BEYOND THE POINT by Claire Gibson

Beyond The Point by Claire Gibson was recently described by Anne Bogel on the Readerly Report podcast as “the military meets women’s fiction”, and I think that’s pretty accurate. It’s about three women – Avery, Hannah and Dani – who meet as freshmen at West Point where they are have each been recruited to play basketball. They make it through four years of college together, bonding over their awful coach, grueling summer trainings and relationships with men (or the lack thereof). When they graduate, they go their separate ways – one to be deployed overseas, one to civilian life, and one remaining on base in the U.S. – and start to grow apart the way friendships often do after college. But when tragedy strikes one of them, they are brought back together and the strength of their friendship is put to the test.

Beyond The Point is definitely women’s fiction, but with a bit of heft. It’s more about relationships and friendship than it is about the military, but the Army definitely plays a prominent role. If you’ve ever been intrigued by military schools like West Point, Beyond The Point provides a little insight, and even better, from the female perspective. I definitely felt invested in these three women and was intrigued to see what happened to them.

Some Goodreads reviews complained that there was too much God and religion in Beyond The Point. That’s something I am usually pretty sensitive to, but it didn’t bother me here. There are some cliched characters who talked a lot about faith, but they were pretty minor.

Beyond The Point is a pretty light read, but its chapters set in Afghanistan and within the Academy elevate it a bit. A good summer choice.

MY EX-LIFE by Stephen McCauley

My Ex-Life by Stephen McCauley is about how ex-spouses David and Julie, married briefly in their twenties, find their way back into each other’s lives a few decades later at a time when they each need some support and friendship. (Similarly, I read and loved a few Stephen McCauley books in my own twenties, like The Object Of My Affection, The Easy Way Out and The Man Of The House, but hadn’t read any others of his recent books until now, when I needed something lighter to balance out some heavy reads.)

Julie has just gotten divorced, and her second ex-husband wants to buy her out of the house they owned together. Meanwhile, her daughter Mandy, a high school junior, needs help getting her college applications together and reaches out to David, who is a college application consultant for the rich. David’s younger, hotter boyfriend has left him, and he is facing eviction from the San Francisco carriage house he has been renting at a huge discount. With no real plans for his future, David accepts Mandy’s invitation to come out to Boston and help her get into college.

So, yeah, it’s a rather contrived setup. And My Ex-Life is an old-fashioned novel, with chapters that end with mild cliffhanging sentences and gentle, wise humor about relationships, parenting and modern absurdities like AirBnB and the San Francisco real estate market. But I enjoyed it. It’s not edgy or groundbreaking, but it’s incisive and readable, not unlike other McCauley novels. I laughed out loud a few times at McCauley’s funny observations, and I was rooting for David and Julie to figure out a way to help each other address the problems in their lives.

If you’re a Stephen McCauley fan, My Ex-Life will feel like welcome, familiar ground. And if you’re new to him, it’s a nice update to his canon.

I listened to My Ex-Life on audio. It was narrated by George Newbern, who did a great job communicating McCauley’s wry humor. He’s got this reassuring, wise voice that makes you believe that even though everything is falling apart, it’s all going to end up OK. Great pick for this book.

A WOMAN IS NO MAN by Etaf Rum

A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum takes on a tough topic: three generations of Palestinian women facing lives of restriction, abuse and shame – in America, in the 2000s, no less.

Isra is born in Palestine and married off to a Palestinian-American man named Adam when she is only 17. She moves to Brooklyn, where her life is reduced to her in-laws’ house. She waits each day for her husband to come home, rarely venturing out or doing anything more than preparing meals and cleaning alongside her strong-willed mother-in-law Fareeda. When she produces daughter after daughter, rather than the sons her culture prizes so highly, she sinks deeper into shame and depression. Many years later, her oldest daughter Deja faces the same future her mother did at the same age: a planned marriage to another Palestinian man and the same claustrophobic cycle of housework and servitude.

Is there hope for these women, or at least for future generations? How can these cultural expectations be changed to allow for more fulfilling, equal lives for women? That’s Rum’s question and agenda in writing A Woman Is No Man. For what goes on for these girls is pretty shocking from a modern perspective, but it’s largely invisible. Who knew this was happening in the shadow of one of our most modern, progressive cities?

