My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

Amazon.com: My Absolute Darling: A Novel: 9780735211179: Tallent, Gabriel:  Books

Turtle has been living a very self-contained existence for all of her 14 years of life. It’s been pretty much just her and Martin, her father, with a weekly visit to play Cribbage with her Grandpa. Except for going to school, Turtle has been living mostly off the grid, and Martin’s obsession with survival has her ensuring that her guns are always clean and her guard is always up. And while she feels incompetent because of her academic struggles, she feels little about how she is perceived socially – that is, until she meets 2 lost boys in the woods, who ultimately help her every bit as much as she helps them.

This is an utterly gripping, but utterly disturbing novel about how trauma can be experienced and passed down from one generation to the next.  We are in Turtle’s head as she withstands her recurrent abuse at the hands of her father, and we deeply feel compassion for the simultaneous love and hate she feels toward him. There are so many opportunities she has to escape and yet she returns to his overpowering grip. It is a classic abusive relationship, where the abuser convinces the abused that they have no way out.  

The writing is razor-sharp and keeps the reader on edge throughout.  It is impossible to put this one down. We are with Turtle, rooting for her, holding our breath, feeling her awkwardness, and reeling from her anger toward the hard, hard world she inhabits. We exhale when we meet her 2 new friends, as they banter mindlessly and playfully, in such stark contrast to anything she has ever known. And we cannot stop turning the pages to find out how far she will have to go to survive.  

This book is not for the feint of heart, but it is a wildly suspenseful read and an important insight into the mindset of a child abused.  

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett

Amazon.com: Imagine Me Gone: 9780316261333: Haslett, Adam: Books

Margaret has tried her best to keep her marriage to John and their 3 children’s lives as “normal” as possible, but she has not been able to stifle her fear that John’s formidable depression might return at any time. Steadfast in her love for him, she stands by him, even as he is unable to maintain even the fiction of function. Yet, as she is trying desperately to guide her children through their adolescence, she cannot prevent the tragedy that ends up defining them. Maybe, she thinks, she can keep them close enough to show them that family can help each other get through.

The sheer beauty of the writing in this novel carries it to great heights. The story is told from a rotation of voices, which strengthens the perspective and gives us a glimpse into the minds of each member of this close-knit and deeply pained family. There is such imagery, almost poetry, in the descriptions and the way ideas are shared. Michael, the eldest of the 3 children, has inherited his father’s mental illness, and it manifests in a mania, obsessions, and overwhelming and paralyzing guilt. He often rambles on, the typical “flight of ideas” of someone with mania. One of his rants, during a loan deferment application, contains the following passage: “I was selected by the Department of Education to voyage on their first Student Loan Probe to Jupiter, as one of four debitnauts. We traveled for years, passing through nebulae of internships and retail, through the wake of an imploding technology boom, and on through the outer rings of bankruptcy, before finally reaching the planet’s gaseous surface. Our hope was to make contact with the lost colony of the underemployed.” (Page 290) And so on.

The quality of the writing extends to the character development as well, in my opinion. We get inside the brains of Michael, of his sister, Celia, and his much younger brother, Alec. We learn how they cope, how they don’t cope, and how they rely on each other to get through. Their bond is just as dysfunctional as it is functional – typical and realistic. They fight each other and fight for each other. But there is always love underlying all of it – and that is communicated with the warmth and the humor and even the eye rolls that we can so clearly envision.

So yes, this book has its depressing overtones, but it is so beautifully written that it is worth the hardship of it. It is also such a realistic portrait of mental illness and its impact on a family that it’s our duty not to shy away from it.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Amazon.com: The Midnight Library: A Novel eBook : Haig, Matt: Kindle Store

Nora is done.  She has disappointed almost everyone she knows and feels she is done trying not to.  She gave up swimming and disappointed her dad.  She gave up the band and disappointed her brother.  She gave up her relationship and disappointed her fiancee, Dan.  And now, she’s even disappointed her cat.  She just cannot do anything right.  It’s just time to give up, period.  But when it comes that time, she discovers a place in-between and it may be that there is space for second (and more) chances.  

This book is based on a slightly outrageous, but fascinating premise of a theorem of quantum physics which states that we may be living more than one life simultaneously.  That is, even very tiny choices can lead us toward very divergent paths and have very different consequences for our lives.  And what if each of these are branches from a root life that are going on simultaneously?  And what if, at some point, we have the choice to go back and choose one of these alternative paths?  Sort of an “undo” of our lives?  It’s a pretty wild concept, no?

