No One Is Coming To Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts

Sometimes you read a book that quietly sneaks up on you, becoming more engrossing and more moving as you turn the pages.  I wasn’t initially sure about Stephanie Powell Watts’s No One Is Coming To Save Us, but I came to really enjoy being in the company of these flawed, authentic characters.  This is a novel filled with people who are stuck and people who are yearning, and I became totally invested in their lives.  The book jacket and pre-publication buzz may have led you to believe that this is a contemporary African American version of The Great Gatsby, but I took this novel for what it was:  a compelling family saga set in an economically depressed North Carolina town.

51u0JxuMEWL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Pinewood has seen better days – the furniture factories are almost all shuttered and even the town’s beloved greasy diner that’s been there since the 1950’s is about to close for good.  JJ (now Jay) Ferguson, former foster child,  has come back to Pinewood with money, and has built a showcase home on the hill high above town.  It’s obvious to anyone who knows him that he’s returned to win the heart of his high-school love, Ava.  Ava, meanwhile, has a good job at the bank but a sham of a marriage, and has been desperately trying to conceive a child unsuccessfully for years.  Her mother, Sylvia, is the heart of the novel.  She’s contemplating aging, secretly conversing regularly with a young convict named Marcus, and has never moved through the grief of losing her son, Devon, years ago in an accident.

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Stephanie Powell Watts

Watts knows how to write realistic dialogue and knows how to portray flawed characters sympathetically.  She’s a beautiful writer, mixing contemporary feeling conversations with astute observations about life.

Some passages I liked:

“These days when she got a glimpse of a beautiful man, she sized him up like a jeweler. Good cut, good sparkle, nice setting, but not something she herself could afford.”

“She wanted to tell Lana that for years she’d heard whispers that sounded like her son.  She almost confessed that when she found herself alone she spoke into the air until it vibrated with her voice and waited for her son’s voice to echo back.  She wanted to say that in waiting for her son she had almost surely failed her daughter who clearly need her, who probably knew better than to ask for her attention.  She wanted to tell Lana everything that would identify her as total-lost like a wrecked car and the county people could certify her gone in the ways that they do and finally, finally she could experience the peace, the calm of the diagnosis.  Everybody has a disease.”

“But soon and in clearer moments she knew she had made her own choice not to lose him or at least not to lose all of her memories of him.  She wanted the past where they lived and struggled and loved each other.  A past that couldn’t and shouldn’t be erased.  The possibility of the past, if it is a good one, or even if it has good moments, is that it can be alive, if you let it.  All of it alive, not just the terror, but the beauty too.  And the young encompassing and smothering love she’d felt for her lovely man – all that alive too. Otherwise all those years, her years, her life had not meant a thing.” 

There are no easy answers for the inhabitants of Pinewood, no outside saviors, no miracle solutions.  There is only going through, straight through the hard stuff of life – aging, infertility, depression, regrets.  And yet I wasn’t weighed down by this book. I continued to reach for it and looked forward to visiting these characters.  Perhaps the only salvation to be found is in the determined survival of Sylvia, Ava, and the rest of the characters.  Stephanie Powell Watts has written a moving story with a glimmer of hope, and I most definitely recommend it for fans of family sagas.

 

Reading Ireland Month: All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan

I engineered these passions, these trials, to convince myself I was living a life.  Even misery was better than boredom.  

When we meet Melody Shee she is in her thirties, living in Limerick, Ireland, and twelve weeks pregnant.  The father is not her husband but the seventeen year-old Traveller boy whom she tutors in reading.  Her husband has left her, and she’s contemplating suicide.  We learn that she carries the blame for a childhood friend’s death inside her, and has for years.  We learn that she and her husband have suffered through two miscarriages, and he decided to get a vasectomy to spare them both any more pain.  We learn that her father and her mother didn’t really have a happy marriage, but that her father is the one person who loves and supports her perfectly.  He’s the one person whom she doesn’t want to disappoint, but she can’t quite ever feel worthy of his love.29752909

True confession time:  I almost abandoned All We Shall Know somewhere between pages 50 and 77.  Frankly, three things kept me going.  1.  It was a gift from a blogger friend, 2. it was short (186 pages,) and 3. I realized that, while it began bleakly, it was most certainly NOT dull.

I have the marvelous blogger Fiction Fan to thank for helping me to realize the last bit, in a comment exchange on my previous post.  She said she doesn’t really abandon books for being too sad, but rather for being dull.  It made me reconsider All We Shall Know in a totally knew light.  I realized that while I was saddened by the events in the novel, I was also invested.  I wanted to know what was going to happen to Melody Shee and her baby.  I alternately sympathized with and cringed at Melody’s passions and anger, but I couldn’t stop reading about her.

