Month: July 2017

Hindsight / Foresight July 30, 2017

Mark Solarski

Hindsight this Week

I finally managed to knock out Lilac Girls, just in time for it to be due back to the library today.  I probably should have abandoned this book–it’s not particularly well written (it’s not bad, it’s just not great) and it’s hard not to compare it to books like All the Light We Cannot See or The Nightingale–standout books in recent WWII fiction.  The writing turned it into a bit of a slog.  Flipping to the end and reading the author’s note to see that two of the characters and the situation were based in real life helped and the second half picked up.  But I did invest an entire week in a book I didn’t love.

I mentioned before, but I’m on the Launch Team for Anne Bogel‘s Reading People (out in September) and just passed the halfway point last night.  I need to step it up and finish it here soon so I can post a review.  I’m enjoying it so far (leaning towards a four star review).  There are some pretty exciting pre-order bonuses detailed here.

I still have all of my library books on hold but am finally coming to a place where I can breathe again.  I’ve got Fraulein M. and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine en route to my library and three books still in my possession to finish before they are due.  I’m almost done with We Are Never Meeting in Real Life on audio which is hilarious but 100% NSFW, really at any moment.  Swinging from rage-listening to Hillbilly Elegy to laughing so hard I was crying at We Are Never Meeting in Real Life was a bit of audiobook whiplash but was probably what I needed to pull me out of my funk.

The reading snob in me was pretty thrilled with the Man Booker Long List announcement this week.  I adored Exit West (still my favorite book of 2017) and, while it wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, was not at all surprised to see Lincoln in the Bardo.  I already had 4321, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Swing Time, and The Underground Railroad on my TBR list with the Roy and Whitehead in my actual house, ready to be read.  History of Wolves looks like something I need to add to my list. The long list had decent minority representation which was pleasant to see.  I cannot imagine Roy, Whitehead, and Hamid not making the short list.

Finally, just this morning, I heard that I won a book Madeleine at Top Shelf Text that isn’t out until September–Girls Made of Snow and Glass–that looks excellent.  I’ve really liked the books I’ve read this year published by Flatiron Books and am really looking forward to this one.

Foresight for the coming week

I’ll be finishing Reading People so that I can get that on the blog in the next few weeks.  The MMD book club is discussing Almost Sisters towards the end of the week so I’ll be getting on that pretty quickly so that I can participate in the author chat with Joshilyn Jackson this week.  (Speaking of–the MMD book club is open again to new members and the fall picks were just announced.  You can check it out here.)

After that I’ve got both The Alice Network and Priestdaddy waiting (expired) on my Kindle that cannot be connected to wifi until I finish, so those are on deck.  I’m have some trepidation about Priestdaddy but wanted to at least give it a try.

Have suggestions for what I should read next?  I’d love to hear them in the comments!

Review: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is a recent memoir from J.D. Vance, a man who grew up in Jackson, Kentucky and then Middletown, Ohio. He escaped these towns where manufacturing was declining, schools were failing, and families were falling apart—first as a Marine, then as a summa cum laude graduate of The Ohio State University, before landing at Yale Law School. Hillbilly Elegy paints itself as Vance’s look back at how the Rust Belt and Appalachia got to where they are now, as told through his personal life examples. What is not quite so clear up front is that Hillbilly Elegy is also, at least partly, a political screed.

In hindsight, Hillbilly Elegy is one of those books I probably should have abandoned early on, as not for me.

Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
While I don’t have enough of a catalog on here yet for this to be clear, memoir is one of my favorite genres. I love a well-done memoir that introduces me to a world completely outside of my own so I approached Hillbilly Elegy with anticipation. I had heard Hillbilly Elegy touted on NPR in an interview with Vance shortly after the shock of Tuesday, November 8, 2016, and seen it in a variety of magazines as a book to read to explain how such a large group of people can have seemingly voted against their interests (#healthcare). I had read The Glass Castle several years ago and was expecting something at least somewhat similar but on a larger scale than a single family. This is not what I got.

My biggest problem with Hillbilly Elegy is that I have never, to my best recollection, read a memoir so politically biased. This is not to say that it is directly political—I have read memoirs of politicians. Rather, from the selection of stories to the conclusions Vance then draws from them, I had the distinct impression through many of the chapters that I was, quite literally, listening to Repubican propaganda rather than a memoir. Two of the starkest examples for me were Vance’s attempts to convince his reader of the evils of public benefits, like food stamps, and that much of Appalachia’s rejection of President Obama has nothing to do with race.

Don’t Look Behind the Curtain
Ironically, in his structure of these arguments, Vance falls victim to his own logical fallacies. He argues that it is short-sighted and too simple to say that the rejection of Obama can be boiled down to race while simultaneously telling his reader two stories about food stamps—that he saw people at the grocery store he worked in as a teenager selling them to buy some beer and that his drug-addicted, unemployed neighbor used them to buy steaks—to convince us that public benefits like food stamps are a problem and should be done away with. We should not draw wholesale conclusions about all of Appalachia when a handful of people are calling the President the N-word but we should conclude the welfare state with its “Welfare Queens” (a phrase used earnestly by Vance when discussing a woman who “shockingly” had all her children by the same man) should be done away with based on two recollections of a teenage grocery bagger.

I found myself gobsmacked listening to his description of Obama as having, essentially, moved past any hardship in his life.

