Book Reviews – A Rant

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What constitutes literary fiction? Most consider a work of literary fiction to be something which will stand the test of time. However, by definition high quality is quite subjective. What I may consider to be high quality may not be what you, my reader, will consider high quality. For instance, this blog.

There are a few characteristics of literary fiction that are worth mentioning:

There is a concern with social commentary, political criticism or human conditions;
It’s the type of reading that you do slowly. It’s meant to be savored as if tasting a new appetizer for the first time or an old bottle of wine (which even that is pretty subjective too right?)
It’s written to impress, it’s elegant and lyrical.
There is an introspection about the narrative. Something that lingers with the reader which can not be distilled.

The Oxford Dictionary defines “literary” as having its origins in the 17th century and it relating to the letters of the alphabet. It’s rooted in the Latin for letterarius or litters which literally (no pun intended) means letter. So ….. if we are referring to a book, doesn’t it mean that all books are literary? Is this distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction just a way for some people to feel more pompous? It is, in my opinion.

As I am sure you are aware by now, I enjoy listening to book reviews and book recommendations on YouTube as well as enjoying reading recommendations and reviews on various blogs….. I have quite the list. Recently, I noticed that some of the people whose reviews I have been reading or listening for some time have become quite the “professional critics.” To be sure, I mean this in the most unkind of ways. My life is serious enough without making a hobby feel like a chore.

A blog book review or a YouTube book review is being done for the benefit of the lay person reading a book. If my desire were to get a professional opinion (which you may very well be one) I would go find you on the New York Times Book Review or any other literary periodical available. We are not scholars, at least I am not and although I am interested in reading good books I am also interested in the everyday experience of reading those books. Not necessarily an escape but a diversion from my every day life. I do not want to know and I’m almost certain that most people listening to your YouTube Chanel or reading your blog are not interested to know that because there were too many commas or the grammar was not perfect (according to you) they should not pick up blah blah book (real book names have been disguised to protect the innocent and the guilty).

So, perhaps the book I’m reading is never going to be a classic. I will, however, remind you that it is a book and it is all made up of various words (litters) and because it’s fiction, I’m going to say that it is literary fiction.

Perhaps we should consider trying to stop putting so many things into their neat little boxes and we will be better off that way. We try so hard to divide and then complain when things (and by things I may also be talking about people) are divided. Let’s just say a book is either fiction or non-fiction and there are a variety of genres (another problem I have but we will leave this one for a different rant) where they may “fit.”

So, as for me. I will continue to listen to the non-sense about whether or not an author goes comma crazy or if the grammatical errors really were annoying (which they are and shame on the publisher) but only because I just want as many book options as I can get. I’ll overlook the craziness and decide for myself despite the grammatical criticism of the book, if it’s something I want to read. To that end, you can help me with that by just giving me synopsis of the book and I’ll skip your review. It doesn’t really matter to me anyway.

I’m done with my rant. This will happen from time to time.

Ana

Pull Me Under by Kelly Luce

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Pull Me Under by Kelly Luce
Published by: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York
Published: November 1, 2016
ISBN-10: 0374238588
Hardcover – 272 Pages

Rating:  ***** (5)

About the Author:   (From Amazon.com) Kelly Luce is the author of the short-story collection Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, which won Foreword Reviews‘s 2013 Editor’s Choice Prize for Fiction.

A native of Illinois, she holds a degree in cognitive science from Northwestern University and an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and a contributing editor for Electric Literature. She lives in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains.

Right off the bat this book pulled me in…. Nevermind under.  Actually, I feel as if I’m missing something since I don’t really understand the connection between the title and the story — if you know and figured it out, please share it with me.

Let’s talk about the cover, shall we?  Amazing cover designed by Abby Kagan.  To me it speaks of the many faces we all present.

Some people show the same face to everyone; others, lime my father, are gemstones, constantly turning to display the most advantageous façade

The book follows a woman, Rio, as she tells us the story of how she arrived in America and under what circumstances.  Her story is one of pain and feeling of not belonging.  I think most of us can relate to this feeling at one time or another in our lives.  What’s different about Rio, is how she handled herself when faced with those feelings.

