Sunday, August 30, 2015

Review of Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

original cover

Somewhere between the original publication of the hardcover version of Hausfrau and its paperback release, marketers decided to capitalize on the main character’s numerous extramarital affairs. In case the book jacket didn’t let you know that there would be Sexy Times in the novel, the blurb on the front references Fifty Shades of Grey. But let me be clear, this is not a sizzling beach book AT ALL. This is the story of a very depressed, disconnected woman spiraling downward into despair.

paperback cover
The book jacket also compares Hausfrau to Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary.  I can see how it's a modern mash-up of both of those classic novels (trains and adultery!). The housewife in question is Anna. She lives in Zurich with her unpleasant Swiss husband and three young children. Her isolation is almost complete. She doesn’t speak the language. She doesn’t have good friends. She doesn’t have a job. What she does have is a hunger for fulfillment, which she seeks in vain through numerous lovers, and a profound ability to spin a web of lies that adds to her distance from others.

I did not enjoy this book for a single minute. BUT I did find it truly thought-provoking. The story asks the reader to think about the ways women sacrifice for family life. Anna sacrifices her country and her language. She sacrifices her ambition. You get the sense that she is sacrificing her ability to love other people. But this isn’t the nineteenth century, and the reader also gets to consider how much Anna is causing her own pain. Is she a victim of social convention or the architect of her own destiny?

The poetic writing is also worth noting, particularly the interludes where Anna is in German language class. The author connects Anna’s struggles to the framework of language itself (the role of the passive verb, for instance, or the significance of the future perfect tense). This meta discussion, along with Anna’s conversations with her analyst and with a priest, present the larger philosophical questions the author wants to explore.

In these respects, Hausfrau would be a good book club book. There are plenty of issues to tackle – women and sexuality, autonomy, parenting, honesty in friendships, being “true to yourself,” feminism. I can’t imagine that anyone would come away unmoved. But this book is a tragedy from beginning to end, and I think it will leave many readers sour (or, at the very least, sobbing on a bench in the middle of the night along with the main character).

You can find a good interview with the author, Jill Alexander Essbaum, here.

As a side note, I decided to type “depressing books” into google, and this is what I found:

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Thoughts on Candy Bar Books and a Review of The Admissions by Meg Mitchell Moore

Every once in a while, I need a Candy Bar Book.  And I don’t mean a book that’s an artisanal truffle made of Fair Trade organic cacao. I mean a book whose chocolate is made from corn syrup and chemicals and tastes like Happy Halloween and the best moments of childhood.

Different people have different ideas about what constitutes a good Candy Bar Book. For some of you, it takes a significant amount of blood and a brooding hero. For others, it requires a ninja or two or six.  Still others of you need the word “shopping” to be in the title of the book in order to be satisfied. The common denominator is that the book is straightforward and predictable in a completely satisfying way. You get what you expect, and what you expect is exactly what you want at that moment.

The Admissions by Meg Mitchell Moore was a fun end-of-summer Candy Bar Book for me. In it, we get to live with the Hawthorne family, whose members are over-achieving upper-middle class people trying to climb the endless ladder to success. And guess what? The endless ladder to success is endless. Each family member does some dumb things while climbing that ladder, including lying, cheating, and stealing (and then lying some more).

As I’ve spent the year reading about grief, mixed in with some despair and oppression, The Admissions offered some much needed relief.  It had just enough humor in it to make it digestible all in one sitting.  I’m reminded a little bit of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s Admission, which is a story that (almost) shares a title and a theme with this one. This novel also reminds me of the documentary, Race To Nowhere, which similarly concerns the upper-middle class climb toward achievement. But the book, unlike the film, is pleasingly dipped in a vat of the above-mentioned corn syrup and chemicals and comedy.

There are things that aren’t perfect about this novel. The structure is a bit choppy (short chapters focusing on different characters). There are moments when the author tries to club the reader over her head with THE MESSAGE (ladder = endless). There are also moments when some of the characters express some stereotypical views about race, which is off-putting. But this was definitely a novel that hit me at just the right time – a SUMMER READ, just a tiny bit little late in the season.

You can find an interview with the author here and here.