Many of my new friends blame racism for this perception of the president [Obama]. But the president feels like an alien to many [people in the town he grew up in] for reasons that have nothing to do with skin color. Recall that not a single one of my high school classmates attended an Ivy League school. Barack Obama attended two of them and excelled at both. He is brilliant, wealthy, and speaks like a constitutional law professor, which of course he is. Nothing about him bears any resemblance to the people I admired growing up. His accent—clean, perfect, neutral—is foreign. His credentials are so impressive that they are frightening.   He made his life in Chicago, a dense metropolis, and he conducts himself with a confidence that comes from knowing that the modern American meritocracy was built for him. Of course, Obama overcame adversity in his own right—adversity familiar to many of us—but that was long before any of us knew him.

Interestingly, George W. Bush meets most of these descriptors, yet was not rejected by Appalachia by any stretch.* Our 43rd president attended Yale for undergraduate and Harvard business school. He is also rich, having had family money and worked in the Texas oil industry—he was once co-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team. While Bush’s early years were spent in Midland (I’ve been there—NOT a large town)—he then attended private school in Houston for two years before attending boarding school in Amherst, Massachusetts for high school.   The only significant difference in the description Vance paints of Obama and the reality of W. is how they speak.

My point in this is not that Appalachia is a bed of racists (though, certainly, there are some there as there are anywhere—it’s naïve to suggest race had nothing to do with the perceptions of Obama). Rather, Vance is the master of selection—picking and choosing facts that fit his narrative and constructing fairly convincing arguments to match his points based on the selective narrative he provided as the set-up. Vance is so earnest, so seemingly trustworthy, it’s easy to see why this book is being considered authoritative.

The tone in several places is also concerning. In telling stories about someone who was perceived to be homosexual, Vance described the person was a “pervert.” The context is Vance quoting another person but the word is said repeatedly and with such vehemence in the audiobook, it left me fairly convinced that, despite hiding behind another person’s alleged quote, this may be spot-on for how Vance feels. If he doesn’t, he should perhaps re-word that section in future editions.

Defining the Elite
He talks about “they” and “them” when he refers to people that his hometown would consider “elites” though the book conveniently leaves out that, after graduating from Yale, Vance went to work for Sidley Austin LLP and now works for a venture capital and private equity firm in San Francisco associated with Peter Thiel (founder of a small company called PayPal). As an attorney, I can assert with confidence that he was making six figures at Sidley Austin and is certainly not making less working for Mithril Capital Management LLC now. For all of his “them”-ing, Vance looks a lot like the thems now.

It’s Not ALL Bad
The book is not entirely without redeeming points. The only parts I would ever listen to again were close together in Chapters 13 and 14. In Chapter 13 he makes several points about social capital—how doors are already opened to some, cracked for others, and almost altogether locked for a third group, unless someone like a mentor or caring professor will open the door for you.   Similarly Chapter 14’s discussion of trauma in kids is worth reading, particularly in light of the abuse Vance survived. Neither of these sections is perfect and there are certainly better sources for the material; however, it felt unfair to rip the book so harshly without at least acknowledging that a few points here and there landed. I’m sure many of the points he makes about the loss of manufacturing jobs and the opiod crisis are also also accurate; I was just having a hard time not getting distracted by all the bias to appreciate them.

In Sum
Vance’s life is his life—I have no reason to doubt that the stories in Hillbilly Elegy happened to him in the way he said. And this book almost certainly reflects the way a lot of people in Appalachia and the Rust Belt feel about the economy and the government that has seemingly (and in many cases, actually) abandoned them. My problem is the agenda. If Vance wants to write a book of political essays, he should. If he wants to write a memoir, he should. Blending these genres in Hillbilly Elegy in such a way that it felt like he was directly trying to hide his agenda ultimately felt so dishonest that I would never recommend this book to anyone.

*In both the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, George W. Bush took Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia, in addition to the rest of the states typically considered to be the South.

Published: June 28, 2016 by HarperCollins (@harpercollinsus)
Author: J.D. Vance (Twitter: @JDVance1)
Date Read: July 18, 2017
Rating: 1 star

Excellent sources of more nuanced and educated criticism than mine can be found here:

Hillbilly Ethnography by John Thomason
J.D. Vance, The False Prophet of Blue America by Sarah Jones
For the Good of the Poor and Common People: What Hillbilly Elegy Gets Wrong About Appalachia and the Working Class by Elizabeth Catte

Review: Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhhai Lai

Oh, my daughter/ at times you have to fight,/ but preferably/ not with your fists

Beginning with the Vietnamese New Year (Têt), Inside Out and Back Again follows the life of Hà, ten year-old girl living with her mother and three brothers in the last days of Saigon, fleeing the city the day it fell. She lives on a ship, in a refugee camp, and then, finally, in Alabama, sponsored by a good-hearted man. She must navigate English and schoolyard politics. Told in free verse poetry, Inside Out and Back Again is simultaneously a story of many of the tiny cruelties and tiny joys that make up the life of a child and a beautiful story of resilience.

The Fall of Vietnam, as told by a Child
It is not difficult to see why Inside Out and Back Again won both Newberry Honors and the National Book Award when it was published. The poems balance the mundanity of daily life when you are ten with three older brothers—watching and waiting for her papaya to grow, juxtaposed with the chaos of the last days of Vietnam from the perspective of a child whose only understanding of the crisis are her mother’s brows twist[ing] like laundry being wrung dry. Her brother clings to a chick he hatched as Saigon fell, even when the process of fleeing causes its death. Hà mistakes her family’s sponsor—a tall Alabaman—with a cowboy, holding out hope he’ll take her on the horse he ultimately doesn’t have.