A Woman Is No Man has been a big book this year, including being selected as a Book of the Month choice, and I am certainly glad that Rum is shining a light on these women and this culture. That said, I found the book to be really repetitive and somewhat of a slog. Rum hammered her theme home over and over, with little plot progression or character development. These women had the same internal dialogue going the whole time. This of course enhanced the repressive, claustrophobic nature of their lives – it was a claustrophobic reading experience! – but it made me enjoy the book a lot less. I kept saying, “Yes, I get it,” in my head as I was reading. I also think this book is a good example of “show don’t tell”. Rum – a debut author – should trust her readers more. We can handle more nuance and subtlety. So while I appreciated the story and the characters, I was overall frustrated by the overall book.

Nicole and I are discussing A Woman Is No Man on our podcast The Readerly Report next week – I’ll drop a link here when the episode airs.

THE GIRL HE USED TO KNOW by Tracy Garvis Graves

The Girl He Used To Know by Tracy Garvis Graves is a love story about a couple that meets in college, breaks up, and then reunites 10 years later after a chance meeting in Chicago. Annika and Jonathan become friends in 1991 at the University of Illinois through the chess club. Annika, a senior, is socially awkward (later diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum) and has trouble interacting with others. She prefers to stay home reading and volunteer at the animal shelter instead of spending time with other students. Yet when she and Jonathan develop a rapport after playing some chess games against each other, their relationship slowly begins to build into something more.

The Girl He Used To Know alternates between 1991 and 2000, when Annika and Jonathan reconnect. They’ve been apart for a decade, and again, it takes a while for them to rebuild trust and comfort with each other. Graves teases out the telling of the past, explaining what drove Annika and Jonathan apart and how they spent the intervening years. When they meet again, a lot of feelings remain just under the surface, needing – ultimately – a crisis to raise them again.

I enjoyed The Girl He Used To Know quite a bit. It’s a quick read, but it’s not necessarily a light one. I was intrigued by Annika and Jonathan’s relationship – could he get the affirmation he needed from Annika, given her challenges reading emotions in others? Could she, despite her autism, understand what Jonathan needed and muster the emotional energy to give it to him when he needed? I was intrigued by this dynamic, and it kept me interested in the story. The Girl He Used To Know also gave me insight into the mind of someone with autism, more fully than other books I’ve read with autistic characters.

Graves took her novel in a direction at the end that I wasn’t expecting and that I found surprisingly poignant.

The Girl He Used To Know was a memorable and satisfying read and I’m glad I picked it up.

Independent Bookstore Day

Tomorrow, Saturday April 28, is Independent Bookstore Day, a celebration of and at independent bookstores around the country. I love independent bookstores (duh). I especially love visiting bookstores when I travel. I drag my family into bookstores and tell them I need 20 minutes of uninterrupted browsing – and then I go up and down aisles, admiring bow the books are organized and checking out staff picks. Even though the last thing I need is more books, I always walk out with at least one.

In honor of Independent Bookstore Day, here are some of my favorite indies from around the country. If you’re near one of them, go check it out! And please comment and tell me about your favorite independent bookstores and why you love them.

1. Island Bookstore, Corolla NC. This outpost of the Outer Banks indie chain is so lovely that I bought a watercolor print that someone painted of it to frame and hang in my library. I go here whenever we’re in the Outer Banks. I want their bookshelves to be my bookshelves.

2. Politics & Prose, Washington DC. This is my home bookstore, my default bookstore, and the most dangerous place in the city for me. The selection is broad, the events calendar is robust, the staff is amazing… need I go on? There is a reason why P&P’s reputation stretches far beyond DC.

3. Powell’s Bookstore, Portland OR. New books living side-by-side on shelves with used books? Yes, sign me up. I’ve only been to this store once, but it’s a book lover’s dream. (Its tagline is “City of Books”).

4. Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle WA. This place has everything – a great kids section, tons of fiction, lots of recommendation hangtags – in a spacious, airy setting. Plus it’s in a cool part of town.

5. Strand Bookstore, New York NY. The Strand has lost some of its book-treasures-in-a-musty-basement feel, but it’s still enormous and full of books I want to read. Most of the books are discounted, even new ones, so it’s easy to walk out with a big bag of books even when you promised yourself you wouldn’t.

6. The Brewster Book Store, Brewster MA. There are a lot of indie bookstores on Cape Cod, but I happened to stop at this one and fell in love with it. There is a great selection packed into a small space, and it’s a perfect vacation book source.

7. Books & Books, Key West, FL. I stopped in at this store, which was founded by Judy Blume, while on vacation a few weeks ago. It’s small but has an excellent curated selection of new fiction. I walked around the store thinking, “I’ve wanted to read THAT book… and THAT book… and THAT book… and THAT book…”.

