Category Archives: Fiction

THE HOUSEKEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR by Yoko Ogawa

My second vacation read was The Housekeeper And The Professor by Yoko Ogawa, a book I learned about from the Read Between The Wines blog this summer. It’s about a woman assigned to be the housekeeper for a brilliant math professor whose short term memory only lasts for 80 minutes ever since he was injured in a car accident. He can remember complicated math theorems, but he can’t remember people he met two hours earlier. This has led to a string of short-lived housekeepers, as they grow frustrated with having to reintroduce themselves every time they get to work.

The housekeeper of the title, however, is different. She gets to know the professor and pays attention to the math he teaches her and the connections he makes between numbers. Unlike the others, she finds him fascinating, and her world begins to expand beyond her job in his little house. She also introduces him to her 10 year-old son, and the boy bonds with the professor over their shared love of baseball. Although there are limitations on where their relationship with him can progress, they become very fond of him and learn to adapt their interactions to accommodate his memory loss.

The Housekeeper And The Professor is a quiet, poignant book. These lonely characters find connection in unexpected, imperfect ways, teaching the importance of living in the moment and behaving compassionately. It’s a quick read, but a memorable one. Though you never learn the characters’ names, they form a triangle you won’t easily forget. Bonus: it takes place in Japan and there is lots of baseball!

THE OTHER’S GOLD by Elizabeth Ames

I am back from vacation! It was a great trip. Not much downtime, which means not much time for reading. I did manage to make it through four books, which of course was only half of the eight I brought with me. Sounds about right for me and vacation – I always overpack books. (Because running out of books on vacation would be awful.)

Here is one of my favorite reading spots on the trip – the balcony of our hotel in Sagres, Portugal, also known as “the end of the world”:

The first book I read was The Other’s Gold by Elizabeth Ames. It has one of those plots I like – four friends from college and how they fare into adulthood. Margaret, Lainey, Ji-Sun and Alice meet as freshmen when they share a suite at an elite East Coast school. They come from different backgrounds, but become fast friends, enjoying an intimacy and closeness that persists through four years in the same suite.

The Other’s Gold is structured around four mistakes, one made by each of the main characters at some point in their lives. They are pretty significant mistakes, which impact the course of their lives and affect their families, and later, their friends and husbands. I don’t want to spoil anything by saying what the mistakes were, but they form the narrative structure of The Other’s Gold, allowing Ames to shift focus among the four women and delve more deeply into their individual stories.

I really enjoyed this one. It read quickly and Ames is a beautiful writer. The women were frustrating at times, and made questionable decisions, but I felt invested in their lives and friendships and wanted to see how things ended up. I liked Ames’ use of detail – never extraneous, always making me feel a part of the scene. My only complaint is that I had trouble connecting to one of the women – Lainey – throughout the book. I found her inconsistent and difficult to relate to. Maybe we are just really different, but she isn’t like anyone I have known and I didn’t find her all that credible.

The Other’s Gold is a debut novel, coming out on Tuesday. I really liked it and recommend it – makes a great end of summer read.

HOW NOT TO DIE ALONE by Richard Roper

I am not sure what made me pick How Not To Die Alone by Richard Roper as my next read a week or two ago. I think it’s because I had a review copy on audio and had swapped a book for the print copy, so it was easy logistically. In retrospect, I’m not sure it was what I was in the mood for, as I’ve had a run of lighter books lately.

How Not To Die Alone is about Andrew, a man in London approaching middle age, who is (like the last book I read) an introvert stuck in a stagnant life. He works for the city doing the difficult job of going into the homes of people who have died without leaving a will or next of kin. He goes through their apartments looking for clues about who might be able to pay for – or even attend – their funerals, and when he finds none, he attends himself. It’s a grim, sad job, but Andrew has done it for a years, all while living in a dreary flat where he obsesses over his model trains and communicates online with other train enthusiasts whom he knows only by their online handles.

Andrew’s world is ripe for upending. Three things happen in short order: he suffers the loss of an estranged family member; a new female co-worker starts work in his office; and his officemates come closer and closer to discovering that Andrew’s life as they know it as a lie. For he has fabricated a wife and two children in order to fit in at work, and when his boss proposes a rotating series of dinner parties at team members’ homes, Andrew’s falsehood becomes harder and harder to maintain.

