BOBCAT AND OTHER STORIES by Rebecca Lee

Bobcat And Other Stories is a collection of stories by Rebecca Lee that generally focus on love, infidelity and intellectual connection, often in academic settings. I read about this book in my Book A Day 2018 calendar and found it intriguing, and picked it up at the library. It’s a pretty uneven collection of stories. In the title story, a dinner party forces two marriages to come to terms, although the one that fails is not the one you would suspect. In another story, a student at a small midwestern college plagiarizes a paper, only to find herself thrust into the limelight when her professor, who is aware of the plagiarism, arranges for her to present it for his own political agenda. In the most memorable story, a woman finds herself in Hong Kong serving as a surprisingly matchmaker for her male friend, at the request of his father.

Bobcat And Other Stories has some beautiful writing, and Lee’s stories definitely have those unexpected twists that can make short stories so compelling. But in the end this collection came up short for me. I think it’s a bit too esoteric – lots of academia and strange names and odd settings that I had trouble following. In the end I had trouble connecting with it. Too intellectual maybe.

If you go to Goodreads, you will find a lot of people who loved this collection. So if you’re intrigued, go check it out. It just wasn’t for me.

 

BEST DAY EVER by Kaira Rouda

Sometimes you just need a little popcorn.

I was traveling last week and wanted a book that I could get into and finish quickly, and Best Day Ever by Kaira Rouda fit the bill. It’s a psychological thriller – the kind with an unreliable male narrator who grows increasingly dangerous (you’ve read that one before, no?) – that grabs you from the start and sucks you in but ultimately leaves you kind of empty.

Paul and Mia have been married for several years, with two young sons and a beautiful suburban home. Paul has planned a perfect getaway weekend for them at their lake house outside Columbus. He has thought of every detail, from the playlist on the ride up to the romantic dinner they will have at a new restaurant – even the brandy he’ll pour her before they go out. But as Paul describes his marriage to Mia, you start to realize that he is not what he seems. He’s controlling, demeaning, duplicitous, scheming, and a cheater. But how much does Mia realize, and is this really going to be the best day ever for her?

There are twists along the way, and Rouda does a nice job of racheting up the tension as the date proceeds (each chapter covers another half hour or so of the getaway). I was hooked on the story and the pages flew by until I finished.

Again, this one is popcorn. It was entertaining and fast-paced. Just don’t expect a rich read that will stay with you for a long time (though Paul is actually pretty memorable as a villain, made even more so because you get into his head and see just how dysfunctional he is).

LONER by Teddy Wayne

David Federman, the protagonist of Teddy Wayne’s novel, Loner, is a quiet, nondescript Jewish boy from New Jersey  starting his freshman year at Harvard. He’s eager to reinvent himself at his new school, where he hopes he’ll make friends, especially with the more popular, well-liked kids. During his first night of orientation, he meets Veronica Wells, a beautiful blonde, wealthy New Yorker whom he immediately falls for. His infatuation with Veronica takes over his life, as he picks classes based on which ones she is taking, propels his friendship with Veronica’s roommate Sara into a romantic relationship so that he can be near her, and generally inserts himself into her life whenever possible.

Loner is a darkly entertaining book. David is observant and funny, but deeply unlikeable. His singularity of purpose – the doomed pursuit of Veronica – pushes him from nerdy and awkward to deranged and highly manipulative. The book is less of a sendup of Harvard  – though that’s in there too – but an exploration of the mind of a sociopathic young man whose obsession turns ugly. The end is disturbing, to be sure, but I have to say that I enjoyed this book anyway. It’s a glimpse into the mind of a deluded, dangerous person that’s funny and suspenseful at the same time. And I also liked that the icy Veronica had a few tricks up her sleeve as well.

Loner was a quick and satisfying read, but be warned that it’s also unsettling and that the humor can get pretty dark.

THE LEAVERS by Lisa Ko

Lisa Ko’s novel The Leavers couldn’t be more timely. It’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of cruel and inhumane immigration policies and the effect they have on families for years to come.

Deming is an 11-year old boy who grows up in the Bronx with his Chinese immigrant mother, Polly. One day, she disappears from her job at a nail salon, leaving him in the hands of her boyfriend Leon, Leon’s sister Vivian and Vivian’s son Michael, with whom they had lived. Months go by, and Deming never loses faith that his mother will come back for him, even as they receive no word as to where she is. Finally, Deming is put up for adoption by Vivian, who can no longer afford to care for him. He is adopted by a childless white couple in upstate New York and renamed Daniel.