Happy Independent Bookstore Day! Learn more about it here.

99 PERCENT MINE by Sally Thorne

I was in need of a palate cleanser after a few recent stressful reads, so when I saw 99 Percent Mine on the New Releases shelf at the library, I grabbed it. I had read Thorne’s The Hating Game earlier this year and enjoyed it a lot, so I though I’d give her next book a try too.

99 Percent Mine has a similar setup to The Hating Game. Darcy Barrett and her twin brother Jamie grew up with a boy in the neighborhood named Tom Valeska. Tom and Jamie were best friends, while Darcy and Tom had a more complicated relationship: they were deeply drawn to each other, but Darcy, afraid of Tom’s feelings for her, escaped from him when she was 18 by leaving to travel the world. It’s now many years later, and Darcy is still single, living alone and bartending in between her long periods of traveling. Tom has gotten engaged, and Jamie and Darcy are not on speaking terms because they disagree with what to do with their late grandmother’s cottage, which she left them to them to renovate and sell.

Tom, a contractor, appears on Darcy’s doorstep (she’s living in the cottage) to begin the renovations. With the two now living in close quarters, their feelings for each other are harder to ignore. And so begins a long buildup of serious tension, will-they-or-won’t-they and ok-they-did-but-will-it-stick? Sounds like The Hating Game, right? I got sucked into this story, like I did with her last book, and mostly enjoyed the ride, but when I got to the end, I found it sort of silly. There was something so appealing about The Hating Game’s Josh Templeman and Lucy Hutton and their tortured road to happiness, while Darcy and Tom just seem… stubborn and inconsistent. Thorne worked so hard to draw out the tension and keep her characters apart that she forgot that the story had to make sense. Darcy was contradictory and inconsiderate, vacillating between pining for Tom and trying to be tough and sexy. Tom was compelling but unrealistically insecure. It got tiresome by the end, and when it came time for the two to be together, Thorne invented a flimsy reason to keep them apart for a few more chapters.

99 Percent Mine was a quick, light read, but it wasn’t as fun or irresistible as its predecessor. It did do its job: I am now ready for meatier fare.

I listened to 99 Percent Mine on audio, and the narration was the best part. Jayme Mattler’s raspy, sexy voice was just perfect for Darcy – tough yet vulnerable at the same time. And her Tom was also perfect, which isn’t always the case when female narrators perform male characters. Listening on audio definitely enhanced my enjoyment of the book.

LOOK HOW HAPPY I’M MAKING YOU by Polly Rosenwaike

The short story collection Look How Happy I’m Making You by Polly Rosenwaike is a kaleidoscope of perspectives on motherhood. The collection roughly follows a chronology, starting with the first story about a woman who is trying to get pregnant and sees the same cute baby on the bus every morning en route to work. Other stories feature women who are pregnant but don’t want to be, women who get pregnant unintentionally, women contemplating single motherhood, new mothers with postpartum depression, women who have lost their mothers.

Rosenwaike’s perspective is fresh and honest, reflecting the often conflicting feelings women have at these points of transition in their lives. The women are smart and funny, emotional and real. This is not a book extolling the magic and mystery of motherhood, but one that puts the experience of parenting through several lenses to get at the many emotions it inspires.

I don’t usually like short stories that much because I find them unsatisfying in terms of character development. This collection overcomes that challenge a bit – the women in these stories are pretty similar, leading to the impression that this is the same character going through all of these different experiences. A degree of continuity throughout the book sets it apart from other story collections. The end result is a look at motherhood that, while not linear, covers a lot of ground.

I especially loved the last story, which made me gasp in recognition.

Someday we will tell you this story. How helpless we felt, how weak, how unprepared, how we couldn’t imagine you falling asleep on your own – and for years you’ve been doing it: lying down in your bed in the dark and trusting that soon the darkness will overtake you. It will please you to hear this, the way it’s pleasing to think of oneself as a baby: tiny, goofy, not quite yourself. To think of your parents younger, uninitiated, baffled by parenthood, people in their own right.

I am a few years past many of the the experiences Rosenwaike addresses in Look How Happy I’m Making You, but her expressive, accessible writing is evocative and insightful, deftly drawing me right back into those years. I really liked this collection and look forward to what Rosenwaike writes next – hopefully a novel so I can delve more deeply.

This book satisfied the short stories category of the 2019 Everyday I Write The Book Reading Challenge.