This narrative begins well.  We feel a deep empathy for Nora and her experience of depression, loneliness, and hopelessness, and understand her decision to escape.  The “midnight library” is an elaborate metaphor and creates a gorgeous image that helps us to understand this concept of simultaneous lives in a way that is accessible to those of us who may not be able to comprehend very abstract concepts of quantum physics. 

Unfortunately, I feel as though the author struggled to know where to drive the storyline once the underlying premise was established.  There is a clear message here, but it is so clear that it makes the outcome transparent way too early on.  Knowing this made it feel like too much work to get there.  And with an ending so predictable, it was also disappointingly melodramatic and “picture perfect.”

What I did appreciate is that the author, Matt Haig, is not afraid to discuss the oft-hushed topics of anxiety, depression and suicidality through fiction.  We know he has first-hand knowledge of these topics, as he has authored a memoir (reviewed in this blog in 2019) called Reasons to Stay Alive, in which he so generously shares his own struggles with these difficult conditions.   In giving voice to mental health issues, creating characters who live with them, it helps to widen the scope of empathy for the millions of folks who struggle with these disorders, both visibly and invisibly.  

So while there is value to this book, in the clever premise and vital message, it is disappointingly predictable. 

PS:

There is another book that presents this theory and in a more subtle way:  The Book of Two Ways, by Jodi Picoult.  See my review from May 29, 2021   

 

 

 

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved: Toni Morrison: 9781400033416: Amazon.com: Books

Denver and Sethe have found a rhythm in their isolated existence..  Even while they are haunted by an occasional eerie noise or movement from the unexpected, and even as they mourn the loss of Baby Suggs, their mother/grandmother, they have figured out a way to work and live and get through the days.   It is only the arrival of Paul D who stirs up old trauma for Sethe, throwing her back into her past, forcing her to relive old horrors.  And it is very unclear if their unusual little family will be able to leave the past behind and move forward.  

Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer prize-winning Beloved, is beautiful, poetic, lofty, erratic, layered, and extremely hard to understand without guidance.   It is likely that repeated readings are necessary to glean the most meaning from the text  Because it was not set up as a traditional story might be, it was hard to get oriented to the characters, — who they were, where they were,  and how they were related to each other.  Once I did muddle through the first, maybe 10%,  of the book, however, I was then able to appreciate the book for all its magnificent power.  

There is a story here, but a non-linear one and one that mixes in much superstition, supernatural, and memory.  In truth, it is a lyrical platform in which to lament the horrors of enslavement, the way in which enslavement robs us of our humanity.  It is loosely based on a true story of a woman who, rather than allow her daughter to be captured and be enslaved, murdered her instead.   This  unthinkable act forces us to examine just how desperate a mother could be to choose death over a life of ownership by another individual.  To choose death rather than not having freedom to choose whom one may love and form attachment to.  To choose death over a life of being chained, both figuratively and literally.  

Most powerful for me were the sparks of memories of Paul D and of Sethe as they went about their day to day on “Sweet Home,” the plantation where they’d originally met.  Paul D harks back to a memory of overhearing an assessment of his monetary worth, as if one could place such a figure on a life.  At another moment, Sethe remembers overhearing Schoolteacher showing his pupils how to list Sethe’s human qualities on one side of a page and her animal qualities on the other, reducing her to only partly human.  There is physical brutality described as well, but I believe these more insidious crimes reveal more about how these individuals were perceived and how these perceptions seeped into their souls– even more so than the physical harm that befell them. 

I feel that I’ve gotten so much from having read this book.  If reading can impart some degree of empathy,  Sethe’s story is an important place to start.    

The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams

The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams

Aleisha cannot imagine how she’ll survive this long, dreadful summer ahead, working in, of all places, a library! She doesn’t even like to read! And it’s not like she’s excited to go home at the end of the day, either. There, she finds even more stress, never knowing in what condition she will find her mother. And now she has to deal with this grumpy old man…

Meanwhile, Mukesh has not been the same since his wife died 2 years ago. He knows that. But why must his daughters hover over him as if he is incapable of doing anything for himself? Maybe if he can reconnect with his wife through the books she’s read, it’ll do him some good.  But that may mean going to the library.  What a chore…

As a lover of books and reading, I adore the premise of this book. I love that a library becomes a magnet, drawing people together to share their experience of learning about the world– learning about themselves — through characters and stories. Both Aleisha and Mukesh are lonely and stuck inside themselves; the library and the books they share become the tools they use to dig themselves out from under this.

Unfortunately, while the story line has great potential, the writing is choppy, unoriginal, and occasionally simplistic. It was hard to get through, even when I did have curiosity about the outcome. I liked the characters, but the telling of their story did not do them justice, and honestly, I was simply bored at some points.

