October Book Review Club: Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Less
Not quite famous novelist Arthur Less desperately wants to get out of the country. He hasn’t committed a crime and he isn’t on the run, but he wants an iron clad reason not to attend his long term lover’s wedding. So he goes through his junk mail, accepting teaching appointments at random German universities, attending literary awards he has never heard of in Italy, taking on a food writing assignment in Japan, and agreeing to attend a friend of a friend’s birthday celebration in Morocco. During the course of his travels, Less accumulates a series of embarrassing moments, a series of surprise victories, he has several flings, and he turns fifty.

Although Less won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, I would consider this to be more of an escapist read rather than serious literary fiction. It is certainly a well-written book, but it reminded me somewhat of Bridget Jones’s Diary, if Bridget had been a middle-aged white gay male. Like with Bridget, I sympathized with Less, cringed with Less, laughed at Less, and was happy when he had a (usually accidental) victory. Both Less and Bridget have a relatable yet slightly cartoonish quality, like if the most awkward moments of your life were someone else’s entire life.

While Less is clownish in some ways, he is also more significant than he realizes. Having once been the lover of a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, he has always felt inferior, like a person always destined to live on the edge of genius and never be the genius. As a result, he does not realize that his work has been read and loved by people around the world or that every man he has been romantically involved with has fallen in love with him.

The true failings of Less are not that he is innocent and prone to disaster. It is that he does not know how to be in love and that he does not know how to grow older. Less has had two great loves in his life–one much older and the other much younger–and he has lost them both due to being unfaithful as well as keeping himself emotionally unavailable. He also fears age, feeling that he does not even know how to be a mature gay man. Reflecting on the generation before him, Less thinks, “He has never seen another gay man age past fifty, none except Robert. He met them all at forty or so but never saw them make it much beyond; they died of AIDS, that generation. Less’s generation often feels like the first to explore the land beyond fifty.”

While Arthur Less has his flaws, this is ultimately a comedy, and traveling the world with Arthur Less is a great joy.  I loved this–and the main character–throughout the book, but when I came to the end, it just felt like the perfect end to Less’s journey. I would recommend this for anyone in search of a fun, lighthearted read, as well as to anyone who would like to read more books about LGBTQ characters. For more October book reviews, please check out Barrie’s blog.

FCC Notice: I bought my own copy.

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The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

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When Greer Kadetsky first meets the iconic feminist Faith Frank, she is an unhappy freshman at Ryland College. Greer had been accepted to Yale, where she planned to go with her boyfriend Cory, but was unable to attend due to inadequate financial aid. On her first weekend at Ryland, she is assaulted by Darren Tinzler at a frat party. When stories of Tinzler’s serial assaults go public at Ryland, Greer and other women speak up, but the administration merely assign Tinzler some counseling sessions. It is after this disappointing decision that Greer attends Faith Frank’s lecture. With some encouraging words from Faith and the influence of her activist friend Zee, the shy Greer becomes a feminist and an activist. The Female Persuasion follows Greer through her college years, through her twenties when she works for Faith Frank, and into her early thirties when she becomes a famous feminist herself.

I first knew I was going to relate to this book on the first page, where I read this passage:

Greer, a freshman then at this undistinguished school in southern Connecticut, was selectively but furiously shy. She could give answers easily, but rarely opinions. “Which makes no sense, because I am stuffed with opinions. I am a piñata of opinions,” she said to Cory during one of their nightly Skype sessions since college had separated them.

As a fellow shy piñata of opinions, I was immediately interested in Greer and learning how she would find her voice. And I did enjoy her journey as she first learned to listen and then to speak, to learn from her mentor and then to make her own way. Like Greer, I was fascinated by Faith. Faith Frank is sixty-something when we first meet her. Like Gloria Steinem, she is iconic, sexy, and approachable. Unlike Gloria Steinem, she is more personality than ideas, and her message is characteristic of “white lady feminism,” and even Faith herself would like it to be more.

