How to Behave in a Crowd by Camille Bordas

Dory has not skipped multiple grades as have all of his older siblings.  He has not acquired any advanced academic degrees and he has not defended his PhD thesis.  He believes he is barely even noticed by anyone, even when he routinely runs away from home to test his theory.   The only one who does seem to see him is Denise, the only other person in his class with no friends.  Denise, who is known to be chronically depressed, even suicidal at times, and who shuns every other human being’s attention.  As Dory works hard to decipher just who he is in the context of his odd, cynical, intellectual family, he learns that one doesn’t need a PhD to be kind or to find justice.

This is a quirky coming-of-age novel that will no doubt wind up on your local indie foreign film screen one day soon. Simultaneously dark and sardonically comical, the story goes where you least expect it to go.  And the characters are wonderfully unconventional.  Dory himself is so painfully awkward and is so utterly endearing that the reader feels for him from the very first line.    Even his siblings, who are narcissistic and socially objectionable, are still quite funny and entertaining.  Even Denise, who is depressed, isolated, and cynical, offers her own brand of glib commentary on the world which is often sarcastic.

On the other hand, it is also a  quite serious commentary on the emotional crippling of the educational system.  While Dory finds himself surrounded by siblings who excel academically, he finds no one is able to mentor him in the area of emotional intelligence.  This he has to figure out on his own, and this is his greatest challenge.  His siblings are all emotionally suppressed, have no friends and have never learned to express or cope with emotions in any healthy way.   Ironically, it seems they look to the youngest of them all – Dory – as an example.

I actually really liked this book and I believe you will hear more about it and its author.

Sociable by Rebecca Harrington

Elinor knows that she and Mike have been fighting a bit more than usual, but when Mike suddenly breaks things off, she feels blindsided.  Meanwhile, unexpectedly, she finds herself with a new journalism opportunity that just might fill the void she’s been feeling.  As she embarks on her career, she learns that she can achieve success on her own and that she must learn to take bolder steps to succeed.

There’s no other way to put this except to say that this book, in my opinion, is terrible.  The writing is flat and colorless.  The characters are devoid of charm.  It may be realistic in that most characters are constantly on their phones, even when having conversations with each other, and even when at parties, but that, to me, only made the book more dismal.

Perhaps the most frustrating part of the story is that it is yet another book about how the girl is once again used by her boyfriend and she doesn’t even see that she is.  When he gets a new job, they all celebrate.  When she gets a new job, he’s too busy with his to even acknowledge it. He is never wrong and is totally self-righteous and never gives her credit for having a brain, and she believes that he is justified in being that way.  Just more stereotypical characters with nothing new to say.

Not sure why I read the whole thing…  I guess so you won’t have to bother!

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Ugwu feels quite privileged to have been chosen to work for Master.  Most people in his small village in Nigeria are not given the opportunity to work for someone who provides such fine quarters, good food, and an education as his Master is offering him.  He also has the opportunity to overhear Master’s exuberant  discussions with his regular guests, other professors and intellectuals discussing the political upheaval of their time. And as Ugwu helps Master prepare for the coming of Olanna, Master’s love, Ugwu watches change come not only to their household, but to Nigeria itself.

In some ways this is a monumental saga, portraying one family’s experience of the devastating Nigerian-Biafran war of the late 1960’s. The author is able to illustrate the complexity of the war – the tribalism, the massacres that preceded the war, the sheer indifference with which the world treated those who were starving to death.   In other ways, there is something missing, something somewhat detached in the writing that keeps the reader just this side of being fully invested in the story.  With the exception of Ugwu, who has a sweetness and a naivety to him, most of the characters have a chilliness that seem to keep not only the reader but even each other at bay.

This is not an easy book to read but I’m so glad I did.  I think you will be too.

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

“My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.”  So begins Dana’s story of how she became the “secret”, bearing the burden of being the offspring of her father’s infidelity.  At first her mother, Gwendolyn, has consoled her with the knowledge that Dana and Gwendolyn know about the other wife and daughter (Laverne and Chaurisse) but Laverne and Chaurisse do not know about them.  They even take little outings to surveil Laverne and Chaurisse, just to see how they live.  But as Dana grows older, she seeks love in other places just to fill the void that her father has created.  And as the novel progresses, we also learn that Chaurisse has not gone unscathed by the crime committed by her father.  The question is, how long can James maintain his lie?  How long until his two worlds collide?

This is a powerful novel, written in the voices of both daughters of a man who believes he can maintain a lie at their expense.  It exposes their raw emotions, mostly anger and frustration,  in their struggle to form their identities while they are given only a partial picture of who they are.  And the author portrays this so naturally it feels organic and authentic.

An interesting character in this story is Dana’s “uncle” Raleigh.  Raleigh was raised side by side with James, became like a brother to him, ultimately went into business with him and is almost like a shadow to him during the story.  He has some distinguishing features, but he seems to represent something like the conscience of James.  We yearn, in a way, for him to marry Gwen just to balance out the situation, but deep down we know that this will not truly fill the void or dull everyone’s pain.

While this story is painful, it is also full of passion and yearning and adolescent thirst for truth, which keeps it hopeful and fresh.  Tayari Jones is a true talent.

