The Interestings // Meg Wolitzer

Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings is one of those novels that you either love or hate, and after turning the last page, I can happily say that I fell in love with this book.  I found it to be highly captivating, with memorable and, yes, interesting characters that seemed so real to me.


From the back cover:

The summer that Nixon resigns, six teenagers at a summer camp for the arts become inseparable.  Decades later the bond remains, but so much else has changed.  Not everyone can sustain, in adulthood, what seemed so special in adolescence.  The kind of creativity rewarded at age fifteen is not always enough to propel someone through life at age thirty- not to mention age fifty.  Wolitzer follows her characters from the height of youth through middle age, as their talents, fortunes, and degrees of satisfaction diverge.

Jules Jacobson, an aspiring comic actress, resigns herself to a more practical occupation.  Her friend Jonah, a gifted musician, stops playing guitar and becomes an engineer.  But Ethan and Ash, Jules’s now-married best friends, become shockingly successful- true to their initial artistic dreams, with the wealth and access that allow those dreams to keep expanding.  Wide in scope, ambitious, and populated by complex characters, The Interestings explores the way that class, power, art, money, success, and friendship can shift and tilt precariously over the course of a life.


“People could not get enough of what they had lost, even if they no longer wanted it.”

-Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings


The Interestings follows a group of six people from their teenage years at a summer camp in the Berkshires to complicated adulthood in their fifties.  Jules Jacobson is the main voice of the story, though friends Ethan, Ash, Jonah, and camp directors Manny and Edie make frequent appearances.  One of the things I appreciated most about these characters is that they felt so natural and realistic; each person had their imperfections, and those flaws made them who they are.

The only complaint I have about The Interestings is that I wanted more, specifically more on Jules’s teenage life outside of Spirit-in-the-Woods camp: more of her life during the school year, more of an explanation of her father’s death, etc.  Though the novel is over 500 pages (depending on the edition), I believe it was missing some key background information that could have gone to great heights to improve the story.


“You didn’t always need to be the dazzler, the firecracker, the one who cracked everyone up, or made everyone want to sleep with you, or be the one who wrote and starred in the play that got the standing ovation.  You could cease to be obsessed with the idea of being interesting.”

-Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings


Meg Wolitzer expertly captures the human experience and the flaws that sometimes, unfortunately, define who we are.  The Interestings is a novel about art, love, life, and death told through an ensemble of characters who have certainly experienced them all.  I would highly recommend this novel and I look forward to reading more of Wolitzer’s work!

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

Blogging Changed How I Read

I began blogging a little over two months ago, but in that short period of time my reading has undergone some changes.  Since starting Hannah and Her Books, I’ve noticed that I’ve been reading more, reading with an analytical eye, and reading diversely, but I’ve also been feeling pressured and stuck.

I read more.

When I started college, my excessive workload forced me to put reading on the back burner.  However, starting this blog has made reading a priority again.  I am always carrying a book, and I make sure to set aside reading time every day, either right after I wake up in the morning, right before I got to bed, or other random times throughout the day such as between classes or during lunch.

I read analytically.

Since I started blogging, I’ve looked deeper into the books I’ve read to really understand what I like and dislike about them.  Reading has become more than just simply absorbing books, but rather taking them apart like a puzzle and examining the pieces and how they work together.

I read diversely.

Blogging has allowed me to discover so many books I never would’ve found without being a part of this online community of bibliophiles.  I’ve stumbled upon so many different novels and authors across a wide variety of genres, and I’ve been picking up books written by POC, like Homegoing and Behold the Dreamers.

I feel pressured.

One of the cons of book blogging is all the pressure that comes along with it.  There is the pressure to read “popular” books, the ones that everyone else is talking about, so that I can stay relevant.  There is the pressure to read new books, even though it means less rereading, which I used to do all the time!  I also feel pressured to read as much as everyone else, even if I don’t have the time; I’m happy if I manage to finish two or three books a month, but others are reading fifteen or twenty.  Lastly, there’s the pressure to write positive (read: dishonest) reviews, because no one likes a Negative Nancy.