I received an electronic copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Review of Mission High by Kristina Rizga

I have managed to read one of the two books I promised in my Monday update, which means that my score for this week is 50%.  Are you going to designate me a Failing Blogger? Are you going to give my local librarians an improvement plan that includes some micro-management by people who have not spent any time in a library? If I don’t un-slump by the end of the year, are you going to shut my library down and put a Wal-Mart in its place?

Given my lack of reading growth and general inadequacy, Mission High: One School, How Experts Tried To Fail It, and the Students Who Made It Triumph by Kristina Rigza is ALMOST exactly the book I wanted to read this week. The author spent years inside a large, public high school in San Francisco interviewing students and teachers and observing the day-to-day work and play and sweat and tears of education. However, this isn’t your ordinary account of a struggling school.

Rigza’s conclusion is that standardized data don’t tell the whole story about the life and spirit and quality of a school. Mission High School isn’t a “successful” school by No Child Left Behind standards, but Rigza witnesses a rather extraordinary teaching community and some equally extraordinary learning. And with that, she claims that our education reform movement, which places standardized test scores as the single barometer of teaching and learning quality, might be impeding rather than fostering great education.

The problem I have with this book is that Rigza’s conclusion is also her premise. This is the story she wants to tell; it isn’t a story that necessarily tells itself. We don’t really see “experts trying to fail this school” and the pressure educators feel around federal sanctions. We don’t really see the school “triumph” except in cases of a few individual students. We don’t experience a school year timeline that would show us the day-to-day tensions of trying to work against the grain in public education.

I really love narrative nonfiction, and my favorite nonfiction books have all the elements of a good novel – complex characters that live and breathe, a plot with a beginning, middle, and an end, and some conflict that adds suspense. There are stories within this book that have those elements, but they don't come together in a way that pack a punch.

All that said, this is a good first panel in a new quilt of stories about what’s really happening in today’s schools.  What strikes me most is that the center of this school seems to be an autonomous, collaborative teaching community that works to really know and understand its students. The relationships seem to by the keys to the culture they have created. I would love to learn more about how they built that community and how it manages to survive.

Monday, August 17, 2015

It's Monday, and I'm So Sorry About Your Baby's Name

Hello internet, welcome to my slump. I have read only two books in the last several  weeks, which is bad for blogging and also bad for my soul. One was an advanced copy of The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs by Matthew Dicks, which I received from NetGalley. I will post my review of that in September, once the book is released. The second was The Rocks by Peter Nichols, which was an easy, interesting read that somehow took me forever to finish.

I can’t really say why this is happening, other than the fact that I am busy with the end of the university quarter. And my kids are around, being bored. But it’s embarrassing to be in a reading slump when the President of the United States is publishing his somewhat-long reading list for all to see. It’s hard to say, “Woe is me, I’m so busy, and my kids are bugging me!” when the President has six books, adding up to 2771 pages, that he plans to get through by September. His busy-ness trumps mine, and I’m sure his kids are annoying, too.

This week I hope to read Mission High: One School, How Experts Tried to Fail It, and the Students and Teachers Who Made It Triumph by Kristina Rizga. It is a nonfiction account of a high school in San Francisco. I also, at long last, plan to read the new Kate Atkinson book, A God In Ruins. (I was so excited when it came out, but now I’ve heard mixed reviews...). Both of these books are on the long side, and my grades are due next Monday. So I’m feeling a bit pessimistic about meeting my goals.

I’ve had a few questions about whether or not I’m planning to read the “new” Harper Lee novel, Go Set a Watchman. The answer, for now at least, is no. I do think that the conditions under which this book came to public light are sketchy. I am, however, eagerly for Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me, to arrive from the library (the President is reading it, too!). I’d rather read a contemporary, thought-provoking account of race in America than to read about an iconic white character finding out that her relatives are bigots.  I’m number 1000 on the library list for the Coates book, however, so I might not get to it until 2017. Maybe my slump will be un-slumped by then.

As a side note, I’m guessing that all of those Generation X mothers who named their precious sons Atticus are having an awkward moment.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Review of The Rocks by Peter Nichols

The Rocks by Peter Nichols is being marketed as a literary summer beach book. Its cover is reminiscent of Jess Walters’ summery, exotic Beautiful Ruins, and I found it on a table labeled, “Hot Summer Reads!” at my local bookstore.

It is true that the island setting of Mallorca is a “character” in this book. You can’t help but feel heat on your skin and the smell of lemons in the air, and Nichols peppers his writing with different languages and dialects. So get ready to be transported if you pick this one up for your Labor Day vacation.

