Author Archives: gayle

THE GRAYBAR HOTEL by Curtis Dawkins

The Graybar Hotel is a collection of stories by Curtis Dawkins, a convict in Michigan who is serving a life sentence. The stories revolve around many dimensions of prison life: the monotony, the close proximity to a rotating series of cellmates, the capriciousness of guards and wardens, the hours on end spent regretting and rethinking, and the attempts, often futile, to cling to one’s few diversions and possessions. Dawkins has an MFA, as evidenced by his strong writing, command of detail and compelling storytelling. The stories are powerful and disturbing, as they reveal perspectives on prison that people on the outside rarely see or even think about.

One story is about the physical transition from a jail to a prison, with the inmates in the transport wondering whether life will be better at the next place. Another is about one prisoner who’s a compulsive liar, but who gets his revenge when his cellmate calls him out on the lies. Another shows how much two baseball teams mean to an inmate – his beloved Detroit Tigers, whose games he watches every night, and the baseball team he creates within the prison until a prison fight puts an ends to their games.

There isn’t a lot of violence or tension; rather it’s the tedium of life in prison and the loneliness of the inmates that make the biggest impression. Friendships are fleeting, because prisoners are often moved without warning. Yet these men are in the closest of quarters, thrust into situations that they have no control over and often must suffer through with no relief.

That Dawkins is himself an inmate who has undoubtedly lived through most of these experiences makes The Graybar Hotel even more poignant. Dawkins doesn’t excuse his actions or blame anyone else for his situation. He has found an outlet and a purpose in writing about his experience, and I hope that it brings him some solace to know that there are readers out there who are hearing his voice. The Graybar Hotel is difficult to read at times, but it was illuminating and quite moving.

THE MISFORTUNE OF MARION PALM by Emily Culliton

So, someone in my neighborhood was recently found to have embezzled $35K over the last two years from the school-parent association at my son’s elementary school while serving as treasurer. I don’t know her – I don’t even know who she is, or even if she’s a she – but this development may have accelerated the rise of The Misfortune Of Marion Palm up my TBR list. Emily Culliton’s novel is about Marion Palm, a woman living in Brooklyn who goes on the lam after embezzling $180k from her daughters’ school.

This is an odd book. The story is told in a series of short chapters, told in the alternating viewpoints of Marion, her daughters Ginny and Jane, her husband Nathan, some of the people who work at the school and a detective who is investigating Marian’s departure. There is not a single likable character in this book, nor are they even relatable. Marion is oddly cold and unfeeling, admitting easily that she doesn’t miss her children after going underground. Nathan, her husband, is pretty pathetic until he launches a lifestyle blog about being a single dad, and then he’s just an opportunist. The daughters are cold and weird (and we see a glimpse of their future and it isn’t particularly bright). The school board members are gossipy and self-absorbed.

Culliton DID do a decent job of exploring how Marian started with the embezzling – and why she stuck with it – which was of course why I wanted to read the book. So that was satisfying. But I found the process of reading The Misfortune Of Marion Palm quite a slog. I wasn’t rooting for Marion or hoping she’d get away with the crime, because she was so unlikeable and didn’t have a plan of any sort for the money. Culliton has a sharp eye for detail and spares no one with her snark, but that didn’t make the story worth it for me.

I listened to The Misfortune of Marion Palm on audio. Narration by Saskia Maarleveld was fine, if a bit flat. She didn’t infuse much emotion into the characters, but it’s hard to fault her for that, given how they were written. Honestly, I just wanted to finish it and move on.

I’d be curious to hear from someone who liked The Misfortune of Marion Palm. There are a number of 5 star reviews on Goodreads so they are clearly out there. What did you like so much about this book?

 

THE LIGHT WE LOST by Jill Santopolo

The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo is one of those books that I took with me – in hardcover – to walk the dog. That’s how involved I got in it.

Lucy and Gabriel meet on 9/11, when they are in an English seminar together during college. They share an intense moment from the roof of Gabe’s building as they watch lower Manhattan burn, an experience that will always bond them. There is the promise of a romantic relationship, but Gabe gets back together with an ex-girlfriend and they go their separate ways. A few years later, they meet up in a bar on Lucy’s birthday, and end up getting together for good.

This is the first serious, adult relationship for both of them, and Lucy moves in with Gabe after a few months. They are very happy together, even though Gabe, a photographer, is hinting at a desire to go abroad to capture conflict zones. Lucy is crushed when Gabe takes a job in Iraq, leaving her alone in Manhattan and walking away from their relationship.

