white-trash_nancy-isenberg

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg

Hardcover, 480 pages
Published June 21st 2016 by Viking

“If this book accomplishes anything it will be to have exposed a number of myths about the American dream, to have disabused readers of the notion that upward mobility is a function of the founders’ ingenious plan…”

Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America is a kamikaze of research and hard-hitting assessments of our country’s attitude toward the “poor” and “shiftless” masses. It delves into the historical inaccuracies and missteps of a nation, our nation, and is a read to be savored and thoughtfully digested.

Isenberg commences from the stance that she is addressing the fallacious and glossed-over condition of class relations in the U.S., because many Americans (truly, the world) genuinely believe in America as a classless society of un-threatened upward mobility potential. Firstly, if there is, in fact, someone—anyone—out there who honestly believes that class relations don’t exist front and center in America then 1) you need to run and grab this book (and 10 more just like it immediately, now, on your lunch break even!) and 2) might I ask, “What rock have you been hiding under?”

Nancy Isenberg’s survey of American culture from Plymouth Rock to Sarah Palin offers something for everyone. Here she unravels history and popularized tales of John Locke, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, the “cracker” president, and even Pocahontas has her Disney-romanticized “diva” status stripped away and re-examined. Isenberg methodically tackles the rise and fall of the Confederacy, the eugenics craze that swept America for decades (still seen today in the form of modern-day dating websites such as eHarmony and Match.com), “The New Deal,” LBJ’s “Great Society” policies, desegregation and shifts in American culture that led to the rise of modern-day “white trash reality TV.” And while I did feel a bit leaden down with the dozens of pages of historical facts on these former presidents in Part I, when I was more interested in the meat of the argument, the task of setting the foundation for her argument was achieved and Part II onward flowed seamlessly. Historical documentation, photographs and illustrations also helped to set the scene and illustrate her assertions in a way that was easily digestible.

With White Trash, Isenberg demands us to ask ourselves, “What really is the American dream? Does it really exist? And if not, what truly stands in its stead?” These are the questions that you will explore, sometimes overtly and sometimes not. She offers some truly eye-opening observations and threads together the fabric of our American history into a full picture for readers to take a step back from and justly scrutinize. Within these pages, you’ll find humor and biting wit, punchlines that sink deeply into your psyche and assertions that are backed by meticulous research.

Isenberg takes a clear and definitive stance in White Trash, writing specifically from a poor-white-centric lens, and honestly, that really appealed to me. Thankfully, she strips away the politically correct, granola pedagogy that we Americans like to think of as good manners and gets straight to the point of her argument: that the idea of American classlessness is a fanciful notion that never truly existed, and that poor whites have always been a significant force at the center of the debate. From the annihilation of Native Americans to the freeing of slaves, poor whites have always factored in, in some way, to the persistent class struggle at hand.

For both those who feel securely aware of the condition of the world around us and for those not as confident in their versing of the historical foundation of the very American soil that we stand on, take a trip down this historical rabbit hole, because here you will find a detailed chronicle to expand upon your current understanding and opinions. You’ll find an analysis that is as ripe with raw insights as it is well-researched. Isenberg takes a blunt stance, a no-nonsense stance, and that always wins the day with me as long as the claims are buoyed in verity. She did that here, and her White Trash gained a strong 4 stars in the process. ****

*Thanks again to Viking for reaching out to me and sending me a hardcover copy of this book!

the-empress-of-tempera_alex-dolan

The Empress of Tempera by Alex Dolan

I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Diversion Publishing, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Paperback, 282 pages
Expected publication: September 13th 2016 by Diversion Publishing

The Empress of Tempera is the tale of Paire Anjou, a 20-year-old Maine native running from her past turned art student in New York City. Two years after fleeing her traumatic upbringing, she has successfully reinvented herself and bagged a famous artist boyfriend, has landed a job at an art gallery and become obsessed with the gallery’s main attraction, a vivid painting by a Chinese artist whose flash of fame was all too brief and mysterious. In finding herself and understanding her obsession with The Empress, Paire becomes entangled in dangerous artistic heists and embroiled in uncovering the story of an artist shrouded in as much shadowy family history as Paire herself.

