Tag Archives: Rainbow Rowell

Book round-up: what I’ve been reading lately

It’s been a long time since I’ve done a good ol’ fashioned book round-up on the blog. To be precise: it’s been eight months. Oops. As usual, I’ve read more books in eight months than can fairly be reviewed in one sitting, so I will sort them into my handy categories of Great Reads, Good Reads, Meh Reads, and Bad Reads. The Great Reads, I think, each deserve a word of explanation.

So, here goes.

row of books, free copy space on red background

 

Great Reads

Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell: Rowell’s sweet, moving novel about a college freshman (Cath) who loses herself in writing fan-fiction as she struggles with her real-life relationships was un-put-downable. As usual, Rowell continues to produce the only “romance novels” that I can stomach. Smart Bitches, Trashy Books review here.

Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell: A sort of companion novel to Fangirl, Rowell visits the universe that Fangirl‘s Cath was obsessed with — a Potter-esque school for aspiring magicians — and creates a love story between two of the main characters. Confused? This NPR review may help.

Fortune Smiles, by Adam Johnson: This collection of short stories is as beautiful and poignant as any of Johnson’s other work. I continue to marvel at his ability to bring to life such an array of rich, believable worlds (North Korea, post-Katrina New Orleans, Palo Alto) with such nuanced, complicated characters. Adam Johnson is such a treasure. Did I mention Fortune Smiles won the National Book Award?

The Royal We, by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan: I never wanted this book, which can fairly be described as the literary equivalent of a rom-com, to end. It follows a pair of Prince William-Kate Middleton analogs (in this case, the fictional Prince Nicholas and his American girlfriend Rebecca Porter) from their meet-cute to their wedding, with lots of juicy drama and intrigue thrown in for good measure. I really felt like I understood the now Duchess Kate’s plight after reading this book. Cocks and Morgan, the geniuses also known as The Fug Girls, make a delightful novel writing team. I recommend The Royal We even to readers, like me, who hate most romance novels and are trepidatious about rom-coms. Read it. Or, just wait for the movie to come out.

Ghettoside, by Jill Leovy: I was turned onto this book by a recommendation from (personal hero) David Sedaris, who encouraged all of his Facebook followers to check it out. Leovy, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, explores the epidemic of violence among African-Americans, the often toxic relationship between law enforcement and poor communities, and the systemic failure of the criminal justice system to prosecute black murders. Fair warning: Ghettoside is not an easy read, but it is fascinating, and gripping, and important. New York Times review here.

The Year of the Runaways, by Sunjeev Sohata: Months after finishing this book, which tells the story of several Indian immigrants struggling to carve out lives in the U.K., and a British-Indian woman whose life intersects with theirs, I cannot stop thinking about it. As soon as this book ended, I experienced that particular kind of mourning you feel when you must say goodbye to characters you really care about. What makes The Year of the Runaways even more remarkable to me is that it is Sohata’s debut novel and he never read a novel until he was eighteen. What?! Guardian review here.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt: This classic came out in 1994, but I never thought to read it until now. Berendt manages to make a true-crime novel read like fiction — and charming, winsome fiction, at that. Despite the fact that this book is about a murder, it made me want to visit Savannah and stroll through its storied gardens.

Good Reads

Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff

The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy

Troublemaker, by Leah Remini

Challenger Deep, by Neal Shusterman

The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy

Bringing Up Bébé, by Pamela Druckerman

Little Victories, by Jason Gay

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King

The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro

I Didn’t Come Here to Make Friends, by Courtney Robertson

The Expatriates, by Janice Y.K. Lee

The Run of His Life: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, by Jeffrey Toobin

After Birth, by Elisa Albert

The Dark Net, by Jamie Bartlett

Meh Reads

A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler

Loving Day, by Mat Johnson

The Executioner’s Song, by Norman Mailer

We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart

The Red Parts, by Maggie Nelson

Bad Reads

Black Eyed Susans, by Julia Heaberlin

The Tastemakers, by David Sax

 

 

Book review(s): six quick takes

I’ve been a book-reading machine lately, largely thanks to our New Zealand sojourn. For one thing, flying for twenty hours with, like, two movies to choose from (thanks for nothing, Fiji Air) is a situation that lends itself nicely to devouring a lot of books. Plus, being in a camper van for three weeks with not much else to do at night other than read helps, too. So, over the last two months, I’ve read a dozen books, which even for me is kind of a lot. Some of these books, of course, were pregnancy and childbirth-related (if you’re in that market, do check out Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth and Emily Oster’s Expecting Better), but most were fiction. So here, in no particular order, are six (quick) fiction book reviews.

