fiction reviews

Drench Yourself In The Sweet, Sweet Sap of Jennifer Weiner’s ‘Who Do You Love’

who do you love

People are hard on Jennifer Weiner. I’m probably too hard on Jennifer Weiner. She speaks up for her genre, those books that the literati cast aside as chick-lit. She speaks out against guys like Jonathan Franzen, who have buffooned up into odd caricatures of themselves. She’s like a lone woman speaking out against a vast structure of how literature works today. I play on both teams, I love both sides of this argument. I’m a fan of chick-lit, but I also love some books for plot and others for language and see it as a fact, not as discrimination. But props to Weiner, I think her discussions bring her more into focus in my world, which is great marketing.

All this Weiner-debate got me Weiner-curious, and I decided to pick up her latest release, Who Do You Love. Who Do You Love takes sweetness to Cotton Candy Crème Frappucino level, as Rachel Blum and Andy Landis come together and tear apart what feels like a billion times throughout their childhood, teen years, and then adulthood. They first lay googly love-eyes upon each other, in the now chic fashion of Fault in our Stars, in the ER as children. Rachel, a frequent hospital resident due to a heart condition, strays from her ward at night. Andy, a bit of a shy and neglected ruffian, broke his arm and (scary!) arrives at the ER with no parental escort.

When they reunite on a trip for Habitat for Humanity in high school, love blooms. First love. Tummy butterfly love. They seem perfect together, but life gets in the way (doesn’t it always?). Love tracks these two through life like gum on a sneaker. They always fall back into each other’s arms. Feelings for Rachel follow Andy as he trains for the Olympics, being a gifted runner since he sprinted on his paper routes. Feelings for Andy nag Rachel during awful blind dates with other men. This is a “Will they, or won’t they?” book. A “How many times will they try?” book. And a, “Really, how plausible is this?” book.

But that’s okay. Weiner doesn’t mind taking the love story full nacho cheesy, and it is delicious. (I have no idea why all my metaphors for a sappy love story are food and beverage related. But I can’t stop.) If you are a slightly bitter person seeking fine literature and emotional depth, then pick up A Little Life and stop reading this review already. There’s nothing wrong with that! But if you love love, you will love Who Do You Love. It will remind you of your awkward first loves, your horrible break-ups, and (maybe) make you hopeful for the love-ly miracles still to come. There’s something a little bit magic about an unapologetic romance laying it on thick, playing all your emotional chords like a sad, beautiful symphony. Prepare to laugh, to feel the tears welling up, to get angry, and then be exhausted that this couple is still fighting or not talking or with other people. Prepare to feel all of this, and then go back in for more.

Who Do You Love on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Advertisements

The Suppressed Rage, The Suppressed Everything, Of Howard Jacobsen’s ‘J’

129.Howard Jacobson-J coverJ is a novel of omission, a novel of everything unsaid brewing up like an earthquake from under the ground.

Howard Jacobsen has built a world in which something happened. Something bad. This is a dystopian state that chooses not to talk about its dystopia, a world moved on by moving away, and now this holocaust-like massacre of some future group is referred to as “WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED.” Responsibility has been taken by all, or by no one, equally. Everyone apologizes for nothing specific. People’s names have been changed, attempting to wipe the slate clean and start over.

Social media, attributed with a role in WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, has been replaced with flashing utility phones equipped for making and receiving local calls. Gone is conceptualism in art, as the “benign visual arts” now focus on landscapes. Gone is so much expressing discontent, from rock music to Proust, all blamed in part for the atrocities. And yet, not gone is everyone’s anger, as spouses argue and drivers rage.

So much in J lives in what isn’t known, what is forbidden, the opposing viewpoints never even aired, people privately stewing over their secrets at night, the treasures stored in boxes. I’m typing the letter “J” here, but in the book it is always J with two lines through it, as main character Kevern’s father “puts two fingers across his mouth, like a tramp sucking on a cigarette butt he’d found in a rubbish bin. This he always did to stifle the letter j before it left his lips.” Throughout the book, j is typed as the title’s two-lined, stifled, silenced j.

Amidst this negative backdrop, with its history subtracted and its culture forgotten or denied or disallowed, two people fall in love.