All in all, The Empress reminded me of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos more than I’d hoped to admit (I’ve also reviewed that novel here), the first half of the read at least. While I’m sure that some will call this unfair, to be honest, there was the same young woman running from her past, a painting that captivated her, a link between two distinctly different time periods and cultures. There were art galleries and soliloquys on brush stroke techniques and how the painting in question, the novel’s namesake, stood apart from others of its time period. Add to that a dash of danger, a few scenes of violence and a 20th century Chinese artist (rather than 17th century Dutch) and you’ve got yourself an Empress of Tempera.

But, sigh sigh sigh, the main thread that definitively connected these two reads in my mind was that Alex Dolan’s Empress also offered the same vaguely clinical tone narrating it all, like a nasally, monotone fly buzzing in my ear throughout. The characters were borderline flat, though I could tell that they weren’t intended to be so. They had motivations, but I didn’t always buy them, and even when I did, they weren’t as affecting, dramatic or climactic as they were meant to be by a long shot. Even the effect that the painting, The Empress Xiao Zhe Yi, Seated, had on its viewers, the very foundation for this novel, seemed manufactured, inauthentic.

It didn’t seem feasible that someone would stab themselves over that painting (view spoiler). Fainting at the painting’s feet. Swooning at the sight of it. Why? Is it foretelling the coming of Christ? Is it depicting a cultural phenomenon; has it become a Mecca-like beacon for radical jihadists? SOMETHING? No, it was just a portrait of a beautiful woman, seated. That’s it; that’s all. Show’s over folks. Nothing to see here. Nothing. It was just there. And I, in turn, was just bored.

The passively omniscient narrator’s voice sounded unmistakably amateur, guessing as to why the characters’ motives were what they were. “Paire suspected Kasson had chosen this time because he knew Mayer wouldn’t be there.” Every other page it was, “She suspected this.” “She probably did it because of this.” As a reader, I felt cheated of learning what made the characters tick, a novice mistake in a writer’s hand, if you ask me. “At this point Kasson must have understood that she was not going to help him.” Smh and the soul of writing slowly dies.

Dolan’s Empress was slow and arduous for the most part. And not particularly in a poignant, character-peeling sort of way either. There were a few times that I skimmed and several times that I considered putting her down. But, like a true reader, I just had to press on, to see if a turn would re-ignite my fire. You know, I just had to go into the haunted house, even though my subconscious was telling me not to. But it didn’t work out the way I’d hoped. (Does that ever?)

I won’t even delve into how the artistic heists were all borderline pointless, definitely juvenile and founded on motives shaky at best. I won’t harp on how you could run a freight train through the plausibility of them. Five days to plan and execute a heist, really? You want me to believe that? I mean, I guess. And, yawn, the damaging family history that was the thread of mystery holding the story together ended up not being worth the hype. That was all? That was nothing! I myself know people who have been through worse than that!

So, with that in mind, I started to give The Empress 3 stars, to say that it was average. But it’s only fair that I stick to my grading scale, isn’t it? And this one didn’t quite make it into the “Liked” pile. Instead, I’ll give it a “Meh” and a half. 2.5 stars. **

Dante's Inferno

The Inferno: The Definitive Illustrated Edition, Dante Alighieri

Kindle Edition, 192 pages
Published June 22nd 2016 by Dover Publications

This edition of The Inferno offered visual artistry and a deeper understanding of this text. Dante’s Inferno has been on the must-read lists of schools and universities for decades, but this edition really brought it to life, both highlighting its wondrous darkness and magnifying the mystifying interpretation of hell, redemption and baptism by fire that Dante Alighieri painted for us all those centuries ago. However, I wish that the illustrations had included color. Color can work wonders that this one fell short of. Still, The Inferno is a classic and remains so.