This is a lyrical, beautifully written book, full of sadness, full of intense emotions, and full of life.  There is a compelling, propulsive quality to the writing, and Ryan is masterful at making the reader care about a heroine that is troubled, to say the least.  Some may find her unlikable. I did myself at times.  But she is a fully realized character, someone who has suffered, made profound mistakes, and carries their weight with her always.  I also marveled at Ryan’s skill in depicting pregnancy.  It made me recall my own experience, the bodily sensations that change and surprise, and even made me have a dream about being pregnant.  The chapters begin at Week Twelve and end at Week Forty, so as the novel progresses the impending birth comes closer and closer.

Melody’s life takes a turn after meeting another Traveller, a young woman named Mary Crothery, a distant relative of the baby’s father.  She also turns to Melody for help learning how to read, and they strike up an unusual and fascinating friendship.  I found that her introduction into the narrative was a real turning point for me in that her character lightened the story up considerably, and softened Melody’s abrasiveness.  Her story line is fraught with peril as well, as she’s left her husband from another Traveler clan, and his family doesn’t like it one bit.  Yet even Melody’s sweet father is enchanted by her.

And the sky and the earth and the cut grass and the chirruping of birds and the low drone of insects and the slant light across my father’s happy face and the gleam of wonder in Mary Crothery’s eyes and the smell of the morning air and the weight of life inside me all seemed even, and easy, and messless, and perfect, and right, and every deficit seemed closed in that moment.

I have a Goodreads shelf labelled “Sad But Worth It” and this resides firmly on that shelf.  It’s a beautiful, raw book about impossible messy relationships and the hope for redemption.  I know I won’t soon forget fierce, flawed Melody, and I will definitely read Ryan again.

Have you ever had this kind of reading experience before, when a book you almost abandoned turned around for you?  Do you have a recommendation for an Irish writer or novel you love? Let me know in the comments.

reading-ireland-month_2017Cathy at 746 Books once again hosts Reading Ireland Month, a month dedicated to exploring all that’s good in Irish books and culture.  Check out all the fun here.

In A Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

I’ve now read both of Ruth Ware’s novels, and I’m here to say that I’m down to try anything else she publishes.  I read The Woman in Cabin 10 late last year, and was entertained all to heck by it.  In a Dark, Dark Wood, Ware’s first novel, is another four-star reading experience for me.  Both are twisty, secret-filled, suspenseful page-turners.  Both are a bit campy and improbable at times.  Yet I couldn’t stop reading either – the kind of books where you don’t want anyone to talk to you while you’re reading, you just want to cram the words into your brain as quickly as possible.

9781501112317_custom-b94a64187bf3180e71db57fd0feedeb786ff5a89-s300-c85The bulk of the novel takes place over a weekend at a “hen do” (a bachelorette party to Americans.  I quite like the term “hen do.”)  Our heroine, a young writer named Leonora, has been invited to the festivities by an old high school friend, Clare, whom she hasn’t been in contact with for ten years.  Curiously, she hasn’t been invited to the actual wedding.  (Alarm bells should probably have been going off internally, am I right?)  But for some reason (remembered fondness?  curiosity?  boredom?) she agrees to go, along with a mutual friend, Nina.  There end up being six people staying at the house in the middle of nowhere England, in the winter.  Oh, and it’s a glass house.  A creepy, glass house belonging to the aunt of the hen do’s host, Flo.  Flo and Clare are college pals, and as the action unfolds, we see that she is mentally… fragile?  Unbalanced?  She is desperate for the weekend to go perfectly on Clare’s behalf.

However, from the start we know that something has gone terribly wrong, because the first chapter opens with Leonora (Nora as she now wishes to be called) in the hospital, in pain, and a nurse telling her where she is, that she’s had a head injury, and that she’s going for a scan.  So the reader alternates between the events of the weekend and Nora’s time in the hospital, desperately trying to remember what happened to put her there.

517zkkkjmxl-_sx324_bo1204203200_Secrets abound in this thriller.  Why did Clare and Nora have a falling out?  Why has she been invited to the bachelorette but not the wedding?  Who is the groom?  Why is Flo so strange?  What has happened to Nora, and why can’t she remember?  I admit that I didn’t discover the answers to these mysteries as quickly as I should have, and was thrown by more than one red herring.

It is just as I’m drifting off to sleep than an image comes to me: a shotgun hanging on a wall.  

And suddenly I know.

The bruise is a recoil bruise.  At some point in the recent past, I have fired a gun.  