Ailinn identifies with the title’s namesake whale in Moby Dick, always pursued. “But when people describe having the wind at their back it’s a sensation of freedom I don’t recognize. An unthreatening, invigorating space behind me?–no, I don’t ever have the luxury of that.” Raised in an orphanage, unfamiliar with her history but aware of Ahab at her heels just the same, she grows up to shape paper into flowers beautiful and strange, alien to the landscape.

Kevern, in a village full of men not hesitant to beat their wives or each other, is not the type to hit a woman. A few kisses here and there, yes, but he’s a man who drives his car rarely and slowly, who disarrays his slippers and teacup in the hallway just-so as a security system against intruders when he goes out. He is a cautious, kind man.

When Kevern sees Ailinn for the first time, a girl with “black hair–thick and seemingly warm enough to be the next of some fabulous and he liked to think dangerous creature,” he is smitten.

As the book progresses, as Kevern and Ailinn’s love story progresses, less is omitted and more is stated outright. Kevern and Ailinn are both outsiders, that much is clear. But what does it mean to be an outsider, after WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED? Neither one of them know their own history, nor that of their country or its crimes. Gradually, a bit of their history is revealed. Never enough for a full picture. This isn’t that kind of book.

J starts slow, as Ailinn and Kevern’s love story builds and each of their characters develop, but the last half of the book makes a powerful and shocking statement about the other as necessary for identity. The intentional vagueness of the actual atrocities allow for sweeping, wise statements and tight, tragic glimpses that might lose power with a more fleshed out description of the crimes. The ending is astonishing, beautifully done, and makes the entire book more memorable.

J on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Emily Schultz’s ‘The Blondes:’ Viral “Blonde Fury” Strikes Women and Our Standards of Beauty

blondes-coverEmily Schultz, founder of Joyland Magazine, has written about an epidemic in The Blondes. This is the story of a virus, yes, and about its outbreak. But like Megan Abbott, Schultz’s horror bubbles up from society’s standards for women and their appearances. This is an epidemic that seems to step down off billboards and rock the collective consciousness, as much of the world demands its women trustworthy, both well-coiffed and well-behaved.

We learn of the virus through the memories of Hazel, narrating to her unborn child. Both the child’s existence and the virus’s bloom up around Hazel’s innocent graduate student life, a Canadian visiting New York indefinitely, hoping to clear her head of romantic entanglements. The story alternates between then, Hazel’s life in New York as the virus hits, and now, as Hazel holes up in a cabin alone, pregnant, wondering if the woman she was living with will return or if she’ll be forced to give birth alone.

Hazel explains in the book’s opening, to her unborn daughter:

We are not like men; men shake hands with hate between them all the time and have public arguments that are an obvious jostling for power and position. They compete for dominance— if not over money, then over mating. They know this, each and every one. But women are civilized animals. We have something to prove, too, but we’ll swirl our anger with straws in the bottom of our drinks and suck it up, leaving behind a lipstick stain.

The virus, nicknamed “Blonde Fury,” removes the veil of civilized nature that Hazel refers to here. Although the science behind the virus isn’t explained, and is referred to vaguely, it targets blondes. It targets the image of blondes we are all familiar with–women towering tall in high heels and perfect lipstick. It leaves them snarling and disheveled, animal-like, unable to be subdued by uniformed men. It hits a group of flight attendants, as they storm down the hall of an airline. It turns what we’ve been taught to identify as beautiful into something animal, furious and deadly.

Men are told what to watch out for on the news. Women who have anxiety are quarantined, suspected of having the virus. Suddenly, the female is feared. The story of the outbreak itself, like all virus tales, is strange and surreal, and Hazel’s own lack of direction leaves her adrift in the effects of the virus both in Canada and the U.S., an observer in both her own life and the world. At times hilarious, at times lonely, The Blondes always relays a striking picture of a world quick to adapt to “Gold Fever.”

You can watch the sort of strange, perhaps not representative of the book at all, trailer here:

The Blondes by Emily Schultz on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Tom Cooper Brings The Bayou To Life In ‘The Marauders’

the maraudersIn 2010, the BP oil spill brings new disaster to the small bayou town of Jeanette, Louisiana, as it still reels from Hurricane Katrina, five years earlier. Tom Cooper’s The Marauders is a cataclysmic caper tale of this time, with the capers here being those of simple Southern men trying to survive when smarter folks have fled their seemingly cursed region.