Carousel Court_Joe McGinnis, Jr.

Carousel Court by Joe McGinniss, Jr.

Hardcover, 368 pages
Published August 2nd 2016 by Simon & Schuster

          “He was a thirty-two-year-old, college-educated father drowning his family in debt but energized by a simple prospect: proving to Phoebe that he alone, not a New York banker or some handsome young physician, was the winning play still.”           

Oh, my God. I can’t remember the last time I was so satisfied with a read and applauding of its ending! It was so well done; the writing was just phenomenal. It never came off as corny or cliché, over-embellished or melodramatic. Just real. Honest and real. Fearless and foreboding, raw and sharp at the edges, McGinniss’ Carousel Court was like staring into a mirror with no makeup, no fluff.

Nick and Phoebe are the everyman: He remembers when they were both fresh out of college, full of ambition, energetic and in love. Now they’re 32—not old at all—but what has happened to them? So they decide to go for it: “…it seemed that everyone had a house or was buying one…young married professional buying and selling houses for six-figure profits. So why not them? Of course them, finally them…they quickly negotiated an interest-only, zero-down, 125 percent renovation mortgage on the house in Serenos.” And so it began.

The first thing I thought when I opened this one was: The Big Short. Carousel Court takes that to a whole other level, to a personal level that you can feel. It reaches inside of the macrocosm that was our economy in 2008 and pulls out a first-hand story of people who could’ve been your neighbors, who could’ve been your friends.

And if we’re going to get one thing straight, it’s this: McGinniss’ voice is unique, his writing style distinctive. It’s filled with a sort of nervous energy—ideas hopping around but somehow all fitting nicely together—that is magnetically kinetic. It was almost like free hand, jumping from topic to topic and scene to scene sometimes frantically, creating a brilliantly fast pace set in the California suburbs. It was a lens punctuated with short, curt lines that hit home right in the gut and blunt observations that rang so true that they could only be that. Honestly, I found it hard to follow in the beginning—until I didn’t. At some point, a few pages in, I relaxed into the writing style and let it carry me away. If you’re resistant to an unconventional voice, one that’s punctuated with terseness and modern-day, suburban grit (think the movie Closer, 2004) this read might take a second to sink into, but that’s okay. You’ll get there. Keep going. Though I had to re-read some of the passages in the beginning to find my footing with them, somehow, I found it intriguingly refreshing and immersive.

My sole qualm was a minute one: I’m still not sure if it was my own misunderstanding, but I found inconsistencies with Phoebe’s character, which nagged at me but didn’t ruin the read or bog me down with the necessity of clarity: is she fair-haired or brunette, 30 or 32 years old? (I feel like I read all of these about her and wasn’t sure which was correct.) But those perceived incongruences didn’t make her any less appealing to watch or any less deserving of my attention.

I rooted for Nick and Phoebe every step of the way, right up to the very last page. Every wrong move, every fight and sharp remark, every scathing text message furiously tapped out on an iPhone and every feeling of self-doubt—I felt it with them, and it felt genuine. They were people I wouldn’t mind grabbing a beer with, and I know I’d love every second of it if I could. I was behind them the whole way, and I wanted them to win.

            “Fall, Daddy, fall…”

In Carousel Court, McGinnis truly captured the rhythms and fine grooves of our lives, of college-educated, middle classers right on the line of Gen X and Millennial. He tackles the question, without ever explicitly stating it, that we must all ask ourselves from time to time in this day and age: “How did I go from walking the stage, the world at my feet, full of conquering ambition, to this? How did I get here? Can I get back?” If life has ever dealt you a sobering, swift slap in the face, if you’ve ever asked yourself these questions, pick this one up. And if you haven’t, still pick this one up: you might need a little dose of reality. With that in mind, Carousel grabbed a well-deserved, happily-given 5 stars. *****

Behind Closed Doors_B.A. Paris

Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

     

