On Homegoing

9781101947135

Let’s just add spreading the word about Yaa Gyasi’s stunning novel Homegoing to the ever-growing list of reasons why I adore Ta-Nehisi Coates. It was Coates’ off-hand endorsement of Gyasi’s debut in a recent article that first alerted me to the presence of this instant classic. Once I caught onto the buzz via Coates, it was pretty hard to ignore the cacophony of rave reviews, podcasts, and bookstores, all imploring me to read this book. Then I suffered a few agonizing weeks, waiting for everyone else who had heard the buzz ahead of me to return their copies to the library so I could take my turn. Spoiler alert: Homegoing was totally worth the wait.

There are literally thousands of reviews out there lauding the achievement that is Homegoing, and still I feel compelled to add my voice. There isn’t much I can say that hasn’t already been covered regarding plot. The story begins with two half-sisters, unknown to one another, who lead very separate lives in Africa. Effia, married to a white man, becomes ensconced in the comfort of the Cape Coast Castle, while her sister, Esi, comes to live in the very same castle, only she is one of many women kept in the dungeon and sold into slavery. From this starting point, Gyasi follows each woman’s lineage, alternating between the two family lines with every other chapter. But rather than following Effia’s or Esi’s life stories to their respective ends, Gyasi only devotes a single 20-odd page chapter to each character in her story. And so a child of the protagonist from the preceding chapter becomes the new protagonist in the next chapter and so on across the generations.

In so doing, Gyasi covers over 300 years of story, from the eighteenth century through today, profiling specific moments in time from the lives of just a few members of this family. She creates a remarkably complete portrait of the family’s past and present, finding ways to subtly tie loose ends and clear up those questions left unanswered when she abandons one character’s story for that of his or her offspring. Beyond that, Gyasi crafts a fully realized study of the experience of black families across both time, as three centuries of story are captured here, and space, as Effia’s descendants mostly remain in Africa while Esi’s live in the United States.

Though readers may at first consider the general outlines of these characters’ stories rather archetypal, from the runaway black slave who will never know true freedom to the single mother finding community in her church choir, Gyasi is remarkably apt at filling them in to their most fully realized extent. Although we may get only the smallest taste of any given character’s circumstances, Homegoing never wants for greater detail. Despite being an oft-overused and thus weak statement, there is no more apt way to put it than to say that Gyasi makes her characters come to life. She does so in a tender, artistic, and seemingly effortless way, leaving me in awe of her talent and unable to select a character that was my favorite, nor one that felt underdeveloped or that I disliked.

Gyasi not only captured an incredible story in Homegoing, but maybe even more remarkably, she shared it in a beautifully inventive and surprisingly comprehensive fashion. I think this is what struck me most about the novel, the way in which brief snapshots of so many interconnected yet disparate lives were able to so thoroughly capture the black experience. As a white woman, I completely acknowledge the presumptuousness inherent in me writing that Gyasi has captured the black experience; this is obviously an experience that has never personally been my own and all the books in the world could never provide me enough insight to equal the actual experiences of black people themselves. However, I believe most readers would be hard pressed to find a novelist who has provided this type of insight in greater measure than Gyasi has here. In conveying the stories and histories of African and African American people so effectively, Gyasi makes them become at once both universal and absolutely singular. Relatable to those outside the black community through the unapologetic rendering of each character’s essential humanity, their flaws, inconsistencies, struggles, passions, and triumphs, while also brilliantly detailed enough to highlight uniquely specific experiences of life that many readers may otherwise never know. Seeing how Gyasi strikes a perfect balance between these two qualities is quite a treat for readers, but also seems desperately necessary now more than ever. I think Roxanne Gay put it best when she said “Homegoing is a very confident debut novel. Exceptionally engaging and the strongest case for reparations and black rage I’ve read in a long time.” Gyasi renders the existence of intergenerational poverty and structural racism utterly undeniable, logically connecting the historical experiences of black people to the reality of their lives today.

While the structure of Homegoing is unlike anything I’ve ever read and the subject matter is oftentimes heavy, ranging from tribal conflict between the Asante and Fante people to drug abuse, single parenthood, and the violence and abuses of slavery, it is a quick and absorbing read. The frequency with which new characters are introduced, the desire to know what happened to the previous protagonist, and the language with which Gyasi writes all make this novel rather easy to settle into. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Homegoing one day becomes required reading in the classroom. It’s that kind of good, that kind of important, that kind of accessible.

I will admit, I found the ending a bit underwhelming, but mostly because it felt pretty inevitable. This is one of those cases where the cheesy saying is totally true: it’s about the journey and not the destination. While readers won’t have trouble guessing how Gyasi will end her novel, that’s not why you pick up a book like this one. It’s the process of getting there, of seeing how Gyasi takes us through the ages and does so in such a riveting and artful way, that makes Homegoing worth a read.

One of my litmus tests for books is the degree to which I want to discuss a book with others as soon as I’m finished reading. Similarly, the amount with which I recommend a book to family and friends is also highly associated with my opinion of it. I guess the two are intertwined, along with my desire to write this review; good books beg to be shared, discussed, and read as far and as wide as possible so that they can foster more sharing, more discussing. Gyasi’s debut is one of those books that I’m absolutely aching to talk to someone about. I’ve already advised several family members and friends that it’s a must-read, and now I’ve taken to the internet, hoping to connect with other readers who can fill the void in me as I eagerly seek a dialogue about just how incredible Gyasi’s Homegoing is. I couldn’t recommend this book more highly and I couldn’t be more excited to hear from others who consumed this book with as much gusto as I did.

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On A Little Life

There are plenty of valid reasons not to read Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, not least among them the fact that it clocks in at 720 pages or that it features gruesome, painful-to-read scenes of self-mutilation and abuse. But any reader that skips this book on these or any other bases would be doing a great disservice to her- or himself. I finished this book sobbing and heartbroken and wrecked and nothing short of amazed at Yanagihara’s ability to bring this story so vividly and movingly to life.

While the book at first appears to be the story of four college friends as they mature, seek love, find success, and struggle with maintaining their friendship over a period of some thirty-odd years, the novel truly comes to center on one man of these four, the most tortured and mysterious among them. Unfortunately a brief plot synopsis just won’t suffice to capture the complexities of this story, to give you a true picture of what you’re getting yourself into when you decide to embark on the valiant task of finishing this novel. A more full and detailed description will spoil the beauty of Yanagihara’s ever-so-careful construction, will eliminate that element of surprise that I so cherish when engrossed in a really good book. I take great lengths to go into reading as blindly as possible, abstaining from seeing any reviews beyond the initial one that prompted me to select the title, never even skimming the book’s inner flap synopsis prior to reading.

But I will give you this: A Little Life becomes the story of one Jude St. Francis, a man with an enviably devoted circle of friends, a student of logic and law, someone with a brutal past that, at every turn, continues to shape his interactions with the world, a childhood of secrets so horrific that he is unable to reveal its entire nature to even his most trusted confidants. Yanagihara crafts an epic story around how Jude struggles with unbearable demons, considers if he can make a life worth living out of his tortured history, and fails to deal with a past that is in every way defining his present.

Wisely, Yanagihara decided to reveal to readers the truth of Jude’s upbringing in the way that memories often present themselves; at first only vaguely hinted at, then parsed out a bit at a time, interspersed with the ongoing events of current life as elements of the past become relevant or once the mental muscle to suppress them is completely compromised. There was no other way that the narrative of Jude’s past life could have been written; it would have been far too painful and sorrowful to consume all at once. Because Jude’s past was dealt in increments, readers share a common experience with Jude’s loved ones regarding those undisclosed parts of his story. We experience the awfulness of not-knowing and an ever-growing curiosity, paired with a desire to protect ourselves from what must be a horrific truth, an acknowledgement that knowing what happened to Jude may be too painful to bear.

Yanagihara practiced this careful provision of information throughout the entirety of this story. Many sections of the novel end on cliff hangers, and then she teasingly begins the next section without immediately answering readers’ burning questions. Sometimes the author even pushes readers to a point a few years in the future or centers the next block of narrative on a different character than the one she left us off with, so we are constantly forging ahead to find clues as to what happened. It was a frustrating and wearying and distressing experience for me as a reader, but also an incredibly compelling choice on Yanagihara’s part.

Just a few moments after I completed A Little Life, my husband came home to find me sobbing on the couch. I immediately provided him with a detailed explanation of the plot, replete with spoilers, a lame attempt at conveying just what brought me to tears. After he heard all the tragic and miserable elements of the story, he asked me if there had been any levity to the story, confused as to why I would continue reading something that made me feel such sorrow. While there certainly are brief periods of lightness and plenty of scenes of beauty throughout (we’ll get to those in a minute), they had nothing to do with the tenacity I applied to reading this book. Rather, the reason I continued reading had everything to do with Yanagihara’s characters. They felt so real to me and were developed so vividly, that I deeply cared for them. I yearned for them to find happiness and had to see if they eventually did. I’m sure the length of the book had something to do with my total immersion in these characters’ lives – you can’t read a 700 page novel without connecting to any of the people that populate it – but I think that Yanagihara also exercised a particular magic of fiction here. I was completely involved with this story and could not abandon it without seeing it through to the conclusion. I’ve never been so mad at a book before – for being so long that I knew it would be days until I finished it, for being so painful to read and yet impossible to put down, for making me care so deeply for people that experienced inordinate hurt and sorrow. My anger toward previous works of art has always been rather one-dimensional and superficial, frustration over authorial choices that I perceived to be silly or vexed by editorial decisions that lessened the novels impact. This type of anger was a whole different experience for me.

