Fall 2018 Releases to Add to Your List

I don’t know about you, but this month was F U L L. In fact, it feels like Christmas is coming tomorrow — that’s how frazzled school has me! There are so many great books releasing that I haven’t had a chance to get my hands on yet — A Spark of LightThe Witch ElmBridge of Clay — all by some tried-and-true authors that I go back to again and again. There are some other great reads you may not have heard about, though, that I’ve had the pleasure of reading + reviewing — check ’em out below!

  1. The Caregiver by Samuel Park. Simon & Schuster, September 2018. This work focuses on the complex and tumultuous relationship between young Mara Alencar and her mother, Ana, in a Rio neighborhood in the 1970s; and alternately, the relationship between Mara and the woman she cares for within her home in 1990s Bel Air, Kathryn. My full review can be read here.
  2. Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller. Tin House, October 2018. I’ve already sung a love song to this dark, atmospheric read here. This novel is a very literary work, chock-full of evocative imagery, symbolism, and the kinds of features that make English Lit majors’ hearts go pitter-pat. If you’re in the mood for something with a classic vibe and all kinds of eerie features, this is the read for you. (And if you’re in the mood for something action-packed, keep moving.)
  3. Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver. Harper Collins, October 2018. A dense, thought-provoking tome from a seasoned author, Unsheltered is a tale of two time periods: 1880s and present-day Vineland, NJ. Alternating between Willa, modern-day mother and freelance journalist struggling to hold together the pieces of her crumbling family (and home) and Thatcher, science teacher and sadly undervalued husband to a very unappreciative young wife in the 1880s. The two narratives are connected by the characters’ place of residence, both then and now a deteriorating and poorly cobbled-together structure that is symbolic of their own ragged lives. A bit overwrought in terms of philosophical political conversations, but the story and characters are compelling, nonetheless.
  4. To Kill a Mockingbird (graphic novel) by Harper Lee, adapted and illustrated by Fred Fordham. Harper Books, October 2018. This classic novel, recently chosen as America’s favorite novel per PBS’s Great American Read vote-off, was republished this month with a bit of a twist. The novel was reworked into a graphic novel, which means that teachers who are sharing the classic coming-of-age tale with students will have an accessible option for those kids who “hate reading.” Shudders — is there such a thing? 

A few others on my stack that I haven’t gotten to but am looking forward to reading soon:

  • A Key to Treehouse Living by Elliot Reed. Tin House, September 2018. “…the adventure of William Tyce, a boy without parents, who grows up near a river in the rural Midwest.” Coming-of-age novel set in the heartland? Ummm, count me in.
  • An Unexplained Death by Mikita Brottman. Henry Holt & Co., November 2018. A nonfiction work of…true crime?…that follows one woman’s obsessive investigation into a mysterious assumed-suicide at the former Belvedere Hotel in Baltimore. Upping the ante: she uncovers a string of believed-suicides in previous decades, all at the same hotel. I’m HERE FOR IT.

That’s all for now! Back to the school-and-mama-life grind it is. Happy Halloween, and as ever, happy reading, friends.

Review: The Caregiver

Having grown up in an unbroken home, with present and participative parents and enough food to eat and clothes that I didn’t have to buy (or beg for) secondhand, I’ve taken a lot for granted, I know. One major “thing”: my relationship with my parents, and in particular, with my mother. She’s always been a positive part of my life, overflowing with love and kindness and patience. But I know that not everyone is so fortunate, and possibly because of that, I’ve forever been fascinated by the relationships between mothers and daughters.

The Caregiver, by the late Samuel Park, is just that: a portrait of mother and daughter, displayed in pieces of the past. Mara Alencar is an immigrant living in Bel Air in the 1990s, serving as an in-home caregiver for a wealthy (and isolated) woman who is battling cancer. Their relationship is complicated — one stranger caring intimately for another, what wouldn’t be awkward about that, at first? — and made even more so by the fact that Mara’s patient, Kathryn, begins to make extravagant promises about her will and Mara’s imminent inheritance. These “current” snapshots of Mara’s life as an immigrant are full of gems about the unfamiliar nature of common life in America that native residents so take for granted. For example,

“Nothing made me feel more American than being in a supermarket. So much choice, so many different ways to fill yourself up. . . . Even if I didn’t buy anything, walking down the aisles gave me a sense of belonging. . . . Going to the supermarket was free; there was no admission price. Nobody questioned my right to be there. It was the most democratic institution in the city.” (p. 7)

Park writes with clarity on this strange world-inhabiting experience, about what must surely feel like being devoured whole. However, Mara’s life in modern-day California isn’t the bright, shiny bit of this novel. The real gem: the intermittent flashbacks to 1970s Rio de Janeiro, with eight-year-old Mara living in turbulent political times with her mother, Ana.

