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Songs in Ursa Major by Emma Brodie
Jul06

Songs in Ursa Major by Emma Brodie

I read the first half of this book and wrote a blog about it. I was fairly critical. I didn’t think I would keep reading. And yet I was interested enough in the characters that decided to keep going. And I’m glad I did, I’m glad I read this book. Why was I critical of the book at first, you ask? Two main reasons. The first is that I thought the writing was overdone with the kind of self-conscious over-adjectivization that new writers sometimes do. It felt clunky and didn’t make for smooth reading. You want examples?  Ok, here’s the opening paragraph of the book: “As a stagehand cleared the dismantled pieces of Flower Moon’s drum set, the last shred of daylight formed a golden curve around the cymbal. It winked at the crowd, then the red sun slipped into the sea. In the gathering dusk, the platform shimmered like an enamel shell, reverberating with the audience’s anticipation.” (p. 3) Sorry, but I found that tough to wade through. And here’s another sentence a few paragraphs later: “His exhale became a brushstroke inside an Impressionist painting; swirls of smoke rose in the salty air, tanned limbs and youthful faces interweaving like daisy chains across the meadow.” You may not agree, but to me it felt forced. And then there was the James Taylor thing. Now you should know, JT is my musical god. I grew up adoring him and his music and to this day, if you’re gonna throw me on a desert island, just give me the “Sweet Baby James” album and I’ll be fine. Taylor’s first album is referred to as the Apple album, because it was produced at Apple Studios in England, which is where the Beatles recorded. He was the first non-Beatle musician that Apple took on.  So when the author started using slightly altered lines from a song from that album (just knockin’ around the Zoo…there’s bars on all the windows) I knew from whence she was getting this material and it felt almost plagiaristic to me. And then a character refers to one of the musicians in the book’s first album as having all these instrumentals between the songs, including using harpsichord… well, that’s the Apple album verbatim! (Can music be verbatim?) If you read the People magazine review of this book before you read the book, or, I suppose, other reviews that are out there, you will already know what I figured out myself. The main male character of the book, musician Jesse Reid, is in fact based on James Taylor. And the main female, Jane Quinn, is apparently based on Joni...

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Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau
Jun29

Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau

You’re not gonna believe it but I’m actually recommending a book that has a happy ending. I promise I’m not giving anything away by saying that, but this is far from the doom and gloom kind of book I often read. When you’re looking for a perfect summer read – which you likely are right now! — this is what I’m going to direct you to. I actually had a student come into the store the other day and ask me to recommend coming-of-age stories. The teacher had told the kids that’s what they had to read this summer but didn’t give them any more direction than that. I wound up selling him TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, which I think is a great choice, and I wouldn’t recommend MARY JANE to a middle schooler. But for you, it’s perfect! It’s set in 1975, features interesting characters, such as the buttoned-up straightlaced mom vs. the cool, hippie neighbors, has celebrities, lots of music, good food, and much fun! A 14 year old girl gets a new babysitting job which leads her in all kinds of unexpected directions. Happy...

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Morningside Heights by Joshua Henkin
Jun23

Morningside Heights by Joshua Henkin

Morningside Heights had several things that made me choose to read it. First of all, it’s about an English professor, and I love books that are set in academia, particularly about English professors (a profession I was partway to pursuing until I decided to stay in book publishing). Secondly, it takes place at Columbia University, which is where I did my graduate studies. I immediately liked the book’s tone and pace. It begins by introducing us to one of the main characters, Pru Steiner, and, since we will be most interested in Pru once she herself gets to Columbia, it does a rushed recap of the early years of her life, telling us only what we need to know, and I liked the way the author did this. The book opens: “Growing up in Bexley, in the suburbs of Columbus, Pru had been drawn…” so we’re already on the move in the opening sentence. Later I would come to dislike this approach, however. When we are introduced to the character of Arlo, we are given his backstory in one big rushed chapter, which felt more telling than showing to me. In fact, since Arlo is important (he is the English professor’s son by his first marriage), he has recurring chapters of his own, and they are all presented in this telling rather than showing way. The crux of the story, which you learn early on, is this: Pru meets and falls for Spence, a rising young star in Columbia’s English department. They marry and have a daughter and are very happy, until Spence is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in his late 50s. Pru has aspirations of her own, first to be an actor, then to be an academic, but she drops all this when she marries Spence and gets what was then commonly called her MRS degree. Is she happy about this choice? Maybe. Does she wish she had fulfilling work of her own? Yes. So when Spence quickly gets sick and Pru hires a caregiver, the story turns back toward her again, and we (at least I) are led to believe that it’s Pru’s turn now, that she is going to figure out who she is outside of her marriage. And what does the author immediately have her do? Meet another man and start dating on the sly (no judging here about whether or not she is entitled to date since her husband is mentally gone from her, just recounting the plot and the judgements of the characters). Ok, Joshua Henkin, I waded through the Arlo chapters hoping I would get back to what I felt was the...

