I AM, I AM, I AM by Maggie O’Farrell

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell is an exquisite collection of essays about 17 brushes with death by the Irish author Maggie O’Farrell. From the medical – a c-section gone wrong, a brain infection – to near-drownings while on vacation and narrowly escaped violence at the hands of others, O’Farrell has faced a lot of physical adversity and danger over the course of her life. A life lived on the razor edge of death made O’Farrell less, rather than more, risk-adverse, pushing her to embrace mortality, almost daring it to stop her as she sought out adventures and experiences, often ill-advised, that her body may not have been able to handle.

Some chapters are more successful than others; the chapter about an AIDS test ends rather vaguely, for example, and detracts slightly from the overall collection. But there are others in which danger is so clearly present that I found myself rattled and anxious, even knowing, of course, that O’Farrell is alive and well. How frequently have we all been in situations where our safety was in grave danger, most likely without even knowing it? Life is a daily, ongoing miracle that we so often take for granted and think about only fleetingly, yet many of us could likely fill 17 chapters with our own harrowing brushes with disaster. I finished this book feeling grateful and lucky.

I enjoyed I Am, I Am, I Am quite a bit as I read it, but my feelings about it changed when I got to the last chapter, which is about O’Farrell’s daughter. Without spoiling the book, it wasn’t until that last chapter, when risk and worry were upended and transposed, that I really understood why O’Farrell wrote it: her ever-present, unwavering and never lessening fear and vigilance caused by her daughter’s auto-immune disorder. As a parent, I found this chapter the most harrowing of all.

I Am, I Am, I Am is definitely worth a read. If you’ve read any of O’Farrell’s novels (see here for reviews of Instructions For A Heatwave and The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox), then you know already what a beautiful writer she is. Her writing about her own personal experiences is even more meaningful and moving.

I listened to I Am, I Am, I Am on audio. It was narrated by Daisy Donovan, who did a great job conveying the intensity of this personal narrative. (I was a little surprised that it wasn’t narrated by O’Farrell herself, and I supposed I just pretended it was O’Farrell reading it as I listened.) I highly recommend the audiobook, which breathlessly and urgently conveyed the gravity of the subject.

VOX by Christina Dalcher

We’re living in troubling times, and that’s reflected as much in current fiction as in the news we read every day. Novelists are just as concerned as the rest of us. Vox, Christina Dalcher’s new dystopian novel that takes on the precariousness of women’s rights in America, is grim and alarming, but ultimately unsuccessful.

It’s the near future, during the presidential administration of an unnamed man whose term succeeds that of America’s first black president. In an incredibly short period of time, religious fervor has taken hold and women have lost almost all of their rights. They can no longer work; all decisions are made by husbands; girls go to school only to learn home ec; and worst of all, women must wear bracelets that restrict them to speaking 100 words a day. If they go over 100, they suffer electric shocks. Premarital sex is a crime, as is homosexuality; those in same-sex relationships are sentenced to hard labor and imprisonment until their sexual preference is “corrected”.

Ugh.

Dr. Jean McLellan, a formerly renowned linguist and scientist, lives with her husband Patrick and four children in Washington DC. Patrick works in the president’s administration, and Jean is silent at home. Their youngest, Sonia, is a girl, and Jean is dismayed at Sonia’s future as well as her oldest son’s dangerous support of the values-based policies of the administration. She’s also pining away after her secret lover – an Italian scientist she hasn’t seen in months.

The possibility of change comes when the president’s brother is in a skiing accident and has suffered speech aphasia – Jean’s area of expertise. The president makes her a deal – if she’ll come back to the lab and develop a cure, she can take off her – and her daughter’s – word counter. This brings Jean back in contact with her former colleagues – and her Italian boyfriend.

Vox is thought-provoking – and terrifying – to be sure. Dalcher started out with a great premise. But as a book, it kind of falls apart as it goes along. It turns into a thriller rather than a serious novel, with a rather preposterous conclusion that also ends a bit too cleanly. I can’t say I enjoyed reading Vox, and not just because it’s incredibly depressing. I wish Dalcher has stuck to dystopia rather than veering into action thriller territory. The writing also really repetitive.

If you’re a guy, be warned: men don’t come across too well in this book.

I listened to Vox on audio. It was narrated by Julia Whelan, who infused Jean with the fury and stridency the character required. It’s not a relaxing listen. But my issues are with the plot, not the narration – Whelan did what she could with it.

Vox was a buzzy book at the end of the summer. I am sorry to say that I can’t recommend it.