Thanhha Lai pulls the reader in, managing to present what is happening to Hà and Saigon in a way that is accessible to elementary and middle grade readers while still being remarkably moving to adult readers. I don’t have either an elementary or middle grade reader in my house, yet I’m looking for my own copy of this book. By writing in free- verse as well, the poetry is accessible, even though it’s…you know…poetry.

Novels in verse
I didn’t realize I enjoyed novels in verse until reading Inside Out and Back Again and Brown Girl Dreaming. I read Brown Girl Dreaming first and enjoyed it but Inside Out and Back Again pushed me over the top on this particular form. I loved this book, with its spare words—in merely thirty words on a page, Lai told me more about Hà and her life than a “regular” novel with one hundred words on a page and twice as many chapters. I haven’t yet dabbled with finding an adult book in verse yet, but Brown Girl Dreaming and Inside Out and Back Again have made me feel like it could be accessible and enjoyable.

My favorites in the collection were the first—the day of Têt—as well as the poems about learning English once she moves to Alabama. Interspersed in the short poems are lines like “Whoever invented/ English/ must have loved/ snakes” and “Would be simpler/ if English/ and life/ were logical.” (English is my first language and I still feel this one!) Lai writes phonetically as Hà learns English (“MiSSS SScott” is her teacher), a little addition that draws the reader fully into Hà’s world, full of this new, strange language.

History Class Failures
This book showed me I know embarrassingly little about the Vietnam War. We almost never reached it in history class in high school or only spent a day on it, moving on to Reagan and the entirety of the ‘80s the next day. I’ve never learned more because military history was never my thing and the bulk of what is out there always seemed to me to be military history. Shamefully, I had never stopped to think what this war must have been like for the people of Vietnam—that the history of this conflict was far more than its impact on the American military and the discontent at home. Inside Out and Back Again showed me that not only do I need to know more about this part of world history but also that I want to know more.

Reading with Kids
With that caveat that I don’t have kids and so don’t actually know what I’m talking about here…I also think this book could be a wonderful tool to talk about being different, bullying, and friendship with kids.   Hà doesn’t speak English and so seems to be slow to many of her classmates. She wears a nightgown to school one day, not realizing it is a nightgown and not a dress. This book could open a conversation with kids as to why people do things that sometimes seem strange to others. She eventually gains two friends who are also outsiders, though in a different way than Hà. She suffers under the cruelties of a bully (“the pink boy”) until eventually vanquishing him, leaving the reader cheering all the more for her.

I can see this being an excellent book to read in short bits (the poems are between one and three pages) and then talk about—what do you think Hà’s life was like? Why do you think the pink boy was so mean? What should you do if you see someone like Hà? Even though I could have read this quickly, I found the book lent itself to being read slowly, to being savored. I find that when I read poetry quickly, I don’t glean as much from it as when I limit my intake and take time to really sit with what I’ve read rather than consuming large quantities at once.

Given today’s climate, the influx of global refugees, and the growth of minority populations, this book could spark great conversations about what it means to be a neighbor, to be welcoming. The approach to the Vietnam war is also age-appropriate. With the exception of the fact that her father is missing, there is little else about the war that is directly mentioned, just the fact that it makes her move and leave as Saigon falls. There will likely be some background explanation necessary for a child reader, but even my vague, elementary understanding of the war was enough for me to understand (and to explain if necessary) what was happening to Hà as the story progressed.
Adult Readers
I step back/hating pity/ having learned/ from Mother that/ the pity giver/ feels better,/ never the pity receiver

For an adult reader, the book raises interesting questions about who we see as other and what we consider charity—how helpful or not it is and for whose benefit we are really acting. In hindsight, there are many things I’ve done or given that made me feel “better” disproportionate to their likely worth (…the orphans in Nicaragua probably really didn’t need all those T-shirts of mine in college). Having the narrator here be a child makes these lessons feel less condemning while still impactful. The same lessons that make this a wonderful book for children—why someone from another country might do something strange and why someone might appear to be slower when they don’t know English—apply equally for adults.

Living in Texas where there is a constant influx of immigrants—just this weekend, coyotes left dozens in a hot truck in San Antonio, including children, resulting in several deaths—this book feels all the more timely. The conflicts are different, the reasons people come here are different, but how we treat people—with kindness, respect, and dignity for their humanity—should never change.

Published January 2, 2013 by HarperCollins (@harpercollinsus)
Author: Thanhha Lai
Date read: July 6, 2017
Rating: 5 Stars

Podcast Post: What Should I Read Next?

Corey Blaz

In addition to my usual book reviews, about once a month I plan to review a podcast or some other source of where I get my books. Here’s this month’s bonus post on the What Should I Read Next podcast.

What Should I Read Next from Modern Mrs. Darcy (Anne Bogel) is a little gem of a podcast—it’s not huge and splashy, it’s not everyone’s favorite—but it does what it does very well within its niche. The producing is usually excellent and Anne’s voice was made for podcasting and audiobooks. At first blush, it’s easy to think she sounds a bit like she’s trying too hard to sound melodic; however, having been in webinars and online author interviews, that is actually just her voice. She is one of those rare people whose speaking voice is soothing and mellifluous.

The premise for the podcast—three books you love + one book you hate + what you’ve been reading lately = three recommendations for your next read—is fun.   Each episode runs somewhere in the neighborhood of 45 minutes, the perfect length for my relatively short commute. I usually knock out an episode in two or three days of driving—sometimes less if I also have some laundry to fold and can’t wait to hear what happens next. I’m a pretty avid audiobook reader—I just couldn’t handle radio anymore so I always have something going. But for one recent notable exception, I’m usually pretty good with my picks, so for me to interrupt my audiobook for a podcast means it has to be worthwhile.

