AMONG THE TEN THOUSAND THINGS by Julia Pierpont

Among The Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont has a promising start. A young woman who had been having an affair with a middle-aged artist named Jack decides, after he ends things with her, to print out all of the texts and emails he sent her over their several months’ long relationship and send them in a box, with a letter, to his wife Deb. The box is intercepted by the couple’s 11 year-old daughter, and later by her older brother, which only complicates the devastating impact it has on Jack and Deb’s marriage and their family.

Among The Ten Thousand Things traces the aftermath of the delivery of the incendiary box, exploring how Deb and the kids react to Jack’s infidelity. The main question, of course, is whether the marriage will survive. Deb is understandably furious, although we learn that she was aware of the affair months before, even if she didn’t have concrete evidence to flip through at night. So the marriage was already on shaky ground before the box arrived.

Pierpont takes an interesting approach in the structure of her novel. She divides it into four parts – the first taking place immediately after the box arrives, the second jumping way ahead into the future, the third resuming where the first left off, and the fourth looking ahead only about five years. This controversial structure didn’t work for me in the end, and here’s why: it made parts 3 and 4 basically unnecessary and therefore somewhat tedious.

I love Pierpont’s incredibly detailed and precise storytelling. She knows how to narrate a scene with such realism that you can just see it unfolding before you. I am always impressed by authors who conjure up random little details that give stories authenticity and a sense of uniqueness, a sense that this scene is neither predictable nor expected. Pierpont is very good at that. She failed, however, to make me care much about how the story resolved, and with the ending revealed halfway through, the second half was even more of a struggle to get through. I already knew what was going to happen, even if she was going to it to me eloquently.

Despite the originality of Pierpont’s writing, this is also a pretty standard story – husband has an affair, wife has to decide whether to forgive or move on, kids are affected, no one is perfect. I’ve read this before.

I do have to give props to the audio version of Among The Ten Thousand Things. Hillary Huber is an excellent narrator – precise, restrained when necessary, angry when the words called for it. I thought she did an excellent job performing the novel, and she was a big part of why I stuck with it.

This was a buzzy book of 2015. In the end, it was just OK for me.

 

THE DAYLIGHT MARRIAGE by Heidi Pitlor

The Daylight Marriage by Heidi Pitlor is a thriller about a suburban Boston mother who disappears from her daily routine the day after a bad fight with her husband. Hannah and Lovell have two children, ages nine and fifteen, and have been married for seventeen years. Lovell is academic and distracted, and while he feels he married out of his league, he’s no longer good at noticing or appreciating his wife. Hannah is a stay at home mom with a part-time job in a flower shop who feels distant from her husband and bored/unfulfilled with the routines of motherhood.

After the fight, in which Lovell questions how she spends her time and why she can’t get anything done, Hannah simply vanishes. She doesn’t pick her children up at school, and never returns home. What happened to her?

The Daylight Marriage was just OK for me. Pitlor is observant and creates very believable scenes and dialogue. There are little details sprinkled throughout the narration which made the action come alive for me. Her description of Hannah’s life and routine – picking up the kids, going to the orthodontist, making one of the few meals they would eat for dinner, homework, her husband’s vacancy – gave some clues as to why Hannah might want to disappear. She wrote, “When in [Hannah’s] life had she lost her desire for the next moment and then the next? It seemed to have happened slowly, not in one sudden blow, but over thousands of ordinary moments, in the tiniest of choices meant to lead her toward a well-defined future, the sort that had been chosen and lived by so many other people.”

Lovell was frustrating at first in his obtuseness, but he is redeemed somewhat by the end of the book. Faced with Hannah’s disappearance, he is forced to participate as a parent in a way he hasn’t before, and that process is gradual but convincing.

So why did this book fall short? I think it was the ultimate resolution of what happened to Hannah. Despite her apparent depression and desperation, her actions were unrealistic and unlikely. Pitlor throws in a few red herrings, but ultimately the answer to what happened wasn’t terribly shocking.

In the end: good writing, some keen observations, but an unfulfilling story.

 

LOVE HER, LOVE HER NOT: THE HILLARY PARADOX by Joanne Conrath Bamberger

There are few people who inspire emotional responses the way Hillary Clinton does. Whether they like her or don’t, everyone seems to have a strong opinion about her. A new collection of essays edited by Joanne Conrath Bamberger, Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox, tries to get to the heart of these complicated feelings about Clinton.

Love Her, Love Her Not is not my usual fare, but I found it pretty interesting. Bamberger’s essayists come at the Hillary question from a variety of angles. Some are unabashedly supportive, while others are (somewhat) more critical. One essayist says Hillary’s not progressive enough, and that to win her vote, she must fall more in line with populist sentiments. One takes issue with Hillary’s position of privilege among “the very rich, the very powerful” and questions her ability to fight for those who have less. Another calls on Hillary to work harder to support families. One, her neighbor in Chappaqua, NY, draws on hometown interactions with her to draw a more personal image of the candidate.

