mini-reviews: fates and furies and before the fall

I’ve been so engrossed in non-fiction the last few months that I decided I should read some fiction that’s been on my shelf and neglected for far too long. I had really been looking forward to these two dramatic stories, only to end up somewhat disappointed in the end.

I read Lauren Groff‘s Arcadia a few years ago and absolutely loved it, so I was really excited to get Fates and Furies right when it came out. Of course and uncommonly, I set it on the shelf and promptly forgot about it. I wish I had added this to my TBR Pile Challenge! Unfortunately, Fates didn’t work for me as well as Arcadia. Fates is the story of Lotto and Mathilde, a couple who married spontaneously and faced challenges through their decades-long union, some typical and some extraordinary. I liked that the book was split in half and readers got to hear both “sides” of the story, first from Lotto and second from Mathilde. Groff is also a beautiful writer. Some of the prose is just stunning and a pleasure to take in. I think she’s very inventive and imaginative with her characters as well. As for those characters, I personally wasn’t crazy about them. Not that characters have to be likable for me to like the book. In this case, I guess I’m not really into stories of privileged elites right now, or of successful men carried by women. The names were just awful too, Lotto (short for Lancelot), Chollie?? Lotto and his sister call their mother “Muvva.” I thought at first Chollie and Muvva were just the accent of the narrator but nope. Ugh. Pretentious. Well they are pretentious characters. There is a composer character in the book whose portrayal I completely hated and wasn’t even a shred of close to realistic. I get that the book is supposed to sort of be Greek mythology but it was just too much for me. Mathilde had a very compelling story though, I really enjoyed her part and perspective, which is the “furies” second part of the book. I’m sure this kind of epic character-driven drama full of secrets is right up some readers’ alleys, just not mine. I’d still like to read more by Groff though! [Listened to audiobook in June 2018.]

I ordered Before the Fall by Noah Hawley right after it was released because I’m a huge fan of the TV show Fargo, for which he is a producer. The premise is great: a private plane carrying eleven people—a Fox News-esque mogul, his family, and their security guard; a rich couple; the crew of 3; and an artist—crashes off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard shortly after takeoff. 40-something artist Scott survives the crash, and rescues one of the children, the four-year-old son of the TV mogul. Everyone else perishes. The book alternates between Scott dealing with the event’s aftermath, being an unwilling hero figure in the spotlight, and backstories on each of the plane passengers. How did the plane crash when all systems checked out before takeoff? What happened? Why? Was there a conspiracy to take down these rich and powerful people aboard? Who exactly is this Scott guy, and why was he aboard? It starts off as a good mystery and survival story, and most of the characters are rendered well (except the women, sadly, are one-dimensional). The ending though… yeesh. Too convenient and I think won’t hold up well over time… it’s hard to say much without spoiling. Despite the lame ending, there are a lot of great ruminations here on hero worship, wealth, power, media consumption, art, and luck. [Read in June 2018.] ***Before the Fall is my fourth of twelve books for the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge.

an american marriage

I had to see what was up with An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, the very hyped latest pick for Oprah’s book club. Heavily edited from Goodreads:

Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit. Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself bereft and unmoored. As their time apart passes, Celestial is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center. After five years, Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, and he returns to Atlanta ready to resume their life together.

There’s a lot to unpack in this story, which is fictional but undoubtedly all too real for many families. It’s a love story at its core, but through the lens of a tragically common situation black Americans face today. I’m not surprised Oprah (and probably many others) picked this for book club—it makes for excellent discussion. How can black Americans achieve the American dream when they have to be twice as good and work twice as hard for it, when their achievements don’t protect them at all from persecution and discrimination? What about loyalty, or conditional vs. unconditional love? How do partners handle life-altering, stressful, major life events in their marriage? Does absence truly make the heart grow fonder? And more, like dealing with the stigma families deal with when one of their own is or has been incarcerated, nature vs. nurture, fathers and sons, etc.

I’m happy I listened on audio. The actors, Sean Crisden and Eisa Davis, did a fantastic job performing these characters and giving them depth, especially during the epistolary first half of the novel. Their delivery and emotion gave Roy and Celestial life; I felt almost like I was experiencing a play in person rather than listening to a book. That’s also a testament to Jones’s wonderful storytelling. My one tiny complaint is that the ending was just a touch too tidy for me, but it (along with the rest of the story) was completely believable.

An American Marriage lived up to the hype for me. Life isn’t strictly black and white, people are complex and flawed and both good and bad. It’s a powerful story about love, being human, being black in America, familial relationships, friendships, and reacting/recovering after the universe unexpectedly slaps you in the face and upends your life.

Listened to audiobook in March 2018.

set this world on fire

Slash (© mylittleheartmelodies), 10/16/15, Fillmore Auditorium, DenverNick and I celebrated our 5-year wedding anniversary on October 16. Concerts were a big part of our anniversary always, starting on our actual wedding DAY; after the courthouse ceremony and dinner with family and friends who were in town, I played a concert with Civic Orchestra. The second year… I played a concert with Civic! The third and fourth years we were apart—I was at a funeral one year and he was away at a composer residency the next (and I went to a Yo-Yo Ma concert in KC). So THIS year, for our fifth, we decided we needed to do something awesome, and seeing SLASH live in concert was absolutely the most perfect way to celebrate.

