Three Things About Elsie // Joanna Cannon

Thank you to Scribner, Simon and Schuster, and Netgalley for an early review copy of Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon, which was published August 7, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

From the publisher:

“There are three things you should know about Elsie.  The first thing is that she’s my best friend.  The second is that she always knows what to say to make me feel better.  And the third thing… might take a bit more explaining.”

Eighty-four-year-old Florence has fallen in her flat at Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly.  As she waits to be rescued, she thinks about her friend Elsie and wonders if a terrible secret from their past is about to come to light.  If the charming new resident is who he claims to be, why does he look exactly like a man who died sixty years ago?

When Joanna Cannon’s Three Things About Elsie was longlisted for the Women’s Prize, I read review after review but never gathered any intention of reading it.  Then, I decided to request it from Scribner on a complete whim because I have no self control, at least when it comes to books.  The result of my momentary weakness was a quirky, heartwarming story about growing old, being young, and the tough questions we must ask ourselves as we age.

Three Things About Elsie has a little bit of everything.  There’s a little romance, a little mystery, and a little suspense, but at its center is the sweet friendship between Florence, the main character, and Elsie, her childhood best friend.  The pair have a special relationship; they know each other better than anyone else, and I imagined them as those cute little old ladies I see while I’m out grocery shopping.  They were hysterical together, and I enjoyed reading about the unique bond they shared with one another.

Beyond Florence’s relationship with Elsie is her role as an unreliable narrator.  I have a growing admiration towards unreliable narration, so I fell in love with that aspect of Three Things About Elsie. While reading about Florence’s mishaps, I wondered if someone was actually setting her up for misfortune or if she was just losing her marbles. I believe Cannon intended for her audience to question Flo’s sanity, just like she intended for it to be a page-turning mystery.

Though I found a lot to admire with the characters of Three Things About Elsie, I found it too predictable when it came to plot, and unfortunately that ruined it for me.  The “surprise” ending was all too obvious, and something I’d assumed from the start.  I’m sure it would’ve been less predictable if I didn’t read so much, but it made me lose interest around the halfway point.  I enjoyed the quirky characters and the unreliable narration, but the awkward writing style and predictability made this one a miss for me.

Find this book on Goodreads.

Sweetbitter // Stephanie Danler

I had every intention of saving Sweetbitter to read on my trip to New York in a few weeks, but I just couldn’t wait any longer.  This book, Stephanie Danler’s debut, was an instant hit two summers ago, and its recent development into a Starz series re-inspired my interest.  I devoured Sweetbitter just like one would devour a meal at the Union Square Café: slowly, savoring every minute, while still impatiently craving the rest.

“You will develop a palate.”

-Stephanie Danler, Sweetbitter

From the jacket:

Shot from a mundane, provincial past, Tess comes to New York in the stifling summer of 2006.  Alone, knowing no one, living in a rented room in Williamsburg, she manages to land a job as a “backwaiter” at a celebrated downtown Manhattan restaurant.  This begins the year we spend with Tess as she starts to navigate the chaotic, enchanting, punishing, and privileged life she has chosen, as well as the remorseless and luminous city around her.  What follows is her education: in oysters, Champagne, the appellations of Burgundy, friendship, cocaine, lust, love, and dive bars.  As her appetites awaken- for food and wine, but also for knowledge, experience, belonging- we see her helplessly drawn into a darkly alluring love triangle.  With an orphan’s ardor she latches onto Simone, a senior server at the restaurant who has lived in ways Tess only dreams of, and against the warnings of her coworkers she falls under the spell of Jake, the elusive, tatted up, achingly beautiful bartender.  These two and their enigmatic connection to each other will prove to be Tess’s most exhilarating and painful lesson of all.

If I struggled with any aspect of this book, it was Tess, our whiny narrator.  Sweetbitter is categorized as a “coming-of-age” novel, but by the end, I had a hard time believing Tess had truly matured into an adult.  The so-called “romance” between Tess and Jake frustrated me immensely.  At one point, Jake told Tess to wipe off her lipstick because she looked like a clown, and I just sat back and wondered why she would put up with a guy like that.  If you know me, you know I don’t really give a crap about being in a relationship, so Tess’s desperation to be with Jake that badly irked me.  I think Tess was supposed to come of age by realizing how silly it is for her to tolerate the constant shit that Simone and Jake give her, but even in the last few pages, Tess still felt immature and whiny.  I’m not sure she learned anything from her post-grad identity crisis.  I wanted to see her grow more, but she was too busy worrying about what other people thought of her, and drinking too much to try to forget about it.

“She belonged to herself only.  She had edges, boundaries, tastes, definition down to her eyelashes.  And when she walked it was clear she knew where she was going.”

