The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

It is possible to leave so much out of any given story.

I devoured Emily St. John Mandel’s new novel, The Glass Hotel. I barely took any notes at all, because I just wanted to keep on reading. There is a unique pleasure in reading Mandel’s words. It feels like some sort of magic. Having read and loved one of her earlier novels, The Singer’s Gun, earlier this year, and with Station Eleven being one of my favorite books of all time, I can say she has risen to a firm spot in my Favorite Authors list.

60704756965__02801b81-4b7c-458c-bf6d-82f40e7a7732What I love about Mandel is that she excels at making me care about multiple characters through multiple timelines. Even relatively minor characters are drawn with care and filled in so they show off many shades. Events sometimes double back on themselves so that in the end there is a completely wrapped package, all the ribbons and paper of the story slowly coming together.

This novel is about a fictional Ponzi scheme and the various ways characters are connected to and affected by it. Which sounds kind of boring when I write it that way. So let me try again: it’s about a dysfunctional brother and sister relationship; a young woman who loses her mother at a young age and shapeshifts her way through life ever after; a beautiful but remote hotel off the coast of British Columbia; a charismatic business man who engineers a lucrative Ponzi scheme, all the while knowing it’s only a matter of time before it unravels. It’s also about people on the margins, people who are not tethered to a city or a house or a family. It’s an exploration of imagined worlds that seems real and real worlds that seem imaginary. It’s about loss, love, ghosts, and, of all things, shipping.

I loved it, and cried at the end. I cried at the end of The Singer’s Gun too. I think I cried during Station Eleven but it’s been a while and I don’t remember. 🙂 Mandel makes me care about characters who aren’t great people, who do things that irritate or make me feel frustrated. Humanizes, that’s the word I’m looking for. Oh, and there was a fun Easter Egg mentioning events in Station Eleven that made me gasp with delight.

Not quite as good as Station Eleven, but nearly there and incredibly absorbing.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2

Format: new hardback (owned)

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (Classics Club & Buddy Read)

In that fine place, in the ripened Indian summer weather, those two once again choose us. In circumstances where smaller spirits might let envy corrode liking, they declare their generous pleasure in our company and our good luck. What we felt last night when we fell into a laughing bearhug and fused our frosty breaths outside their door, we feel again on this placid hill. We have been invited into their lives, from which we will never be evicted, or evict ourselves.

91Vq1lzeOaLHaving read and loved Stegner’s Angle of Repose years ago, I had high hopes for his 1987 novel Crossing to Safety. I also owned a copy so choosing it for my March Classics Club pick was a no-brainer. I’m happy to say my expectations were matched and I thoroughly enjoyed this reading experience. Augmenting my pleasure was doing a a Buddy Read with Pauline of Smithereens blog, and Rebecca of Bookish Beck. I don’t know that I provided any great contribution to our email and Twitter conversations, but I was grateful for the company and the added push to read it.

Stegner is a beautiful writer – thoughtful, measured, insightful about human nature. His detail for the natural world is also a delight, anchoring his characters in a very rich and real place. This novel centers on two young academic couples, Larry and Sally Morgan, and Sid and Charity Lang. The action takes place in both the Midwest of the Great Depression, in Madison, Wisconsin, and also forty-some years later in rural Vermont. We follow the two couples as they bond very quickly and go back and forth in time ultimately to their later years, as they gather at the end of one of the foursome’s life. The men are college English teachers trying to get published and promoted, with varying degrees of success. The women are housewives as was typical of the time period, and they do have children, although the kids are mostly an afterthought in the narrative until the end.

What drives the story is the beguiling and maddening character of Charity Lang. She is what you’d call a “force of nature,” a whirlwind of energy, spirit, and generosity. I admired her but didn’t entirely warm to her, although I suppose if she’d taken me under her wing as she did the Morgans, I would probably always be in her debt and her thrall. You see, the Morgans are poor, and the Langs are wealthy. But somehow that doesn’t really come between the two couples as much as you might think it would. There are equalizers, such as Larry Morgan’s more successful writing career. There is more conflict between Charity and Sid over his stalled career than there is any conflict between the couples.

This is a quiet novel, but rich in character and detail. Deep friendship and the complicated bonds of marriage are the themes, as well as a meditation on what makes a life well lived. Reading this in such a precarious, anxiety-inducing time as this was a balm to the soul. As Pauline astutely noted, the characters feel very far away from the cares of the world in the book, although serious events occur. If you’ve never tried Stegner before I would highly recommend this one, especially if you like character-driven, thoughtful, but not overly padded, novels.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Format: owned paperback

See my Classics Club list here.

