Review: Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

I had mixed feelings about this book, which was on this year’s Women’s Prize longlist. I’m interested in stories about struggling relationships, so the idea of this book that tells the story of a divorcing couple from both perspectives was an interesting one. But while it had some really interesting bits, and some thoughtful insights about women, marriage and money, it didn’t entirely work for me.

For one thing, it was slow to get into. At first I found Toby a pretty interesting character. But I felt the book took too long to get to a critical plot point, wife Rachel’s disappearance. If I hadn’t known from the book description that it was coming, I doubt I would have kept reading. Because until that point it’s just a book about a newly single man exploring his sexuality in the era of Tinder (not what I expect from a Women’s Prize nominee).

Another thing that didn’t work for me was the third party narration by Toby’s friend Libby. An omniscient narrator would have much less distracting. For most of the book, it’s really unclear why she’s there. I felt the references to her as the narrator were awkward and as the story goes on, I really disliked her.

What was so much better than stability and the love of a good person who rooted for you? We fall in love and we decide to marry in this one incredible moment, and what if everything that happens after that is trying to remember that moment? We watch ourselves and our spouses change, and the work is to constantly recall the reasons you did this in the first place.

Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

The description for this book made it clear that the author would turn Toby’s story on its head, so as I was reading Toby’s story I was fully prepared for Rachel’s perspective to be wildly different from Toby’s. So when it eventually happened it was completely expected and not terribly illuminating. It reminded me of the writing exercise I did in third grade where you had to write a well-known story from the villain’s perspective (for example, the witch in a fairy tale).

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Review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

I couldn’t be happier that Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet won this year’s Women’s Prize.  I love O’Farrell but I worried that this book couldn’t live up to my expectations, after all the rave reviews.  It absolutely did.

Hamnet is about William Shakespeare, though he’s never actually named in the book. It’s 1596, and 11 year old Hamnet is worrying about his sister Judith, who has fallen ill. Their father (Shakespeare) is in London and mother (Agnes) is out running errands and tending to her beehives at her childhood home. 

Then the story winds back to when young Shakespeare and Agnes meet.  At this point the reader already knows several things: that Shakespeare and Agnes will marry and have three children, that Shakespeare will have a successful career in the theater, and that Hamnet will die of the plague.  

It always seems like it must be a challenge to write a book that is full of suspense and emotion when the reader already knows what’s going to happen. And in this book O’Farrell is fictionalizing one of the most revered authors ever. And yet this story works on so many levels. It’s about marriage and parenthood, love, and grief. O’Farrell explores the relationship between William and Agnes, their relationships with their children, and the sibling/twin relationship of Hamnet and Judith.  What’s so artful about this book is that no character feels unexplored, from Shakespeare’s parents to William’s sister and Agnes’ brother.  (Only Susannah, the oldest child, is left undeveloped.)

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20 Books of Summer: My Reading Wrap-up

I’m always sad when summer ends, but this has been a really strange summer. 2020 can’t end soon enough for me. What a truly horrible week.

On the personal side, I actually have some positive news. I applied for a promotion at work and will now be managing a group of programs and a staff of 8. I’ve been avoiding management for a while, but I’m excited about this opportunity. The challenge feels good, and I’m older and wiser — I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I can do better as a supervisor this time around.

This summer I participated in the 20 Books of Summer challenge by 746books.com, and I also read a lot of books from Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Summer Reading List.

I read 33 books this summer (lots of reading time). For the 20 Books of Summer challenge, I completed these books from my original list:

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Review: The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, but I ended up finding it both fascinating and moving. I knew it was about a true-life group of people in the Appalachians with blue skin, and it was also about the historic Packhorse Librarians, women who delivered library books on horseback to families in the mountains. I thought it was going to be nonfiction, but it’s a historical novel. I listened to the audiobook, read by Katie Schorr (who also narrated The Hating Game). This is a book with a lot of dialect, so listening to it was helpful.

The book takes place in 1936 in Troublesome Creek, Kentucky. A young woman, Cussy Mary Carter, is one of the Blue People – in fact she believes she’s the last of their kind. The Blue People are hated, feared, and scorned by nearly everyone living in the area. To some, she’s the devil, and to others, she’s “colored.” And yet she spends her days riding through dangerous mountains on the back of a mule, just to give families their only chance to borrow a magazine, novel, or a children’s book. She tries to instill in the families on her route a love of reading, even teaching some of them basic reading skills.