I feel stuck.

I feel stuck in the sense that I am always reading books I’ve heard of before.  When I shop for books, either in person or online, I find myself buying books that I recognize, compared to when I was a young girl and I just perused the shelves for a book that looked good.  Not to say there’s anything wrong with that, but I guess I just miss being surprised by a book.

Overall, blogging has been a rewarding experience thus far; it has definitely changed the way I read, perhaps for the better.

xx,
Hannah

Homegoing // Yaa Gyasi

I read Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing during finals week, which was probably a mistake on my part because once I started reading, I couldn’t stop.  It is incredibly powerful and engaging, a heartbreaking family saga with rich characters and an even richer story.  Homegoing takes you on the journey of seven generations, each scarred by fire either literally or figuratively, and with every tale intertwined and connected.


From the back cover:

Ghana, eighteenth century: two half sisters are born into different villages, each unaware of the other.  One will marry an Englishman and lead a life of comfort in the palatial rooms of the Cape Coast Castle.  The other will be captured in a raid on her village, imprisoned in the very same castle, and sold into slavery.

Homegoing follows the parallel paths of these sisters and their descendants through eight generations: from the Gold Coast to the plantations of Mississippi, from the American Civil War to Jazz Age Harlem.  Yaa Gyasi’s extraordinary novel illuminates slavery’s troubled legacy both for those who were taken and those who stayed- and shows how the memory of captivity has been inscribed on the soul of our nation.


“Evil begets evil.  It grows.  It transmutes, so that sometimes you cannot see that the evil in the world began as the evil in your own home.”

-Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing


Homegoing may be a novel, but it reads like a collection of fourteen short stories; there are two stories from each generation, alternating back and forth between bloodlines.  I found it a bit difficult to keep track of the descendants at first, and I kept flipping to see the family tree in the beginning of the book, but after a few chapters I got to know the characters and it became easier to tell who was related to who and in what way.  As with any book built this way, I enjoyed some stories more than others; I flew through the chapters of Ness, Abena, H, Yaw, and Marjorie, but I could’ve done without Akua’s and Sonny’s.  However, the ending truly made up for it!  Although I did predict it shortly after I started reading, it was still SO satisfying.  The ending was the happy conclusion the book needed, tying it up with a nice, pretty bow.


“You want to know what weakness is?  Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you.  Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.”

-Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing


Homegoing covers about 250 years of both Ghanaian and American history, a tremendous feat for a debut novel.  It hits on most of the important time periods in black history, from the slave trade and the American Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance and modern civil rights movement.  It is not just a family saga but a harrowing story of escape and hardship.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

Modern Lovers // Emma Straub

With end-of-semester demands drastically increasing, I found myself craving a light, easy read, and the bright turquoise spine of Modern Lovers seemed to be calling my name.  Thus, I escaped the university insanity and transported myself to summertime Brooklyn in the hopes of enjoying a cute summery story.  But Modern Lovers was a bit different than what I anticipated.


From the back cover:

Friends and former college bandmates Elizabeth and Andrew and Zoe have watched one another marry, buy real estate, and start businesses and families, all while trying to hold on to the identities of their youth.  But nothing ages them like having to suddenly pass the torch to their own offspring.  Now nearing fifty, they all live within shouting distance deep in gentrified Brooklyn, and the trappings of the adult world seem to have arrived with ease.  But the summer their children reach maturity (and start sleeping together), the fabric of the adults’ lives begins to unravel, and the secrets and revelations that are finally let loose can never be reclaimed.


“Choices were easy to make until you realized how long life could be.”