I firmly agree with the author, that books are a way to learn about others, that characters teach us empathy and how to cope. They can set an example, inspire us, and enlighten us. I only wish this message had been delivered with a bit more subtlety and flair.

 

Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid: 9781524798659 |  PenguinRandomHouse.com: Books

 

Nina is just not sure she has it in her to go through with her annual Malibu bash this year, given her current, very mortifying, so painfully public circumstance. How could she have been so foolish as to have trusted Brandon with her heart, especially after watching her mother go through this very same thing?  Unfortunately, since no one is actually invited to these parties – they just come! – ,she cannot disinvite them either.  She is committed and she’ll get through this just as she has every other hardship she’s had to endure through her young, somewhat glamorous, but inwardly difficult life.  And she’ll take care of her siblings as they confront their trials and tribulations as well, just as she’s done all of their lives. It’s just the way it has to be.  Well, it certainly feels that way…

Taylor Jenkins Reid has a flair for delving deep into the hearts of the glitterati, often revealing the dark underbelly of fame.  While so many crave the spotlight, Jenkins Reid exposes the isolation and the emptiness that often lies there.   As she narrates the tale of Nina and her siblings and their current day issues, she also flips back in time to the story of Nina’s parents: her “Elvis”-like father who lusts after stardom almost like a drug, to the exclusion of everything else, including Nina’s mother, and his own children.  This strongly contrasts with Nina, who has achieved her own degree of recognition from her new, but quite successful, modeling career,; however, Nina shies away from the attention when she possibly can.  She is utterly devoted to her siblings, and while this is difficult, she also has their love and support always.  There is a clear and present message here.  

And yes, there is quite a bit that is predictable here.  And yes, there are many stereotypes here.  But it is a fun read, with some twists and turns, and some crazy surprises, especially as the big, Malibu bash gets going.  There  is no end to the trouble these stars cause!

Not a MUST-READ, but definitely a fun read!  Enjoy!

 

Deacon King Kong by James McBride

Amazon.com: Deacon King Kong: A Novel: 9780735216723: McBride, James: Books

What could possibly possess that bumbling, mumbling, stumbling old man, Sportcoat — everyone is thinking — to walk to the middle of the crowded flagpole square, here in Brooklyn in 1969, and shoot Deems Clemens in broad daylight? Everyone knows that Deems has grown up to be the lead drug dealer in the neighborhood, in spite of their communal dream that he’d use his brilliant baseball arm to pitch his way out of there. Now they all have to worry about protecting Sportcoat, even if he himself doesn’t seem to even remember having done the deed and isn’t being at all cooperative about laying low. How will he manage to evade revenge, now that this seems to have triggered a much more magnified response among the parties involved. What could Sportcoat have been thinking?

As Sportcoat meanders through the buildings of the Cause Houses, he brings us with him on a journey that feels random but is, in fact, a meticulously and methodically crafted tale. His warm and breezy manner is deceptive, and unless you’re paying close attention to his intoxicated rambling, you might miss his astute observations and profound wisdom. Other characters, too, have surprising depth and heart and casually drop the clues that create the cleverly drawn story that entangles them all. The “Elephant,” or Tommy Elefante, the son who inherits his father’s, um… let’s say, “import/export” business in the neighborhood, is another such player. As we peer into his heart, we know he’s committed some foul deeds, but he’s also been consistent and honest, which, in his business – and really in any business – counts for a lot. We feel their internal struggles, and we are privy to the reconciliation with their pasts.

There is so much that is subtly brilliant about this novel, it, no doubt, deserves to be read more than once. McBride’s writing enables us to easily fall in love with his characters, their wonderful names, their gritty dialogue, and their wildly human vulnerabilities. We feel trapped with them, inside their lanes, trying desperately to break out of the stereotypical cards that are dealt them. Each of them is in his or her segment of the same neighborhood, managing the social and economic forces that are trying to pit neighbor against neighbor in Brooklyn, 1969. Because of the poignant writing, we are right there with them, feeling their pain, laughing along with their victories.

This novel is utterly beautiful, in all its gritty splendor. An absolute MUST-READ!

The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes by Elissa R Sloan

The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes by Elissa R. Sloan

“There’s nothing the public loves more than to tear down someone who was once their idol.”

It had been years since Gloss had exploded onto the music scene and then dissolved into disaster when Cassidy deserted the pop girl band, seemingly out of nowhere. Even so, the other surviving band members were still taken aback upon learning of Cassidy’s untimely death. While she was never solidly “one of them,” she did spend a lot of time with them – on tour, in rehearsals – so why did they all feel clueless about what happened to her? Or were they?