While this is mostly Greer’s story, it is told from various points of view, including Greer’s, Faith’s, Zee’s, and Cory’s. While it covers more than a decade of Greer’s life and several decades of Faith’s life, it skims over years at a time, just focusing on the moments and the relationships that serve as turning points in the characters’ lives. Wolitzer has created well written and believable characters. Everyone is likable, even when they do things you may not approve of, and I was quite upset with Greer at one point. My favorite character was Zee, Greer’s college best friend, who introduces her to feminism and Faith Frank. Zee is, in many ways, Greer’s opposite. While Greer is at Ryerson because she has excellent grades but no money, Zee has the money but not the grades. While Greer struggles to find her voice, Zee has been an activist since the age of nine. When Greer easily finds her path after college, Zee struggles to find her way.

I do recommend this for your summer reading list. My immediate thought was to recommend it for feminists and other progressives, but its appeal is actually much broader than that. The Female Persuasion is about the relationships that influence the direction of your life.

For more June book reviews, please check out Barrie’s blog by clicking on the image below.

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FCC Notice: I bought my own (Kindle) copy.

March Book Review Club: Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado (short story collection)

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Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado is a collection of eight short stories about living in a female body. Some of the stories have the feel of dark fairy tales told in a literary style, while others feel more experimental.  Many of them have magical or fantastical elements. All of the stories are multi-layered, and the reader puzzles her way through them. Sometimes, a story will seem to be about one thing, then it changes and becomes what you did not expect.

Some of the stories are haunting. In The Husband Stitch, a woman is madly in love with her husband, but he is obsessed with untying the ribbon around her neck, which is the only thing she has ever denied him, explaining the ribbon is hers alone. In Inventory, a woman lives in a world where everyone is dying of a mysterious epidemic. As people head north to Canada in hopes of fleeing the disease, she meets fewer and fewer people, and she creates an inventory of her love affairs in this story of isolation and connection. In Real Women Have Bodies, women are literally fading away and becoming transparent. The narrator is a sales associate in a prom dress boutique who falls in love with another woman just before her girlfriend begins to fade.

Some of the stories focus on the aftermath of trauma.  In The Resident, a writer accepts a residency in Devil’s Throat, an isolated and hilly region, which is the same area where she was victim of bullying as a teenage Girl Scout. As she works on her novel, she feels as though she is trapped in her past. In Difficult at Parties, a woman is recovering from a violent assault and trying to recover her sexuality and her relationship with her partner. She looks to porn videos for inspiration, but finds that she can hear the thoughts of the actors.

The most experimental was Especially Heinous, which is written as a summary of episodes of Law & Order: SVU. The catch is that it’s a nightmare version of Law & Order: SVU, where there is no logic. Benson and Stabler have doppelgangers, Henson and Abler, who try to steal their identities. The ghosts of dead girls haunt Benson’s apartment.  This was a story that I nearly gave up on, as I initially felt like I was reading the plot notes of an extremely drunk writer. I skimmed at first, pondered skipping ahead to the next story, and at some point, I began finding its weirdness appealing.

The most straightforward story was Eight Bites, which focuses on body image. The narrator is the daughter of a thin and very disciplined woman, but she and her sisters all struggle with their weight in adulthood, and one by one, the sisters all undergo bariatric surgery. It takes the woman most of her life to realize that in her quest for an acceptable body, she has rejected her own body and her own daughter.

While my favorites of the stories were The Husband Stitch, Real Women Have Bodies, and The Resident, my least favorite of the collection was Mothers, which was partly about an abusive relationship and partly about motherhood, but mostly it was confusing. While I found the other stories to be complicated, the type of stories where you find new things each time you read them, I was not confused by them. They challenged me, but were not over my head. I am not sure if this one was over my head, but it confused me.

I recommend this short story collection, but it is not a book for the prudish. While Machado does not always write about bodies in a sexual way (some stories deal with illness or body image), there is a lot of sex in these stories and much of this collection focuses on sexual identity. Fans of literary fiction or those looking to add more LGBT authors to their library will likely enjoy this.

