St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell

unnamedKaren Russell is on my list of six authors I want to read for the first time in 2014. I’m starting at the beginning with her first novel, a collection of interrelated short stories all set in the same swampy, beachy area of Florida. The hype in my head was MASSIVE and there was no way Russell was ever going to live up to such a beast.

Ten stories – all of them odd, all of them weird. Most of them are narrated by a child or teenager. They feel like coming-of-age stories. Many of them are allegorical in nature. And none of them end neatly. I’d even go so far as saying only one of them actually has a traditional beginning, middle, end narrative structure. So you’ve got to let that desire go immediately.

You have stories about alligator wrestling theme parks (which will eventually become Swamplandia!), little girls who sled out to sea on a crab shell never to be heard from again, and girls raised by wolves who must go to a reform school to learn how to live as human. The characters are strange and often unsettling. It can be hard to connect with the absurd plot lines at first, but soon you begin to see the humanity bleeding through the weird. And Russell at 25 creates some of the most imaginative and audacious imagery I’ve read – maybe ever.

So why only four stars instead of five? It took me a while to get invested. It took me too long to get over my initial frustration at how she ends her stories – or doesn’t end them, so to speak. Once I was able to let that go and just enjoy these brief slices of life for what they were, I was swept away and didn’t want to swim back to the mainland. That’s the magic Russell has created. She took me places I did not want to go, kicking and screaming, and left me bereft with their absence by the collection’s end.

Swamplandia!, I’m coming for you.

The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen

8517332People really love their Sarah Addison Allen. Rapid fans gobble up her particular brand of southern comfort with unadulterated joy. For these reasons, I wasn’t shocked when The Girl Who Chased the Moon won our February round of voting. We have some Allen followers among our ranks here at Atlanta’s Lady Litwits.

Allen’s signature magical realism is woven through a tale of two women. Emily, a teenager who has lost her mother and moved back to her mom’s hometown to live with the grandfather she never knew she had. Julia, a woman who has reluctantly moved home after escaping the rejection and emotional distress of small town life. Mullaby, North Carolina is there to welcome them with wallpapered rooms that change with your mood, lights that glow and dance underneath the moon, and the local neighborhood friendly giant. There is also cake.

I’d never read any Allen before this book. But it went down like sugar. So easy and light and smooth. She paints an eerily accurate picture of what small town Southern life is like. The oppressive feeling of not fitting into what often seems to be a very singular acceptance was honest and moving. The group loved Julia and her story far more than the insta-love teenage affair between Emily and Win. We connected to Julia’s emotional struggles and journey from troubled youth to the well-adjusted thirty-something. I suspect this has something to do with Julia being more our peer than Emily.

We did, however, wish that Julia’s story had been given more time, more depth. We wanted to see all the dirty in between times where she was in therapy and recovering from the self-abuse of her teenage years. It’s great that she’d been able to recover and move on, but we wanted to see and feel that struggle alongside Julia. In fact, that’s how we felt about the whole thing. We wanted more. MORE. Allen is a great writer and there are nuggets of something really special about her characters, but the book’s length and density never quite get to the substance we so ardently hoped for.

Most of us bemoaned the end as something far too tidy and way, way too easy. What started off with the tremendous promise of being a great character study of how small towns shape a person and the struggle for acceptance, quickly devolved to something no more substantive than a run-of-the-mill rom com. Michelle even mentioned that the end felt too much like a beginning, like we were only getting started. Several members were ready for a meaty book two!!

Sarah Addison Allen might not have completely won us over with The Girl Who Chased the Moon, but several of us will definitely be seeking out more of her work. I have Garden Spells on the shelf. Have you read any of her books? Which is your favorite?

A Room With a View by E.M. Forster

1649385E.M. Forster is an author I’ve always meant to read but never have. I started doing a buddy reads thing with my best friend and co-organizer of my Atlanta book club last year, and our most recent selection was A Room With a View. I quickly downloaded a free copy onto my Kindle and settled in.

Lucy is a young girl on holiday in Italy. She wants to break out of the constricting, conservative mold of proper English society, but constantly finds herself and her means thwarted by older cousin and chaperone, Charlotte. They meet many interesting characters abroad including an older gentleman and his younger son, George Emerson. The Emersons aren’t the right kinds of people, but George and Lucy share a kiss in a field of violets that puts Twilight to shame. After the incident, Lucy and Charlotte flee to Rome and then back to England where we discover Lucy’s become engaged to a colossal douchebag named Cecil. But then the Emersons move into the neighborhood and things get very interesting.