But as I said, this story isn’t all sadness. Jude’s narrative is couched in that of his college friends JB, Malcolm, and Willem. JB, an artist, is difficult to like at times, but his sometimes-poor attitude and self-centered ways become so predictable that you start to feel a fondness toward him as well as some disdain. His moments of immaturity are countered, however, by his artistic talent and the content of his work. JB is a painter and he finds professional success re-imagining photographs of his friends in oils and acrylics. Yanagihara provides compelling descriptions of his work, of paintings full of deep and obvious love for his friends, of stunning scenes possessing great beauty. Although JB’s role in Jude’s life falls increasingly to the wayside as the book progresses, his pieces are interwoven through the story, standing as tangible representations of the bond these four men share and the better side of JB. I found Malcolm to be the least developed of the four, but his story is still a source of beauty. Malcolm works as an architect, designing beautiful country homes and glorious New York apartments for his friends. The affection and thoughtfulness that infuse his designs are palpable and the descriptions of his work make me yearn for accompanying visuals of it. And then there is Willem, Jude’s most devoted friend. Willem is the single person we as readers most trust with the tender Jude, proving to be a character whose steadfastness is almost unreal. At first a waiter and struggling actor, Willem’s career steadily grows until he becomes one of the world’s biggest film stars by novel’s end. Willem is just so plainly good on all counts that, in hindsight, he seems unbelievable. But while reading, his character feels absolutely necessary; Yanagihara had to give us someone we could never doubt, a person who we could always rely on to stick by Jude, helping us retain a sense of rightness about the world the author created.

It is this picture of friendship, displayed both in the small moments shared and the larger sense of enduring commitment between characters, that gives both life and light to this story. There are times when these men are in so much pain that there seems no chance for happiness to take hold. But then it does, even if briefly, in the most obvious of ways: through the relationships they possess. And these relationships aren’t limited to what these four share with one another. Other notable characters include Harold, Jude’s beloved law school professor who becomes like family; Andy, a resident-turned-doctor that Jude relies upon ever since the former man’s time in medical school; and Richard, the artist friend that gives Jude a home to suit his unique needs. Even though Jude is surrounded by people that care so deeply for him in such demonstrable ways, it is still not always obvious to readers how he will pull through the struggles in his life. The sad trick is that, through his narratives, we readers begin to think like Jude, doubtful of the world’s inherent goodness and expecting the worst. But then, inevitably, it becomes apparent that the characters peopling his life are be the solution, that they pose the only feasible way of getting through. And then you wonder how you, as a reader, ever could have doubted them.

I started making notes for this review about 400 pages in. When I reached the final page, I deleted everything I wrote. I felt both completely unable to put into words how I felt about a novel that left me so emotionally distraught and absolutely confused as to how to make sense of the feelings and their intensity. The next morning, however, I woke up with a deep-seated desire to write, my mess of feelings translated by time (or maybe rest) into a moderately coherent collection of thoughts that I just had to share. I don’t feel that I have done Yanagihara any justice (which seems to be a common theme in many reviews of her work) but if I hadn’t written a thing, I would have felt deeply unsettled for days. Because that’s the kind of book A Little Life is. A narrative that takes on a life of its own without your permission, that won’t release its grasp on your mind. It’s a story that contemplates so many issues that readers can take their pick: what does it mean to know another person, how much importance should we grant to our histories, how do we face sadness and pain and self-hatred, can we instill hope in the hopeless, is there a point as which life no longer is worth living.

A Little Life is a hard book to recommend. While it resonated with me for days, it also filled me with sorrow in a way that nothing else I’ve read ever has. I believe everyone should read a book as brilliantly crafted and beautifully written as this one, and yet inevitably, readers’ hearts will be broken in the process. Despite how terrible A Little Life will, at times, make audiences feel, reading this novel is ultimately a worthwhile and rewarding endeavor. I would far rather have read something as deeply felt and remarkably moving as this, than to have abstained from doing so for fear of the full range of the experience.

On Where’d You Go Bernadette

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Image retrieved from http://www.goodreads.com

Maria Semple’s critically acclaimed novel Where’d You Go Bernadette is one of the most refreshingly unusual family dramas I’ve ever come across in fiction. Through Semple’s ingenious storytelling, readers are introduced to Bee Branch, exceedingly intelligent eighth grade student at a Seattle-area private school and daughter to Bernadette Fox and Elgin Branch.

The story launches when Bee suggests a family trip to Antarctica, an idea which nearly pushes her overly-anxious mother over the edge. Once an L.A. architect, Bernadette despises her Seattle life, spends most of her time in an Airstream trailer in the family’s backyard, and delegates even the most mundane household tasks to a virtual assistant named Manjula. Meanwhile, her husband Elgin Branch is the picture of tech success, a Microsoft employee whose lead position on a new project gives him star status in the company and whose innovative work he discussed in the world’s fourth-most-watched TEDTalk. The tension between an agoraphobic mother, a workaholic father, and their brilliant child trying to exist as transplants in an elite Seattle community make up the stuff of this novel. But while this meager outline of Semple’s main plot points is certainly accurate, it does nothing to describe the experience of reading such a uniquely entertaining and constantly surprisingly book, equal parts satire and touching portrait of a family trying to navigate the absurd world in which they find themselves.

I usually find it irritating when novelists opt for an epistolary style, using a compendium of documents, such as email correspondence, news articles, and the like, in lieu of a traditional, straightforward first- or third-person narrative form. The former feels clunky and cumbersome, rendering it a chore to immerse myself in the world of a novel, rather than the delight it should be. But Semple deftly executes this often-aggravating device, parsing out bits of information on her own time and, in so doing, playing on readers’ curiosity. The correspondence of Semple’s many characters are interspersed with letters sent home from school, report cards, workplace memos, receipts, news articles, psychiatric reports, FBI files, and the like. Some of the emails are blatantly expository, documenting dialogue exchanges between the email-writer and other characters in a narrative fashion that would never be seen in real life emails. Doing this served to advance each character’s perspective so well, however, that I forgave the obviousness of Semple’s effort.

Although I did not find it to be clear initially, this collection of narrative artifacts is supposed to be presented to the reader at the hands of young Bee. This fact becomes more apparent with time. But it also means that, mixed among the epistolary documents, are brief but consistent blurbs of first-person narrative from the perspective of Bee. These more traditional sections of story serve to bring readers up to speed on Bee’s rational view of the situations at hand and act as a check in to make sure we readers pick up on all the subtle clues as to what is occurring. This, I believe, is a large part of what makes Semple’s novel work. We know who we as readers should be attending to most because we hear her voice directly.

Semple at first anchors her narrative documents around Bee and the Galer School which she attends in Seattle. Even though readers come to find that this novel is not so much about Bee’s education as it appears to be, this initial focus allows readers to gently settle into the world of that Semple has created. The material contained in the first section primarily consists of emails exchanged between Bernadette and her virtual personal assistant Manjula, correspondence between Galer School moms Audrey and Soo-Lin, delightful first-person interludes from Bee, and letters sent home from school personnel about attracting more “Mercedes parents” to their institution. Through the lens of this school community, I completely caught on to the complex central relationships and problems, even those contained within the Branch-Fox family unit. Granted, the majority of this information comes from Galer moms Audrey and Soo-Lin, who are obviously unreliable narrators. Nevertheless, their gossip-laden email exchanges about the Galer School community, and very often the Branch-Fox family in particular, convey the sense that something is objectively not quite right with this Bernadette character. Semple subtly suggests throughout part one that there is indeed something more to Bernadette’s oddities, a clearly identifiable reason for her unusual behavior which the title character evasively refers to as the Huge Hideous Thing that occurred in her past.

It is not until part two, however, that the specifics of this event are finally, tantalizingly, revealed. I failed to realize just how much I wanted to uncover Bernadette’s secrets until they began to emerge. Then I simply could not stop consuming the story, and therein lies the magic of the novel’s construction. I was torn between an intense desire to soak in every detail of every line and a compulsion to inhale this section as quickly as possible, seeking answers to my every last question. Would the Huge Hideous Thing that Bernadette cites as the cause for her family’s relocation to Seattle be related to criminal activity, a family on the run? Would it have to do with a deep and bruising pain, some issue more psychological than practical in nature? Would it be revealed that Bernadette was just as crazy as she seemed, having no sound logic to back up her choices, the title character proving unable to procure a description of the Huge Hideous Thing that warranted the reaction she took? I had no idea which way Semple would go, and it was this not knowing that made my desire to uncover the answers both so strong and so surprising.

As compelling as Bernadette’s past proved to be, the novel continued to unfold in delightfully unexpected and complicated ways, such that I was constantly questioning whose story this truly was. Does it really belong to Audrey and Soo-Lin, since their commentary on the affairs of the Branch-Fox family, at first, consist of the bulk of this novel? Or is it essentially the story of Bernadette, who is, after all, our title character? Bee’s character becomes rather dormant in the middle of the novel. But her perspective is the only one specifically intended for us as readers, so does the narrative belong to her? As we gain a fuller understand of each character’s backstory and their evolution over the course of the novel, our sense of who is heroine and who is not is called into question. With so many figures swirling about and their respective moralities constantly in flux, Semple kept me on my toes, never quite sure who to consider the protagonist. While to some this may sound like a patent flaw, it was done in so deliberate a manner that it actually proved to be one of the novel’s main strengths.

