Sunday, November 6, 2016

Review of The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead, is stunning. It really deserves a second read to see all the images and layers and questions, but there’s no way I’m jumping back into this harrowing story right now. Of course, one of Whitehead’s points as he takes his reader on a journey away from slavery is that this story is also the present. The reader should be devastated about this past and also about what we’re doing in our contemporary world.

The book follows Cora, a slave who escapes a Georgia plantation. The first 50 or so pages of the novel is straight-up historical fiction, but then Whitehead creates an alternate world in which the underground railroad is an actual railroad, with stations and trains. Moreover, he gets fancy with time periods. For instance, Cora leaves pre-Civil War Georgia and lands in a version of South Carolina that has skyscrapers and elements of history from the early 20th century.  The train travels to other states, too, and all of them incorporate different elements of social relations, racism, and the historical record. 


This book has all the terrible elements you’d expect from a story about slavery – so be warned that this will be a difficult read. I had a particularly interesting moment about two-thirds of the way through the story that reminded me of my experience reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. When I read that novel, I was struck by how much of a hopeful reader I am. I really need to believe in the possibility of happily-ever-after. It became increasingly clear in A Little Life that I was going to need to change my expectations. In The Underground Railroad, I also had a prick of awareness that “the North” might not be the magic terminus of this railroad and this story. And that is part of Cora’s experience here, too.  Hope drives her along but her experiences provide evidence that the hopefulness might be fruitless. (Discussion question: Is this ultimately a hopeful book?)

The Underground Railroad is the second terrific novel I’ve read this year about slavery and its legacy. Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi, is also brilliant. It would be interesting to read these two books together and discuss the authors’ different approaches and interpretations. However, I’d sandwich a book about rainbows and unicorns in the center, because otherwise your heart might not be able to handle it.

You can find an good interview with Whitehead here (some spoilers included). The Underground Railroad is the current Oprah Bookclub pick and a 2016 National Book Award finalist.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Review of Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple


Last weekend, Seattle was supposed to experience an epic windstorm. We had one ten years ago, and it knocked out power for a while and made us all uncomfortable. Plus, my kids’ preschool was cancelled, and that meant that I was paying money for them to sit in my house with no electricity and nothing to do.

So my plan for this storm was to BE READY. The laundry was done. The food was prepared. I made sure the kids showered and wouldn’t smell for the duration of the event. I had batteries lined up for the flashlights and lots of candles (with matches!). I had blankets and warm pajamas. I also had liquor and a library copy of the new Maria Semple novel, Today will Be Different.

I imagined myself curled up, sipping a cocktail, wiping tears of laughter from my face. After all, I thought that Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? hit mostly all the right funny notes, and I expected nothing less from this follow-up. 


But then, after all that work to get prepared, the storm never raged. The local news sent all of its reporters out to various street corners to get blown around. They were supposed to say, “Look at everything being destroyed by this terrible weather! Look at me, barely able to stay upright in the gusts!” But, instead, the wind just went

*Puff *

and then died out.

One of the things that Semple does is parody Seattle and its left-leaning, often hypocritical hysteria. This kind of preparation-for-Armageddon is probably exactly the kind of craziness that makes her roll her eyes.  And certainly, the daggers she throws at Seattle (and left-leaning white people in general) in Today Will Be Different caused me to snort in appreciation.

But like the storm that didn’t happen, my enjoyment of this book never fully took off. The premise is that Eleanor, a middle-aged artist/animator/tv writer/graphic novelist (what did she do? It remained a little unclear to me), finds herself in a sort-of struggling marriage and a sort-of crumbling career. Over the course of one day, she stumbles toward getting her life together.

The thing is, however, there’s a darkish underbelly to Eleanor’s life. Her mother died when she was a child, leaving her and her sister to fend for themselves. Their father was often drunk and/or neglectful, and there was great pain around that. Now, as an adult, the estrangement Eleanor feels from her sister and the unresolved feelings she has about her parents seem to contribute to her inability to manage her life.

And that’s not really funny.

But instead of telling this more complicated story, Semple tries to dress it up in “comedy” (including an odd diversion to a sub-plot about New Orleans high society), which made me feel weird rather than wildly entertained.

