Loved this novel, and had to share, in case anyone else has been feeling a bit of reading ennui lately:
Laura Rider is a force of nature hidden amongst the housewives in her small Wisconsin town. She owns a gardening business with her husband, Charlie, with whom she has laughed, loved (but not physically, lately), and lived for more than a decade. But now, she pretty much knows the gardening business inside and out. So now, she’s bored. And looking for something else to do.
When one of her heroes, radio personality Jenna Faroli, moves to town with her husband, an older man who is also not providing for his wife’s carnal nature, both Laura and her husband notice. Charlie, the easy-going, charming, lovable idiot, is eager to find someone who is as interested in a sordid, motel screw as he is. Laura is fascinated that this charming, intelligent woman is kind of physically plain and also, interested in her husband. Romance, chaos, and creative forces ensue.
This novel is fun, funny, and looks at what happens when smart people are forced to recognize their own flawed humanity by making terrible mistakes. How being driven can help you figure out what change you are craving, and how to make it happen. And how believing in aliens does not prevent a man from catching the attention of not just one, but two, amazing woman – but keeping their attention requires effort.
I loved this novel, and the audiobook version I borrowed from the library was very well done. The reader had an engaging voice, and although my office may be freezing, this book made it entertaining to drive to & from it. I may have just listened to this book at the right time, but I don’t think so. Although it only has 2.5 stars on Goodreads, I found it well-written, funny, and insightful.
So I highly recommend, if you’re looking for something fun.
If you have, I’m sorry. If you haven’t – don’t bother. & if you have a problem with spoilers, stop reading. Because I’m going to be giving away plot details left & right, so, you know – fair warning.
The narrator in this particular novel feels like she’s suffering the dystopian equivalent of white privilege. I mean, yeah, she was kidnapped. Which, don’t get me wrong, is awful. But in the context of dystopia – also, could have been worse. In fact, even in the context of this dystopia, it could have been much worse. If she wasn’t drop-dead gorgeous (which she obviously is, because everyone else comments on it, but she’s got that annoying – “I’m not vain, I don’t look in mirrors” bullshit going on – bitch, babies like admiring themselves in mirrors; it’s human nature, just be straight with me, and admit that you look amazing), she probably would have been shot in the head shortly after being ripped out of her home (if she had been ripped out of her home, because it sounds like the girl-hunters went out of their way a bit for her, which you have to assume they may not have done if she had been less attractive. Or maybe they would have, because it’s dystopia, so why the fuck not?). If she hadn’t been kidnapped, she may have been forced to resort to prostitution – her parents are dead, and it’s unclear how she and her brother are surviving, but even though money does, kind of, grow on trees, because money is made out of paper that comes from trees, you can’t pick it off like an apple or a peach. So she’s been kidnapped, which sucks. And she’s effectively been sold as a bride to this guy. But the guy’s not a total asshole, which he could be. And he doesn’t force himself on her, which he could do. He basically clothes her very well, feeds her very well, and lets her live in his nice house which has a pool and his own orange grove. In other words, this bitch is living in more comfort and luxury than, like, 95% of us, and probably than, like, 120% of the people reading this blog. And she’s complaining that she doesn’t have her freedom – which, like, yeah, except that if you weren’t in the situation you’re in, again, you would probably be resorting to gross, dirty things like prostitution. You would probably be eating less food of a lower quality. You would not be wearing your luxury, designer clothes. And you would still be unhappy, if you even lived very long. So, like, shut the fuck up Rhine.
She also makes these grandiose claims like – “I’d rather die!” when she’s constantly trying to physically escape, so… obviously, she wouldn’t. Because if you would truly rather die than live in the lap of luxury where, again, you’re not raped, you don’t have to work, and the people generally don’t seem that bad, then you would have done it. There are primary source documents regarding the gladiators in the Roman empire – and you know that it sucked, because these gladiators would do crazy things to try to get away. And when they couldn’t get away, do you know what they did, Rhine? Let me tell you, it wasn’t fret while collapsing on a tizzy couch about how terrible their life was. There’s a source document about a gladiator who killed himself in the Roman-empire equivalent of a restroom by shoving the sponge they used because this was before toilet paper down his throat. Are you willing to shove an implement covered in shit down your throat so that you choke yourself and die to escape where you’re at, Rhine? I don’t think so. So, like, shut the fuck up.
