Category Archives: Fiction

WEATHER by Jenny Offill

These are trying times for parents of young kids. How do you focus on the minutiae of child rearing when there are so many really big things to worry about? That’s the subject of Jenny Offill’s new novel, Weather. I loved her last book, Dept. of Speculation, which documented a failing marriage through short paragraphs and wry observations that verged on poetry. Weather is written in a similar style. Once again told from the point of view of a young mother, Weather takes on Trump’s America and the heightened anxiety we now live with.

Lizzie, once a graduate student full of promise, now works as a librarian at a university, with a side gig of helping a former professor answer emails about her doomsday podcast. Lizzie’s brother, an addict, is a constant worry to her as well, even after he marries and has a baby. She and her husband live in Brooklyn with their young son. Not a lot actually happens in the book – this is not for people who like plot-driven novels – but like Dept. of Speculation, Weather is full of breathtaking insight, wit and honesty. Lizzie’s mind ping pongs among the mundane and the philosophical, the personal and the universal, exploring the challenge of how to balance macro fears like climate change and impending disaster with modern life and its daily banalities.

I love, love, love Jenny Offill. I dogeared so many pages of Weather – there’s a gem of brilliance on almost every page. I often laughed – or grimaced – in recognition, and I read slowly so as to savor the experience. And if I didn’t have a bazillion other books to read, I’d probably start this one over again today.

It was a long wait for another Jenny Offill book, but it was worth it. (Actually, this doesn’t come out for another month – sorry – but you can pre-order now!)

Weather was Book #1 of 2020 and counts in the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge as a Book By An Author I Love.

THE WIVES by Tarryn Fisher

My final read of 2019 was The Wives by Tarryn Fisher. (This book comes out today! I never time reviews this well. Yay, me.) The Wives is a psychological thriller about a woman – “Thursday” – who is the second wife in a plural marriage. She sees her husband Seth once a week on Thursdays when he comes to Seattle, and the rest of the week he is with Wives 1 and 3 in Portland. Thursday is deeply in love with Seth, and for a while is contented to stay in a marriage where she shares her husband with two other women she has never met. But she is also lonely and depressed, and as her dissatisfaction with her marriage increases, she grows curious and ultimately obsessed with learning more about the other two women she sees as her competition.

When Thursday finds a clue as to the identity of Wife #3, she tracks her down and invents an excuse to meet her. She sees bruises on Wife #3 and starts to worry that Seth may not be who he seems. As the book progresses, her obsession with getting to know the other two wives grows and her behavior grows more risky. Are they in danger? And is Seth responsible for troubles she has faced in her own life? Is she in love, or in denial?

I sped through The Wives on vacation. It grabs you from the beginning with the polygamy premise – hard to resist – and takes off from there. I don’t want to spoil the plot or give away how it resolves, but I can say that by the end I found it unsatisfying and kind of a silly book. There are a lot of loose ends that go untied, as well as some frustrating stereotyping about women and mental health. I am generally not a big fan of psychological thrillers, and while The Wives kept my attention, it left me feeling empty in the end.

The Wives was a December BOTM pick and most reviews on Goodreads are very positive, so this may be my continuing challenge with psychological thrillers.

Last book of 2019!! Here’s to a great reading year in 2020.

NOTHING TO SEE HERE by Kevin Wilson

Nothing To See Here by Kevin Wilson is a strange book about twin 10 year-olds who burst into flames when they are upset or agitated. Lillian, a thirtysomething woman who lives at home with her mother in a dead-end life, is summoned by her former best friend Madison to come to her opulent home in Tennessee because she needs a favor. It turns out Madison’s twin stepchildren, who have the strange firestarting ailment, are in need of a nanny after the death of their mother. Their father, Madison’s husband, is a senator with bigger aspirations, and the couple needs to keep the kids’ flames under wraps so as not to torpedo his future confirmation hearings.

Strange premise, right?

I finished Nothing To See Here today and I am really not sure how I feel about it. I’ve read a number of reviews that call it heartwarming and funny, and I definitely don’t agree with those. Lillian is lonely and depressed, and while her connection to her young charges is touching, her life is not a happy one. The kids have been ignored and/or isolated their whole life, and they are not terribly interesting or compelling beyond being worthy of sympathy. The relationship between Madison and Lillian turns out to be more complicated than it seemed at first, but while the two dance around each other, they don’t get seem to get anywhere. I feel like Wilson developed this firestarting conceit but didn’t know what to do with it after the first 100 pages, because beyond the kids developing a relationship with Lillian, they don’t change all that much and the firestarting doesn’t go away.

