Review: Make Me a City

“The nearer I get to the end, the more shame I have and the less shame I feel. Every year we pile it up, don’t we, all of us excepting the angels? Maybe that’s why we don’t all go lunatic. And why some of us do.”

Make Me a City (Jonathan Carr, published March 2019 by Henry Holt) is an intriguing tome—marketed as a fictional and “alternate history” to the building of Chicago, the novel is told by a narrator who is, in fact, presenting an alternate history to his peers. Following many disparate threads of remarkably different individuals over the course of one century, the work is exhaustive and, more than once, I wondered how much was rooted in truth (I mean, obviously, I know it’s fiction, but still). Beginning in 1800 “Echicagou” on the estate of Jean Baptiste Point de Sable—unrecognized and sadly victimized founder of the city—and later touching on the vivid lives of John Stephen Wright, Antje Hunter, Gus Swanson, and many others; the novel progresses through time, idling from one strand of the story to the next, offering readers an exhaustive collection of character portraits to feast upon. Each individual is distinctly crafted, each featuring his or her own fears and desires and fervent ambitions, all of which contribute to the city’s creation.

I enjoyed the novel’s odd collection of hosts and found the chapters about Antje, Gus, and Ms. Chappell the most engaging. Historical nuggets can be mined from the pages of the work—though fictional, there are many references to real players in our country’s history, and episodes portraying cultural nuances vividly.

More than once, though, I wondered . . . what is the point? The plot is very loosely constructed, and over the course of 450 pages, readers’ minds are apt to wander without a clear purpose driving the work forward. I know, I know: the point is to give an alternate, fictionalized history of Chicago. But I can’t help but feel that Carr was misled by his editor at times, where narratives could have been trimmed or eliminated altogether.

By and large, the breadth of the work was overwhelming. I had to turn back several times to recall key details from previous scenes—I think there are about 12 perspectives through the novel, with 5-6 major players—and was sometimes frustrated by this. However, when a work is interesting, I’ll overlook this annoyance; and I suppose that the fact I finished the novel speaks for itself. Once the pieces began to come together, I couldn’t finish fast enough.

Overall: 3-ish(?) stars. Recommended for historical fiction buffs, mindful readers (this is not an easy/light read, folks!), and fans of generation-spanning sagas.

Thanks to Henry Holt Books for my review copy. All opinions are my own.

Best of 2018: A Recommended Reading List

I read 84 books in 2018 — a few of them, rereads — and there were so many that I immensely enjoyed. Pachinko was my first read of the year, and it was a 5-star title. I started the Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny and thoroughly delighted in the first three novels (I’m really dragging them out, here — don’t want the series to end!). Beartown stirred me, deep. But a handful of titles stand out — they’re exceptionally well-written, their plots moved me in meaningful ways, the characters were especially memorable . . . I know I’ll revisit these books again someday. And in the meantime, I’ll be thrusting them into the hands of any willing listener I can find.

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In no particular order, here’s the seven books that I read in 2018 and I hold most dear:

