Book Review: The Answers by Catherine Lacey

4.5/5 Stars.

Wow, I loved this book. I knew from the opening page that I would. Sometimes you find writers who seem to get you or speak to you on a level that just makes sense, and that’s how I feel about Catherine Lacey. The Answers is my ideal kind of novel: quirky, witty, intellectually stimulating and deeply character-driven—yet there’s still an actual plot carrying it forward.

Is it possible to achieve a prolonged state of limerence—the physiological and psychological stage of a body as it falls in love? Does there exist a person who will meet one’s every needs? Is there such thing as a perfect relationship? Mary Parsons has been selected to participate in an experiment that seeks to answer these questions. She—along with several other women—will each play a separate girlfriend role for the wealthy actor funding the experiment. And Mary’s role is arguably most important of all: Emotional Girlfriend.

For Mary, whose life is in a state of stagnant listlessness as she falls further into debt paying for strange new methods to treat her chronic pain condition, the Girlfriend Experiment (as its aptly named) is an opportunity to make some easy money. The irony of it all is that Mary is actually a rather emotionally detached person, and most of the novel is spent inside her analytical mind.

The Answers could have easily become trite, as many novels that explore the issue of love inevitably do, but in Lacey’s capable hands, this one transcends the predictable cliches. It implores readers to question more than just the how of making love last, but the very reasons why we seek romantic connections in the first place—and what that might tell us about who we are.

We may never be able to completely know another person, but we’ll always have ourselves. If we can learn to be okay with that, and if we’re willing to accept the uncertainty of human relationships and the gaps and distances that will always exist between two people, maybe we’ll come to find that that’s enough.

Fans of Miranda July, Alexandra Kleeman and Lydia Millet will likely enjoy this one as much as I did.

Book Review: White Fur by Jardine Libaire

1.5/5 Stars.

Fewer than 70 pages into this book I made the decision to continue hate-reading. It is so painfully shallow it reads like bad YA. If the characters were any more one-dimensional and under-developed they wouldn’t even exist.

Marketed as a modern-day Romeo and Juliet (which, honestly should have been warning enough), White Fur is the story of Jamey, a WASP-y heir to an investment bank fortune, and Elise, a half-white half-Puerto Rican who grew up in public housing on the “wrong side of the tracks” or whatever. I hate myself for describing them in such cliches, but I’m just taking what I was given.

Jamey and Elise meet and fall in love…though I honestly have no idea why because there’s no character development or insight into anything that happens. They basically just really like having sex with each other and then one day they’re in love and Jamey decides he needs to relinquish the fortune he was supposed to inherit so he can distance himself from his predictably shitty family. Oh, and it takes place in the 1980s in New York City for whatever reason.

Then…things get really weird. Like, I wouldn’t even be able to explain what happens without it sounding so silly and out of left field, which is exactly what it is even though it’s supposed to be really sad and tragic or something.

I don’t know, you guys. I was originally drawn to this because I thought maybe it would explore class issues in an intriguing way, but it brings almost nothing to the table and what it does bring is predictable and cliche.

Book Review: Hunger by Roxane Gay

 

4.5/5 Stars.

“I often tell my students that fiction is about desire in one way or another. The older I get, the more I understand that life is generally the pursuit of desires. We want and want and oh how we want. We hunger.”

This is a book about hunger—but not the kind of hunger that first comes to mind when you learn that it’s a book about being overweight. It’s about hunger for many things: escape, solace, acceptance, safety, understanding.

Roxane Gay is one of the most brilliant, sharp, witty and insightful writers of our time. In this deeply personal memoir, she candidly tells the story of her body, and what it’s like to live in a world that doesn’t create space (neither physical nor emotional) for people with bodies like hers.

As Roxane writes in her opening chapter, this isn’t your typical motivational memoir about triumph, and as someone who loathes those kinds of books, for that I am grateful. I wouldn’t expect anything else from Roxane, whom I’ve long admired for her brazen realness and no-bullshit personality. Roxane lays bare the traumatic event that marked a turning point in her life, and the “after” that followed—during which she turned to eating as a means of coping in various ways.

While Hunger is very much Roxane’s story about her own body, there’s a universality to it: she has a way with words that cuts to the core of what it means to be human. We each hunger in our own ways.

It’s impossible for me to put into words how much I adore Roxane Gay, and how grateful I am for her powerful, beautiful writing. Hunger is a memoir that shouldn’t be missed.

Book Review: Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash

4.5/5 Stars.

After reading several lackluster books recently about college-age protagonists meandering through life, I’ve come to the conclusion that I only really enjoy these kinds of stories when the characters have a truly distinct voice.

In walks Stephen Florida.