Hardcover, 304 pages
Published August 9th 2016 by St. Martin’s Press (first published February 11th 2016)

   Behind Closed Doors turned out to be a decent debut that did its job entertaining me and building some tension, but it didn’t keep me up late at night reading or anything kin to that. B.A. Paris’ debut novel is the tale of Grace Angel (yep, quite the name, I know). She meets her McDreamy—a George Clooney look-alike—after years of potential husbands fleeing at the idea of having to care for her sister, Millie, who has Down Syndrome. Not only does Jack Angel not mind this arrangement, but he’s also a champion in the legal world for defending domestic abuse victims. So, who woulda thought he’d turn out to be a deranged domestic abuser himself, right! Grace finds her every move and conversation controlled by her husband, who portrays the very picture of perfection to outsiders—the beautiful wife who cooks five-course meals and always knows just the right thing to say. But this arrangement is for show only, and he literally keeps her held captive, locked in a thread-bare bedroom for days at a time with ever more sadistic methods of torturing her. As Grace tries to figure out how to extricate herself and her handicapped younger sister from his terrifying and oppressive grip, we learn just how deranged the human mind can be….

Okay, so we have to address the big issue that lots of reviewers are having with this one: yeah, you could drive a freight train through the plausibility of motives, honestly. But, we do live in a crazy world, and anyone who’s known someone who’s gone through domestic violence will understand the imprisonment—mentally, emotionally, physically—that Grace experiences. So, with that in mind, Closed Doors didn’t particularly strike me as “far-fetched,” BUT (no, I can’t just let this one off the hook) I found Grace’s motives to be questionable for sure.

In the first chunk of the novel, I was ready to write Behind Closed Doors off as a beach read if ever I’ve seen one, and I was ready to pinch myself for not taking advantage of the “sample” feature for e-reads (but wouldn’t that just take all the fun out it)! But the novel righted itself at some point, and the thrill finally began.

Now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that one of my qualms with this one is that it took the easy way out by narrating all of the little intricacies that would’ve made this read more special—that would’ve earned it 5 stars. It takes real skill to thrill the begeezes out of someone with action scenes and mounting tensions, but it’s a much smaller order to just tell the reader what you want them to know and how that should make them feel. As a reader, it’s those moments of realization, those instances of ah, that’s what he meant. I get it that both delight and submerge us in the story. But, those moments take dexterity of imagination and real skillfulness with plots, with words. That you won’t necessarily find here, but if you’re looking for a quick read that’ll give you a little bit of a heart pound—you know, nothing too crazy, nothing that’ll really stretch or scar you—then look no farther.

In the end, Paris managed to craft a pretty well-executed novel, and I can see why some people were inclined to give it 5 stars. But for me, this was a 5-star idea with 3-star execution. That’s my final answer, and I’m sticking to it.🙂 ***

Ladivine_Marie NDiaye

Ladivine by Marie NDiaye

Hardcover, 288 pages
Published April 26th 2016 by Knopf (first published February 14th 2013)

So sorry, I couldn’t even finish this one before putting it down, which is extremely extremely rare for me!, because the word that kept popping into my head was overwrought, Overwrought, OVERWROUGHT! It seemed like NDiaye was trying way too hard to be deep or profound, and I just couldn’t get into her writing style. It seemed…melodramatic, but not in a way that I could appreciate. Just couldn’t do it, so, sadly, this will be the first novel EVER to make it onto my “Could Not Even Finish” shelf. But, to be fair, I’ll refrain from rating this one since I couldn’t even get halfway.

Loner_A Novel_Teddy Wayne

Loner: A Novel by Teddy Wayne

I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Simon & Schuster, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Hardcover, 224 pages
Expected publication: September 13th 2016 by Simon & Schuster

Loner: A Novel turned out to be an unexpected gift, a surprise wolf wrapped in sheep’s clothing. This, of course, is always the best kind of surprise because—let’s face it—who wants to read through shocking revelations that never shock and humdrum plot lines that fail to thrill?