This is still a good book. I’m sure many of you will read it and laugh at all the truly funny parts. I can see it as a satisfying novel to read on a long flight. However, I do wish that Semple had trusted us to be OK with the painful side of the story she wanted to tell.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Review of Another Brooklyn By Jacqueline Woodson


Another Brooklyn is Jacqueline Woodson’s new novel – but is it a novel? I don’t know. Woodson is queen of the “prose/poem,” and Another Brooklyn strikes me as a genre-blending work. It is short – just 173 pages, with brief sections of text and wide margins. The language is spare and unflinching.

My first exposure to Woodson’s work was with 2014’s Brown Girl Dreaming. That memoir earned her the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Another Brooklyn is marketed as an “adult” novel, but it is a reasonable choice for older teenagers, too. There is sexual content and some serious themes, but this coming-of-age story will still appeal to younger audiences.

The novel is a snapshot of growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s. The main character, August, describes her friendship with four other girls, pulling the reader through the emotions of being  teenagers grappling with family tragedy, first love, religion, and betrayal. In this sense, this book has an “every girl” quality about it. But it is also a story particular to African Americans growing up in this particular time period. August is navigating her family’s journey from the rural south to the urban Northeast. She is navigating issues of class in the African American community. She watches her neighborhood experience white flight and the effects of segregation.  The strength of the story lies in Woodson’s ability to pull the universal and the particular together in a seamless way.

But if I’m honest, I wish that Woodson had put the meet some more meat on the bones of this work. I wanted her to fill up the pockets between the lines. There’s a distance that the prose/poem style creates that I wanted to bridge. I wanted to fall into this story, and the beautiful-ness of it pushed me away.

Critics don’t seem to share this concern. Another Brooklyn was recently longlisted for this year’s National Book Award.

Here’s an interesting interview with Woodson, where she addresses Daniel Handler’s infamous watermelon joke at the National Book Award ceremony. And here's her “By the Book” interview in a recent New York Times Book Review.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Review of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi


I know that I haven’t been blogging much. I have been reading, however, and I’m excited to talk about Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. I know I’m a bit late to the party about this one, but I’m so glad I finally showed up. This book is in the running to be my favorite of the year.

And what’s remarkable about it is that it’s a debut! Wow, does the literary world have a promising future with this author in it! The story follows a family line from eighteenth century Ghana through the descendants of two sisters, after one sister marries a white Englishman and the other is sold into American slavery. One of the central themes is displacement, and the reader gets to explore all the ways that disconnection from family and identity and place and memory impact individuals and communities. There are a few times when the author tries to bonk you over the head with these themes, but these times are rare in comparison to the subtle magic of most of the writing.

There’s so much to discuss. Hello, book clubs! This would be an interesting book to pair with another intergenerational family story (for example, Anne Korkeakivi's recent Shining Sea) or with a contemporary nonfiction book about race (like, Coates’ Between the World and Me).

If you are someone who has issues with reading scenes of violence, be aware that all the possible, imaginable kinds of violence against adults and children are here. This is a book whose heart is about slavery, and the author insists that you encounter it.


Monday, August 8, 2016

Review of The Past by Tessa Hadley


On the good news front, I enthusiastically read and finished The Past by Tessa Hadley. It has been quite a while since I was able to get into a zone while reading. And oddly, I think that in any other year I would have complained that this book did not have enough plot to carry it along. But somehow this story of a British extended family gathering at their crumbling summer home hit the spot for me at a time when no other book has been able to satisfy me.

I do like books where siblings or old friends reunite after a time away, and I also like books about secrets (as long as the secrets aren’t too terrible). In this story, four adult siblings, a few children, and a couple of “outsiders” converge at the old family summer estate to decide whether to sell it. While there, they find that they are forever impacted by their past and yet transitioning beyond it. And beneath this family’s story, there is a larger commentary on the way that Britain itself is changing (via immigration, urbanization, etc.).

This is what I pictured. It was featured in an article about dirt-cheap "doer-uppers" in Britain.
I really enjoyed these characters, and I enjoyed the author’s easy prose. Mostly, I appreciated being able to sink into another world after so many weeks of ennui. It didn’t hurt that I had a nice, long weekend away from the tension and traffic of my everyday life. This was the view from my vacation deck, where I spent several hours with my book and a gin and tonic:


For the first time in a long while, I feel optimistic about my reading life.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Summer Reading Sloggery: An Update

https://web.csulb.edu/depts/geology/facultypages/bperry/Mass%20Wasting/Slides.htm
I pilfered the above photo from some course materials about geology. The presentation is called “Mass Wasting,” and that title is so fitting for my reading life right now.