Ultimately, however, it becomes clear that this is the tale of Bernadette and Bee, a novel about the depths of the relationship between a tortured mother and her brilliant daughter. When Bernadette goes missing (which happens far later in the novel than I expected it to, given that the title suggests this very thing will occur), we see Bee transformed into a different child, coming unhinged with grief and confusion and a sense of despair. While the circumstances around Bernadette’s disappearance at first seem almost too fantastical for this book, they are adequately explained in due time, as are all mysteries in this novel. And with this explanation, the profundity of Bernadette’s relationship to her daughter is fully exposed with all of its beauty and flaws.

There isn’t much more I want to say about this novel for fear of spoiling the delightful unfolding unsuspecting readers have in store when they begin Semple’s book. This is a completely engrossing tale, with a touch of international adventure, a taste of the detective novel genre, and a healthy dose of good old family drama too. The characters are both fascinating and vivid, especially the female figures, while the satire is spot-on. But all of these seemingly-disparate elements, set in this slightly-more-absurd Seattle are nicely balanced by a sweet and particular type of mother-daughter relationship, the likes of which I have yet to see before in fiction.

On The Book of Strange New Things

Image retrieved from http://www.goodreads.com

A genre-bending sci-fi story of evangelizing extraterrestrial life on a far off planet, Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things never feels as out of this world as you would expect – in a good way. The novel follows Peter, a Christian minister sent by an enigmatic corporation to bring the word of God to native aliens on the planet Oasis. Contrary to what this meager plot outline may seem to suggest, however, Faber’s book is largely ground in very human struggles and emotions, rather than the mysteries of outer space.

I will admit that Peter was the one who got me hooked. The story takes its time coming to life due to the density of Faber’s prose, and it was my affinity for the protagonist that kept me reading when I wasn’t sure where the story would lead, let alone if I would be much interested once it got there. The reveal of Peter’s big mission is withheld from audiences for a seemingly long time – we know he and his wife Bea are anxious about an impending, indefinite amount of time spent apart; we learn that Peter is proud to have been selected for his mysterious mission after a rigorous selection process, full of grueling interviews; and we receive tidbits hinting at the evangelical nature of his new position. But what USIC (the acronym for the corporation sending him to Oasis) even stands for, where Peter will actually find himself after his flight from home, what characteristics led to his selection, the fact that his mission involves traveling to another planet – all these crucial details elude readers for so long that I found myself questioning whether to even get involved in the novel much further. Fortunately, I pushed through.

Upon arriving on Oasis, Peter first struggles to connect with the various personnel around him at the base complex operated by USIC. In particular, Alexandra Grainger who functions as both community pharmacist and Peter’s personal guide, remains frustratingly elusive but also represents Peter’s best chance at understanding this strange new place. Supplying Peter with only the most vague and noncommittal information about the Oasans as possible, Grainger takes Peter to his first encounter with the natives. Lucky for Peter, the Oasans are surprisingly eager for the teachings of Christ. In fact, they identify themselves by the name “Jesus Lover” followed by a number identifying the order in which these Oasans came to Christ.

Peter starts to get comfortable on Oasis as he settles for a few days (and these are lengthy days as the Oasan sky’s cycle is much longer than that of planet Earth) with the Oasans, alternated with a few days back on base. Despite the humid air from which the Oasan settlement offers no respite, the sea of indistinguishable fetus-like faces the Oasans present to their religious leader, and the strange tongue in which they speak, Peter experiences a feeling of great calm among the natives, priding himself on starting to know them as a people and to understand them as individuals. In stark contrast, there is an atmosphere of doom looming whenever Peter finds himself on the USIC base. I was filled with a constant sense of foreboding simply reading these scenes, always fearing that the true, sordid reason the corporation brought Peter to Oasis was about to be revealed. I had a gut feeling that the actual nature of USIC’s work on the planet was not as they had originally revealed to Peter (although there never was an especially specific reasoning offered), that we would discover something much more dark and horrible when the truth finally came out.

While Peter has a surprisingly easy time communicating and engaging with the native Oasans, he encounters great trouble in connecting effectively via “the Shoot” (essentially, a computer with email access only) with his wife Bea back at home. The two find themselves growing ever more emotionally distant while Bea describes scenes from an increasingly chaotic planet Earth, changes which Peter can barely comprehend while so far away and, perhaps even worse, from which he cannot protect his left-behind wife as she needs.

Peter’s tense exchanges with his wife, his incrementally-increasing knowledge about USIC, and his heightened sense of comfort with the natives come to a head that is neither highly surprising nor profound, but satisfying for readers to arrive at nonetheless given all the work it took us to get there. It seemed that Peter’s relationship with the Oasans was supposed to abruptly change in the end, but instead I felt a sort of gradual falling apart leading up to it. And when we uncover the true nature of USIC, it struck me as far less monumental and not nearly as horrible as Faber made readers previously fear. Although I was underwhelmed with the conclusion to this novel (most specifically, a late series of events that Faber tries to arrange as an epiphany of sorts), the weakness of its ending did not undermine the pleasure of reading all that came before. In fact, the very length of the book may have been the reason why its ending felt so pale; in a sea of so much information, the climax felt lost.

The novel clocks in at a daunting 500 pages and while it doesn’t suffer for its length, Faber could have sacrificed his verbose and lurid description of Peter’s experience on Oasis to produce a far slimmer volume. But I appreciated the attention he devoted to some of the more seemingly mundane aspects of this other world setting – his efforts at creating a beautiful, detailed picture of Oasis truly pay off.

I’m not much of a sci-fi reader, but there were aspects of life on Oasis that I found truly fantastical, set alongside other elements that were wholly unimaginative. Peter’s inability to define gender on this planet was a very interesting consideration of extraterrestrial life to include. Despite repeated attempts to understand whether Oasans considered themselves male or female, Peter continually failed to garner a true response on this point from any of the Jesus Lovers. Faber’s exploration of how a different species of life, one that does procreate (we even witness an Oasan give birth in one scene), experiences gender, if they do at all, was a pretty fascinating trip. Peter also describes a mystical, dancing type of rain that creates musical, rhythmic sounds as it patters on the rooftops. Faber’s descriptions of Oasan rain were the type of image that I always love and hate in equal parts in literature; I’m captivated by the unreal beauty described, but find my imagination falling short in its ability to fully picture the author’s vision. Its times like these when I yearn for a movie or some other visual to supplement the gorgeous written description provided.

But on the other hand, the Oasans’ settlement felt way too Earth-like for me to readily accept. True, the buildings had no real doors or windows and they were low and squat, without the ambitious height of metropolitan and suburban dwellings these days. But still, the architecture of the place was described in such terms as to make me picture Adobe houses on a desert plain, rather than a literally out of this world community of homes. The fact that some Oasans could speak English, despite difficulties with their “s” and “t” sounds, seemed remarkably under-explained. Although the community previously had contact with other USIC staff that purportedly taught the natives English, the depth of their knowledge of the language as well as their ability to read it was distractingly dubious, enough to take my mind out of the story in order to muddle over these doubts.

One of the book’s greatest strengths lies in how Faber never offers any type of judgment, good or bad, regarding Peter’s strength of faith. Rather, the fact that his protagonist is a devoted Christian missionary is presented plainly, unemotionally, factually. Certainly there are moral dilemmas that Peter muddles through under the guidance of religion, and his faith comes through in conversation with the USIC staff as well as the Oasans, but readers are not encouraged to look down upon Peter as a naive God-lover, nor to uphold him as a perfect Christian specimen. I certainly liked Peter, respected him and hoped that only the best would come to him, but I was pleasantly surprised by the way Faber treated his main character, given the outline of Peter’s persona. As we near the book’s end, Faber inches ever so slightly toward a higher level of judgment about religion, but only through the direct thoughts and actions of Peter and Bea, never in terms of how the author treats his characters. I found Faber’s whole relationship with his protagonist and his corresponding religious views rather fascinating.

Flawed but compelling, inventive but not wholly so, Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things is a solid good read, an opportunity to be transported to another world in the truest sense of the phrase. While I wasn’t completely blown away with this one, I was eager to continue reading, not just because there was so much to get through, but rather because it was so enjoyable to dwell with Peter in Faber’s Oasis.

On I’ll Give You the Sun

Image retrieved from goodreads.com

I’ve had trouble getting into most young adult fiction that I’ve crossed paths with lately. Certainly you have to bring some laxity to the reading of any novel geared to a teenage audience, but despite my cautious, lowered expectations, it wasn’t until I landed upon Jandy Nelson’s brilliant second novel I’ll Give You the Sun that I finally found some young adult fiction I could truly sink my teeth into and devour.

Nelson’s novel centers around twins Jude and Noah, told from their alternating perspectives. Part of the appeal was in the three year time gap between points of view; Noah’s story is delivered from the vantage of their 13 year old selves, while Jude’s perspective is offered three years later when they reach age 16. Nelson devoted great attention to each story line before her transitions so readers get to intimately know Noah, then delve deeply into Jude’s world, rather than having the more constant, banter-like back-and-forth. Nelson’s plot twists and turns were very carefully revealed; one twin’s knowledge was withheld from readers (and the other twin) far longer than a more traditional novel would allow. Like Jude and Noah themselves, we readers were trying to piece together two sides of the larger story at a tantalizingly slow pace.

The basic gist is that Jude and Noah are wildly different but deeply connected twins at the tender age of 13. Living on the Northern California coast, Jude fits in with the middle and high school crowds, an adventurous surfer girl who isn’t afraid to keep up with the guys but is right at home surrounded by a gaggle of girls. Noah is more of an outsider, an extremely talented and artistic kid whose main focus is attending a prestigious arts high school and hiding the fact that he has discovered his own homosexuality. Once we hear Jude’s side of things from the vantage of 16, however, we find that the twins’ identities have been practically swapped and their connection all but severed by endless hurt, misunderstanding, and jealousy. Jude gets into art school and  secludes herself from her old crowd and the rest of the world, while Noah attends the local public school and hides his true sexual orientation in an effort to secure his fragile social status. The two are practically estranged by this point but Nelson wisely only doles out the slightest clues as to why at her own pace, keeping us readers completely hooked.

