Book Review: A Selfie as Big as The Ritz – Lara Williams

“Imagine being that lacking in wonder, aspiring to jobs in logistics or IT services, imagine never entertaining frothy careers scouting bands, imagine never picturing yourself in front of a glossy iMac. Did it make the heartbreak easier or earlier?”

As soon as I’d read those words – and on page 3, mind you – I knew I’d like this collection. I’ve had that exact thought before and there it was, on the page right in front of me.

Lara William’s A Selfie As Big as The Ritz is an interesting, introspective short story collection, which perfectly depicts the confusion of millennial life. There’s a sure, taught point of view here – the collection is well composed and ties together nicely. You never have to wonder if Williams scrambled to fill her collection. While a many of these stories have appeared in other publications, they still feel natural together, as though Williams wrote them with the intentions that they should form a collection.

The stories are comprised of first, second and third person perspectives. I really enjoyed that as it allows the stories (for me, at least), some room to breathe and to not feel as though all the protagonists were merely clones of one another.

I do have to say, though – A Selfie as Big as The Ritz isn’t for everyone. While it’s obvious that Williams is extremely talented, it’s also obvious that this collection really lends itself to be enjoyed by a particular sort of person and they seem to evoke a certain spirit of being. This is a collection, I think, that wouldn’t exist if not in this time and place; it really seems to call to mind the thoughts, fears, pains and fleeting fortunes of a specific generation – millennials. Even still, this collection feels like it’s meant for those millennials who haven’t even begun being settled.

The first story, “It Begins” resonated with me the most, but standouts also include  “Sunday’s at the Tipping Yard”, “One of Those Life Things”, “This Small Written Thing”, “Dates”, and “Treats”.

*I, of course, must divulge that I received an ARC of this collection from Flatiron Books as a Goodreads Giveaway

 

Book Review: Running

Cara Hoffman’s Running centers on a small group (two guys, one gal) who eek out a living scamming tourists into staying at a rundown Greek hotel during the 1980s. This group, Milo, Jasper and Bridey are close and tightknit adoptive family, living in each others’ pockets, until one of their scams backfires and gets them uncomfortably close to an act of terrorism. The female, Bridey, ran to Athens to escape a dysfunctional life back in the US. Boyfriends Milo and Jasper are British expats seeking running from their own existences (one privileged and one not).

Hoffman’s writing is quite good – it’s obvious that she’s a very talented woman and she’s someone I can see myself reading again. The relationships aren’t flimsy constructs, which is important as these relationships are the pillars on the novel. Bridey, Milo and Jasper feel real and lived in.  There’s an interestingly slippery, somewhat dreamy quality to Running; you feel as though you’re sort of slipping through the words and through time. This quality is quite helpful – the action of Running shifts between the group’s existence in Athens and Bridey’s childhood in Washington state. The shifts can feel somewhat disconcerting at times and periodically, it can feel difficult to grasp the meat of a scene. The dreamy quality of the prose really benefits those structural choices – it makes it seem and feel that those shifts are more than just a structural, stylistic choice . It really does truly enhances the haunting atmosphere of the novel and allows you to get a clearer feel for the disorientation the characters themselves feel.  Her prose also never becomes overly involved – it’s restrained and allows you to focus more on what is happening and the feelings it evokes in you, the reader. Reading Hoffman’s prose does not feel like work, nor does it feel as though she’s simply attempting to show off what she’s capable of.  Considering the obvious talent and work that she’s put in, this is a high compliment to pay. Continue reading

Favorite Reads of 2017 (So Far)

Being that we have reached the halfway mark of the year, I figured I ought do a quick roundup of my favorite reads of the year. This list won’t be all literary fiction, of course (I’m not that much of a snob!) and it won’t include many of the year’s breakouts (I haven’t read them yet!) But it will be an honest and true account of what I consider to be the high points of my reading life in 2017:

Faves:

 

  • The Leavers – Lisa Ko’s The Leavers is breathtaking look at immigration and intercultural adoption.  Polly’s a character you can’t help but feel both intense anger and intense sadness for. Her decisions cause a spiderweb of strife and pain for her son Deming, but are made in truly impossible times. As he grows up, Deming’s caught between the life he’s living with his adoptive parents and the life he ought to be living his mom. The Leavers is heartbreaking in both the worst and best of ways.