I liked Wilson’s writing – it is wry and direct, and his dialogue rings true. But this book just didn’t make much of a mark for me and I actually found it kind of boring. His previous book, Perfect Little World (reviewed here), was much more substantive and had a lot to say about parenting and relationships. Nothing To See Here was more superficial and while it was odd and original, I finished it and wondered, “What was the point of that?” I am still not sure of the answer.

I am in the minority here. Nothing To See Here was a Read With Jenna pick and a BOTM selection, and according to my book club, was sold out at our bookstore on the day we selected it as our January read because it was so hot. So clearly it has found an enthusiastic audience – just not me.

SUCH A FUN AGE by Kiley Reid

I am on vacation, trying to get in the last reviews of 2019, so this will be short. Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid is a novel about two women: Alix, a white mom of two and motivational speaker/writer who has recently moved from NYC to Philly, and Emira, her African-American nanny. Late one night, Alix calls Emira to ask if she take her three year-old daughter Briar out of the house because it has been egged and they need to call the police. Emira comes to get Briar and they head to a nearby market that is open late, and while there she is detained by a security guard who questions why she is there with a white child and whether she has taken Briar without permission. This racist incident sets the book in motion.

Alix has a weird fascination with Emira that borders on an obsession. She wants to get to know Emira better and help develop in her the qualities she has built a career on encouraging in other young women, yet she also fears Emira will quit and is downright clingy with her. Emira, meanwhile, is puzzled by her boss’ new intensity of attention and is herself trying to become an adult with her own health insurance and career goals. When Emira’s new boyfriend turns out to be someone from Alix’s past, things get more complicated, quickly, as the two women navigate some

There is a lot to Such A Fun Age – Reid explores issues of race, privilege, motherhood and professional success and identity through relatable characters and authentic dialogue and situations. Alix, while well-intentioned, is clumsy and clueless, and watching her flail through her relationship with Emira can be funny, if cringey. Emira’s perspective gives the book its depth and heft. It is an easy, quick read with more going on than appears on the surface.

Such A Fun Age is a buzzy book that is going to get a lot of attention, soon.

I mostly listened to Such A Fun Age on audio. It was narrated by Nicole Lewis, who did a good job with a range of voices (including Briar’s). My only quibble is that Emira’s coming to terms with what she wants from her life is a big part of the book, but Lewis made Emira sound more aloof and immature than she came across in print. I needed to have confidence in Emira’s judgment and personal growth, and I had a hard time doing that with the audio version, where she seemed indifferent to everything.

CHARLOTTE SOMETIMES by Penelope Farmer

For the twelfth and final category of the 2019 EDIWTB Reading Challenge, I had to choose a book that came out during my birth year. This proved surprisingly difficult. I had a hard time finding something appealing from that year that I could get my hands on easily and that wouldn’t take forever to read. (This category will not be making a repeat appearance next year.) I ended up choosing a children’s book called Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer about a time-traveling teenager in 1950s England who visits 1918 every other day.

(Incidentally, this book is the inspiration for the Cure song of the same name.)

First, YAY, I FINISHED THE CHALLENGE.

Second, Charlotte Sometimes was just OK. It’s about Charlotte Makepeace, a girl who starts at a new boarding school in England. After a few nights in her new school, she wakes up in the same bed and the same building, but 40 years earlier. She has changed places with someone named Clare, who is also attending the boarding school along with her little sister Emily. Every other night, Clare and Charlotte change places. This leads to much confusion among their classmates and teachers and poses challenges to the two girls themselves, who learn to communicate with each other via notes stuffed into the bedpost. When Charlotte (as Clare) finds herself trapped in 1918 because she and Emily are sent to live with a family and she’s no longer sleeping in the magic bed, she faces questions about who she is, where she belongs and what would happen if she did not return.

Here’s why I didn’t love Charlotte Sometimes. It’s slow and boring at times, with a lot of extraneous detail that bogged down the story and made my mind wander. I listened to Charlotte Sometimes on audio and it was a struggle to concentrate. But even more important, Farmer did not take advantage of time travel, which is a literary and narrative goldmine. Think of all the things that can befall someone living in another era: cultural confusion, astonishment at technological advancement (or its converse), and, of course, the ramifications of doing things that can affect your future self or the people you love. Time travel books make my head hurt in the best way; they are confusing and mind-bendy and intellectually challenging. Charlotte Sometimes barely scratched the surface of time travel. It almost never acknowledged the differences between the two eras, other than that there were no airplanes in 1918, and Farmer didn’t even address the logic fallacy of time travel until the very end. What a waste!

