Category Archives: Fiction

THE RISEN by Ron Rash

risen-hc-cHow have I not read anything by Ron Rash before?

The Risen is my first foray into Rash’s Appalachia, and hopefully won’t be my last. It is about the summer of 1969, when a young woman comes to a small town in North Carolina and upends the lives of two brothers, Bill and Eugene. She disappears shortly after the summer ends, and when her dead body is discovered 45 years later, Bill and Eugene finally confront what happened that summer between them and the woman, and also the role they played in her ultimate demise.

The Risen is told very simply. It is narrated by Eugene, and jumps back and forth between the present and that fateful summer. Details are teased out slowly throughout the book, about Eugene’s troubled, alcoholic life and ruined relationship with his daughter; about Bill and Eugene’s strict, domineering grandfather; about how the brothers’ roles as kids persists throughout their lives.

Despite its short length, the story is a rich and complicated one, with a few twists along the way. It’s about loyalty and responsibility, resentment and disappointment, and how lives can be irrevocably changed in one summer and set on immutable courses for years to come. I finished it a few days ago, but I keep thinking about it, discovering new dimensions and connecting new threads.

I highly recommend The Risen and plan to check out more of Rash’s books.

I listened to the first 2/3 of The Risen on audio, and it was excellent. The narration by Richard Ferrone was *perfect*. I can’t say enough about how well-cast this production was. Ferrone captured Eugene’s passion and shame just perfectly, with a deep, passionate voice that had just the hint of a tremble in it. He’s best known as a thriller and mystery narrator, which makes sense, though he added the perfect dose of romanticism to troubled, dreamy Eugene. Huge props to the audio version of The Risen – I was sorry not to have had the opportunity to listen to the last third.

 

 

BOOKED by Kwame Anderson

41zviprzzyl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Our December Mother-Daughter book club read was Booked by Kwame Anderson. It’s the story of Nick, a seventh grader dealing with the demise of his parents’ marriage, a crush on a classmate, a budding soccer career and bullying.

What makes Booked interesting is that the story is told in verse. This style highlights Nick’s emotions and inner dialogue, which makes it all more poignant and genuine. What could have been a somewhat unremarkable litany of middle school woes becomes transformed into something lovelier. Nick’s father is obsessed with words – he even wrote a dictionary – and while Nick feels burdened by his father’s requirement that he read the dictionary, he too is a gifted linguist and finds power in expressing himself. He ends up joining a book club (because the girl he likes is in it) and finding some escape through reading as well.

Booked was a quick and interesting read, and our group of 7th graders found enough to talk about – what role did the quirky librarian play? Were the adults in Nick’s life paying enough attention to what he was going through? How did the use of poetry change their feelings about the book? What was in the mysterious dragonfly box? In the end it probably won’t be our most memorable book of the year, but for the verse alone it was a good choice.

We have identified a theme running through many of our book club books this year: kids being left to themselves to deal with some weighty problems, and adults generally being unaware and unhelpful. While this theme is a bit frustrating – we adults aren’t that bad! – it makes sense. How else to present adolescent protagonists who grapple and grow throughout the book? I am curious to see if this theme will continue into 2017.

UNDERGROUND AIRLINES by Ben Winters

winters_undergroundairlines_hcUnderground Airlines by Ben Winters imagines an America where the Civil War never took place. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated while fighting to abolish slavery, and modern day America is now made up of 46 states where slavery is illegal and 4 Southern states where it is not.

The narrator, Victor, was a slave in a meat processing plant in one of the Hard Four, and he managed to escape several years before the book opens. He was eventually caught in Chicago, but instead of going back to the factory, he made a deal with the U.S. Marshals: he’ll become a slavecatcher – someone who tracks down runaways – and has a chip inserted into his neck so that the government can always find him. He’s free, but not free. He’s a slave, but not a slave.

When Underground Airlines opens, Victor has been assigned to find a runaway in Indianapolis. As the case evolves, he discovers details missing that suggest that the man he is looking for – Jackdaw – is not the typical runaway slave. From there, Victor is drawn into an increasingly complex web of underground abolitionists, double agents, unethical government agencies and people willing to give up their lives to the cause of undermining the slave economy. He finds himself ultimately returning to the South and going back “behind the fence” to try to solve the case, although who he is working for – and whose directions he is following – shifts throughout the book, keeping the reader guessing.

I commend Winters on the creativity behind Underground Airlines. His depiction of institutionalized slavery is chilling and deeply offensive, but also sadly realistic. He included the fictional legislation ensuring slavery will continue legally into perpetuity, and also traced the global economic forces brought on by U.S. slavery and their ramifications throughout the 46 free states. I am always impressed with writers of dystopian fiction who are able to conjure up whole worlds different from our own and convey many layers and levels of those societies.

Victor was a complex and interesting character, and I also liked being in his head.

I am not a big fan of thrillers, so I wasn’t as crazy about the parts of the book involving escapes and gunfights and beatings and violence. Not my thing. It wasn’t gratuitous in Underground Airlines– slavery is violent – but again, not my favorite thing to read. That said, the violence was relatively contained so I was able to get through the book. I also had trouble tracking a few of the plot twists, but ultimately, I think I understood it. There’s a pretty big reveal at the end that explains why the stakes were so high in this particular recon mission, and I am proud to say that I followed it! Yay me.

I listened to Underground Airlines on audio, and the narration by William DeMerritt was SO good. His ability to transform realistically into so many different characters – white or black, young or old – was pretty amazing (though I didn’t love his narration of a female character named Martha). He did an excellent job with this book, conveying Victor’s anger, helplessness and intelligence as needed throughout the story, and like Victor, he never lost his cool or his consistency. I highly recommend the audiobook of Underground Airlines.

This was a pretty good read, overall. I am not sure I would have picked it up had I known it was as much a thriller as dystopian/moderately realistic fiction, but I am still glad I read it. Thought-provoking, especially at a time when so many of our institutions seem to be at risk.

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.