These flashbacks offer readers something almost tangible, thanks to some vivid and unrestrained writing from Park. Mara’s mother is a voice-over actress, dubbing American films into Portuguese for the general population; and in her mind, something of a starlet. She’s beautiful and almost frivolous, flitting from one idea to the next with only the hounding necessity of money to stabilize her focus. The two live alone, without husband or father, and survive from paycheck to paycheck: feasting and luxuriating in good fortune after payday, grumbling and skimping when jobs are few and far between. As the country nears its political breaking point, Ana’s desperation peaks and she takes a job as an actress — partly out of a desire to prove her worth (to whom, it’s unclear) and partly out of sheer necessity: their cash stores are running low.

When Ana becomes entangled in something far greater than she could have foreseen, their lives are launched onto a trajectory that has devastating consequences for the pairing.

Park writes with a stunning depth of feeling and wisdom in these flashbacks — Ana’s desperation to be something and Mara’s furious devotion to her mother had me captivated. The political unrest and turmoil of 1970s Brazil provides a provocative backdrop, and as events fall into place, the novel seems to scurry toward something dark and unavoidable.

When Mara is an adult, she seeks the truth about her mother’s life, desperate to reconcile her own image of her mother with that harsh mistress — Truth.

Unfortunately, these two narratives don’t . . . quite . . . connect. I was so immersed in Mara’s younger years, but less drawn to her relationship with Kathryn which ultimately left me dissatisfied and a bit underwhelmed. Don’t get me wrong — there are parallels, here; they just don’t seem to ever flesh out completely. The novel feels unresolved, and maybe that’s just because I didn’t get what I was expecting — or hoping for? — at the end. There were some loose ends that needed tying up, and Lazarus’s role in particular felt anticlimactic.

That being said, I appreciated Park’s smooth writing and the various nuggets of genius sprinkled throughout the novel, so I’ll leave you with one more:

“I realized then that I hated when people tried to find the silver lining in tragedy. There was no upside, none. I did not grow from it, or become a better person, or learn to appreciate life, or any such cliche. . . . death would not seed some kind of beautiful legacy . . . It’d just make those [she] left behind feel sad and morose.” (p. 235)

Overall: 3/5 stars. Recommended for those with an interest in family relationships and diaspora literature.

Review: The Waiter

I was drawn to The Waiter — a translation of the Swedish work by Mattias Faldbakken — for a simple reason: the book is advertised as a portrait in miniature, an intimate and classical-feeling depiction of one man’s life as a waiter within the confines of a prestigious and centuries-old family eatery. It didn’t hurt that the book was compared to Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow — a decadent, exquisite gem of a novel.

While it’s true that both novels employ dense prose with a classical vibe and settings that are confined to one particular space, the similarities end there.

The Waiter opens with an introduction to the title character: a middle-aged waiter in the well-established European restaurant called “The Hills.” The waiter offers a vessel for readers to traverse the inner-workings of the restaurant (which itself is merely a means of exposing readers to the choreography and near-relationship of waitstaff in proximity to customers on a daily basis). Our unnamed title character puts forth a series of cynical observations about the restaurant staff, the diners, the esteemed artwork crammed onto the walls, and the restaurant itself with little rhyme or reason.

“The Hills is one of the capital’s defining institutions, one of which gives Oslo character and draws the long lines. The space, or the premises, where I now and will forever stand in my waiter’s jacket, is an intricate meshwork of scraped-together items, and I sometimes feel sick at the thought that the longest-standing, most constant and unchanging ‘traditional place’ is a mosaic of items dragged and scraped together.”

Time and again, the waiter makes it perfectly clear to readers: he is meticulous, he is old-fashioned and tetchy when routine is disrupted, and he is very preoccupied with the hobby of ensuring things are done as nearly perfect as possible. In fact, at more than one juncture, I wondered if the character might be intended to exude signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder, so intent is he on following certain procedures repeatedly with or without necessity, and on doing things just-so. I’m fairly certain the author did not intend this conclusion, though; I think readers are just supposed to find the waiter steeped in habit as well as socially awkward and stand-offish.

One of the things I loved most about Towles’s Gentleman is that the novel offered readers a portrait of confinement amid luxury and a constantly shifting political and social landscape within the hotel over the course of several decades. Rather than offer readers just one major character to latch onto, though, Towles provided a host of other fastidiously drawn, intriguing individuals to play supporting roles.

