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.

DO NOT BECOME ALARMED by Maile Meloy

If you’re looking for a pure adrenaline read, Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy will definitely fit the bill. This summer novel book falls squarely into the Parent’s Worst Nightmare category of books, so be aware of what you’re getting yourself into if you pick it up.

Liv and Nora, two cousins living in LA, decide to go on a holiday cruise in Central America with their kids and families. They are very close, and their kids, who are roughly the same ages, are comfortable with and used to being together. While on the cruise, they befriend another couple from Argentina who have a teenage son and daughter.

After a few days of uneventful cruising, the three families decide to go onshore. The dads go off to play golf, while the moms and kids join a local guide who is to take them to a ropes course. It is at that point when things go off the tracks. The van going to the ropes course gets a flat tire, stranding them on a secluded road next to a beach. What happens next leads to all 6 kids being separated from their parents, whose nightmare has just started.

Needless to say, it’s a stressful read. It isn’t a mystery – the reader knows where the kids are the whole time – but the question of whether all the kids will safely find their way back to their parents looms over the whole book. The fact that one is diabetic and needs constant monitoring and insulin shots ratchets up the stress that much more.

Along the way, Meloy also explores the relationship between the two couples (and specifically the two moms), and the way they handle the situation vs the Argentine couple. There are a lot of parents trying to protect their kids throughout the book, but the American families have a lot more power than the non-American ones and enjoy a lot more leeway and support than the others.

Do Not Become Alarmed has gotten a lot of attention this summer, and I can see why. It’s well-written and totally engrossing. As for whether it’s enjoyable too, that’s another issue. Like most readers, I assume, I put myself in these parents’ shoes during the whole book and felt sick about the situation. So while I tore through the book, I was pretty anxious the whole time. There are also a few places where the plot verges on the unrealistic, which detracted from the overall novel.

If this sounds like your kind of read, go pick it up. You won’t be disappointed. If it sounds really unpleasant, then skip it.

ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE by Gail Honeyman

I did not have Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman on my summer reading list, but I’ve heard good things about it all summer, and I saw it at the bookstore over vacation and bought it on impulse. It was supposed to be funny and quirky and I thought it would make a good summer read.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is about Eleanor, a woman in her 30s in England with a difficult past. She leads a completely solitary life, spending from Friday to Monday in an alcohol-induced numbness to pass the days until she gets back to her unsatisfying job as an accountant. When the book opens, two things happen that shake Eleanor out of her strict routine. First, she goes to a show to hear a band (only because it was a work obligation), and falls in love with the lead singer, a man who is wildly inappropriate for her. And she meets the IT guy at her office when her computer stops working, and they end up becoming friends.

These two developments bring about two competing changes in Eleanor’s life. The friendship with the IT guy – her first real friendship, ever – gives Eleanor a glimpse of what a normal life is like, one in which she has worth and receives kindness, something she never got from her mother. But the crush on the singer, destined to fail from the start, sends her into a tailspin that threatens to undermine the parallel positive developments in her life.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is not a light, quirky book, as I suspected. It is a much darker, more serious read about the impact of deep, emotional abuse. Eleanor is difficult and thorny and unable to relate to people, but it’s not her fault. As Honeyman unpeels the layers of Eleanor’s mind, you start to appreciate just how traumatized she is. There is progress and positivity, but it’s a difficult road to get there. Thankfully, there is also a lot of humor in the book to help ease the way.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is one of those books that I find myself flashing back to often, which to me is always the sign of a good book. I am glad I gave in to the impulse at the bookstore.

I came across this interview with Gail Honeyman today, which I enjoyed. Great quote: “What I wanted to highlight in the book was simply the importance of kindness, to show that we often have no idea of the burdens the people around us are shouldering, and that the smallest acts — tiny, everyday kindnesses — can be completely transformative for the right person at the right time.”