In Jeanette, men get addicted to the hard stuff early, backbreaking work equating with muscles that call out for whiskey, and later oxycontin. Shrimpers find three-eyed catches in their nets, or no shrimp at all, and wonder if they should take the settlement money BP is offering, and give up trawling for good like so many of their friends and neighbors. Fancy New York restaurants are advertising shrimp from China–it is, perhaps, the worst of times to be a small town shrimper in the Gulf Coast.

The story rounds through a group of out-of-luck men, each character brilliant in their peculiarities, their regional drawls, their singular and often circular big dreams. Circuits cross between plot lines, friends are made, identities mistaken, lives lost.

Gus Lindquist is a one-armed shrimper, he lost his arm stoned in a boating accident and now he’s misplaced his fancy, fake prosthetic arm as well. But never one to be discouraged, Lindquist pops pills from a pez dispenser and tells knock knock jokes almost continuously, and at inopportune moments. He tirelessly scavenges the bayou for pirate treasure in his spare time, metal detector in his one good arm, dreaming of the secret stash he’ll someday find and the riches that will bring back the wife who has left him and the daughter who doesn’t visit.

Wes lost his mom in the hurricane and never quite forgave his father for insisting that the family stay put in the storm. He goes out with his dad on the shrimping boat despite shrinking catches and shrinking pay.

Cosgrove and Hanson are easygoing misfits. They meet on a community service detail, fixing up an old woman’s house so the city can seize it as soon as she dies. They reunite at a sweet gig cleaning birds drenched in oil for $15.

These are all lovable, and deeply flawed, characters, which makes their forward motion towards disaster all the more painful to read. As someone who has never visited this area of the country, Cooper brought the area to life with lush, striking descriptions of a landscape hostile enough that only the craziest of men try to access its bounties.

I often get so caught up in my mystery novel obsessions I forget what a pleasure humor is in novels. This isn’t a light book, but it is incredibly funny. The Marauders is a tragicomedy that managed to dismay me and still end on a triumphant, movingly positive note. And especially for a first novel, this is a big reach towards all the stars in that inky bayou sky. Cooper nailed it, and he’s definitely a name to watch in the future.

The Marauders on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Lily King Writes Euphoria and Dread on the Kiona River

But so many of my favorite books are packaged as love stories, and are then actually full of mystery and intrigue, love more lost than found: Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Kate Walbert’s The Gardens of Kyoto. Euphoria falls into this second group, as this is less a book of romantic longing than one of human need and human obsession, in all their brilliance and ugliness.

Miranda July Introduces Us To The First Bad Man

In The First Bad Man, July is never afraid to be both funny and way too intimate, oddball and honest. She peers over the fences of social roles and gender norms, doing acrobatics atop the concrete walls we live in.

Denis Johnson’s Tricksters Laugh Their Way Through Africa

Roland Nair reads the scent of his West African hotel room as, “All that you fear, we have killed.” As the narrator of Denis Johnson’s The Laughing Monsters, Nair offers a wry insider’s look at the African underworld of intelligence and those it seeks to know.

Post-Christmas Alaskan Myth Review–Put on Your Snow Boots!

William Giraldi’s Hold the Dark comes at you quick and low, making no apologies for its sudden deaths and heartless plot twists. Revenge is sought, darkness is held at bay. Although it Hold the Dark was published in September of 2014, the story it tells isn’t a new one. This is the stuff of legend, this is a handful of Greek and Roman myths lost together in a snowstorm.

One Life Is Lost So Another Can Be Found In Amy Rowland’s The Transcriptionist

There is basic equipment required: a headset, a Dictaphone to play the tapes that must be transcribed, and patience, a willingness to become a human conduit as the words of others enter through her ears, course through her veins, and drip out unseen through fast-moving fingertips.
–Amy Rowland, THE TRANSCRIPTIONIST

In Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun, the Puzzle Proves a Point

In Jesse Ball’s most recent novel, Silence Once Begun, Ball goes bravely into the spaces between things, the quiet pauses between our conversations, the assumptions made in the absence of evidence, and our constant obsession with knowing and noise.