Category Archives: Fiction

WILLFUL DISREGARD by Lena Andersson

andersson_willfuldisregard-wquoteHere’s what happens in Lena Andersson’s Willful Disregard: Ester, a young Swedish writer, is asked to write an article about Hugo, a famous artist. She meets him and within one week she is completely obsessed with him. Despite their age difference, they develop a close friendship which consists of long dinners spent debating philosophy and ideas. Ester’s obsession with Hugo persists as the weeks go by, and eventually, their relationship turns physical. Over the course of one week, they spend three nights together – Ester’s dream come true. And then Hugo turns cold and starts ignoring her.

The book tracks the ensuing twelve months – every interaction Ester has with Hugo, every text, every email, every ill-advised call.

Willful Disregard is the literary fiction version of He’s Just Not That Into You. It analyzes in painstaking detail the rollercoaster of Ester’s interactions with Hugo – the hope, the delusion, the fury, the rationalizations, the desperation. If you’ve ever suffered rejection from someone you were really into, then you will recognize much of what happens in this book. It’s beautifully written – translated from the Swedish – and while it might be too wordy or cerebral for some tastes, I enjoyed it.

Some passages I liked:

Her emotional life was now subject to the dissatisfaction of rising expectations. The only advantage of this is that after a time, the disappointment can turn into another law of nature, namely the delight that sinking expectations take in the tiniest possible detail.

She thought about the fact that seven billion people on earth did not have this reliance on hearing from him. Their health and wellness did not depend on it. So why did hers? There was no rhyme or reason to it. Why could she not feel the same toward him as the seven million did, living their lives with complete lack of concern for what he was engaged in? The girlfriend chorus said: Give up and leave this man. He’s doing you harm. The girlfriend chorus really didn’t understand. They were the seven billion.

I mean, it’s painfully familiar, right?

This is the book I was reading post-election, and for a few weeks it felt too small and inconsequential to keep my attention. But I came back to it and while I can’t say it lifted my spirits, I am certainly glad I read it. If it sounds appealing, give it a try – you won’t regret it.

THE ART OF NOT BREATHING by Sarah Alexander

Sadly, my month of non-reading continues. Hoping to snap out of it soon.

Meanwhile, here’s a review of our November mother-daughter book club book, The Art of Not Breathing by Sarah Alexander.

23203977The Art of Not Breathing is an odd, sad book. Elsie is sixteen and feeling very alone in her fractured family, which consists of her unhappily married parents, her older brother Dillon, and her twin brother Eddie, who died by drowning five years earlier. Elsie is convinced that her father blames her for Eddie’s drowning, and while she vaguely remembers that day, there are a lot of details that she can’t get a handle on. Why was Dillon there too? Did he try to save Eddie? What role did her parents play?

Elsie feels like an outsider in her family and at school too, but when summer comes, she accidentally falls in with a group of older boys who free dive, a rigorous sport involving diving to low depths and holding one’s breath before coming up. Elsie decides to try free diving, and her connection to the group of divers leads her to a boyfriend and, ultimately, the answers to her questions about Eddie’s death and the role she – and others – played in it. Meanwhile her family falls further apart as Dillon develops anorexia and her parents grow more estranged.

Dark, huh?

Yes.

The Art of Not Breathing is compelling in that it makes you want to read on and find out what happens. You also feel just terrible for Elsie, who is trying to hold things together but is breaking down inside. Her unwillingness to confide in anyone is frustrating, because it only makes her more isolated. But she is dealing with a lot – way more than someone her age should be expected to. Our group of twelve year-olds didn’t love this book (though it was recommended by someone in the group). They all found it very sad, and were frustrated with the adults and the situations Elsie was put in. We all found free diving intriguing but also scary. And of course, poor Eddie… the most tragic figure of all.

On the plus side, The Art of Not Breathing does send a message about being yourself and not caring what people think of you. It also conveys the importance of emotional trust, especially when dealing with grief.

 

 

THE RED CAR by Marcy Dermansky

The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky is an odd little book, but a good one.

28789723Leah is a writer in her 30s, living in Astoria with her possessive German husband Hans. One day, she learns that Judy, her former boss during her stint in San Francisco a decade earlier, has died in a car accident. Leah had been close with Judy, and she is sad to learn that Judy has died. She also learns that Judy has left Leah her beloved red car – the same car she died in. Leah impulsively decides to go to the funeral in San Francisco and collect the car, and ends up spending two weeks there getting back in touch with her former self.