Also, there’s the fact that she’s not supposed to live very long, anyway. Which I also have little sympathy for. Humans like beautiful, young people. If you die at 20, you die while you’re young and pretty. You’re still going to outlive your dog, your cat, and several fish. It’s not great, but is it better to live until you’re 100? Given that you know what your lifespan is, you need to take that into account, and make sure that you live as much as you can. Like, what are you losing? The chance to sit at a desk for the majority of your 20s – 60s, desperately striving to attain a work-life “balance” that doesn’t exist? Stop bitching, and start living. It sounds like you pretty much live in Disney World – enjoy it. Eat all the cake your stomach can handle, go swimming, sit in the orange grove, read all of the books you can get your hands on. Play pranks on your sister wives. Or you can be miserable and strive and struggle over relatively insignificant problems, because you’ve got 4 years left, and who wants to make the most of it? Not you, Rhine. Not you.
I had this kind of awful co-worker once. To be Frank, it was a shitty job with a shady employer, and no one worked there longer than they had to. Still, she managed to make the job at least slightly worse, including, I’m fairly certain, stealing my new winter hat. It was a warm, furry aviator, mid-Michigan winter – the action should have been illegal. And for some reason, it was this co-worker who shaped my expectations for Jeffrey Eugenides’ Pulitzer Prize winning novel Middlesex.
She raved about it. She had an English degree from some college on the East Coast, and so I tended to take notice of the books she raved about. And she told me Middlesex is this amazing book that really analyzes marriage. So I was a bit surprised, to say the least, to read the book’s opening line:
“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”
Middlesex is a good book. And it does include marriage. And analysis of family, immigration, the assembly line, race politics, all included in the accurate setting of East Detroit. But Middlesex is primarily the narration of Cal, who is a hermaphrodite. And honestly, the book felt the most alive and interesting to me when Cal was not only narrating, but present. (Much of the book is a saga of Cal’s lineage, beginning with grandparents, since her/his family history and genetics are what ultimately lead to her/his unusual physicality.)
I preferred The Virgin Suicides to Middlesex; however, I may have just been in the mood to read TVS and not 100% in the mood to read Middlesex when I was reading these books. And both books display Eugenides’ writing skill, thorough knowledge of the Metro-Detroit area (I personally love that he always mentions the fish flies, aka, scourge of my existence growing up), and are great reads. As I was reading Middlesex, there were various phrases/paragraphs/etc. that stood out to me, and I wanted to retain/share them here to wrap up this post.
We all have at least one book that we turn to, when we’re having a really bad time. The one that always makes the crinkles around our eyes show up in a genuine smile, that despite being infinitely familiar, is still a genuine pleasure to read no matter how many times we re-read it. For me, when I am in a reading slump, or having a personal bad time, there are two authors I turn to, again and again: Jane Austen and Sarah Dessen.
These authors are very different, but I think that draws me to them, again and again, are the realistic portrait each author wrote of her world and time period, as well as the sparks of wit and humanity that illuminate their books. Austen is a bit more cheeky, Dessen is a bit more romantic, but both authors remind me of the good that makes life worthwhile. Of course, Mrs. Dessen has an advantage over Austen, which is that she is still living, and her novels are still being written and published. Austen’s novels will forever be capped at 6 (7, if you include Lady Susan), whereas Dessen’s oeuvre is currently at 14, and, I believe, will likely continue.
Readers who are not Dessen fangirls or YA reading fiends may not be aware that on June 4, 2019, her latest novel The Rest of the Story was released. Of course, I added it to my TBR list as soon as I became aware of it, and looked up her book tour, which surprisingly included Ann Arbor (now that Borders is gone, the tours almost never include Ann Arbor).
It was fate, right?
I was obviously fated to see the author, to get my copy of her latest novel signed.
I pre-ordered her novel on Amazon (which is kind of evil, I know, but I had a gift card, and am not rich, so this was a cost-effective way for me to obtain the novel while still allowing my family to, you know, eat).
Is there any feeling quite as nice as seeing a package on your doorstep that you know contains a book?
Possibly opening that package, smelling the paper and possibility of a new novel. And then reading it, if the novel lives up to its’ possibility. Which, in my opinion, The Rest of the Story did.
