The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky :: I want to love this book, but it falls somewhere between good and great instead. The voice is brilliant and the sentences unfurl simply and unfettered. The exploration of her marriage and grief are on point, both disheartening and brutal. Personally, I’ve never been as lost or unsure of who I am as this woman (I’m sure that’s yet to come), which can make it hard to relate to her, though not in a bad way. I know that she will be relatable to many, many people and for them her choices and the lack of them will resonate more deeply. If I have to pinpoint what makes this book good and not great for me, it’d be the character’s passivity. Sure, she makes an active choice in the end (which is a bit rushed), but until that point she lets people make choices for her (even whether she goes to the funeral is determined by someone she hasn’t seen in ten years) or things “just happen,” like she’s afraid of herself. Some of this is grief and some of this is her own character flaw, and for that I can’t fault the book – it’s more that it takes too long for her to become an active player and I wanted more self-exploration from the character regarding her issues. Of course, there’s also something to be said about a book that refuses to do such a thing and instead just lets the character be. I’m on the fence between two positive feelings on the book and perhaps that’s not such a bad place to be.
Chemistry by Weike Wang :: This is one of those books where either you will love it or hate it, mainly due to its structure. The unnamed protagonist careens through this part of her life with equal parts denial, misguided ambition, self-repression, and chemistry. She rambles, she tells you facts that are adjacent to whatever she was telling you before in order to avoid the difficulty of facing herself. She lets you in and immediately pulls back because even she doesn’t want to be that far in on her own life. That said, it’s in the trivia provided and the subtleties between them that you gain understanding of this character. She’s not likable if you can’t empathize with her upbringing or how she distances herself from herself due to it, which is why a lot of people read: to get in these character’s heads and gain perspectives so unlike their own. That said, likability doesn’t make a difference to me because all humans are unlikable during events or timeframes in their lives; it should be the same with characters. This book has little in the way of a plot but it would be entirely unfair to say that nothing happens. This woman happens, her life unfolds, and the changes she undergoes are monumental to her even if they might seem mundane in comparison to a full throttle plot.
Circling the Drain by Amanda Davis :: This collection starts strong and then kind of falls apart before pulling itself together for a good final story. I had to really focus to finish this one, which is a rarity, especially when it comes to stories (ostensibly) about difficult people. I found most of the female characters to be lacking as well as a redundancy in why characters were the way they were. It could be that I’m just not the right audience for lovelorn women or, more often, love-scorned women who are passive and incapable of making firm life decisions for themselves. A few of these stories would be fine on their own or in a journal – they’re competent – but to have so many exploring the same theme in a row just grated on me.
The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon :: This is not a book I would normally enjoy and, honestly, if not for the gorgeous cover, I wouldn’t have picked it up. The blurb is terrible and YA has just never been my thing (even as a teenager), especially when it comes to stories of instant love and romance and all that gooey stuff. It is a quick read with very, very short chapters and while I didn’t love it, I didn’t loathe it either. I even felt for the characters, though not for the reasons of romance or love. This book deals with some very real issues facing immigrant families, undocumented and not, and for these reasons I cared about both of the main characters’ fates. I also appreciated that the situation regarding Natasha was carried out in a realistic manner rather than with platitudes and miracles. The author didn’t take the easy way out and for that I respect the book. I have quibbles with the structure: the story is narrated from the POVs of several characters and concepts through short chapters, which works well for the pace but jumbles the beginning because you don’t stick with anyone long enough to care about them right away. Fortunately, this works out after ten or so chapters and the story falls into a rhythm that makes sense for both empathizing and storytelling. The writing is good, especially regarding the science aspects of Natasha’s thought process. Nitpicky: I wish Yoon had cited the original article where she got the questions for the “science of love” the two characters reference throughout (yes, it was an actual study and not a fictional one created for the book as many reviewers seem to have misunderstood; you can find it here).
