Book Review: City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert


Author: City of Girls
Title: Elizabeth Gilbert
Publication Info: New York : Riverhead Books, 2019.
Summary/Review:

This novel is narrated by Vivian Morris, the black sheep of a wealthy New York State family who flops at Vassar College in 1940.  Her parents ship her off to New York City to live with her eccentric Aunt Peg, who operates a low-rent theater. Vivian offers he skills as a seamstress to costume design and gets sucked into the glamorous life of the New York theater world. Along the way she befriends a showgirl Celia, becomes enchanted with the refugee English actor Edna, and falls in love/lust with the lead actor.  After a few poor choices she finds herself embroiled in a scandal.

The latter parts of the novel explore Vivian’s life during World War II and in the decades beyond.  Vivian matures and takes on more responsibility and eventually starts her own business, finding the right balance for a countercultural life as an independent woman in the years before women’s liberation.  She also forms a relationship with a WWII veteran suffering  PTSD, Frank.  This latter part of the novel is interesting but it feels more like a long epilogue to Vivian’s life in the pre-WWII theater world.

City of Girls is an enjoyable historical novel and I definitely found it to be a page turner.  True to its title, almost all the significant characters are female with men playing supporting parts which is a good change from the typical novel.  It’s a long book and yet packing several decades of Vivian’s life into maybe the last third of the book still feels rushed, but that’s its only really flaw.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune


Author: TJ Klune
Title: The House in the Cerulean Sea
Narrator: Daniel Henning
Publication Info: New York : Tor, 2020.
Summary/Review:

Linus Baker is an effective but unambitious caseworker in a large bureaucratic organization called the Department in Charge of Magical Youth.  Unexpectedly, he is singled out by Extremely Upper Management for a longer assignment to an orphanage on the remote Marsyas Island.  The home only has six magical children under the care of the eccentric Arthur Parnassus, but one of them is Lucifer (a.k.a. “Lucy”), the son of the Devil. (Yes, two of the main characters are named Linus and Lucy and thus prompt a Vince Guaraldi earworm). Other children at the orphanage include wyvern, a gnome, a forest sprite, a shapeshifter, and a gelatinous, tentacled child named Chauncey.

The story is fairly predictable.  Linus’ experience with the children and Arthur leads him to break out of his shell and become more of an advocate for magical children against widespread discrimination.  The children, in turn, learn to accept themselves and begin to form relationships with the nonmagical humans on the mainland.  What makes the book work though is just the wonderful characterization.  The children are so very childlike while also being fantastic and strange. It also has a same sex romance plot and the story can be read as an allegory for the treatment of LGBTQ people cis/het society.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: This is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel


Author: Laurie Frankel
Title: This is How It Always Is
Publication Info: New York : Flatiron Books, [2017] 
Summary/Review:

Rosie (a doctor) and Penn (a novelist) are a loving couple who have five children, all boys.  At the age of 5, their youngest child Claude expresses a preference for wearing dresses and eventually takes the name Poppy.  The narrative explores how even parents with the best intentions struggle with raising a transgender child.  The central conflict is whether Poppy’s transgender identity should be publicly known or kept secret. The family tries both with some bad outcomes to either approach and ultimately no “right way” is found.  The book can be overly didactic at times, but I did enjoy a lot of Frankel’s writing flourishes

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson


Author: Kevin Wilson
Title: Nothing to See Here
Narrator: Marin Ireland
Publication Info: HarperAudio, 2019
Summary/Review:

Lillian, the narrator and protagonist of this novel, is a working class woman in Tennessee trying to make ends meet when she receives an invitation to a job from her old friend Madison.  As a teenager, Lillian excellend at academics and earned a scholarship to an elite private school for girls.  Madison was her prosperous and seemingly perfect roommate, and they maintained their uneven friendship for years after Lillian was expelled, for reasons I won’t divulge here.

Now, Madison is married to a US Senator and living on a sumptuous estate.  She invites Lillian to be a “governess” for the Senator’s twin 10-year-old children from a previous marriage, Bessie and Roland Roberts, after the death of their mother.  The problem that Madison needs Lillian to keep under wraps is that the children literally burst into flames when they’re upset. The fire doesn’t consume the children but can cause considerable property damage.

Over the novel, Lillian forms a bond with the children, deals with the machinations of the elite, and begins to realize what she wants from her life. This novel is equally parts silly, charming, and satirical and made for an enjoyable read.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Serbia

Author: Téa Obreht
Title: The Tiger’s Wife
Narrator: Susan Duerden and Robin Sachs
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2011)
Summary/Review:

Téa Obreht’s debut novel mixes together folklore and magical realism with the grim realities of the war-torn Balkan region in this story set in fictionalized Balkan nation.  The framing story is told by Natalia, a doctor on an errand of mercy who reminisces about her recently deceased grandfather who was also a doctor.  Natalia’s story is intercut with the story her grandfather told her about his many encounters with The Deathless Man, who claimed he couldn’t die and couldn’t age. A third story is intertwined about a Muslim girl who was deaf and mute and a child bride in Natalia’s grandfather’s childhood hometown. She befriends a tiger that escapes from a zoo during World War II and becomes known as The Tiger’s Wife by the superstitious villagers.

I confess that the shifting narratives and points of view threw me off a bit, but that’s more of a reader’s error than any fault of the book. Obreht magnificently deploys magical realism in a narrative that attempts to unlock memory in a land torn apart by violence.  She also tells a story of a family over time that parallels the region’s experience with death and war.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Love by Toni Morrison


Author: Toni Morrison
TitleLove
Narrator: Toni Morrison
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group Summary/Review:

I previously reviewed Love on LibraryThing in 2006.