BACHELOR NATION by Amy Kaufman

I am a fan of the Bachelor franchise. I have been since the beginning. I’ve watched almost all the seasons – maybe missed 4 or 5 along the day – and it’s definitely one of my top guilty pleasures. It’s mindless, yes, and predictable and ridiculous too, but I do love watching it.

So I jumped at the chance to read and review Bachelor Nation: Inside The World Of America’s Favorite Guilty Pleasure by Amy Kaufman. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at the franchise, compiled with lots of research about the show and how it works. Kaufman starts with a history of dating shows, which is a little dry, but then explores how theĀ Bachelor franchise got started and why it’s so popular. Kaufman explains how the producers manipulate interviews and dates to create drama, and how people on the show are pressured to act certain ways and say certain things for the cameras. She covers the double standard for men and women on the show and gets a bit into the details of what it’s like to live in the mansion.

I didn’t learn anything earth-shattering, but Kaufman did answer some of the questions I’ve amassed over time. I wish she had gone into more detail about the daily lives of the contestants and what it’s like for the couples when the cameras stop rolling. Many of her sources were other books, articles or blogs, and I wanted more first-person accounts and interviews. I feel like I never have enough detail when it comes to The Bachelor!

If you’re a hardcore Bachelor fan who follows the podcasts and blogs about the show, then you’ll probably find that Bachelor Nation doesn’t have a lot of new material. If you’re a casual fan who hasn’t spent a lot of time learning about the show, then you’ll find this book to be a fun read. If you don’t know or care about the show, then definitely don’t pick this one up.

A BEAUTIFUL, TERRIBLE THING by Jen Waite

A few weeks ago, I said that I was done reading popcorn thrillers about sociopathic husbands. So what did I do next? Picked up a memoir about a sociopathic husband. SMH.

A Beautiful, Terrible Thing is the story of the demise of Jen Waite’s marriage to a charming Argentinian man named Marco. She married him after a frenzied period of dating and enjoyed 5 blissful years with him before everything fell apart. A few weeks after she gave birth to their daughter Louisa, she found a strange email on his computer that suggested that he was seeing someone else. He denied it repeatedly, but it came out over the next few months that Marco was cheating on Jen with another woman (and that there had been others).

The cheating was bad enough, but hardest for Jen was Marco’s coldness and lack of empathy. He claimed to be “sick” and “numb” and “unable to feel” anything about what he had done. After a lot of internet research and therapy, though, she concluded that he was a sociopath who had tricked her for years into believing that he loved her, but who cast her off when he decided he was ready to move on due to his own need for attention and adoration.

I guess I’m glad I read A Beautiful, Terrible Thing… ??? In the end, yes, Marco was awful and Jen’s pain was very intense, but did I need to read a whole book about it? I was more interested in the analysis of sociopaths and the identification of their patterns than the timeline of the revelations about Marco’s infidelity. Waite is a good writer, so it’s not like the book wasn’t written well. It’s just a somewhat familiar story and in the end I didn’t really grow that much for having read it. There is a lot of talk about not giving too much of yourself to another person or being so invested in their happiness, but if Marco hadn’t been a sociopathic monster, I don’t think Waite would be advising against either. (That’s what marriage is, right?)

You probably know by now whether this book is for you or not.

 

EVERY OTHER WEEKEND by Zulema Renee Summerfield

Zulema Renee Summerfield’s new novel Every Other Weekend is one of those books that starts out a little weird but grows on you while you’re reading it, so that by the end you realize that, damnit, you really do care about these characters.

Nenny, an 8-year old girl in Southern California in the 80s, lives with her mother and two brothers. Her parents get divorced, and she spends time with her father on weekends. Then her mother moves in with a man with two kids, and Nenny joins the “every other weekend” club of broken homes and blended families. She’s an anxious girl with a lot of fears, but she keeps them to herself and doesn’t confide in her mother, despite desperately wanting to. She does her best to navigate the tricky waters of humorless stepfathers, moody older stepsisters, a befuddled father, and a mix of classmates dealing with their own issues.

Every Other Weekend is a quiet book. Nenny is introspective, an observer, and so it’s through her eyes that we watch the fragile bonds of this family get tested and strained. Things often go wrong, and while there is a lot of sadness, there is also a fair amount of gentle humor here. I think the most poignant parts for me were the references Nenny made to years later, when she asked her siblings and stepsiblings about what they were thinking during the time period in the book. Each of them was dealing with his or her own issues and problems, and yet they were barely connecting with each other, when they could have been a source of solace.

