Four Ways to Wear a Dress by Gillian Libby

Millie has just lost her PR job in NYC. She really thought this would be her big beginning, when she would show her parents that she’d really become an adult. But alas, once again, in spite of her warnings to the company that their product was impractical and overpriced, they were forced to make cuts – and that included her. So, at least for now, she is going to take her shared, “good-luck” little black dress that her friends are foisting upon her and move out to California, where the final member of their posse, Quincy, is living, helping to run their family-owned hotel. What Millie finds is that Quincy and her friends, social media influencers hoping to bolster the businesses of their tiny coastal town, are living a dual reality: one that is on social media and one that is real life. As Millie tries to find her own way, she has to navigate this duality for herself and figure out where – and if!- she fits into this picture.

My initial reaction to this book for this blog’s purpose is to tell you not to waste your time.

The bulk of this story, which is predictable in almost every way, revolves around the superficial world of social media influencers, which is distracting, disingenuous, and really all about the money. Even the children here are trained to stop suddenly – right on cue, even mid-sibling-rivalry-argument – long enough to plaster lovely smiles on their faces for uploadable photos in a very contrived-but-meant-to-look-natural setting. Any admission of an imperfection is shameful, any hint of real-world troubles is deemed unacceptable. When Millie arrives and begins to be publicly genuine, posting her mishaps and actually getting attention for it, she gets admonished by the local “queen bee.”

That is, of course, the message, though. It is a comment on social media and its influencers. It is a critique of the idea that we must only put our best selves – or a version of ourselves that is “perfect” out there for others to see, and never admit that we are imperfect, or actually human.

But I would suggest that that isn’t good enough. I would suggest that maybe we might not publicize so much of ourselves at all. Maybe we could just be actually living more of our lives; being mindful of, rather than posting, every meal we consume, every outfit we wear, every experience we enjoy. Maybe also, we could be watching less of what others are doing. Certainly research supports this: that is, the more time we spend on social media, the more anxious and depressed we are.

So while the book is not necessarily a worthwhile read, it does get one thinking… which always has value. Lucky for you, I saved you the trouble! You’re welcome! 🙂

 

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

While still a boy, Patroclus is brought by his father, a king, to compete for the marriage of Helen, considered the most beautiful woman in all of Greece. They bring gifts, and the bashful boy is expected to demonstrate his wit and intelligence measured against the famous princes and demigods around him. While his father speaks up for him, his unabashed disdain for the boy is apparent. It is no surprise when Helen chooses another. Upon their return home, when disaster strikes, Patroclus is not surprised when he is sent away from his home, forced to live in exile, with a king known to take in other exiles like himself. While he does what he can to avoid attention, he inadvertently catches the eye of the son of the king, none other than Achilles, a demigod himself. Their friendship grows and leads to adventures that Patroclus can not even imagine.

Not being so well-versed in Greek mythology myself (having read the Odyssey in high school and little beyond that- not generally a huge fan) I can’t comment with much authority on how this compares to the original . What I can say is that while some of the themes of vanity and hubris are well-preserved, this was certainly a modernized version of the events told in those ancient texts.

What is done so subtly and beautifully, I believe, is while Patroclus tries to uplift the Achilles heroic narrative, he (or the author), in fact, reveals himself as the true hero: the one who maintains humility, kindness, and true loyalty even in the midst of what becomes chaos. While he always folds himself into the background, always shining the light toward Achilles – who accepts this with no hesitation, as his position and stature would dictate – Patroclus meanwhile bolsters, soothes, even guides Achilles toward the proper direction. Few see him for who he really is. Some even hate him – and none more than Achilles’ mother. (Could it be that she hates him because she sees him for who he really is?)

So while I did read The Odyssey quite a long time ago, I did enjoy this adventure much more than that one! I’m curious if you out there in cyberspace did as well! I’d love to hear your opinions!

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Arthur Less has found an escape route. With the approach of his ex-lover’s wedding, which he cannot bear to attend, he has manufactured a series of commitments — lectures to be given, classes to be taught, awards ceremonies to attend – and all abroad, so that he cannot possibly be present to witness the upcoming nuptials. As he embarks upon his journey and his approaching 50th birthday, he reflects upon his life and what he has to look forward to. Throughout his journey, it seems that as his suitcase appears to become emptier,  his heart becomes fuller.

On the surface, the story of Arthur Less can feel somewhat self-indulgent. He is smoldering over his life, having lived many years in the shadow of a genius. He feels he’s achieved merely mediocrity at best, as an author, as a lover, perhaps even as a human in general. He laments his past works, such as they are, as well as his current attempts at writing and at love. He has imposter syndrome to the nth degree. Sadly, he neglects to see the love that he inspires around him. He has difficulty taking in the admiration of his students, his audiences, and his friends. Only we, the readers, see it.

Can’t we all relate to this? Just as Arthur travels around the world getting swept up in misadventure and blaming himself, many of us travel through life focusing on what we’ve done wrong and where we have erred rather than on what we should be grateful for. I know I often fall into the trap of being my own worst critic and blind to my own blessings. I often feel “less.”