A few months later, Lucy meets Darren, an investment banker who is older and more settled, and she ends up marrying him. But while she is happy with Darren, Gabe is never out of her mind entirely. The Light We Lost is about Lucy’s regret and second-guessing, her continued relationship with Gabe, and what happens when Gabe comes back into her life more consistently a few years into her marriage.

At first, I thought The Light We Lost was good, then I feared it was veering toward something more trite and juvenile, and then I got into it. Santopolo does a great job of conjuring those intense, 20-something relationships where the stakes feel enormous. Of course, time and perspective make those 20-something relationships seem a little, um, dramatic?… but it was fun to relive the intensity of that period for a little while. Were Lucy and Gabe really meant to be? Did they even know each other well enough to know for sure? Would their relationship have survived adult stressors like parenting and money and health problems? Who knows. But it was fun exploring the concept of a soul mate and lost loved and what we owe to others vs. our own happiness.

As Lucy says, “[W]hat I think you were saying, what you believed, is that you have to sacrifice. This love for that love. This piece of happiness for that one. It was a theory that shaped your decisions, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

The Light We Lost is not a perfect book but I enjoyed it quite a bit.

REAL AMERICAN by Julie Lythcott-Haims

Julie Lythcott-Haims’ memoir Real American is about the author’s experience growing up biracial in America and how it shaped who she is. Lythcott-Haims, daughter of an African-American father and a white British mother, was born in Africa when her parents were working there, but moved as a young girl to the U.S. She lived in a few different places, some more racially diverse than others, and spent much of her life feeling conflicting about her mixed race. She didn’t have many black friends as a teenager, and in many ways she suppressed that side of herself in order to fit in. She went on to college and law school, eventually moved to California, and in her late 20s she took a job as a dean at Stanford.

It wasn’t until that job at Stanford, and her marriage to a white man, that Lythcott-Haims really started investigating her relationship with race, her roots and the society into which she brought two mixed-race children. Real American is a collection of short, essay-like chapters (some as short as a few paragraphs) in which Lythcott-Haims explores her childhood and the emergence of her black identity.

I really liked Real American. It’s an intensely personal book, written with unflinching honesty and inspired by strong feelings, and it opened a real window for me into what it is like to grow up black or mixed in this country. The author and I attended the same law school and lived for many years in the same place, but our experiences were very different. I honestly think everyone I know should read this book. I dogeared so many pages that moved me, way too many to try to include here. Toward the end of the book, Lythcott-Haims talks about Black Lives Matter and the series of police killings of black men and boys, and she relates her deep fear about her son’s safety as a dark-skinned boy. Really painful to read, especially as a mom of a young son myself.

I could go on and on about this book. I am so glad I read it. It’s not always an easy read, but it is a good one, and surprisingly hard to put down. It comes out on October 3 – look for it then.

 

THE WINDFALL by Diksha Basu

The Windfall by Diksha Basu is about the Jhas, a middle-aged Indian couple in Delhi who move from their middle-class apartment and neighborhood to a fancy new house when Mr. Jha sells his website for a lot of money. They are sad to leave their old friends behind and experience some growing pains as they get used to a bigger house and being able to buy whatever they want, but Mr. Jha in particular is eager to show off his wealth to his new neighbors. Meanwhile, their son Rupak is failing out of graduate school in America and hiding his American girlfriend from his parents.

That’s pretty much the whole book, other than a subplot about a young widow (neighbor to the Jhas) who finds love with the brother of the Jhas’ new neighbors.

So, I *really* didn’t like The Windfall. The characters were vapid and materialistic, caring only about appearances and keeping up with the rich neighbors and impressing the old ones. They don’t talk about anything of substance, ever. There is one time when Mr. Jha seems to question the purpose of life to Mrs. Jha, but that lasts about 2 sentences and is over before she can even respond. Rupak is aimless, inconsiderate and lazy, and when he gets booted from Ithaca College for smoking dope, his parents welcome him back to India and seem almost proud that he’s back living on their dime, because it shows that they are rich enough to support him. He at least seems a little more introspective than his parents, who just bicker and whine at each other.

There was so much potential here – The Windfall could have been funny, incisive, biting, wry, or even just plain interesting – and it was none of those things. There was no tension or suspense, and one out-of-character meltdown right at the end of the book seemed totally implausible and out of place, rather than serving as some sort of dramatic peak.