This book is absolutely mesmerizing and unlike anything I’ve ever read. And yet it’s not the kind of book I would recommend to just anyone. Stephen is one of the strangest and most disturbing characters I’ve encountered in quite some time. He has just recently begun his senior season on the college wrestling team and he is obsessively focused on one thing and one thing only: winning.

As his season progresses and he pursues his quest for greatness, Stephen’s mind spirals further off the deep end and his narration becomes more unreliable. This is a guy who’s a bit of a sociopath to begin with, so that’s saying something. Stephen’s the kind of character who says things like: “Sometimes I wonder, if I were a character in a book, would I be sympathetic? Would I make a good good guy?”

The answer is, he is strangely sympathetic in spite of himself. Beneath Stephen’s singular focus on wrestling is an undercurrent of grief and a desperate longing for control and meaning by any means necessary.

There’s a pervasive sense of menace throughout as Stephen loses his grip on reality—an uncanniness that Habash writes with perfect subtlety.

Nothing I write here will adequately convey just how bizarre and unsettling this debut novel is. At times I was reminded of the strange protagonist in Patty Yumi Cottrell’s Sorry for Disrupting the Peace and the vague sense of foreboding in Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things.

I’m hesitant to recommend Stephen Florida to just anyone, but I imagine it will have a dedicated cult following among other weirdos like me who live for these kinds of characters.

Book Review: The Leavers by Lisa Ko

4/5 Stars.

“Everyone had stories they told themselves to get through the days.”

Finding one’s place in the world is hard enough for anyone, but it’s especially challenging for Deming. Abandoned by his mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, at the age of 11, Deming is then adopted by a well-meaning older American couple who change his name to Daniel and lay out clear expectations about the path his life will follow.

Once Deming reaches young adulthood, he’s understandably plagued by the circumstances of his life. Not only does he lack a true sense of identity and purpose, but he can’t let go of the memories of his mother and why she left him.

After getting in touch with an old friend, Deming finds a lead on his mother’s whereabouts, and this further disrupts his aimless life.

The Leavers is told from the perspective of both Deming and his mother, Polly, giving the reader the opportunity to understand both of these characters. Gradually, we learn the truth about why Polly left Deming—and it turns out it’s more complicated than it originally appeared.

One of the things I appreciate most about this novel is that there are no easy judgments or convictions to be reached about the characters. They are flawed, they make bad decisions, they hurt each other. And yet they are each deserving of empathy. Life is complicated, and not everything can be neatly categorized as right or wrong. Sometimes things just are what they are, and we do what we can to keep moving forward.

This is, for the most part, a compelling character-driven novel that ranks somewhere in the middle of the immigration literature from the past few years. There are times when the dialogue is stilted, the pacing off, and the transitions from Deming’s to Polly’s perspective too abrupt, but the themes of belonging and reckoning with one’s past are handled with the complexity they deserve.

Book Review: Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane

2.5/5 Stars.

As far as genre thrillers go, Dennis Lehane is one of the better storytellers out there; nevertheless, this one was all over the place and had some pretty ridiculous plot twists.

Rachel Childs meets private investigator Brian Delacroix when she hires him to help her find her biological father. The two keep in touch over the next decade or so, during which Rachel’s life takes a turn for the worse.

When Rachel reunites with Brian years later, she’s recently divorced, her career is over and she’s suffering from debilitating panic attacks. Brian seems like the ideal guy: he’s funny, kind, successful and endlessly patient with Rachel as she battles her agoraphobia.

So why is Rachel suddenly suspicious of him?

Since We Fell is exactly what you expect it to be: an entertaining page-turner packed with plot twists. It’s also incredibly uneven and weirdly paced. The initial storyline of Rachel trying to find her father takes up so much time in the beginning of the novel, and then abruptly shifts to a different kind of story entirely, almost as if you’re reading two different books. The twists and turns, when they arrive, are lazy, and the characters (Rachel in particular) proceed to act in ways that are unbelievable given what we know about them.

It’s a bummer that the story is so lacking, because Lehane is a decent writer—especially for his genre. If you’re looking for a mindless beach read this will suffice, but don’t expect anything mind-blowing.

Book Review: The Border of Paradise by Esme Weijun Wang

4/5 Stars

This dark and disturbing book examines the way that mental illness can impact an entire family.

It starts with David, a neurotic young boy who inherits his family fortune. As a young adult, David travels to Taiwan and meets a woman at a brothel whom he marries and takes back to America to start a family.

We know from the opening chapter that David commits suicide when his children are still young, and this sets the gothic tone for everything that follows. The effect this has on the rest of their lives is staggering. Left with a mother who suffers from her own form of madness, David’s children, William and Gillian, are kept isolated from the world in their rural California home.