If you’re interested and want to try one of Ware’s books, I would start with this one.  The sense of dread in this one built much more convincingly, and the heroine wasn’t quite as annoying as the one in The Woman in Cabin 10.  Don’t say that I didn’t warn you that at times you may be frustrated with the main characters and find yourself thinking things like, “What are you doing?” or “Take your damn phone with you, woman!”  But if you want to be entertained and feel a need to escape, you could do much worse than these two books.

Do you enjoy thrillers or suspense?  Just what is the difference between those two terms anyway?  Have you read this one?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

So they sat beneath the statue of Christopher Columbus, side by side, hand in hand, surrounded by skateboarders and young lovers  and homeless people, looking north as cars came around the circle and went up Central Park West.  The spring air was crisper than she would have wished, but not crisp enough to send her rushing into the subway.  And even if it had been, she would have stayed in the circle, because it wasn’t every night she got a chance to enjoy the sounds of the city and its millions of lights blinking around her, reminding her that she was still living her dream.

fc9ef780abf3d053a5beb8a9289d2ec9I waffled a bit in the middle of reading Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers. As I wrote in a previous post, there was a moment when the pace lagged a bit, when I wasn’t sure it was holding my interest.  But I wanted to finish the novel, and I am so glad that I did.  I ended up giving it four stars on Goodreads.  It was a book that surprised me with its simple, quiet beauty and its wistful emotional tone.

It’s the story of the Jonga family from Cameroon, a husband (Jende,) wife (Neni) and their six year-old son, living and trying to make it in New York City.  Jende’s cousin Winston has come to America some time before, and is now a successful lawyer.  He sponsored Jende’s visa and tried to help him acclimate to the culture shock.  Jende worked and saved as a taxi driver and was able to bring his family to America;  Neni, hoping to become a pharmacist, has a student visa.  As the novel opens it’s 2008.  Through Winston’s connections Jende is hired as the chauffeur of Clark, a top banking executive at Lehmann Brothers on Wall Street.  Clark and Jende get along so well that Clark’s wife Cindy ends up hiring Neni to work for her as well as a part-time caregiver to their son, Mighty. Things are going well, and the Jonga family’s standard of living improves.  Over time, both Jongas become witness to troubles in the Edwards family.  Their wealth and privilege conceals great loneliness and disconnection.  As Lehmann Brothers implodes, the lives of both families are thrown into turmoil.  Both Jende and Neni make questionable decisions as their family’s security is threatened.

It was easy to relate to Jende and Neni – they worked hard, saved willingly, and wanted to provide a better future for their family. They enjoyed the material and cultural gifts that living in New York City could provide, even as they marveled at how much money people spent on things here, and what that same amount would purchase back home in Cameroon.

She hadn’t expected the prices in New York to be the same as in Limbe, but she found it difficult not to be bothered whenever she bought a pound of shrimp for the equivalent of 5000 CFA francs – the monthly rent for a room with a shared outdoor bathroom and toilet for all the residents in a caraboat building.  You have to stop comparing prices, Jende advised her whenever she brought up the issue.  You keep comparing prices like that, he’d say, you’ll never buy anything in America.  The best thing to do in this country, whenever you enter a store, is to ignore the exchange rate, ignore the advertisements, ignore what everyone else is eating and drinking and talking about these days, and buy only the things you need.

Their struggle to achieve the “American Dream,” to stay here in this country and try for a better life, even if it meant doing some things that compromised their dignity – this moved me greatly.  Learning a little bit about Cameroon (a country I admit that I am woefully ignorant about) and placing myself in the Jendes’s shoes made me reflect on my own unearned blessings, simply by random luck of birthplace.

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          Mbue

It would have been easy for Mbue to portray Clark and Cindy Edwards as heartless, mindless buffoons, but she gave them shades of complexity and depth.  They were undoubtedly wealthy people by any standards, but they were not cruel or mean-spirited; rather, they seemed a bit clueless about the way the rest of the world lived.  I especially enjoyed the rapport that Jende and Clark had.  There is a lovely scene where both men sit on a bench in Hudson River Park and watch the sunset together.  I was surprised by how much Clark opened up to Jende.  Sadly, it seemed that he could talk to Jende in a way that he couldn’t connect with his wife.

