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. *****

Eligible_Curtis Sittenfeld

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Hardcover, 492 pages
Published April 19th 2016 by Random House

Eligible is the witty and modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Here you will find the Bennett sisters in the 21st century, complete with artificial insemination, yoga, and fad workout obsessions among other more raucous taboos. Here you will also find nearly 200 chapters—oh my goodness, those chapters; more on those below—and a page count a bit gratuitous for such a read. HOWEVER, within that excessive page count you will also find, sharply entertaining dialogue that’s convincingly witty and shockingly blunt that will keep you laughing along with the Bennett family throughout.

Eligible and I had a bit of a tug-of-war over my reader feelings for the first few chapters, I’ll admit. The dialogue struck me as funny, yes, even ingenious, but also superficial and surface-deep, if that. Initially, the characters struck me as two-dimensional chalk outlines that just happened to speak with droll absurdity that worked. Ah, but then I got to know the Bennett sisters a little better! If Sittenfeld was aiming for jaunty and clever, she certainly hit the nail on the head and was able to keep it consistent throughout. The writing was anecdotal, sometimes to its detriment and at times to its credit, but highly entertaining most of the time.

I must say that I’d be completely misleading you if I didn’t prepare soon-to-be readers for that chapter formatting, though. Some will love it, because it made the read feel that it was moving along faster—helpful when you’re holding almost 500 pages of what is essentially light-read chick lit in your hand—but for those of you who want to be profoundly engrossed and deeply invested in your characters, you may find this to be a bother. I straddled this line. There were times when I was practically dizzy with all of the vignette-type chapters sprawled out here, several of them less than a page long (that goes for pages on your phone, Kindle, iPad—less than a page anywhere, on any reading medium, really). I felt inundated by 200 flash fictions, which just happened to link together into a full-length story. At times I found it to be slightly annoying; sometimes I loved it because it seemed to make the read feel lightning fast, and sometimes it made me feel disconnected from the characters and their world because there wasn’t enough there in the chapter to pull me in. In the end, I think both sides canceled each other out for me, and it was fine.

Eligible definitely could’ve been cut down though. I don’t believe for a second that the editor didn’t notice those superfluous chapters that led nowhere—anecdotes about the past and random streams of consciousness—which should’ve been yanked out, because that definitely contributed to the relatively high page count and my antsyness toward the end. But aside from that last round of edits that went undone, this was a really funny and entertaining read. In the end, I did end up caring about the characters once I settled in—Darcy was my favorite, by far. Sittenfeld gets extra kudos for the way that this one came full circle. If you’ve ever read Austen’s classic on which this one is based, you basically knew how it would end, but Sittenfeld managed to toss in plenty of surprises along the way. I also liked the way that the title was used as a double entendre throughout this novel. Well done.

All in all, I found Eligible to be a jaunty little read that smacked of WASPy delights. It would make for a brilliant movie, likely better than it read, though I enjoyed it on a whole. The characters had wit and flair that would translate well on the silver screen. And, I would feel remiss if I didn’t mention my appreciation for the way that Sittenfeld handled Mrs. Bennetts’ casual xenophobia, cooly admonishing her as ridiculous, foolish and behind the times with just the right hint of “just the way it is.” That aspect added an extra layer of funny in a way that could have easily fallen flat or warranted an eye roll (like its counterpart The Nest, which I have also reviewed. If you’re a chick-lit lover, or even curious about the retelling of an Austen classic, this one will really work for you. Indeed, if you were a fan of The Nest,Eligible will work for you as well, because this one is definitely its much prettier younger cousin that you’ll be glad you chose instead).

So, keeping in mind that this was light-read material not intended to be the next Harper Lee brainchild, I give this one an easily attained 4 stars. ****

Everything I Never Told You_Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Hardcover, 304 pages
Published June 26th 2014 by Penguin Press

“How suffocating it is to be loved that much.” 

Everything I Never Told You centers around the Lee family: James, the Chinese-American professor who lectures on the epitome of what was never attainable for him—true Americanism, Marilyn, the blond wife who’d always dreamed of being a doctor when female doctors were a rare phenomenon only to turn out just what her mother had hoped and what Marilyn had always wished to avoid, and their three children, Nathan, Lydia and Hannah. James and Marilyn focus all of their attention on Lydia who they are determined to mold into everything that they were never able to achieve themselves, creating a crushing pressure for her that comes from both sides. When she dies unexpectedly, the glue that holds them all together is no longer able to hold. As they try to learn what happened to her—and why—they come to realize that she was not the girl they thought she was. The reader is allowed to learn this before the family does, which creates a beautiful inside glimpse of a family crumbling.