The cause of the rift and resulting personality switch is a family tragedy, the details of which I’ll let Jandy reveal to you herself in her poetic, imaginative, engrossing work of literary art. There’s little more that I want to say plot-wise because the characters are so vividly, realistically, and complexly written into the story; it would be a disservice of me to spoil your pleasure of discovering them and their contributions to this fictional world on your own. I’ll Give You the Sun is just so damn beautiful that I don’t think any review could adequately encapsulate how powerfully Nelson’s gift for literature comes across in her work.

Themes of art, family, loss, identity, and misunderstanding are tenderly woven into the twins’ story as they struggle with their relationship, the power of creativity in their lives, and the common realities of coming of age. Certainly the book rings a bit formulaic, but I had no trouble forgiving Nelson this fault, given the target audience and the otherwise overwhelming profundity of this book. Similarly I could see some of the twists coming from a mile away, but that’s what watching too many R-rated movies and reading too many family dramas will do to a person; I’m more jaded than the average teen. I think I’ll Give You the Sun would be truly a delight for young adults, if not a gentle introduction to some more adult topics, in it’s mixture of innocence, tragedy, and misunderstanding.

Reading should take you to another world, one that is heartbreaking and compelling and imaginative and breathtaking. A gifted novelist can challenge you, engage with you, and move you for years with a single piece of fiction. It should never feel like a chore to read, but more like a gift, a pleasurable state of being that you want to revisit over and over. Every unopened book holds this potential to me, but I always find myself truly surprised and deeply grateful when I actually complete a book the delivers. I finished I’ll Give You the Sun with the much sought after but rarely experienced desire to flip back to page one and immediately read it all over again. Instead I chose the alternative – sharing it with the world and/or my mother because stories like this are far too special to be kept to oneself.

On Why We Broke Up

Image retrieved from gmfunkbook.blogspot.com

Although I consider young adult fiction to be a guilty pleasure of mine, sometimes I don’t feel quite so guilty about it. Despite the fact that Daniel Handler’s YA novel Why We Broke Up feels even more juvenile than most picks from the young adult genre because it is a picture book (artist Maira Kalman’s work is included at the beginning of each chapter), the art is actually a quirky and creative means to tell the story of why protagonist Min (short for Minerva) broke up with Ed Slaterton. I certainly anticipated feelings of guilt before I started reading this one, but once I picked it up those feelings evaporated rather quickly. This was an incredibly enjoyable read and one I wouldn’t feel an ounce of shame to recommend to me friends (which is why I’m writing this review, I guess).

So the plot: en route to her now-ex’s house, Min composes a letter detailing the reasons why she and Ed broke up as she goes through a box of all her Ed-paraphernalia. Each item within the box (illustrated in the book by Kalman) is afforded its own chapter in which Minerva elaborates upon the circumstances surrounding the physical object that reminds her of Ed and how it made her fall for Ed or foretold their coming break up. In so doing Minerva shares with readers the story of how she came to fall for Ed in the first place. It’s a deceptively sweet young love story told within the confines of an unapologetic break up novel, the classic tale of two young people from different worlds falling in ill-fated love.

Minerva, an unabashed cinema nerd, continually cringes as Ed’s friends try to describe her – she always dreads being labeled “arty” but what she is more commonly classified as, “different,” isn’t much better given its vagueness and potential for profoundly negative connotations. Ed is co-caption of the basketball team, a charismatic high school senior that seems to have dated pretty much every girl in school with even the slightest ounce of popularity to her name. Min and Ed meet one another at a party, a chance encounter for two high schoolers from completely different social circles – after a disappointing basketball loss, Ed and company crash one of Min’s friend’s parties. Minerva’s friends are a delightful bunch, fiercely loyal to both one another and their respective ideas of themselves as independent and authentic. They spend time at coffee shops and see black and white movies at the art house movie theater, they explore the most interesting haunts of their neighborhood and have ironic Bitter Sixteen birthday parties. They aren’t the most developed teenage characters in the world of fiction, but they are appealing in their earnest attempts at being themselves and their ability to plainly recognize the superfluousness of popularity, athleticism, and high school drama. Ed’s friends fall on the other extreme, a group of far more one-dimensional characters who spend their time at bonfires dominated by gossip, kegs, and an endless game of musical girlfriends among the basketball players.

But then Min catches Ed’s eye and introduces him to her world. There is something rather endearing about the trope of the artistic love interest opening up new doors for the more conventional one and Handler carries it out rather sweetly.

Of course, conflict arises. Ed was conditioned to behave towards women in a certain way that is far from conducive to Min’s expectations of coupledom. Min tries to ignore Ed’s complete lack of taste, not to mention his lack of genuine interest in her friends. Their circles are so far removed that social events require careful and elaborate planning so as to evenly split time with both groups. Ed’s ex-girlfriends are constantly around, constantly contributing to Min’s sense of self doubt. Min learns her lesson that you can’t choose a boy over your true friends.

Handler also gives readers a fair share of what we always seek in romance novels, whether written about the young or the old – a glimpse into the remarkable and unrepeatable world two people create together. Even though we know all along, thanks to the author’s wise choice of title, that this relationship will end with a split, that doesn’t negate the moments of tenderness, humor, and adventure that Min and Ed share. On their first date, Min takes Ed to see a movie and, upon leaving the theater, surmises that an elderly lady also exiting the theater is in fact the aging star of the film they just watched. The ensuing narrative of Min and Ed following the supposed actress around town and to her home highlights the way that Min brings out a certain side of Ed many don’t see, not even Ed himself. It’s a side that is game for adventure, that seeks something in life other than the unquestioned norm, but he painfully needs some guidance in how to access that part of himself to begin with. Each item in Min’s box is a testament to this world that no longer exists by novel’s end, the small touchstones that indicate the type of people Min and Ed were in the short time they spent together.

Handler expertly characterizes a modern day Romeo and Juliet, a pair that obviously don’t belong together but are still drawn to one another in ways that are at once plainly clear and deeply complicated. Why We Broke Up is easy to mock (I’ve seen my fair share of negative reviews whose titles are hackneyed puns along the lines of “Why I Broke Up With This Book”), but I appreciate Handler’s bold (and I would argue successful) attempt at navigating the seas of teenage love and heartbreak in a fresh way. And if it makes you feel any better, you don’t have to tell anyone that pictures accompany the story though in retrospect, I ultimately found them to be just another sweet touch.

On Labor Day

Image retrieved from http://www.bookfinds.com

I was initially drawn to previews for the film Labor Day because of the story alone: a single mother living takes in an escaped convict and the two fall in love. The tragedy of the conflict and the romance that must exist for a woman to so blindly endanger herself and her son sound like the stuff of a great story. When I realized it was all based on Joyce Maynard’s novel of the same name, I did what I usually do in such situations: requested the book from the library as soon as possible and avoided clips, trailers, and reviews of the film as much as possible in an effort to preserve the wonder of reading a story with no preconceptions or spoilers.

Maynard crafts a compelling plot in Labor Day, a narrative that is uniquely told from the perspective of Henry, the thirteen year old son of Adele. A recluse after a series of harrowing miscarriages and a divorce from Henry’s father, Adele interacts with few people other than her son. Her efforts to avoid the outside world go so far that Adele and Henry only make trips to the grocery store once every two month, subsisting upon frozen dinners and canned soup between each stop in town. But over the Labor Day weekend before Henry is to enter the seventh-grade, he convinces his mother to make a trip to the local Pricemart for additional provisions. With a kind face, a gentle demeanor, and clothing that makes it appear he is an employee of the store, a stranger named Frank approaches Henry and asks for a ride. Already having identified Adele as Henry’s mother from across the store, he pleads with the boy to convince his mom to exercise some kindness towards this man. While readers may never fully understand what it is that causes Adele to so uncharacteristically agree, especially in light of the fact that minor but noticeable traces of blood pour onto Frank’s shoe and below the brim of his hat, she does and Frank makes his way home with mother and son.

The escaped convict is quite open with Adele and Henry about his situation. In need of an appendectomy, Frank was transferred to a hospital from the state penitentiary and following his surgery, jumped from the hospital’s second floor window. Maynard’s characterization of Frank is so endearing, engaging and kind-hearted that you know his crime, the nature of which the author withholds for some time, is most likely fraught with misunderstanding, maybe an accident for which this otherwise decent man has taken the blame. And so it isn’t at all hard to believe that Adele and Frank could fall as deeply in love as they do over the long weekend.

Initially enamored with Frank himself, Henry learns many things from the man that is more of a father figure to the young boy that his own dad Richard. They play baseball, make a perfect pie crust in stifling near-100 degree heat, dream of escaping to northern Canada, and have conversations with Henry that make him feel a part of the relationship developing between his mother and this man. But readers cannot forget that Henry is also at a tender age in the throes of a tough adolescence, a young boy as lonely as his mother, partially on account of her strange behavior.

