something romantic, but Louisa loses him when he goes through with his plan to take his own life. (Incidentally, Me Before You is being turned into a movie – watch the trailer here).

Presumably at her fans’ urging, Moyes decided to revisit Louisa and wrote a sequel to Me Before You called After You, which picks up about a year and a half after Will’s death. Louisa has used the money Will left her to travel through Europe and buy a flat in London. But she’s still adrift, grieving his loss and toiling at a dead-end job as a bartender at an airport restaurant. One night, she returns home after a long night at work, and, while standing on her roof terrace, loses her footing and falls down one story to the balcony below. Louisa’s fall brings on the next stage of her life: a reconciliation with her family (after an estrangement due to her role in Will’s death), the introduction of someone from Will’s past, and a grief recovery group that leads Louisa to a possible love interest.

I enjoyed After You. The pacing is perfect (has this book been optioned yet?) and the characters are fresh and real. Sure, the writing and characters are sometimes cliched – Louisa’s family and her grief support group are textbook “quirky” – but Louisa is a compelling character to follow. She is relatable and self-deprecating, and you want good things to happen for her. Her romance has some ups and downs, and the emotional core of the book – Louisa’s relationship with the figure from Will’s past – is similarly bumpy. So while things don’t just sail along, this is classic Moyes territory – you have a general sense that everything will mostly turn out OK.

Is After You as good as Me Before You? No. It doesn’t pack the emotional punch of its predecessor. But it does take a look at grief from a number of perspectives, showing how the loss of someone you love can impact many facets of your life, with reverberations extending years past their death. And again, it’s classic Moyes – a satisfying page-turner.

I listened to After You on audio. The narrator, Anna Acton, was just perfect. Her precise British accent and her ability to moderate her voice to cover all of Louisa’s emotional states (insecurity, sadness, anger, lust) – they added up to a really good audio experience. Her voice was vaguely familiar to me, but I can’t find anything that she narrated that I’ve listened to before. I found myself eager to get back in the car so that I could resume listening to the audiobook – always the sign of a good book AND performance.