I like Sumerfield’s writing. It’s atmospheric and almost poetic at times without being pretentious. There’s also some 80s period detail in here, which I enjoyed. As to why Summerfield set the book in the 80s, I think there are two reasons: 1) divorce was becoming more common but it was before there was so much emphasis on the helping the kids handle it; and 2) the lack of social media and technology only heightened these kids’ feelings of isolation.

Every Other Weekend is a quirky, mostly sad book, and I am glad I picked it up. I am excited to see what this author does next.

THE MIDWIFE OF HOPE RIVER by Patricia Harman

The Midwife Of Hope River by Patricia Harman is about Patience, a thirtysomething midwife living in West Virginia during the Depression. Patience, an orphan with an (implausibly) complicated past, has moved to West Virginia to escape the law. She had formerly lived with a midwife who trained her how to deliver babies, so when she gets to West Virginia, word gets out that she is a midwife and she makes a living going to women’s homes once they are in labor and bringing their babies into the world.

The Midwife Of Hope River is basically a diary of Patience’s deliveries, with some plot developments thrown in to fill in the distances between them. She lives in an old house outside of town, trying unsuccessfully to make on her meager earnings. She ends up taking in Bitsy, a young African-American woman, as a roommate, both to save money on expenses and also to train her in midwifery. Over the course of the book, Harman covers race relations in the town, domestic violence, the market crash, and Patience’s developing relationship with a nearby veterinarian, delving rather incompletely into Patience’s past – the death of two husbands and a son, her role in union-related violence, and her time as a show dancer.

On the one hand, there’s a lot going on here, but on the other hand, not much happens. The details surrounding the births are kind of interesting, especially given Patience’s rudimentary tools and short training. But Patience is a pretty immature person, despite her former relationships. She is very clinical about the births she attends, recording the details faithfully in her journal but rarely expressing any emotion about them other than worry over her own reputation. HerĀ  halting relationship with the veterinarian also evolves strangely, with neither of them expressing any emotion about each other, but leading to the inevitable coupling that seems to have been fated from the day they met. Patience is often moody and selfish, caring little about those around her but intensely missing those who are gone from her life.

Harman is clearly very experienced in midwifery and really did her research when it comes to 1930s West Virginia, and for those reasons The Midwife of Hope River is an interesting read. As far as character development, that’s where the book is lacking. I had an easy time putting this book down and was rarely compelled back to finish it. If you want some historical fiction and are OK with not a lot happening, then you may enjoy it. Otherwise, I’d give it a pass.

THE LAST MRS. PARRISH by Liv Constantine

I need to stop with the popcorn thrillers. I find them irresistible – their intriguing plots, their largish print, their promise of hour whiled away breathlessly flipping pages. But the end result is almost always the same: it’s like the vague sickness and self-loathing I always feel after eating movie popcorn. The Last Mrs. Parrish by Liv Constantine was no exception.

You’ve read this book before. Two female narrators telling a story from two opposite perspectives plus one sociopath husband. In this case, Amber Patterson is a manipulative, obsessive woman on the run from a stormy Midwest past who has set her sights on Jackson Parrish, a very rich, married man living in a New York City suburb. Her M.O. is to befriend his wife Daphne and insinuate herself into their lives, making herself indispensable to both and then driving a wedge between them so that she can replace Daphne. She’s basically a despicable person, willing to use Daphne’s dead sister to her advantage and lying to Jackson to make Daphne look bad. But Daphne, of course, has some tricks up her sleeve and some secrets of her own.

The Last Mrs. Parrish was a decently entertaining book, but it left me feeling pretty empty. I could see where it was going before the second narrator took over. I also really hate these cruel husband books, like Best Day Ever, The Wife Between Us, Behind Closed Doors – they stress me out and make me depressed. Do people like that really exist?

If you enjoy these types of thrillers and/or reading about superrich people with gobs of money, then The Last Mrs. Parrish might be for you. There are a lot of 5 star reviews on Goodreads but a lot of 1 star reviews too. If this sounds like something you’d like, then by all means, pick it up. Just remind me to stop with the thrillers.

I listened to a little over half of The Last Mrs. Parrish on audio and it was fine. Sucked me in and got me hooked. I then got on a plane to Vegas and finished it off in print. So if you’re interested in the audio – which is narrated by Suzanne Elise Freeman and Meghan Wolf – it’s pretty good. It won’t make Jackson any nicer, though.