The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

Welcome to the chaotic world of the newsroom, circa mid-1900’s, as reporters capture the world in all its form and color onto pages of printed black and white, for an English language, international newspaper set in Rome.  These newspeople, while famed to be wildly aggressive and competitively ambitious, of course also have frailties and vulnerabilities that come with being human.  In the vignettes that are strung throughout this work, each of the characters — some reporters, some editors, some business folk — has a back story that is as poignant as the news they work together to bring to the outside world.  The question is, how long will their fledgling paper be able to survive?

This sometimes disturbing, often endearing novel reads almost like a compilation of short stories, as the vignettes almost seem to stand on their own.  On the other hand, they clearly tie together, with characters often making cameo appearances in each others’ stories. The writing style is beautifully unfeigned and gritty.  The characters are, as the title implies, imperfect, and their lives are as well.   Each of their stories is surprising and unpredictable – truly refreshing!  But we come to know them, develop an affection for them, and empathize with them – we can relate to them because they are so human and so real.  By the end, we have a feeling of almost having ourselves sat with them at the broken desks of the newsroom and inhaled, alongside them, the smoky odor of its stained carpet.

I respect the way the author has allowed problems to be left unresolved in many of these vignettes.  For example, there is a 40-something year-old woman who finds truly imperfect love.  We see very clearly that her situation is not the healthiest one.  The lover she has chosen is pretty much a jerk, actually. and our hearts break a little for her.  When a friend tries to help her see how she is being taken advantage of, and she reacts by breaking off the friendship, we lament this as a willful blindness.  But I believe the author’s point here is, do we really know what is best for someone else?  Who are we to judge?

There are many cringeworthy moments in this novel – as there are in life.  And that is the point.  And that is what I love about this book.

Come read, cringe, revel, and just live with these characters.  They will enrich you as genuine people (not fake ones) do.

 

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Outside and across from the Dutch House is where Danny and his sister, Maeve, sit together regularly to digest their past.  It is almost as if going back to the scene of their childhood trauma might relieve them of them of the anger they harbor, of the resentment they feel.  Toward the mother who fled from them, and toward the stepmother who never let them near.  But if anything, it probably does more to perpetuate the ire.  But maybe that is what they are holding onto.  Maybe that is what is holding them together.  Maybe that is all that is holding them together…

I really liked this book and am struggling to write about it.  I feel like I need a bookclub meeting or an English class discussion to fully digest the symbolism packed into the pages of this story.  I’m not sure I’m wise enough to recognize and/or articulate it all myself.

The Dutch House seems to represent something different to each of the characters.  We see how Danny, like his father, has a passion for buildings —  the bones, the design — and Danny, like his father loves the Dutch House, and all its architectural splendor.  And it is home, such as it was for him.  His mother, like his sister, Maeve, see it only for its ostentatious gaudiness.  They shun it and flee it.  And when Andrea, the stepmother, enters the scene, with her pure avarice, she sees it only for the status it will bring to her and her daughters.  But does it bring happiness to any of the characters?

There are moments of awkward writing in this book, such as with the rapid shifting of time, when Danny and Maeve are sitting in Maeve’s car, at the Dutch House, later in life, reminiscing about their earlier days.  We find them there at sudden moments in the middle of the story and have to time travel with the author back and forth.  Sometimes it keeps the plot moving, but sometimes it is confusing.  Aside from these moments, though, the writing is engaging and the characters are colorful, sometimes raw,  and authentic.

I highly recommend this book, The Dutch House.  It will hold your attention long after you’ve finished the physical pages.

The Body is Not An Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor

body not apology

In this book, borne of her movement and website of the same name, Sonya Renee Taylor, an activist and poet, propels the argument that our society has constructed systems which have forced most of us to apologize for the bodies that we live in.  Because we may not live in the body of the selected ideal of our time – whether because of our weight, our skin color, our ability, our gender identity, or any other identity – we are often made to feel less-than by the world around us, perpetuated by our own voices inside.  And for this we feel shame, we shrink away, we deny ourselves experiences that might actually give us joy.  In this book, Taylor seeks to provide the reader with tools to combat the external and internal pressures that we feel, in order to achieve “radical self-love,” that innocent, basic love for our bodies that we were all born with.

I think this is an important book to read, for anyone who has ever experienced discomfort in their body.  And honestly – who hasn’t???  It is delivered honestly, compellingly, and with a sensitivity to anyone of any identity who might be reading the book.  There is some sprinkling of her own journey, but she also derived quite a bit from others as well, which I appreciate.