-Emma Straub, Modern Lovers


Quirky yet one-dimensional hipsters make up our cast of characters.  There is Elizabeth, a near-50 year old real estate agent stuck in a rut, and her husband Andrew, who faces a mid-life crisis and, during an attempt to find a new life’s purpose, becomes entranced by a hip new co-op in the neighborhood.  There is former college bandmate Zoe, grappling with the fact that her marriage is in shambles, and her wife Jane, an eccentric chef with whom Zoe operates a trendy Brooklyn restaurant called Hyacinth.  Adolescent Harry, son of Elizabeth and Andrew, experiments with becoming the “cool” teenager his parents once were and begins a relationship with childhood friend Ruby, daughter of Zoe and Jane and a recent high school graduate struggling to decide how she wants to spend the rest of her life.  Together, these characters represent the complexity of human relationships, but individually, they lack development and seem engulfed by a singular aspect of their personality.

The plot of Modern Lovers seemed a bit confused.  Without getting into spoilers, I feel like a lot of different events were haphazardly thrown in but not fully explored like they should’ve been.  I enjoyed the book and its quick wittiness, but I think it could’ve been more than just a “beach read” had it gone into a bit more depth and gave more background on the various characters and their complicated history.


“Why couldn’t everyone just stay young forever?  If not on the outside, then just on the inside, where no one ever got too old to be optimistic.”

-Emma Straub, Modern Lovers


Modern Lovers truly is a book about (yes, you guessed it) modern lovers, in every sense of the word.  Straub deeply explores every kind of relationship: husband and wife, friend and lover, even cat and owner.  She expertly examines human nature, what drives and motivates us, in a way that helped me gain perspective on some of my own relationships.  Overall, I can say that I enjoyed Modern Lovers for what it is: a light beach read, but I went into it hoping for more and came out disappointed.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

Behold the Dreamers // Imbolo Mbue

While Behold the Dreamers may be a fictional narrative, it is a powerful look into being an immigrant in America as told by an author who actually experienced the process firsthand.  It contains insightful commentary on racism and white privilege in America in a behind-the-scenes way.  Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers describes the hope that Obama gave African-Americans and African immigrants when he first entered the White House.


“Even in New York City, even in a place of many nations and cultures, men and women, young and old, rich and poor, preferred their kind when it came to those they kept closest. And why shouldn’t they? It was far easier to do so than to spend one’s limited energy trying to blend into a world one was never meant to be a part of.”

-Imbolo Mbue, Behold the Dreamers


From the back cover:

Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem, has come to the United States to provide a better life for himself, his wife, Neni, and their six-year-old son.  In the fall of 2007, Jende can hardly believe his luck when he lands a job as chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers.  Clark’s wife, Cindy, even offers Neni temporary work at their summer home in the Hamptons.  With these opportunities, Jende and Neni can at last imagine a brighter future.

However, the world of great privilege conceals troubling secrets, and soon Jende and Neni notice cracks in their employers’ facades.  Then the financial world is rocked with the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the global economy.  Desperate to keep Jende’s job, which grows more tenuous by the day, the Jongas try to protect the Edwardses from certain truths, even as their own marriage threatens to fall apart.  As all four lives are dramatically upended, Jende and Neni are forced to make an impossible choice.


This novel really contains two stories- one of a wealthy Manhattanite business executive who loses his job and all hell breaks loose (basically), and the other of a hardworking, hopeful immigrant family struggling to make ends meet but doing everything they can to stay in America.  These stories have been told before, but it’s the creativity Mbue uses to craft her novel that makes it extraordinary.

Sometimes I find myself struggling to really immerse myself into stories that are narrated in third person, but Behold the Dreamers gave me no trouble at all.  I think part of it is because of the superb character development.  I just had to keep reading to find out what was going to happen to Jende, Neni, and all of the characters I became invested in.  Even side characters like Neni’s college professor had a purpose in the end.  Mbue did a fantastic job of tying up all the loose ends to create a satisfying conclusion to her tale.

Read this one if you miss Obama (because who doesn’t?!).

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

The Nix // Nathan Hill

I went into this book with very few expectations, and I can honestly say I was blown away.  Nathan Hill’s The Nix grabbed me from the beginning and refused to let go.  The story was original and enjoyable, but the incredible writing is what made me return; Hill is overwhelmingly skilled at crafting sentences and paragraphs that tug at your heartstrings and force you to keep reading (even when you should be writing a research paper).  This is one of those books that kept me up until two a.m. reading on a weeknight, that I pulled out to read in the few minutes between classes, that I put in my bag for the five-minute ride to the grocery store “just in case.” I couldn’t get enough.