 

  • The Animators –  Kayla Rae Whitaker has established herself as a major young talent with her debut novel, The Animators. This story of two best friends, Sharon and Mel, who work as an animation duo, chronicles their personal and professional struggles at dawn of a new phase in their careers. The novel journeys through their pasts and how those pasts inform their current selves and their futures. The relationship between Mel and Sharon is one of my favorite recent depictions of female friendship – full, loving and prickly as hell. And Sharon’s rural background makes me recall my own. I selected this book sort of blindly via Book of the Month Club, and it’s absolutely my favorite Book of the Month Club selection.

 

  • A Passage to IndiaA Passage to India was my introduction to E.M. Forrester’s elegant and sumptuous prose. How I never read Forrester before is completely beyond me and I’m terribly upset with myself for not reading this amazing novel until I was 30 years old.   Forrester’s tale of cultural conflict and misunderstandings between the colonizing English and the India and Indians they colonize is ridiculously lyrical, beautiful and a genuine pleasure to read.

 

  • #famous – I’ve actually reviewed Jilly’s YA novel here. #famous isn’t perfect and this isn’t the sort of work filled with beautiful prose or deep thoughts. But it’s genuinely a fun, adorable read. The characters feel like the teenagers that they are actually meant to be and not some adult’s vague memory of adolescence. The dialogue was snappy and delightful and quite frankly, I need to see this on the big screen.

 

 

  • Attachments – This, I’ve always reviewed here. I love this book without any sort of hesitation. The plot circles around an IT guy, Lincoln, who falls in love with a woman, Beth, while he reads through the emails she exchanges at work with her best friend, Jen. It’s essentially a ridiculous screwball comedy in book form and how can that not be adored? Attachments leans into the ridiculousness of its premise which is what makes it so enjoyable to read. And again, Beth and Jen’s friendship is fantastic – it’s supportive and loving and not full of backstabbing bull. For me, this was a perfect read to chase a few blues away.

 

  • Freddy and Fredericka – I actually bought Freddy and Fredericka at a used bookstore on a whim and 90% due to the cover. Mark Helprin’s satire of the British royal family  (Freddy and Fredericka are a not-even-thinly veiled version of Charles and Diana)  is a magnificently fanciful fairy tale farce and it is amazing. Essentially, after a series of embarrassing events, Freddy and Fredericka get carted out to America to prove themselves worthy of the throne.  This book is dense, but it’s also hilarious. In some respects, the density is part of the reason I’m so fond of it – yes, it gets off to a slow start, but I found it to be like a marathon – it’s just the sort of book to be savored and read thoughtfully, rather than devoured in haste. It’s sympathetic and mocking of its protagonists and reminds you of their inherent goodness despite the situations of their lives and situations in which they find themselves. Fredericka in particular really comes into her own in the second half of the novel. The novel is both irreverent and down to earth and it’s just honestly, earnestly good.

 

  • The Muse – Some people haven’t felt as kindly towards Jessie Burton’s follow up to The Miniaturist but I really enjoyed The Muse. Burton is amazingly skilled at evoking the feeling of a bygone era and in The Muse, she manages to make both 1960s London and the Spanish Civil War come a life. Not only this, she tackles the tricky work of writing a black woman’s life in 1960s London. I have to love her for writing an experience that is very much not her own and for doing it so very well. Jessie Burton is basically my Literary Girl Crush.

 

  • Moonglow I’ve loved Michael for a very long time now. At least, it feels like a long time. I read Wonder Boys back in 2000 and I fell in love with his brain then. Whenever I read Chabon, I always feel like his characters are sitting back and regaling me with their tales. Moonglow is no different. Of course, Moonglow is a sort of a retelling his what his grandfather told him during his last weeks of life – a deathbed confession sorts. But early on, Chabon notes that part of this is fictionalized and the dreamy, sprawling feel makes it somewhat difficult to really get a handle on what parts are completely un-embellished. And yet, that is one of the things I liked best about Moonglow. The Goodreads blurb describes it as a “work of fiction non fiction”; an “autobiography in a novel described as a memoir” – this is entirely accurate and entirely wonderful.

 

Honorable Mentions:

 

  • Fire in the Blood by Irene Nemirovsky
  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  • American Street  by Ibi Zoboi
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  • The Secret Place by Tana French
  • Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Book Review: American Street

Ibi Zoboi’s American Street is very nearly exactly what a YA novel should be.

The protaganist, Fabiola Toussaint, boards a plane from Haiti to the US along with her mother, planning to move to Detroit to live with family members. During a routine security check while changing planes in New York, Fabiola’s mother is detained by immigration officials and Fabiola’s left to go on to Detroit alone. There, Fabiola’s left to navigate her American cousins, a romance and her attempts to secure her mother’s release.