The Leavers by Lisa Ko :: There’s a lot that’s great about this book, there’s nothing technically wrong with it, and still, at the end of the read, I didn’t enjoy it. I actually started this book five times before setting it down to read something else. I blame the first chapter. It’s slow and boring, almost like the book starts in the wrong place. It picks up but everything is predictable when it comes to how the mother left, why she left, etc. For me, the section split into the mother’s POV right when I finally had finally come around to Deming/Daniel as a character, which meant that I sped through her section in order to get back to his character (who ended up not being worth it). Overall, I empathize with the mother’s plight – so, so much went wrong in her life at the hands and regulations of others – and even as I found Deming/Daniel grating (less so than his adoptive parents who were seriously the worst), I empathized with him as well. The plot and themes are important stories to tell, I just wish they’d been told by better characters. (An aside: I have a serious issue with repeatedly passive characters who could positively affect their situations if they just spoke up (I don’t know how many times I uttered “use your words, kid” like I was talking to a toddler); so, if you don’t have this issue then these characters won’t keep you from enjoying this book. It’s not that these types of characters aren’t realistic, I just find them frustrating and cannot handle when there are too many of them.)
Push by Sapphire :: There’s so much visceral heartbreak here that it’s difficult to discuss without giving the entire thing away. Granted, a wide swathe of the population has seen the film based on the book (Precious, named after our protagonist) so the spoilers are out there. Somehow, the book makes the film seem tame and as anyone who has seen it knows, it is decidedly not a tame or contained or easy film. The words on these pages are raw and unfiltered, exactly as they should be coming from a teenage girl whose journey includes abuse in all forms, all searing, and goes from illiterate to 8th grade-level literate from the first to the last page. The skill it takes to write in such a manner – the book is written in first person from Precious’s POV so there are misspelled words you have to sound out to know what she means among other difficulties in sentence structure – without breaking character and showing the growth of Precious’s writing ability from beginning to end is something else. The language will offend (and has, according to Goodreads) a lot of people: the abuse is uncensored, Precious curses wildly (because, honestly, sometimes there’s just no better word to use), and she doesn’t refrain from speaking her mind on everything from white people to crack addicts to HIV in the late 80s. This, of course, is where empathy instead of judgment comes into play; you need to immerse yourself in her world and her perspective. This is not your average “likeable” victim as portrayed in any number of books and films as wholesome, which is exactly why she’s important. Awful things happen to her and she believes and vocalizes other awful things, all of which she’s been taught and none of which negate her experience. She’s human, and that’s really all we can ask of an author.
Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer :: Apparently I’m on a bleak streak that I didn’t plan. These stories are raw and Packer’s voice is gorgeous; sentences are rife with lyricism and still pointed. There’s so much unpacking to be done when it comes to the subjects, however, that it never quite felt wholly done. It’s not that the stories were unfinished (though, to some, I can see how they’d feel that way), but more that they revisit many of the same themes so if you read them in succession you feel like you’re delving in deep and never coming up for air. A couple of the stories are clearly better than others (“Brownies,” “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere”) and more than a handful of characters annoyed me to no end. I think my main issue (as someone who grew up in a rural, religious place/school like a few of these characters) is that there’s sheltered and then there’s just plain willfully ignorant. Too many of these characters veered more willfully ignorant than sheltered, and while I am fully aware that people this naïve exist, they don’t exist in the numbers that these stories rely upon to create their worlds and make the whole collection believable/not feel redundant. A character here, a character there, sure; an entire story collection comprised of these characters, no. I will read whatever Packer produces (as I’ve read her excerpts and stories before and I do love her voice), but this fell a bit short for me.
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls :: This is a difficult memoir to review because there are things within it that ring true for people I care about and therefore I judged this book more harshly. It flows fast and open, its greatest accomplishment being that she tells her story with fierce statements and without judgment. So many who tell a history of their life such as this will do so through either rose-colored glasses or sermonizing and hurt, more often the latter. Walls doesn’t do this in the least. For me, where the book truly fell short was in the final section. It’s rushed, one day she’s struggling and the next she has a job as a journalist and the next she’s going to an Ivy League school. Now, timeframe is important as there’s no chance these things would happen with such quick succession today; still, more exposition is warranted. For example, just how she got into an Ivy League with an education as spotty as hers is never addressed. We can make guesses – a brilliant essay, a great series of recommendations, and yes, she’s obviously intelligent, etc. – but it’s honestly something that could’ve so easily been addressed that its exclusion takes away from the work it took to get to the success part of her life after she escaped her parents.
– M. Ray Hall