Some of the criticism in reviews on iTunes has generally centered around Anne’s somewhat limited pool of guests—that they all tend to be white, usually female, often bloggers, and usually people of Christian faith (and this winds up coming up). Having listened for a while as well as having gone back and listened to most of the back catalog, some of this criticism is warranted, though I would say that Anne has made an effort as the podcast has developed to diversify her guests. Perhaps partly because one of the main ways to get on the show is to apply, I think it’s a self-selection problem with those being the primary groups drawn to find Anne to start with, so those are the people who make up the pool. I do think Anne realizes this and has made a conscious effort to diversify her guests; however, even with this effort, this podcast isn’t every one’s cup of tea and that’s fine.  Evangelical buzz words and too much talk of church make me twitchy and are triggers for me, but I find I can usually ignore it since it’s rarely ever a point discussed in depth.

Anne has done perhaps the best job diversifying by gender, reaching out to men she knows and having men on the show who either applied themselves or had their wives apply for them. It is a strength of Anne’s that I find her recommendations for men just as spot on as those for women. She clearly reads widely.   Around Christmas (or at least, that’s when I listened to it), she had Kathleen Grissom, author of The Kitchen House and Glory over Everything as a guest. That episode was fascinating to hear her talk about her process and what she enjoys reading. While Grissom still fits the mold of white woman, I remember thinking that her episode had a different feel and that WSIRN was starting to branch out more and more.

My favorite episode recently was Episode 80 with Cori Jora, a social worker who set a goal to read books from more diverse authors to ensure she wasn’t just reading books by white authors. I love that this is the focus for more readers and I love that Anne validated this by having Cori on as a guest. It’s been a focus of mine as well. While I’d read many of the books mentioned by Anne and Cori, just hearing that—yes! This is a thing people should be doing!—was great. I do think Anne also makes a point to recommend and discuss books by authors of color, even where this isn’t the explicit point of the episode. I’ve heard her recently discuss, among others, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, a book that was already on my TBR list but moved up a few spaces after the discussion. Along a similar vein, for being a Christian and having Christian guests on the show, Anne has read and highly recommended books that do not fit neatly into the box you’d expect for a white, Christian woman living in the South. The most notable example for me–She has highly recommended This is How It Always Is, a book about a family whose youngest child is trans (a book I also very highly recommend).

For some, this is a must-listen. I find I listen to most episodes; however, if a few minutes in I realize I have nothing in common with the guest, I don’t feel bad for tuning out. I finish approximately 2/3 of the episodes and pick up a book or two each episode—either something I haven’t heard of or it’s another plug for a book I was thinking about and Anne’s podcast pushes me over the top. I appreciate that this is a podcast I find myself engaging with—not just listening. I wrinkle my nose at choices, I defend my favorites, and I find myself thinking of what I’d recommend to this guest—once or twice, I’ve even gone on the WSIRN website and left a note with my recommendation for the listener, a practice Anne encourages. Ultimately the engagement and not just passive listening is the sign of a great podcast for me.

Hindsight / Foresight July 23, 2017

Mark Solarski

Hindsight this week —

Started Salt Houses this week and it has slowed me way down.  I got this one in Kindle and I think it might have been one of those books where I would have pushed through and kept going and finished chapters before bed if I could see how many pages were left.  The estimate minutes on my Kindle is not nearly as helpful.  It’s good and engaging but there isn’t a lot of action–there are large (5 years or more) passings of time between chapters and it is in those spaces that action seems to happen.  The chapters are life after the events–after the Six-Days War and the fighting in Beirut.  It’s interesting but if the action is in the gaps, you can see why its moving a touch slowly.  I’ve got Lilac Girls on deck next because there are 47 people who have it on hold after I do (not an exaggeration–the library system tells me how many people I’m leaving hanging if I keep it past the due date) and it’s due soon.

I did actually finish Hillbilly Elegy on audio.  It. Is. Awful.  Review coming but it’s been a while since I read such a politically biased book, even if it is memoir.

The only library acquisition was The Almost Sisters for the MMD Book Club discussion in August.  My other main acquisition this week was the advance reader copy of Anne Bogel’s Reading People: How Seeing the World Through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything.   I’m in the launch team getting to review it early and I’m super excited to jump in.  Other folks in the launch team have been posting tidbits on Facebook and it looks fantastic.  There are some amazing pre-order bonuses for offer on that link.  If you’ve ever listened to Anne on the What Should I Read Next podcast, you know how melodic her voice is–I’m excited for her audio on the book.

Foresight for the coming week–

Posts for either The Hate U Give or Inside Out and Back Again will be posted next week along with a player to be named later.  I have both of those done but don’t want to have two YA books in the same week, even if their age-intended audiences are very different.  I’ve got Hillbilly Elegy, The Fall of Lisa Bellow, Dark Matter, and Lincoln in the Bardo in the queue to review so…most likely one of those.  I need to actually do what I’ve been saying for weeks and build up a few posts.  I’ve got the books, I just need to find the time.

I need to knock out Reading People and finish Lilac Girls this week.  Push has come to shove and I’m about to be shoved over the cliff of having library fines if I don’t!

What are you reading next? Have suggestions about books I should read? I’d love to hear from you.

Review: The Sisters Chase by Sarah Healy

The Chase girls were always happiest in those brief moments of in-between, when neither of them was sacrificing, neither of them being sacrificed.