Now, I know this sounds like a gauzy Lifetime movie: wise mentor challenges lost friend to find herself and rediscover joy, all from the grave. Nope. This is a quirky, dark, unpredictable book. Leah is lost, yes, but she’s also a little unhinged. She hooks up with random people in San Francisco, basically ends up giving away the car and avoids making any decisions about her life back at home. Meanwhile Judy flits in and out like a Greek chorus, commenting on what Leah is doing and alternately annoying and guiding Leah.

The writing style in The Red Car is acerbic and a bit meandering, but also terse and compact. Leah is weird but totally relatable at the same time. Not a whole lot happens in this book, and the interactions Leah has are at times unrealistic and sort of unsatisfying, but as an exercise in getting inside someone’s head and exploring all the conflict and confusion there, The Red Car succeeds.

The Red Car is probably not for everyone, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. (It’s short, so if you don’t love it, no big deal!)

 

MODERN LOVERS by Emma Straub

modern-lovers-review-ewOne of the hot books this past summer was Modern Lovers by Emma Straub. It’s about a group of college friends who, twenty years later, live near each other on the same street in Brooklyn. Andrew and Elizabeth are married with a son, Harry, who is in high school. Zoe is married to Jane and they have a daughter, Ruby, who has just graduated from the same high school. Andrew, Elizabeth and Zoe were bandmates in college, but have now settled into more middle age pursuits – owning a restaurant, real estate, parenting, etc. When an movie agent comes calling, hoping to get them to sign over their “life rights” so that a biopic can be made about the fourth (now dead) member of the band, the three come to face the fact that their kids are now almost the age they were when they met, and that they are no longer the same people they once were. Is what they have enough? Are they happy? Or should they be making some dramatic changes?

Typical middle age angst.

Here’s what I liked about Modern Lovers: clean, descriptive writing full of realistic details and observations (typical of Straub’s books); a mildly suspenseful plot that makes you want to keep reading (but not too fast); some humorous sendups of Brooklyn stereotypes, like the cult-like people at Andrew’s yoga studio and the private school kids; and Straub’s exploration of middle age.

Here’s what I didn’t like as much: the whininess of the main characters (except Harry, who I liked); the #firstworldproblems that they can’t stop complaining about; their preciousness (Ruby! Oy); and did I mention the whininess? It’s hard to get really invested in these people, with their ennui and the mild discontent that taints their whole existence. I don’t mind books about middle age angst, but I’d like for them to have something to really angst over.

I am not sure why Modern Lovers got all the fanfare and attention that it did. I liked it enough, but I certainly didn’t love it.

I listened to Modern Lovers on audio, and I thought the gentle but precise narration by Jen Tullock was excellent. She developed distinct accents for the different characters that conveyed their personalities well. (I especially liked her voice for Dave, the scammy yogi.) I recommend the audio if you want to give Modern Lovers a try.

CAROUSEL COURT by Joe McGinniss, Jr.

Carousel Court is one amazingly bleak book.

The novel, carousel-court-9781476791272_hrby Joe McGinniss Jr., is about a couple – Phoebe and Nick – who move from Boston to Southern California in search of a better life. In Boston, Phoebe was a pharmaceutical sales rep and Nick a documentary filmmaker. They lived in a cramped apartment with their toddler, Jackson. Lured by the promise of sunny weather, an easier pace of life, and the untold riches that would come from flipping a suburban LA house, they make plans to leave it all and head west. Just before they are scheduled to leave, Nick learns that the job he has been promised in California has fallen through. So by the time they arrive in LA, they are already stressed and under the gun.

LA is nothing like what they hoped it would be. The real estate crash has left the economy decimated, with no jobs and suburbs full of empty, bank-owned houses. Phoebe, who had hoped to take a few months off to be with Jackson, just resumes her pharma job on the west coast. Nick, unemployed and increasingly desperate, takes on work cleaning out abandoned houses so that the banks can take them over. He works during the night, filling dumpsters with furniture and trying to avoid roving bands of pillagers who break into empty homes and pillage them during those same dark hours.

Bleak, huh? Well, the real bleakness of Carousel Court comes from Phoebe and Nick themselves. Phoebe, furious at her husband for his failure to provide for them, increasingly relies on anti-anxiety meds, sleeping pills and alcohol to get her through her long days of driving on LA freeways, calling on doctors’ offices to push her company’s medicine. She belittles her husband and carries on a sexually charged long distance text relationship with her former boss (and flame), a finance guy in Boston who toys with her, promising to swoop in and save her with a new job, a new house. Relations between Nick and Phoebe grow increasingly more hostile as he suspects her affair and has to compensate for her inability to parent Jackson or be supportive in any way.