  1. Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. I salivated over this novel in January — such a deeply moving and heartwarming and heartbreaking story — and you can read my full review here. It’s been 12 months, and I’m still thinking about June and her uncle Finn.
  2. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. Rumor has it a second book will be coming out in 2020, and I’m here for itThe Golem and the Jinni is a fascinating, engrossing fantasy story with roots in Syrian culture and folklore. Chava and Ahmad were some of the most well-drawn characters I read this year, and I couldn’t put this one down.
  3. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. This series is controversial, but it’s largely popular for a good reason: Gabaldon can write a drama, friends. I came to this hefty tome in March with a couple of friends I met on bookstagram — Betsy (@booksgloriousbooks) and Taylor (@shihtzus.and.book.reviews) — and it was honestly probably my first foray into adult romance. I don’t typically enjoy the genre, but Clare and Jamie’s story was just so enthralling, and the books is so much more than a love story. I just finished the third book this month and while I’ve enjoyed all of the books in the series thus far, Outlander remains my favorite. And, if I’m being honest, this one’s always going to hold a special place in my heart because it’s the book that sparked a long-distance friendship of epic proportions.
  4. Foe by Iain Reid. This was my first Reid novel and y’all, it BLEW. MY. MIND. His books are short and quick reads, with brief chapters and compelling storylines. I tore through this one in less than 24 hours — it was THAT good. Foe is a mind-bending and provocative read that contemplates human relationships, and humanity itself. If you’re in the mood for something fast and bendy, this is it.
  5. Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller. I’ve gushed about this one so much on bookstagram, it almost feels excessive to talk about it more. Here’s my full review, and here’s a link to buy the book.
  6. An Unexplained Death by Mikita Brottman. This work of nonfiction was absolutely fascinating. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: An Unexplained Death is so much more than a work of true crime. Brottman touches on some deeply unsettling aspects of human nature, including our obsession with the macabre and our deepest needs to both tether ourselves to and isolate ourselves from the victims of crimes. This obsessive account of Brottman’s own unofficial investigation into the disappearance and death of Rey Rivera is a solid — and overlooked — gem of 2018.
  7. The Line That Held Us by David Joy. I’m pretty wishy-washy about picking a number one or “favorite” book, typically, but Joy’s gritty work of Appalachian noir is it. If you’re holding a gun to my head and telling me to choose, I choose you, The Line That Held Us. This novel is dark. It’s vividly drawn. It’s evocative and atmospheric and full of absolutely brilliant characters. Joy somehow manages to weave together this tragedy that is chock-full of emotion and desire and fear and the result is breathtaking. I cherished every word of this novel, then rushed out to buy his other works. You would be wise to do the same!

For a look at my reading year in review, head to this link. But before you go, tell me about your favorite reads of 2018! Did you read any of the titles that made my list? Leave me a comment and let me know what you thought of these works — or what books I need to add to my TBR for 2019!

Happy reading, friends, and Happy New Year!

Review: An Unexplained Death

If you follow me on Instagram, you already know how I feel about Mikita Brottman’s latest work of nonfiction, An Unexplained Death. In a few words: transcendent. Introspective. Provocative.

I was immediately drawn to the story’s premise: Rey Rivera, a charismatic and kind young man, goes missing one spring day. A week later, his body is discovered at the historic Belvedere Hotel in Baltimore, and the investigators spend very little time determining it is likely a suicide . . . but they dub the causes “undetermined.” Belvedere resident (the hotel is now an apartment building) Mikita Brottman is captivated by this mystery. Was it really a suicide? Why did the investigators do such a terrific job of traipsing all over the crime scene? Why wasn’t she questioned, though the body fell right past her window? What would lead such a handsome and seemingly-successful man to take his own life?

What ensues is Brottman’s obsessive investigation of Rivera’s death and, mingled in among the details of the hunt, her macabre fascination with the hotel’s history of remarkable suicides. An Unexplained Death is almost, to be honest, three different novels in one: it’s a history of the Belvedere Hotel; it’s a true crime work that explores Rey Rivera’s death; and it’s an exploratory memoir that maps out Brottman’s fixation with life, death, and worthiness.

Brottman’s strengths lie in her analyses of very human traits — our fixation on the misfortune of others, our proclivities for stories with “juicy” details and gruesome outcomes, our predilection for judgement even in the cases of victims. I was stricken many times by the honest — and far-reaching — insights Brottman presents to readers. An example:

“Our unease and mistrust around the stories of missing people is a defense mechanism that lets us keep the horror at bay; we can reassure ourselves that many missing people aren’t ‘really’ missing, and as for kidnap victims, they must have been weak and gullible enough to fall in love with their captors, something a stable, rational person would surely never do.” (p. 6)

I mean, seriously. Here’s the nail, and here’s Brottman hitting it on the head.

“When it comes to missing people, the first day or two after they have gone, it is as though they have left a door open behind them, and they can still turn around and come back. But after five or six days, you get the sense they have crossed all the way over. All that remains, if you’re lucky, is a vague glimpse, caught on tape somewhere, of a pixelated ghost.” (p. 11)

And it doesn’t end at page 11, the noteworthy gemmary of Brottman Wisdom:

“When an event has far-reaching consequences, we assume its causes must be equally momentous, just as when we want to roll a higher number, we shake the dice harder, and for a longer time.” (p. 79)

An Unexplained Death is more than a well-researched work of nonfiction. In a highly-readable narrative form, Brottman manages to take readers on a journey of discovery — of Rey Rivera’s life and death, of the author’s own sense of self, of readers’ tendencies toward the macabre and morbidity. The work is obsessive, it’s introspective, and it’s absolutely captivating. Brottman’s insightful observations on human nature throughout this book are just startlingly good.