Her mother is dead, her father works a dangerous job in the mines – particularly dangerous because he’s a labor organizer as well. She has no other family and most of the time, not enough to eat. But she loves her job as a Packhorse librarian.

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Review: Writers and Lovers by Lily King

I didn’t expect to like this book. In fact, I started it as an audiobook and found it meandering and a little pretentious. I don’t love the idea of a novel about writers, especially when our narrator, Casey, describes how all of her once-writer friends have given up on the craft and taken real jobs instead. But I’d read enough great reviews, by people I trust, to give this another go, this time as an e-book. And once I’d gotten a few chapters in, this book started to gel. It wasn’t until I understood more about Casey’s mother and father that I started to like her as a character. At the beginning of the book it just sounds like she’s feeling sorry for herself, but there’s more there. Her life is genuinely difficult.

Then she meets two different guys, both writers but otherwise completely different, and from there I really began to enjoy this story, because it becomes about Casey figuring out how to grow up and figure out what she needs and wants. Both guys have different things to offer but it’s not obvious which she should choose, and King avoids most relationship cliches (though the adorable children of one guy might have been a bit much). I like a book with strong character development, and this one fits that bill.

While writing is important to Casey, King doesn’t let it take over the story as many writers might. Instead, Casey’s writing is sprinkled throughout the novel, in between her job as a waitress, her juggling of relationships with the two guys, her brother, and her friend, her grief over her mother, and a number of health issues.

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Ten Books I Loved that I Didn’t Review

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, is ten books I loved that I haven’t reviewed. I don’t review nearly as many books as I read, and often the more I love a book, the harder it is to review it well. Some books almost demand to speak for themselves. So here are ten books I highly recommend even though I didn’t review them. These are mostly books I’ve read in the last two years, and a surprising number of them were listened to as audiobooks rather than in print.

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Review: Code Name Hélène by Ariel Lawhon

This was a fantastic historical novel about World War II that is even greater because it is nearly all true.  Author Lawhon gives us the story of real-life hero Nancy Wake, an Australian who serves as a British special operative in World War II, working with French resistance fighters.

As with many historical novels, Lawhon begins this story at two different points in time: 1936 and early 1944.  In 1944, Nancy is air-dropped into France as “Madame Andree” (one of her many aliases), to work with the Maquis in Central France. In 1936, she’s a young reporter horrified by what is happening in Germany.

In her afterword, Lawhon suggests that readers go into this book without knowing all the details of Wake’s life, and I echo that recommendation. As a reader, I obviously knew how World War II would end, and I knew a little bit about the French resistance, which I’ve always been fascinated by. But Wake has an incredible story, and it’s worth it to let it unfold gradually.

At the end of the book, Lawhon explains what was factual, what was invented and why, and what her sources were.  She cites a number of biographies of Wake, and says that where there were factual conflicts, she deferred to Wake’s own memoir. There is clearly an impressive amount of research in this book, which I appreciated. Lawhon uses actual quotes and real-life incidents throughout her novel, as told by the people who lived through these experiences. There are a lot of details that help to flesh out Wake’s personality (some readers feel there is too much detail but I didn’t mind). At times the writing has an over-the-top quality, but from what I understand that’s very much how Wake was. Her brash personality was her armor and her way of earning respect among the men.

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My July Reading Wrap-Up

July felt like a long month.  There are a lot of things happening in this country that quite frankly terrify me. Among other things, I’m furious about the way school re-openings have been politicized. Two of my sisters are teachers – one is desperate to go back to the classroom, and the other is worried about putting her health and the health of her family at risk.  Personally, I can’t see a way that students can go back to the classroom safely, and I wish school systems were concentrating their attention and resources on making distance learning as effective as possible, while also making sure that some in-person services are available for the students who need it most. Whatever school systems decide, it shouldn’t be about politics, not when people’s lives are on the line.

July had a few happy moments related to Supreme Court decisions, but also devastating moments like the loss of civil rights great John Lewis, and scary moments like federal troops gassing and detaining protesters in Portland, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg going into the hospital. Honestly, it feels like this country is falling apart and at this rate I have no confidence we’ll last until November.

Watkins Glen State Park

Mr. CG and I took our first road trip away from home since February; we went wine tasting in upstate New York (the Finger Lakes area). It was beautiful, and so nice to be away from home for a couple of days. We tried to be very responsible about mask-wearing, etc., and the wineries and hotels were also very cautious.  It was a nice experience but also a stressful one.  We were really limited in what we could do, and every interaction with people felt a bit fraught. And I wondered if we should be out and about at all.