While readers are exposed greatly to the waiter’s innermost ramblings, Faldbakken takes a huge misstep with the omission of other significant characterization. Sure, there are a slew of other cast members introduced — “the Pig,” a regular customer of a commanding sort of presence; Sellers, a rowdy party-boy given behavioral freedoms others aren’t on the basis of his several acquisitions for The Hills; Child Lady, a beautiful woman with otherwise very little clear significance to the story; Edgar and Anna, a father-daughter duo that regularly patronize the restaurant and serve as the waiter’s only friends; and a handful of restaurant workers — but the characters themselves don’t feel significant.

Now that I think of it, allow me to correct myself — characterization is not shortchanged in The Waiter; it’s purpose that the novel is severely lacking. All of the aforementioned characters have distinct features and personalities, but at the end of the novel, I couldn’t really tell you why most of them were included in the work. At all.

And that brings me to the saddest point: the plot is virtually nonexistent. Readers spend a few days in the waiter’s hemisphere, privy to his inner ramblings and increasingly neurotic behaviors, only to arrive at a conclusion that is head-scratchingly underwhelming. I’m not sure what Faldbakken envisioned as the driving force behind this narrative, but it certainly was not plot. Was there a climax? Was there a purpose behind the waiter’s actions? Was there a point to Anna’s stay? I don’t know. And I’m not going to lie: this uncertainty on my end left me wondering for several days — am I missing something, here?

To be sure, there are some gems tucked in amid the perplexing meandering of the narrative; a few times, I positively chortled. And Faldbakken makes some painfully accurate estimations of modern culture; each time, I kept cheering and thinking — Now we’re getting somewhere! Here are a few of my favorite quotes:

“It’s as though my face is a cast of all the concerns that have built up within me over the years: the concerns are the mold for my face.”

and

“‘The adornment of a city is manpower, of a body beauty, of a soul wisdom, of an object durability, of a speech truth,’ Gorgias writes in the Encomium of Helen. The part about the body is the only one which still applies, it seems.”

A particular favorite, relating to the minds of children:

“There are a few golden years between infancy and the teenage years, Edgar says, when kids are as smart as they’re ever going to be, or that’s how it seems, when they’re still uncorrupted.”

There were several other striking observations made by the author which redeemed this otherwise sadly-under-edited work, and it’s those bits and pieces that I’ve added to my journal which make The Waiter a difficult work to rate. I wanted to love this novel so much, but I ultimately found the most fundamental aspect — a purpose, a driving force — lacking, or too obscure to be discerned by my brain.

Overall: 2 stars.

The Waiter was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for my honest opinion and review. I’m grateful to Simon & Schuster / Scout Press for sharing a free digital copy with me in advance of publication and my thoughts are all my own — in no way affected by the exchange of goods and services.

Review: The Reluctant Healer

Have you ever considered the effect positive thinking, directed energies, and alternative healing practices can have on your health? If you were struggling with a malady undiagnosed by dozens of specialists, or facing imminent death at the hands of a cancer that is unresponsive to widely-used methods such as chemotherapy and radiation, would you consider visiting an unlicensed — and possibly ineffective — individual on the basis of their rumored potential healing energy? Do you believe that hope can produce a change in our physical and mental states of being?

These questions — and plenty others — are all considerations around which author Andrew Himmel has crafted his debut novel, The Reluctant Healer. Set in New York in the present day, The Reluctant Healer centers on one man’s lifelong notions about medicine and purpose and self-identity. Will Alexander is a lawyer (and not altogether a prominent one) at an up-and-coming firm when he meets Erica, a social worker and spiritual healer. Erica isn’t shy when it comes to her unconventional beliefs about medicine, the mind, and our methods of coping; and she’s quick to point out that Will hosts some sort of powerful (albeit impossible-to-pinpoint) healing properties. What ensues is a careening, dubious tale of the route to alternative healing — from both a healer and healee’s perspective — that will undoubtedly leave you scratching your head. But in a good way, most of the time.

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I went into this book with several strong preconceived notions: that modern (Western) medicine is always the best first path to healing, that doctors sometimes overprescribe antibiotics but for the most part they are well-intentioned, and that spiritual or alternative healers are, in effect, quacks.

From the first chapter, Himmel challenges these notions. Erica introduces the idea of a fastly-growing vaccine-resistant population that, for decades, has thrived without strains of polio or smallpox or other distant maladies, but will soon fall prey to new strains of these viruses that our bodies will not be capable of defeating thanks to decades of preventative vaccination. Whew. That’s a big concept for this very stubborn brain to swallow, and I have to be honest, friends: I’m most definitely, 100% not going to stop vaccinating my child. Himmel’s very brief digression on vaccination at the start of the book did nothing to change my mind about that, and I’m glad that the novel wasn’t an attempt to sway readers in a certain direction as far as that (very controversial) topic is concerned.