I arranged to leave work early, and to pick my very imaginative older son up so that he could hear from someone who makes a living doing creative work. And I allowed myself to get excited.
And then, day of, it was a particularly horrible day at work, and I got caught up just a few extra minutes. There was more traffic than usual on the freeway, including some catastrophe that caused the Ann Arbor-Saline exit to close entirely and severely slowed down I-94, in general. What would ordinarily be minor inconveniences aggregated to the degree that by the time I picked my son up, drove to the library, and snuck into one of the very few spaces still left in the underground parking lot adjacent to that building, it was shortly after 7, when the event was supposed to start.
I had a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach, but pressed on, to discover, much to my disappointment (but not surprise) that the room in which the author was speaking was full (according to arbitrary fire-code regulation).
It was the cherry on top of a particularly bad time period.
And then, I realized that my family’s vacation in the last week of June to Virginia would put us fairly close to North Carolina… and Dessen was going to be speaking at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh on the 26th.
I did not allow myself to get excited. I allowed myself a glimmer of hope, stuck my book in with my things as I packed, and brought it up when we got onto the freeway.
My husband may have rolled his eyes; I wouldn’t know, since I was driving, and had to keep my eyes on the road.
Yes, dear reader, I both met Sarah Dessen (for the second time, actually, although I doubt she recognized me) and she signed my book. Which may make me slightly (or very) ridiculous, but also made me very, very happy.
What have you done over your summer and/or vacation?
As a mom, I object. As a reader, I really enjoyed this book.
At first glance, this book seems like a romance novel. I mean, the cover literally mentions a boyfriend, has a cutesy photo, etc. But what this novel is actually about is self-discovery and family.
Wanna-be novelist Crystal Hemmingway (incidentally, the author’s name, as well), is a little too close to her mom. They have the kind if relationship that causes boyfriends to cringe – or, in the case of Crystal’s fiance, break off the engagement to go hiking a la Wild. As she is re-evaluating whether or not her guy might have a point, Crystal is fired from her job, and agrees to the humiliation of moving in with the woman she is contemplating needing a break from to take the opportunity to write her first novel. When she realizes that her mom still expects her to do chores, Crystal quickly concocts a plot along the veins of an ‘80s John Hughes’ film, and decides that if her mother had a romantic interest, she wouldn’t be expected to be around as much. And so the drama beings, gets more intense, and resolves itself.
I was lured in by the cover. My brain was like – romance novel? Epistolary format? Bee – you’re not going to like this. But the cover was adorable, and the plot sounded fun, so I requested and received an ARC. When it arrived, the publisher included a handwritten note that showed the Galbradia Press had checked out my blog, and it was this personal touch that inclined me to place it at the top of my TBR list.
It just goes to show, sometimes (not often, as my older son will tell you) my brain is wrong. And I was delighted it was proven wrong in this case. This book is funny. The author uses the epistolary format well, which makes this novel a quick, but enjoyable read. This book includes real characters – they’re all a little bit annoying, they all have some decent points, and they’re all occasionally wrong.
I will say, the character whom I considered the protagonist (Crystal) and her sister both suffer from upper middle class white privilege. Like, “I can afford to live in California and pay my rent and buy expensive shoes” and “It’s so annoying that, like, my mom expects me to, like, talk to her and shit, when I’m on my own personal journey” yet “I still have the gall to complain about my problems.” It was realistic, but also annoying. As a young-ish mother who tried, and failed, to make it work in the Bay Area, I was worried that my family and I were going to be thrown out on the streets or not be able to eat, despite a decent job, it was difficult for me not to be annoyed sometimes by this casual expectation that the world should revolve around a couple of chicks who seem pretty selfish and kind of petty. Like, Crystal’s sister is hiding some fairly big news from both Crystal and their mother, which is completely glossed over and which is blatantly not okay.
Still, overall, this novel is a cute, fun read. And it is slated for release mid-July, which is perfect timing for a quick beach read.
For a novel that provides stark detail on the realities of eating disorders, The Girls at 17 Swann Street is a rather lovely book. I was lucky enough to receive an ARC, which I forgot about, then had a pleasant surprise in February that that new book I wanted to read and kept seeing in communications and bookstores was literally on my bookshelf.