I guess 2016 is doomed to be the Year of The Reading Slump. Things haven’t improved much since I last wrote. And in fact, I’m not sure if I’m not loving the things I read because of the slump, or if the slump is due to not finding the right things to read. I do appreciate all of your recommendations!

I did read Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín for my book club, and it was disappointing. I really liked Tóibín's Nora Webster, and I also love immigration stories. However, all the grit of classic immigration stories was missing for me in this one, and the plot points seemed forced.

I also read My Brilliant Friend, the first in the Neopolitan series by Elena Ferrante. I know the whole world loved it, but I thought it was simply ok.  I read it in a couple of sittings. But Ferrante kept me at a distance from these characters, and I never fully lost myself in the world. (Will I keep going, though? Yes! Damn cliffhangers.).

In the good news department, I am half way through The Past by Tessa Hadley. This is a very readable family story – and a kind that I generally like (siblings getting together for a holiday; old secrets). So far, so good.

I am still trying to get my reading mojo back. I just put a few upcoming new releases on hold at the library in the hope of generating some excitement:

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson, due out August 9
Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple, due out October 4
Trespasser by Tana French, due out October 4
Swing Time by Zadie Smith, due out November 15

So wish me luck. I am plodding along.



Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Review of Modern Lovers By Emma Straub

Two summers ago, I read The Vacationers by Emma Straub and was underwhelmed. I think I was underwhelmed because it was aggressively hyped as the ultimate “summer read.”  At the time, I compared it to a margarita at Applebees.  It looked like it was going to be a sharp cocktail of a book, but instead it was lemony water in a pretty glass.

With Straub’s new Modern Lovers, I just bought a second weak margarita. Don’t get me wrong, this book was completely pleasant. I did indeed read it on vacation, and it certainly got me from here to there and back. But maybe I’m just getting to the point in my life where I want to be moved in some way by what I read – I want to be deeply intrigued, or brought to tears or hearty laughter. I want to be able to say to a friend, “You have to read THIS.”


Modern Lovers is a book about mid-life crises. The main characters were members of a band in the early 1990s – and thus were “cool” and poised to live zesty lives. But marriage and kids happened, and they made compromises. Suddenly they had all sorts of questions about whether life was supposed to turn out so beige. There are several plot trails – a movie is going to be made about a band mate who died, and secrets emerge; the kids of the two main couples get together and face their own questions about what it means to live authentically; there’s a sketchy new age guru who moves to the neighborhood and offers new hope to one of the characters.

But here’s the thing – for a book that should be dripping in emotion, there is very little fire at the heart of it. Mid-life crises are usually pretty harrowing, right? Modern Lovers is a sweet story, and it’s difficult to do sweet and harrowing at the same time.

So, readers, please tell me – what are some books that really grabbed you? I’m looking for a little more tequila in my next summer read.


Monday, June 27, 2016

Review of Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-four Books That Can Change Lives by David Denby

We bookish types tend to do a lot of hand wringing about the future of reading. I have read two such pieces lately by David Denby – a New Yorker article titled, “Do Teens Read Seriously Anymore?” and his new book, Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. 24 Books That Can Change Lives.  In both cases, his premise is that the kids are definitely not alright.

Their problem, Denby claims, is technology. Kids’ desire to be tethered to a device 24/7 has put a tragic dent in what he calls “serious reading.” He’s on a bit of a slippery slope, because he’s really talking about The Canon, with maybe several notable works by writers of color sprinkled in (e.g. Ellison). He contends that the Canon provides opportunities for serious reading, because those works provide complicated moral questions that young people should be considering. They’re “hard,” because life’s questions are hard. And they take determination and time and a willingness to focus for longer than it requires to “like” your best friend’s selfie.

In Lit Up, he looks at three schools, following some terrific high school English teachers as they teach “serious books.” He spends most of his time at a selective school in Manhattan, but adds on some briefer descriptions of teaching at an affluent suburban school and a urban school that serves low income students. His takeaway is that the kind of reading and thinking he worries about IS possible with deep commitment. His book is supposed to be a feel-good exploration, and he almost succeeds.

