Ill Will–Dan Chaon

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Ill Will has an amazing dust jacket and a great blurb and premise.  Dustin’s adopted brother, who was found guilty as a teenager of murdering their parents and aunt and uncle, is released from prison.  Dustin, who gave damning testimony in the trial, has become a psychologist, has recently lost his wife to cancer, and is struggling to parent his two late-teenage sons, one in college and the other about to graduate high school.  One of Dustin’s patients, a cop removed from service, brings Dustin into a conspiracy theory about the disappearance of young men across the Midwest whose bodies then show up in rivers or other bodies of water.  So begins Dustin’s journey from the mainstream.

Chaon creates a fascinating journey into the guilty grief-stricken mind of his narrator and gives us a perfect example of a narrator we think we can trust (after all, he’s an established psychologist), but whom we slowly begin to doubt and then to fear.

The problem with such a dramatically crafted narrative is that the conclusion is almost destined to disappoint.  I finished Ill Will in the middle of the night because I could not stop reading until I knew whether or not I was right to doubt Dustin.  I had gone to bed several nights before then terrified of the nightmares I knew were going to visit me thanks to Chaon’s mastery of psychological suspense.  On that last night, I stayed awake trying to decide how Chaon could have ended the novel without disappointing me and thinking that I forgave him the disappointment because the journey was so delicious.

 

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Grace Period–Kelly Baker

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Grace Period belongs to the new genre of “quit lit” penned by academics from a variety of disciplines.  I first read Kelly Baker, like many others, through her blog posts on the Chronicle’s Vitae site.  In Grace Period, Baker recounts her struggle with the academic job search and her decision to leave traditional academia and pursue the alt-ac path.  Her struggles are captured in brief chapters, which means they can be read in short settings, but these periods are necessary because the content can often be difficult to face.  Baker’s struggles reflect the stories–or near misses–of so many academics.

Baker credits Cheryl Strayed’s writing for getting her through one difficult stage.  Strayed answers WTF with “the fuck is your life–answer it.”

Baker works through her anxiety about leaving her dream of a tenured teaching position and begins envisioning herself in alternative lives.  One of those alternative paths takes her to the job as editor of Women in Higher Education.

I love that she faces the fact that academics do labor in exchange for compensation and that that compensation should be at least a living wage.  When her “luck” turns, she challenges the idea of luck and lists all of the labor she had done in the previous few years–writing, researching, reading, etc.  She also acknowledges the role her family played in her decisions–her children and spouse.  This was particularly refreshing from a woman in academia, many of whom either opt not to have children or are pushed into living as if they do not have them.

Thanks to Kelly Baker for the courage to share her struggles–and her grace.

 

The Hate U Give–Angie Thomas

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The best book recommendations come from those close to you.  My oldest daughter, studying to be a high school English teacher, told me this book was a must.  Bahni Turpin’s narration added a further rich layer to my experience of Thomas’ story.

Starr watched her best friend die on the sidewalk when she was ten.  At sixteen she holds her friend, Khalil, as he dies from multiple gunshot wounds at the hands of a police officer making a routine traffic stop.  Starr moves between the world of the neighborhood, Garden Heights, and the suburbs where she attends school and where her uncle, a detective, and her aunt, a surgeon, live in a gated community.  Starr’s mother works at a clinic in the neighborhood.  Her father, a former member of the Kings, for whom he did time, owns a neighborhood grocery store.  They are committed to Garden Heights, despite the tragedies their daughter has endured.  Starr becomes the star witness testifying in front of a grand jury deciding whether the officer who killed Khalil would be charged.  As she processes her feelings about the murder, she is awakened as an activist and is forced to bring her two worlds, the neighborhood and the surburb, together.

The Hate U Give is powerful.  Starr’s story boldly tackles issues that have become taboo in too many circles.  Thomas’ characters are not political cartoons.  They are as complex and frustrating and sympathetic and unforgettable.  My daughter was right. This one is a must.