During a trip to the library, Henry meets Eleanor, a tortured girl one year his senior who has a history of divorced parents and an eating disorder. Desperate to be liked by someone his own age and to explore his burgeoning sexual feelings with someone of the opposite sex, Henry soaks in Eleanor’s knack for victimization. He shares with his new love interest the fact that his single parent mother recently started dating a new man. The young girl quickly twists the situation in such a way as to make Henry feel the outsider, as though his mother would abandon her only son to be with Frank. Once this cruelly misguided idea is planted in his mind, Henry begins to question Frank’s motives, as well as his mother’s, and resent their lovemaking each night, their shared looks and plans of escaping to start a new life where the authorities are not on Frank’s path. Eleanor’s suggestions also make clear to Henry just how much power he holds over the new couple. With a simple call to the police, Henry could not only claim a $10,000 reward, he could send Frank back to the penitentiary and prevent the loss of his mother’s love and attention, things he has never had to share before.

Henry’s moral dilemma and the resultant string of events following his meeting with Eleanor are not as well executed as the earlier portions of the novel, but things occur in such a way as readers expect that they must. I was completely engrossed by the beginnings of the novel, largely until Eleanor enters the picture. By that point, I was so enamored with the pseudo-family forged between Henry, Adele, and Frank, that I was rooting against the odds for nothing to interfere with the life they erected over this Labor Day weekend. The way things unfurl in Maynard’s version is just one of a few predictable and realistic potential outcomes, but the execution proves a bit rocky in action. The conclusion felt rushed in comparison to the slow pace at which Maynard allowed the weekend to so pleasantly unfold elsewhere in the novel. But maybe this is just my aversion to Eleanor speaking or my dissatisfaction with the fact that everyone didn’t ride off happily into the Canadian sunset as neatly as readers hope they will.

The world of Adele and Frank is completely developed through Henry’s eyes, a narrative choice that I initially thought was pretty bold but, in time, proved wise and effortlessly smooth. Because Henry is not party to the throes of affection, readers can better retain a more realistic perspective on the Adele-Frank relationship. Our narrator’s naivete allows us to hold out hope that love and familial happiness will prove triumphant, while his jealousy tempers this nearly impossible wish and evokes a very visceral conflict in the character and readers alike. While we may recognize Henry’s concerns as mildly selfish and largely misguided, his ability to voice them in the narrative puts readers at enough of a remove from the love story that Maynard can create a larger family drama out of the plot, rather than simply romance. It was a surprisingly but ultimately rewarding choice on Maynard’s part to have her youngest, most adolescently-unstable, inside-observer character serve as the narrative voice.

After finishing up Labor Day, I dug into the special post-conclusion section published in my copy which included an interview with the author. It turns out that Maynard actually had a written correspondence with a convict that seems to have partially inspired this story. Someone to whom she refers as Lucky wrote her a letter after reading a series of newspaper columns she had published. This Lucky figure was someone Maynard responded to and, in time, began to feel rather close with. I hate to give away the ending of this story, so skip the remainder of this paragraph and the entirety of the next one if you want to read Maynard’s telling for yourself via her website. But I think the true life conclusion highlights some important truths about the novel’s conclusion and the ideas explored by the author therein. Maynard felt it would be a breach of trust to ask Lucky why he was imprisoned, so she refrained from doing so for the entirety of their correspondence. But when he told her that he was about to be released from jail and planned to visit Maynard and her three children, fear got the better of her. When Maynard contacted the prison to inquire, she was told that Lucky had horrifically murdered his parents and would essentially never be released from jail given the number of years for which he was sentenced. She immediately cut off all correspondence with Lucky.

Though it was disheartening to discover that Lucky was not who Maynard believed him to be, the very fact that she went on to compose a novel dealing with a character not so unlike her imprisoned pen pal signifies the depth of his impact on the author, even though their relationship was entirely based upon written word (although she is a writer, so that may have something to do with how powerfully connected they were through mere letters). Learning about Maynard’s relationship with Lucky elucidates the myriad ways we humans are inclined to make excuses, compose arguments, or erect blinders in an effort to confirm our perceptions with the anticipated or actual truth. In the case of Frank, readers are immediately smitten and recognize the goodness of his character despite whatever faults or flaws may have landed him in the state penitentiary. Readers do not essentialize Frank as a criminal, and for this reason they will seek any evidence available to point to his innate goodness. We are rewarded for our faith in Frank by discovering that his crime was largely accidental, the result of a gross misunderstanding, rather than a reflection of a truly cruel and perverse nature. Likewise, Maynard did not allow herself to question what type of behavior Lucky could have engaged in to end up where he did, because doing so could interfere with her conception of Lucky as a generous, kind, thoughtful, and loving person. The morality of how we exercise these judgments upon others based on their actions, in isolation from the other traits they embody, is a moral dilemma we each need to wrestle with on our own. But the very fact that we do this in a routine way is something Maynard cunningly uses to her advantage in Labor Day to indulge readers and fuel the plot. I can’t speak to the merits of the film, but at least give the novel version a shot first, for it is completely engrossing and serves as a sharp observation on human nature.

On The Other Typist

Image retrieved from http://www.goodreads.com

Author Suzanne Rindell crafts an enticing, easy to devour story of deception and sin in her debut novel The Other Typist. This is the kind of book you can (and I certainly did) finish in a single weekend, a pleasurable story full of suspense and scandal. Set in the 1920’s, Rindell’s prose rings with the effortless formality of that era’s speech, never jilting or awkward to read as such writing can sometimes be. Her picture of Prohibition-era Manhattan is replete with flapper dresses, edgy bob-haircuts, dark alleys leading to speakeasies, and all the glamour and depravity expected of that time.

Rose is an immediately endearing character, but her reliability as a narrator and her purity don’t take long to come into question. At first, she seems the picture of simplicity and goodness with her uncomplicated lifestyle, her remarkable plainness, and her ability to recognize and quickly forgive the faults and flaws of others. As it is revealed that Rose grew up in an orphanage, we learn about her exceptional capacity for observation, developed at a young age but in her adulthood, bordering on voyeurism. The purity of Rose’s nature becomes increasingly questionable when a new girl is hired at the office, an alluring but mysterious woman whose favor Rose fools herself into thinking she doesn’t desperately want to win.

Working at a Manhattan police precinct during the early days of Prohibition, Rose is initially one of three typists on staff, but becomes one of four when Odalie is hired to meet the increased demand for stenographers due to rising alcohol-related arrests. Odalie’s arrival is treated as ominous from the moment she steps through the precinct’s doors for her interview. Fashionable and obviously from a moneyed family, Odalie possesses a magnetic presence and a stunning wardrobe. Through the first person narrative, Rose drop hints as to how everything will change once Odalie comes into her working life. At first we are just privy to the daily minutiae of the precinct, gossip about the new girl, minor transgressions when some of the typists exclude the other ladies from a lunch date, and a cast of drunken criminals providing incoherent testimonies for Rose to transcribe. During this time, Rose’s keen observation of her new coworker manifests itself as she keeps notes on Odalie, becoming both overwhelming suspicious and jealous of the new hire. But when Odalie befriends Rose, treating her to lunches at white tablecloth restaurants and eventually inviting her to live in the spare bedroom at Odalie’s spacious apartment, Rose’s initial misgivings about Odalie are immediately forgotten.

Rose delivers her narrative from an unidentified point in the future, struggling to tell the story of past events in chronological order. She makes repeated reference to her doctor, assumedly one from the mental health field as it becomes increasingly obvious that she is unstable, easily influenced, unreliable in the narrative, and maybe even prone to illusions of grandeur and resolute morality. Odalie introduces Rose to the world of speakeasies, fashion, and high society. Though she strenuously argues otherwise, Rose’s will and sense of goodness is not so strong; she quickly succumbs to the temptations placed before her by the new typist, going so far as to forge the testimony of a serial murder who won’t speak in an attempt to see justice done. Odalie’s motives for applying to the precinct were initially questioned on account of how she presented herself; such a stylish woman obviously comes from good breeding and shouldn’t need to work to survive. Rose accepts Odalie’s haphazard excuses for these sorts of incongruities, accepting that the truth of Odalie’s past will never be nailed down. But to both readers and Rose alike, the later revelation that Odalie is involved in the speakeasy community, importing illegal alcohol, comes as no surprise.

In fact, the majority of the book hovers upon similar suspicions that are usually confirmed. This predictability, however, isn’t boring because the personalities and stories are so fascinating to discover in their unveiling. While there is an overriding ominous feeling that something large, terrible, and irreversible are about to occur, the beauty of the book lies in seeing just how such events play out, in determining the full extent of Odalie’s sinful nature and Rose’s blind loyalty and naivete.

Rose’s story is ultimately about betrayal, temptation, loyalty, and the ways in which morality can go against the grain of social codes. So completely obsessed with Odalie, Rose ties herself tighter and tighter into bundles of trouble that she has no hope of removing herself from, sometimes consciously and other times at the hands of Odalie without a hint of suspicion from Rose. The play of deception is a constant undercurrent of the story, the source of the twists and turns that make it so interesting despite the often easily foreseeable turns of events. The course of Rindell’s novel also speaks to the glitz and glamour that makes it easy to forgive, if not deny against all evidence, the sins of others, and how we are so easily enraptured by such superficial and socially valued things as wealth, expensive wardrobes, and glittering diamonds.

Although The Other Typist doesn’t offer anything groundbreaking in the world of suspenseful, thriller novels, it’s a highly satisfying addition to the genre that will quickly envelop you in Rindell’s fictional world, never sure whether to champion, abandon, denounce, pity, or even trust the unsteady Rose.

On Middlesex

Sure, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex was published back in the early 2000’s and won a Pulitzer in 2003. I admit that this post is a little behind the times. But this novel has stood up over the years and warrants reading and recommending again and again. From the time I first read it as a senior in high school to my most recent rereading this past month, the brilliance of Middlesex has not faded. I must also admit – I was surprised by how much of it I fully grasped during my younger years. But it was similarly delightful to recognize the seed of who I later became in my Middlesex-loving, 17 year old self. Brilliant though it may be, Middlesex is certainly not for everyone and I’m proud of my high school self for appreciating it so much.