However, Denby has this way of coming off as an old man who screams, “Get off my lawn!” at neighborhood hooligans. He might be right that technology changes attention spans or that it changes how and where and when people read. But anchoring a discussion of reading in this way feels like a “remember the good old days” argument, the kind that never excites or motivates or persuades young people to listen.

I think there’s another (better) argument to be made. Denby’s focus is on good teachers, ones who meet kids where they’re at and pull them to more sophisticated places. The teachers he profiles use books to motivate and inspire and push and encourage. A more meaningful question might be why many kids don’t get this kind of opportunity. My guess is that it’s not a lack of special English teachers; rather, it’s a policy focus that stresses “proficiency” in “skills” rather than meaningful engagement with big ideas. In other words, who cares what kids read as long as they can perform well on a Common Core exam?

And if that’s the case, it might be more politically purposeful to stop barking about the pesky internet and start instead pushing for an educational shift. The kids might just join you in that!

Monday, June 13, 2016

It's Monday! And I'm Back At It!


Well, hello.

It turns out that I took a three month hiatus from my blog. I can’t really explain it. It started with a struggle to find a good book to read, and then that struggle spread into writing. Suddenly, I couldn’t put words to paper. Thinking about the blog made me feel badly, and reading everyone else’s blogs made me feel even worse.

So I un-blogged for a while, but the need to start again has been tormenting me like an itch on the bottom of my foot. I can’t ignore it any more.


Here’s a list of some of the things I read during my hiatus. There are no reviews up for any of these, and there might never be. I do hope to go back and discuss them, but I’m also wary of getting stuck in the past.

Stoner by John Edward Williams (a character portrait of an academic that I liked more than I thought I would!)


Golden Age by Jane Smiley (I eagerly read this last book in the trilogy but felt it needed momentum and suspense, just like the others)


Class Reunion by Rona Jaffe (read this and loved it in high school; now I think it’s terrible)

 
The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock (compelling YA that works well for adult readers)


I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson (compelling YA that drips with adolescent angst)


Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (shockingly entertaining given how little I enjoy Jane Austen. It’s a modern re-do of Pride and Prejudice)


How To Raise An Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims (this would be a great book to discuss with other parents, assuming everyone is willing to be self-reflective)


Britt-Marie Was Here by Frederik Backman (the charming quality of A Man Called Ove turns sticky sweet in this one)


Happy Family by Tracy Barone (deeply depressing subject matter but such engaging writing)

In the spirit of moving forward, here’s what I’m reading right now:


Here’s the description from Goodreads:

Can teenagers be turned on to serious reading? What kind of teachers can do it, and what books? To find out, Denby sat in on a tenth-grade English class in a demanding New York public school for an entire academic year, and made frequent visits to a troubled inner-city public school in New Haven and to a respected public school in Westchester county. He read all the stories, poems, plays, and novels that the kids were reading, and creates an impassioned portrait of charismatic teachers at work, classroom dramas large and small, and fresh and inspiring encounters with the books themselves, including The Scarlet Letter, Brave New World, 1984, Slaughterhouse-Five, Notes From Underground, Long Way Gone and many more. Lit Up is a dramatic narrative that traces awkward and baffled beginnings but also exciting breakthroughs and the emergence of pleasure in reading. In a sea of bad news about education and the fate of the book, Denby reaffirms the power of great teachers and the importance and inspiration of great books.

And after that, I’ll be reading Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín for my book club.

Here’s the description from Goodreads:

Eilis Lacey has come of age in small-town Ireland in the hard years following World War Two. When an Irish priest from Brooklyn offers to sponsor Eilis in America -- to live and work in a Brooklyn neighborhood "just like Ireland" -- she decides she must go, leaving her fragile mother and her charismatic sister behind.

Eilis finds work in a department store on Fulton Street, and when she least expects it, finds love. Tony, who loves the Dodgers and his big Italian family, slowly wins her over with patient charm. But just as Eilis begins to fall in love with Tony, devastating news from Ireland threatens the promise of her future.

I’ve missed you all! Thanks for sticking with me.

(It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Book Date)

Monday, March 14, 2016

Review of The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie

The Portable Veblen has all the hallmarks of a book that I would ordinarily devour: quirky characters, a deep social critique, and moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity.  But in this case, there is just too much of everything – to much quirk, too many critiques, and too much humor that only sometimes lands on the right note.

