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.

EDUCATED by Tara Westover

Educated, the juggernaut memoir by Tara Westover, needs no introduction, but for those who may have just returned from time travel or a few years of hibernation, it’s the story of the author’s life growing up in a extreme, survivalist Mormon family in Idaho. At 17, Westover managed to separate herself from her family and go to college at BYU and graduate school at Cambridge. The book is about how education – she never attended school until college – opened her mind to understand her family and how her upbringing had affected her, often negatively.

Educated is a harrowing read, as there are many times when Westover and her parents and siblings were in grave physical danger, whether from a car accident or a gruesome accident at her father’s junkyard. Her parents did not believe in doctors or medicine and were deeply distrustful of government institutions like schools or hospitals. When her brother Luke suffered a horrendous burn when a fuel tank exploded, he was treated with natural remedies and painkillers. When her mother suffered severe head trauma in a car accident, she recovered at home, treating her frequent migraines with herbs.

Westover also experienced physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her father and one of her brothers, leading to a near-constant atmosphere of fear and tension at home. She is honest about the impact this abuse had on her as a young woman: she tried not to feel anything at all so that she wouldn’t have to face the pain that they caused.

I admire Westover’s remarkable resilience, as well as her clear, unflinching writing. Her ability to teach herself all that she missed growing up without schooling is astonishing. And her loyalty to her parents, despite their repeated failure to protect her from dangers at home or to take responsibility for the pain suffered by her and her siblings, is a testament to the power of family and upbringing.

I am glad I read Educated, but I can’t say that I loved it. It’s not an enjoyable read, for sure, given the nature of her upbringing. But even beyond that, there is a coldness there, a distanced retelling of her family’s stories that makes it hard to appreciate their full impact. Westover is probably still processing all that happened to her, and the book is clearly part of that process of coming to terms. I am not sure that she is fully on the other side yet. I wonder whether the book would feel more complete if she had waited a few more years to write it, when everything was a little less raw.

I listened to Educated on audio, and it was narrated by acclaimed performer Julia Whelan (aka the author of My Oxford Year and Grace Manning on “Once And Again”). Whelan won an Audie for Best Female Narrator for this performance earlier this year. Her narration was measured and unemotional, almost bordering on angry. I wonder how much her performance contributed to my sense of remove from the book, and whether reading it in print would have made for a different experience.

BABY TEETH by Zoje Stage

I have been reading a spate of stressful books lately, for no apparent reason, and unsurprisingly, they are stressing me out! The latest was Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage. It’s about a 7 year-old girl named Hanna who is terrible to her mother Suzette and angelic to her father Alex. When Baby Teeth opens, Suzette is at the end of her rope: she is homeschooling Hanna, who has been asked to leave two different schools due to extreme misbehavior, so she’s with her all day long. Hanna does not speak – to anyone – so trying to parent her is especially challenging for Suzette.

Baby Teeth is told in alternating chapters between Suzette and Hanna. We hear, from Suzette’s perspective, about her feelings of failure as a mother, her intense love for Alex, her frustration with his unwillingness to see Hanna as she does, and the cycle of guilt-anger-fear she goes through whenever she interacts with her daughter. Hanna, meanwhile, is shown to be intelligent, observant, manipulative and… deeply attached to her father. Suzette, of course, is the enemy – the one who keeps her from having her father to herself.

Things go from bad to worse as Hanna becomes more and more menacing and starts threatening her mother’s physical safety. Suzette and Alex reach out for professional help, trying to get to the bottom of their daughter’s behavior and find a solution for her to go to school.

You may be thinking, “Why would anyone read this book?”

Baby Teeth is a thriller, and it’s fun (?), or at least interesting, to see what Hanna will do next and whether Suzette will get the better of her. Stage is a good writer, observant about motherhood and how it can affect a marriage – although I did find this marriage really unrealistic. So I read on, eager to hear what would happen and just a bit scared to turn the page. (Of course, you put yourself in Suzette’s shows and wonder how you would react if you had a diabolical daughter). In the end, however, I didn’t really see the point of the book beyond scaring people. I’ve heard Baby Teeth compared to We Need To Talk About Kevin, and I can kind of see that, but Kevin is the far superior book. Baby Teeth is thrilling and creepy and anxiety-inducing, but I can’t say I’m better in any way for having read it.

GOLDEN CHILD by Claire Adam

At the beginning of Golden Child by Claire Adam, Clyde, the father in a family of four in Trinidad, returns home from his job at an oil refinery. He learns that one of his twin boys – Paul – has disappeared, leaving his wife Joy and his other son Peter at home. Peter is an exceptionally smart boy who tested into a private school and is on track to go to college in America, while Paul, who had complications at birth, has been labeled “retarded” and struggles to keep up in school. Paul’s disappearance, coming on the heels of a recent burglary at their modest home, sets events in motion that will test the family’s love for and commitment to their two sons.

Golden Child is a tough read. I enjoyed the foreign setting of rural Trinidad and reading about the challenges the family faced in trying to move up. Clyde is a hard worker and doesn’t want assistance – financial or otherwise – from family members, even those who offered to help his sons with their education. His commitment to independence and self-reliance is tested when it becomes clear that Peter is unique and deserving of opportunities that Clyde cannot provide without help. Yet his acceptance of that help turns out to be the family’s downfall, as it brings with it menace and danger.

The decisions faced by Clyde and Joy are beyond painful, and Golden Child is a pretty stressful and sad book. It’s kind of a hard book to describe – it felt almost like a fable to me, written in a simple but literary style. I found it to be memorable, propulsive and ultimately, devastating.

Golden Child is the second book from Sarah Jessica Parker’s imprint, SJP for Hogarth. Her first, A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza (reviewed here) also explores complex family relationships and sibling dynamics in a non-American culture. I am impressed with SJP’s picks and eager to see what she releases next.