I was particularly intrigued by the section on the “Body Shame Profit Complex” (LOVE this name) and actually wish there had been more on this.  This refers to the advertising industry which has allied with all the other companies that make billions of dollars on our attempts to improve the defects we perceive in our bodies – everything from make up to anti-aging creams to the diet industry.  Think about it – how much do you spend on these types of items each year?  I know I contribute to this complex on a regular basis.

I think this book differs from others in that it is not trying to teach new behaviors, nor self-acceptance, but rather self-love — which is different.  It hits deeper and is more sustainable if done properly and consistently and it also requires forgiveness and “grace” for the moments when you slip.

One soft criticism of the book that I have is that I believe it needed more vignettes, more stories about people to illustrate the concepts.  There are so many important ideas that are proposed here, and I think they are easy to read through quickly and potentially gloss over.  Occasionally, Taylor does provide examples of what she means to say with the use of  narratives, such as that of a young girl who is taunted for the bald spots on her head.  This is such a vivid image and becomes so starkly etched in the mind of the reader.  I wish she’d done this more often, so that more arguments would be similarly strengthened.

I think it will take awhile for me to fully digest all of the ideas proposed here.

I’d love to hear from others who have read it!

At Risk by Alice Hoffman

at risk

Polly and Ivan are concerned about their daughter, Amanda.  She’s a gymnast and has an unusual diarrheal illness for the past couple of weeks.  Their pediatrician, who knows them well, can deduce that this is not a good sign and from her low white blood cell count he is extremely worried about the possibility of cancer.  But not in a million years is he expecting that she’d be positive for AIDS, having contracted it from a blood transfusion after a complicated surgery for appendicitis 5 years prior, before blood was screened for the virus.  The paranoia and alienation that the whole family experiences is unexpected and devastating, possibly even worse than the actual diagnosis.

This book, published in 1988, reminds us of the experience that so many went through when HIV first appeared in the 1980’s.  With ads on TV for HIV medications so commonplace and ordinary today, it’s hard to remember that not so long ago, there was mass victimization of those who were infected with the virus.  Children infected via intrauterine transmission or from blood transfusions were sometimes not allowed in school because of fears of casual contact transmitting the virus to others, even when there was early evidence that this was not possible.  Millions of infected adults suffered not only from the disease but from the indignities of being ostracized from a society who rejected them because of their disease.  And we have still not cured it.  [The reason for this has probably more to do with financial incentive than the science – it is more beneficial for pharmaceutical companies to produce medications that sustain patients with the disease than to cure it.  Just as with cancer. But I digress…]

As for the book, I found the story compelling, but the writing a bit awkward.  It is told in the present tense, which I often dislike.  More importantly, though, the narration also shifts from one character to another almost as if they are passing a hot potato from one to another, to another.   This shift occurs so frequently and over so many characters that it dilutes and distracts from the actual plot and it is harder to become attached to the truly important players.   We just can’t feel that sorry for everyone.  So while the story is tragic, it does not cut quite as deeply as it might.

Nevertheless, At Risk is a timepiece and tells a part of the story of our bitter history of the HIV epidemic that is important to remember.  We think of HIV as a disease of adults only, but there were thousands of children affected by the disease as well.  And still are today.

The Golden Hour by Beatriz Williams

Lulu is on a mission to save her husband, Thorpe, who is trapped in a prison camp known for being the harshest and meanest of its kind.  But she knows that the package she’s carrying is so valuable that if she gives it up too freely, there will be no saving Thorpe.  So she does what she has to do and escapes with only this to find shelter with his sister, whom she’s never before met, isn’t even sure she can trust.  With Thorpe’s sister, she is destined to sort out both the future and their very complicated past.

What I love about Beatriz Williams’ writing is that she weaves deeply complex characters into political intrigue/historical fiction using an almost casual and personal voice.  You feel like it’s your old friend who is telling you this lovely story.  And your friend is vulnerable, has had a difficult history, and so your heart goes out to this friend and you want very much to hear so much more.

And while this story occurs during the era of WWII, it is unlike most other WWII stories.  There are only casual references to Jews, camps, and to Pearl Harbor and the Japanese, because much of the story takes place in the Bahamas.  But it is interesting as an example of how the War impacted the world.  Here, we see how British royals may have been involved remotely, for instance, and may have played a role in maneuvering intelligence and power from distant corners of the world.  And it’s not clear if it was for good or for evil.

One of the most prominent and beautiful characters in this novel, Elfriede,  also suffers from post-partum depression.  She is feared, ostracized, even sent away because of her illness.  But she is the kindest of characters, has the most generous heart, and feels passionately about each person she loves.  She is the ultimate hero in the story.  I love that her character, suffering as it is, is celebrated in this story.

Once again, one of my favorite authors has come through for me –  for all of us!  Hope you enjoy this book as I have!

 

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.

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.