The Finished Stack Mocks Me

When I finish a book that I think I want to write about on my blog, I put it on top of my desktop computer tower (yes, Fogey McOldster has a desktop computer and it works fine, thank you very much!) I don’t write my posts at the computer anymore, I write them on my iPad, but I’ll finish them up on the desktop which is easier than the iPad (putting in the pictures, setting up links, things like that.) Anyway, when the finished stack gets to be four books tall it starts to make me anxious. At that point, I either say, FORGET IT I DON’T WANT TO WRITE ABOUT THESE DUMB BOOKS ANYWAY or I say, okay, it’s time for some mini-reviews.

It’s time for some mini-reviews!

img_5291Anti-Diet:Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating by Christy Harrison

I have avoided writing about this book for weeks now because I don’t feel like I’ll do it justice. Christy Harrison is an Anti-Diet registered dietitian nutritionist and certified intuitive eating counselor with a background in food and nutrition journalism. She knows her stuff, and she has done her research. She shreds Diet Culture here, showing how its roots lie in historical ideas steeped in sexism, racism, and classism. She details how Diet Culture (which she calls The Life Thief) steals our time, money, well-being, and happiness, and ultimately it doesn’t even give us the lasting weight loss we so desperately crave. She then gives us strategies to resist diet culture and deprogram ourselves from years of steeping in its toxic messages. This is an excellent book if you aren’t familiar with the Anti-Diet movement or the concept of Health At Every Size. If you are familiar and just want more information, it’s still an excellent book! It’s well-researched and a fast- paced read. I loved it and highly recommend it if you’re someone who has let the Life Thief steal your joy over the years, or if you’re interested in social justice. Make no mistake, how we treat people in larger bodies IS a social justice issue.            ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ (Another good book to check out, more of a memoir on the topic, is Caroline Dooner’s The F*ck It Diet: Eating Should Be Easy.)

Piecing Me Together by a Renée Watson

This contemporary YA novel took me by surprise. It drew me in from the start and kept me engaged with its fully-realized and heartfelt portrayal of an African American high school junior in Portland, Oregon. Jade is a talented artist and uses the medium of collage to express her feelings and process things. She is also looking forward to hopefully getting nominated to go on a spring break service learning trip that deserving juniors get to participate in. Instead, her Principal gives her an “opportunity” for African American students, to participate in a Mentor program for the year. Jade is angry and disappointed because she wants to be the one who gives for a change, instead of being the poor girl at the private school who receives all the time. Plus, her mentor isn’t doing that great a job, flaking out on her from the get-go. I loved how Watson explores class and race but also gives us a set of wonderful characters in Jade, her mother, cousin, and her two best friends. If you’re the kind of reader who has had bad luck with YA novels in the past, I highly recommend this one. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha

I loved this novel set in Los Angeles, which references the racial tensions and violence of the Rodney King era but mostly takes place today. Two families, one Korean and one African American, are brought together by an act of violence that seemingly comes out of nowhere but has roots in L.A.’s explosive recent past. I thought the characters grappled with some very complex contradictions and questions, and there were no easy answers anywhere. It’s a fast-paced novel of forgiveness, justice, secrets, and family bonds. The characters felt real to me and I appreciated the care with which they were written. Apparently Cha has written a crime trilogy and I think I’ll have to check it out. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

Atmosphere for days! Brooding, gothic, intense, psychological. I love it when a novel feels as immersive as this one did. Frances has recently buried her mother, a rather mean woman whom Frances had to nurse for years. She has gotten a summer position at Lynton’s, an abandoned English estate recently purchased by an American (who hired her to report on the condition of the grounds and gardens.) She is joined by a couple who is also working for the American, cataloguing the rooms of the house, Peter and Cara. Cara is volatile and moody, Peter handsome and flirtatious. Frances is dazzled by the couple, and they draw her into their web with warmth and a freedom that she has never before experienced. She is very socially awkward, and as the book progresses we come to realize that she is not as trustworthy a narrator as we might initially think. There are spooky touches in the abandoned house, strange noises, unexplained faces in windows, wild animals turning up unexpectedly, adding to the tension. This captivated me and I will have to read another book by Fuller – perhaps Swimming Lessons next. Thanks to Anne of I’ve Read This and Rebecca of Bookish Beck for putting this on my radar.    ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Have you read any of these? Anything appeal to you?

Upcoming 2020 Books That Intrigue Me

Riffing on this week’s Top Ten Tuesday subject , I decided that I wanted to make a list of books I want to read coming out this year. Clicking on a title links to its Goodreads page if you want to find out more.