FCC Notice: I purchased a Kindle copy.

 

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February Book Review Club: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (nonfiction)

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Bryan Stevenson is the founder of Equal Justice Initiative and an attorney who represents those who have been wrongly accused of crimes and those who have been given sentences that far exceed their crimes. While Just Mercy spans Stevenson’s entire career in law, the primary focus is on Walter McMillian, a man who was put on death row for a murder he did not commit.

Walter McMillian was found guilty of murder in the same Alabama county where Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. McMillian was an African-American man who was accused of the murder of a white woman. His accuser was a white man who was trying to strike a deal with local law enforcement to escape punishment for his own crimes by “solving” a recent murder that outraged the small town. To the man’s surprise and eventual alarm, local law enforcement immediately latched on to his story about McMillian, even though Walter McMillian had dozens of alibis on the day of the murder. The story grew more fantastical and more “witnesses” were pulled into the scam, aided by local law enforcement who knew they had the wrong man, but wished to be seen by the public as being “tough on crime.”

When Stevenson became involved in the McMillian case, Walter was already on death row. Stevenson was shocked at the flimsiness of the evidence he had been convicted on, as well as by the evidence that had been suppressed. In Monroe County, he learned that those most proud of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird were those quickest to deny that Walter McMillian was their town’s black scapegoat. Stevenson sought to reveal the cover ups and corruption that defined the case, and before long, he was receiving bomb threats at the office.

I loved this book, though it is definitely not an easy read. I connected with Stevenson and his clients and the reading experience was very emotional for me. This was a book that was surprising and not surprising all at the same time. Going in, I knew the death sentence often reflects the prisoner’s ability to afford decent legal counsel more than it affects the seriousness of the crime. I knew that people executed for crimes are sometimes discovered to be innocent when it is too late. I knew the link between race and severity of sentencing. I knew women prisoners are vulnerable to rape by prison guards and that many have given birth while chained to prison beds.

What this book did was make that all personal with stories rather than statistics. And it did at times shock me. I was surprised at the severity of punishment for child offenders. I was surprised by the stories of poor women wrongly accused of murder after delivering stillborn babies. I shouldn’t have been surprised at how recently courts were able to exclude all minorities from juries, but I was surprised.

This is an eye-opening book, and I do recommend it. What I do not recommend is reading it in public. This is not a restaurant book, a Starbucks book, an airplane book, or a train book. Because it will make you cry. And when you cry, it will weird out the person stuck in the middle seat of your airplane row. Consider yourself warned.

FCC Notice: I bought my copy.

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January Book Review Club:  Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn (thriller/mystery)

Camille Preaker is a second rate journalist, a recovering cutter, a not-so-high-functioning alcoholic, and a survivor of childhood in Wind Gap, Missouri.  When a couple of child murders occur in Camille’s hometown, her boss, Curry, still upset that he missed out on a Pulitzer worthy story in his own hometown, sends her to cover the story. Wind Gap is a David Lynchian town, picture perfect and traditional on the surface. Of course, it has its secrets: gang rape and mean girls and dysfunctional families.

Camille is quick to notice what made the two murdered girls, Ann and Natalie, stand out. In a town where ultra-feminine women and girls are prized, Ann and Natalie are tomboys, smart and reckless. Both girls are rumored to have a history of violence. In Wind Gap, female bullying is ignored and even accepted, but physical violence from females is unexpected. Camille finds that most of her reporting attempts are foiled. The local police will not speak to her nor will Natalie’s family, and her own mother, who hates talk of any unpleasantness brought up by anyone other than herself, forbids Camille to even speak of the murders. Camille soon finds her only source of information is female gossip from her high school friends, her mother’s socialite friends, and that of her disturbed half-sister, Amma.