Finished 2/18

Little Fires Everywhere–Celeste Ng

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Stress and Netflix took me from reading for awhile, but my reading muscles are working overtime to catch up–traditional reading and audio reading.

I absolutely loved Everything I Never Told You.  Some of its passages took my breath away.  Little Fires Everywhere returns Ng’s interesting female characters for a  deep dive into what it means to be a woman–with women in middle age, adolescence, and infancy dominating the plot.  Mia Warren is a thirty-something single mother and artist who has traveled the country with her teenage daughter, Pearl.  Their address changes each time Mia finishes a project and needs new inspiration, but Mia has promised Pearl this time, in Shaker Heights, Ohio, they will stay. They rent an apartment in the Richardson’s “Winslow House,” and Pearl is soon a regular fixture in the Richardson household.  Two sons, two daughters, Mr. Richardson a lawyer, Mrs. Richardson a journalist for the local paper.  Moody is an artsy moody type.  Trip is a star athlete.  Lexi is popular and smart, soon Yale-bound.  The youngest, Iggy, is the rebel constantly drawing the ire of her mother, who had converted hear fear for the preemie Iggy into ongoing critique.  Mrs. Richardson expresses satisfaction with her orderly symmetrical life, but allows moments of curiosity about her potential career if she had left Shaker Heights.

Soon Pearl is following Lexi and Iggy is trailing Mia, whom Mrs. Richardson has coopted into cooking and cleaning the Richardson home.  Mia’s confidence and relentless pursuit of her art and nonchalance about the accumulation of status and material objects strike Mrs. Richardson to her core and leads her to investigate Mia’s mysterious roots.  Her journalistic investigative spirit blinds her to the goings on in her own home, particularly her daughters’ struggles toward adulthood.  Add in a custody battle between a rich white couple and a poor Chinese single mother and Ng’s mix of mothers, daughters, sexuality, and women’s selfhood is complete.

Jennifer Lim’s narration alongside Ng’s smooth prose makes this an easy listen.

Finished 2/17/18

I Love Dick–Chris Kraus

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I fell in love with the Amazon Prime series starring Kevin Bacon and Katherine Hahn.  Each episode left me slightly uncomfortable and seen.  When the season ended and Katherine Hahn (Chris) was walking away from Kevin Bacon (Dick) with blood streaming down her leg, I needed to know what happened next, what was missing, as something is always missing in the transition from text to screen.

Kraus’ book, not a novel, not memoir, is even more chaotic than the Amazon Prime series.  Kraus divides the book into two parts–“Scenes from a Marriage” and “Every Letter is a Love Letter.”  In the opening pages, Chris falls in love with Dick over dinner and explains why she begins writing him letters.  “What sex is better than drugs, what art is better than sex?  Better than means stepping out into complete intensity….It’s about not giving a fuck, or seeing all the consequences looming and doing something anyway.”  And she does.  She is 40, her most recent film has been rejected, she has not had sex with her husband for over a year, and she steps into an epistolary relationship with Dick and herself.  She loses herself in lust, in her sexuality.  From her sexuality she rediscovers her intellectual power.  She moves from writing about her desire for Dick to her analysis of paintings, reflections of desire of other women, the plight of all women.  As she speaks to herself via Dick, her diary, she asks “Who gets to speak and why?….is the only question.”  Through a Dick projected onto an authoritative art figure, Chris finds her voice.  Towards the end of the book, Chris turns to schizophrenia and semiotics.  In a neat loop back to the beginning of her affair with herself via Dick, she writes, “I think desire isn’t lack, it’s surplus energy—a claustrophobia inside your skin.”  Once Chris began writing, her desire flowed despite rejection from its muse, despite her own flights of hesitation.  Her desire led her to create something new, even while she writes that “no matter where you go, someone else has been before.”

Having read the book on which the Amazon Prime series was based, I’m left hoping for a second season that moves beyond her desire for Dick into her discovery of herself.  The broken, rejected Chris walking away from Dick is not the end of Chris’ story. I hope it will not be the end of the series.

