Category Archives: Fiction

THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN by Sherman Alexie

Our mother-daughter book club read Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for our most recent meeting. It’s about Junior, a dorky teenager living on an Indian reservation who makes the unprecedented move of transferring from his reservation high school to an all-white school 22 miles away. Like most of the people who live on the reservation, Junior is very poor. He has attended 42 funerals in his short life, most due to alcohol-related accidents and diseases. His parents are loving, but his father is an alcoholic and neither parent is capable of providing Junior with much support, emotional or financial.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is about Junior’s attempt to fit in at his new school, among the rich white kids who have iPods and cars and three pairs of jeans, while maintaining his relationships back on the reservation, where he is deeply resented for his “desertion” of the tribe and pursuit of success. It’s funny, wry and very easy to read, but it’s not a light book. Alexie tackles racism, poverty, alcoholism, bullying, serious health issues and depression in the book, and it can be depressing. But Junior has hope that he can improve his life, and that he can rise above his childhood and succeed. He finds the good among the rich kids at the new school, and he forgives his old friends who turn on him when he returns to his old high school for a basketball game. He recognizes his parents’ limitations, but he loves them anyway.

I really liked The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It’s like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, just more depressing. Junior is a cartoonist, and the cartoons featured throughout the book are poignant and funny at the same time. The girls in book club were moved by the condition of the reservation and the lack of hope so many of its residents felt. They were struck by how few options Native Americans have to improve their lives.

I recommend The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for a range of ages. Definitely worth a read.

OUR SHORT HISTORY by Lauren Grodstein

Our Short History by Lauren Grodstein has an almost unbearably sad premise: Karen Neulander, a 40-something political consultant and single mother to a 6 year-old boy named Jake, is dying. She has had a recurrence of ovarian cancer, and is two years into a four-year prognosis. She decides to write a book – a memoir – for Jake, so that he can read it when he is older and understand who his mother was.

Unbearable, right?

Well, I read Our Short History, and I made it through to the other side. I didn’t even cry until the last few pages (and no, Karen doesn’t die at the end of the book). It is sad, to be sure, but it’s also well-written and funny at times and not needlessly maudlin. Karen is flawed, but realistically human. She is in a terrible situation and she’s trying to make the best of it. She is a dedicated, diligent mother with large – but not infinite – reserves of patience for her son, and she’s smart and determined. She also happens to have Stage IV cancer, which has thrown her a big curveball.

The book opens with Jake asking Karen, once again, to find his father and introduce them to each other. Karen has resisted this request of Jake’s for many years, but he has worn her down, and given her (and his) circumstances, she finally relents. She sends a Facebook message to the man she had dated seven years earlier, whom she had loved but who told her he didn’t want children. Karen doesn’t really think through all of the ramifications of this outreach (which is kind of unlike her) – if Dave wants to see Jake, how often will she let that happen? Will visitation become a regular thing? What rights might he have to custody? Will he try to get custody after Karen dies?

Karen may be frustrating at time, even irrational, but I don’t know who wouldn’t be in the same situation. Grodstein has created an utterly realistic depiction of the choices a mother would reasonably make facing her premature death and the care of her beloved son. Karen loves Jake with a ferocity than even she can’t control sometimes, which pushes her to behave in ways she might regret, but which are oh so understandable.

So yes, Our Short History is a sad book, and at times Karen’s plight took my breath away. But I appreciate Grodstein’s writing and her storytelling, which made this much more than a tearjerker. I am a fan of her earlier works, and was not disappointed at all by this one.

I listened to Our Short History on audio. It was performed by accomplished narrator and EDIWTB friend Karen White, who did a great job with this one. She conveyed (fictional) Karen’s desperation and anger as persuasively as she did Karen’s pride and pettiness. I wonder how hard it was to keep her composure when she got to some of the more difficult scenes in the novel. Overall, excellent audiobook.

ALL GROWN UP by Jami Attenberg

Jami Attenberg’s latest novel, All Grown Up is about Andrea Bern, a woman in her early 40s who is childless and single. She had planned to be an artist, and still paints occasionally, but gave up in her 20s and now works in advertising and lives in Brooklyn.

Andrea is definitely messy – self-absorbed and immature, yet also funny and self-deprecating. She asserts that she wants neither a husband nor children, yet also laments her single status and complains about being lonely. She is close with her mother and brother, but when her brother and his wife have a daughter with severe health issues, she is incapable of providing any of them them the support they need to help live with their daughter’s round-the-clock needs.