Sharp Objects
is definitely a psychological thriller.  It is a more straightforward book than Gone Girl, Flynn’s most well-known novel, but there are definitely twists and turns, as well as an extremely creepy ending. Most of the mysteries I have read lately have left me underwhelmed, but this is not one of them. I loved Flynn’s fierce writing, the creepy small town with all of its surprises, and I turned the pages at a quick rate.

I would recommend Sharp Objects to fans of mysteries or anyone who just needs a book that will keep them turning pages.

FCC Notice: I bought my copy.

 

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November Book Review Club: Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney Stevens (YA)

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No one in Otters Holt, Kentucky will forget the youth group lock-in at Community Church because that was the night Billie McCaffrey and her friends experimented with microwaving random items, and unfortunate combination of her friend’s smelly sock and her dad’s World’s Best Minister mug resulted in a fire that severely damaged the youth room. Even before she became the girl who nearly burned down the church, Billie has frequently gotten her youth minister father in trouble with the deacons. She has the reputation of being a troublemaker and she’s a tomboy in a town where traditional femininity is prized.

Otters Holt is the home of Molly the Corn Dolly, which is a forty-foot-tall statue that all tourists take pictures with.  Also, a corn dolly is awarded every year to an outstanding woman in the community. To win a corn dolly is the highest honor in town. Corn Dolly winners are pie bakers, gardeners, caregivers, and pillars of the community. As a tomboy and suspected lesbian, Billie is outside the Otters Holt ideal. A couple years earlier, a group of women and their families even left Community Church because of Billie. Her crime? Wearing athletic clothes and tossing a football around the sanctuary during non-church hours. “Those women threw stones over a football and a girl who girled differently from them,” Billie explains.

Billie’s friends are also misfits in Otters Holt. Of her group, which they call “the Hexagon,” Billie says, “The year I was seventeen, I had five best friends–a pixie, a president, a pretender, a puker, and douchebag–and I was in love with all of them for different reasons.” While one might expect Billie and her friends to dismiss Otters Holt traditions like the Harvest Festival and the corn dolly, they actually love this about the town. On the night they nearly burn down the church, Tyson Vilmer (primary patron of the Harvest Festival and grandfather to Hexagon members, Davey and Mash) passes away, putting the tradition in jeopardy. Throughout the novel, the Hexagon develops a fundraising scheme to save the Harvest Festival.

What I liked best about this book was Billie herself. She’s a fresh and innocent character who sees the best in everyone. She’s Anne Shirley in combat boots. She’s smart and thoughtful about her world, but she’s not cynical. Throughout the book, Billie is seeking to understand gender and sexuality. While she is comfortable as a boyish girl, she is upset when her friends jokingly list her as a boy in a Sadie Hawkins chart they create on a whiteboard. She might hang out with mostly boys, but she doesn’t consider herself to be one of the boys. Her sexuality is more of a gray area for her, and she is curious about both her male and female friends. She resents that the church community demands that she can only love boys, but she also resents that her friends assume she is gay simply because she’s a tomboy and that they try to helpfully nudge her out of the closet, when she just wants to figure out her sexual orientation for herself.

This book could have gone very wrong, but it doesn’t, as it is handled with the perfect sensitivity. Given the subject matter, it could have easily been bitter in tone with the church and community members portrayed as closed-minded bigots. Stevens’ world is bigger than that, with saints and sinners who have many layers. Also, given Billie and her friends’ quest to save the Harvest Festival and the corn dolly ceremony, this book could have been saccharine, but it doesn’t do that either. It’s a feel good book for people who don’t typically like feel good books.

I would recommend Dress Codes for Small Towns for fans of realistic YA and also for anyone who grew up in an evangelical church.

FCC Notice: I read a library copy.

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Banned Books Week

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We’re nearing the end of Banned Books Week, and it seems more important than ever this year. With all the division in the country, there is always a discussion about freedom of speech, with the talk currently centering on the freedom to #TakeAKnee. Banned Books Week is nothing if not a celebration of voices and of freedom of speech.  Through books, we learn the world is bigger than ourselves and that differences are good.