I am not sure I understand how this was a Pulitzer Prize winner, but it certainly does have meaning beyond the surface and is a worthwhile and entertaining read.

I would be so interested to hear what others think about this one! Please comment!

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

In February of 2020, Seymour is on a mission to fight climate change with his razor focus, his headphones, and a backpack of explosives. Upstairs in the library where Seymour is attempting his strike, Zeno is guiding a pack of 5 excited children as they rehearse a play – their version of an ancient Greek story. In the 1400’s, there are 2 young people on opposite sides of the siege of Constantinople, Anna and Omeir, each dealing with their own version of trauma and poverty. And way in the future, there is a young girl named Konstance who is traveling on a mission to an exoplanet where she’ll be able to survive and restart a new generation of human life. Each of these threads are linked by the tale of the Cloud Cuckoo Land, an ancient, absurd tale carried from antiquity and retold through the ages, to entertain, to sustain, and to give hope.

This is an outrageously imaginative novel that may take a bit of time to get into, but then grips and holds you until the very last page. I am just astounded at how one person can weave together such seemingly disparate tales into one large picture that ultimately ties so tightly together. Writing like this is a gift. Moreover, each tale, in and of itself, is tender and gripping – each character, vulnerable and complex. We love Anna for her deep struggle to care for her ill sister, Maria. And we love Omeir for his tenderness toward his animals. We even understand Seymour’s frustration and anger as he acts out of desperation in a way he sees as his only choice. The author endows every character with so much humanity that we are glued to them, their actions, their struggles.

And the larger message here, that books and learning can bring joy – is the most beautiful. In this moment, when extremists are threatening to burn books, to limit the choices of literature that others read or access, we are reminded about what folks throughout history have lived through just to save our stories. So many have fought to save books, even those that might seem trivial or silly, because books bring light and hope and knowledge to those who take advantage and open their hearts to them.

Banning books is never the answer.

This book may not be for everyone – but if you open your imagination – it just might be for you!

 

The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham

“Mad Molly” has surprisingly been able to survive up there in her house on her hill, but now that her daughter Tillie has returned, everyone wonders how it will go for them. In the past, Tillie has brought nothing but misfortune for everyone around her. Even Tillie doubts that she can bring anything but danger. The one good thing she does bring is her talent for sewing clothes of the latest fashion, and this does not go unnoticed by those who eye her closely as she joins the persistent Teddy McSweeney at her first town dance. One by one, they approach her to become their seamstress, but there is a history that cannot be ignored. And that history comes back to haunt all of them.

This is a mean little novel. I found the writing to be coarse and fragmented and the many characters so unlikable (with a few exceptions) that it was hard work to keep track of who was related to whom. Even Tillie, the heroine of the story, was kept so vague, so distant from the reader, that I felt I barely got to know her. I was granted only tiny morsels of her past life, which were tossed in as tiny gems buried in the muck of the small town politics and gossip that took up most of the novel. While I was told of the intricate details of the dresses she sewed, I was told almost nothing of the life she’d lived before she came home to her mother. One must bond to the characters to feel for them.

A bitter disappointment, this one. Don’t waste your time.

 

 

 

The World to Come by Dara Horn

This fantastical journey sets out as we meet Ben, shattered by recent events in his life – a  nasty divorce and the painful death of his mother – who is encouraged by his twin sister, Sara, to attend a singles event at an art museum. As it happens, he stumbles upon a Chagall painting there that looks very familiar – so familiar that he is driven to do something impulsive, something that will have lasting implications for both him and his sister.

This story is told in layer upon whimsical layer, with narration as chromatic and surreal as a Chagall painting. The author weaves together the family stories of Ben and Sara’s parents, stories written by their mother, stories about Chagall and an author colleague Der Nister, and dream sequences, sometimes blurring what is real and what is fantasy. The prose is poetic and vivid, creating images that shower into the imagination and that will likely stay with the reader long after the last page is turned. 

There is also biblical referencing that reinforces a strong philosophical message here. Without giving too much away, there are many references to meaningful value of life and making the most of our time here on Earth. Sara’s mother tells her, “Everything counts. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you’re just rehearsing for your life.” We see different attitudes toward life between Ben and his sister, even between Chagall and his colleague, Der Nister. Some who live life while others who watch others live life.

There is much to keep track of here, as the story winds through its circular path. It can sometimes become challenging, even. Nevertheless, it is definitely worth the challenge, worth the swelling of your imagination, this beautiful tale. Like walking into a painting yourself…

 

 

 

 

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

The Lincoln Highway: A Novel: Towles, Amor: 9780735222359: Amazon.com: Books

After being escorted home by the warden of Salina, the juvenile detention center where he has just served, Emmett arrived with a fairly clear plan for starting anew, for himself and his younger brother, Billy,  Since the premature death of their father, the only parent who’d been around for the past number of years, it was now up to Emmett to see to Billy’s care and he planned to take that responsibility very seriously.  He did not, however, anticipate that 9-year-old Billy would have an equally precise idea about what their future plan should entail.  Nor did he anticipate the complicated route on which they would find themselves traveling.  

