THREE WOMEN by Lisa Taddeo

Ack – I finished Three Women by Lisa Taddeo over a week ago, but haven’t had a chance to post a review yet. So here I am with a very late review. Three Women was one of the very buzzy books of the past summer. Taddeo followed three women – an Indiana mother, a restauranteur in Newport and a high school student in North Dakota – over the course of a decade to explore sexuality, love and intimacy in their lives. Three Women is non-fiction; the three women exist, and they spent years with Taddeo sharing their most personal thoughts and experiences.

I really enjoyed Three Women. Lina, Maggie and Sloane are different from each other, of course, in age, location and socioeconomic status, but they share universal feelings of loneliness, longing, lust and love. Maggie, the high school student who has a relationship with her English teacher that he later denies, is ostracized and punished when her allegations against him are ultimately followed by his exoneration. Lina, trapped in a marriage to man who does not desire her, embarks on an affair that brings her both passion and intense loneliness. And Sloane is happily married but indulges her husband’s desire for her to sleep with other people, bringing on a flood of feelings of guilt, lust and power.

Three Women reads like fiction because these women’s internal lives are so beautifully and thoroughly exposed throughout the book. It’s hard to believe that Taddeo was able to build such deep trust and extract so much detail and raw honesty from them. (This BookPage interview explains how she met the women and how she built that trust.) The end result is hard to put down. I think most women reading this book will recognize some of themselves in each of Lina, Maggie and Sloane, even if they haven’t been in a similar position before. The emotions expressed by the women are universal.

Three Women is not a treatise on female desire. It’s not a seminal work on male-female relationships. But it is an example of what can happen when a subject deeply trusts the author writing about her and is willing to look unflinchingly into the lens of scrutiny. It is rare to get such a look into someone else’s life, and I found the experience utterly captivating.

THE NEW ME by Halle Butler

A few years ago, I read a dark novel called Jillian by Halle Butler about two women working in the same office whose hatred for each other simmers just below the surface, making for a depressing but also bitingly funny read. Butler’s new novel, The New Me, has a slightly different setup, but it’s as dark as, and perhaps deeper than, its predecessor.

The New Me is about Millie, a thirty year-old living in Chicago who has a temp job at a home design showroom. Her job is basically unnecessary – she answers intermittent phone calls and puts folder together for potential clients – leaving Millie with a lot of time to surf the Internet and feel bad about herself. She’s a few years out from a breakup, and with the exception of one self-absorbed friend, she spends all her time alone. She doesn’t have any money, but she fantasizes about the ways she will improve – get a job, go to yoga, upgrade her wardrobe, do her dishes, make new friends – once she lands a job. Meanwhile, she fritters away the hours at the temp job, unwittingly torpedoing any chance she has of getting a permanent offer.

While there is a lot of biting humor here, The New Me is really a sad commentary about isolation and loneliness in lives lived online and in hermetically sealed apartments with streaming Netflix. Millie is actually smart and cultured (we see glimpses to her childhood when she was a precocious reader and listened to The Rite Of Spring as a toddler). She has been beaten down by her own anxiety, depression and lack of motivation, condemning her to living hand-to-mouth as a thirty year-old who is dependent on her parents to buy her new clothes and get her a haircut when she goes to visit them as a last resort.

Halle Butler may not be for everyone, but I enjoyed The New Me and laughed through my cringing (cringed through my laughing?) many times. I found this interview in The Paris Review to be pretty helpful in understanding Butler and where she’s coming from. If you want a mostly depressing but also biting and incisive look at millennials and the modern workplace, give The New Me a try.

I listened to The New Me on audio. It’s narrated by Butler, the author, and while she’s not the best performer (her voice is kind of monotonous, and this felt more like a book reading than a professional audiobook), her style actually worked really well with the book. Millie is disaffected, which was conveyed pretty well by Butler’s almost blase narration. So for this reason, the audio worked pretty well.

THINGS YOU SAVE IN A FIRE by Katherine Center

Sometimes you’re just in the mood for a Katherine Center book.

Things You Save In A Fire, like the other Center books I’ve read (Everyone Is Beautiful and How To Walk Away) is a light-ish, enjoyable read with a bit of heft to it. Cassie, a firefighter in Austin, is receiving an award for bravery when she unexpectedly lets loose on the local politician presenting the award. Cassie has her (understandable) reasons for attacking him, but her very public altercation leads to the loss of her job. At the same time, her estranged, ailing mother summons her to come live with her in Massachusetts for a year to help take care of her, providing Cassie with a convenient place to find a different job.