We meet Rio when she was still Chizuro Akitani, a hafu (half person) while living in Japan.  The daughter of a prominent Japanese violinist and an Irish mother.  We meet Chizuro at the age of twelve when she was a student and being bullied at school.  We all know that pre-teen years and teen years are probably the most difficult.  Tomoya Yu, one of the boys at school chose Chizuro to be his “victim” and bullied her incessantly.  The bullying took the form of name calling, touching, and eventually, pranks which caused physical pain.  That last time was the straw that broke the camel’s back and when Chizuro reached a tipping point.  She stabbed Tomoya Yu with a Moritomo letter opener which she took from her beloved English teacher’s drawer.

She was incarcerated at the Kawano Juvenile Recovery Center and from the age of Twelve through the age of twenty one, she was property of the state.  Her life at Kawano felt more normal to her.  She was still a “half person” but there, the names were different and others living at Kawano had other issues they were dealing with and her being a hafu was not what made her stand out.  At Kawano, she was more like the others.  She sort of blended.

blending in is a necessity just like shelter or food.  The biggest thing wrong with me was my mixed blood

At the age of twenty one, Chizuro was able to leave Kawano and became Rio, and flees to America where she applied for and was accepted to college and lived her life as an American in Colorado.  There she met her now husband and they had one daughter and everything was going well, actually great, it seemed.  Until the time she learned of her father’s death and went back to Japan.  At her father’s funeral she connected with her old English teach, a woman from New Zealand, who was always her protector.  Her trip to Japan, after twenty years of living in America, was like a dream where she was forced to face all the demons of her childhood.

Kelly Luce’s writing puts the read in Japan, along with Rio.  I was able to feel her anxiety and was unable to stop reading at times, other times I felt compelled to put the book down and take a breath.  For chapter after chapter I felt as if I were holding my breath and waiting to turn the next corner.  Along with Rio the reader is forced to take in moments in life when we, too, must present different personas in order to survive, be accepted by others and ourselves.

The characters came to life throughout the books and, although at times I was unable to understand Rio’s thinking I felt compelled to sympathize with her.  When faced with a cross roads, she didn’t always take the “right” path but for her it was all she was able to see.

I read this book in one day, which is really rare for me.  All through my reading I found passages that could have come right out of anyone’s diary.  What do I do when faced with a request from a friend and there is no right or wrong path to take.  The old “damn if you do and damned if you don’t” type of scenario.

How do we forgive, when there is so much hurt?  As human beings we are selfish but why?  are we selfish out of survival or are we just selfish because that’s just who we are? Most of us are self centered the same way that Rio was, which was the reason she was not able to see the reason why things were happening around her.  Sometimes due to her blind selfishness she was unable to see the pain in others.  She ran away from what?  herself or others.  The book explored all the deep feelings which cause us to do the things we do and think the thoughts we think.

I gave it 5 out of 5 stars.  I enjoyed every minute of it and was even a little sad when it ended.  I usually pick up another book and start reading and this time I was unable to do that.  I am still afraid the next read is not going to measure up…. unfair to the next author, I know, but…. Let’s give it a shot.

Until my next review.  Happy Reading!

Ana

Book Review: Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney

 

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Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney
St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2017
284 Pages, $25.99

I was five years old when I first laid eyes on her, on a postcard, sent to me by my dearest aunt, Sadie Boxfish, my father’s youngest sister, daring and unmarried and living in Manhattan.

With these words, we are introduced to Lillian Boxfish. Although a work of fiction, the book is based on the life of a real woman. Not just any woman, the highest paid female in advertising. I would even venture to say a woman ahead of her time.

The story begins in New York, on New Years Eve in 1984, as Lillian talks to her son on the telephone and we learn that Lillian, now eighty-three or eighty-four years old…. we’re really not sure because she has never told anyone her real age and that has actually started to confuse her. During that conversation we learn that Lillian moved to New York as soon as she was old enough to look for a job. We learn that Lillian applied for fifteen jobs and received an offer at H. R. Macy’s. a job she accepted and at which she excelled.

A job which in some ways saved my life and in other ways ruined it.