My favorite essay, “Bill Clinton As Metaphor For America And Why Hillary Is Uniquely Qualified For President”, gets into the eternal question of why Hillary stayed with Bill after Monica, focusing on her capacity to forgive not only her husband, but America for not electing her in 2008. “That love, that loyalty, that ability to see the real America – the raw, striving, gasping with hope America – is Hillary’s strength, a nearly wifely attitude of loyalty – in richer and poorer, sickness and health, weakness and strength.”

Candidly, there aren’t many contributors here who “love her not”, and including some real Hillary critics would have made the book a little more well-rounded. Some of the essays were pretty similar and left less of an impression than others. But I got a lot out of this collection and was able to satisfy and understand some of my own curiosity about the Democratic frontrunner.

Love Her, Love Her Not is well-written, thanks to the talents of Bamberger and her contributors. The main takeaway for me was that Hillary is not perfect, just like the rest of us aren’t, and that expecting her to be will leave us eternally disappointed. But embracing some of the contradictions inherent in this fascinating, impressive woman will free us to recognize her full potential.

SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED by Anne Lamott

Writer Anne Lamott had a son, Sam, when she was 35-years old, and wrote a memoir of Sam’s first year of life called Operating Instructions: A Journal Of My Son’s First Year. When Sam turned 19, his girlfriend Amy got pregnant, and they decided to keep and raise the baby. Some Assembly Required: A Journal Of My Son’s First Son is Lamott’s memoir of Sam’s son Jax’s first year of life. I just finished Some Assembly Required on audio, my first foray into Lamott territory.

Lamott is clearly in love with her grandson, Jax. Despite her concerns about the situation before he was born, she becomes utterly besotted upon his arrival. But at the same time, she seems to forget that other people in the world have had babies and grandbabies, and that Jax’s learning to roll over and make sounds is something that pretty much all babies eventually do. After a while, her repeated descriptions of Jax as the most advanced, good-natured baby in the world get a little old.

Lamott can be funny and self-deprecating, but she’s also very self-absorbed. While she acknowledges that it’s unreasonable for her to expect to be the center of the universe, she does expect to be the center of the universe. She has a hard time putting herself into other people’s shoes and understanding their point of view. She understands in theory that Jax’s mother Amy is far from home and the people she loves, but she just cannot accept Amy’s moving away as a rational, defensible position. She frequently mentions her generosity toward Sam and Amy, such as buying them groceries and clothes or babysitting Jax, but she is also fairly critical of their relationship and Amy’s refusal to get a job.

There are also long forays when Lamott goes to India and Europe which are initially interesting but then tend to drag on. I also got a little bored with the sections about religion and Lamott’s church and the ashram she attended with her son.

In the end, Some Assembly Required was sort of a drag. Touching and funny at times, but also tedious and frustrating.

Lamott herself narrated the audio version, with her son Sam narrating his own portions. Neither is a good narrator. They both recite the words with little expression. I feel like they were each sort of bored with the whole thing before they got to the audio.

Some Assembly Required was disappointing in the end. Should I try any other Anne Lamott books?

IN THE LANGUAGE OF MIRACLES by Rajia Hassib

Anyone up for a depressing family drama?

The latest in my canon of depressing family reads was In The Language of Miracles, by Rajia Hassib. It’s about an Egyptian couple, Samir and Nagla Al-Menshawy, who move to the U.S. and eventually settle in suburban New Jersey. They have three kids, Hosaam, Khaled and Fatima, and live quiet lives of assimilated immigrants until Hosaam, age 19, shoots and kills his ex-girlfriend/next door neighbor, and then himself. When In The Language Of Miracles opens, it is one year after the shooting/suicide, and the neighbors are planning a memorial service for their daughter, Natalie. The wife comes over to Samir and Nagla’s house to tell them about the memorial service, and after she leaves, the couple immediately disagrees about whether it would be appropriate for them to attend.

In The Language Of Miracles plays out over the next week, with a lot of time spent inside the heads of this grieving, troubled family. Samir is proud and stubborn, refusing to consider whether his own intransigence might have alienated his oldest son. Nagla is grieving for her lost son and also at a loss as to how to deal with Samir – should she defer to his wishes like an obedient, traditional Muslim wife, or stand up to him and try to dissuade him from attending the service? Khaled, we learn, has very mixed feelings about the brother who turned his life upside down. He is not getting the support he needs from his parents, and steals off to New York City when he can to meet with an older female friend there who shares his love of butterflies but knows nothing of this tragedy that has befallen his family. And finally, there is Ehsam, Nagla’s mother, who has moved to the States from Egypt to help care for the family in the wake of Hosaam’s death. She is a traditional Muslim grandmother who cites the Koran and offers old-fashioned Egyptian remedies when her family is sick. She, too, is grieving as she tries to support her daughter and grandson navigating the firestorm after the shootings.