I have no experience as an immigrant – while I did complete a Study Abroad during college, I have lived my life as a citizen and resident of the country of my birth. I can’t speak – at all – to how real to life Fabiola’s experiences actually are. But I can say that the book felt so real to me – I felt as though the events could actually happen.

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Book Review: Attachments

Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments is completely, utterly ridiculous. I loved it away.

Attachments also happens to be the first Rowell novel I genuinely, wholeheartedly love. I’ve read Fan Girl,  Eleanor & Park and Carry On.  After a pretty rocky start, I ended up liking Carry On well enough. On the other hand, I found both Eleanor & Park and Fan Girl completely underwhelming.

Attachments, though? I love, love love it!

I’ve seen many folks make the argument that the novel’s premise is basically creepy and unrealistic. And they’re completely right!

The plot centers around a guy (Lincoln) falling in love with a woman he’s never met (Beth) via snooping through her work emails to and from a friend. Of course this is creepy.  It’s slightly less creepy because monitoring emails is his job, but still. It’s creep-city.

Attachments

It’s also, honestly, exactly the sort of screwy, nonsensical plot that lives in the romantic comedies of the 90s and early 2000s. While I don’t seem like it, I  adore a good rom-com and one of my truest film related despairs is that there hasn’t been a truly wonderful romantic comedy in years (and, no Love Actually does not count, people.)  I also love a good screwball comedy – heck, if computers were a thing in the 30s, I could see this sort of ridiculousness going on in a Katherine Hepburn-Cary Grant movie. You cannot tell me that the plots of Bringing Up Baby or Holiday make any more sense than this book does. In Bringing Up Baby, Katherine Hepburn’s scatterbrained socialite randomly meets Cary Grant’s paleontologist on a golf course, convinces him to help her take a leopard named Baby to her home from Connecticut, becomes enamored with him,  tries to keep him from leaving said home in Connecticut to prevent his getting married and they eventually end up in jail. And in love. I have not even described half of the crazy of that beautiful film. You can’t tell me that this plot makes any more sense than Attachments. You can’t because it doesn’t. But Bringing Up Baby, as well as My Man Godfrey, Holiday, Woman of the Year, His Girl Friday and all those other wonderful, insane, screwy screwball comedies work because they lean into the crazy. Continue reading

Book Review: The Sun is Also a Star

28763485A while back, I read Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star.

By “a while back”, I mean I finished it in the first few days of January.

Yeah.

It’s been a while.

I enjoyed Yoon’s debut Everything, Everything – it was a bit too sweet and a bit too syrupy and so not me, but eh, I loved it anyway. Everyone needs the literary equivalent of a diabetic coma every now and again, right? Well, Everything, Everything was mine.  When I read that Nicola Yoon was releasing a new novel dealing with immigration, I was pretty sure that it’d be up my alley. When The Sun is Also a Star turned out to be one of Book of the Month Club’s picks, I thought it was simply kismet and made it my selection.

To my sadness and frustration, I didn’t like it as much as I’d hoped.

Yoon is a competent, strong writer and she’s got great ideas and knows how to carry them out – I didn’t feel as though the novel were half-baked or un-done in some strange fashion.

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Book Review: 3 YAs

About 3 months ago, I was lucky enough to be approved for several YA ARCs. While I’ve read several of them, I’ve been incredibly remiss in actually getting down what I think about the lovely books publishers have allowed me to read.

First, I started with Becky Albertalli’s The Upside of Unrequited.

I was pretty darn excited about this as I’d read her debut,  Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda on a whim last year and loved it. Albertalli’s prose is nothing particularly special – it’s somewhere above workman but below beauty. It’s strong and sufficient enough for the tales she spins. For me, what made ‘Simon’ such an unrestrained joy to experience was the protagonist, Simon. I found him delightful and just the sort of person my younger self would have wanted to be friends with in high school. Sadly, I didn’t feel this way about Molly in The Upside of Unrequited. I’m not sure if I can explain it well enough – but I never really felt drawn into Molly – or for that matter, her friends or her family. They were well drawn, funny but still, I didn’t feel a spark there. I didn’t feel as riveted by Molly’s drama. It’s not to say that the book isn’t a worthwhile read, because it is! Albertalli is just as amusing and wry as she is in her debut and her commitment to diversity is just as wonderful – it never feels false or unearned, or as though she’s doing it simply to make a point. The characters who populate this book feel like the world in which we live. It’s simply that I cared for them and their situations less than I cared for those of Simon’s world. It’s a 3 star book for me. Continue reading