One quirky thing is the placement of little photos in the text
The story involves a couple in Palo Alto, California that recently became engaged. But the reader soon learns that not all is not perfect between the two main characters, as exemplified by the fact that squirrels can be heard in the walls of the house they share. And while the husband-to-be abhors squirrels and tries to trap and kill them, the bride-to-be loves them. In fact, she talks to them, and they talk back.

The fact that one of the main characters in this book is a talking squirrel might represent one of the novel’s themes: the struggle between nature and progress. But there so many other themes: the struggle between tradition and innovation; the seduction of fame and money; the uneasy and often blurry lines between science for the social good and science as commodity; and my favorite --  families are hard.  If you asked me to tell you what this book is “about,” I’d have trouble giving a clear answer, because the author takes on so much here.

Another quirky photo
The main character’s name is Veblen, named after the economist Thorstein Veblen, who is famous for discussing “conspicuous consumption” and for critiquing the idea of production for profit. Veblen the character is kind of a free-spirit and loves the “old” Palo Alto. Her fiancée, Paul, is more representative of the “new” Palo Alto and is trying to market the medical device he created. As the characters try to resolve their differences, the reader gets to meet their family members, many of whom have different versions of mental illness.  Why, exactly, they are all struggling with mental illness is kind of unclear, and I’m not fully sure if this is part of a critique or if it is supposed to be funny (it isn’t).  Perhaps it has something to do with what the meaning of insane is – is that another theme? Gah!

Ultimately, I finished this book feeling confused and somewhat dissatisfied. However, I get the sense that this author will have a bright future. There is something so smart about this book, even as I came away feeling like I just ate an entire pie when a single slice would have sufficed.


Sunday, February 28, 2016

It's Monday! And I'm Back!


So what in the world happened to me?

I don’t really have an answer for you. I just suddenly could.not.read. Two weeks went by, and I didn’t look at a single book. It wasn’t really a slump – it was a stop.


Today I picked up, once again, The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie. This is the book that I have been carrying around all this time and not reading. And guess what? I blew through several hundred pages this afternoon, and I feel almost like I have reading momentum again. The novel features a talking squirrel and lots of relationship drama. How could I resist?


So my goal for this week is simply to keep reading – because let me tell you, I don’t really know who I am if I don’t have a book in my hand.

( It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Book Date.)

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Review of The Invaders by Karolina Waclawiak


I don’t usually spend much time reviewing books that I do not enjoy.

So, with that in mind, I will not linger over the fact that this book is populated with really terrible characters (and those of you with trigger issues about violence against women or children – you might want to steer clear of this one). And I will not linger over the fact that those characters feel only about an inch deep.

What I will linger over is the issue that sits underneath this portrait of a very elite Connecticut community: the idea of “outsiders.” The two narrators – 40-something Cheryl and her stepson, Teddy – are both outsiders to the golf-playing, country-club-attending society they inhabit. But beyond those two characters, there is a movement afoot to put a fence around the community, blocking anyone (particularly the working class fishermen who also frequent the area) from accessing the beach.


There’s a political dimension of this uber-rich community’s effort to exclude outsiders that could possibly bring this slight portrait of a bunch of unpleasant people to a larger conversation. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t quite get there. The sheer awfulness of everyone stands in the way of allowing the reader to slide into what, to me, seems like a very real problem for many communities. What are the ways that all of us put up fences? What are the consequences of building those fences?

It turns out that tv network executives might have liked this novel more than I did. It’s going to be turned into a “dark, humorous soap” for ABC.

Monday, February 8, 2016

It's Monday, And I'm Looking For Love!


This doesn’t exactly feel like a blogger’s slump, but it sure looks like one on paper (or, er, digital paper?  What is the internet? Gah.). I’m totally blaming Jane Smiley. I just finished the second in her Last Hundred Years Trilogy, and it took me eight days of pretty aggressive reading to get through it (review forthcoming). All I posted last week was my review of Weightless by Sarah Bannan, so I clearly did not have a very weighty blogging week.

In an effort to regain some momentum, I just picked up Karolina Waclawiak’s The Invaders, which is described as a novel about “the suburban abyss.” In addition to having the potential to scratch my ongoing suburban reading itch, this book has fewer than 250 pages! Compared with the Smiley tome, this is a fun sized candy bar.