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

For anyone who has ever loved rock music, in all its crazy glory, I give you Daisy Jones and the Six. Written, cleverly, like a Rolling Stone interview, the story chronicles the accidental marriage of Daisy Jones, a gorgeous, lonely, and gifted child of LA in the 60’s with the band, The Six, originally from the East Coast and starting to hit it big.  The personalities, the alliances, the drugs, the romance, the challenges and the drama – it’s all there in an exquisitely crafted story of their rise to fame, fortune and ultimately the realization of some painful truths.

This is just an incredibly fun book to read.  The characters are wonderfully portrayed, with such vulnerability and warmth that you fall in love with them every bit as much as they are falling in love with each other.  The band feels so real.  You almost remember the songs they sing, as if they are hidden somewhere in your brain and not something you’re reading for the first time.  And the ego clashes are reminiscent of every band that Rolling Stone has probably ever interviewed, but are still somehow interesting because we are meeting them behind stage, unplugged, often unmoored and raw.

The idea of writing this story as an interview is brilliant.  My first inclination toward it was, honestly, reluctant.  I thought it might actually get old quick.  But it works!  it actually feels so honest and somehow more powerful, with the narrative coming from each of the characters themselves.  It is quite an unusual technique.

You will laugh, you might cry – but you will absolutely love Daisy Jones and the Six!

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner

Jo and Bethie are so excited to move into their new home on Alhambra Street in Detroit in 1950.  It is a very big day for the family.  And once again,  Jo is unable to perform in a “ladylike” way and disappoints her mother.  Why can’t she be more like her sister, who seems to just know how to be the perfect little girl?  From Bethie’s point of view, however, being the pretty little girl may hold some power, but it also comes at some formidable peril.  As the two sisters grow and navigate the decades of the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, and so on, we have the privilege of following along with them on their turbulent, sometimes traumatic, and occasionally victorious journeys.

This is an epic novel for Jennifer Weiner, who has traced these decades of history with warmth and insight, from the perspective of these two sisters who struggle over these decades to find themselves.  Jo and Bethie, and the other characters woven around them, are so real that when they lose themselves, we feel lost as well, and when they hurt, we hurt.  They are flawed and vulnerable and often become collateral damage in each others’ sisterly wake.  But we find ourselves also moving on when they do and rejoicing at their successes as our own.

Herein Weiner is also giving voice to women, who have evolved over these decades and yet not evolved, whose roles have expanded and yet not expanded.  Weiner addresses the many ways in which women are expected to fulfill all roles – mother, homemaker, breadwinner, and wife, and yet find time for themselves, to feel fulfilled and to fall in line with society’s expectations.  She loops in race and prejudice,  primarily from the perspective of the Jewish experience of a people who have been targeted but who also have their own stereotypical racial biases.  In addition, she also gives voice to the women who have experienced sexual violence and sexual harassment over these decades and how it impacts and informs their entire life experience.  It is quite symbolic that Jell-O, the quintessential 1950’s, traditional Thanksgiving side dish associated with Jo’s worst adolescent evening is later in the novel thrown all over an emblem of her daughter’s supposed progress.  Jell-O becomes a symbolic fuck-you to all of the supposed progress, calling out the hypocrisy in the idea that things have changed enough.

At first glance, this novel might be written off as a simple story of two sisters, but it is in fact an articulate commentary on the struggle of women for power vs being overpowered and for status vs the status quo.  It also directs us to be hopeful for future generations, especially if we stick together and have each others’ backs.

 

 

The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion

This is the third in this delightful series about the exploits of Don Tillman, who has found the love of his life – Rosie – married her, and is now raising their “result,” Hudson.  As Rosie has now been offered a position in their native Australia, they have uprooted 11-year-old Hudson and are trying to help him adjust to the transition.  Because Hudson is definitely a creature of habit, he is not very happy with the change and he is letting Don and Rosie know it.  And so are his teachers.  And the school principal.  As a professional crisis for Don leads him to change his work schedule and focus, he opts to spend more time with Hudson to support him with the adjustment.  This process leads both Don and Hudson down a road to self-discovery that is truly life-changing for both of them.

I love the writing for its voice.  The author creates the most endearing character in Don, even as Don verbalizes little directly of his own emotions.  Don’s utter honesty and kindness are reflected in the things he says and does for those around him and the reactions he elicits are often surprise and wonder., even as people see him as different.  He struggles to fit in with those who are “neurotypical” (not autistic) and wants his son to fit in as well in order to avoid the difficulties Don has had to contend with. In this and many other ways, he demonstrates that he deeply feels compassion and empathy, even if he misses other more subtle social cues.

Clearly, the author,  with the assistance of his wife (a psychologist), has made a statement here in this novel in support of those in the autism community.  Apparently there are differing opinions on how to approach children with autism –whether to teach them skills to integrate more into the neurotypical community or to allow them to be as they are (and obviously to reach out to the general public and educate us more on acceptance, which should be happening anyway).  I imagine this must be a painfully difficult decision for some parents, who want to spare a child’s suffering (these children are often bullied because they are different) but also allow a child to see that they are loved for who they are, no matter what.  I believe this book gives a lot of insight into both the challenges and the capabilities of those with autism and one turns the final pages feeling strongly allied with this community.

I also love the not-so-subtle shout out in support of vaccinations.  There is a very strong statement countering the absolutely unsubstantiated idea that vaccines cause autism.  This idea was started by an unethical researcher in England years ago who was later found to have fudged his data in order to be published.  But the damage was done.  He’s created a community of people who believe in conspiracy theories about vaccines that are just untrue.  Vaccines save lives.  Period.

I love all of the Rosie books – and this one is another great one!  Definitely read it!