I didn’t even get a good sense of Delhi from this book – just the fancy new neighborhood of Gurgaon and the Jha’s new sofa.

I listened to The Windfall on audio. Narration by Soneela Nankani was fine – she did different accents for different characters, particularly people of different social levels – but I wonder if her narration exacerbated my issues with the book. Even she seemed to be irritated by the characters. She probably could have toned the performance down a little bit, just to make it all seem a little less absurd, but I am not sure it would have redeemed the book for me.

Cute cover, at least.

 

MISS JANE by Brad Watson

Miss Jane by Brad Watson is a quiet book about a girl who raised in rural Mississippi in the beginning of the 20th century. Jane, the youngest of four kids, is born to older parents who are already in the midst of a growing frostiness and distance. What makes Jane’s birth noteworthy is that she is born with a genetic defect that causes her reproductive organs to be malformed. As a result of her condition, she suffers from incontinence, which will plague her throughout her whole life. Jane’s condition would be treatable through surgery today, but back then, it meant a solitary and nonsexual life for those who were born with it.

Miss Jane is based on the real life of Watson’s great-aunt, and he has done an impressive job of imagining what her life was like, both emotionally and physically. As a young child, she learns quickly that she is different from other girls. She is unable to attend school, but she’s inquisitive and smart, and learns instead from her parents’ farm and observing the nature around her. By the end of the book, Jane is an old woman whose life, while lonely and at times tragic, has elements of connection and fulfillment.

Watson is a sensuous writer, and Miss Jane is full of detail about the animals and nature found around Jane’s home. There is a lot of sexual imagery, in stark contrast to the chaste life Jane is forced to lead. Her closest confidante, the doctor who delivered her and who took a lifelong interest in her and her condition, was ironically infertile himself, making the two characters given the most attention and detail both unable to partake in the cycle of life Watson describes with such care.

Miss Jane is not intensely sad, but neither is it hopeful or upbeat. Jane accepts her lot in life and learns to find joy despite it, but at her core she’s a lonely person in a family of very unhappy people. I respect Watson’s ability to tell this story without pitying his protagonist, or encouraging his reader to do so – he walked a fine line and he did it well. I recommend Miss Jane for people who don’t need a happy ending to enjoy a book.

 

 

THE CONFUSION OF LANGUAGES by Siobhan Fallon

I became a big fan of Siobhan Fallon after reading her 2011 collection of stories, You Know When The Men Are Gone, which is about military families living on army bases in the U.S. Her first novel, The Confusion of Languages, came out this summer and I was eager to get my hands on it. It did not disappoint.

Cassie and Margaret are two American women living in Jordan while their husbands are stationed there. Cassie has lived in Jordan for a few years and knows the rules and expectations for expat wives. But she’s lonely in her marriage, frustrated by her inability to get pregnant and to connect with the other wives. When Margaret arrives, Cassie is happy to take her under her wing, spending time with her and her young son and teaching her how to comport herself in a Muslim country during the Arab spring.

Margaret is dealing with insecurities of her own, and living in Jordan is the first time she has ever been away from her claustrophobic home in Northern California, where she lived with her chronically ill mother. She wants to explore Jordan and make friends with the guards and the building superintendent, even though it is inappropriate for her to have contact with them. She is open and friendly and flirtatious, in stark contrast to Cassie’s tightly wound primness. Yet these two women become good friends and Margaret comes to depend on Cassie a lot.

But how well does Cassie really know Margaret? They get into a minor car accident one afternoon, and when Margaret has to drive to the police station to sort it out, she asks Cassie to stay with her son. The hours pass, and Margaret doesn’t return. Cassie, restless in the apartment waiting for Margaret to come back, discovers Margaret’s journal and discovers that there is a lot she didn’t know about her friend. The book teases out what’s really been going on in Margaret’s marriage, the tensions that have been growing between the two women, and the relationships that Margaret has been cultivating on the side.

I didn’t love The Confusion Of Languages as much as Fallon’s earlier book, but I liked it a lot. She is a great storyteller, maintaining tension throughout the book and building suspense. She’s also incisive and observant, just what you want in a novelist. I didn’t love the ending, but I enjoyed the ride quite a bit.  Give this one a try if you’re fascinated by military marriages (like I am) and want to be transported to a very foreign place.