Review #31: The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obrecht

I was really expecting to love this. And it turned out to be just okay. Don’t get me wrong–Tea Obrecht is a phenomenal writer. Her prose is gorgeous. But the plot of this novel was kind of all over the place, and her characters were not as compelling as I wish they’d been. This book had so much potential, but it didn’t deliver for me.

Let me just say that I am absurdly jealous of Obrecht. She’s only a few years older than me and is already a superstar in the literary world. Which is really cool! I can only dream of being even a fraction as successful when I’m her age. And she definitely deserves a lot of the praise she gets. Like I said–girl can clearly write, and has a pretty unique and interesting perspective, as a first-generation immigrant from Eastern Europe (I want to say Ukraine. I think that’s it, but I’m honestly too tired to look it up right now). This makes me even more jealous, because English isn’t even her first language! It’s pretty unreal.

Anyway. Back to the book. Our narrator is Natalia, a young woman traveling around the Balkans giving immunizations to children. She discovers early on that her beloved grandfather has died mysteriously, alone and in a strange city,  after telling his wife he was going to visit Natalia. As she attempts to uncover the truth behind her grandfather’s death, she thinks back to the stories her grandfather told her about his past–the stories involving a tiger, a deathless man, and The Jungle Book.

This book has an almost fairy tale-like quality to it, especially the parts that consisted of her grandfather’s stories. I liked these sections much more than the actual plot of the novel–they were dreamy and compelling and really intrigued me. The sections involving Natalia were, to me, a bit boring. She wasn’t a very engaging narrator, and I found myself not really caring about her or what she was doing. This book just didn’t hold my interest at all–there were sections that I loved and was really invested in, but they were too far and few between.

I certainly don’t think this book lived up to the hype. It was an okay book, written beautifully, but not spectacular. I think Obrecht is going to become huge in the years to come, and people are going to look back at this novel as a promising start, but nothing close to what she produces in the future. It’s very much a first novel–a ton of potential, but too uneven to be truly great.


Review #30: God’s War: A New History of the Crusades by Christopher Tyerman

If you’re looking for a book about the Crusades, this should probably be your go-to. This book is incredibly comprehensive and well-researched, and includes more information about the Crusades than I even knew existed. It’s physically enormous (lugging it to class every day last semester gave me back pains), but that just reflects the attention Tyerman gave to his subject.

This book covers every European crusade from 1096 to 1500, exhaustively recounting the actual events and political workings of each in addition to exploring the major themes and trends, both religious and secular, of the time. He gives an excellent overview of the beliefs that ultimately led to the rise of crusading, and really helps a modern reader understand why they were so popular. He also does a very good job of presenting events in a generally unbiased way, giving the reader the perspectives of the people being attacked in addition to the expected Euro-Christian points of view. I really appreciated this, as it gave a more complete picture of the time period and helped contextualize the events of each crusade.

This book is historical nonfiction, and can be a bit dry at times. Overall, though, Tyerman makes his prose engaging and includes fascinating tidbits about the people and places he is discussing to help keep the reader intrigued. I love learning about the crazy lives of European royalty, and this book has plenty of that.

If you’re a history buff, or are just looking to learn more about the Crusades, this is a really good place to start. It’s a slow read, but it’s very interesting and informative.

Review #29: Sisterhood Everlasting by Ann Brashares

I was a huge fan of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books growing up. I first encountered Carmen, Tibby, Bridget and Lena when I was maybe twelve, and followed their lives until (what I thought was) the end of the series a few years later. These books are really wonderful for many reasons, chief among those the organic, powerful depiction of female friendship. I always found myself wanting a group just like the one portrayed in the book. I’m a sucker for stories like these—the show Pretty Little Liars, for example, or movies like Now and Again are infinitely more appealing to me than shows that show women as catty, boy-crazy bitches. Give me a story where the love story is between female friends, and I’m in.

These books are also great because the four main characters are all individually awesome—they’re all have distinct, unique personalities, but there’s something in each of them that I could identify with. Carmen is the feisty, maternal one; Bridget is the sporty free spirit; Lena is artistic and shy; Tibby is snarky and tough. I loved these girls equally, wishing I could be each of them by turns.