-Stephanie Danler, Sweetbitter

I think Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter is the kind of book where it really matters when in your life you read it.  In all honesty, if I wasn’t a nineteen-year-old dreaming of life in New York, I don’t think I would’ve liked it as much as I did.  I also enjoyed all of the commentary on the quirks of the service industry, and the exploration of the special bond restaurant co-workers share with one another.  I worked in a fast-casual restaurant for my first year of college, nothing fancy like Tess’s job but closer to a Panera Bread, but still the kitchen environment was entirely similar, and I loved reading Danler’s take on a world I had experienced myself.  Parts of Sweetbitter had me cracking up and reminiscing about my own days cleaning fridges and dropping food in front of everyone, so I really felt for Tess, her struggles, and her insecurities in a way I’m not sure someone who hadn’t once worked in a restaurant would understand.

Danler’s fiction is somewhat experimental in that MFA-writing way, but it’s dripping with talent and I’m curious to see what she does next.  Though Sweetbitter, like any piece of writing, wasn’t perfect, I wholeheartedly enjoyed my time reading it.

Find this book on Goodreads.

The Incendiaries // R.O. Kwon

When my copy of The Incendiaries arrived in the mail from the lovely people at Riverhead Books (thank you!), I almost cried.  I’ve been looking forward to reading this one for months, and I was thrilled to finally have a copy in my hands!  The Incendiaries wasn’t what I thought it was going to be, but it definitely surpassed my high expectations.

From the jacket:

Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall meet their first month at an elite American university.  Phoebe is a glamorous girl who doesn’t tell anyone she blames herself for her mother’s recent death.  Will is a misfit scholarship boy transferring in from Bible college, waiting tables to get by.  What he knows for sure is that he loves Phoebe.

Haunted by her loss, Phoebe is increasingly drawn into a religious group- a secretive cult tied to North Korea- founded by a charismatic former student with an enigmatic past involving Phoebe’s Korean American family.  Will struggles to confront the obsession consuming the one he loves, and the fundamentalism he’s tried to escape.  When the group bombs several buildings in the name of faith, killing five people, Phoebe disappears.  Will devotes himself to finding her, tilting into obsession himself, seeking answers to what happened to Phoebe and if she could have been responsible for this violent act.

At its heart, The Incendiaries is a story about loss: loss of faith, of family, of love, and what that means for different people.  For Will, who has already lost his faith and family, it means tracking down the woman he loves and saving her from the life she’s chosen to lead.  But for Phoebe, who blames herself for her mother’s sudden death, it means running away from love and from faith, and turning to something horrible in return.

“Faces lit up if I walked into a room, the liking a light I could refract, giving it back.  Phoebe, oh, I love that girl, people said, but it’s possible they all just loved the reflected selves.”

-R.O. Kwon, The Incendiaries

The Incendiaries comes at an all-too-perfect time, discussing racial and religious prejudice, terrorism and extremism.  It’s a topical novel that reflects brilliantly on the current global and political climate while weaving together the lives of two very different people.  It’s incredibly slow-paced, and it personally took me two weeks to get through its measly two-hundred pages, but it packs a punch and it’s certainly not a book you’ll forget any time soon.

Read if you liked: (1) Exit West by Mohsin Hamid for its glittering yet abrupt, abbreviated prose on a timely topic; (2) The Mothers by Brit Bennett for its heartfelt story about a young woman losing her mother and struggling with her role in it; (3) The Girls by Emma Cline for its powerful, cult-centered tale about adolescence and extremism.

Find this book on Goodreads.

The Bucket List // Georgia Clark

Thank you to Atria Books, Emily Bestler Books, Simon and Schuster, and Netgalley for an early review copy of The Bucket List by Georgia Clark, which will publish August 7, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

From the publisher:

Twenty-five-old Lacey Whitman is blindsided when she’s diagnosed with the BCRA1 gene mutation: the “breast cancer” gene.  Her high hereditary risk forces a decision: increased surveillance or the more radical step of a preventative double mastectomy.  Lacey doesn’t want to lose her breasts.  For one, she’s juggling two career paths; her work with the prestigious New York trend forecaster Hoffman House, and her role on the founding team of a sustainable fashion app with friend/mentor, Vivian Chang.  Secondly, small-town Lacey’s not so in touch with her sexuality: she doesn’t want to sacrifice her breasts before she’s had the chance to give them their hey-day.  To help her make her choice, she (and her friends) creates a “boob bucket list”: everything she wants do with and for her boobs before a possible surgery.  This kicks off a year of sensual exploration and sexual entertainment for the quick-witted Lacey Whitman.  The Bucket List cleverly and compassionately explores Lacey’s relationship to her body and her future.  Both are things Lacey thought she could control through hard work and sacrifice.  But the future, it turns out, is more complicated than she could ever imagine.