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Review: The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

If you’re trying to avoid thinking about the pandemic, this will NOT be the book for you. Otherwise, it’s another fantastic novel from Emma Donoghue, author of Room and The Wonder. This is a historical novel set in Dublin in 1918 during World War I and the devastating influenza pandemic. Julia Power is a 30-year old nurse in a city hospital; she’s assigned to a ward that treats pregnant women who are infected with the flu. Julia is hard-working and cares about her patients. She lives with her brother, who recently returned from the front, and for psychological reasons can no longer speak.

What happens in this book is mostly what you expect. People suffer and die, and it is ugly. But Donoghue’s well-researched novel really sets the stage and shines a light on this pandemic that no one much talks about. She particularly shines a light on how disproportionately the poor are impacted, particularly women and children. Donoghue writes about the plight of poor young mothers, many of whom are forced to have too many babies, and others who are literally enslaved in Ireland’s system of work homes like the Magdalene laundries.

But there’s hope as well, in the form of a strong, dedicated female doctor (Dr. Katherine Lynn, who was a real person) and Bridie, an earnest young volunteer.  And during the course of three days in an overcrowded hospital, Julia learns more about herself – and her country – than she expected. 

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Modern Mrs. Darcy’s 2020 Summer Reading Guide

I’m a big fan of Modern Mrs. Darcy’s podcast, What Should I Read Next? so I signed up to receive her summer reading guide as well (to get the guide, you will need to provide your email). This is a list of summer releases that aims to satisfy a variety of readers. This year’s list is organized thematically, with categories like “Tales of Complicated Families”, “Not Just For Young Adults”, “Awesome on Audio” and “Love Stories to Fall For.” 

It includes her top five picks across all categories – these include The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet, The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin, and This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger. Also included are eight picks from previous summer lists, for those who prefer not to buy new releases.  I’ve read a few of these books, Everything I Never Told You, Everyone Brave is Forgiven, and When Dimple Met Rishi

Here’s what I’ve read so far from her list:

  • Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles
  • Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo
  • The House in the Cerulean Sea by T. J. Klune
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My Year of Reading Romance

Romance novels are my comfort reads. Typically, I don’t read many of them. While fun to read, they rarely stick with me.  A lot of romances follow predictable patterns and rarely surprise – although I could argue that’s exactly why they are comforting.

But this year, anxiety levels have been way higher than usual — plus I began the year with the intention to read more for comfort and less because of challenges or other commitments. In January I read The Hating Game, or rather, I listened to it.  The Hating Game surprised me.  It was repetitive and predictable at times, but also clever, fun, and sexy — and I really liked the characters.

Until recently, I almost never read modern-day romances.  I grew up on the bodice-ripping historical novels of Kathleen Woodiwiss and then the Fabio-era of the 80s and 90s.  I read these books under the covers long before I had any real understanding of — ahem — what the characters were doing.  I just loved the drama, the history, the clothes, the feisty heroines and dashing heroes.

But the romances of the 70s and 80s feel horribly dated today.  Woodiwiss’ stories relied heavily on rape and assault. And even in the historical novels written today, it’s hard to be truly progressive or diverse because authors are stuck with the racism and social norms of the times they are writing about. So you either get historical detail or you get a fun but anachronistic romance. Courtney Milan and Scarlett Peckham are standouts but most of these historical novels all feel pretty much the same. So I’ve turned to modern romances. The characters are more diverse and have interesting jobs and relatable problems.

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Review: Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell

To date, David Mitchell hasn’t written a book I didn’t like, and this one is no exception. In fact, it will be one of my favorites because of its subject matter.  I don’t always fully understand Mitchell’s work, especially the horology storyline that runs through his most recent books.  But I love the way he combines complicated characters, places, and situations with beautiful writing and a sense of the fantastic.

Utopia Avenue is the name of a band in 1968 London. Four musicians from broken bands are brought together by Levon Frankland, an inspired and unusually ethical manager. Their disparate musical styles and personalities form something much greater than the sum of its parts, which I suppose is true of all great bands.  In fact, much of this book feels like an homage to the rock music of the 60s. Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, and Jerry Garcia are just a few of the famous characters who interact with the band over the course of this novel. 

If you love a good story about a band, this novel has it all.  Mitchell plays with every rock band trope you can think of, from the promiscuous lead to the drummer who’s mostly ignored.  Think Almost Famous or Daisy Jones and the Six, but much better. 

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