Anyway. Enough with the gushing. If you haven’t read the first four books in the series, no fear! (Although you totally should). It’s not necessary to read them before reading Sisterhood Everlasting, the fifth and final book that was written for an adult audience—essentially, girls like me who grew up with the girls and wanted to find out what happened to them later in life. You’ll be able to appreciate the story regardless of whether you know the background information. Note that it’s difficult to discuss the plot without giving away major spoilers, but I’ll do my best.

The book takes place when the girls are twenty-nine. Bridget is living in San Francisco with Eric, her long-time boyfriend; Carmen is an engaged actress living in New York City; Tibby lives in Australia with her boyfriend Brian; Lena is a professor at Rhode Island School of Design. None of them are truly happy. They’ve all kept in touch sporadically, but have never been able to recapture the magic of the four summers of the original books. That’s why they all accept without question when Tibby sends the other three tickets to Greece, inviting them to join her a few weeks later. Unfortunately, when they get there, things are not as they expected. The rest of the novel follows them in their journeys to understand a woman they once thought of as a sister, and to understand themselves. For Carmen, this means reevaluating her priorities; for Bridget, it means running away from the life she’s created; for Lena, it means giving up her pride and tracking down Kostos, the man she’s loved since she was sixteen.

This book was devastating and beautiful and I absolutely could not put it down. It’s about 200-ish pages and I literally read it in four hours. Again, it’s hard for me to tell how a newcomer to the series would feel, but as a long-time fan, I was completely and totally invested from the first page. I care about these characters so much, and I was rooting for them so hard to find happiness. The ending is very bittersweet, but everyone ends up, in a way, where they should be. I was glad that my girls finally found what they were looking for. This book was a difficult but powerful (and final) way to close out their stories.

I think my biggest issue with the book (and it’s weird, because I actually liked this aspect of it when reading it) is that all of the girls are completely stagnant characters. The only one who’s changed in any significant way is Carmen, who went from being a sassy, smart chick to a vapid, superficial bimbo. This seriously pissed me off, because she was my favorite of the four originally, and I couldn’t stand her here. On a more positive (ish) note, Bridget and Tibby and Lena were essentially the same people they were in the first four books. They’re even still in love with the same men (which, seriously? Three out of four of them hung onto their high school sweethearts?). I liked this as a long-time fan of the books, because it felt comfortable and familiar, like catching up with old friends. On the other hand, it was really hard to buy that they would literally be the exact same people, with the exact same issues, as they did ten years before. I’m certainly not the same person I was at sixteen (similar, but changed in pretty significant ways). It was kind of unbelievable that they’d have changed so little. This was problematic, because some of their behavior (Bee’s and Lena’s especially) was understandable for a teenager, but weirdly juvenile for an almost-thirty-year-old. If I took their ages out of the equation, though, and pictured them as a little younger, it worked better for me.

Overall, I loved loved loved this. Highly recommended, especially to women like me who grew up with the girls, and want to find out where they ended up.

Review #28: Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

So I kind of wish I’d read this after reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Because while this book is good–more than good, it’s really good– Kavalier and Clay  was a masterpiece, and one of the best books I’ve ever read, and so this one suffers in comparison. Given that I loved Kavalier and Clay so much (it’s easily one of my top 10 favorites) and that this book was one of Chabon’s first, there was no way it could have every lived up to my expectations. Even so, it’s a pretty good read.

Wonder Boys is about Grady Tripp, a professor and writer who is struggling to complete his novel, aptly entitled Wonder Boys, a follow-up to his last, massively successful book, as his life disintegrates around him. One night, after his wife has left him and he discovers a significant secret about his mistress, he finds himself paired up with one of his students (the strange yet talented James Leer, who’s obsessed with old Hollywood) and his editor (a flamboyant man named Terry Crabtree, one of his oldest friends) on a wild misadventure across Pittsburgh and beyond, involving dog corpses, stolen memorabilia, transvestites, seductive young women, and a mysterious tuba.

One of the best things about this book is how Chabon balances the decided zaniness of the plot with real emotion and drama. Don’t get me wrong–this book is really funny, and is a great satire of writerly pretentiousness and academic competition.  But all of these characters feel very real, and you end up caring for them deeply. Grady is a great narrator–flawed and kind of an asshole, but in a very endearing way. And the rest of the cast are, while all quirky and unique, grounded enough in reality that their actions feel plausible.

