Marie’s Reading: “Between, Georgia” by Joshilyn Jackson

between georgiaNonny is used to being in the middle.  Her birth mother was a Crabtree (low-class, prone to violence, owners of Dobermans and scary Alabama relatives), but she was adopted by the Fretts (solid middle-class, reined-in, icy types, prone to their own kind of violence).  The tiny town of Between is barely big enough for these two sparring clans.

When Nonny’s aunt is attacked by one of the Crabtree dogs, a whole new cycle of feuding is set off.  This time it could be deadly.  Nonny, herself in the middle of a divorce, finds herself back in Between (and in between) once again.

Whenever I’m in the mood for a novel with a solid story, a great sense of place, and robust characters, I go for Jackson’s work.  She writes relationships extremely well, particularly between women in a family–she has real insight into the dynamics of sisters, mothers and daughters, and grandmothers and their grandkids.

The Frett sisters, who raised Nonny, really are forces–stolid, judgmental but loyal Bernese, anxious and fretful Genny, and kind and artistic Stacia, the one who raised Nonny.  Stacia is deaf and blind, as well, adding another layer to her relationship to her family and her art.  Ona Crabtree, Nonny’s blood grandmother, comes across as damaged and brittle and not very nice, but she’s still got a basic humanity.  As becomes clear over the course of the story, these women have more in common than they like to believe.

The Southern setting is great as well.  It feels as though these characters, though recognizable small-town types, couldn’t live anywhere else.  And of course the town is a character all on its own, just as Southern as its people.  There’s a sort of earthy fierceness beneath a veneer of gentility that’s just so distinct to the South, along with a strong sense of family.  This story would be very different if set among we stoic, independent, chilly New Englanders, for instance.

This really is a novel to read for the characters and the setting.  The plots do all wrap up nicely and there are some revelations and tragedy, but I found the enjoyable storyline second to everything else.

If you’re after the same sort of read I was–one with great characters, a good story, and a strong setting, all told in laidback, very natural prose–give this one a look!

–Marie

 

Advertisements

Marie’s Reading: “The Perfect Nanny” by Leila Slimani

perfect nannyThis French thriller is a slim, quick read, but it packs an emotional punch.  The story is about a nanny named Louise, hired by a French couple to care for their two children.  Over time, and via flashback, it becomes clear that Louise is not as wonderful a find as her employers supposed.

This novel is quite understated and character-focused.  Readers who are tired of rote police procedurals and lots of heinous crime will likely find the style and tone refreshing.  The reader is also aware from the first page of both the crime and who did it, and the narrative does not focus on an investigation nor the gory details.  Instead, we get a glimpse into this family and into Louise’s life, and can intuit the reasons behind the tragedy that opens the book.  The story is compelling and unsettling, with lots of dark corners.

The Perfect Nanny has less to do with a crime and investigation than it does with motherhood and with caregiving, and how oppressive those roles can be even as they bring a lot of joy.  Slimani also examines the tensions of class.  Readers who enjoy intensely focused, character-centered novels should give this one a look!  I’d also suggest it to readers who enjoy old-school domestic thrillers.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Quartet in Autumn” by Barbara Pym

quartet in autumnLetty, Marcia, Edwin, and Norman are low-level clerks who share an office in a very drab London in the 1970’s.  They’re all retirement-age, all very private, and all lonely and a bit strange.  The story follows the four of them through scenes of their lives outside of the office, and then, in the end, a move toward perhaps becoming more than simply workmates.

Pym’s satire is the gentle kind, rather than the acid kind–there are pointed barbs about the way the lonely elderly are treated by society, and about how the England of the 1970’s seemed like an alien place to those “born in Malvern in 1914 of middle-class English parents.”  Yet there’s real affection for these people, no matter their quirks or problems.  Pym writes with a lot of compassion.

Letty, the one from Malvern, is a tidy woman intent on education.  Edwin loves church to the point of obsession (he reads all sorts of newsletters and goes to everyone’s services).  Norman has lots of lofty plans which never quite materialize, as he finds himself keeping company with a brother-in-law he doesn’t like.  The only really sad, tragic member of the quartet is Marcia–she quietly goes around the bend after a mastectomy.