When their mother dies, the Chase girls are on their own and homeless, with fiercely protective Mary at the helm. The Sisters Chase unfolds over the following ten years as Mary and Hannah (“Bunny”) crisscross the country as nomads, never staying long enough for people to start asking questions, never staying long enough to have to answer for the lengths Mary will go to protect Hannah and her own heart.

Sitting and Stewing
When I finished this book, I commented on Instagram that I thought I would like it more the longer it sat with me. I agree with this original assessment…I still can’t put my finger on what exactly it is about the book and the characters, but the longer it stews, the better I think it is.   I find that a mark of a book that resonates is often the author’s ability to make me care about and empathize with someone unlike me. Perhaps this is it—perhaps Mary and the mark she leaves behind is what has made The Sister’s Chase a book that sticks to the bones—nourishment for the reader soul.

Indeed, the title may be the The Sisters Chase but the action is driven by the eldest sister Mary—complicated, fierce, feral Mary. Mary is, above almost all else, a master manipulator—reading people quickly (especially men) and using her beauty to get her way. She’s simultaneously impressive and, frankly, a little scary—not quite Amy in Gone Girl scary, but you can see how she’d get there, if protecting her Bunny, her younger sister Hannah, required it. Because she manipulates anyone and everyone around her, from strangers to her own mother, it’s initially hard to pick up that the one person she won’t manipulate is her sister, Hannah. She manipulates for Hannah, but never manipulates her.

Nature vs. Nurture
The range of tiny, daily manipulations of Mary’s life to her more extreme, long-game manipulations left me debating the question throughout the book of nature versus nurture. How much of Mary’s devotion and dedication to her sister above all else could be explained by nature and biology and how much of it was their mother responsible for? Her mother became pregnant with Mary far too young and, with the realities of working two jobs to provide for the family, was little able to supervise, leaving Mary to raise and tame herself.

As a result, Mary is ill-suited to modern society, better able to survive as a nomad, camping and living in swamps and on beaches, without others. Perhaps the sisters were doomed from the start, headed for tragedy, for how could someone as feral as Mary ever live domesticated, even where Hannah was involved? And if this is true—was Mary doomed by biology or a mother who didn’t have sufficient time to tame her?

Word Choice
While I can get gushy over lush descriptions, I also appreciate more spare descriptions when they’re accurate and apt. The writing and word choice in The Sisters Chase fit the story. Healy’s prose is straightforward and un-flowery, befitting a story of two girls constantly on the move, leaving behind everything that doesn’t fit into their knapsacks. Healy does occasionally stray into cliché and does have one moment where an overweight woman is compared to a walrus (too far in my opinion) but these transgressions are rare and the book is otherwise tightly crafted.

The Sisters Chase as a whole skews a rather dark—this is not a fluffy read that sits well. I will give a moderate trigger warning for adultery—if you are very sensitive to that particularl plot line, while it is small in this book, it features prominently in one section and this is a book you should skip.

The Sisters Chase is solidly written lit-fic, though not one that shows off in the vein of Exit West or The Heart. While she does have redeeming qualities, Mary is the type of character that can be deeply unlikeable. As you know from the first page, by the end of the book, Mary is no longer in the picture—if you require a book with happy endings, this is not that book. Indeed, the tragedy of the last two chapters is that I kept thinking that the book didn’t need to end this way. Any small number of things could have changed and this book could have ended happily. Or maybe it never could—maybe Mary was fated for unhappiness from the beginning.

Published: June 27, 2017 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (@hmhbooks)
Author: Sarah Healy (@healyesarah)
Date read: June 30, 2017
Rating: 3 ½ Stars
Source: Book of the Month
Notable Reviews: The New York Times

Review: When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon

…Ritu auntie only waved her off, as if she thought Dimple were being demure—who on earth went to college with anything but the aspiration of landing a marriageable partner? Dimple thought of Insomnia Con., of Jenny Lindt, of SFSU, of Stanford. Of all the things she’d jeopardize if she called Ritu auntie a backward, anti-feminist blight on democratic society…

Dimple just needs to get out of the house, with her mother constantly foisting eyeliner and dreams of the IIH (Ideal Indian Husband) on her, to InsomniaCon., a six week coding conference where the winning final project gets to work with Dimple’s idol, Jenny Lindt, to develop and market an app. Rishi is also going to Insomnia Con…to meet Dimple, the girl their parents have arranged to be his wife (a fact about which Dimple is completely unaware). As the novel comes to a head, Dimple has to choose between following her passion for coding and web development and a growing passion for Rishi….or does she?

Representation matters and Sandhya Menon knocks it out of the park with When Dimple Met Rishi. While I’m by no stretch of the imagination a connoisseur of YA books, I can’t easily name any others with two Indian-American characters who feature prominently. (There probably are some but I think we can agree not enough given their statistical representation in the population.) I loved that Dimple defies old stereotypes of the demure Indian girl. Dimple wants nothing to do with boys, clothes, or makeup. She lives, eats, and breathes web coding and app development and damned if anything or anyone is going to stand in her way. I love that Dimple’s passion is technology and coding and love that Menon created an idol/mentor for her in Jenny Lindt (a fictional, successful app developer). Silicon Valley does horribly by women—more needs to be written (fiction and non-fiction) about women kicking ass and taking names in this field.

Menon goes further and generally defies stereotypes of the conservative Indian community, without minimizing or losing the power of the family. Dimple is a feminist and damn proud of it. Dimple isn’t strident but she also isn’t going to take your bullshit.   Even Rishi—who wants nothing more than to marry Dimple and live the happy life he has seen in his parents is a feminist and supports Dimple without constraining her. I wanted to stand on my couch and cheer. Yes. More female and male feminist role models in YA books. (Or in books period). I. Am. Here. For. It.