As I mentioned, I listened to Charlotte Sometimes on audio. Narration by Hannah Gordon was precise and dramatic like British narrators often are, but even she couldn’t keep me focused on large swaths of the book. Despite her capable narration, I was relieved when I finished.

OK – 2019 EDIWTB Reading Challenge completed. Stay tuned for my wrapup and the announcement of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

INTERPRETER OF MALADIES by Jhumpa Lahiri

For the Pulitzer Prize Winner category of the 2019 EDIWTB Reading Challenge, I chose Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. I am a big fan of Lahiri’s, and enjoyed her books The Namesake, Unaccustomed Earth and The Lowland. Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of short stories that follows the same themes as Lahiri’s novels: immigration, loneliness, identity and connection in unexpected places.

Most of the stories in this collection involve Indian immigrants to the U.S., usually in the 70s or 80s, and usually to Massachusetts. There are couples learning to love each other after arranged marriages, graduate students trying to assimilate into American culture, and Americans to understand immigrants. Like in her other books, Lahiri has deep compassion for her characters and, in her quiet, elegant way, conveys the isolation and rootlessness they feel living in a new place and trying to find their way. There is restraint to Lahiri’s writing, just as her characters are often emotionally restrained in how they relate to each other and express their feelings.

I don’t love short stories because I often feel they lack staying power, and I feel similarly about Interpreter of Maladies. I enjoyed the stories a lot while I read them, but to write this review, I had to flip back through the book to remind myself of the different plots. The strongest one is the first, “A Temporary Matter,” about a married couple finally communicating with each other about the stillborn baby they lost months earlier. Sadly, the gulf of silence that has grown between them proves to be uncrossable and they separate by the end of the story. I also enjoyed “Mrs. Sen’s”, a story about an American boy who spends his afternoons in the care of an newly immigrated Indian woman who is isolated in her house because she’s too afraid to learn to drive.

I am glad I finally got to Interpreter of Maladies, which had been on my shelf for years. (Also my daughter is going to read it for school in January, so I can talk about it with her.) And I ticked another category off the challenge list. One more to finish!

ASK AGAIN, YES by Mary Beth Keane

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane is a novel about two families who move next door to each other in suburban New York in the 70s and how tragedy soon links them inextricably for generations. The Gleesons (Francis and Lena) and the Stanhopes (Brian and Anne) move to the same suburb after Francis and Brian serve as partners on the NYPD in their twenties. Soon after moving in, both couples have children, and those children grow up together. But there is no closeness between the two couples – Anne and Lena never become friends due to Anne’s increasingly paranoid and erratic behavior.

One night, Anne becomes violent after a confrontation with her son Peter, and the repercussions are tragic, leading to the collapse of the Stanhopes and leaving an indelible mark on the Gleesons. Ask Again, Yes tracks the years that follow, as Peter deals with the aftermath of his family’s breakdown and tries to navigate his way to adulthood largely on his own. When he reunites with the Stanhopes’ daughter Kate years later, the tragedy they endured as kids resurfaces in many complicated ways.

Oh boy did I like this one. There’s quite a bit here – coming of age, family estrangement, substance abuse, mental illness, loyalty and disillusionment. These characters endure a lot. But I loved how Keane rotated around among them, giving them closeups and then pulling back, checking in with them and revealing how their lives were progressing and changing. Rather than include every notable event in their lives, she often addressed them in flashbacks, focusing instead on daily vignettes and seemingly unimportant moments that provided a more nuanced and realistic view of her characters’ lives. The pacing was perfect, with incremental shifts rather than dramatic change happening as the years unfolded. The details are spot on – body language, dialogue, small decisions made or actions not taken – all combining to paint a compelling picture of the Stanhopes and the Gleesons.

I spent so much of this book just wanting to give Peter a hug – a similar impulse to how I felt last week reading The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (reviewed here). In the end, I liked Ask Again, Yes even more. The characters were more complex and their lives were more richly conveyed. I do wish Keane had allowed some ups to balance out the downs. There isn’t much joy in Ask Again, Yes, and even when discover that her characters were, at one point, happy, those are inevitably times we only learn about later, in flashbacks.

I listened to Ask Again, Yes on audio except when I just couldn’t stay away from it and had to pick up the print. It was narrated by Molly Pope, who did a great job conveying the gravity of the story (and the occasional Irish brogue). I actually looked up a video of Pope narrating the book because I was curious to see what the narrator looks like (does anyone else ever do that?) and learned that she is an actress and singer who is not always as serious as this book is! I highly recommend the audio.

Ask Again, Yes is going to be a a top-5 read for me this year. If you enjoy multigenerational family sagas that tackle tough topics with empathy and kindness, this one is definitely for you.