The pace is brisk, and goes from scene to scene, character to character.  It’s a very character-centered story, the focus always on these rather downtrodden office mates.  But it’s not a sad book–none of the four are really sad.  They’ve carved out their own happiness and their own little victories out of what their world has given them.  And the story ends on a very hopeful note.

Give this one a try if you’re after a gentle read that’s still smart and pointed, and is populated with affectionately rendered, interesting (if a touch eccentric) characters.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Pond” by Claire-Louise Bennett

PondPond is a collection of first-person stories, told by a woman who lives in a tiny cottage on the outskirts of a village.  Every piece is full of her observations, thoughts, and the detail (sometimes microscopic) of everyday life.

Slowly, page by page, phrase by multi-layered phrase, the narrator’s character is revealed.  She has secrets, she has perhaps something more than just odd habits.  The sense of time is confused, as are the other people the narrator talks about.  There’s a lot left for the reader to piece together and figure out about her.  At the end you’re left with an impression, a feeling, more than anything else.

The narrative voice and the style are wonderfully off-key, just slightly out of tune–the feeling really is one of being trapped inside the head of someone who’s alone way too much.  Or maybe trapped in a small room with that same person, and they will not stop talking at you.

Bennett does such strange and beautiful things with words.  It’s like poetry, almost.  You have to pay attention to every word.  This isn’t one to skim.  Here’s a quote, to give you an example of the voice and style:

“Look here, it’s perfectly obvious by now to anyone that my head is turned by imagined elsewheres and hardly at all by present circumstances–even so no one can know what trip is going on and on in anyone else’s mind and so, for that reason solely perhaps, the way I go about my business, such as it is, can be very confusing, bewildering, unaccountable–even, actually, offensive sometimes.”

Detailed, poetic, at times uncomfortable, Pond is a great choice if you enjoy reveling in language.

I was reminded of The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry while I was reading Pond, mostly because of the first-person, perhaps slightly unhinged narration.  The Divry book is more humorous in tone, though.  I also thought of The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, for the loneliness and anger in the narrative voice, though that one is a linear story.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “The Flood Girls” by Richard Fifield

Flood GirlsSometimes you need a novel that makes you snort with laughter every page or so.  One with a great sense of place, good characters, and enough weirdness, softball games, and drunken brawls to keep you engaged. The Flood Girls by Richard Fifield fits the bill.

Rachel Flood returns to her hometown in Montana as part of her “making amends” step in Alcoholics Anonymous.   The locals don’t exactly welcome her back, including her own mother.  The story follows Rachel’s attempts to mend fences, as well as the ups and downs of the characters in her periphery–Jake, the gay boy next door, and her mother, Laverna.

The pace is leisurely and the characters are quirky and fun.  Everyone drinks and fights and swears, but there are great steady friendships here, too.  Broken and downtrodden and dysfunctional as they are, the people of Quinn rely on each other and make spaces for themselves.  Hardly anyone is really alone in The Flood Girls.  Like the titular softball team, these characters come together and make it work.  Mostly.

Mostly, because the story takes a very dark and surprising turn very close to the end.  I can only speak for myself, but I found it jarring compared to the rest of the book–so much so that I ended up skimming the remainder of the story.  Your mileage, of course, may vary. But the rest of the book is so engaging, funny, and heartwarming in a totally bizarre way that it’s worth a read.

The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove by Christopher Moore might have more sea monsters named Steve than The Flood Girls does, but in lots of other ways they’re quite similar–quirky characters in a small town, their lives and relationships, poignancy in the oddest places, and lots of humor.  Mavis, the bar owner in Pine Cove has a lot in common with Laverna, actually.