As always, Chabon is a phenomenal writer, and puts together sentences so gorgeous I wish I’d written them myself. It’s interesting, though, how tonally different this novel is from some of his other work. It shows how good he is, I think, that he doesn’t have a distinct voice, per se, and can lose himself so completely in his characters. It’s a great trait to have, and makes him a really exciting author, because you never quite know what you’re going to get.

This, combined with the engaging and funny plot, make this a really quick and enjoyable read. I definitely recommend it, especially if you’re already a Chabon fan.

Review #27: Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler

Well, this book just immediately catapulted itself to the very top of my list of best YA books of all time.

Seriously. This book is perfect.

Daniel Handler, you are a GOD. I loved your work as Lemony Snicket, of course (A Series of Unfortunate Events is one of my favorite children’s series ever). But this? This was just unreal.

Basic plot summary: Min, a quirky girl, falls in love with Ed, a jock. We know from the first page that they break up by the end; the question is, how? The story is told as a letter from Min to Ed, written as she goes through a box of mementos from their relationship. The book is gorgeously illustrated, with each little thing in the box getting its own picture. It’s beautiful, and it matches the stunning writing perfectly.

I just can’t even express how intense this reading experience was. I think it’s because everyone, male or female, has had an Ed. The circumstances might have been different, but the essence is the same: everyone had their heart broken at least once as a teenager. This book portrays that universal experience so well that it was like a punch to the gut to read. Never before have I read a book that captures the head-over-heels puppy love that only teenagers get, or the crushing devastation that comes with the realization that it’s not meant to be. Reading this was so raw and so real and so painful, but that’s what makes this book so beautiful. I knew what was coming–about halfway through, I could just sense the logical conclusion–but it still killed me when I got to the end, when it all comes crashing down around Min’s ears, and all I wanted to do was cry for her, because I knew exactly what she was feeling. It was a powerful experience and still gives me an ache in my chest when I think about it.

Do yourself a favor and go get a copy of this. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Review #26: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

Frankie Landau-Books is a fifteen-year-old student at a prestigious East Coast boarding school. She’s recently undergone a physical transformation, from an invisible freshman to a beautiful sophomore. When she arrives back on campus after the summer, she immediately catches the eye of Matt, a handsome and popular senior, and is soon drawn into his world. She soon realizes, though, that he’s keeping secrets from her: he’s the ringleader of a secret society, and he doesn’t want her to be involved. Tired of being treated like a little girl, she decides to take on the group and make a name for herself. Things do not, as one might expect, go as planned.

I think I would have loved this book if I’d read it when I was twelve or thirteen. Frankie’s a pretty cool narrator, or at least I would have thought so back then. She’s smart, she tries to be independent, and she wants to be treated like an equal. All good things, and all important things in a female narrator. However, as an adult, I found Frankie’s character to be kind of obnoxious. She’s a bit pretentious (she does this thing where she uses fake words like “maculate,” as in the opposite of “immaculate,” which drove me nuts). For all her talk of independence, she’s kind of reliant on her boyfriend, and seems to lose herself in the relationship (not good). And she makes some really, really frustrating decisions throughout the book.

I appreciate that E. Lockhart was trying to write a more literary YA novel. That’s a good thing! But the writing often came across as self-important and the themes/message she was trying to convey were way too heavy-handed. Again, I think I probably would have missed this if I were reading it as a teenager, and I think it’s a really good thing that girls are getting more feminist heroines in their literature. But as an adult, it just felt a little…blah. There weren’t any real stakes, and the ending was completely unsatisfying.

In the end, this book was just okay. It could have been executed a lot better.

Review #25: The End of Everything by Megan Abbott

Funny story: I was given this book in an airport. I was flying Cape Air, which is a teeny-tiny airline that mainly flies from Boston to Cape Cod, but that I was taking from Boston via Albany to a small town called Ogdensburg up near my school. When I got to the gate, one of the stewardesses had a big stack of books she was giving away. She had about four copies of this one, and it looked interesting, so I took it. I put it aside for almost a year, assuming it would be crappy/weird, but I picked it up out of boredom and was pleasantly surprised.