Dimple + Rishi
I loved this book for its portrayal of a teenager being comfortable enough in who she is and what she loves to refuse to play the stupid games. Makeup is fine if you’re Celia, her roommate, but it’s not Dimple’s thing and that’s totally ok. And not only is that ok, but you can have friends and even a boyfriend who loves that about you and still finds you beautiful. You don’t have to change to be happy or to get the guy—in fact, changing those things will typically only break your heart (a la Dimple’s roommate, Celia). We need more of this message in YA books, please.

Dimple’s character development and choices over the course of the book feel real. She thought she couldn’t have a relationship—she had to pick and choose. As a result she does some stupid things—she isn’t perfect. We’re all rooting for her, largely because she’s relatable (even if you aren’t, even a little bit, a techie).

In may ways it is Rishi, the male protagonist, who became the stereotypical “girl” character of the book—having to give up things he loves and his dreams in order to please others. He’s made himself (mostly) comfortable with these choices, even coming to accept them as his own. While I am not Indian-American, I was briefly married to one who voiced things very similar to what Rishi said here. When he went to college he would have loved to study other subjects, but had to study business because as the first-born son of Indian immigrants, he was expected to support the family and could not waste time on things like art or history.  This rang true in my limited experience and was a flip of the usual scenario.

The pace of the relationship—from Dimple meeting/hating Rishi to head-over-heels in three weeks felt a little silly and far-fetched….and then I remembered (cringingly) the pace of high school relationships. The timing is probably about right. My absolute favorite chapter was Dimple and Rishi’s first date at a book café where you eat while browsing and reading. That chapter could serve as a primer for the date planner on how to plan an excellent date, even for an adult. (Though in retrospect, this might not be the best first date for me unless you want to be talking to the top of my head while I read all night.)

Speaking of the relationship, this book does have a fair amount of sex for a YA book. The intended audience skews towards older teenagers though the main “limit” here wouldn’t be a hard age-line (in my opinion) but rather whether or not the teen reader understands sex and is beginning to understand when one should and shouldn’t have it. I’m not sure I’ve ever said this about a YA book (or any book) but—I appreciated the way Menon used sex in this book. There are characters who love each other, who think the decision through, and have sex because it is the right choice for them. Menon goes into enough detail in this scene for you to know what’s happening and that it’s a good thing for these two characters. It does get a tad steamy but I didn’t feel like it pushed over into being gratuitous, even for a YA audience. This scene is contrasted with another character who is having sex with someone she’s trying to impress and who doesn’t love her. By having both, Menon not only sets up a contrast and highlights the goodness and badness of these choices but also provides opportunity for good dialogue about these choices and when one knows sex is or isn’t right. I thought Menon handled these scenes deftly and delicately—they’re some of the best sex scenes I’ve read in a YA book.

When Dimple Met Rishi is a sizeable book, slightly on the longer end for both YA and a general contemporary fiction work. With that said, toward the end I felt like the narrative rushed. I appreciate that the overall length of the book was right—much longer and it would have needed some editing. At the same time, Insomnia Con is supposed to be a six-week conference and the entire last three weeks essentially pass in one sentence. I’m not sure ultimately that this was a bad thing or should be changed—I don’t know what before this point Menon should or could have cut to make room for the last three weeks in the narrative—so maybe this choice was fine. It was momentarily jarring in the sense that I re-read the sentence to make sure three weeks had just passed, shrugged, and moved on to find out what happened to Dimple and Rishi.

While I thought the book was incredibly well done, it is still a YA book. If YA isn’t your thing, this likely isn’t going to be the book for you. It has the shine of a YA book where things are a little too glossy and characters compare their feelings to bubbles at least once. If you love, or even just like, YA then this book is a recent stand out and definitely worth your time.

Published May 30, 2017 by Simon & Schuster (@simonandschuster)
Author: Sandhya Menon (@sandhyamenonbooks)
Date read: July 5, 2017
Rating: 3  1/2 Stars

Hindsight / Foresight July 15, 2017

Mark Solarski

Hindsight this week —

Great reading week this week.  Finished A Bridge Across the Ocean (not what I was expecting), The Hate U Give, Anything is Possible, and Beartown.  I stayed up way past my bedtime last night to finish Beartown.  It’s easily moved into my top three books of 2017, joining Exit West and This Is How It Always Is.

At the end of the week I had to put a pause on all of my library holds.  They caught up with me and I’m drowning in books with due dates.  I did wind up getting The Alice Network, Priestdaddy, and We Are Never Hanging Out in Real Life before the holds went in–these were the straws that broke the camel’s back on the library holds.

I totally failed at my goal of getting some posts built up.  I did get reviews done for When Dimple Met Rishi and Inside Out and Back Again since those were due back at the library.  The Hate U Give is being taken from me later today by Overdrive so that draft will be done by 8:52 p.m. when that book turns back into a pumpkin.  I don’t want to do two YA in a week so I’ll hopefully also get a draft banged out for The Sisters Chase today as well.  I do still have Lincoln in the Bardo and The Fall of Lisa Bellow as well as Dark Matter now in my hot little hands to go back and review.  I’m stewing with Beartown and the hangover it left me last night, but I’ve also got in on deck for a review.  I have the books…it’s the time that’s an issue.  And the Sox playing a double-header against the Yankees doesn’t bode well for my getting work done.