This novel is about two women who were once close but now hate one another but nevertheless share a large house due to a conflict over inheritance of the property.  Heed and Christine both had a relationship with Bill Cosey, the owner of a successful beach resort for Black vacationers from the 1930s to the 1980s.  The nonlinear narrative skips back and forth between past and present to explore Cosey’s relationship with Heed and Christine and several other women, each of whom seem to be poisoned by his moral failings.

The novel explores several issues including family, resentment, reconciliation, and love. Over 60 years, the Civil Rights Movement has a negative effect on a resort that enjoyed its greatest success under Jim Crow.  This novel also has one of the most surprising twists that was still unsettling even though this is the second time I’ve read the book and knew it was coming. Morrison’s writing and plotting is excellent and I love that this novel ends with redemption.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Austria

Author: Elfriede Jelinek
Title: The Piano Teacher
Translator: Joachim Neugroschel
Publication Info: Grove Atlantic, 2009 [originally published in 1983]
Summary/Review:

Erika Kohut is a woman in her mid-thirties who teaches piano at the prestigious Vienna Conservatory.  She lives with her controlling mother in a very taught and unhealthy relationship. Erika rebels in various including buying clothing she never wears, self-harm, and deliberately injuring strangers.  Over the course of the novel she also explores her repressed sexuality by going to pornographic movies, peep shows, and practicing voyeurism.

Walter Klemmer, a student over a decade younger than Erika, begins to show her attention. Their desire grows and when they finally acknowledge it, Erika requests a sadomasochistic relationship. Walter, who is an arrogant prick, really justs wants to have sex with an older woman and move on.  Things go horribly, horribly wrong.

I saw this book described as “erotic” but there’s absolutely nothing sexy about it.  In fact, it is quite repulsive.  Jelinek seems to revel in using the most unpleasant description possible for the human condition and the human body.  It just gets worse and worse and I really struggled to finish this book.  I’ve also seen the book described as “satire,” but it reads to me as nothing more than caustic misanthropy.

Rating: **

Book Review: Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid


Around the World for a Good Book Selection for Antigua and Barbuda

Author: Jamaica Kincaid
Title: Annie John
Publication Info: New York : Farrar, Straus, Giroux, c1985.
Summary/Review:

Annie John is a novel about a young girl growing to become a young woman.  The story includes the deterioration of her relationship with her mother, her love for another girl named Gwen, and Annie John’s depression.  Colonization weighs over the story in the conflict between traditional ways and English culture. I don’t know if this novel is autobiographical, but Kincaid writes with a sense of lived experience while also being timeless.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell


Around the World for a Good Book Selection for Zambia

Author: The Old Drift
Title: Namwali Serpell 
Narrator: Adjoa Andoh, Richard E. Grant, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2019)
Summary/Review:

This is an epic novel that attempts to depict the history of Zambia through the fictional stories of several generations of a few interrelated families.  The characters are a mix of Black African people native to the region that would become Zambia as well as European colonizers and expatriates.  The novel begins with explorer David Livingstone seeing Victoria Falls for the first time.  This is ironic since later in the novel a character says that when telling stories to white people you need to always start with a white person “discovering” something. The novel ends in a near future time when biotechnology has become commonplace.

The stories in this novel draw on the traditions of magical realism.  For example a woman’s hair grows so fast so as to constantly cover her entire body.  Her daughters, on the other hand, have fast growing hair on their heads that they are able to profit from by selling for wigs.  Some parts of the story seem ludicrous but are drawn from actual Zambian history, such as the plan for a Zambian space program in the 1960s to send a woman to Mars with several cats.  This may or may not have been a joke in real life.

The novel is sprawling and it includes a large cast of characters and I found it hard to remember who is who. The novel is also written in a style more akin to history than a literary narrative which made it hard for me to hold my attention.  I would chalk this up as a reader issue than a flaw of the book, though.

Overall, this is a weird and wonderful work of fiction.  Serpell is a young contemporary author and it will be interesting to see what she produces next.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead


Author: Colson Whitehead
Title: The Nickel Boys
Publication Info: New York : Doubleday, [2019]
Other Books Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Set in the 1960s, with a framing story in the present day, The Nickel Boys tells the story of the boys held at the Nickel Academy reform school in Florida. The protagonist of the story is Elwood Curtis, a studious teenager who begins taking courses at a local college. He is unjustly arrested and prosecuted when he accepts a ride from an acquaintance in what turns out to be a stolen car.

Elwood, an optimistic child inspired by the Civil Rights Movement finds himself among hardened and more cynical inmates including a boy name Turner whom he befriends.  Much of the novel details the harsh conditions of the “school” where boys are sexually abused, face severe corporal punishment, and some simply disappear.  The segregated facility is also much harsher in its treatment of Black students.  As much as Elwood tries to keep his head down and make it through his sentence, his sense of justice brings him into conflict with the authorities.

In the present-day narrative, the graves of boys murdered at the Nickel Academy are uncovered a few years after the institution is closed.  Men who survived incarceration at Nickel come forward with stories of their abuse.  There’s a big twist in the story that I didn’t see coming and makes me want to reread the book because I’m sure it would change the meaning of a lot of the narrative.

The Nickel Academy is based on a real reform school in Florida, and Whitehead incorporates events described by survivors into his story.  The narrative is a grim tale and a microcosm of America’s sins of racial discrimination and the carceral state.

Recommended books:
Rating: ***1/2