This year, I bought each of my stepdaughters a banned book.  The fifteen-year-old received a copy of The Catcher in Rye, which is a book that I haven’t read since I was fifteen.   The thirteen-year-old received a copy of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.

Then I got all cutesy with the wrapping, proving that I am an almost middle-aged mom and not a rebel. I cut up red and orange tissue paper to look like flames (though I doubt actual book burnings are a common thing) and added some stickers to the gift bags.  Literary themed cards were included with the books.

To all of you, I wish you a happy banned books week with great books and dangerous ideas.

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September Book Review Club: Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker

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Bianca Bosker was a technology editor with an average knowledge of wine when she first encountered the world of sommeliers. She related to their drive and passion, having an obsessive personality of her own, and she envied how sensory their world was, compared to her own experiences writing about technology. Soon after, Bosker quit her job at the Huffington Post to learn about wine full time, starting humbly as a “cellar rat” in a Manhattan restaurant, then befriending restaurant owners and master sommelier students and gaining entrance to prestigious wine events.

The best way I can describe Cork Dork is to say imagine Hermione Granger was a slightly hipsterish millennial aspiring to be a sommelier and then she wrote a memoir about it.  It’s about a woman developing new passions and seeking new challenges, but it’s also very nerdy and encyclopedic.  When Bosker learns about wine, she does what the sommeliers do and joins tasting groups; creates endless flashcards; develops her sense of smell by sniffing chives and lavender; and gives up salt, coffee, and mouthwash. But she doesn’t stop there because she wants to know everything about wine.  She learns the history of sommeliers, she meets with scientists researching taste and smell, learns how science has engineered wine to be of consistent quality from year to year, and questions whether we can truly know what it is that makes a wine “good.”

While Cork Dork is nerdy, it’s never boring. Bosker’s enthusiasm is contagious and charming.  It was a book that made me want to drink more wine and generally focus more on my senses. It did not make me want to follow in her footsteps and become a sommelier. She correctly portrays the sommelier’s world as disciplined and grueling, and I knew from the earliest chapters that wine would never be more than a hobby for me. I enjoyed reading her journey and I loved the glimpses into the more exclusive corners of the wine world, but I have no desire to give up coffee or drink wine in the morning. For me, that would lessen rather than increase my joy of wine.

I do recommend Cork Dork for wine lovers and foodies or for people who enjoy memoirs.

FCC Notice: I bought my own copy.

 

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Facing Your Demons:  Thoughts on Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life

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In Gilmore Girls:  A Year in the Life, we find each Gilmore girl is facing her worst fear.

The matriarch, Emily, has lost her husband, Richard.  In a couple episodes in the original series, Richard experiences life-threatening health issues.  These are the only times in the whole series when anything truly shakes Emily.  She’s calculating and controlling, with a vulnerable streak where her family is concerned, but you get the impression that Emily can manage anything, and it is a trait she passes down to her daughter, Lorelei.  But her husband’s health and mortality is the exception.  When we first see Emily, the worst has already occurred, and we get to see what happens next.

I did like that they started the series a few months after the funeral.  To begin in the thick of family grief would have been a bleak starting point for the reunion.  But as it begins, the mourning is still there and strong, but life is beginning to move on for everyone but Emily.  I loved seeing Emily’s transition, and my favorite parts were Emily’s KonMari phase and when she decides to be aggressively honest during a DAR interview of a new member candidate.

Like her mother, Lorelei struggles with loss.  In some ways, she’s already achieved what she wants.  She’s opened a successful inn with her best friend, she’s raised her daughter to be independent, and she has a long term relationship with Luke.  She has what she referred to in the original series as “the whole package.”