I read Georgia Clark’s The Bucket List over the course of one insomniac night, flying through its majority in a solid four hours before my eyelids felt heavy, then finishing up the remaining fifteen percent in the morning over breakfast.  I couldn’t get enough of The Bucket List, which was a bit of a surprise for me given that I never read chick lit, but it was such a fun read and I wholeheartedly enjoyed every word.

The Bucket List is the work culture of The Devil Wears Prada meets the love story of Me Before You meets the hot sex of Grey’s Anatomy.  (I didn’t know this going into it, but fair warning: The Bucket List is full of sex scenes.)  It’s cute, cliché chick lit that manages to be smart and sexy at the same time, all while taking on the tough subject of breast cancer.  Cancer is definitely at the forefront of this novel, but I wouldn’t categorize this as a “Cancer Book”; it’s also about love, family, friendship, and being a struggling twenty-something in New York, working too much and struggling to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life.  In Lacey’s case, it’s more than just career-wise, as she is forced to make the tough decision about getting a double mastectomy.  Throughout the novel, I really felt for Lacey and the difficulty of her decision-making; Clark presents the pro’s and con’s of each choice in a way that I could understand why someone would choose either option, getting the mastectomy or not.

The Bucket List really opened my eyes to the realities of serious illness.  Clark writes about the emotional, romantic, and financial difficulties of facing a BRCA1 gene mutation with intelligence and wit; she brings awareness to a difficult topic through a heartfelt, honest story that manages to be relatable and unputdownable.

Find this book on Goodreads.

The Family Tabor // Cherise Wolas

Thank you to Flatiron Books and Netgalley for an early review copy of The Family Tabor by Cherise Wolas, which will publish July 17, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

From the publisher:

Harry Tabor is about to be named Man of the Decade, a distinction that feels like the culmination of a life well lived.  Gathering together in Palm Springs for the celebration are his wife, Roma, a distinguished child psychologist, and their children: Phoebe, a high-powered attorney; Camille, a brilliant social anthropologist; and Simon, a big-firm lawyer, who brings his glamorous wife and two young daughters.

But immediately, cracks begin to appear in the smooth facade: Simon hasn’t been sleeping through the night, Camille can’t decide what to do with her life, and Phoebe is a little too cagey about her new boyfriend.  Roma knows her children are hiding things.  What she doesn’t know, what none of them know, is that Harry is suddenly haunted by the long-buried secret that drove him, decades ago, to relocate his young family to the California desert.  As the ceremony nears, the family members are forced to confront the falsehoods upon which their lives are built.

Set over the course of a single weekend, and deftly alternating between the five Tabors, this provocative, gorgeously rendered novel reckons with the nature of the stories we tell ourselves and our family and the price we pay for second chances.

The Family Tabor is thick with words and full of sentences so wonderfully crafted, I wanted to revisit them out of sheer admiration.  The book is dazzling in its descriptions but not so much its plot and characters.  I fell in love with the writing from the start and tried my best to push through the story in order to enjoy Wolas’s prose, but found myself bored to say the least.  I wasn’t interested in the characters, and their so-called “secrets” were just watered down first-world problems, which grew to be incredibly aggravating for me.  If I felt connected to the character, I would’ve felt compassion towards their struggles, no matter how trite, but I was so disinterested in the Tabors that I couldn’t convince myself to care.

The Family Tabor is a slow-burn story in the truest sense of the term, and I just didn’t jive with it (this coming from someone who loved Elif Batuman’s The Idiot).  Though I haven’t read Wolas’s debut, The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, I’ve heard so many fantastic things about it, which is why I was so disappointed when I had to set this one down.  I love a good multi-generational family saga, and that’s what I expected with The Family Tabor, but it fell flat for me.  Unfortunately the beautiful writing did not make up for the severe lack of plot or the dull characters.

I made it about thirty-percent through before I had to set down The Family Tabor.  If you’re a sucker for dazzling writing, it won’t disappoint, but if you’re a stickler for plot or characters, skip this one.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

A Terrible Country // Keith Gessen

Thank you to Penguin Viking and Netgalley for an early review copy of A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen, which will publish July 10, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

From the publisher:

When Andrei Kaplan’s older brother Dima insists that Andrei return to Moscow to care for their ailing grandmother, Andrei must take stock of his life in New York.  His girlfriend has stopped returning his text messages.  His dissertation adviser is dubious about his job prospects.  It’s the summer of 2008, and his bank account is running dangerously low.  Perhaps a few months in Moscow are just what he needs.  So Andrei sublets his room in Brooklyn, packs up his hockey stuff, and moves into the apartment that Stalin himself had given his grandmother, a woman who has outlived her husband and most of her friends.  She survived the dark days of communism and witnessed Russia’s violent capitalist transformation, during which she lost her beloved dacha.  She welcomes Andrei into her home, even if she can’t always remember who he is.