Here’s my issue with In The Language of Miracles: it is devoid of any joy or redemption whatsoever. It is a meticulous analysis of the internal thoughts of the members of the family, most of whom have a reason to be disappointed in the others. Not much happens over the course of the week other than the struggles and hardship of what they are going through. And those disappointments are extremely well-documented. There were interesting glimpses into Ehsan’s relationships with her daughter and son and the ensuing clashes of traditional and modern, and I enjoyed the immigration aspect of the story. I would have liked to have learned more about Hosaam’s relationship with his girlfriend. We see flashbacks of him withdrawing from his family, but ultimately are left with little understanding of why he resorted to such a desperate act.

There is little evolution or progression in the book. Even the climactic scene – the memorial service – is a rather ambiguous affair. I had to reread the chapter a few times and I am still not entirely sure what happened.

Hassib’s writing is precise and eloquent. But I was ultimately left cold by In The Language of Miracles. It is a debut novel; perhaps over time Hassib will become more comfortable with showing rather than telling.

Talking with Robin Kall from “Reading With Robin”

Last Friday, I was on Robin Kall’s “Reading With Robin” radio show. We had a great time talking about Halloween, Fates and Furies, recent fall reads and our plans for BEA this year. Give it a listen! (It’s about 25 minutes.)

FATES AND FURIES by Lauren Groff

I finally made it through the audio (14 hours) of Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, and I’m still processing the book. It’s one of those books where the less you know about it going in, the better, but OMG I want to talk and talk about this book with anyone who has read it.

I’ll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum.

Fates and Furies is basically two books in one. Both are about the marriage of Lancelot “Lotto” Satterwhite and his wife, Mathilde Yoder. One half is told from Lotto’s perspective, and the other from Mathilde’s. The first half, Lotto’s side, is about his deep, deep love for Mathilde, his failed acting career, his brilliant playwriting career, and the friends and family in the couple’s orbit during the course of the marriage. Despite the early death of his father and his mother’s estrangement, Lotto was born under a lucky star (Fates). People are naturally drawn to him, and after his early professional failures, his success skyrockets. Most of all, he – a born womanizer – is devoted to his wife Mathilde, whom he believes to be the purest, most honest women he’s ever known. He’s faithful to her to the end.

(SORT OF SPOILER-Y – proceed with caution) The second half of the book is told from Mathilde’s perspective, and what a change in perspective it is. Mathilde loves Lotto fiercely and purely, but beyond that, she is not the person he believes her to be. I found her to be one of the most interesting and disturbing characters I’ve ever come across in a book. The twists and machinations that Groff unspools in the second half of Fates and Furies are breathtaking. Mathilde is a deeply damaged and angry woman (Furies), and I have deep appreciation for Groff’s ability to conjure her up. I certainly couldn’t have.

So there are really two books to review here. I found the first to be a little tedious. I skimmed through some of the chapters about Lotto’s plays, and I ultimately found him tiresome. He’s self-absorbed and lives in a kind of old-fashioned world where he doesn’t have to focus on quotidian details like bills or cooking. Maybe it was the audio version that did it, but I was also annoyed by his Southern drawl and theatrical delivery. This was likely all intentional – Groff setting up the counterpoint of Lotto’s openness and idealism with Mathilde’s secrecy. The second half of the book was the thrill for me, hands down. I couldn’t get enough of it.

I’ve read a bunch of reviews of this book that describe Fates and Furies as the story of a marriage and the secrets and passions two people hide from each other over the years. Uh, no. This is not a typical marriage! Neither one is a typical spouse, and Mathilde’s machinations are (I hope) rare among loving unions. Instead, I recommend this Slate review by Laura Miller, who nailed it:

The novel is in many ways about marriage, as many critics have observed. But it’s also about something even more universal than love. Two people sharing the same home and what seems to be the same life can occupy entirely different planets, storywise; two very different short novels can, bound together, explore the way we use stories to get what we need to make sense of our own lives and others’… ‘Fates,’ published alone, would have felt slight. ‘Furies,’ published alone, would have seemed farcical. In binding them together and letting the parts reflect each other like distorted mirrors, Groff reminds us that while Lotto may live in a dream world, he’s not the only one.

Groff’s certainly is a dream world. I’ve woken up from it and am still working on interpreting it.

About the audio: two books, two narrators. Lotto’s narrator Will Damron imbued him with the dreamy drawl I mentioned earlier, making him almost otherworldly and, I thought, inaccessible. I also didn’t like his Mathilde – too much of a falsetto. She sounded like a pansy. Julia Whelan was the perfect narrator for Mathilde, though. Precise, cold, and thin, she gave Mathilde the calculating, deliberate tone needed to pull her off. So the audio was a mixed bag for me.

If you’ve read Fates and Furies, come sit next to me. Let’s talk.