I enjoyed the structure of the book – the chapters jumped around chronologically, with each chapter named for a woman who had some impact on Andrea’s life. Events that were explored in detail in one chapter were mentioned in passing on others, which I liked once I got used to it. I like Attenberg’s writing, which, like in The Middlesteins, is wry and observant.

But in the end, All Grown Up, left me cold. Andrea routinely sabotaged herself and her relationships, and she was so rarely empathetic or supportive that I just didn’t like her much. She could be generous, but only with money, rarely with her feelings.

All Grown Up was moderately entertaining while I read it, but I have not thought about it once in the week since I finished it. Just not much there.

 

 

THE ARRANGEMENT by Sarah Dunn

A new novel out from Sarah Dunn is always reason to celebrate, and I was definitely excited to read The Arrangement after really enjoying her earlier novels The Big Love and Secrets to Happiness (click to read my reviews). The Arrangement has an intriguing premise: a suburban couple, Lucy and Owen, with an autistic 5 year-old and a happy if boring marriage, decide to liven things up by opening their marriage for 6 months. They agree to certain ground rules: no questions asked, no one they know, and no falling in love. What can go wrong?

The Arrangement is a smart, funny and well-written book. Dunn has a good sense of humor and an even better sense of what it’s like to be a suburban middle-aged parent, especially to a special needs child (she has one herself). Beekman, NY, where Lucy and Owen live, appears to be an idyllic destination for parents reluctantly leaving Brooklyn, but it’s a small town with its own share of tensions and pressures. And Lucy and Owen’s marriage, while not perfect, is a familiar one. They are pretty exhausted, with little emotional time for each other.

I loved this passage about how Lucy has given up certain (optional?) aspects of her life over time:

Perfect.

Dunn’s characters are memorable, from the eccentric billionaire in Beekman on his third wife, to the partners Lucy and Owen decide to spend “the arrangement” with, to the town’s transgender kindergarten teacher. Dunn is insightful and empathetic, and I laughed out loud and nodded in recognition often while reading The Arrangement.

Sarah Dunn is three for three, in my opinion. When is her next book coming out?

SECRET DAUGHTER by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda is an interesting, if joyless, novel about two mothers: Kavita, a poor Indian woman whose first two children are daughters whom her husband does not let her keep, and Somer, a white doctor in Northern California who adopts a daughter from India after going into early menopause. Kavita’s first daughter was taken away at birth and never seen again (presumably killed by her husband’s cousin), and she took her second daughter, Usha, to an orphanage in Bombay. Somer, whose husband’s family is wealthy and lives in Bombay, ends up adopting Usha, whose name is changed to Asha. Asha returns with her parents to Northern California, where she grows up in privilege, in stark contrast to her birth parents’ poverty in India.

I liked the story told in Secret Daughter – lots of detail about Bombay, the slums, being female in India and how hard it is to make a living there if you start out poor. Kavita’s relationship with her husband somehow survived her deep anger at him, though she never recovered from the loss of her girls. Somer’s marriage had its own issues, such as Somer’s feeling of alienation from her Indian daughter and husband and her inability to connect to Asha. The book alternates between Kavita and Somer, Bombay and California, until Asha travels to India during college on a journalism fellowship and spends a year living with her grandparents and researching life in the slums. She also decides to look for her birth parents, traveling to the orphanage where she was born to identify them and track them down.

However, Secret Daughter was unfortunately too superficial and simplistic for me. There were moments when the characters seemed to show complexity – particularly Asha – but overall they were pretty shallow and two-dimensional. For the most part, they are sad and dissatisfied, with few moments of joy. The book spanned a lot of time and distance, with jumps that thinned the story out. And the prose was serviceable but not memorable. I never knew about this book when it came out in 2011, but it was apparently a popular book club choice. It’s basically mass-market women’s fiction – engaging enough but nothing really remarkable other than the subject matter.

I’m not sorry I read Secret Daughter. I was glad to get outside the U.S. and it was a memorable story. If you decide to pick it up, though, just know what you’re getting.

 

PERFECT LITTLE WORLD by Kevin Wilson

Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson is not a perfect book, but it’s a really interesting one. It’s about a 19 year-old woman named Izzy who gets pregnant on the eve of her high school graduation. The father is her art teacher, and when she tells him she is pregnant and wants to keep the baby, he has a breakdown and tells her he doesn’t want her to keep it. The teacher’s rich parents, who learn of the pregnancy and want to get Izzy out of the picture, connect her with a new social experiment funded by a very wealthy friend of theirs. In this experiment, ten families with newborns will move into a state of the art group home complex to have the babies raised communally, with all of the advantages they could ever want, to see whether such an upbringing has a significant impact on child development. Determined to have the baby, broke, and with no family to support her, Izzy decides to join the project.