Nick got World on Fire last summer, Slash’s latest CD featuring his new band, Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators. Nick was a composer fellow at a music festival for the month of July, and for some reason I just felt like giving this CD a spin. I fell in LOVE. Seriously just went crazy for it and could not stop listening. I had it in the car on repeat for weeks. I played it at least once a day in full at my desk during work. I watched all the YouTube videos I could find. It’d been a long time since I was so obsessed with an album—years. I couldn’t help look up Slash online and saw he was still touring World on Fire, but sadly he wasn’t coming through KC (of course we missed him at the Voodoo Lounge here in summer 2014! We didn’t know about the album then, though). The closest options were Louisville (midweek, not good), Minneapolis (weekend, but sold out and we had a conflict in KC anyway), and Denver… ON OUR ANNIVERSARY, Friday, October 16. We looked at our calendars and saw no conflicts, so we went for it.

That Friday night, we got to the Fillmore Auditorium at 5 pm and got in line. We were among the first people there—the doors didn’t open until more than two hours later. First things first, as soon as we got in there we bought matching tour shirts, then found a spot close to the stage. The opening band, Raven Eye, was decent but we were just so pumped for Slash we could barely hold onto our patience.

The Conspirators set was SO AMAZING. Again it’d been years since I’d been to a concert like this, getting as close as possible to the stage; this was a much-needed night of rocking out. The band played a lot of tracks off World on Fire, of course, but also mixed in songs from Apocalyptic LoveSlash, and several Guns N’ Roses tunes and even a Velvet Revolver tune, too. Here’s the set list:

1. You’re a Lie | 2. Nighttrain | 3. Avalon | 4. Standing in the Sun | 5. Back from Cali | 6. Wicked Stone | 7. Too Far Gone | 8. You Could Be Mine | 9. Doctor Alibi | 10. Welcome to the Jungle | 11. Beneath the Savage Sun | 12. Mr. Brownstone | 13. The Dissident | 14. Rocket Queen | 15. Bent to Fly | 16. Word on Fire | 17. Anastasia | 18. Sweet Child O’ Mine | 19. Slither (with Bad Company’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love”) | Encore: Paradise City

One major thing I loved about this show was that Slash didn’t play everything just exactly as you hear on the albums. He would start off a solo with the familiar strains we all know, but soon would expand on those ideas in epic improvisations that I could have watched and listened to all night. It’s hard to put into words! He really let loose the most during a several minutes-long solo on “Rocket Queen,” which was just incredible.

Not only was Slash super awesome, the whole band was fun to watch as well. Myles Kennedy has just the right type of voice for this music—versatile, melodic, emotionally charged—and it’s clear that he and Slash have an indelible musical chemistry that I hope lasts for many more years. The other members of the Conspirators were equally cool. Bassist Todd Kerns stood out, though, singing lead on “Doctor Alibi” and “Welcome to the Jungle.” I really wish we had been able to catch one of his picks he tossed out to the crowd!

It was a night to remember—I was still buzzing about it for days after (still now, even!). I almost can’t believe I finally got to see Slash, a living guitar legend that, as a musician and guitar nerd, I’ve admired for years. It was such a thrill. And I couldn’t have imagined a better way to mark our fifth anniversary; there’s no one else I would have rather experienced it with than my rock star husband. 🙂

hausfrau

Last week I raced through the hyped Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum. From Goodreads:

Anna Benz, an American in her late thirties, lives with her Swiss husband Bruno and their three young children in a postcard-perfect suburb of Zürich. Though she leads a comfortable, well-appointed life, Anna is falling apart inside. Adrift and increasingly unable to connect with the emotionally unavailable Bruno or even with her own thoughts and feelings, Anna tries to rouse herself with new experiences: German language classes, Jungian analysis, and a series of sexual affairs she enters into with an ease that surprises even her. Tensions escalate, and her lies start to spin out of control. Having crossed a moral threshold, Anna will discover where a woman goes when there’s no going back.

I’m so glad I got to this before I saw the “Madam Bovary meets 50 Shades” promo line. I would have never picked it up! Hausfrau is already a hot book this year, with tons of great topics for discussion. There’s no “ah-ha!” big reveal moment of the reasoning behind Anna’s behavior, but there is a healthy dose of tension throughout, a few shocking plot points, and the final third of the book—omg. I just couldn’t even hardly put it down by then.

Anna… I felt for her. She suffers. Her actions and indiscretions obviously point to more than sheer boredom. Depression is serious business. And her marriage is depressing. She has few friends and no one really understands her, even her therapist or her super-nice-to-an-annoying-fault classmate Mary. Essbaum’s poetic writing brought out the utter hopelessness in Anna. She’s very humanly flawed, and seemingly ill-equipped to help herself out of the quicksand of lies she herself created. It’s really a bleak whirlpool right up to the end into which I was completely drawn. Ahh, this book broke my heart and I loved it.