Cassie moves after finding a position at an old-fashioned, all-male firehouse that doesn’t take well to women colleagues. Her boss in Austin warns her not to give them any additional reasons to dislike her – don’t dress like a woman, don’t cry, don’t show any feelings, and most important, don’t get romantically involved with anyone at work. For Cassie, who has built a brick wall around her emotions since she was a teenager, this won’t be hard. She’s tough, tireless and fearless, and winning over the new firehouse is just the latest in a long string of challenges she has overcome.

Once in Massachusetts, however, Cassie has to confront something she hasn’t before: her own conflicting feelings about her mother and the undeniable attraction she feels for the Rookie, a young firefighter who started the same day she did. And we also learn what the Austin politician did to harm Cassie so much that she beat him up at an awards ceremony. So while Things You Save In A Fire is generally a light read, there are some complex feelings at stake.

I enjoyed Things You Save In A Fire. It’s a good palate cleanser if you’ve read something heavy and need a break, or if you just enjoy a well-told story with a compelling, strong woman at the center. Also – bonus – I learned a lot about firefighting. Things tie up a little nicely at the end, but that’s not so bad every once in a while.

I listened to Things You Save In A Fire on audio. It’s narrated by Therese Plummer, one of my all-time favorite performers, and she was perfect for Cassie. She does romance really well, but she’s also awesome at narrating gruff men with Boston accents and she infused Cassie with humanity and humor. I highly recommend the audio version.

THE REAL MICHAEL SWANN by Bryan Reardon

The Real Michael Swann is a thriller. Why do I keep picking up thrillers when I know how I feel about them? It’s the irresistible fact patterns, I tell you. They pull me in! And The Real Michael Swann was no exception.

Michael and Julia Swann, married with two young boys, live in an idyllic suburb of Philadelphia. Both of them left jobs they loved – hers in local politics and his with a minor league baseball team – to raise their kids in a good neighborhood with a big house and active community. Now, Michael is about to be laid off from his medical sales job, and he has gone to New York City to interview with a different company. When he calls Julia from Penn Station to check in before his train home, there is a loud explosion and the line goes dead. A bomb has gone off under Madison Square Garden, and in the aftermath, Michael has gone missing.

Frantic, Julia tries to reach him, and then (unwisely) heads to New York to try to track him down. The Real Michael Swann unfolds in three directions: flashbacks to their courtship and early marriage; Julia’s attempts to find her husband; and the action unfolding in New York. The pages fly by quickly as the story undergoes some twists and turns to get to the bottom of the mystery. Are the phone calls Julia’s getting from people responding her missing persons flyer legit? Why are the police being so helpful? And why does someone answer Michael’s phone without saying anything?

Like most thrillers, The Real Michael Swann is an adrenaline rush. Rather than focusing on the words on the page, I found myself racing through to find out what happened to Michael. There were some surprises along the way, and Reardon also delves into politics, domestic terrorism, corporate responsibility and the 24/7 news cycle. While there were some questionable moments, and a few too many coincidences to be totally realistic, Reardon has created a plausible scenario and told a fast-paced, interesting story. I always feel a bit unfulfilled when I finish a thriller, because I love rich, complex stories with beautiful prose, and that’s just not what thrillers are. They are here to give us a suspenseful, wild ride that takes us out of our lives for a while – and on that count, The Real Michael Swann definitely delivered.

The Real Michael Swann is the Readerly Report book club pick for September. We’ll be discussing it on the show airing September 26.

IN THE PLEASURE GROOVE: LOVE, DEATH AND DURAN DURAN

I am a sucker for rock memoirs (ie Born To Run and Not Dead Yet), and I’ve had In The Pleasure Groove: Love, Death And Duran Duran by Duran Duran bassist John Taylor on my TBR for a long time. I listened to it on audio this summer, and am so glad that I did. This may be a top 5 read of the year!

John Taylor was born Nigel Taylor to a working class family in Birmingham in 1960. He got into music as a young teenager, traveling around England with his best friend Nick Rhodes to see his favorite bands and rock idols (people like David Bowie), while cultivating his own dreams of rock stardom. While he had other interests like art and design, he convinced his parents to bankroll him for one year while he tried to make it as a musician. The Pleasure Groove takes readers through the earliest days of Duran Duran, how the band (Simon LeBon, Roger Taylor, Andy Taylor, Rhodes and J. Taylor) was formed, how they developed their sound and how quickly they got popular. The book follows the usual Behind The Music chronology – the first breakthrough single, the early success, the tours, the meteoric rise, the drugs, the fame, the women, the inevitable band tensions, the apex (Live Aid, in this case), the rift, the breakup, the spinoff projects, the rehab, the tentative reconnection and the band reunion. It’s all here. (I don’t think I have spoiled anything – this all really happened, decades ago.)