Finished 10/1/17

Submission–Michele Houellebecq

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The author is a French novelist, poet, and literary critic, which says much.

Submission is set in 2022 Paris during election season. The narrator, Francois, teaches at the Sorbonne IV, not as prestigious as III, but still the Sorbonne, and still a good place to meet young female students, with whom he has relationships that generally last one academic year.  He has no connection to his parents, lives alone, dabbles in writing articles about the subject of his doctoral dissertation, a 19th-century author, but has given up a serious research agenda.  His sexual drive is waning, as is his appetite for nearly everything in life.

Life in 2022 seems much like life in 2017 until page 21, when Francois first mentions the Muslim Brotherhood. From that point forward, Francois’ struggles with his midlife ennui alternate with academic rivalries and French political troubles.  These political troubles see nativists allying with a new Islamic party led by a charismatic Parisian Muslim and an election in which the socialists and the new Islamic party ally to oust the sitting party.

The novel is satirical, but it is difficult in the age of Trump to read, particularly as a middle-aged female academic. When the Islamic party comes to power, they take over the Sorbonne and release all of the female academics.  They reform education, step one being to eliminate coeducation and move to limit girls’ education to domestic arts and to move them out of the system just before puberty.  Male academics who can be bought with three times the salary and promises of young wives (up to three based on their newly inflated salaries) readily sell out their female colleagues and the cultural ideals they presumably upheld.  Partisan politics disappear as the charismatic new leader moves to unite Europe and move its center back to the south, not in a renewed caliphate, but in a revived and expanded Roman Empire.  Medieval Europe, again frighteningly non-satirical given recent debates in medievalist circles about the field’s implications in white supremacist movements, is upheld as a time of European strength brought down by the rise of secularism and the belief in the value of the individual stemming from Christianity’s insistence on the incarnation.

The novel is bleak, but in today’s political environment, not outlandish. Satire, to be safe enough to garner a laugh or at least a smile, needs to be at least in part unlikely.  In the time between 2015, the novel’s first publication, and 2017, Submission may have lost its ability to be counted as satire.  I found reading it uncomfortable to the point of nearly stopping at several points.  I persisted because I was curious to see if Houellebecq would give western culture a win.  I persist in reading the news each day for the same reasons.

Finished 7/27/17

Italian Shoes–Henning Mankell

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When the squirrels inside my head are most busy, I usually turn to murder/thrillers. The plots are familiar, the devices like a three-day old pair of jeans.  Increasingly I worry that my analog brain adjusting to a digital world has become short-wired, unable to sustain attention on anything deeper than a genre thriller. Italian Shoes was the beginning of an antidote.

Henning Mankell is best known for his own murder series featuring Kurt Wallender, and this is how I became acquainted with him. Italian Shoes is not part of this series and seems to be part of his own later-life contemplation.  It is also a wonderful example of spare Swedish prose.

Frederik Welin was in love once, and he fled from it. His relationship with his parents, like most of ours, was complicated and involves his move from their working class to his professional class as a doctor.  When the novel begins, he has been in hiding even from his profession for quite some time.  He lives on an island inherited from this grandparents with an aging dog and cat and an anthill that has taken over part of the living room, which he doesn’t use.  To remind himself he is alive, he breaks a hole in the ice and bathes each morning.  His primary human contact is with his mail carrier, a hypochondriac who uses him as an informal primary physician.  Frederik’s life has stalled, which is symbolized by an old fishing boat he began renovating that is now rotting in his shed.

His life jerks forward and backward when the woman from whom he fled shows up, Harriet, crossing the ice with her walker. She is clearly ill and, as he soon discovers, dying.  The dying have little to lose and often are ready to set matters right.  Harriet’s anger at being abandoned pushes Frederik’s stasis and soon he is peeling back layers of emotion and questioning why he has run from most of what brought him joy.

The title, Italian Shoes, hints at the way Mankell approaches his prose.  Italian shoes are works of art, handcrafted from seasoned leather and requiring patience and a fine eye.  If you have the patience, this novel will offer up much to appreciate.