From the back cover:

It’s 2011, and Samuel Andresen-Anderson hasn’t seen his mother, Faye, in decades- not since she abandoned the family when he was a boy.  Now she’s reappeared, having committed a crime that electrifies the nightly news and inflames a politically divided country.  The media paints Faye as a 1960s radical, but as far as Samuel knows, his mother was an ordinary girl who married her high-school sweetheart.  Which version of her is true?  Two facts are certain: She’s facing some serious charges, and she needs Samuel’s help.


“The things you love most will one day hurt you the worst.”

-Nathan Hill, The Nix


One of the things I loved most about The Nix was the way the characters’ stories were woven together.  The book had ten parts, switching between the summers of 1968, 1988, and 2011.  We see the main character Samuel as a child in 1988 and as an adult in 2011, but we also see his mother, Faye, as a teenager in 1968.  Hill would reveal something about a character, and then go back in time to show it happening.  This excellent character development strategy reflects how important it is to refrain from judging a person based on what you’ve heard about them.  For example, the reader would learn what everyone thought of Faye as a teenager, and then it would go back in time to when Faye was actually a teenager and show what really happened.  This way of storytelling reminded me heavily of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

Reading The Nix really made me think about the world that we live in.  Hill included a lot of political and social commentary into this novel.  His description of student Laura Pottsdam and her obsession with “iFeel,” a social media platform similar to Twitter and/or Facebook, was disturbingly accurate and inspired me to take a step away from my own online accounts.  Hill also reflected on the current political state of the nation in a somewhat humorous way; the novel’s Governor Sheldon Packer seemed to be an exaggerated version of President Trump himself.  There were a few seemingly unimportant “side” characters, such as Laura and the video-game-obsessed Pwnage, but these characters added to Hill’s frighteningly realistic setting by stressing our current societal ideals on humanity.


“Sometimes we’re so wrapped up in our own story that we don’t see how we’re supporting characters in someone else’s.”

-Nathan Hill, The Nix


I can say with confidence that The Nix is one of my favorite books of the year! I cannot wait to see what Nathan Hill comes up with next.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

All the Light We Cannot See // Anthony Doerr

From the back cover:

Marie-Laure LeBlanc lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works.  When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea.  With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, Werner Pfennig, an orphan, grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find that brings them news and stories from places they have never seen or imagined.  Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments and is enlisted to use his talent to track down the resistance.  Marie-Laure and Werner, from warring countries, both having lost many of the people they loved, come together in Saint-Malo, as Doerr illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.


“Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.”

-Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See


It’s taken me a while to gather my thoughts on this one.  I have to admit, All the Light We Cannot See really intimidated me for the longest time (as any massive, Pulitzer-winning, WWII novel would).  It was a slow read for me with not much happening in terms of plot, but the characters and the writing are why I kept returning.  Doerr pens elegant, well-crafted sentences and his characters are not only vividly-described but heart-breakingly beautiful as well.  I quickly grew to adore Marie-Laure and found myself flipping through the pages to find her next chapter.


“What do we call visible light?  We call it color.  But the electromagnetic spectrum runs to zero in one direction and infinity in the other, so really, children, mathematically, all of light is visible.”

-Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See


All the Light We Cannot See focuses on themes of interconnectedness, with the various characters crossing paths at different points in their lives.  There are so many untold stories from the war, and Doerr hints at this throughout the novel.  You would never think that two characters as different as Marie-Laure and Werner would come together, but they did.  I felt like the majority of the book was leading up to their meeting, and then when it finally happened… I was disappointed.  It wasn’t a big meeting, more like a small introduction.  I know this isn’t a plot-driven book, but there was virtually no plot at all, and I could definitely sense that it was missing.  Luckily, the beautiful prose made up for the lack of story.

Overall, I can say that I enjoyed this book… but not as much as I thought I would.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.