The Infinite Family Project, as it’s called, requires its participants to commit to ten years in residency. The children are not told until their 5th birthday who their biological parents are, and at that time they move in with their parents instead of living in the communal setting. Most of the book is told through the eyes of Izzy, the only single parent there.

Perfect Little World raises a lot of questions about parenting and identity, as these parents grapple with the instinct to be close to their own children despite their commitment to them all. But I think that the book could have gone deeper. Wilson’s parents face a number of challenges – such as some infidelity among the group or differences in theories of discipline – but they are dealt with quickly. With 19 parents involved, realistically there would be more conflict and disagreement about how the children should be raised. And I didn’t feel that I got to know most of the characters other than Izzy and Dr. Grind, the head of the project, very well at all. A few stood out, but most were indistinct. I wanted more dynamics, more conflict, more there there. It also took a long time to get to the project – there’s a lot of setup as Izzy’s circumstances are established – but then the treatment of the project is disappointingly shallow.

Strangely, my issues with Perfect Little World arose after I read it, when I started thinking about what to write in this post. I actually enjoyed the book a lot while I was reading it. Wilson is a good writer: he’s funny, sharply observant, and occasionally gently mocking of the preciousness of the Infinite Family Project. But he has a lot of empathy for his characters, despite the bad decisions some of them make.

My enjoyment of Perfect Little World was undoubtedly enhanced by the exquisite narration of Therese Plummer. Plummer is one of my favorite narrators of all time. She never hits a false note, and her narration seems to be imbued with deep respect for the work she’s performing. She differentiates her characters beautifully, and she gets both male and female characters equally right. From the 80 year-old project benefactor to Izzy’s redneck enemy in the complex, Plummer gave them each a distinctive, memorable voice that was just pitch perfect. It was a pleasure to listen to Perfect Little World on audio. It sounded like Plummer was having a good time too.

Despite its shortcomings, Perfect Little World was worth the time. I wanted more from it, but I did enjoy what I got.

 

 

THE MOST DANGEROUS PLACE ON EARTH by Lindsey Lee Johnson

One buzzy book this winter was The Most Dangerous Place On Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson. It’s about a high school in Mill Valley in Marin County, CA, and the very privileged kids who go there. When the book opens, the kids are in eighth grade, and one of them makes a very passionate pronouncement of love to another one. His letter was made public by the recipient, and after the relentless teasing and bullying that ensued, he jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. Three years later, the kids are juniors and still dealing with the ramifications of the suicide.

Each chapter basically focuses on a different character, and by the end, the reader has a pretty good sense of the whole group, as well as some of their teachers. For the most part, the kids are privileged, entitled, indifferent and spoiled, with little respect for their teachers or even each other. There are overachievers (intense ballerinas and academic stars) as well as hippies, drug dealers, misogynistic athletes and thugs. Their parents are either neglectful or cloying. Johnson does manage to show other sides of these kids, eventually, but in the end it’s hard to find a redeeming person in the whole book.

What I liked:

  • Beautiful writing
  • Realistic incorporation of social media and other realities of teenage life today
  • Good pacing

What I didn’t:

  • Overall, it was pretty superficial.
  • Characters were rarely revisited (one simply disappears altogether) so there isn’t much continuity
  • Adults were very disappointing, as were parent-child relationships
  • The kids never learned lessons or changed their ways; some of them got worse over time

I kind of wonder what the author’s point was. To make us all despondent over the fate of humanity, if these kids represent our future? To try to get to the heart of teenagers? To shame us into better parenting? I’m not sure.

I’d read more by Lindsey Lee Johnson just because of her writing, but this was a bit of a disappointment.

I listened to The Most Dangerous Place On Earth on audio. It was narrated by veteran narrator Cassandra Campbell. She did an excellent job with the voices, differentiating them for each kid and sounding as natural with the boys as she did with the girls, which isn’t always the case with narration. She’s precise and easy to listen to, and and she moved the story along nicely. It’s funny – I just looked up books that she has narrated and many of them are sitting on my bookshelf. I know I’ve listened to other Cassandra Campbell performances but I can’t remember which they were.

Others seemed to have enjoyed The Most Dangerous Place On Earth more than I did. If you read it and liked it, I’d love to hear why.