We learn of an ex-husband, whom Lillian loved more than life itself and for whom she gave up her career as it was expected of women in those days. A husband who eventually remarried. We learn some of the details of her life in New York, her path to becoming the best paid advertising woman, her path to becoming a published author and eventually the end of her career.

Lillian was funny and a force to be reckoned with. She pulled no punches. She knew what she wanted and she found a way to get it. At one point when she’s in her boss’ office asking for a raise having been touted as the “best paid woman in advertising,” and he tells her that “…it’s been decided that we really can’t do it.” Instead of giving up she confronts him and says:

The passive voice, Chip? The use of the passive voice to disguise one’s role in the making of a decision is imprecise and obfuscatory. You’re a better ad man that that. Active verbs! Why not say “I refuse to pay you fairly.”

This scene in the book brought Lillian closer to me. She was fighting a battle which continues to be fought today. In 2017. Will our children still be fighting the same battle?

The entire story takes place on one single night while Lillian walks to Delmonicos on New Years Eve for her traditional New Years Eve Dinner. “Veal rollatini with green noodles” and then back home again. Through her walk the reader is introduced to a few characters she meets on the street, the sights and sounds of the city so familiar to those of us to inhabit it or work in it day in and day out. The reader comes face to face with the changes which take place both in the city and and Lillian as they both mature. For me, these were the aspects of the book that made me fall in love with the character .

In 1984, the Island of Manhattan was going through a particularly bad time. The crime rate was at its highest and to give the reader some perspective the author tells the story of the Subway Vigilante. A man who moved around the city subway, murdering members of a particular type.

The city I inhabit now is not the city that I moved to in 1926. It has become a mean-spirited action movie complete with repulsive plot twists and preposterous dialogue.

For someone like me, who works in Manhattan and therefore, practically live in Manhattan, I was extremely curious about what all these places looked like in the 1930s and 1984. I found myself making mental notes on what places I want to go back and visit. I’m eager to find all the beauty Lillian saw through her eyes in the New York of her youth as well as all the corruption and misery she found in 1984. I want to compare it to what it is today. A bustling city that, although not for everyone, it’s beautiful, busy and full of life. However, through Lillian’s eyes I was able to see the difference between what it was and what it is. She is not the first person calling the Penn Station building as it currently stands — a monstrosity.

I found that the author’s writing to be beautiful, her narrative to be flowy and descriptive. Kathleen Rooney is a poet and as expected her prose, enchanting and captivating. Through her words, I was able put on Lillian’s shoes as she looked at the world around her. Like when Lilly is talking to her cat, or contemplating buying a gift for that one New Years Eve party she decided to attend at the last minute.

There were, however, some passages in the book that felt as if they didn’t belong. They were a bit forced. These were very few but in a way they spoiled the flow of the book. As a New Yorker and a female I would never stop and chat with someone who happened to have honked the car horn. Not only would I not give that person the time of day but I would probably run away from the scene. This, in 2017. I don’t even want to imagine what I would have done in 1984, walking late at night in Midtown or Downtown.

Throughout the book we find Lillian maturing in parallel with the City. To me it felt as though they both began their walk through life as innocent, inexperienced and with a hunger to achieve huge heights. I couldn’t help but think that perhaps the author was telling a story about Lillian’s and Manhattan’s walk of life. We find that both mature, become resigned to circumstances, turn bitter and eventually learn to accept that “stuff happens” and in the process get stronger and more beautiful.

I think Lillian did a good job at navigating her life without a map. She was funny and sure of herself even when she didn’t think she was.

A question remains: if I were not from Lillian’s beloved New York, would this book have as much of an impact on me? hmmmm, I’m not certain. I cannot deny that I loved the story, enjoyed the concept and fell in love with Lillian. In the process discovered a new love for a city. All great things. The book was entertaining and I will also admit that I cannot wait for Kathleen’s next one (which I’m told is in the works).

I gave the book 4 stars only because I really had trouble getting past some of the scenes with strangers as being believable. They interrupted the flow of the narrative and I removed me from the cozy feeling of following Lillian around the city.

I have recommended this book to many people and would expect that they will enjoy it as much as I did.

Thanks for making it this far
Ana