During my later high school years, I was also on a huge Gabriel Garcia Marquez kick, which sheds some light on my obsession with Middlesex back in the day. Eugenides’ storytelling follows the Garcia Marquez vein with its multi-generational narrative and magical realist tone. The story is loosely narrated by Cal Stephanides, born Calliope and raised as a female until puberty hits (or rather, fails to hit as expected). Eugenides introduces us to three generations of Cal’s Greek-American family, tracing the lives of a people who carry a recessive biological anomaly which ultimately finds the light of day in Cal. Though this novel seems daunting (coming in at 529 pages), the sheer volume of life events covered in Middlesex keeps readers engaged throughout. Immigration, entrepreneurial endeavors, silkworms, incest, puberty, suburbia, white flight, genetics, and prohibition are just a sampling of the varied forces at work in Eugenides’ hefty volume. In taking a look back at the sum total of forces shaping Cal’s forebears, readers are able to more fully his life as lived, first under the guise of femininity and ultimately as a male.

Eugenides warms his readers up for the story of his protagonist’s remarkable biology by taking us back two generations to Mount Olympus where Cal’s grandparents Desdemona and Lefty Stephanides were raised. It’s almost as though Eugenides is testing the waters – if his readers can sit with the incestuous relationship between the earliest Stephanides, then they will surely welcome the Stephanides’ hermaphroditic grandchild into their hearts. And that is the beauty of this work – Eugenides’ characters are the types of people that most members of modern day society would deem freaks. Many of them engage in behavior that is entirely unfathomable to most upstanding citizens, if not considered downright disgusting. But he renders these individuals so endearing and tells their story in such an earnest way that we as readers are forced to suspend judgment. Three generations of the Eugenides family easily find their way into readers’ hearts in spite of their socially unacceptable flaws.

Middlesex isn’t necessarily a testament to transgender rights nor is it a meditation on the science of hermaphrodites. Though Cal’s sex and gender frame the story, they truly only figure into the last hundred or so pages. At its heart, Middlesex is the well-told tale of an immigrant family as experienced by one of the most misunderstood members of its youngest generation. It’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece of fiction that I’ve relished twice already in my life and anticipate rereading for years to come.

On Silver Linings Playbook

Image retrieved from imdb.com

If you haven’t had an opportunity to jump on the Silver Linings Playbook bandwagon yet, do yourself a favor and treat yourself to a viewing of this film, released on DVD today. I was fortunate enough to hear about the movie well before its release from a friend who was actually an extra in a few scenes. But all that Marc, my burgeoning actor friend, really told me about the movie was that it would probably be up for Oscar contention, it dealt with mental illness, and it was based on a novel. (He also mentioned that Bradley Cooper was an extremely generous and down to earth person, at least as could be gauged from their few brief exchanges.) I knew back then that I’d see Silver Linings in the theater, if only because that’s one of me and my husband’s favorite activities and also because I personally knew someone whose face I could spot on the big screen.

But when we saw the very first trailer for the movie, my husband Mike rolled his eyes and said he had very low expectations of and little interest in the movie. After all, the preview we watched featured lots of dancing and gave little else away regarding the plot of the film. I really couldn’t blame Mike for his harsh opinion, but luckily he changed his tune when the next trailer was released. I’m not sure they ever really figured out how to market Silver Linings Playbook – it’s not quite a romantic comedy, not purely a drama, and could appeal to  multiple audiences despite (or maybe by virtue of) the fact that bi-polar disorder, football, and ballroom dancing all feature prominently in the film. By the time the second theatrical trailer came out, Silver Linings looked far more palatable than before and we eagerly awaited its release.

Based in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Silver Linings Playbook begins at the mental institution in Baltimore where Pat Solitano, played by Bradley Cooper, has been court ordered to spend the prior few months. With approval from the courts, his mother, portrayed by Jacki Weaver, unexpectedly removes Pat from the institution early and brings him home to live with her and his father Pat Sr., played by Robert De Niro. Despite Pat Jr.’s many flaws and mistakes, including a violent episode which resulted in his institutionalization, his long-undiagnosed bipolar disorder, and his laughably poor social skills in general, Cooper is a surprisingly likable protagonist, a fact made even more remarkable given how honest and raw his portrayal of bipolar disorder is. Part of the audience’s fondness for Pat stems from that honesty but also from a sense of sympathy – his violent outburst was triggered by the discovery of his wife with her lover. Though few people would react to the same violent extent as Pat, many could certainly relate to the depth with which he felt his wife’s betrayal.

Upon returning to Philly, Pat draws upon many of the teachings he picked up in the hospital, working on his physical health and harnessing positivity whenever possible in order to get better. Pat’s firm belief that achieving health and happiness will win his wife back is obviously misguided (especially since she still has a restraining order against him), but the long term goal of repairing his marriage is the ultimate motivation for him. His struggle to get well sets up situations both comedic and uncomfortable, laughable in their outrageousness while painful for those involved.

As he travels the path to wellness, Pat meets Tiffany, a young widower who knows Pat’s ex-wife. The two bond over their broken marriages, psychiatric cocktails, and general inability to fit within the confines of the outside world’s expectations. Tiffany, played by Jennifer Lawrence, sets up a bargain with Pat which brings the whole dancing storyline into play – she promises to deliver letters to his ex-wife if he will compete in a dancing competition with her for which she has no viable partner. Their relationship appears volatile on the surface, but Tiffany and Pat understand one another far better than anyone else in the film and inadvertently help each other to heal.

Also volatile is the relationship between Pat Junior and Senior. Pat Sr is a bookie with an indisputable bout of untreated OCD. He staunchly believes that his son’s presence will assure the victory of his beloved Philadelphia Eagles on game day. Though the elder Pat hates to admit it, his mental health is not as stable as he thinks – in fact, it is probably less so than that of his son. The course of the film sees them figure out how alike they really are and how to exist together in peace.

I recently watched the film for a second go round and appreciated it even more so than my initial viewing. The characters in this film are, on paper, people with whom most of us would not want to surround ourselves. But in the hands of this talented cast, we recognize their humanness, their similarities to ourselves as viewers. I initially was surprised that De Niro received an Academy Award nomination for his performance and that Jennifer Lawrence snagged an Oscar for her portrayal of Tiffany. It was certainly a phenomenal movie but Bradley Cooper’s performance was the one that most stuck with me after I first saw Silver Linings. Upon watching it again, I have a much greater appreciation for the entirety of the cast. Silver Linings’ characters are highly nuanced and difficult to make appealing, but I’d argue that they are portrayed without a hitch. I’m sure that much of that success can also be attributed to director and screenwriter David O. Russell whose ability to execute such a difficult movie is certainly commendable.

Watching these at-times troubled people learn to exist with one another is a purely pleasurable experience. Though most movies on mental illness probably wouldn’t seem so, this is one film on the subject that is an undeniable feel-gooder. Though I’m not sure if they were playing Pat Jr.’s social ineptness for laughs, Mike and I certainly chuckled aloud at his faux-paus and the awkwardness of his exchanges with others. Silver Linings Playbook addresses the discomfort of bipolar disorder and the difficulty experienced by those who suffer from it and by their friends and family as well. But it also acknowledges that people with mental illness can find silver linings in all that difficulty, that they are capable of developing strategies and relationships which enable them to lead happy and fulfilling lives.

On Arcadia

Image retrieved from laurengroff.com

Some books just begged to be discussed with others. For this very reason, I began a book club… and then started another one. But you still can’t always anticipate what is going to be a conversation-starting read, you can’t dominate reading groups with the suggestions of a single person, and you can’t count on finding someone else who find the same titles irresistible.

Lauren Groff’s novel Arcadia was one such book that I wish I’d had the opportunity to discuss with others. I originally discovered it on a Best of 2012 list, then kept it in the back of my mind as a book club pick. The allure of this book ultimately overcame my patience. I was drawn to the highly recommended novel because of it’s storyline about communal living, because of the ideals that I imagined would guide a book full of hippies and naturalists.

What I got was a little bit of what I expected and then some. Groff’s novel does center around a commune by the name of Arcadia and some of it’s members are just as you’d suspect – advocates of free love, pot-smokers, do it yourselfers. But Groff creates rich and universal characters that are far more than mere stereotypes.

Arcadia centers around one family from the commune, Ridley, also known as Bit, who is the only son of Abe the carpenter, and Hannah the depression-riddled baker and academic. We visit Bit at four periods in his life, following him from the early days of his childhood in the idyllic splendor of Arcadia, to his adolescent years when Arcadia is overrun by too many souls and not enough space. We meet him again as an adult living outside the confines of Arcadia, married to one of the other products of Arcadia and with a young daughter of his own. The final phase of the novel sees Bit as the single father of a teenage daughter, struggling with the decline of his parents and the spread of an epidemic worldwide. Through the lens of Bit’s life, Groff’s novel provides more commentary on society at large than on communal living – a topic perfectly suited for discussion.

While teaching photography at a university as an adult, Bit assigns his students the challenge of going on a digital fast, avoiding digital technologies for a period of a few days. One of his students composes a brilliant paper containing her reflections on the assignment – how technology affects our connections with one another, how it must have taken so much more effort and thought to maintain relationships with others previously, how life must have been more deeply and intensely felt in the present moment because digital technology had not yet made everything immediately available. It is a refreshing perspective on the way in which we interact with others and experience life, one that I bet would give many readers pause.

