Hunger by Roxane Gay :: Reading this book is like looking into the author’s soul and seeing a piece of it so clearly that you’re momentarily blinded by its truth-telling nakedness. Every single sentence is personal and raw, so raw each one cuts into your own soul and shows you things you may have recognized in the abstract or maybe never recognized at all. The ability this book has to be so wholly personal to the author and still so relevant to anyone who picks it up is a feat that few memoirs accomplish – with or without overly broad clichés. It’s accomplished, at least in part, by her unwillingness to let you pity her. She is blunt; this is her story and these her truths. She does not shame the general populace for the things she deals with on a daily basis even though society at large deserves to be shamed for creating and perpetuating such an environment (in more than one way). This book is about her and living in her body; it’s not about the rest of us and how we feel. The reader may feel ashamed, but that’s on the reader and not on the words Gay uses. I read this in one sitting, tearing up and laughing and nodding along.
The Windfall by Diksha Basu :: This book reads fast, in part because I just wanted to get away from a certain character – the father figure. I thoroughly disliked him, which is a strength in the writing that he is made so real as to resonate. That said, I had to skim over several of his monologues as I found him a blithering idiot (he is not a blithering idiot; he merely behaves as one in specific contexts and I find that ever more grating). As a whole, the book has gotten fanfare due to its insight into new money in India – and this it does very well. My favorite character is a woman who is an outcast in her society because she embraces honesty and being in control of her own life; she’s also the only one who gets an unabashed happy ending, which seems to be an accurate portrayal of any family within any society.
Mislaid by Nell Zink :: This novel is smart, by which I mean the author demands you exercise your brain to both understand her wit and many of the character references. It’s not the worst thing for the book if you don’t consider yourself an intellectual, but you’ll get far more from it if you have such leanings (or are willing to look up each of the references). The book begins in such a manner that many authors are told not to use – with a setting description. It is clear that this setting is not a setting at all; it’s a character. The book takes a bit to get to the meat of the story, which is a small drawback, but the payoff is worth it. I reviewed Zink’s book, Nicotine, a few months back and am pleasantly surprised at how much more I enjoyed this one. This book is more succinct and also takes on a greater range of social topics, often social taboos. The exploration and characters are more thorough, loose ends tied up into an almost-too neat bow.
Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong :: This book will have you laughing and crying in the same sentence, or so many have said. I do not cry easily – over dogs, yes, but I really have to feel it to cry over humans – and this book never quite got me to tears or full-on laughter. Maybe it’s my mood’s fault, though, as I did thoroughly enjoy the book. Khong’s sentences have a way of cutting to the quick of a thing while simultaneously revealing another. The storytelling is short, sparse, and told in a diary format that works well for both its guarded character and moving the plot along. I’ve read a couple books this year, both memoir and fiction, about families dealing with the terrible diagnosis of a parent where the kid or kids come home to help. This far surpasses them all. The one thing that irks me throughout are the references to being broke (blatantly telling us she can’t pay the extra .99 to get cheese on her hamburger, for example) while following that up with a trip to Palm Springs on a whim. Yes, people do this in real life, so I can generally let it slide, but the references seem disingenuous when she’s also at the grocer almost daily buying fresh fish, produce, nuts and expensive vitamins to slow the progression of her father’s dementia without noting how they are lucky to be able to afford such deterrents. I mean, the fact that she can just leave her job and move in with her parents and they can all afford to eat and live in southern California with only one person working (her mother) is a testament to none of them being broke.
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout :: This is not a novel where something happens, or rather, where there is a proper arc. This is a life story of one woman. She tells it over the course of a few weeks while she is in the hospital, the novel’s structure weaving in and out of flashbacks and reference points. The novel is short and to the point, sentences telling you more than one thing at each turn. I didn’t love the characters or even the life story it describes – I want more detail, more emotional depth – but, I thoroughly enjoyed and fell into the writing style. For some, that might not be enough; for me, it’s perfect.
The Grownup by Gillian Flynn :: This short story, packaged in book form, has such a strong beginning that its ending is even more disappointing. The beginning is matter-of-fact, fun, and full of wit. The end is rushed and indecisive rather than shocking. It’s also based on a precarious detail that contradicts one of the possible twists (semi-SPOILER: you can’t both follow someone to an appointment without knowing to what kind of place you’re going and also make an appointment there for yourself for a time that perfectly coincides with the appointment of the person you’re following (unless following was actually unnecessary and you knew when the appointment was set.) In other words, the ending hinges on a story whose minor details are inaccurate, improbable at best).
– M. Ray Hall