Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood :: I love this book. It isn’t without its issues (there are a couple ho-hum sections near the end), but it is as near-perfect as I expect a memoir to be. Part of the reason this novel resonates with me goes beyond the writing (which is both gorgeous and hilarious): I, too, was raised in the church (hers Catholic, mine Lutheran), felt its stringent distaste for certain women (I am one of these), left it behind wholeheartedly though pieces will forever linger, and still must return to a family who believes; I, too, am a writer whose childhood is riddled with excitement over essay exams and unassigned notebooks of stories; I , too, am most at home near the sea, where the earth falls off into everything or nothing or both at once. Aside from these parallels, I love this book because it had me sharing pieces and paragraphs with others due to their beauty or their humor; this a balance not many strike and it should not be ignored.
The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate :: This is not an uplifting book by any means and it isn’t meant to be. I was drawn to it because of its protagonist – a woman in science, more particularly a black woman in a white male-dominated field. Of course, that’s not really what this book ends up being about; it is about alcoholism and addiction and how it affects every single person in a family. This side of the storyline I fully appreciate, each instance and memory cutting to the quick and forcing you to feel. (Full disclosure: I teared up more than once at the revelations of different characters.) That said, the structure didn’t work for me (it switches between first- and third-person POV as well as between characters in each POV) because I feel like we missed out on some important pieces from Josie’s current life with her husband (the “final conversation,” for instance) and also that it sold itself short. Early on, before we realize we will be switching POVs, Josie tells us that she has to recreate some memories to her ability and cannot be positive of their accuracy (this is written before she tells us about how her parents met) – but if you’re going to switch into the POV of the father and the mother later on, why not just do it now? It’s too easy a way to tell us our main narrator is unreliable; there are other ways. It feels uncharacteristic of the rest of the book given its excellent handling of difficult subject matter and easy-but-beautiful prose. Overall, other than the structure, the book pulls the reader into it and forces you to understand, if not empathize with, Josie even if you don’t particularly like her choices.
Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore :: This book would not be published today because there is no real plot (it was published in 1994). There are themes and beautiful sentences and relationships that burrow deep into the characters and resonate with the reader, but there is no plot (other than “coming of age”). I don’t mind that nothing out of the ordinary happens; I generally prefer books that explore characters over plot devices (if I’m being honest, I tend to find heavy plots lazy with character development), but, and there is a but, the character development in this novel is also lacking. The protagonist is passive, stays passive; she is impressionable, stays impressionable. The writing itself is often beautiful, though occasionally tedious and long-winded. There’s a lot of telling rather than showing so I didn’t feel the impact of the relationship between the two girls as much as I understood it. It sounds like I liked this book a lot less than I did, because I did like it in pieces – some portions are very, very strong – and I could appreciate the craft; I just didn’t feel anything for the characters or for the world and society we live in while reading it.
Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett :: This novel reads fast, so fast. I enjoyed it for the most part and thoroughly appreciated the way it showed depression and another unnamed mental illness affecting an entire family rather than the one person. I had very few issues with the book and even appreciated the skips in time to keep us moving along to important points of the story. The Michael character, as a child, is so well drawn and it’s heartbreaking because you know what his future holds based on the first two chapters alone. I have more trouble with his adult character, mostly because we focus on the women in (or not in) his life one too many times for what I needed to understand and it becomes redundant. The other character I took issue with is Celia but only because her need to be depended upon is not explored as fully as necessary. The author makes it out to be that she resents having to be the caregiver and planner for so many years with her mother and brother, but then she chooses a life with a type one diabetic (side note: what’s with all these passing mentions of the disease lately?). Now, there are exactly two sentences that allude to her partner’s sugars and shots in some form of annoyance and while the story should never be about him, the disease itself is much bigger than that inside a relationship and its impact on Celia would be greater. In other words, we are to believe that she is sick of caring for people but that she chooses a husband who will always need more care and help than a healthy individual; if this is the case, then there’s more to her character that needs explored in a novel about illness, dependency, and caring for one another. This is not an uplifting book by any stretch of the imagination, but I do think it is an important one and even with the small character issues, I found it to be a worthy read.
Good Hair by Benilde Little :: Setting is everything in this book. If you ignore the timeframe or the social setting then much of what is discussed will read as trivial, especially when it comes to what the protagonist is wearing. The discussion of class dynamics is one of the better ones I’ve read because it manages to be both nuanced and hard-hitting. There’s nothing flippant about the way Little interweaves plot and discussion, even if more than a few of the characters are flippant themselves. I flew through this book in an afternoon and thoroughly enjoyed it. The dialogue and plot are less serious than I normally go for (too focused on romance), but the theme and class discussions kept me interested.
The Brutal Language of Love by Alicia Erian :: I enjoyed every single one of these stories, which is something. Not all of the characters are likable – in fact, many of them are downright obnoxious (especially the siblings in “When Animals Attack”). The important thing, though, is that every single one of these characters is well-drawn and you understand why they are the way they are. The title should be a dead giveaway, but to be clear, not one of these stories is happy or ends well for those in love.
Sula by Toni Morrison :: I know; I can’t believe I hadn’t read this sooner either. I will never cease to be amazed by how Morrison can string together the most stunning of sentences using plain language. This is also one of those times where I am forced to note that back cover copy, which is intended to tell the plot of a thing, does not do literary fiction justice. If you were to follow the back cover, then you’d expect the plot to have begun and the girls to have at least been discussed in relation to each other before page fifty – they are not. This is not a complaint as the opening chapters explore the neighborhood and each of the character’s separate histories as to prepare you and set up the girls who become women before the book’s end. It is necessary to understand their motivations and their character arcs; it’s also gorgeously rendered and painful. What it is not, is plot-heavy or back cover copy-accurate. Anyway, even if I had not enjoyed the characters or how the plot unfolded, I’d have been enamored by the writing and that in itself is a reason to read this book.
Thunderstruck by Elizabeth McCracken :: These stories are full of so much grief and death and the irony of it all. They are as moving as you’d expect, somehow none of them repeating themselves or tugging the same emotions even as they cover the same overall ideas. The plots are hit-and-miss, some of them stale and too familiar while others are delightfully strange. The stories end in the way the majority of short stories end: without a clear resolution. It’s not about the destination, after all, it’s about the writing and the story that get you to the final gutting sentence.
Symptomatic by Danzy Senna :: Like Caucasia, this book follows a biracial woman who looks white and the ways in which this complicates and unravels her relationships when it comes to meeting new people or even having to explain oneself to old friends/lovers/coworkers. It begins as an exploration of identity, with one biracial woman seeking out another based on their matching indiscernible skin colors, and ends in a suspenseful – and earned – happening. While I didn’t find it as taut as Caucasia, Senna’s dissection of how those around us influence how we see ourselves, especially when it comes to race, leaps off the page and lends itself to a quick read.
– M. Ray Hall