This novel is reminiscent of Daisy Jones and the Six, in that it testifies to the drama and strain of sudden fame and exhaustion of the traveling pop star. The image promoted by the media is often completely disparate from what is behind the curtain, so to speak. Moreover, there are so many who rely on, and prey on the maintenance of this image. We see this sort of thing happening on social media often enough with the ordinary person – imagine how magnified it is for the extraordinary.

The narrative here is very effective. The voice swivels around from Cassidy before and during her time in Gloss to the various members of Gloss in current day, post-Gloss. The story is built, layer by careful layer, from this rotation of storytelling and from it we get a gradual, global perspective. The few “aha” moments are quite satisfying and make for an overall, really fun read.

I highly recommend this – as entertaining as a Gloss concert might have been in its heyday!

The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd

 

Amazon.com: The Book of Longings: A Novel: 9780525429760: Kidd, Sue Monk:  Books

Ana is not the typical Jewish girl of her era, the first century, just outside ancient Jerusalem, under Roman rule. She is acutely aware of her powerlessness, even while she is better off than many, with her father being first scribe to the Tetrarch. No, she is still female and still feels the sting of having little agency over her future. While others her age appear to anticipate with wonder their upcoming matches and engagements, she is filled with dread. This is not the life she seeks. Ana is a writer of stories, hungrily stealing away with any papyrus and ink she might snatch from her father’s cache. She documents the pain and the courage that she witnesses in the women around her. She cannot imagine herself with any man – that is, until she stumbles upon the man called Jesus…

This fascinating novel of historical fiction imagines Jesus not as a celibate ascetic, but rather more as a man. He is pious and righteous and utterly generous and he promotes kindness, forgiveness, love and all of the doctrines for which he is known and beloved. But he is also human, with human instincts and human desires.

More importantly, the focus of the novel is not directed toward Jesus, but rather on Ana. The message here, I believe, is that we are ALWAYS hearing about the men. We always hear about how righteous they are and how they opine. Very few women are highlighted in the Bible, for example, and if they are, it is often to let us know whom they have “begotten,” or worse, if they have not been able to “beget.” There is quite a lot of violence toward these women, and there is quite a lot of hushing and rejection of them as well. Ana makes it her business to tell their stories, the stories of her women, not only of the Bible, but also of her peers and her family. She sees it as her mission to ensure that they are not forgotten, as women often are.

The characters depicted here are lifelike and enduring in our minds. We are drawn to Yaltha, Ana’s aunt, for example, because of her untiring loyalty and rebellious spirit. We also have deep sympathy for her because, bit by bit, her dark and tragic history is revealed to us. She has been so mistreated but yet she remains steadfast in her devotion to Ana. We cannot help loving her for this.

This is a beautiful work of imagination and imagery that I believe will stay at least with me for a long time. I’d very much love to hear what others think of it as well!

Heavy by Kiese Laymon

Through this deeply moving memoir, Kiese Laymon shares his experience having grown up as a black male in a larger body in the deep South.  He shares his earlier traumas, his fonder memories, and how he has learned to cope with both the times his mother was absent and the times she was present.  

This is a such a gritty, revealing memoir that reading it feels almost voyeuristic.  Writing it as a letter to his mother, Laymon is so deeply introspective and revelatory that we peer into his private window, we peek inside his heart.  We experience his profound sense of pain and powerlessness as he watches the women in his life become victimized by other men.  His anger is, sadly, directed inward – as it so often is.  It manifests first as binge eating and later as restriction and overexercising.  This coping strategy works for him, however, until it doesn’t.  Meanwhile, he is able to be as resilient as possible, forging relationships,  excelling academically and achieving goals on his terms.  

As a side note, I so appreciate that Laymon has come forward with this memoir, because it defiles so many stereotypes of who struggles with eating disorders.  As he acknowledges himself, eating disorders are thought to exist only in upper class, white women – and this is just not true. Folks of all genders, races, and socioeconomic strata utilize these behaviors to cope with their lives and one can never assume anyone is free or “protected” because of who they are or appear to be.  These are secretive behaviors and cannot be diagnosed by someone’s appearance.  And they can be very painful, distracting, and most importantly, life-threatening – never to be taken lightly.

This is also an important memoir from the perspective of understanding racial issues and racism.   Laymon shares his encounters with racism and digests them with us, his readers.  Both he and his mother, in spite of their obvious intelligence and academic accomplishments, are underpaid and frequently disrespected.   But, again, he also places his experiences into context.  He understands that even when he’s been treated as less than, he is still not at the bottom of the totem pole, being a male as opposed to a female person of color.  His compassionate view of the women in his life enables him to see their utter vulnerability to the forces of bias and power imbalance. 

I deeply appreciate this memoir, for all its raw and painful honesty. This is a hard read but well worth the work of it.