I’m glad I read this around Valentine’s Day. If you were unsatisfied with Twilight, try this! Seriously, a great love story not just between two lovers, but also between a woman and who she wants to be – free to love and live as she chooses. It’s short, sweet, and simple, but poses a lot of questions about English society and the changing of societal norms from the Victorian Era to the Edwardian period. Plot and substance! Plus, you can watch the miniseries that has Daniel Day Lewis. I repeat, Daniel Day Lewis.

Victoria wasn’t as enamored because she couldn’t connect or like any of the characters beyond George Emerson. She wanted to like and love Lucy but wasn’t able to. She thought Lucy did a whole lot of talking about breaking free without a whole lot of actual doing. This is a valid complaint (until the end, at least), but I just think she’s a product of her time. We can’t hold her to the standards we hold women to today, can we? I think that can be one of the hardest parts of reading literature over 100 years old.

Anyway, loved this and will be exploring Forster further. Highly recommended.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

251688Reading In Cold Blood changed my mind about reading nonfiction. Previously, I had stayed away believing the factual side of literature to be dull and filled with textbook-like passages where I zoned out after two or three words. Truman Capote showed me a different side – the narrative nonfiction side – and became a literary hero of mine. It’s a shame I’ve waited this long to read any of his fiction.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a short 90 page novella that most people think was only ever a movie. I admit that I fell into this category until I got to college and realized the source material was a Capote story. The narrator of the story basically becomes infatuated with a woman who lives in his building named Holly Golightly. She’s a progressive, hedonistic woman who has loud parties, drinks too much, and allows various men into her bed. Not the most shocking thing now, perhaps, but for a woman in the Forties this was dramatically offensive behavior. Men, including our storyteller, are infatuated with her. Capote chooses to focus only on the brief time Miss Golightly lives in this New York brownstone, but with his talent and expertise at the wheel we manage to learn quite a bit about Holly while still not learning all of her secrets.

I loved it. I love how Holly’s a wilder, darker thing in Capote’s imagination than the Holly brought to the screen by Audrey Hepburn. Both are compelling, but I prefer the written Holly as a sort of a high class call girl figure who mixes and mingles with mobsters.

The next three stories in this collection are equally as fascinating if a little less famous. My favorite of the three was “A Christmas Memory” which was made into a film starring Patty Duke, I think. It’s about a boy and an elderly woman who are the best of friends. You don’t often get to see such relationships explored as we so frequently shelve old people in the dusty back corners of our brains. I’m not ashamed to admit that the humanity and sweet sadness of this story brought me to tears. That doesn’t much happen to grinches like me so kudos, Mr. Capote, on inspiring my heart to grow three sizes larger.

Now I shall focus on reading all of Truman Capote’s backlist. And you should too.

The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro

The-Perfume-Collector-PBThe Perfume Collector is a book that often falls under the nebulous and debated genre known argumentatively as women’s fiction. To be honest, books with this dubious label I often avoid just because there’s a sameness to them that irks me. But several readers I really respect have read this and loved it, so when it was offered for review I decided to give it a shot.

The narrative follows two main characters. Grace Monroe is a married British woman in her late twenties who discovers her husband has been cheating while also learning a mysterious woman has died and left her an enormous inheritance. She takes off to Paris to uncover the woman’s identity and keys to her own past. Interwoven throughout, we follow Eva d’Orsey, an orphaned French teenager working in a high class hotel in New York City in the 1920s. Along the way we meet scoundrels, perfumists, and visit the hallowed halls of 1930s Monte Carlo.

Tessaro’s novel is easily read and quickly finished. The armchair travel might be worth the read whether or not you enjoy these kinds of novels. I loved visiting the fancy hotels of New York, Paris, and Monte Carlo along with the characters. I preferred Eva’s story to Grace’s, but both narratives held my attention and kept me turning the pages. I’d suggest this as a great summer read while lounging poolside. Tessaro really knows how to put her readers in a certain time and place.

On the flipside, I can’t say the novel will stay with me or be something that I remember this time next year. The plot, while enjoyable enough, was also burdened with a predictability that plagues similar stories. I wish something in the book’s conclusion had surprised me. I also wish the book had had a better editor. It’s been a long time since I read a book with so many typos and grammatical mistakes. Boo.