The stress level of the book is ratcheted even higher by the constant threat of violence that surrounds this fractured family – from looters, from coyotes, from wildfires, from the next door neighbor who is staked in a tent with a gun on his front lawn all night long.

Plus there’s the fact that both Phoebe and Nick are both pretty hateful people.

And all of the bleakness. Is. Unrelenting. It’s not cyclical, because it never ebbs. It just flows, constantly.

If you want to learn more about the real estate crisis, watch The Big Short, which is just as illuminating but more enjoyable. Carousel Court was too long, too bleak, too tense.

I listened to Carousel Court on audio, and I would get out of my car in the morning in a tense, unfulfilled mood because of the book. The narrators were fine – Joy Osmanski and Corey Brill – but they did not offset the bleakness of this book. In fact, like the book, they were sort of relentless – relaying the parade of horribleness with a staccato precision that made the experience even less relaxing.

I’m moving on.

THE WRONG SIDE OF RIGHT by Jenn Marie Thorne

51tzzsl0zgl-_sx329_bo1204203200_Our October Mother-Daughter Book Club pick was the very topical The Wrong Side of Right by Jenn Marie Thorne. The book is about Kate, a sixteen year-old girl who discovers that her father, whom she never knew about, is a Republican senator from Massachusetts who is running for president. This news comes to light (via a leak to The New York Times) a year after Kate’s mother died in a car accident and five months before Election Day.

Kate has a decision to make: keep living with her aunt and uncle in South Carolina, or move to the Senator’s house in Maryland with his wife and twins and live a life in the spotlight while she travels with the family on the campaign. She moves to Maryland, and what follows is a whirlwind of campaign stops, photo opportunities, interviews and events, with some time squeezed in to get to know her new family.

The Wrong Side of Right is about a young woman figuring out who she is and what she stands for, without much help from the people around her. She finds an unexpected ally in her stepmother, but is repeatedly disappointed by her father’s remote disinterest despite her attempts to get to know him. The plot of the novel is implausible in many ways – the secrecy of her paternity and the convenient timing of its reveal, for example – but the depiction of the modern campaign definitely rings true. (If only our current campaign were as tame as the one in the book!). Cell phones abound, and there’s even a love story thrown in to keep teen readers interested. (With the president’s son, no less!) Kate is a relatable, imperfect main character whose situation might be highly unusual but whose feelings are not.

The Wrong Side of Right was enjoyable and compelling, and I wanted to keep reading to find out what would happen. Our book club had a good discussion about the reality of living through a presidential campaign and the ethics of the Senator’s behavior throughout the book. Not everyone finished the book, as it’s pretty long, but those who did seemed to enjoy it quite a bit. And it was perfect timing, with the current election three weeks away.

THE NEW NEIGHBOR by Leah Stewart

download-2Another book that I was glad to finish, and don’t want to spend a lot of time reviewing…

The New Neighbor by Leah Stewart is (presumably) a psychological thriller about two women living in a small Tennessee town who are each hiding secrets. Jennifer Young and her 4 year-old son Milo move into a small rental house on a pond, where Jennifer wants to hide away from the world after the death of her husband. Her neighbor across the pond, 90 year-old Margaret Riley, becomes intensely interested in Jennifer and devotes her time to finding ways to get to know her.

Margaret, too, is mysterious – she never married, and is carrying some long buried secrets from her years as a nurse on the battlefield in World War II. She is intensely lonely, yet also equally unlikable, which makes it very hard for others to get close to her.

Margaret and Jennifer’s worlds intersect when Margaret hires Jennifer as a massage therapist as a way to get her into house on a regular basis. This develops into Jennifer helping write down Margaret’s memoir, a plot device that allows Margaret to tell her stories and Jennifer to react in ways that reveal more about herself. Meanwhile, Jennifer tries to make friends and build a life for herself and Milo without revealing anything about the circumstances of her husband’s death.

The Suspenseful Questions We Are Supposed To Want Answers To:

  1. Was Jennifer responsible for her husband’s death?
  2. What happened to her daughter?
  3. Is Margaret gay, and was she in love with her best friend (a fellow nurse)?
  4. Was Margaret responsible for her best friend’s death?
  5. Will Margaret tell anyone about Jennifer’s past?

In the end: a big meh from me. I invested way too much time into this book and ultimately didn’t really care about the characters or what happened. Stewart is a good writer, and I particularly liked her use of details and observations throughout. But there was just too much of both, and not enough suspense. I look back on 288 slow pages and think to myself, “What was the point?” No major bombshells, and a very unsatisfying ending that made me dislike both women more.

I’d skip this one.