In this multi-generational story, we are given alternating first-person sections for each member of the family—plus one of David’s old lovers who is also swept into their orbit. What transpires is nothing short of disturbing, with an underlying sense that they are all doomed to tragedy.

It’s a potent, complex and exciting debut. After a slow start, it becomes relentlessly gripping once the focus shifts to William and Gillian, culminating in a deeply haunting final section.

Book Review: Sympathy by Olivia Sudjic

3.5/5 Stars.

This debut novel makes me really excited for what Sudjic will write next. There were parts of it that didn’t work for me, but others that deeply resonated.

Twenty-three year old Alice Hare moves from London to New York City to stay with an old relative and seek necessary change in her empty life. While there, she becomes infatuated with an older woman named Mizuko, whom she stalks online until ultimately arranging an encounter. Alice gradually works her way into Mizuko’s life and the lives of the people around her, desperate for a connection that may not actually be there.

Sudjic’s voice is extremely clever, brimming with dry humor and smart insights. Her characters are compelling, her dialogue is excellent. Where I struggled was with the pacing and the narrative. In fact, I think this would have worked better as a leaner novel with more focus.

Thematically, Sudjic has a lot of interesting things to say about a modern culture in which everything about anyone is available at our fingertips. How does this affect intimacy and connection? Does it help fill the void or merely deepen it?

Lots of exciting stuff here. With better editing, it could have been truly great.

Book Review: The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

4/5 Stars.

David Foster Wallace’s final, incomplete novel is literally a book about boredom, dullness and the IRS. Why would anyone ever bother reading about that? Well, partly because Wallace had an knack for making anything transcendent. But the main reason, perhaps, is one that Wallace presents as one of the books main theses: there’s virtue in enduring dullness.

“To me, at least in retrospect, the really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why we recoil from the dull. Maybe it’s because dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that’s where phrases like ‘deadly dull’ or ‘excruciatingly dull’ come from. But there might be more to it. Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that’s always there, if only in an ambient, low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention.”

The Pale King is comprised of a series of anecdotes about employees at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois. It’s disjointed and unfinished, with not a whole lot of narrative cohesion. In some ways, it’s an interesting companion piece to Infinite Jest: where Infinite Jest focuses on the problems of a modern American culture saturated in mind-numbing entertainment and distraction, The Pale King offers somewhat of a solution to living a meaningful life within this reality.

If you’ve ever read or listened to Wallace’s commencement speech, “This Is Water,” it’s sort of a hyper-condensed version of the solution offered in The Pale King. We’re each tasked with constructing meaning out of experience and choosing what and how we pay attention to the world around us. What Wallace seems to be suggesting is that we must have the self-discipline to deliberately endure the inevitable tedium and dullness of day-to-day adult life without succumbing to endless distraction.

“The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable. It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you can’t accomplish.”

Wallace loved playing around with form, and The Pale King is a testament to this. It’s a book about boredom and dullness, and so Wallace made it intentionally boring and dull. There are entire chapters dedicated to IRS codes. There’s 50+ pages of a man showing up for his first day of work. And yet there’s such brilliance within these pages. Take, for example, the beautiful phrase “every love story is a ghost story” sandwiched arbitrarily in between dozens of sentences about IRS agents turning pages. Or the chapter-long anecdote about a little boy whose goal “was to be able to press his lips to every square inch of his own body”—a passage that will haunt me for the rest of my life. The novel itself proves Wallace’s point: that if you discipline yourself to pay attention and endure tedium, you will be deeply rewarded.

“Almost everything you pay close direct attention to becomes interesting,” says one character, Wallace’s equivalent of a modern-day hero, toward the end of the book. We live in an age where we’re constantly bombarded with information, entertainment and stimuli. If, as Wallace suggests, “almost everything” has the potential to be interesting, this is even further incentive to make smart, disciplined choices about where we direct our attention.

I highly recommend this book for fans of David Foster Wallace who want further insight into where his mind was at in the later part of his life.

Book Review: Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

4/5 Stars.

Having seen and enjoyed both of the film versions of this book (the original Swedish version and the American remake) I had been meaning to read it quite some time. Let the Right One In is a vampire story done right.

Twelve-year-old Oskar is a bit of a social outcast at school, frequently targeted by a group of violent bullies. But then he meets Eli, the strange and mysterious girl who just moved into the apartment next door, and the two of them become friends—united by their loneliness. Eli isn’t like other kids though. In fact, Oskar begins to suspect that she may be responsible for a series of gruesome murders that have taken place in his small town.

The relationship between Oskar and Eli is incredibly compelling, but there are a lot of sub-plots and supplemental characters here that take up space and detract from the more interesting parts. Still, this is among the better vampire stories out there: it’s chilling, gory and deeply disturbing. Definitely not for the feint of heart.

Come for the vampires, stay for the complex and affecting coming-of-age story.