Overall: 4/5 stars. A must-read for fans of true crime or nonfiction in general.

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.

To My Husband

Almost exactly eight years ago, we met the first time. Your roommates lured me in under the pretense of studying — they wanted answers, I had them — and you were the only unknown among three others. In a sweeping act of bravado, you greeted me with embittered musings on the nature of females; that is, that there wasn’t a good one of us among the lot. I pretended my too-round eyes were a reaction to your speechifying; in truth, I’d never seen another human I so desperately wanted to know.

As you wallowed in the sort of self-pity that comes with a break-up, I prepped your roommates for inevitable testing success and left without another moment shared between the two of us. Until —

It was October, and somehow I’d been dragged back to the apartment — by our mutual friends, by your request, by my own compulsion — and you no longer rambled angrily at your misfortune. We were both doe-eyed, you moreso than I (of course, ahem). Your obsession with Legos and the messages you left on the whiteboard wall behind your living room couch became my selling point when I mentioned you to friends (So original! So strange! So lovely!) and I made it my objective to convince you you needed me.

Somehow, miraculously, it’s eight years later and you have been in my life for a quarter of my time — almost half of what I can remember — and there have been more sunshiney days than Eeyore ones; a gift. Your eyes crinkle at the outside corners when you laugh, still my favorite feature. And I find myself thinking how utterly fortuitous it was, discovering you, the boy who shares a birthday with my beloved autumn.

To the man who bought a forty of Corona Familiar last night to take to a BYOB gathering and still says things like, “Let’s eat Ramen noodles and watch tv on the nest in the basement,” — happy birthday. I love you best.

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Review: The Mermaid & Mrs. Hancock

“The stories are of men who, walking on the shore, hear sweet voices far away, see a soft white back turned to them, and — heedless of looming clouds and creaking winds — forget their children’s hands and the click of their wives’ needles, all for the sake of the half-seen face behind a tumble of gale-tossed greenish hair.”

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is a hefty tome — seriously, y’all, it’s a brick — but one worth of notice by admirers of literary fiction. I went into this novel expecting something light, whimsical, flirtatious, even; instead, I was thrilled to discover a tale of dark whimsy and an extraordinarily well-researched and -written portrait of 1780s English life. Here’s the scoop:

Mr. Hancock is a middle-aged, rather unexceptional individual who runs a moderately successful acquisitions enterprise in which he oversees the purchasing and sales of various commodities. His wife is deceased, alongside their infant child; and he has long been accustomed to a dreary existence that cycles from work to dinner to bed and back again. One day, though, his captain returns with news: the ship has been sold, pennies on the dollar, in exchange for something rare and nearly unbelievable: a mermaid.

Fascinated by the macabre and unusual, as human nature dictates, Mr. Hancock suspends his anger long enough to view the creature — and is convinced it should be shown to private audiences in order to make a few shillings. Begrudgingly, Mr. Hancock agrees to lease the grotesque mermaid — it’s long dead, and a rather dried-up and gruesome-looking bit of taxidermy, by all accounts — to a whorehouse.

Yeah, you read that right. A whorehouse.

Although Mr. Hancock has some qualms about loaning his oddity to a house of ill-repute, he cannot prepare himself for the wild twists of fate the establishment will cast his way.

Here’s what I loved most: characters are deeply flawed and ripe with the most basic — and tumultuous — of human desires. A current of wanting-but-not-having sweeps the plot along until fate steps in; and then, we’re reminded of the sour plateauing sensation that comes with getting what we want most. Gowar fastidiously composes each individual in the novel to portray some of the most fundamental heartwishes of our species. Mr. Hancock longs for company, fulfillment, something greater than the rote existence he has been leading; Angelica Neal, lady of the night, wants nothing more than to be the mistress of her own ship — she’s desperate to control her own destiny and will stop at nothing to find a means to this end; Mrs. Frost seeks her own means of self-support and control.

Perhaps the most striking theme to me in the novel is the female quest for self-reliance and power: each woman featured fiercely desires to remove herself from under the thumb of whatever forces are keeping them in place. The novel may be a tale of dark whimsy, but it’s also a relentless portrait of feminism and the serach for control over fortunes and fates in a world dominated by males and monetary wealth.