magicians land

The Magician’s Land, by Lev Grossman: This is the third book in Grossman’s Magicians series, which tell the tale of Quentin Coldwater, a graduate of the prestigious magical university Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic, and his magician friends and foes. The Magicians books are dark and funny and deep and highly readable. The lazy but rather misleading way to describe them to someone is by saying that they’re like “grown-up Harry Potter,” but that’s kind of an understatement. There’s no butter beer and chaste kissing going on in these books. The magicians in Grossman’s books are really adults. They swear and have sex and make terrible, often disastrous, life decisions. But Quentin and his magical cohorts also get to do really exciting stuff, like explore and rule a magical, Narnia-esque land called Fillory, or, in Quentin’s case, get expelled from Fillory and resort to dark, illegal magic to try to make a quick buck. The third book picks up with Quentin, newly expelled from Fillory, trying to make it as a freelance, under-the-table magician for hire, and also follows up on the gang back in Fillory. No spoilers here, of course, so let me just say that I thought this book provided a highly satisfying conclusion to a great series. If you haven’t read the first two books, get on that.

Black_Life-Drawing

Life Drawing, by Robin Black: I read Black’s Life Drawing right after finishing Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, and my great admiration for the latter may have tainted my enjoyment of the former. I find that sometimes when I read one book in close proximity in time to another, I notice parallels between them, and then inevitably begin to compare them. This can result in an unfavorable verdict for a perfectly good novel just because it happens to be stacked beside another, stronger one. Such was the case, I’m afraid, for Life Drawing. Like Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, Black’s novel traces the complicated dynamics among a long-time couple and an outsider — a woman — and the trouble that such a triangle, even when not explicitly sexual, can bring upon a marriage. Unlike Messud’s novel, Life Drawing is told from the perspective of the wife in the triangle, rather than that of the outside woman. Like Messud’s novel, there are also long descriptions of art throughout the book, since the main character, Augusta (“Gus”) is a visual artist. Unfortunately, Black’s descriptions of imaginary art are even more plodding than Messud’s, and the book suffers for its long diversions into Gus’s creative process. The book spends most of its time, however, within the uncomfortable confines of Gus’s marriage to Owen, a writer with a stalled career, and the story often gets bogged down in Gus’s thoughts about her marriage — and art, and her demented father, and so on. The plot doesn’t pick up steam until well into the novel, and by that point, I had started to become irritated by quirks in the author’s writing, including long runs of dialogue in which each character repeats the name of the character to whom he or she is speaking (e.g., “I don’t know, Gus.” “I don’t understand it, Owen.” “I don’t know what to tell you, Gus.”). The dialogue was so stilted, it launched me out of the story, which was already dragging. Maybe if I hadn’t read The Woman Upstairs just before picking this up, I would have enjoyed it more, and allowed myself to get more caught up in the psychological drama of a damaged marriage, but in the end, there was not enough drama and too much psychology in Life Drawing for my liking.

king of cuba

King of Cuba, by Cristina Garcia: I’m completely fascinated by Cuba (I spent a summer doing my undergraduate thesis research there and it was so weird and wonderful that I still love talking about it) and particularly by the tortured, nostalgic, complicated relationship between Cuban exiles and their motherland. In King of Cuba, Garcia alternates between two compelling characters to tell a riveting, human story about Cuba and the dynamic between its passionate, bitter first-wave exiles and its lingering, equally passionate despot. The story is told from the perspective of El Comandante — a fictionalized version of Fidel Castro — in Havana, and, ninety miles away in Miami, Goyo Herrera, an elderly Cuban exile bent on revenge against El Comandante, who he blames for stealing his first love and ruining his country. The story follows eighty-something Goyo as he plots to take out the eighty-something El Comandante, and paints a vivid, hilarious, and bittersweet picture of life in both Havana and Cuban Miami. I tore through this book and loved every page of it.

doerr

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr: Al’s lovely step-mom Ginger recommended this book to me, and I’m really glad I picked it up. When I saw that it was a novel about two young people in France and Germany during World War II, I’ll admit that I was trepidatious, fearing something maudlin or ultimately hopeless. But All the Light We Cannot See is neither of those things. It follows the parallel stories of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, and Werner, a gifted young German orphan recruited into the Wehrmacht for his technical skills. The story jumps around in time, flashing back and forth between the children’s childhoods and their young adulthoods in the throes of the war. Some reviewers hated this time-jumping format, and some loved it. I didn’t mind it, and I liked how digestible the short chapters were. Eventually, of course, Werner and Marie-Laure’s paths cross in the walled French city of St. Malo at the very close of the war, and the results are both beautiful and heartbreaking. Even though this is a novel about kids in World War II, it won’t leave you rending your clothes or tearing your hair. It’s beautifully written, for one thing, and it’s filled with very human, relatable characters going about their lives on both sides of an inhuman situation.