When The Leavers opens, Daniel is flailing. He has been kicked out of college after his gambling addiction is discovered, and he has moved to New York City to pursue music, his true passion. But he can’t stick with anything – the band he has joined with his best friend from upstate or his half-hearted attempts to transfer to a new college at his parents’ urging – until he receives an email out of the blue from Michael that sparks his journey to find out finally what happened to his mother.

The Leavers came very highly recommended and there is a lot to like about it. Deming and Polly are both deeply flawed, yet deeply sympathetic. Daniel is a frustrating character in many ways – his self-absorption and lack of consideration for those who care about him as well as his self-destructive tendencies – but it’s also quite understandable how the abandonment and cultural whiplash he experienced as a pre-teen would have made him so. Polly’s side of the story unspools slowly throughout the book, until you get a clear picture of what happened to her and why. She’s not perfect, but her love for her son turns out not to have been in question.

There is a coldness that permeates The Leavers that kept me from falling in love with it. I liked it quite a bit, but I couldn’t quite connect with it, perhaps because Daniel and Polly were both rather emotionally remote. I do recommend it for its honest look at the painful reality of our draconian immigration policies – Ko based the fact pattern for The Leavers on a true story from 2009 about a Chinese immigrant – and I thought it addressed cross-cultural adoption pretty well (though Daniel’s adoptive parents seemed particularly clueless). In the end, I admired the book but didn’t love it as much as others have. Some of the story seemed unrealistic, especially as Daniel goes in search of his mother, as characters didn’t react as I expected they would and so much seemed to go unsaid.

I do recommend The Leavers based on how well-received it was and how important its themes are today.

BORN TO RUN by Bruce Springsteen

Born To Run is Bruce Springsteen’s epic, spiritual, meandering memoir, written over six years as a side project to his touring and songwriting. It starts at Bruce’s birth in Freehold, NJ in 1949 and ends in his mid 60s, exploring not only his musical career but also his relationships and his spiritual and emotional journey through life.

Like many of Bruce’s songs, the writing in Born To Run is rich and poetic. Yes, I think the book could have been edited a bit. (But who wants to tell that to The Boss?) Yes, he repeats himself a lot. But the memoir also intensely personal and introspective, and his perspectives on his working class roots and the demons he’s battled throughout his life are quite moving.

Here’s what surprised me from reading Born To Run:

  • Bruce is a lot more insecure than one would think (I mean, he’s Bruce!), and that insecurity fuels him. He says his 3 1/2 hour shows are because he feels like he has to prove something.
  • He also has a big ego and manages the E Street band more like a autocracy than a democracy. He makes the decisions and the other musicians – as accomplished as they are – have to fall in line.
  • He has dealt with depression throughout his adult life, including some crippling bouts in the last decade that left him paralyzed and unable to work.
  • Patti Scialfa, his wife, is intensely private but more interesting (and patient!) than I realized.

If you’re a fan of his music, Bruce talks a lot about his albums and what he was trying to accomplish on each of them, how/where they were recorded and how they fit into his overall musical evolution. He also spends a lot of time on his bandmates, including “The Big Man” Clarence Clemons, Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren. There’s plenty of fodder for those who are well-acquainted with Bruce’s songs and the guys (and woman) he’s had on stage with him over the decades.

The first third of the book is a little slow, as Bruce gets bogged down in endless details about early bands, gigs and roadtrips. I found that Born To Run picked up a fair amount when his career did.

I listened to 2/3 of Born To Run on audio.  It’s narrated by Bruce, which was a thrill. He infuses his narration with emotion and humor in his distinctive, raspy voice. Unfortunately, it was just too long to do the whole thing on audio, so I switched to print for the last third.

Born To Run gave me a much better sense of the complexity behind this great showman. And I liked how, at the end, he expressed his hopes that reading his memoir would encourage others to take some time for the process of self-reflection. If you’re a Bruce fan or you like rock memoirs, pick this one up.

Apropos of nothing, my top 5 Bruce songs of all time:

  1. Thunder Road
  2. Badlands
  3. Tunnel Of Love
  4. The Rising
  5. Born To Run

TOO FAT, TOO SLUTTY, TOO LOUD by Anne Helen Petersen

Women are having a moment, aren’t they? Between the women’s marches (2017 and 2018), #MeToo and what appears to be the a real reckoning of the impact that decades (centuries, really) of discrimination, unequal pay, and sexual harassment and abuse have had on women, these are interesting times.