Have you read The Perfume Collector? What do you think about novels with the same predictable plot twists? Do they annoy you or do other aspects of the novel, like the armchair travel, make up for these limitations?

*****************************************************

Thanks so much to TLC Book Tours and the publisher for a copy of the novel in exchange for an honest review. Check out the other tour stops here!!

About the Author:

Kathleen-TessaroKathleen Tessaro is the author of EleganceInnocenceThe Flirt, and The Debutante. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with her husband and son.

tlc logo

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

16068905I’ve mentioned more than once that I’m a former (okay, maybe former and current) fanfiction writer. So after I read Eleanor & Park last year and discovered Rainbow Rowell had written a book about a girl who writes fanfiction…well…consider my interest piqued.

Cath is a normal college freshman. She’s anxious to start her first year of college, bummed that her identical twin sister is trying to break away from their special built-in bond, and terrified of leaving her manic father alone. She still harbors a lot of hurt over her mother’s abandonment and her college roommate appears to hate her. Then there are boys. You can’t blame a girl for wanting to crawl inside her fandom and disappear. We’ve all felt like that a time or two.

What made me love Fangirl? All of the things. Literally…all of them. My first year of college was so similar to Cath’s that I just melted under all the nostalgia. Rowell is the master of creating real teenagers. Everything from Cath’s extreme social introversion to her oddly forceful awkwardness around boys can be found on college campuses around the world. The relationship she had with her roommate was great – perhaps the best relationship in the book. Their dialogue was quirky and age appropriate which I often find lacking in young adult literature.

Many readers have claimed Fangirl has too much going on – too many little plot bunnies running around and not enough time to give the proper attention to any of them. These are valid complaints. But this didn’t bother me even a little bit. I, too, had crazy family drama going on around me during college and often didn’t have the time to focus on my actual real life issues. So for me, this felt just like what I had actually gone through a decade ago. It’s like Rowell had channeled 20-year-old Brooke and written this novel just for me.

My own personal criticism lies only in the romance. I loved the slow build-up, but the after parts were too squishy. Every time Levi called Cath sweetheart I wanted to gag…sorry, not sorry. This pet peeve is also just a personal preference. Jimmy and I have never used pet names for each other because I think they’re gross. See why romantical stories are not my favorite? But, the rest of the book was the perfect bookend to my twenties and felt particularly poignant with the big 3-0 looming on the end-of-month horizon. And even though I wish I’d had Rainbow Rowell all those years ago, I can honestly say I’m just as happy I’ve got her now.

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

243714Jhumpa Lahiri has won or been nominated for almost every prestigious literary award imaginable. And I haven’t read either of her two novels. I think I almost purposefully avoid award winners. Why do I do this? I think I tend to be disappointed when they don’t live up to this idea in my head of what an award winner should be. But I’m happy to say that Interpreter of Maladies deserved its Pulitzer.

It’s a collection of nine short stories focusing on Indian and Bengali characters both in India and in the States. You get nine brief glimpses into the lives of some beautifully rendered people having honest struggles. Many of those struggles revolve around marriage and relationships which is universal around the globe. You get realistic portrayals of what it feels like to be a foreigner in many different scenarios. You get a little bit of history, a lot of culture, and one of the best short story collections published in the last decade.

I read these stories in one sitting while the snow fell in Atlanta and everyone else seemed to be trapped in their vehicles. With the fire warming my toes, I literally could not stop reading long enough to care about those stranded commuters which included my husband. Maybe this makes me a terrible person or perhaps this makes Jhumpa Lahiri a magician or a wizard. Either way, I won the great snowpocalypse of 2014.

None of these stories are super joyful. In fact, most of them are downers. I had to take a couple of moments after each conclusion to mourn whatever needed mourning before I could continue. But I always continued. The pull of Lahiri’s writing was too much to resist no matter how gut-wrenching or desolate the stories read. What often irritates me about short story collections is how unfinished each snippet can be – how each story ends just as soon as you finally feel pulled in. Interpreter of Maladies didn’t have this flaw. I felt like I had gotten to know a complete story – or at least all I needed to know for the moment – at each story’s end. Utter perfection.

By now, you can clearly tell this was a no-brainer five star book for me. The Pulitzer people knew what they were doing with this selection. Now it’s your turn to pick it up for the first time or to reread and discover the magic all over again.