David Alan Federman is entering his freshman year at Harvard in much the same way that he’s lived his pre-college life: introverted, awkward enough to make a habit of spelling large words and sentences backward in his head for kicks (his college entry essay was entitled “SDRAWKCAB”) and perpetually uncomfortable in social settings of pretty much any kind. The middle child of attorney parents who remind him to take his Lactaid before going down to the freshman ice cream party, he meets—rather, instantly becomes enamored with from quite afar—a fellow freshman who’s too-cool-for-school attitude and socially elite entourage easily draw his attention. But the social caste system of high school still exists, even on the prestigious campus of Harvard, and we all know how that goes. Hence this novel takes off at a trot and never really slows, as one occurrence builds upon the tension of the next. What you end up with is a delicious university-setting tautness and social hierarchies traversed with alarming repercussions.

One of the many things that this novel had going for it was setting. No, not just the fact that everyone knows Harvard, one of America’s darling Ivys, but that everything from the physical landscape of the campus to the “baroque” vocab used by its overachieving matriculates immersed the reader in the scene from the very start, both physically and socially. Immersion is a true key to a great read, as we all know, and Loner offered that in spades in a way that was so unique that it struck me as off-putting at first, offering SAT-vocab-laden narration and interior thoughts that practically oozed with a telling social awkwardness—the kind that could only be the result of years of practiced introversion and prolonged interior conversations with oneself. While at first it struck me as a tick, I soon realized that it was, contrarily, a brilliantly executed mood of the novel that all came together delightfully or maybe disturbingly in the end.

But it is with the unique POV shift that the reader first begins to realize something’s wrong.

The blurb for this one left out one key detail that would probably grab it even more readers: that this is a psychological ride as much as anything else. It pushed the boundaries of what we’re comfortable with. Because, you’ll first notice David’s obsession with Veronica the first time the switch to 2nd person happens. You may run across a passage like, “And then I saw you walk in…” in the middle of a 1st person narration, and you’ll know. Oh, you’ll know. It succeeds in creating a hazily unsettling atmosphere, like at any minute you might find that you’ve entered the mind of a young sociopath…

That kept me on my toes.

I’ll resist stepping up to the podium to deliver a monologue on the pros and cons of 2nd person writing and how it’s increased usage in contemporary writing effects the reader—gosh, sounds like a class I wouldn’t mind taking!—and instead side-step that well-beaten path to say that I genuinely enjoyed this work far more than I would have had that literary tactic not been employed, because it created a charged atmosphere of voyeurism.

What I most applaud the author for, however—and trust me, there’s plenty to applaud here—was the author’s clear use of restraint. Restraint, restraint, RESTRAINT! It’s easy to fill a novel with superfluous passages that go nowhere and superfluous characters who do nothing but it’s a skillful author indeed who can cut away the nonsense and tell a truly streamlined tale that still manages to leave no detail unexplored, without inflating the word count with unnecessary prose. That is what Teddy Wayne did here in Loner, hence the short page count and the knock-out punch ending that landed the hardest blow, unsoftened by uncut fat. This novel was a sure ride toward the dénouement with steadily escalating subtle cues that piqued my reader Spidey senses like a dog’s ears perking in the wind. Put your ear to the ground. Can you hear that? For something wicked this way comes…

**Minor spoiler alert** Following David’s descent into obsession** was thrilling, like the downward slope of a roller coaster that you expected—you saw it as you approached the top of the summit, but your heart still dropped to your stomach on the way down. But, then again, we all know that I’m partial to character pieces that peel back the layers, and this was definitely that.
Sharp and utterly disquieting, this novel is so much more than first meets the eye. Every word and action were deliberate. I loved seeing it all come together, seeing the author’s clever hand at work and realizing that those scattered nuances were all part of a larger, oh-so-deliberate whole. I’d gladly jump in bed with the Loner again, and I recommend you do too. 4.5 stars ****