1984 by George Orwell

This summer, Nicole Bonia – my cohost of the Readerly Report Podcast – and I decided to undertake a challenge: we’d each read a classic book that we never read before, but that we wish we had. I chose 1984 by George Orwell. It seemed like a good time to read it, given the political climate and how often I’ve heard it mentioned and referred to of late.

1984 is about Winston Smith, a thirtysomething man living in a totalitarian regime in present-day London, called Oceania in the book. The country is ruled by Big Brother, an omnipresent leader whose political party wields power over the country and its inhabitants. The Party has installed telescreens everywhere – in homes, in public spaces – so everyone is under constant surveillance. Their actions, words and even their thoughts are monitored by the Party to ferret out even the smallest derivations from its rules and the hint of free thought.

There are several aspects of 1984 that are disturbingly familiar with what’s happening in America today, particularly around abuse of civil liberties, electronic surveillance and feeding and withholding of information to “the people”. Winston works for the “Ministry of Truth,” where his job is to go back through news reports and change them so that they are always accurate even when the Party’s pronouncements don’t come true. That is just one small example of the grip that the Party has on every aspect of the world Winston lives in.

I thought 1984 was interesting and thought provoking, as well as deeply disturbing. I can’t say that I enjoyed reading it, though. It was repetitive at times, and everything was spelled out very clearly. Not a lot left to the imagination in this book. (Did Orwell not trust his readers to grasp what he was getting at?) Also, the entire last quarter of the book is about Winston’s arrest for treasonous thoughts and his subsequent torture as the Party tries to break him of all independent thought. The torture scenes were long and painful and difficult to get through. I have to say that I was glad when the book came to an end. It felt like medicine. Hard to get down, but good for me in the end.

I listened to 1984 on audio. It was narrated by Simon Prebble, who did an excellent job. He beautifully conveyed Winston’s fear, desperation and loneliness, and his voice and enunciation were perfect. He handled a lot of voices really well – Winston’s, his tormentor O’Brien, various Party members – making them varied and always convincing. The audio heightened my interest in the story thanks to Prebble’s compelling narration.

Classics challenge: Done.

(If you want to explore 1984 and other dystopian novels, check out this link.)

 

THE AWKWARD AGE by Francesca Segal

If you enjoy seeing families in distress under a microscope and watching them squirm, then you will enjoy The Awkward Age by Francesca Segal.

The cast of characters: 46 year-old Julia, widowed and newly in love with James, a 50-something American OB/GYN; Julia’s sullen 16 year-old daughter Gwen, who is still grieving the loss of her father; and James’ 18 year-old son Nathan, who is about to graduate high school and go to a prestigious college to study medicine. Julia and James move in together in London, merging their families, while Gwen and Nathan hate each other… until they don’t.

Gwen and Nathan’s relationship turns romantic, which is terribly awkward for Julia and James, at also puts them at odds for the first time in their relationship. And then, Gwen gets pregnant, which sends the whole difficult situation into overdrive. How will they, as a family, handle this mess? How can be it resolved in a way that doesn’t cause terrible pain? Are James and Julia ready to be grandparents – to the same baby?

Francesca Segal relates her story with detail, compassion and that beautiful eloquence that so many British writers have.  The Awkward Age is told mostly from Julia and Gwen’s perspectives, but there are additional characters with a stake in this family, and Segal lets us into their heads too. We see the action unfold from several perspectives, with much attention paid to their inner turmoil these characters are in.

What I liked: the writing, the very plausible dialogue, the theme of the awkwardness of love at any age.

What I didn’t like as much: how spoiled Nathan and Gwen were (it detracted from the plausibility of the story), the claustrophobia triggered by pages of dialogue (internal and spoken) among the same small family. Sometimes I just needed a break!

Overall, I liked The Awkward Age and would recommend it to people who enjoy domestic drama. I listened to it on audio, and particularly liked Jayne Entwhistle’s precise, British pronunciation. Her American accents were a little off, but I got used to them quickly. She conveyed empathy for each character, even babyish Gwen – it never felt as if she was judging them or their circumstances – which I think was Segal’s point. Life can get awkward, and we just need to deal with it.