Foresight for the coming week–

Posts for When Dimple Met Rishi and The Sisters Chase will be posted this week, come hell or high water.  The bonus review of WSIRN should also be posted since that’s essentially 3/4 done as well.

In reading, I’d like to knock out Salt Houses as well as Lilac Girls this week.  Probably won’t get more than that since Lilac Girls is thick.  I didn’t realize that until I got the tome that is the hardback version from the library.  I’m still plugging away at Hillbilly Elegy on audio but feel like I’m constantly on the edge of abandoning it.  We’ll see if I make it through or if this is the first book I abandon of 2017.

What are you reading next? Have suggestions about books I should read? I’d love to hear from you.

Review: The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve

“The fire runs underground?” Grace asks.
She imagines secret fires tunneling beneath the house. “But how? There’s no oxygen.”
“There’s oxygen in peat and dead vegetation,” Gene explains. The fires move solely beneath the surface, he adds, burning enough to bring more oxygen into the soil. They can burn, undetected, for months, for years.

In October 1947, coastal Maine was ravaged by devastating fires. Sixteen people were killed and more than twenty separate fires burned throughout the state. Against this backdrop, Shreve introduces us to Grace, a housewife whose surface life is everything she thought she always wanted—two children and a successful husband who comes home to her every night. Its only as the fires take everything from Grace that she is faced with deciding what she really wants and, in turn, who that makes her.

Grace as a Survivor

I struggled with this review more than with others, simply because it is difficult to talk abut the evolution of Grace without giving away major plot points that, like a new shoot of growth, she must grow around or risk dying out. As I thought through writing this review, the thought I kept circling back to is that this is the story of surviving a violent relationship, yet most readers will not see it as such. Grace’s husband Gene, in his callousness, his entitlement, stifles and chokes Grace, nearly extinguishing her, yet almost never places his hands on her. Even in those moments, because of the way Shreve has developed the story, because of how familiar Grace’s unhappiness in her marriage feels, the reader is disinclined to jump to recognizing the violence—both emotional and physical—for what it is. Let me disillusion you. From working with survivors of violence and being one myself, this is what a violent relationship looks like. It is not all hits and slaps. It is the contempt Gene feels for Grace. The attempts to isolate. The gas-lighting. Grace is what it looks like to be a survivor.

The violent marital relationship, however, is not the main point of the book. Grace is not defined by Gene—a fact she has to come to realize herself as the fire, having burned away almost everything she thought she knew and held dear, instead gives her room to breathe for the first time. Just as some forests cannot live until the underbrush choking the tender new growth is burned away, so Grace cannot live until the fire burns away everything she knows.

“Classic” Anita Shreve

Admittedly, I have only read one other Anita Shreve and that was quite some time ago; however, this book has much of what I think of as Shrevian characteristics. Her language sizzles and smokes. Shreve writes in juxtapositions, highlighting the brightest whites with the inkiest blacks. Maine first goes through a wet season—so wet that once a dry day finally comes the white laundry flaps on the lines so that “it looked as though an entire town of women had surrendered.” The town, having nearly been destroyed by flood must now contend (or fall) to an all-consuming fire.

Her descriptions are neither lush nor spare, striking the right balance that leaves the reader well acquainted with their new surroundings in Grace’s world in Maine without feeling overwhelmed or slowed by strings of adjectives. There’s a more sex than I typically prefer in my reading; however, nothing that becomes gratuitous. No one is mistaking this book for a Harlequin anytime soon.

Her main character is a female who initially comes across as a shrinking violet before being faced with a series of plot twists that force Grace to either stand or fall on her own. The relationships among women are paramount, with Rosie being Grace’s anchor and safe place to land.

The Friendships of Women

Shreve shines with Rosie. The initial impression is that she’s a bit of a mess—her house is always cluttered, Grace has to save her and her children from the fire—and yet, Rosie is happy. Rosie is fulfilled and loved in her relationships and, as a result, Grace is drawn to her and to what she doesn’t have. I loved Rosie and hope that I can be the kind of friend she was to Grace. Without giving away more, I was pleased with Shreve’s use of Rosie and glad she stayed a part of the story for Grace despite their physical distance after the fire.

Published: April 18, 2017 by Knopf (@aaknopf)
Author: Anita Shreve
Date read: July 2, 2017
Rating: 3.5 stars

Review: I Found You by Lisa Jewell

She wants to keep the key to the door of this life she has had such a small taste of…

On a rainy afternoon Alice comes across a man on her beach. The man, named “Frank” by the youngest of Alice’s three children, has lost himself—his name, his place, his past. Against her better judgment and the judgment of her neighbors, Alice takes him in, slowly coming to love the man before her, even as they both strive to find out who that is exactly. Simultaneously, Ukranian Lily Monrose, the twenty-one year old newly-arrived bride of Carl, is reporting her husband missing. Put off by the police, Lily takes matters into her own hands, looking for her husband while simultaneously navigating her new world of London with its unusual inhabitants.

Interspersed with the modern story is the tale of Gray and Kirsty, a teenage brother and sister on summer holiday who meet and fall into the web of Mark, a boy more complicated than anyone realizes.