The End of Everything is narrated by Lizzie, a thirteen-year-old girl growing up in the suburbs in the late 80’s. It’s the end of 8th grade, and she and her best friend Evie are excited to spend the summer together, like they do every year—sleepovers almost every night, playing field hockey to practice for team tryouts, and sharing absolutely everything with one another. This all changes when Evie suddenly disappears one day after school. Lizzie was the last person to see her, and thus makes it her mission to figure out what happened to her friend. She must first discover, though, who Evie really was, and what secrets she was hiding.

This is a very good mystery. It was quick and easy and gripping, which is what I was looking for—the perfect beach read. It’s scary at parts and completely absorbing, which I think is because it’s told in the first person, and you really become close to Lizzie through the novel. She’s a great protagonist—vulnerable, uncertain, smart, and, by turns, both childish and adult beyond her years. It’s interesting, though, because Evie is the real main character of the book; Lizzie’s just there to tell the story. At times I felt a bit disconnected from her, simply because we only get a sense of her life in relation to Evie. I don’t think we even learn her name until 15 or so pages in. This works, though, because it shows how close the two girls were—that fierce attachment you can only have has a young girl. The book even points that out, describing them in one scene as not being able to identify whose limbs were whose as they lie in bed together.

This was also surprisingly literary. Abbott is a fantastic writer. It’s very very lyrical, with gorgeous images and descriptions that are incredibly striking. I was very impressed, which was totally unexpected—I thought this would be a very standard mystery, but it really transcends the genre and tweaks it in unusual ways. The style was actually one of my favorite aspects of the book—it completely draws you in and immerses you in the plot.

Overall, I definitely recommend this. A very good, very quick read.

Review #24: Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates

This book. Oh my god. This was one of the most incredible reading experiences of my life, and I’ve read a lot of books.

Blonde is, appropriately, about Marilyn Monroe. Or rather, Norma Jeane, a woman (although really more of a girl) who has almost nothing in common with the sex kitten movie star we all know so well. This is a fictionalized account of her life, although Oates pulls a lot from fact. We follow Norma from her childhood in a foster home to her torrid past as a soft-core picture model to her rise as the most famous starlet in the world, all the way through to her downfall and, inevitably, her death. Along the way, we meet the people most important to Norma—lovers, anonymous father, absentee mother, agents and photographers and the people responsible for creating a celebrity.

First of all, I just have to say that Oates is an absolutely phenomenal writer. I was introduced to some of her essays this past year and loved them, but this novel is on a completely different level of brilliance. She is Norma. She inhabits the character like I’ve never seen an author do before. She captures the neuroses and paranoia and joy and child-like innocence and love and fear and power of the most famous woman in the world, rendering her as a person, not simply a gorgeous face and simpering giggle. Norma is hers, completely, and I often had to remind myself that I wasn’t reading her diary, that she wasn’t real (or, at least, that these were not her real thoughts). Oates brings you almost uncomfortably close—even when I put the book down, I felt haunted by Norma Jeane’s voice. The writing is very lyrical and free-flowing—there is little structure in a traditional sense. It’s almost poetic in a lot of places, stream-of-consciousness and completely absorbing. It got overwhelming at times, so much so that I’d have to set down my book and come up for air, reminding myself that the world I’d just been inhabiting wasn’t the real one. Norma broke my heart. I fell in love with her—it would have been incredibly hard not to.

This book isn’t real. I have no way of knowing if this portrayal of Norma even came close to the real woman. But it’s so convincing, so affecting, so powerful, that I choose to believe it is. Oates sees a woman often dismissed as a simpering bimbo as, instead,  a powerful performer, an intelligent mind, a fundamentally complex and misunderstood being. Her Norma is perfectly written, and 100% believable.

This was easily the best book I’ve read all year. Put down what you’re reading right now, and go get yourself a copy. You’ll thank yourself.



Review #23: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling

I wanted to love this book. I adore Mindy Kaling–I think she’s awesome and I want to be her best friend. But this book fell a little flat for me. I liked it, and it was a perfectly enjoyable way to spend a few hours. But it could have been a lot more, I think.