Mbue puts very human faces on complicated issues of immigration and class privilege in America.  Good fiction is one of the best tools we have to foster empathy among people of different countries, races, and economic classes. How I wish I could make certain politicians read this compassionate, humane, emotionally intelligent novel!  How I wish that more Americans read immigrants’ stories, both fictional and biographical, period. But I can try to take solace in recommending this particular novel to library patrons and to you, dear blog reader.  It is engaging literary fiction with appealing characters and plenty of questionable choices to ponder and debate.  It would make an excellent pick for a book club.  I now want to read and learn more about Cameroon, and I eagerly await Ms. Mbue’s next book.

 

 

 

You’ll Grow Out Of It by Jessi Klein

Oh my goodness, this was a fun read.  I had no idea who Jessi Klein even was before I read this, but a bookish friend’s positive review on Goodreads made me add her memoir You’ll Grow Out Of It to my TBR.  (Thanks, Eve!)  I don’t watch Amy Schumer’s show, of which Klein is head writer and executive producer.  But it didn’t matter one bit as I raced through these funny, slightly raunchy essays on growing up, living, and loving as a cishet Jewish woman in America.  I’m the target audience for this book, I think – I’m two years younger than Klein (we’re solidly Gen X) and reading these essays made me feel like I’d found an equally neurotic, self-deprecating, more hilarious kindred spirit.

Let me share some of my favorite passages with you:

On the three style options available to women as they grow older – 1) You were a Supermodel, 2) You are Rich, and 3) You’re an Eccentric:

This is the last option.  And it will be my option.  We see these women all the time. They’re not leaning on beauty, and they’re not leaning on money.  They’re leaning on character.  They wear hot pink tights and high-top sneakers.  They wear big glasses and pillbox hats.  They looked like they might have once worked at Interview even though they didn’t.  Or they look like Betsey Johnson back in the 1980s, but now here in the present and much older.  Thy’re memorable and fun.  They’re kooky old ladies.  When I see them, I feel a little pulse of happiness that maybe I won’t be so sad losing the little dollop of prettiness I was allotted.  That maybe the secret to getting old and feeling okay is just buying an enormous silly hat and making people smile when they look at you because they think you’re having a good time.

But maybe that’s not what the hat is about.  Maybe the real issue is not so much making other people think you’re having a super-fun time creeping toward death; it’s simply being seen.  This is the lament of older women, and ultimately of all old people – that you become invisible.  It is especially hard for women, though, whose entire lives have been spend spinning around the idea that if no one is staring at you, you’ve somehow failed.  Maybe the silly hat is really a Hail Mary to get people to look at you, no matter the reason.

 51bvntfqcnl-_sy344_bo1204203200_On the two types of women, Poodles vs. Wolves:

Wolves need to eat more than poodles do (both larger amounts and more frequently.) Wolves wear lip balm. Wolves can’t deal with thongs. Wolves sweat a lot. Wolves are funny. Wolves show up ten minutes early to everything and are always the first ones there and then have to fake a conversation on their cell phone so they look like they know other human beings on this earth. Wolves usually own two bras total, and neither of them matched their tattered old Gap underwear.  Wolves lose their virginity during their junior year of college at the very earliest.

On natural childbirth vs. getting an epidural:

But how often do people really want women to be or do anything “natural?”

It seems to me the answer is almost never.  In fact, almost everything “natural” about women is considered pretty fucking horrific.  Hairy legs and armpits?  Please shave, you furry beast.  And while you’re at it, don’t forget to remove your pubic hair, that’s also an abomination.  Do you have hips and cellulite?  Please go hide in the very back of your show closet and turn the light off and stay there until someone tells you to come out (no one will tell you to come out.)

It’s interesting that no one cares very much about women doing anything “naturally” until it involves them being in excruciating pain.

No one ever asks a man if he’s having a “natural root canal.”  No one ever asks if a man is having a “natural vasectomy.”

GET THE EPIDURAL.

I read some negative Goodreads reviews of this that reference Klein’s obvious privilege, and yes, she does talk often about visiting spas and fancy stores, but that didn’t bother me for some reason.  I mean, I figure someone who’s the head writer of Inside Amy Schumer is going to be buying top end skin care products.  Honestly, if I were a successful, famous comedy writer, I’d be buying $250 jars of La Mer too.  Klein struck me as knowing that all the stuff she gets to do now is slightly crazy but she’s also kind of enjoying it.  I don’t begrudge her that.  I appreciated her honesty and her self-deprecating, relatable humor about her own awkwardness in all things “feminine.”

This was when I learned one of the biggest secrets of being a women, which is that most of the time, we don’t feel like we’re women at all.

If you’re a fan of female comedian memoirists, like Mindy Kaling, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler, you’ll probably enjoy You’ll Grow Out Of It.  It’s a funny, somewhat profane, sometimes poignant essay collection that I’m glad I took a chance on.