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Turbulence by David Szalay
May20

Turbulence by David Szalay

David Szalay is a writer about whom I had heard good things, particularly about his novel All That Man Is, which was nominated for a Booker Prize. I happened to have an advance reader copy of his novel Turbulence, which I must have been holding onto for a while because it was published in July 2019. It’s very short, 145 pages, so I was able to read it in a night. The story opens with a woman standing at the window of a man’s apartment, looking down at the leafless trees of his street on Notting Hill in London. The man, it turns out, is her 50-something year old son, who has just come home from the hospital, where he was being treated for prostate cancer. His case is serious, and for the past month, his mother, who lives in Spain, has been staying at his apartment while he was in the hospital. Now that he is home, he seems eager to book a flight for her to go home. Airplane flights are what connect the chapters of this book, and the turbulence of the title is both literal, as in what the passengers experience sometimes on the plane, and literal, as in the shake-ups in their lives. Each chapter is titled with two abbreviations for the airports to and from which the featured character is traveling, hence chapter one is called LGW-MAD, as the mother is traveling from London Gatwick to Madrid. I had fun trying to guess which cities were featured as I came to each new chapter title. In the book, we cover much of the world, from MAD to DSS to GRU to YYZ and so on. The author fills you in, but it’s fun to try and guess at first. The book is a sort of game of dominoes, with one character setting off another’s story. As a character from each chapter travels to their next destination, they meet someone along the way, and that person carries the story into the subsquent chapter, leaving the first person behind. And so the woman whose son is ill meets a man on the plane ride home, and the next chapter is his, and the one after that features someone who intersected with that man’s life, and so on through this short book. In the end… well, I won’t say, but we are certainly led to see that the randomness of life may not be so random after all. The moments we witness in the lives of the characters we meet are short and dramatic; each chapter could exist on its own as a short story. There...

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Milk Fed by Melissa Broder
Apr20

Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

What is Milk Fed, a new novel by Melissa Broder, about? It’s about many things… It’s about individuation. It’s about a Jewish woman in her early twenties trying to manage, no – cope with, no—overcome her relationship with her mother. Her mother is in some ways only superficially interested in Rachel’s life, except when it comes to food, and boy, has her mother given this daughter one giant eating disorder. From the age of six, she was comparing her to other, thinner, girls her age and warning her against the greatest of all possible sins: becoming chubby. As a result, when we meet Rachel, she has a relationship with food that is more about deprivation than it is about enjoyment, and to call her a calorie counter would be a huge understatement. Her therapist (because of course there’s a therapist) recommends detox by means of cutting of communication with her mother. Clearly she desperately needs help coping with this toxic relationship. And meanwhile, she’s living in LA and working in the film business, so she is surrounded by a body-conscious culture where a woman displaying an appetite is a charming anomaly. And then there is the temptress with the frozen yogurt: the zaftig, pure, lovely, orthodox Miriam. And there’s also the golem. You see why I’m overwhelmed? There’s a lot going on here. There’s curvaceous clay figure that Rachel’s therapist encourages her to make and that represents the body Rachel fears and desires and which becomes a stand in for the golem (I offer you the Wikipedia definition: “A golem is an animated anthropomorphic being in Jewish folklore that is created entirely from inanimate matter (usually clay or mud”). And then there’s the real-life full-bodied Miriam, whom Rachel greatly sexually desires. And there are other objects of desire as well: a film star, an office mate. And plenty of detail about what Rachel eats and doesn’t eat (and I’m not just talking about food). All of this is an oversimplification of a complex book; I’m just trying to get at the core of what it is. I think it stands among other significant books by contemporary American Jewish women writers in that it grapples with the particularities of the Jewish mother/daughter relationship (and throw in the golem and a bit of hand-wringing over Israeli politics). It’s also a coming-of-age novel. It’s also a very sexy book, by which I mean it contains a lot of very vividly described sex. And it’s funny. Rachel is a wannabe stand up comic, and you can’t write about that without being funny, which this author is. Wryly observant may be a better way to describe...

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