Mermaid moves along at an indolent loll, and to be quite honest, not a great deal of action occurs. However! The beauty in this work is found in the artfully constructed characters and their unremarkable lives that serve as a backdrop against the constant current of power struggles. And in the end — the bitter, raw metaphor of possession and wealth as isolation and ultimately, not the bringer of joy — well, that was icing on the cake.

Overall: 4.5 stars. Read this one when you’re in the mood to appreciate some serious fiction with rich prose and a slow-moving but mysteriously mesmerizing unfolding of events.

Thanks a million to Harper Books, who sent me this book free in exchange for my honest review! All opinions are my own.

Review: The Dinner List

We’ve all been asked the hypothetical question at some point in our lives: If you could have dinner with any 5 people, dead or alive . . . who? and why?

My five changes frequently — sometimes Matthew McConaughey’s on the list, sometimes he’s replaced by John Krasinski (they seem so down-to-earth — how could I not?). My mama is always there, though I alternate between Jodi Picoult and J.K. Rowling on a pretty regular basis. (I’m trembling at the mere thought of being graced by their presence.) Stephen King — duh. Edgar Allan Poe — ditto.

And what would I do if, by some stroke of fortune, we all ended up actually sharing a meal and a few bottles of champ together? Um. Well.

In Rebecca Serle’s debut novel, The Dinner List, this is exactly the predicament Sabrina finds herself in when she arrives at her restaurant birthday-dinner date with her best friend: seated around the table alongside her best friend, Jessica, Sabrina sees her father, her ex-lover, her former philosophy professor, and — gulp! — Audrey-freaking-Hepburn. It’s an initially unfortunate-seeming mishmash of individuals: Audrey’s clearly out of place with the other mere mortals, and Sabrina needs some convincing that the situation is real. But once the cork is popped and appetizers ordered, the table finds itself thrown into the inevitable: serious conversation. Sabrina is forced to confront regrets, frustrations, anxieties, and losses from previous years; not the least of which is her failed relationship with Tobias, the man she’s long considered the love of her life.

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A great deal of this book worked for me: I enjoyed the premise, the storyline trotted along at a quick clip, characters were largely a fun and supportive mix that worked for the scenario. To be honest, I picked this book up thinking it would be a “fluff” read — a little bit of romance, some drama, basic chick-lit — but by the time I was done, I was quite surprised to have had so many feelings while I read. And introspective thoughts. For that, I applaud Serle — she managed to compose a narrative that is seemingly simple and predominantly light, but not without depth.

And while the timeline is all-too-familiar in today’s market — back and forth, past and present — I found it a successful formatting for The Dinner List, in which the “present” portions are noted with the time on the clock (hence creating a countdown vibe that enticed me to stay up until 1 in the morning on a work night) and the flashbacks provide a more adequate portrait of Sabrina and Tobias’s shared history.

In a sense, the novel includes a touch of romance — after all, it is Sabrina and Tobias’s love story — but don’t head into this one expecting anything steamy, sexy, or happy-go-lucky. The pair’s history is fraught with frustrating turns of fate and unfortunate circumstances. But the book is so much more than this love story, too — it’s a tale of redemption, forgiveness, and really, the concept of fate and how our every choice alters fate on a minute-by-minute basis.

My one gripe: Audrey. I know, I know — she’s an icon. She deserved to have a seat at that table, and on several occasions, I felt that seat was well-filled. HOWEVER, for the most part, it seemed Serle became a bit heavy-handed with Audrey’s portions; instead of being another player at the table with a bit of starshine, she became a history lesson for readers and that became a bit tedious. More often than not, it seemed Serle needed to justify her inclusion of Audrey with reasons for Sabrina’s (aka Serle’s?) obsession with the actress, and it wound up feeling like a biography-within-a-novel . . . which took me right out of the story on more than one circumstance.

That being said, the novel is a largely compelling read with an intriguing and witty storyline. I’d recommend it to just about anyone — but I’ll warn you to be wary of the f-word: The Dinner List goes above and beyond fun. It’s downright decadent.

Overall: 4/5 stars.

Thank you to Flatiron Books for sharing a review copy of this title with me! All opinions are my own and were in no way impacted by the publisher.