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I chose to read this novel on short notice–the book I’d wanted to pack for a weekend away did not fit into my limited luggage space (Spirit makes passengers pay for carry-on bags, so I packed for three days in only a purse!) so I made a snap decision to buy The Woman Upstairs on my Kindle. I’d heard about it chiefly because it provoked some controversy about the way people discuss female protagonists (specifically, I think, in novels written by women), so I was curious. If I’d known a little more about it, I probably wouldn’t have bought it, though, and that would have been for the best.

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Nora Eldridge, the novel’s protagonist is a third grade teacher, an artist, a single woman, and an unreliable narrator. She fancies herself a “woman upstairs,” her moniker for a middle-aged woman who has done all the right things and then been packed away, out of society’s sight and mind. For the bulk of the novel, she is thirty-seven years old; she refers to herself as middle-aged and feels constrained by her age as if it is too late for her to be anything other than “the woman upstairs.” This was my first problem with the book. I felt the same way when I read Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall. I don’t know if I’m fooling myself or if I’m truly a product of an exceptionally stunted NYC environment, but people here are still young in their late thirties and early forties. They’re still sexy, often still dating, still experimenting with art and careers. I can’t imagine anyone I know thinking of a 37 year old person as middle-aged. This novel is set in Boston–are people middle-aged at 37 in Boston? To me, this strange manipulation of time, which seemed really out-dated–maybe thirty years ago this is what middle age was?–was just one of the artificial notes in the novel.     Read the rest of this entry »

This is a strange admission from someone who actively sought out and purchased this novel, but I expected not to like The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg. I had a prejudice against it for a few batty reasons having to do with surface similarities–in terms of the title, book design, and hype–to two other novels I read and hated. The Middlesteins was everywhere when it first came out and so I was curious enough to buy it, but definitely imagined sitting down to write a post with a very different tone than the one I am about to write.

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This book, in my opinion, was incredible. I loved it. It wasn’t suspenseful, but I could barely put it down only because I didn’t want to stop reading the prose and about the characters. Attenberg writes chapters from the third person points of view of many different members of the same family–the obese matriarch, Edie, her estranged, much-maligned husband, Richard, her difficult daughter Robin, her sweet son Benny, his health-obsessed wife Rachelle, their twins, about to be b’nai mitzvahed, the collective voice of Edie and Richard’s couple-friends, the proprietor of a Chinese food restaurant that plays a complicated role in Edie’s life, Edie’s mother, and maybe there is even someone else I’m forgetting. Read the rest of this entry »

The last two novels I read were big disappointments, so I was really excited when, a few pages into The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle, I realized I was embarking on a book I wasn’t going to want to put down. I liked more and more as I got deeper into it.

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The Devil in Silver is a super active novel for one set almost entirely within the confines of a public psychiatric in-patient facility. There was mystery, suspense, violence, love–a lot going on. Usually, plot isn’t my biggest concern when I’m reading, but I really appreciated everything that happened in this story. The protagonist, Pepper, was institutionalized by a trio of police officers who were saved some paperwork by committing him rather than incarcerating him. At times, he is desperate to escape, at others, he feels compelled to protect his fellow patients. He becomes immersed in the world of the hospital and that world infiltrates his. What was so great about his repeated attempts to escape is that each one did different work than the last. He evolved so much over the course of the book, even though his circumstances didn’t necessarily change. Read the rest of this entry »

I’m so pleased to write my 5th anniversary blog post (my 153rd!) about the novel Elect H. Mouse State Judge by Nelly Reifler. Since most of you reading this are probably people I know personally, plenty of you probably also know Nelly, and know how wonderful she is and how lucky we are to have a new book by her to read. It is a light, slim book, perfect for carrying around in a pocket or a purse, which is probably what a lot of readers will want to do with it while reading it for the first and second and third times.

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Almost everyone I’ve heard talking about the book mentions reading it more than once. On the first read, one might be focused on taking in the plot. The novel is about the tiny mice daughters of a mouse judge being kidnapped by a creepy religious cult of Sunshine Family Dolls, the crime-fighting duo of Barbie and Ken, who investigate the disappearance, and the perpetual teenager Skipper, who observes the action from a wistful remove. Nelly has said that the scenario is exactly the one that used to play out in her girlhood dollhouse. It may not immediately seem like the recipe for a page-turner, but it is. There is intrigue, politics, infidelity, sex involving Barbie-doll neckballs, shoot-outs, and deeply buried secrets, revealed only to the reader. It’s suspenseful and gripping.

There are many deeper places to go, in this tiny book, after satiating the need to find out what happens. The interrelationships between the characters are complex and finely wrought. I was shocked to find that the hilarious sex-scenes between Barbie and Ken, popping out limbs and exchanging heads, had a wrenchingly sad pay-off at the end. A flash-forward exploring the ramifications of the mouse sisters’ time in captivity on one sister’s perception of the other was equally melancholy. And who would ever think of Skipper as a tragic character; who would ever think of Skipper?

Needless to say, it takes a special writer to make a reader feel for mice and toys as much, or more, than if they were people. This example, from page 56, is illustrative of how she does it:

Margo and her father had always had a special connection. She knew him, she knew him so well. People said she was like him, that she resembled him. Even though they were close, it wasn’t actually the case that Margo was so much like him. Sometimes he seemed like the young one to her, and she felt old, as if she were the grown-up. She’d never known her mother, and she sensed that in some roundabout way she’d become her own mother–and by extension, her father’s helpmate. Sometimes she thought H. was naive and needed protection. Her poor dad, how he took everything to heart…Margo thought that what she saw as helpless and vulnerable in her father translated into sincere and real for the voters. That’s what they always said about her dad in articles and editorials: he’s real.

Out of context, this is a lovely description of a father and daughter. But the genius is that it takes a running joke in the book and twists it, giving it a double meaning. From page one, much is made about how the accouterments of the mice’s lives are real. It’s ad-speak: Real wood! Real moving parts! One can picture the word “real” splashed on the outside of a toy’s packaging. Nelly keeps the micro-world of mice and toys consistent throughout the novel, all the while using the quirks that that world offers it to make it real to the reader.

This is a super weird and special book–go get it!

I don’t have much to say about this book, but in the interest of chronicling what I read, and because I already mentioned in a previous post that it was our next book club pick, I did want to make a short post about it.

Why don’t I have much to say? For one, we already had our book club meeting to discuss it, so I spoke at length about it then. And–because, boy oh boy, did I hate this book. Even sitting on a blissful Brooklyn rooftop, sipping mimosas and listening to some of the smartest, most insightful women around illuminate the reasons why the book wasn’t the total crap I felt it to be, I can’t muster much more than vitriol for it.

Henry James wrote an enormous, enormous book in which about two things actually happen. All other “action” is internal action, taking place in the circular thinking of the book’s four main characters, or in the back-and-forth bickering of another couple, the story’s observers and instigators. This is a pretty cool idea, and placed in historical context, all the more revolutionary. But there barely was a sentence in the entire book that I could get through without going cross-eyed and wanting to smash my Kindle. All the interesting ideas in the world can’t save dense, overwrought, meandering, maddening sentences. Here’s one: “Sharp to her above all was the renewed attestation of her father’s comprehensive acceptances, which she had so long regarded as of the same quality with her own, but which, so distinctly now, she could have the complication of being obliged to deal with separately.” Tell me there aren’t a million better ways to have written that–and pretty much every sentence has that sort of clause-filled, confusing construction.

I found this book absolutely impossible to read and very easy to hate.