How Not To Die Alone is a cross between a dark book and a rom-com. The book is infused with loneliness – Andrew’s as well as that of the people whose homes he searches – and he’s a pretty depressed guy. But at the same time, the book takes on a lighthearted feel as Andrew bumbles his way through a crush and navigates an IRL meetup with his train friends. The constant straddling of both paths makes How Not To Die Alone, in the end, not terribly successful on either front. It was pleasant enough, but I wasn’t really compelled to return to it after having a break.

I listened to How Not To Die Alone on audio. It’s performed by acclaimed British narrator Simon Vance, and he did a good job with it. (Anything performed in a British accent is automatically good, right?) I think I enjoyed the book more on audio than I would have in print, thanks in large part to the narration. He gave Andrew the stammering, well-meaning persona that you expect him to have, while infusing the whole book with dignity and poignance (perhaps more than it deserved).

I’ve seen this book described as the male version of Eleanor Oliphant Is Fine (reviewed here). I don’t really agree. Andrew isn’t as awkward as Eleanor, and his backstory isn’t as dark. That seems like convenient marketing to me. In the end, this was just OK for me.

THE BOOKISH LIFE OF NINA HILL by Abbi Waxman

The Bookish Life Of Nina Hill is a cute book by Abbi Waxman about an introvert who works in a bookstore and, outside of scheduled book clubs and trivia nights, spends most of herher time in her L.A. apartment where she lives with her cat. When she learns suddenly that her father, whom she never knew, died and that she has a large extended family, her life is sent into a tailspin. And then when a cute boy comes on the scene, she has to decide whether she can make room in her regimented life for some spontaneity – and yet another person.

If you like light rom-coms about smart, interesting women, then you might like The Bookish Life of Nina Hill. The dialogue is snappy and clever, and there are lots of good book references throughout. The premise of inheriting a large family in one’s late twenties after living a life of solitude as the only child of a single, itinerant mother is also intriguing.

In the end, though, The Bookish Life Of Nina Hill was too light for me. I like my books darker, with more dramatic tension and a bumpier road to happiness (if it’s ever even reached). Nina’s love interest is handsome and earnest, and other than being frustrated at her keeping her distance from him, he says and does nothing objectionable. Nina didn’t even seem introverted or awkward – she had a lot of friends and a fun job. Her life was kind of ideal! There wasn’t much conflict or growth or even a glimpse of real hardship beyond a lonely childhood.

The Bookish Life Of Nina Hill has been enthusiastically received this summer, with lots of 4 and 5 star reviews on Goodreads, where readers particularly like the bookworm element of the story. For me, it was too light on drama and substance to make much of a mark.

Thank you to Berkley and Penguin Random House for inviting me to review this book as part of a larger blog tour.

TRUST EXERCISE by Susan Choi

Where do I start with Trust Exercise by Susan Choi?

Trust Exercise is a buzzy book that came out this spring and has appeared all over the place ever since. Our book club read it for our July pick, and Nicole and I did a book club discussion of it for our upcoming podcast episode (airing this Thursday). Yet, even after all of those discussions, I am still having trouble deciding how I feel about it.

The first third of Trust Exercise centers around Sarah, a high school student at a performing arts school in an unnamed city in the 80s. As a freshman, she got romantically involved with David, another student, while both were under the tutelage of a larger-than-life drama teacher. Their relationship did not last past the summer, but it deeply affected Sarah, and David played a large role in her remaining high school years. Sarah’s section is classic high school material, with shifting groups of friends, betrayals, insecurities and the realization that the people around you are mysteries. Plus, 80s!

I want to keep this a spoiler-free review, so all I’ll say about the rest of the book is that there are shifts in perspective and narration that call into question the accuracy of Sarah’s section. The reader is left, at the end, with a lot of questions. Who are the characters in Sarah’s section, and why did she depict them that way? Do we all just see things through our own perspectives, or is there intentional manipulation of facts through storytelling driven by more nefarious motives? Who, as a reader, can we trust? (Hence the title.)

The members of my book club didn’t particularly like Trust Exercise. To me, it’s like a book you’re assigned for English class where you admire the technical proficiency of the author but didn’t find it much fun to read. I got through it because I had a podcast deadline to meet, not because I was particularly enjoying it. By the end, I had a lot of questions, and as my book club discussions have shown me, there is a lot I that didn’t get. (Trust Exercise does make for a good discussion!)