There are many reasons that I am not an author, but Amor Towles is one of them.  Many authors intimidate me, with their uncanny ability to weave together intricate plot lines, such that they push the borders of one’s imagination.  Others are able to conjure sentences that are like pearls on a string, poetry within prose, at which I can only marvel. Towles is able to accomplish both, which is the gift he shared with us in A Gentleman in Moscow, and again shares with us here. 

And the characters are as multi-dimensional as the people we know in our lives.  Duchess, one of Emmett’s associates from Salina, is a profound and complex character, and this novel is every bit about his journey as it is Emmett’s. Duchess who is the consummate showman, is always polite and upbeat and outwardly generous, is inwardly broken.  We know not to trust him but we like him in spite of ourselves; we know he has a heart, but that heart has been fractured over and over and over.  He too is on a mission, and his is understandable but misguided.

I love that Billy —  the youngest, most idealistic, and the one guided by a book of heroes — is also the character in the story with the most common sense.  Billy is the one who sees through all the nonsense that the others struggle with.  While everyone else sees themselves as his protectors, Billy is actually the one who remains calm, keeps the most level head, and pays attention to the details that matter most.  We can all learn from Billy.

The writing, the characters, the journey – give this gift to yourself.  And be glad that Amor Towles is the author, and not me! 

A definite MUST-READ!  

 

 

 

The Map of Salt and Stars by Zeyn Joukhadar

The Map of Salt and Stars | Book by Zeyn Joukhadar | Official Publisher  Page | Simon & Schuster

Nour has already been uprooted with her family from New York to Syria, after the death of her beloved father.  It has been hard to feel grounded, not to feel out of place, as she’s struggled to learn the language that comes so easily to her older sisters who had the advantage of having been born there.  When disaster strikes, however, they must leave once again, and Nour must find the strength to search for the place she will ultimately call home, as well as determine who she really is.  What guides and inspires Nour is her memory of the fantastical legend of Rawiya, who sets out to study the art of mapmaking, facing her own challenges and adventures.  

 It is stories like this one that brings the migrant crisis to a human level.  We might read about thousands of people crossing deserts, oceans, and barbed-wired borders in search of freedom or safety,  and it might be hard for us to connect to these realities.  But when we come to know a 12-year-old girl, with 2 older sisters, who has painful memories of her deceased father, who feels out of place and awkward and is stuck in her own dreams and her father’s stories, we connect with her.  And when she travels we travel and when she is in danger, we are in danger.   And it’s hard and it hurts – and that makes it human.  And that is the power of fiction – it makes things real. 

What works in the novel is the simultaneous tale of Rawiya,.  It serves as an emotional release from the intensity of Nour’s journey- almost a literary breath, if you will.  More than that, though, it gives an opportunity to highlight the mystical and historic richness of the lands through which Nour is traversing.   These lands of Arabia are vibrant and full of legend, and the story brings this to light.  

Again, this is hard to read, but it is poetically written, colorful and imaginative.  A journey of its own.   

 

Wish You Were Here by Jodi Picoult

Wish You Were Here: A Novel: Picoult, Jodi: 9781984818416: Amazon.com: Books

It is March, 2020, and Diane may have just made the faux pas of her career.  She’d been on such a positive trajectory, climbing the ladder in the art business world just as she’d planned.  In fact, most of her life was going as planned – her life with Finn, her boyfriend, their New York, fast-paced, busy lives — really everything.  But now, who knows?  This would be the perfect time to get away to the Galapagos, as she and Finn had planned,  Unfortunately, it doesn’t look as though Finn will be able to get away, as this novel coronavirus has coopted his surgical training, and all hands are on deck for caring for Covid patients at the hospital.  Should she go on her own, as he’s suggested? The next few months will turn their lives upside-down, as they have done for all of us – but not nearly in the way you will expect!

When I realized that this book was taking place during Covid, I was apprehensive about reading it.  We’ve all been through it and we’re all pretty over it – to say the very least!  The masks, the distancing, the isolation – enough already!!  

But actually, this story has a novel plot line, with ample twists and turns that keep it fresh.  Covid is only a part of the story.  There are gorgeous natural scenes in the Galapagos that engage our imagination.  There are characters who are experiencing familial issues that are unrelated to the pandemic that will distract you from thinking about your mask and your disinfectant.  And there is deep discussion about art that always highlights our humanity.  

Most importantly, this narrative suggests we strive to seek our own silver lining from the pandemic.  Diane finds hers, in her relationship with her mother, in her self-discovery, in her appreciation of living in the moment.  While there has been devastating loss, unspeakable fractionation within our population, and the unearthing of so much injustice during this pandemic, there has also been newfound light.  There has been a slowing down, a “time out,” so to speak, during which we’ve had a chance to reevaluate and reassess.  There has been more intensive time with some loved ones, even while there has been time away from others, which can give us time to appreciate each other on a whole different level.  There’s been time to appreciate what we do have.  

Yes, this may all sound a little pollyannish, but I am, at the end of the day, an optimist.  It helps me to find something good even in things that are hard.   

How exactly is this expressed in the story?  I guess you’ll have to read it to find out…!

 

 

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.