landline

Landline, by Rainbow Rowell: I loved both of Rowell’s previous novels, Attachments and Eleanor & Park, so I was excited to read her third effort, Landline. As I sometimes do, I went into this novel blind and read nothing about it before I opened it. So imagine my surprise when I realized that it wasn’t just a light romance, but a light, time-traveling romance! Well, it’s not exactly time travel, it’s more of a phone with a direct connection to the past. Am I making this book sound crazy? It seems less crazy when you’re reading it, I promise. Landline tells the story of a wife and mother, Georgie, a successful TV writer, who’s hit a snag in her marriage to her college sweetheart, Neal. When Georgie decides to stay home in Los Angeles to work on her show, rather than accompany Neal and their two kids to Nebraska to visit his parents, things hit an all-time low. But then Georgie realizes that the landline in her high school bedroom connects her to Neal’s parents’ house — fourteen years earlier, before they were married, at a critical moment in their young relationship. In other words, present-day Georgie has the opportunity to fix her present-day marriage with an unwitting Neal of the past. Putting aside the obvious conundrums that spring up every time you introduce time travel (the butterfly effect, and so on), it’s an interesting idea. Probably everyone who’s been in a long-term relationship wonders, at some point, what it would be like to go back and fix earlier mistakes. Without giving the ending away, let me just say that the magical phone works its magic, and things end up as they’re supposed to. Overall, while I enjoyed Landline, it felt insubstantial; when I was done reading it, it slipped right out of my brain and heart. It was a far cry from the raw emotional power of Eleanor & Park, which made me cry at the gym, or even the pure, earnest sweetness of Attachments, which I read two-and-a-half years ago and still remember vividly. Maybe the issue was that I didn’t connect with Georgie and Neal as characters enough to ever become fully invested in the outcome of their relationship; I was kind of neutral for most of the book on whether they should stay together or divorce. Rowell is extremely gifted at creating relationships that feel real and relatable, but in this case, the relationship between Georgie and Neal wasn’t enough to elevate the book into something emotionally powerful for me. Nonetheless, I would recommend this as a slim, quick little book to read on the Metro or the beach. Just don’t expect to cry at the gym.

the wife

The Wife, by Meg Wolitzer: This is the second Wolitzer book I’ve read (the first was The Interestings, about which I had decidedly mixed feelings), and after reading The Wife, I can say with conviction that Wolitzer is a great writer who sprinkles a lot of resonant truth throughout her books. Like with The Interestings, as I read The Wife, I felt compelled to highlight in my Kindle lots of passages that spoke to me, that seemed universally correct (in the beginning, Wolitzer’s description of the air on a plane, “once so antiseptic,” as now “home to a million farts and corn chips and moist towelettes” made me grin/cringe with recognition). To its credit, unlike The Interestings, the ending of The Wife was not emotionally manipulative or melodramatic, and I didn’t end up feeling like Wolitzer had taken me through the wringer unfairly. My one complaint about the book is that its largest plot reveal seemed glaringly obvious to me quite early on, and I’m not sure it that was intentional or not. The book tells the story of Joan Castleman, the unhappy wife of celebrated author Joe Castleman, and it revisits their long marriage, from soup to nuts, to suss out the source of Joan’s particular unhappiness. Because the novel spans the length of their four-decades-plus marriage, dipping in and out at various points, it’s not action-heavy until the very end, when we jump back into the present and Joan faces the decision of whether — and how — to leave her husband. Despite being low on twists and turns, I enjoyed this book, even though I could see the big reveal coming from a mile away. I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re looking for a page-turner, but the strength of Wolitzer’s writing and the keenness of her observations about marriage, particularly power dynamics within marriage, carry The Wife quite far.

Well, there you go: six books to contemplate. Some hits, some misses. Stay tuned for more book reviews, coming soon, as I’m plowing through several juicy tomes at the moment.

 

NaNoWriMo

This year, I am participating in NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month! The concept of NaNoWriMo is pretty simple: your goal, as a participant, is to get 50,000 words of a new novel down during the month of November. This requires writing at a pretty brisk clip (something like 1700 words a day), but considering that when I wrote my last two manuscripts, I made myself write 2000 words a day, Stephen King-style, it shouldn’t be TOO difficult.

I was initially skeptical of NaNoWriMo, when I first heard about it last year, because I figured I didn’t need it. I had just moved to South Africa, was already knee-deep into another manuscript, and didn’t need any additional motivation to hit the keyboard. I was a newly minted writing machine, after all. These days, though, as I am slowly crawling out of the pits of a writing slump, I decided I needed the kick in the butt to start a new project that NaNoWriMo provides. And so, here I am, five days in and 9700 words down. And you know? I’m feeling pretty jazzed about it! I don’t want to say too much about what I’m working on (I’m superstitious like that) but it’s a new genre for me and it’s really fun.