So my verdict is: if you’re looking for literary fiction that’s going to challenge you and make you think, you might like this one, but be warned that you might be confused and not terribly fulfilled at the end. Don’t read any more reviews, though – better to go in without much (more) predisposition.

Have you read Trust Exercise? Which camp did you fall in – did you admire it or did it drive you crazy?

EVERYTHING IS JUST FINE by Brett Paesel

I chose Everything Is Just Fine by Brett Paesel for my humor book for the EDIWTB 2019 Reading Challenge. I wasn’t really sure what to pick, and this is described as a “brilliant laugh-out-loud satire” so I figured it would fit the bill.

Everything Is Just Fine is about the private lives of a group of parents whose 11 year-old sons are on a Beverly Hills soccer team. The book is told in large part through emails among the parents as the fall soccer season gets underway. There’s the hapless coach who writes emails with spelling mistakes and quotes trite movie lines, and who is also hiding his work misfortunes from his wife. There’s the boozy divorcee who hits Reply All late at night when she’s had too much wine. There are feuding exes who can’t tolerate being at the same game, an eternally positive team mom who can’t admit that her son may be on the spectrum, and a workaholic absentee mother whose nanny covers the games. These characters interact through email exchanges and occasional chapters told through third person narration as they all dig themselves into deeper holes at home.

I don’t know that Everything Is Just Fine is ‘laugh-out-loud’ funny. There are definitely funny moments throughout, but it turns out to be a sadder and deeper book than it’s billed as. These characters are having trouble connecting and communicating, and they have deep regrets about how they’ve lived their lives. There isn’t a healthy marriage in the bunch. So while there is some voyeuristic fun in watching their lives implode and snickering at the email stereotypes, in the end it was all kind of depressing. This was supposed to be my funny book for the year!

In the end, Everything Is Just Fine was a quick and painless read, but it’s not a book I can strongly recommend. It was like reality TV – easy to digest but not very filling.

FLEISHMAN IS IN TROUBLE by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner is about a married fortysomething couple – Toby and Rachel Fleishman – whose relationship goes south. Toby, a doctor at an Upper East Side hospital, and Rachel, a successful talent agent, were once happy and in love, but now detest each other. They’ve separated, with their two children shuttling between their two apartments, and Toby has moved on, thanks to a long string of sexual encounters with women he finds on Tinder-esque apps. When Fleishman Is In Trouble opens, Rachel has dropped the kids off at his apartment, unexpectedly – and then promptly disappears.

The majority of the book tells Toby’s story. The narrator turns out to be Libby, a woman who Toby became friends with during a high school summer trip to Israel and who is now living in New Jersey and taking a pause from her career as a journalist for a large men’s magazine. This narrative structure is a little strange at first, but it makes more sense over time, as Libby’s role in Toby’s present life grows more consistent.

Fleishman Is In Trouble is a very smart, funny book. Brodesser-Akner takes no prisoners: the rich women in cheeky workout tank tops; the desperate single divorcees texting obscene photos via apps; the Instagram-obsessed teenagers Toby’s daughter hangs out with. But this is not a satire. Instead, it’s a blistering look at the pressures on modern marriages between two working adults, from income disparity and fights over childcare to rote sex and the double standard that punishes working moms and makes saints of men who walk their kids to school every day.

But just when you think you know where Brodesser-Akner has gone with this book, she throws a curveball that makes you realize you’ve only been seeing half the forest. My perspective completely changed late in the game – and not just once – making me appreciate that the author was telling a much more complex – and sadder – story than I had expected, especially where women are concerned.

I listened to Fleishman Is In Trouble on audio. The narrator, Allyson Ryan, was fantastic. She handled urbane New York voices perfectly, both men and women (not always easy to pull off), and gave the recording the perfect tone of urgency with an everpresent undercurrent of anger. This is a long audiobook at 14.5 hours, but it’s easy to follow and never tedious. Ryan really did a great job with it – great casting!

I rarely buy books these days since I get so many via ARCs or swaps, but this is one I shelled out cash for. I don’t regret it at all – worth every penny.