In spite of her success, she is lonely.  Her daughter is so busy, they rarely see each other.  Her best friend has left the inn to live in some culinary commune.  She’s alienated her mother shortly after her father’s funeral, and things are not quite right with Luke. She’s also turning into her  mother.  While Lorelei once could not understand her mother’s inability to keep a maid, she now cannot keep a cook at her inn, The Dragonfly. It’s played as a joke, with Lorelei firing the likes of Rachael Ray and other celebrity cooks in each episode. Like Emily’s journey, Lorelei’s had  great deal of emotion. It was raw and depressing at points, but ultimately, Lorelei ends up exactly where she needs to be

Rory, career woman, has lost her direction, and her identity has been wrapped up in her career for years.  As the reunion begins, she has begun an experiment of organized homelessness.  Her constant travel has meant she spends very little time in her Brooklyn apartment, and her sources of income are drying up, so she has spread her belongings among friends and family she often stays with.  She has a story published in The New Yorker, but she has no idea where her underwear is.  Basically, she is always looking for something:  a new job, her lucky outfit, a coveted meeting, her undergarments, etc. Each quest is generally a failure.

Rory’s journey was probably the least interesting of the three women’s. Didn’t we go down this same road in season six, with less homelessness and searching for random pieces of clothing?  I also did not like that Rory was cheating on her current boyfriend with her college boyfriend who was engaged to another woman.  Aside from being soap opera-y, it just made her unlikable. I find Rory of seasons 1-7 to be very charming, but I wouldn’t want to be friends with grown up Rory.  She lost her down-to-earth quality that kept her likable throughout the series, becoming a transient, selfish creature.

A Year in the Life does have the whimsical joy that makes Gilmore Girls what it is.  We get to see a second film by Kirk and a Stars Hollow musical from Taylor.   Also entertaining are Kirk and his pig, Taylor’s random crusades, Kirk at Friday night dinner, anything involving Paris, Emily and Lorelei in therapy, Luke’s fake wi-fi passwords, and Emily’s hiring of a maid whose language no one could understand. Michel was fabulous in every scene, and I think his role might have been even better in than it was in the original series. There are some misses (the decoy Tristan and Rory’s weird and un-Rory-like tap dancing phase), but on the whole, the new season is charming.

Things I missed:  Edward Herrmann as Richard Gilmore was obviously a lack, but nothing could be done for that.  Richard’s dry humor was always the best, and he complemented Emily perfectly.  I missed the crazy Lorelei/Sookie dialogue, and the inn seemed a bit sad without Sookie in the kitchen.  I would have liked more Friday night dinners.

The biggest surprise for me was that I moved from being Team Logan to being Team Jess.  I despised Jess in seasons two and three when he was Rory’s love interest and later her boyfriend.  I was pleasantly surprised to like him in his guest appearances during Rory’s college years when he had matured from the precocious brat he had once been.  In A Year in the Life, Jess definitely seems to be the clear leading man.  Logan, who I had previously loved for his ability to bring carefree joy into Rory’s life, seemed like he hasn’t matured since his college days.  In adulthood, his rich boy entitlement overpowered his good nature, and he became the kind of charming cad that Hugh Grant would have played in a nineties rom-com.  (Well, actually, now that I write it out like that, he and Rory seem to have aged exactly the same.  Maybe they are soulmates.) I was glad that Dean’s part was small, as Rory/Dean is one of those things best not revisited.

This is where the spoilers begin.  If you haven’t watched it yet (but plan to do so), stop here.

Almost everyone online seems to hate the ending.  I loved the ending, except one thing, and my one thing isn’t the thing to which everyone else seems to object.

The Luke and Lorelei night-time wedding is magical, whimsical, and everything worthy of a Gilmore.  It is probably worth watching all four episodes just to see this wedding.  It was perfect, except one detail: Emily wasn’t there.  She should have been there, adjusting flowers or something.

Everyone else is objecting to the final dialogue, which is what Amy Sherman-Palladino intended from the very first episode.

“Mom?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m pregnant.”

I’ve seen all sorts of outrage about how Lorelei didn’t spend seven seasons sacrificing everything for her daughter’s future, only to have Rory end up a single mom like her.  I disagree.  The ending, while not hopeful, is brilliant.  In a sense, it brought the series full-circle, but Rory’s circumstances are much more positive than Lorelei’s had been.