Soon thereafter, Bit considers the lack of ambition he feels as a result of his communal upbringing. In Arcadia he was never taught to constantly reach for conventional standards of success. His values were the simplest of things – happiness, safety, security. As an artist in his adult life, Bit questions whether his lack of artistic drive and his indifference to galleries and cultural renown are detrimental to his wellbeing or simply products of the system of values on which he was raised. Though the items he lists among his ideals are not foreign to non-Arcadians, they certainly constitute a very small portion of the voluminous values and indicators of success by which others measure their life’s worth.

Both expressly and indirectly, Groff meditates on community and its meaning, on achievement, and on values. Bit mourns the loss of community post-Arcadia, but finds alternatives means to satisfy it in conventional society. Within the boundaries of the commune, Bit’s history was common knowledge – even his birth story was legendary among Arcadians. His identity was not something that needed to be crafted or presented to others, but was rather a taken for granted piece of the Arcadia story. Living in New York City as an adult, Bit recognizes the city’s ability to fill the void left by his lost childhood. He recognizes the beauty of Arcadia as a product of the people and their connections with one another, not the result of its geographical location or design. In Bit’s mind, the closeness of urban cities is the best approximation of that communal connectedness in modern day life. Because what ultimately defines communes isn’t their location in oft-isolated and uber-natural locations, but the way in which their members are tied to and reliant upon on another. Though they may appear otherwise to the outsider (and I am admittedly an outsider writing here), it seems to me that communal living is ultimately about connecting with people, particularly those that share a similar mindset and desire a shared lifestyle with one another.

Maybe I’m just predisposed to romanticizing idealists and hippies, people who challenge conventional ways of living in adherence to their world views. Even if communes and Woodstock aren’t your cup of tea, Arcadia is an entertaining read as well as a challenging one. It forces us to consider whether we are consciously choosing the lives we lead and how we connect with each other.

On The Perks of Being a Wallflower (The Film)

Image retrieved from imdb.com

It’s a rare treat to watch a film based on a book whose director and author are one and the same. In fact, it’s something I never thought I’d be able to witness until the opening credits of The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

I first heard of  the novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower in my early high school years. I was lucky enough to sit next to one of the most undeniably cool girls in my class during freshman English. For some mysterious reason she took a bit of a liking to me, at least enough to chat with me while waiting for class to start. One day she offhandedly mentioned the book as one of her favorites, so of course I immediately rushed out to find a copy for myself.

Nearly a decade later, I learned that the novel was making its move to the big screen. I rarely have high hopes for books translated to film. Such conversions eradicate the world I created in my own head while reading and replace it with a new one, complete with perfectly primped actors and detailed sets and polished production. My expectations regarding The Perks of Being a Wallflower were no different – until I rented it from the Redbox and saw that Steven Chbosky, author of the novel, was credited as screenwriter, director, and producer of the film. I’ve long hoped to see a novelist take his or her story to the screen. I guess I imagined it would be a study in writerly talent and style, not to mention my own skills as a close reader. To see how my understanding of the world created by a writer compares with his or her own visual representation of it sounded like a fascinating opportunity. If nothing else, the author’s film version of a novel will undoubtedly be the most authentic cinematic execution of his or her work of fiction. And I was lucky enough to enjoy such an unexpected opportunity with this film.

Unfortunately I hadn’t touched the book for some eight or nine years, so my memory of the novel was cloudy and limited to one trademark line: “In that moment, I swear we were infinite.” Nonetheless, I was pleased with Chbosky’s recreation of the Perks story on film, though it took a bit for the movie to really grow on me. (And I must admit, I was surprised at the way in which the book’s most quotable line was delivered – the scene felt so far from how I remembered imagining it.) In the first half hour, the dialogue felt a bit forced, the set up of the relationship between the three main characters awkward in its very structure. I was hesitant to give myself over the actors and their manor of speaking – I couldn’t decide if some of the lines were just poorly delivered or poorly written by someone trying to sound young and hip. But soon after I was about to give up on The Perks of Being a Wallflower and halfheartedly finish it while looking up recipes for dinner, I started to find my attention unconsciously drifting wholly to the movie. After a watching the film a second time, I can certainly identify a few elements, including portions of the storytelling, the acting, and the writing, that are notably weaker than others. But my ultimate sense of the film remains firmly positive and I can’t exactly put my finger upon the source of this fondness.

Though the cast features a few big names with supporting roles, including Paul Rudd and Joan Cusack, the main player in this film has little name recognition. Logan Lerman portrays wallflower protagonist Charlie, an incoming high school freshman at the beginning of the film who makes brief reference to the “bad time” he experienced last year. Though we don’t know much about Charlie’s past troubles, we can surmise that they are psychological in nature, that he has few if any friends, and that he isn’t so good at making new ones. Ezra Miller is perfectly cast as Patrick, an outwardly gay senior at Charlie’s school. The only upperclassman in Charlie’s freshman shop class, Patrick generously invites Charlie to sit with him during a football game. Patrick introduces Charlie to his step-sister Sam, played by Emma Watson, and thus into their wider but tightly knit social circle of daring, Morrissey-loving, Rocky Horror Picture Show-devotee friends. Charlie’s troubles take a backseat to his new place amidst Patrick and Sam’s circle, especially as he grows closer to Sam, the object of his burgeoning affection. Though Charlie’s new friends appreciate his wallflower ways, their mere presence in his life can’t keep Charlie’s deeper problems at bay forever.

Much of my ultimate adoration for the film I attribute to Ezra Miller’s portrayal of Patrick. Miller gave a refreshingly honest and endearing performance as a high school-aged homosexual male, unabashedly himself and heartwarmingly sincere. He is just the kind of friend I wish I’d had in high school – someone who would never dare to conform, who deeply loves his friends with an unquestionable loyalty, who takes notice of others despite his seemingly-self-centered efforts to attract attention, and who is able to make even the most run of the mill days feel singular and epic.

A prime reason for the hesitancy with which I came around to this movie was the beauty of its ending – it both made up for and explained some of the elements that previously seemed poorly executed. The film’s conclusion reveals an important detail of Charlie’s past which is hinted at throughout the movie in a gracefully misleading manner. This revelation has great explanatory power regarding the protagonist’s disposition such that some of the previously awkward-seeming components are made much less so. In adding to the gravity of the story, the ending was also an opportunity for Lerman to really demonstrate the depth of his acting ability. And fortunately for me, I completely forgot this twist of sorts from back when I read the book, allowing me to savor the reveal like a first-timer to the story.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower made me yearn for my youth like few movies can. It portrays adolescence in such a heartbreakingly honest but romantic and whimsical way that I couldn’t help feeling nostalgic for my high school days and what else that time could have held for me. Though the movie as a whole may not be an extremely accurate depiction of the typical high school experience, the feelings evoked by The Perks of Being a Wallflower are certainly ones I vividly remember having or wanting to have. The movie is a pleasantly surprising ode to youth but also an exploration of its more troubling aspects, of the highs and lows that come with adolescence, first love, and moments of feeling inexplicably indestructible and infinite.

On Flight Behavior

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As is often the case with Barbara Kingsolver’s novels, it took more time than I preferred to get hooked into Flight Behavior. But once engrossed, my persistence was proven worthwhile. Unlike her other novels, however, this one’s first chapter turned me off because it read like a steamy romance, something I was not expecting from a Kingsolver book. Luckily, the married protagonist’s early infatuation with a local boy is only a vehicle to push the story, rather than the substance of it.

In modern day Feathertown, Tennessee, Dellarobia Turnbow takes to the wooded hills behind her farm for a rendezvous with a local younger man, consumed with thoughts of leaving her husband and the gossip such a betrayal would generate in her small town. Though Dellarobia is mother to two beloved children, her potential for happiness is curbed by a lackluster marriage, the loss of her parents, and an endless string of almost-affairs. Despite the fervency of her selfish thoughts on this particular day, the outside world begins to force its way into Dellarobia’s consciousness as she notices strange clusters of dark matter hanging from tree limbs. Looking to the opposite hillside, the far off trees appear bathed in brilliant orange flame, causing her to abandon her plans for a lover’s tryst. This marks both the end of the first chapter and, fortunately, Kingsolver’s attempts at harlequin romance.

The inexplicable sight she witnessed soon becomes of crucial importance when Dellarobia’s father-in-law, Bear Turnbow, makes plans to log the hillside in a desperate attempt to pay off his ballooning debts. Dellarobia urges her husband Cub to take a look at the land before allowing his father to sell it off, alarmed by the mysterious sights she recently witnessed there but reluctant to voice the details for fear of giving her near betrayal away. When the whole family takes to the woods, encouraged by Cub’s conviction that Dellarobia’s advice was an act of God, they find the trees covered butterflies, millions of winged creatures colored in bold Halloween orange and black.

As news of the phenomenon of monarch butterflies settling in rural Feathertown spreads, scientists, activists, and members of the media alike head South in droves. Kingsolver verges on the romantic again when biologist Ovid Byron sets up shop in the Turnbow’s backyard – his deep knowledge of these butterflies and his generousity incite some significant swooning in Dellarobia. Byron teaches not only Dellarobia but also her budding-scientist son, Preston, about the butterflies and what their recently altered migratory patterns mean.

Under the veil of small town and family politics, Kingsolver fleshes out vast issues of global warming, social class, religion, and politics. The arrival of monarchs in Feathertown harks of a swiftly changing climate, however many of Feathertown’s locals routinely close their ears at the words “global warming.” Others, Dellarobia included, see such beauty in the monarchs, rendering it impossible for them to comprehend how such a spectacle of nature is actually a sign of sickness. While the significance of the changing migratory patterns of the monarchs is lost on many Feathertown residents, the changes it sets in motion for Dellarobia, from earning her own income to meeting like-minded people to discovering a passion for learning, become the source of conflict closer to home. Her interest in the butterflies becomes official with Dr. Byron hires Dellarobia as a research assistance, heightening tensions with Cub’s family who have long worried that Cub’s wife considered herself too good for their simple son and further dividing the loveless couple.