(* = books I will almost certainly buy because I loved the author’s last book)

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel*

Weather by Jenny Offill*

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi*

Untamed by Glennon Doyle (the lone memoir on my list)

Deacon King Kong by James McBride

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (cheating because it was released in late December, but close enough)

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

The Resisters by Gish Jen

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The Truants by Kate Weinberg

New Waves by Kevin Nguyen

House of Trelawney by Hannah Mary Rothschild

I could have kept going because there are so many intriguing books coming out this year but 12 seemed like a nice number on which to settle. It’ll be fun to see how many of these I will have actually read by the end of the year.

Any of these look interesting to you?

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood #MARM

It’s my second time participating in Naomi’s and Marcie’s annual Margaret Atwood Reading Month, or MARM. When I saw the announcement post it was serendipity because I was nearly at the top my my library’s holds queue for The Testaments. I went into the book with low/no expectations, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Well, “enjoyed” is not quite the right word when it comes to a work describing a world as brutal and harrowing as Gilead. Immersed in? Entertained by? Both. I have not read The Handmaid’s Tale in ages. I keep meaning to, but the shiny new books keep catching my eye. I also do not watch the Hulu streaming adaptation, so I can’t compare this book to the vision there.

71x4baXyxvLThe book is narrated by three women: two young women, Agnes, raised in Gilead, and Daisy, raised in Canada, and Aunt Lydia, who is also prominently featured in The Handmaid’s Tale. The time is set fifteen years after the action of The Handmaid’s Tale, and there are signs that there is weakness in the regime. A resistance network within and without Gilead is helping more and more women escape. In Agnes’s chapters we get to see how the Wives are groomed and bred, and with Daisy’s chapters we see a bit more of how the outside world views Gilead.

Lydia’s chapters are much more compelling than the others, mostly because she is a more well-developed character. We get to see the psychological and physical torture she underwent in the days and weeks after the coup that birthed the Gilead regime. It certainly gave me a new understanding of her subsequent actions and choices as the most powerful member of the Aunts.

But there are three other reasons for my political longevity. First, the regime needs me. I control the women’s side of their enterprise with an iron fist in a leather glove in a woolen mitten, and I keep things orderly: like a harem eunuch, I am uniquely placed to do so. Second, I know too much about the leaders – too much dirt – and they are uncertain as to what I may have done with it in the way of documentation. If they string me up, will that dirt somehow be leaked? They might well suspect I’ve taken backup precautions, and they would be right.

What becomes clear as the novel progresses is that Lydia is certainly playing a very long game of revenge against the men in power.

Did I weep? Yes: tears came out of my two visible eyes, my moist weeping human eyes. But I had a third eye, in the middle of my forehead. I could feel it: it was cold, like a stone. It did not weep: it saw. And behind it someone was thinking: I will get you back for this. I don’t care how long it takes or how much shit I have to eat in the meantime, but I will do it.

And so I suppose I kept reading mostly to see how this thing played out, if Lydia indeed got some measure of revenge. Atwood is one of my favorite writers but I mostly prefer her earlier, more realistic fiction to her later dystopian books. I will continue to read anything she writes in the future because I do think she writes beautifully and very keenly about human nature. But I do not think this novel worthy of a major literary prize (it was co-winner of this year’s Booker Prize, sharing the prize with Girl, Woman, Other by Berardine Evaristo.) I do think it’s an entertaining, plot-driven peek into the inner workings of Gilead and opens a window on the mind of a fascinating character in Aunt Lydia. If you were captivated by the original book I would recommend The Testaments for that reason alone. But perhaps tamper down your expectations in terms of literary prowess and know that this is more of a plot-driven work.

I’m glad I read this and when I do eventually reread The Handmaid’s Tale it will be interesting to see how the two works compare. Oh, and I will also be eating cake to celebrate Atwood’s 80th birthday on Monday the 18th. Not that I need an excuse for cake, but it makes it more special!

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The capacity to suffer. Elwood – all the Nickel boys – existed in the capacity. Breathed in it, ate in it, dreamed in it. That was their lives now. Otherwise they would have perished. The beatings, the rapes, the unrelenting winnowing of themselves. They endured. But to love those who would have destroyed them? To make that leap? We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. 

Elwood shook his head. What a thing to ask. What an impossible thing.