Structure and Characters

I Found You has an interesting structure in that while it is a mystery/thriller, the twist is revealed well before the end of the book, leaving over an hour of the recording (I listened to this one on audiobook) to wrap up. This structure could be listless and dragging if Jewell hadn’t developed her characters with such depth that I felt compelled to find out what happened to them. It is one of the main strengths of this book that Jewell develops her characters so compellingly that even outside of the mystery and the twist, the reader is hooked by the relationships. Will Lily find her husband and, if so, what will happen to her? Will Alice wind up with Frank? In fact, Jewell does such an excellent job putting her characters forefront that the twist was all the more shocking for its darkness—I had almost forgotten I was reading a book that had been compared to The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl. (Both books, by the way, that I absolutely hated. Can we retire comparing books to those two yet? Take heart, you too can love this book if you hated those.)

Strangers and Being Found

In I Found You, everyone is a stranger. Alice is a refugee to Ridinghouse Bay, seeking quiet and solitude after a tumultuous life (both generally and romantically). Frank, by virtue of having no idea of who he is, is quiet literally a stranger to everyone, including himself. Lily as the recent immigrant is strange to everyone around her. Gray is the quintessential teenage boy, finding himself, but lonely and adrift in the way only teenagers can be. Carl and Mark are both strangers even, or especially, to those who know them.

In some ways this is a relief. Strange does not have to mean bad or even that one will always be lonely. Some strangers are dangerous, but not everyone is and some strangers are worth taking risks to welcome. Which leads to the title—if everyone is a stranger, then everyone is waiting to be found. Indeed, there are at least seven combinations of characters finding each other in an overlapping scheme that could each give impetus to the title here. I love that Jewell leaves who found whom ambiguous.


One of the things I appreciated most about I Found You was Jewell’s ability to make me identify with and care about someone who is nothing like me. Alice makes bad choices. Alice watches the telly rather than reading books. Alice lives somewhat messily. Alice is almost nothing like me and yet I loved her and rooted for her. It’s rare I can be made to care deeply about someone that I cannot find a single thing in common with and it speaks to Jewell as a writer to be able to develop her so gently and so well. Additionally, if you had asked me before I read this book, I would not have believed that you could convince me that a likeable, mostly rational character would invite a total stranger to live in her house and yet, Jewell made that choice fit into who Alice is. Of course Alice would invite Frank in and, of course, the reader will love her for it.


I admit that I particularly enjoy getting audiobooks when the reader is foreign, even where the original language is still English. There’s something fun about listening to a British accent telling the story, describing people in their jumpers eating scones (ok…I’ll stop). The audio for I Found You is voiced by Helen Duff, who does an excellent job. Because so much of the story is told (particularly at the beginning) around Alice’s point of view, I came to hear her voice as Alice’s, drawing me closer to her as a character. Since Alice is nothing like me and makes choices I wouldn’t make (hello bringing in strange amnesiac living on the beach), this extra level of connection to Alice was valuable to me as a reader/listener. She also does an excellent job with Lily’s Ukranian-accented English. Duff’s voice is melodic and soothing for an audiobook without being so soothing that one loses what’s going on. (We’ve all been there right? The voice is so soothing you stop paying attention to the actual words and have no idea what is happening.) The cadence and rise and fall of Duff’s voice were a perfect selection for I Found You and make this book particularly fun as an audiobook.


I will start by saying that I am particularly sensitive to people using mental illness as a plot device and it is almost never something I think is done well. With that out of the way, it irked me to no end that the villain in this case was described at one point as mentally ill. While it is true that sociopathy and psychopathy are in the DSM V, these are personality disorders which should be distinguished from things like bipolar disorder and even schizophrenia. We’ve come to believe and accept that sociopaths and psychopaths are dangerous (a gross generalization as well) and when those groups are lumped in with general mental illness, we’ve created a culture that believes having any mental illness automatically means you’re dangerous. In fact only 3-5% of violent crimes are committed by people with mental illness. On the contrary, having a mental illness makes you more likely to be the victim of a crime than a perpetrator.

To a lesser extent, I had trouble believing some of Lily’s actions. She is supposed to be a brand new immigrant, only twenty-one and married to someone almost twice her age. While I did not think she had to be a shrinking violet (and was glad she wasn’t), her choices and decisions made me forget how young and new-to-the-country she was supposed to be. While Jewell has points of her character development that remind you of her age—her grocery store run for what is ultimately 90% junk food—overall, she was a bit too capable and old-sounding to be the almost child-bride she was supposed to be. This may also have been as a contrast to Alice, whose character was developed so well that it highlighted ways in which Lily wasn’t as much.


For a book with as many twists and turns as this one—no one’s real life is actually like this, right?—Jewell does well to conclude the story in a way that is satisfactory without being too neat and tidy. At some point in a book like this, everyone’s hands have gotten too dirty for everything to end happily ever after, something Jewell seems to recognize. In that way, it would be easy to end this book earlier, to leave the reader hanging. The story itself is messy enough (in terms of action, not in terms of Jewell’s writing or story development) that it would be plausible for no one to have a happy ending. It is a credit to Jewell that in addition to hooking the reader with her characters, she then cares enough about them and us to allow us some resolution without completely losing the plot. There may be some who think the story ends implausibly; however, I didn’t find it any more implausible than the rest of the book. (I need to think things like this are implausible. I need to think that people like Amy in Gone Girl and certain characters in I Found You are not actually running around out there.)


I Found You is great for the beach or a dark and stormy summer night on the veranda. It’s never going to be read for a literature class, but it’s not trying to be high literature. I love books like this for a palate cleanser when I’ve been reading things that are heavier. I Found You is an excellent contribution to its genre.

Published: April 25, 2017 by Atria Books (@atriabooks)
Author: Lisa Jewell (@jewellwrites)
Date Read: June 26, 2017 (by Hoopla audiobook)
Rating: 3 ¾ stars