Rory’s pregnancy is not like Lorelei’s.  Lorelei was sixteen, still in high school, and lacked a positive support system.  Rory is in her early thirties, possibly even the same age Lorelei was in the pilot episode, and Ivy-League educated.  She’s traveled the world, had many career successes, and has great relationships with friends and family.  She has benefited from Lorelei’s sacrifices and her child will too. Also, Rory is under no obligation to give birth. From what we see of Rory’s political beliefs throughout the series, it seems likely that she is pro-choice. The ending gives the impression that she will both have and keep her baby, and if she does, it will be because it is her choice to do so.

Motherhood is not the opposite of feminism.  Motherhood will not destroy Rory’s career, but it will transition it, and it was already in a state of transition.  Rory already had everything she wanted as a teen, career-wise, and she burned out.  She spent four episodes behaving like a hamster in its wheel, unable to see any other type of existence than the busy, overworked one she had lived over the last decade.  Parenthood might give her an opportunity to evaluate whether the life she wanted at 22 is the life she wants at 32, or if she and her goals have both evolved.

I love that Rory begins writing a memoir at the end of the series, and it seems like a great career change for her, and one that could complement motherhood. In writing about her life with her mother while she becomes a mother herself, she could actually write a better book than she would otherwise.

Throughout the series, Rory has been the nurturer and the peacekeeper.  In all likelihood, she would make a good mother.  Like Lorelei.

Now, I want a new show when Rory’s kid is sixteen, and Lorelei is the one demanding Friday night dinners.

May Book Review Club:  Exit West by Moshin Hamid

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Saeed is the only son of a retired schoolteacher and a semi-retired professor.  Like his parents, he is educated, gentle, and full of faith.  He loves the night sky and dreams of traveling the world. Nadia is a young professional who lives alone in a city that is distrustful of women who live alone.  She is independent, secular, and estranged from her religious family. She wears stern robes as self protection, but the modest robes are contradicted by the motorcycle she rides around the city.

Nadia and Saeed live in an unnamed city in an unnamed country.  They meet and fall in love in a night class just as their city is about to fall to militants.  As the civil war shuts down the city, taking their jobs, their electricity, and their freedom, Saeed and Nadia hear of doors that will take people away.  No one knows where the doors came from, but one day a door to your closet could become a gateway to a beach town or a shop in another country. Once they find people who can lead them to a door for a fee, Nadia and Saeed travel to Greece, then the U.K., eventually ending up in the U.S.

I thought this was a creative story about refugees and emigration. When I bought this book, I didn’t realize there was a magical element to it, that there were doors that could sweep people from one side of the world to another.  It reminded me a bit of the wardrobe to Narnia, only the locations are places in the known world.  Some doors take people to places that are safer than others, but they are all the same in that each place is experiencing a struggle between migrants and natives.  While most of the novel is about Nadia and Saeed, there are short passages woven throughout that introduce people in transition.  Many of these minor characters are door travelers like Nadia and Saeed, and others are simply in conflict with a changing world.

Hamid’s writing style is compelling.  Originally, it struck me as being minimalistic until I realized how long some of the sentences are, forcing me to re-evaluate.  I suppose it would be best described as controlled, with shorter sentences effectively making their point and longer sentences sweeping you away.  Some passages I enjoyed:

“Location, location, location, the realtors say.  Geography is destiny, respond the historians.”

“.  .   so by making the promise he demanded she make she was in a sense killing him, but that is the way of things, for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”

“. . . prayer for him became about being a man, being one of the men, a ritual that connected him to adulthood and to the notion of being a particular sort of man, a gentleman, a gentle man, a man who stood for community and faith and kindness and decency, a man, in other words, like his father.”

I liked Exit West, enjoying the writing style, the characters, and the originality. However, I didn’t love it, as I felt the first half was stronger than the second half.  Still I would recommend this novel, mostly to readers of literary fiction.

FCC Notice:  I bought my own copy.

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