71yP-dPa0mLIf a 225-page book takes me nine days to read, either I don’t like it or it’s really sad. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead is decidedly sad. I didn’t cry, and I didn’t feel burdened by gratuitous descriptions of violence. Whitehead, mercifully,  writes sparingly but efficiently of the punishments given out by the mean-spirited men in charge of the fictional Nickel Academy. I just felt sad, heavy with the knowledge that these injustices happened to real boys in the 20th century at Florida’s Dozier School for Boys, the inspiration for Nickel. Heavy with the weight of our continued struggle with racism in the U.S. At the same time, I relished Whitehead’s characterization of the two young heroes in this story, Elwood and Turner. He is a phenomenal writer – not an emotional one, but one who nonetheless has the capacity to move me greatly.

It’s the early 1960’s and Elwood and Turner, the book’s main characters, stand in for hundreds of boys, black and white, who endured horrible conditions at the real life Dozier School. (You can read more about it here.) The boys at Nickel were either wards of the state that no one was sure what to do with or they were there as punishment for a “crime.” Elwood, an enterprising, bookish young man, inspired by recordings his grandma bought him of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., starts the book as the least likely boy to end up at a place like Nickel. But he’s soon caught up in a tragic mishap that lands him in the nightmarish facility, where he meets Turner, a low-key, cynical, but streetwise teen who has no family and is on his second stint at the school. Turner takes Elwood under his wing after Elwood makes the mistake of letting his ideals guide him in the murky social structure at Nickel.

I absolutely fell in love with these two characters, especially Elwood. The way he continues to struggle throughout the novel to reconcile his ideals, the ideals Dr. King showed him, and the reality of his situation, all the adults and kids who weren’t playing by the rules of love and justice and a higher purpose, this is the heart of the book for me. I have read some reviews of Whitehead’s works that fault him for being detached or unemotional. I agree with that characterization but for me it’s a good thing. The things he writes about, especially his last two books, have been about so much sadness and violence that I want a level of detachment from the author – it helps me, a sensitive person, not get overwhelmed by the subject matter. I can focus on the beauty, strength,  and economy of the writing and, here, delight in the characters.

The Nickel Boys is an achievement, a testament to the hell that real life boys endured for most of the 20th century. I think Colson Whitehead is a genius who can write just about any kind of book he wants to and I love the range of his work. I know this kind of book isn’t an easy sell, especially for sensitive readers. But I highly recommend it – if I, known shunner of heavy books, can handle it, you most likely can too! ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

 

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan (Reading Ireland Month)

For Cathy’s annual Reading Ireland Month celebration and exploration of Irish literature, I chose an author I’d read and loved before: Donal Ryan. The Spinning Heart is a short book (156 pages) but it packs a huge emotional punch. I kept having to put it down because each chapter was so weighty and gave me so much to consider. He is an absolutely beautiful writer, and if you’ve never tried him before I highly recommend him. But be warned, this is not escapist reading.

712fj-pYwALEach chapter of the book is narrated by a different character, and they don’t come back to narrate another chapter later as in so many other books told from multiple perspectives. Because this takes place in a small town everybody knows everybody else, so we hear about characters again and again from different points of view. In this way the action of the story keeps moving forward despite not having continuity in storytellers.

Set just after the booming economy of the “Celtic Tiger” burst, everyone in the town is feeling the after effects. Jobs vanished, men who’s self-esteem depend on bringing home a paycheck are angry and depressed. Some consider moving to Europe or Australia to look for work. But underneath the narrative of the economic crisis is another story about long-buried secrets and emotions. Emotionally abusive or withholding fathers, boyfriends and husbands who can’t find the words to tell their women how they really feel, women who have lost children and lost their way. A surprising act of violence sets everyone on edge and tongues wagging, and then another surprising twist makes everyone doubt whether they know their neighbors at all.

“The air is thick with platitudes around here. We’ll all pull together. We’re a tight-knot community. We’ll all support each other. Oh really? Will we?”

I kept putting down this novel after every chapter initially. The weight of each character’s separate sadness felt too heavy for me to continue on. Like Bobby, the foreman of the local construction outfit, who everyone views as an upstanding man. His father was emotionally vicious and his mother died too young. The fear and shame of no work is eating him alive, and the bond between he and his wife Triona is all he has with which to steady himself.

“I couldn’t stand her smiling through her fear and having to coax me out of my misery like a big, sulky child. I wish to God I could talk to her the way she wants me to, besides forever making her guess what I’m thinking. Why can’t I find the words?”

This is a beautifully written novel about people who are hurting from emotional wounds both long scarred over and fresh. Donal Ryan is a gorgeous writer who portrays even the most appalling, unsympathetic characters with a measure of care and gives them many layers. The Spinning Heart is a moving exploration of the ways families hurt and heal one another, and the ways a terrible event can expose the frayed seams of a small town community. Four Stars, and a very good pick for Reading Ireland Month.