This is basically a collection of short anecdotes about Mindy’s life and essays on various topics that interest her. They’re pretty funny, although I didn’t find myself laughing out loud–I was smiling to myself, but I didn’t find very much to be really hilarious. Unfortunately, the best essay, on romantic comedies, was one I’d already read.

Mindy is super relatable. She’s a nerdy girl, unpopular in school, academically-inclined, and not particularly cool in the traditional sense of the word. She’s a lot like me, and that’s a big part of why I liked the book. It felt more like I was gossiping with a friend–a really fun, smart friend–than reading a memoir.

Problems I had: I felt like this could have used an overall theme. Everything was really disjointed and some pieces fell flat. I wish there had been more structure–if I’d felt like she was building towards some larger message other than “look-at-me-I-don’t-belong-in-Hollywood,” it would have been more successful. I’m a creative nonfiction writer, and so it probably bothered me more than it would someone else who doesn’t have experience writing, or experience reading literary memoir. It just felt very light and fluffy–which is fine, but I think Mindy is capable of more. It’s how I felt after reading Tina Fey’s BossypantsIt was good, and fun, but it could have been better.

So if you like Mindy and are looking for something mindless to read, this is definitely not a bad book. I was just expecting more.

Review #22: Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund

I hated this book.

I don’t say that very often. But seriously, I really, really, really hated this book.

And it’s weird, because I thought I was going to really like it! My mom and my aunt and a family friend (all of whom have very similar tastes in books to me) raved about it. The general consensus on Goodreads and Amazon is that people loved it. But oh my god, was this book bad.

It actually starts out okay: it’s essentially meant to be (as the title suggests) the story of the wife of Ahab, of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (bad English major confession: never read it. I know, I know…). Apparently, she’s mentioned in passing, and Naslund thought she would imagine a story for her. Good idea, right? Books like that can be kind of iffy–my go-to reference is that terrible, terrible sequel to Gone With the Wind–but if done well, they can be great.

I’d give you a basic plot summary, but that’s really difficult to do, because the plot is so convoluted. We follow a woman, Una, from pre-adolescence through adulthood as she has adventures and falls in love a lot. That’s basically it. Naslund jumps around so much, and covers so much ground, that that’s the best I can do.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I appreciate ambitious novels. I like when authors take risks, and pay no mind to conventional plotlines and scope of narrative. But Naslund REALLY needed an editor. Ahab doesn’t even really become a character until halfway through the book, and by the time we meet him, everything that’s come before doesn’t seem to matter anymore. Seemingly important characters are forgotten. Genuinely compelling plotpoints are abandoned. It just doesn’t make sense.

Naslund also seems to be in love with her own voice. She’s trying so hard to be literary here that it’s painful to read. She spends pages of pages on “intelligent” musings about morality and society and religion and other such Big! Heavy! Themes! that are just lacking any kind of nuance or purpose other than to show how forward-thinking and smart the narrator, and hence the author, is. She also tries to use symbolism here, which fails miserably. If you’ve ever taken a writing class, you know how hard it is to accomplish symbolism–it needs to be apparent to the reader, but not clunky. Guess which category Naslund falls under? Yup, her symbols are SO obvious and overwrought that it actually made me angry. Plus she has so many! I get that she was trying to be literary (which is admirable, don’t get me wrong) but come on. Try a little finesse. They were just jam-packed in for no real reason. This all came at the expense of plot development, by the way. Major events were described in passing or not even described at all! This was so incredibly frustrating, especially when what was not being described sounded significantly more interesting than what was actually on the page. Naslund also name drops basically every major literary figure in early 19th century New England, which is super obnoxious and serves no purpose other than to show us how well-read she is.

And don’t even get me started on the narrator. UGH. She was awful. Pretentious and self-absorbed and ahead of her time to the point of being laughably unrealistic. Naslund gave her no sense of perspective or the ability to be self-critical, she has no apparent flaws or moral shortcomings, and literally every character she encounters adores her and thinks she’s the absolute best thing since sliced bread. It’s just absurd. I don’t think I’ve ever dislike a narrator so much.  

Overall, it’s way too long, the prose is too pretentious, and the main character is beyond obnoxious. I struggled to finish this, and hated almost every minute of the reading experience. I seriously cannot understand how it’s gotten such good reviews.