Though she never strays from Dellarobia’s side, Kingsolver’s relationship to her characters is remarkably tenuous. The stubborn ways of Dellarobia’s in-laws, their resistance to accept scientific fact, their inclination to profit off the havoc of nature by charging admission to monarch-seeking visitors all feel quite antagonistic under Kingsolver’s pen. But as we become party to the nuances of Feathertown and Turnbow politics, Kingsolver’s attitude toward the locals turns more sympathetic. This is made quite plain when an environmental activist corners Dellarobia with his schpeal about changes she can make in her daily life to reduce her negative environmental impact. Stricken by poverty, the lifestyle suggested by this green-minded man is one which Dellarobia and the vast majority of Turnbowians are already forced to adopt – reducing flying, buying secondhand clothing, eating less meat, repairing instead of replacing broken machines and household goods. The coldness of Dellarobia’s mother Hester reads as pure evil at first, but reveals itself as a product of protective instincts more than malice. And despite the frigidity of Dellarobia and Cub’s marriage, Kingsolver’s loyalty to Dellarobia does not prevent her from highlighting Cub’s virtues and kindnesses. Though she at times paints Dellarobia’s family and neighbors as too simple, stubborn or thoughtless, Kingsolver also recognizes the integrity of their way of life as well as the motivations behind their ways of thinking and being. It’s almost as though Kingsolver created characters in such a way that readers, and maybe even the author herself, would be challenged to develop simplistic, black and white attitudes toward them.

Though not exactly subtle, Kingsolver raises important and ultimately unavoidable questions through this elegant work of fiction. When Dr. Byron explains to Dellarobia the way in which these monarchs are a warning flag for the future of humanity, it is hard for readers to separate the worry Dellarobia feels for her children from that readers would hold for the young people in their own lives, facing a bleak future at the hand of environmental ruin. Kingsolver’s representation of Feathertown’s residents mirrors some of the widely-held attitudes toward Southerners and conservatives, but also challenges many of the associated stereotypes such that readers cannot help but consider their own private prejudices. In fact, Kingsolver challenges many of our preconceived notions about others in Flight Behavior. She encourages non-judgment and seeing things for more than what they at first appear to be by exploring the break down of us versus them mentalities. And her suggestion that such tiny things as the butterflies, their patterns and behaviors, could mean so much for the larger world is a deeply appreciated ode to mindfulness. By posing such heavy issues for consideration under the guise of (sort of) science fiction, Kingsolver makes it impossible for her readers to avoid thinking about these urgent problems.

There are certainly a few flaws I could site in Flight Behavior, including certain story lines left unexplored and others introduced for seemingly little reason. I imagine that over time, however, these things which felt like hiccups in Kingsolver’s brilliance will reveal themselves as totally minute or laced with meanings beyond my original comprehension. Either way, Flight Behavior was a beautifully written examination of the workings of nature, people and their differences, and how to understand both. And it’s another one to add to Kingsolver’s quite noteworthy collection.

On By Nightfall

Image retrieved from http://www.mikeettner.com

After studying his Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel The Hours in college, there was no doubt in my mind that Michael Cunningham is one of the America’s most brilliant living writers. Seamlessly weaving Virginia Woolf’s life and fiction with a story of his own creating, Cunningham’s novel is an intelligent and unsentimental woman-focused piece. Even more remarkable to me was the fact that The Hours was written by a man.

Cunningham’s most recent novel, By Nightfall is another thoughtfully crafted novel that astutely examines modern life, art, and family. Despite the rather elite station in life of Cunningham’s characters, this story deals with fairly universal human themes, including our desire for greatness, our ambivalence towards mortality, and our desperate human need to demonstrate some semblance of permanence.

Peter and Rebecca Harris are middle-aged New Yorkers, he a mid-level art dealer, she editor of a struggling cultural magazine. With Peter as our guide, Cunningham explores art, the world in which it is bought and sold, the constant struggle to discover level of creative genius that man may be unable to create but not unable to imagine. While Peter vacillates over whether to sign a recently dealer-less sculptor generating much buzz in the art world, he finds himself contemplating the very way in which he conducts his business. In Peter’s search for beauty (which he ultimately defines as “a human bundle of accidental grace and doom and hope”), he worries that selling art to an ever-dwindling population of buyers may not be his truest calling. But were he to go against his core morals by signing a highly coveted artist producing transient but expensive work, Peter would be better able to finance his continuous search for creative genius.

Peter and Rebecca’s marriage doesn’t escape examination, especially when Rebecca’s charming but flighty brother Ethan (referred to as Mizzy, short for “The Mistake”) comes to visit after his one-month pilgrimage to a Japanese holy site. Mizzy occupies the Harris’ daughter Bea’s room, infringing upon the quiet routine of the empty nesters’ thin-walled apartment and placing a strain upon their marriage by means of his drug use. Meanwhile the Harris’s young twenty-something daughter lives in Boston, a college drop-out who ardently supports herself without parental support by tending bar at a hotel. Bea’s false memories of her parents’ ineptitude complicates her relationship with both Peter and Rebecca, but is most troublesome for her father. Marriage, love, and family are the source of many complications in Peter’s life, including an inconvenient attraction to drug-addicted Mizzy and his inability to fully recover from his homosexual brother Matthew’s death some twenty years past. While Peter admires the ability of great works of art to exist in perpetuity, he struggles to deal with mortality regarding the untimely death of Matthew, a man that was so full of promise and talent.

Cunningham’s commentary on modern life rung harshly true at times, for Peter was predictably surprised by the ordinariness of his life and the lives of his family. It was quite ironic that I read By Nightfall in large part on the same day that I went to see Judd Apatow’s latest film “This is 40.” I couldn’t help but be reminded of much of what I saw in Apatow’s movie, which deals with family struggles, purity in art, finding meaning in the temporary nature of life, and middle-age on a more common level, while reading Cunningham’s book. But maybe this isn’t a case of irony at all. Maybe the coincidence of these two pieces of art (because I consider film an art form, no matter what genre), addressing comparable themes through different mediums at a common point in time speaks to a widespread need for consideration of these topics. Whether you choose to explore them through Cunningham’s sinuous novel or through Apatow’s lengthy but rewarding film, is up to you (though I would recommend checking out both).

On A Good American

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Alex George’s A Good American is a family saga of the first order, a thoughtfully crafted and beautifully phrased work of art spanning three generations of a transplanted American family. Our narrator is James Meisenheimer, a member of the third generation of Meisenheimer’s to whom we are introduced over the course of the novel.

It all begins in Hanover, Germany when two young lovers, Frederick and Jette, find themselves pregnant with entirely unsympathetic parents. Though the two have not been acquainted for long, they were deeply smitten with each other from the start, when Frederick reeled Jette in with his beautiful singing voice. They decide to try their hand at starting a family in America. Without an ultimate destination in mind, they board a boat bound for New Orleans and eventually settle in Missouri in the one horse town of Beatrice. En route to their final destination, the couple encounters both blank hostility and unparalleled kindness from their fellow Americans. Frederick ignored the former, concentrating more on the aid provided him and his new wife by the kinder of his new countrymen. And though Jette does not succumb to America’s charms quite as quickly as her husband, there is no denying the wonderful sense of possibility and individualism that reigns in their new home.

When Joseph Wall, a Polish doctor transplanted in the midwest, offers them a medical advice and a free carriage ride west, the Meisenheimer’s are filled with gratitude and an unyielding sense of hope. As the couple departs, Mr. Wall instructs Frederick to be a good American which is what he continues to do without fail for the rest of his life. When the carriage reaches Beatrice, Missouri, a town en route to their original destination, Jette goes into labor and their first son Joseph is born. It doesn’t take the small family long to decide to end their trip in Beatrice, a town with plenty of Germans and kind new friends. And so begins their life in the town that the new generations of their family call home.

A Good American continues to follow the Meisenheimer family, and by default, the people of Beatrice, for the next hundred years. Frederick plays the role of good American, running his own tavern, saving to buy his family a home, going off to fight for his country. Though Jette’s relationship with her husband grows rocky, their love for one another remains steadfast as their family grows and Joseph’s sister Rosa is born. Joseph marries and eventually has four sons of his own, one being James the narrator. Though James, the second-born, and his older brother are not bestowed with the musical prowess that allowed their grandfather to swoon his Jette and was passed on to Joseph, the younger of Joseph’s boys have golden voices that he quickly capitalizes upon. The four sons soon form a singing quartet, booked at all the major occasions in town from weddings to funerals. This shred of musical talent is one of many strings running through the novel, connecting the Meisenheimer family over the course of multiple generations.

The rise and fall of the family, the births and deaths, the slow modernization of its members are all catalogued in this epic novel. George’s book is at times unbearably sad, particularly when beloved characters are taken away without any forewarning. But it also is a joyous celebration of life, family, and growing up. Though there is no great single arc to the story, it is not a disjointed accounting of the disparate lives of people bound only by blood. A Good American explores the Meisenheimer’s with a discerning eye, lending more than sufficient attention to each central member and the import of the family history on each succeeding generation. A fully satisfying read from start to finish, George’s book paints a portrait of America that is not overly idealized nor depressingly bleak, but rather realistically portrays the country that many people come to filled with promise and remain in with contentment and fulfillment.