At first glance of the cover and/or synopsis, the subject matter can seem a bit too easy. We all know that ballerinas and eating disorders go together like chocolate and peanut butter, which is ironic, since both of these edibles are items that a ballerina is likely never going to eat. Yet this novel really only involves one, particular, ballerina – protagonist Anna, who is a ballerina no longer. And ballet is not the only reason Anna has become obsessive about becoming thin. Like most women, there are a plethora of reasons that Anna has begun to believe the world as it shouted the message to her that thin is the new worthwhile.
To get the preliminaries out of the way – this novel is well done, and I recommend it if the cover, title, subject matter, fiction, etc., is at all interesting to you.
To get to what I am really interested in, could not help noticing as I read, and have found my mind drawn to long after having finished the last page, let’s talk about this book’s broader subject matter. As a woman, I have found myself torn between my desire to consume delicious food and my desire to be thin, but overall, thought I had a pretty healthy relationship with food. This novel caused me to re-evaluate and really think through my motivations when making food choices.
Because Anna doesn’t just stop eating. She’s just not eating enough. But limiting herself primarily to fruit and popcorn? Definitely things I have done, when I want a snack, and tell myself I need to eat more healthy. And exercising without having eaten enough? Also something I have done, generally telling myself I can eat after I have exercised (except I do, because in addition to wanting to be thin, I really, really like food). So while I am not in pain due to extreme fragility if I take a simple ride on a roller coaster, I found myself questioning the reasons why I wanted to eat more/less, what I wanted to eat, and realizing that, often, the motivations behind my eating are not ideal.
I am a compulsive eater, I love food, and I am a former dancer who has difficulty ascertaining of what a healthy weight consists for me and aspiring to be thinner than I currently am. I have to work to try to have and maintain a healthy relationship with food every day, and quite frankly, I don’t know that I have found it. While dancing, wearing a formfitting leotard in a room with a wall comprised of mirrors around other girls who due to genetics, not having hit puberty yet, or eating disorders, did not have any curves, certainly did not help me with my self-image, I would not say it caused my issues, either. If I had not danced, I would still be inundated with images clearly identifying thin as pretty, I would still notice the girls at school who were blessed with genetics or whose struggles were not apparent and who visually appeared to fit society’s mould of “pretty and thin,” and I would have still likely felt “not enough.” Not thin enough. Not pretty enough. Not confident enough to just rock what I was born with, and always comparing myself to those who are what I aspire to be, even when it is completely unrealistic.
One of the tricky things about eating disorders is that those who suffer from them cannot just quit their problem. If you have a drinking problem, and you survive withdrawal, you can subsequently abstain from drinking. It is not easy, but it is a clear and rational response to the problem. With anorexia and bulemia, abstaining from food is the problem. The thing that sufferers struggle with, that the sight of causes them to break out in sweat, is a thing that they also physically need in order to survive. This problem is a point that The Girls at 17 Swann Street drives home very well. And another point? Similar to those who suffer from addiction or mental illness, a person does not simply get better. Anna makes clear progress in the novel, but she could backslide into her old habits at any time.
I don’t think that I have an eating disorder. I think I am a pretty normal woman. Which brings me to the stark and unsettling conclusion that that means that I also think that every woman struggles with eating and body image.
What about you, dear reader? Do you agree? Disagree? I would love to read your thoughts. & although I am human and love agreement/validation, I would also love to be wrong about this conclusion I have drawn.
This novel, while classified as a mystery, is in reality a pure escapist fantasy that hardly solves anything. Having said that, I liked it.
Johnson’s writing is funny, inclusive, and intelligent, while writing about things that are, at their core, both interesting (if you’re into mysteries and/or true-crime documentaries/podcasts) and dark. In general, I consider this novel a portion of the treasure – more akin to gold doubloons stolen from the pirate’s corpse than discovery of the actual chestful buried beneath a large, red “X.”
It has all of the elements of a mystery novel, except for the solution. It is the most interesting book entirely comprised of exposition I have read. Yet at the end of the day, this book is entirely comprised of set-up for, at the least, a second novel, and more likely, an entire series. And the mystery set-up throughout this book is not solved. So I am currently queued up for the second book in the series (The Vanishing Stair) through my library.
Have you read this book? If so, what did you think?
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