Despite my familiarity with this fact pattern, it felt fresh and even suspenseful in Taylor’s words. I don’t know who partnered on this book with him, but it’s smart, well-written and very funny at times. Taylor is pretty honest about his flaws, especially when it comes to his drug use and self-centeredness throughout his addiction, but he is also grateful for – and even a little bit in awe of – all that Duran Duran achieved as a band and the experiences he had. While the intensity of fame was difficult for him to handle at the time, he’s also very appreciative of his fans, then and now.

Plus there are lots of DD details, like how the band was run (as a democracy), what the album titles mean, the stories behind many of their hit songs, their various romantic relationships, etc. I loved that stuff. I decided I wanted to have a copy of this book for my shelves, so I ordered a used print copy since I only had the audio, and there are lots of photos included too. The photo quality isn’t great, but there are many pictures sprinkled throughout the book.

If you do The Pleasure Groove on audio, you get John Taylor himself as the narrator. He’s awesome. Funny, self-deprecating, eloquent. Just what you want from the guy who used to hang on your bedroom wall when you were a pre-teen. I caught Duran Duran in DC when they were on their reunion tour several years ago, but having Taylor tell me his life story in the car with me for 8 hours was also really fun. I highly recommend this book and audiobook.

SUMMERLINGS by Lisa Howorth

Summerlings by Lisa Howorth is a short novel about a pack of 10 (11?) year-old boys living just outside Washington, DC in the 1950s. John, the narrator, is best friends with two other boys, Max and Ivan, on his block. Together, they explore the neighborhood on their bikes and conjecture about their neighbors, a mix of expats, diplomats, feds and potential spies. Some are friendly, some are not, and the boys spend their long summer days trying to figure out more about the adults around them. They are particularly intrigued by Elena, Ivan’s glamorous, mysterious Ukranian aunt, who is kind to them, prompting them all to fall in love with her. Meanwhile, John’s mother is off “recovering” in a nearby sanitarium (depression?) and his father has moved out, leaving him and his distant older sister under the care of their grandparents.

Summerlings takes place about 3 blocks from my house, so I loved the DC references sprinkled liberally throughout the book. Howorth even mentioned my street at one point. That was fun. Generally, though, I had a hard time getting into this book. Not much happens, there is tons of detail, and the plot is pretty superficial. Summerlings takes place during the Cold War and people are therefore suspicious of each other, and adults drink a lot and don’t tell their kids much of what is going on. That’s about it. There is one subplot involving the kids’ plot to steal a rare, dangerous spider from the National Museum of Natural History, and that is as close to suspense as I got from the book. (I could actually picture their whole bike ride down to the Mall as Howorth described it, so that was fun.) But generally, Summerlings was disappointing. I almost didn’t finish it, but because it was so short, I powered through.

If you want to read a sweet book about 11 year olds coming of age during a less complicated time, and you’re interested in the 50s in Washington, DC, then give Summerlings a try. But if you’re looking for something more substantive, I’d give it a pass.

THE TRAVELERS by Regina Porter

The Travelers by Regina Porter is a sprawling book covering six decades in the history of two families, one white and one black, as generations grow up against the backdrop of America, from the Vietnam War to Obama’s presidency, from Georgia to New York and California. The two families are connected through one married couple, but both sides of the tree spread widely and include a broad range of people. Chapters are more like interconnected stories, as characters come and go and different threads are picked up and dropped throughout the book.

The Travelers is a tough book to sum up. There are so many characters and so many stories happening at once. The end result is a kaleidescope of love, betrayal, racism, joy and sorrow, seen through many relationships and life events. Porter is a playwright – which explains the (helpful) long cast of characters listed at the beginning of the book – and while she is expert and setting up powerful scenes, she may not yet have mastered the longer story arc. I found the chapters compelling on their own, but looking back a week after I finished the book, I am having trouble remembering many elements of it. Certain moments stand out for me, but my overall recall is pretty uneven.

Porter avoids stereotyping her characters; you won’t find predictable tropes here. In this way, The Travelers feels like real life – messy relationships that are often hard to define, great variation within families, conflicts that are never resolved. Readers who approach the book without expectations of a concrete linear story will enjoy an impressionistic, almost poetic experience rather than a deep, detailed read.

Nicole and I recently discussed The Travelers on the Readerly Report Podcast as our August book club read. Give it a listen to learn more!