However, unlike last year’s books about tourists behaving badly on Mallorca (The Vacationers by Emma Straub and The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh), this book is about enduring misunderstandings and betrayal. And the setting, which figures so prominently, is part of the betrayal, as newcomers and developers change the landscape and the lives of the longtime residents.

The story is told in reverse. The novel starts with Lulu and Gerald, octogenarians who divorced long ago, seeing each other for the first time in decades. As they begin this strained encounter, an accident happens. The reader follows the couple and their children in sections that move backward through time, looking for the answer to the question of what happened to drive the couple apart.

There is more, however. The story is also about impossible journeys (Gerald once wrote a novel about seafaring and trying to create a geography of Homer’s The Odyssey) and how hard it is to create a home (The Rocks is a hotel that Lulu runs, and it is also a borrowed home for expats). It is about heroism and victimization. It is about revenge. So while the sun shines throughout this book, the territory is dark and complicated.

I have seen reviews where readers have been put off by Nichols’ portrayal of women in this novel. And it is true that many of the female characters are either mysterious in an unpleasant way or sexually predatory. (Note: the “ick factor” is somewhat high in some of the scenes). A New York Times reviewer revealed the semi-autobiographical elements of this novel, and it seems as if the author’s real life experience with relationships being “on the rocks” might have influenced how he built the relationships in the novel.  I actually found characters of both sexes kind of off-putting (with many of the men being either smarmy or limp). Gerald and his son are definitely the most well-drawn characters, and I definitely lived in them.

This made me think about the construction gender in novels, especially in literary novels. I don’t think that readers would comment about thin or negative portrayals of women in mass market thrillers, because they’re so common. But do readers have different expectations of literary fiction? Do we have different expectations of novels that are about relationships than we do for spy novels?

As for me, I noted the gender issues in this novel, but I was still carried away by the good writing, by the novel’s compelling structure, and yes, by the setting. I don’t know that I’d call this a “Hot Summer Read!” but I am glad I experienced it. As a side note, I am almost – but not quite – moved to re-read The Odyssey, which was assigned as required summer reading for tenth graders when I was in high school. I wonder if Homer was on the "Hot Summer Reads!" table, too.

You can find an interview with the author here (spoilers included).

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Review of Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan and Thoughts About Nagging Books

The Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read forever. I would see it on library or bookstore shelves and say, “Self, you should read this one. You love Stewart O’Nan.” But I have passed it by consistently in favor of frontlist titles.

When I was in New York earlier this month, I found it for an obscenely low price at Strand Book Store, so I bought it. Crazy! And rather than having it perch precariously on the top of my leaning stack until the end of time, I decided to take on this 146 page book immediately.  Crazy again! I’m just trying to do the unexpected in my reading life.

O’Nan has made a name for himself for writing about small moments in working class New England, and this novella is no exception. This story follows Manny, a manager at a Red Lobster in a failing mall in Connecticut.  He is surprised when the corporate office unexpectedly decides to close his restaurant, shuffling him to an Assistant Manager position at a nearby Olive Garden restaurant. The reader walks step-by-step with Manny on his last shift at the Red Lobster, on a snowy night in December.

If you’re looking for something with a plot, turn away now. But what is remarkable about this book is that as Manny grapples with personnel issues and fills ketchup bottles and mops the floor, O’Nan paints a portrait of such palpable, deep longing for meaning in a meaningless situation. Manny has deep pride in his work, and he wants that work to matter – to his employees, to the corporate office, and to his customers. He wants real relationships with the people he works with, and he wants them to want real relationships with him. Ultimately, he craves connection and relevance, even if all evidence suggests that he resembles a lobster in a tank, with claws taped and fate sealed.

I have read four other O’Nan titles: Snow Angels, Songs for the Missing, The Odds, and Emily, Alone.  Songs for the Missing is my favorite. It’s topic? You guessed it: grief. O’Nan does have a new novel out this year called West of Sunset. That one is about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last years, and that topic doesn’t particularly interest me. Let me know if you read it.

I have to say that it feels great to have finished a book that has called to me for years. The cosmic list of unread books nags at me, as does the realization that I will never be able to get to them all. Perhaps I will create a 2016 reading challenge called Get Off My Back, Nagging Books!

What books do you never seem to get around to reading?