Andrei learns to navigate Putin’s Moscow, still the city of his birth, but with more expensive coffee.  He looks after his elderly- but surprisingly sharp!- grandmother, finds a place to play hockey, a café to send emails, and eventually some friends, including a beautiful young activist named Yulia.  Over the course of the year, his grandmother’s health declines and his feelings of dislocation from both Russia and America deepen.  Andrei knows he must reckon with his future and make choices that will determine his life and fate.  When he becomes entangled with a group of leftists, Andrei’s politics and his allegiances are tested, and he is forced to come to terms with the Russian society he was born into and the American one he has enjoyed since he was a kid.

Russia and Russian literature have been popping up a lot in literature lately, at least in my reading, with books like Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt and The Idiot by Elif Batuman.  Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country is no exception; it follows twenty-something Andrei as he leaves his life in New York behind and returns to Moscow, the city of his birth, to care for his ailing grandmother.

Told in first person, A Terrible Country felt so true to life and read autobiographical at times; I could really see Gessen’s perspective shining through the narrative.  After I finished the book, I came across an interview with Gessen conducted for The New Yorker, in which he said, “I love nonfiction, and I really love oral history.  I like fiction that is made up, but I really love fiction that is thinly veiled autobiography . . . I think if I’d had enough material for a memoir, I’d have written a memoir.  But I didn’t- my life in Russia was even less interesting than Andrei’s.  But I did want it to sound like a memoir.”  He definitely succeeded in that.

A Terrible Country is written with simple prose and plot.  The majority of the book follows Andrei’s day-to-day life in Moscow.  He plays hockey, spends time with his forgetful grandmother, struggles trying to advance his career in New York, argues with his brother Dima about money, gets involved with an “extremist” party, and develops feelings for young activist Yulia.  There’s a lot going on but it never felt like too much; it almost felt like not enough because nothing is explored deeply.  A Terrible Country is told in a diary-like format as Andrei tells the audience what happened after-the-fact, instead of narrating as things are happening.  The so-called love story felt especially weak as it was written about very briefly; as a reader, I knew nothing about Yulia, so I struggled caring about her relationship with Andrei.

In general, A Terrible Country was an enjoyable story to read, though its storytelling techniques were frustrating at times.  If you like Russian literature or history, you’ll adore this novel.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

The Mothers // Brit Bennett

Brit Bennett’s stunning debut, The Mothers, was an “it” book back in 2016, and I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to read it!  It’s exquisitely written with sentences so well-crafted, I read paragraphs over and over a few times, not because I needed to, but because it was just that good.

“A daughter grows older and draws nearer to her mother, until she gradually overlaps her like a sewing pattern.  But a son becomes some irreparably separate thing.”

-Brit Bennett, The Mothers

From the back cover:

It begins with a secret.  It is the last season of high school life for Nadia Turner, a rebellious, grief-stricken, seventeen-year-old beauty.  Mourning her mother’s recent death, she takes up with the local pastor’s twenty-one-year-old son, Luke.  They are young: it’s not serious.  But the secret that results from this teen romance- and the subsequent cover-up- will have an impact that goes far beyond their youth.  As Nadia hides the truth from everyone, including Aubrey, her best friend, the years move quickly.  Soon, Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey are full-fledged adults, still shadowed by the choices they have made in their youth, and by the constant, nagging question: What if they had chosen differently?  The possibilities of the road not taken are a relentless haunt.  An urgent and provocative debut from an important new voice, The Mothers is a book about community and ambition, love and friendship, and living up to expectation in contemporary black America.

As you would guess from the title, The Mothers is dominated by a theme of motherhood: what it means to be a mother, to take care of someone, biological child or not.  Underneath, the book is about the messy things in life: love, loss, secrets, and, most of all, the consequences of our decisions and how they can haunt us for the rest of our lives.  Bennett plays around with the idea of masculinity versus femininity, of who a person should be and what they should should act like based on not only their gender, but also their race and sexuality.

“Maybe all women were shapeshifters, changing instantly depending on who was around.”

-Brit Bennett, The Mothers

The Mothers is told uniquely through the collective “we” voice of the Mothers of the Upper Room church, a group of traditional, gossipy elderly women in the community who observe the happenings of the church community from afar.  I’ve heard a lot of readers say they struggled with this style, and though I haven’t read anything else told that way, I loved it.  It rounded out the story, aiding in the development of the characters, and offering multiple perspectives into a tricky situation.  I normally think short books like The Mothers could should be a bit longer in order to fully develop the story, but I think it’s a perfect length for what it attempts to accomplish.

Bennett uses a lot of cliche plot lines, like the teenage girl who turns reckless when her mother dies, and the football player who loses his scholarship after an injury and doesn’t know where to go in life, and even a weakened love triangle, and ties them together with hard-hitting themes and mesmerizing prose to create The Mothers, a portrait of life in our modern world.  It’s a timely, topical novel that sucked me in and left me breathless.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.