It’s not too late to throw your own hat into the NaNoWriMo ring. If you need inspiration, here’s a great little pep talk by one of my favorite authors, Rainbow Rowell (who, as you might recall, wrote the truly lovely Eleanor & Park).

So… who else is in?

Book review Tuesday: Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor & Park is, in a word, delightful. Other adjectives that I’d use to describe it include charming, sweet, heartfelt, moving, emotionally satisfying, and adorable. I read it in less than a day and was enraptured the entire time, and I want everyone to go out and read this book, right now. Go!

eleanor and park

 

I was predisposed to like this novel because I read and loved Rowell’s first novel, Attachments, another sweet, moving, funny love story. And actually, I think Eleanor & Park is even better than Attachments; it packs a big emotional wallop with a great payoff. After reading Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, which left me feeling down in the dumps and emotionally manipulated, Eleanor & Park is a breath of fresh air. It’s not all saccharine-sweet happiness — there are some serious emotional ups and downs — but the ending feels true and real and right, and I loved it.

The story is about two teenagers — the aforementioned Eleanor and Park — who live in Omaha, Nebraska in the 1980s. The narrative switches between Eleanor and Park throughout the book. These two kids each have struggles fitting in: Park, who’s half-Korean, is one of the only Asians in his entire school — perhaps the entire state — and Eleanor, the new girl in town, is chubby and awkward, with crazy red hair, and comes from a rough family situation, with an abusive stepfather, absent father, and weak mother. Eleanor and Park make an unlikely pair, but, surprising everyone (including themselves), they fall in love. They ride the bus to school together, and after a rocky start, become friends, and then something more. They bond over comic books, music, jokes, and their shared sense of isolation — real or imagined — at their high school and within their own families. The description of the torturous process by which Eleanor and Park fall in love is so sweet, so tender, so pure, that it almost made me cry several times. But the real tears started when Eleanor and Park face a seemingly insurmountable challenge to their relationship, and have to figure out a solution. The last ten percent of this book (I read it on my Kindle) nearly had me in tears the entire time, which was not ideal, since I was reading it while sitting on a stationary bike at the gym. Fighting off tears did provide a cardio challenge, though!

I want to share just a few of the many snippets in the book that I had to highlight as I was reading. These passages spoke to me even though I was never in love as a teenager: the story of Eleanor and Park transcends the fact that they are teens, in the 1980s, in Omaha. There’s some universal stuff in here. I mean, Rowell’s descriptions of what it feels like to be in love are just dead-on. Some of my favorite little bits follow:

“Holding Eleanor’s hand was like holding a butterfly. Or a heartbeat. Like holding something complete, and completely alive.”

“He put his pen in his pocket, then took her hand and held it to his chest for a minute. It was the nicest thing she could imagine. It made her want to have his babies and give him both of her kidneys.”

“They walked down every street of the market area, and then across the street, into a park. Eleanor didn’t even know all this existed. She hadn’t realized Omaha could be such a nice place to live. (In her head, this was Park’s doing, too. The world rebuilt itself into a better place around him.)”

“You think that holding someone hard will bring them closer. You think that you can hold them so hard that you’ll still feel them, embossed on you, when you pull away. Every time Eleanor pulled away from Park, she felt the gasping loss of him.”

Oh, God. I’m tearing up just transcribing these quotes! Apart from completely nailing the feeling of being in love, especially new love, Rowell does a great job describing some of the conflicts that arise in this particular high school relationship, particularly around the universal teenage desire to be well-liked (or, at least, not picked on) and the urge to be loyal to one’s boyfriend or girlfriend. Park doesn’t get picked on because, for one thing, he grew up in the area and is good looking (even though he’s not necessarily “cool”) but Eleanor, on the other hand, is a walking target for bullies. Thus, Park has to wrestle with his loyalty to Eleanor and his own desire to fly under the radar and avoid being bullied himself. (Hint: he makes the right choice in the end).

“God, she had adorable cheeks. Dimples on top of freckles, which shouldn’t even be allowed, and round as crabapples. It was kind of amazing that more people didn’t try to pinch her cheeks. His grandma was definitely going to pinch her when they met. But Park hadn’t thought that either, the first time he saw Eleanor on the bus. He remembered thinking that it was bad enough that she looked the way she did… Did she have to dress like that? And act like that? Did she have to try so hard to be different? He remembered feeling embarrassed for her. And now… Now, he felt the fight rising up in his throat whenever he thought of people making fun of her.”

The relationship that develops between Eleanor and Park is nuanced and delicate, but also deep and strong. It’s a joy to behold. So if you want an emotionally rewarding, well-written, and utterly sweet novel to take your mind off your troubles, please please please go pick up Eleanor & Park.

(And here’s another glowing review by the New York Times, in case you’re still not convinced).