Anne Helen Petersen, culture writer at Buzzfeed, entered these impassioned waters last year with her book Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise And Reign Of The Unruly Woman. Petersen takes 11 famous women who aren’t living by the rules and offers an often academic explanation of why each is not conforming society’s expectations of them and how they’ve succeeded anyway. Serena Williams is too strong. Madonna is too old. Hillary is too shrill, and Lena Dunham is too naked. None of the women in the book is acting as we would expect them to. They’ve “inverted and exceeded expectations; they’ve produced their own narratives or rebelled against ones that constrain or displease them.”

One one hand, this book is maddening – why must actresses be a certain size (and if they aren’t, why do expect them to publicly lament their weight)? Why does a female politician have to have a certain timbre to her voice? Why are we critical of celebrities who don’t have picture perfect pregnancies, with a tiny baby bump and a beatific glow? Before I blame men for these expectations, I admit that I subscribe to them myself sometimes. I fall prey to the same generalizations and snap judgments that many others do. Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud is a good reminder that societal expectations are just another way that women have been held back in many industries. Petersen sees these 11 women who have broken the mold as helping to “accelerate the long historical march toward women wresting control of these norms, and expanding them to better reflect the ways of being that they find satisfying, nourishing, expansive, and radically inclusive”. I agree that it’s time to examine these expectations and understand how they came about and why they are so insidious.

Petersen injects a lot of theory and historical context in each chapter of Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud, which can be a bit to wade through. The writing is repetitive at times. But the women at the center of these chapters are fascinating on their own, and putting them through the prism of unruliness helped deepen my appreciation for them and made me more conscious of the love-hate push-pull that they experience on a regular basis and how I can be part of ending it.

THIS IS HOW IT ALWAYS IS by Laurie Frankel

Wooh boy. I am behind!

I finished a book last week but haven’t reviewed it yet (that’s what this post is for). And I am in the middle of four other books. (This is what happens to me with non-fiction… I get a little mired.) I’m doing the Bruce Springsteen memoir on audio, and it’s a bit slow and meandering (although I love commuting to work with The Boss every morning). I’m savoring The War Bride’s Scrapbook, which is really fun. I’m reading an overdue (gasp!) library book called Too Slutty, Too Fat, Too Loud and it’s a week overdue, which is stressing me out. And I am also reading The Leavers, which I said was going to be my first book of 2018,  but which still isn’t done.

AND I am leaving on an international trip next week and have to pick books for the trip, which is going to be a challenge because there are Just. So. Many. Books.

Whew.

So let’s get to the way overdue review. My book club read This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel over the break and we discussed it last week. It’s about a family (parents Rosie and Penn) who have four sons and then a fifth one. But their fifth son is a girl inside a boy’s body. From an early age, Claude wears dresses and insists that he is a girl. How should parents react when their son insists he’s their daughter? If they support his dressing like a girl , how much should they intervene at school? Who should they tell, and at what age?

This Is How It Always Is explores the tough decisions faced by Rosie and Penn, who want nothing more than to support Claude – then Poppy – and make her as comfortable and happy as possible, while still tending to the needs of their four other children. They move from Madison to Seattle when Poppy is 6 to give her a fresh start where she isn’t known as “the transgender child”, but that decision proves fateful too. Without giving it much thought, Rosie and Penn decide to keep Poppy’s birth gender a secret when they arrive in Seattle, so while Poppy settles in well with a group of girls and is happy in her new home and school, there is a constant undercurrent of fear and tension while the family waits for the secret to get out. And of course, it does.

Reading has made me a better parent, or at least a more understanding parent, in that it has introduced me to a lot of situations and parenting challenges that I haven’t faced and shown me how complicated they can be. It’s so easy to judge from the outside. But when you get inside the house and get to know the kids and see the uniqueness of every situation, you really start to understand what it’s like. This Is How It Always Is is one of those books that makes you ask yourself, over and over again, how you’d handle the same situation.

Like in Goodbye For Now, Frankel’s writing is smart, funny and full of empathy. My book club loved this book – they found it very moving and compelling. It’s not preachy… it’s human. Totally realistic. Messy at times, but well-intentioned and full of love. Recommended!