This book also made me think of Joshilyn Jackson, particularly A Grown-Up Kind of Prettyabout a girl’s search for her mother and the strained relationships between three generations of women, told from all three perspectives.  The exploration of relationships in all their not-so-great glory, the strong women, as well as the sense of place, might appeal to those who liked The Flood Girls.  You might also enjoy The Good House by Ann Leary, if you enjoy Rachel and Laverna in this book, and the way alcoholism is handled with dark humor.  The small-town feel is good in that one as well.

–Marie

Marie’s Favorite Reads of 2015

2015 was a tough reading year for me, in terms of favorite books.  In years past I’ve always had a few stand-outs, books I loved and devoured and then went off in search of more like them.  This year, not so much.

The sole honor in that category goes to Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, which I discovered and adored this past year.  French rekindled my love of Crime fiction, and I’ve been gravitating more and more toward that genre after spending quite a long time in Horror and Thriller/Suspense.  So the first in the series, In The Woods, is at the tip-top of my favorite reads list.

This past year has been tough in terms of getting out of my reading comfort zone as well.  Thanks to the lovely nonfiction reading group I belong to, I’ve been guaranteed to read at least one nonfiction title a month for the past year and a half.  I’m still really slow about it, though.  For some reason I never tear through nonfiction as I do a novel, despite the fact that we’ve read some great ones in that group.  You can check out our reading list here.  Though I loved them all, I starred my particular favorites.

All that said, here’s the pretty short list of my faves from 2015.  These aren’t necessarily books published in the past year, just ones I read.  Clicking on the title will take you to the blog post I wrote about the book.  Enjoy!

Marie’s Favorite Books of 2015

In the Woods

florence gordon

eileen

browsings

head full of ghosts

Chew

Tune in next time for the post where I’ll admit defeat on the Reading Challenge.   Happy reading!

–Marie

 

26 Books to Read in 2015: #1

Finally, I’m getting around to: A Book You Own But Haven’t Read.

I chose Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson.  Not only because I’ve been meaning to read it for years, particularly after finishing Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, but also because it’s delightfully slim.

winesburg, ohio

Written in 1919, Winesburg, Ohio is a cycle of short stories all about a small Midwestern town at the turn of the twentieth century.  More particularly, about the people who live there, especially the ones who somehow live on the periphery.  Anderson’s dedication reads:

To the memory of my mother, Emma Smith Anderson, whose keen observations on the life about her first awoke in me the hunger to see beneath the surface of lives, this book is dedicated.

“To see beneath the surface of lives.”  That’s precisely what this book allows the reader to do.

We see tales of wasted lives, of tragedy, of sexual awakenings, of striving for meaning and never finding it.  We watch people being unable to articulate what they need, and the unspoken knowledge that even if these people could articulate their desires, they probably wouldn’t be fulfilled.

I’ve been trying and trying to think of something to say about this book other than that it affected me deeply.  And by that I mean made me really depressed.  There’s a bleakness to these stories.  Stylistically, Winesburg has its flourishes here and there, but for the most part it’s natural, simple, and intensely focused–you can see the influence Anderson had on writers who came after him, such as Faulkner, Hemingway, and Updike.  There’s a humanity and a realism to each piece that makes you want to cringe.  At least, that was my reaction to many of the stories.

There’s a voyeuristic feel to these tales.  You’re peeping in the windows of this town, prying off tight lids and seeing what’s kept inside.  It’s bittersweet and complicated and you come away feeling as though you’ve seen and heard things you shouldn’t.  Hence the cringing.  The cringing is aided by how well small-town life is nailed, the good and the bad.  Mostly bad, since you’re with characters who live on the edges of everything.

Winesburg, Ohio.  If you want some meaty but depressing small-town stories, you should give it a look.  Uplifting it is not, but everything about it feels very real.  You could also have a look at the post I wrote about Main Street by Sinclair Lewis–though Anderson’s work doesn’t have the same satire or humor to it.  I found myself making comparisons between the two as I read.

So we’re now midway through August.  Four months remain in 2015.  Let’s do a Challenge Progress Check-In:

Book Challenge

I…have a lot left to read.

Welp.  Might be time to really buckle down.  Put the nose to the grindstone. Get down to business.

And cheat.

Stay tuned!

–Marie