       Everything I Never Told You is about just that: the subtle nuances and emotions that go unsaid, the familial tension behind closed doors that goes unnoticed, unexplored, and the way that our lineage and upbringing shape our lives, for better or for worse. Gripping in its portrayal of dreams deferred and hopes crushed, of coming of age in the 60s and 70s, of the subtle (and not-so-subtle) cruelties of the world and of the ignorance of those who would rather mock than understand, Everything was an exploration of the overwhelming pressure of a family’s love and expectations—both for themselves and for their children. Despite the fact that this one had a few moments of lethargy at the start, it all came together beautifully, and the last half or so of the novel I finished in one sitting. This novel, all told, was a bold and shattering glimpse into reality for all of the characters involved. It was the historical and ancestral short-fallings, misgivings and dreams unrealized that brought this one to a head in the most lovely way. It was chilling in its honest and straight-forward depiction of challenges with fitting in, with being oneself, all wrapped into beautiful little metaphors that were easy to hold…and easy to crush: a Betty Crocker cookbook, a white doctor’s coat, cowboys, a silver locket.

“Different” was the connective tissue here. The characters’ differences from those of the outside world and in the incongruousness of their perception of themselves versus what others saw were so well developed that the feeling of discomfort (both in their lives and in their minds) was palpable within these pages, creating a need to continue turning the pages. Ng portrayed their longing here brilliantly—longing to be someone else, to be free.

“Sometimes you almost forgot: that you didn’t look like everyone else…you saw it in the little boys on the playground, stretching their eyes to slits with their fingers—Chinese—Japanese—look at these—and in the older boys who muttered ching chong ching chong ching as they passed you on the street, just loud enough for you to hear…and tried to forget about it. And you did, until it happened again.”

Ng was not forceful with her hand, but allowed those things unsaid, undone, unnoticed, to tell the story in its way of delicate nuances. The snatching off of a locket here, the touching of ones finger to tongue there. It was those subtleties that the reader had to catch, or they’d miss something integral. Characterized by lovely narrative prose, Ng’s MFA background stood out and was on full display in a way that showed spirit and depth. Mellifluous, introspective and refined, it dug into the very soul of what it means, what it must feel like, to be different. 5 stars. *****

 

 

The Black Album_Hanif Kureishi

The Black Album by Hanif Kureishi

The Black Album
Published April 1st 1996 by Faber & Faber (first published January 1st 1995)

“Chili’s basic understanding was that people were weak and lazy. He didn’t think they were stupid; he wasn’t going to make that mistake. He saw, though, that people resisted change, even if it would improve their lives; they were afraid, complacent, lacking courage. This gave the advantage to someone with initiative and will.” 

The Black Album, originally published in ‘95 then republished by Scribner in 1996, is the tale of Shahid, a Pakistani Muslim young man living in a contemporary British society. As he grapples with the line between fundamentalism and liberalism—his love of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll versus his traditional familial and community expectations—he finds himself coming of age and into his own in London after the death of his father, exploring and often crossing the line between the accepted and the taboo, his insight into the world around him growing ever more poignant as he does. Here you find two combatting worlds that do not, by definition, co-exist well: the ideology of the liberal neo thinker who is entranced by Prince, Baldwin and the idea of the Black Panther movement versus the radical fundamentalists, portrayed through Shahid’s friend, Riaz, and his clique. And in the middle is a cast of characters who are fully realized, led by an older brother who has followed drugs down their rabbit hole. The sequence of events and clash of cultures eventually lead to violence, fittingly in a controversy over The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie.

Hanif Kureishi has never been an author to write to placate the masses, and he didn’t attempt so here either. This novel didn’t please everyone—in fact, it might have offended some—but if you’re looking for a single word to describe this pick, I’ve got one for you: soul. Pure soul on a page. Keep in mind that this novel was Kureishi’s response to the fatwah intent on killing Salmon Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses that was issued by Islamic fundamentalists. The grittiness and reality in this work left me breathless, and it was refreshing to find a work that so brilliantly mixed comedy, intellect and satire. I first read this pick while doing my M.A. in London. I remember chatting about it with my diss. advisor, Bobby Nayyar, over some beverage in some mostly-empty coffee nook, then the conversation continuing as we strolled to the tube in typical London drizzly weather. The Black Album was insightful and dared to go inside of the crannies that make us uncomfortable, into the room where drugs are being done, into the bed of the professor sleeping with her student. This novel was loud, as it had to be to compete with all of the background noise of London and to find its place within it, both for the characters internally and for the novel itself. Here you’ll find insightful little nuggets like the one above and you’ll follow Shahid in his modern-day journey, in a journey that both Baby Boomers and Millennials alike can relate to, because this world described within the pages of The Black Album has always existed though it isn’t often written about—that is, not so often as runaway chick lit bestsellers and formulaic thrillers. There was no formula to this one, only the free hand of a confident author not afraid to cross a few lines.

The industry needs more words—more books—from those who truly have something to say, and this one, this writer, does. As an agent, I fought for authors who had a true voice, passion, soul. But often they were turned down as too this or too that, while other writers, some of whom I have and likely will in the future review here, continued being offered contracts to write about…nothing. But reads like this let me know that some truly talented voices do still get through “the gatekeepers,” and for that we should all be both encouraged and grateful. More please. Five stars all day. *****