If you’ve read Hausfrau, I recommend heading over to the Socratic Salon for an in-depth, SPOILER-FULL discussion. No spoilers here on my blog, but one item that intrigued me over there was the query, “What if Anna had been a man?” Because I agree—it wouldn’t be the hyped, provocative, “shocking” (although I wasn’t particularly shocked) novel that it’s been branded if the main character was a man. Makes you think!

Read from April 13 to 21, 2015.

the silent wife

I received a copy of The Silent Wife by A. S. A. Harrison from a friend several months ago (a year?) and finally decided to read it in March, being a perfect fit for the KC Library Love on the Rocks Adult Winter Reading Program. From Goodreads:

Jodi and Todd are at a bad place in their marriage. Much is at stake, including the affluent life they lead in their beautiful waterfront condo in Chicago, as she, the killer, and he, the victim, rush haplessly toward the main event. He is a committed cheater. She lives and breathes denial. He exists in dual worlds. She likes to settle scores. He decides to play for keeps. She has nothing left to lose. Told in alternating voices, The Silent Wife is about a marriage in the throes of dissolution, a couple headed for catastrophe, concessions that can’t be made, and promises that won’t be kept. Expertly plotted and reminiscent of Gone Girl and These Things Hidden, The Silent Wife ensnares the reader from page one and does not let go.

I know I’m not the first to say it, and I totally agree—the comparisons to Gone Girl are way off. Sure, it’s a messed up marriage, like in Gone Girl. But The Silent Wife is less thriller than Gone Girl, for starters. While the final “act” is set up in the blurb above (and I kind of wish the blurb hadn’t given that away), Jodi and Todd are less conniving and sociopathic  than Amy and Nick, but still pretty awful to each other. Psychology is a huge element in this novel, with Jodi even being a psychologist herself. There were plenty of twists and turns in the story but I saw a few of them coming, and the ending wrapped up just a little too neatly for me.

This was deliciously dark fiction, though, with plenty of sinister moments, and Harrison’s writing style and pacing keeps you turning the pages for more. I loved how she made Chicago another character in the story, mentioning specific locations, however, the language wasn’t quite right for Chicagoans in spots. I didn’t grow up in Chicago but I’ve been many, many times to visit family there, and never once have I heard anyone I know from Chicago say “hell’s bells.” This would make a great book club choice, since there’s a lot to discuss: cheating and what you do or don’t do about it, what a marriage looks like after 20+ years, childhood trauma, and so on. The Silent Wife came out a couple of years ago so I’m sure many have read it already, but I don’t want to give out spoilers!

Basically it was a good book—not quite great, but still an enjoyable read if you’re into dark fiction about marriages and interpersonal relationships. I was sorry to find out later that Harrison died right before The Silent Wife was published, making it her only novel. I would have been interested to read more from her as she developed her style and voice past her debut.

The Silent Wife is my fifth book of five for the KC Library’s Love on the Rocks Adult Winter Reading Program.

Read from March 15 to 20, 2015.

dept. of speculation

Onward with my reading challenges! My latest pick for the KC Library’s Love on the Rocks program was Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. From Goodreads:

Dept. of Speculation is a portrait of a marriage. It is also a beguiling rumination on the mysteries of intimacy, trust, faith, knowledge, and the condition of universal shipwreck that unites us all.

Jenny Offill’s heroine, referred to in these pages as simply “the wife,” once exchanged love letters with her husband, postmarked Dept. of Speculation, their code name for all the uncertainty that inheres in life and in the strangely fluid confines of a long relationship. As they confront an array of common catastrophesa colicky baby, bedbugs, a faltering marriage, stalled ambitions—the wife analyzes her predicament, invoking everything from Keats and Kafka to the thought experiments of the Stoics to the lessons of doomed Russian cosmonauts. She muses on the consuming, capacious experience of maternal love, and the near total destruction of the self that ensues from it, as she confronts the friction between domestic life and the seductions and demands of art..

Well, hmm. Perhaps I’m in a slump. I’ve heard almost nothing but awesome things about Dept. of Speculation and it just didn’t grab me the way I expected. I enjoyed it overall, but I think the subject matter is deep and complicated, but being such a short novel (only about 170 pages) I feel like some of the situations and feelings “the wife” had were glossed over. The free-flowing thought prose jumped around and I had trouble staying focused on the when/where/what. She obsessed over microscopic details in her life and marriage—can’t see the forest for the trees? I just never felt invested in the characters, or had any empathy for them. However, I did find the writing style fresh and interesting, with some very lovely, compelling phrasing, almost on a poetic level. I have had a trying few weeks here, so maybe it’s me and I’m in a slump. I think if I had been able to really concentrate and focus on this novella in one or two sittings, Dept. would have had more of an impact for me. I would definitely give it a re-read at some point.

Dept. of Speculation is my third book of five for the KC Library’s Love on the Rocks Adult Winter Reading Program.

Read from February 18 to 28, 2015.