However . . . Himmel did succeed in convincing me that much of our healing can be attributed to the placebo effect. Essentially, if we believe we are being treated effectively or that we are being administered something that will cure us or that there is even a fragment of a chance some therapy will cure our maladies, we are more likely to be healed than not. And that, my friends, is a fascinating concept upon which to base a novel.

Characterization was a bit of a struggle for me, but not because Himmel didn’t write consistently; rather, I had a difficult time connecting to the characters because their belief systems — or their life situations — were so radically different from my own. Erica was completely inaccessible to me: she was so persistently vocal (and manic) about the art of healing, it was a bit, for me, like listening to a vegan or crossfit junkie. Okay, we get it — you live an alternative lifestyle. And Will was extraordinarily privileged. I mean, as a teacher, I don’t even get a paid six weeks after giving birth (unless I have stored up my yearly allotment of 10 days for several years in a row), but here we have a middling lawyer at a large law firm who is paid a substantial salary for at least six months to do whatever the hell he wants with his life.

You see what I mean? Hard to connect. Sometimes I’m able to suspend disbelief if the premise of the novel contains elements of fantasy; however, with The Reluctant Healer, I wasn’t able to ignore my feelings of doubt as I knew the work was meant to closely mimic real-life scenarios and belief systems.

As far as the plot goes, again, elements were far-fetched — a whole lotta privilege up in here, folks — but I was certainly taken in by the portions of the novel that discussed healing events Will and Erica attended, or philosophies surrounding alternative medicine. And the work goes beyond that, too; beyond the spiritual and physical healing concepts. In truth, this is a novel about personal growth, the power of our minds as instruments of healing, and the far-reaching benefits of hope.

At the risk of rambling, I present to you a favorite passage:

“Dream and strive and reach. It’s all important, and it’s all well and good. But in all of the excitement and wonder about the future . . . don’t discount the possibility that right here, right now, might be what is most important. Not what your talents and ambitions may someday achieve, but what you’re involved with right now. Because if you can’t do that, if you can’t capture the immediacy and joy of the present moment, then you’re at the mercy of anticipation, with every anxious thought thrown to the future, robbing the present of its impact, and you’ll miss out on everything.”

Damn.

Himmel dropped truth-bombs like this here and there throughout the novel, and these gems are r e s o n a t i n g.

Overall: 3/5 starsThe Reluctant Healer releases TODAY and I highly, highly recommend this book to those with an interest in alternative medicine and/or books that will challenge preconceived notions.

Note: This novel was sent to me free of charge by Smith Publicity in exchange for my honest review/opinions on the book. All thoughts are my own and have not been influenced in any way by the publisher or author.

Review: News of Our Loved Ones

Goodreads [condensed] blurb: Set in France and America, News of Our Loved Ones [by Abigail DeWitt] is a haunting and intimate examination of love and loss, beauty and the cost of survival, witnessed through two generations of one French family, whose lives are all touched by the tragic events surrounding the D-Day bombings in Normandy.

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News of Our Loved Ones is a difficult novel to review, friends. The prose is melodic and the story is ultimately one that should be on your radar if you’re invested in the genres of WW2 and historical fiction, like I am. It’s difficult to name major players, though, as the novel reads like a series of narratives — almost short stories? — cobbled together by threads of DNA with varying degrees of strength.

Each segment of the novel provides readers with a nugget of the Delasalle family history, starting with young Yvonne, in love with a stranger who cycles past her window daily; and later winds up with Polly, a niece of Yvonne’s who visits Paris decades later and is feverish with her desire to make sense of her mother’s behavior and her place in the world.

The experience of reading this compilation of narratives is a bit off-putting — I struggled consistently to place myself in the story, and by the time I was settled, the chapter had ended and a new thread was picking up, but not where the previous had left off. I really appreciated DeWitt’s intimate development of each of the characters; they were distinctive, complex, and rich with life. However, I wish there had been more to each of the characters’ stories, or that there had been fewer family members to keep up with, or perhaps just that I’d been told to read this book one segment per day, rather than in large chunks. At the end, the author thanks a number of literary publications that featured segments of the novel prior to its publication; and truthfully, I think that I would’ve enjoyed the stories even more if I’d gone into the reading with that in mind: these were a collection of narrative, some more tightly tethered together than others.

While I struggled to piece together the narratives in a way that made the characters’ connections clear, I did love the little glimpses we were given into each individual’s experiences during – and in the aftermath of – WW2. My favorite chapters/stories were “Mathilde,” “Someone Else,” and “The Visit.”

Overall: 4/5 stars. Read if you’re a fan of historical fiction and you enjoy family sagas, and if you don’t mind a bit of complexity when it comes to tying together narratives.

Thanks to Harper Books for sending me a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion! All thoughts in this post are my own and in no way influenced by the publisher.