In honor of the approach of Valentine’s Day, I’m looking for a good love story. Do you have a favorite?

And speaking of love, here are my  favorite bookish Valentines for this year, courtesy of the interwebs:

From Sea + Lake Paper Co.




(See last year’s choices here)

(It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Book Date)

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Review of Weightless by Sarah Bannan


We read Weightless by Sarah Bannan for my book club this month. Though it has literary authors’ blurbs on the cover (Colum McCann!), this struck me as YA. I do wonder, however, if teen readers would find this too much like an after school special (Message: Bullying is BAD!) to really enjoy it.


Here’s the premise: a gorgeous, mysterious new girl shows up at a high school in an insular town. At first, she is admired, but soon her peers begin to turn on her in terrible ways. The torment is relentless, and it escalates. The girl also has a troubled back story, so it is up to the reader to figure out whether bullying is causing or contributing to the character’s struggle.

Speaking of the reader, this book’s narrator is a “we.” The reader learns that the “we” is comprised is a specific group of girls who are bystanders and witnesses to the bullying. The plural narrator allows the reader to be a part of a group that does not step in to help, the kind of group that participates by being and staying silent. However, this strategy pulled me away from the story. I like to slip into the lives of characters, and the “we” gave me too much distance. I stayed separate from what should have been a very emotional experience.

One of our book club members pointed us to Sticks and Stones by Emily Bazelon, which is a nonfiction exploration of bullying. I didn’t read this whole thing, but I did read the part that featured the real case that inspired Weightless (but don't click the link to the real case if you don't want spoilers for Weightless). Bazelon’s narration of that story focused on the idea of culpability – can bullying be considered the cause of a victim’s behavior (say, if s/he commits an act of violence)? Part of the mystery of bullying is that it’s hard to pin down – what’s the difference between teasing and bullying (bullying is sustained intimidation – but who decides what intimidation is)? And there’s a growing literature about girl bullying (I liked this one), which tends to be less physical than most cases of boy bullying, but also less definable. If you snub someone repeatedly, is that bullying? Is exclusion bullying?

The biggest problem I had with Weightless is that the story was so deeply and obviously a case of teens being cruel and adults turning away from what was happening. Everything was so awful and so blatant and so terrible that there wasn’t really anything to wrestle with or consider. Was everyone responsible for what happened? Yes. Case closed. I would have been more likely to connect with a book that presented a less flashy case with more dimension.

One book club member raised the issue of the existence of grown-up bullies, and that got me thinking about whether and how Mean Adults are portrayed in literature. Do you have any good examples of books about Mean Women or Mean Men?

( This one doesn’t count).

Friday, January 29, 2016

Review of Days of Awe by Lauren Fox

I broke a serious reading resolution last week. I followed up Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton, which was SadSadSad, with Lauren Fox’s Days of Awe, which ended up being SadSadSad. Remember how I was going to stay away from literary despair in 2016? Oh well. I’ve already lost that battle. I seem to be drawn to depressing stories in the same way that I am to containers of Nutella (I polished off a full tub yesterday. So sorry, arteries).

Days of Awe is a novel about the way that grief can crack the entire foundation of your life. Isabel is a middle-aged woman whose best friend dies suddenly. Isabel’s grief winds like a tendril around her marriage and her relationship with her daughter, and she can’t quite fit all the pieces of her life back together again. Moreover, she sabotages herself left and right, because she is SadSadSad.

The author has made her name as a writer of women’s fiction, and her snappy prose certainly makes her a good fit for that genre. In fact, the strength of this novel is that the hilarious writing can fool the reader into thinking that this book isn’t a tragedy. But be forewarned: this is NOT a beach book, unless you are looking for a way to draw some heavy, dripping clouds to your sunny days.

That said, there are some scenes at a middle school that are genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. Isabel is a teacher, and in addition to her grief, she has to navigate workplace politics, mean girls, and field trips. It made me wish for a companion novel that focuses exclusively on the people at the school.

This is a worthwhile book, with some great elements. I’m “glad” I read it, and I bet that I will continue to follow this author in the future. It’s a difficult novel to recommend, however, since I’m not sure who would be the right audience. Readers who like their Nutella with a side of tears, maybe?