BOOK REVIEW: Ordinary People, a portrait of fracturing marriages

Evans, Diana - Ordinary People (2)Ordinary People

by Diana Evans

Ordinary People tracks two long-term couples, both from London, both with children: Melissa and Michael and Stephanie and Damian. Melissa and Michael live in the south London neighborhood Bel Green, the land that the tube forgot, while Stephanie and Damian moved to Dorking after Stephanie tired of the high crime rate in London.

Both couples show signs of strain. After giving birth to Blake, Melissa decided not to return to work, but she resents losing her “outside” self at the same time she begins to be disinterested in sex. For his part, Michael senses the distance between them, wishes to repair the damage but doesn’t know how, and wants the “old” Melissa back. Frustrated, Melissa turns inward while Michael searches the city for solace.

Stephanie, who always wanted a family, is happy to be the domestic czar in her relationship with Damian, but Damian misses the heartbeat of London and has failed to deal with his father’s recent death, becoming a ghost in the relationship. They’ve all reached watersheds and each handle the uncertain waters with different effect.

In lovely prose, Diana Evans shows how fractures in relationships extend to gorges through everyday slights. The characters question whether they can remain fundamentally themselves in relationships with their significant others and as parents and Melissa in particular observes the constraints of traditional gender roles. Melissa, Michael, and Damian are all people of color, and the racism they face is a subtle but important theme.

Music threads through the novel, with the title itself taken by a song performed by John Legend. A key scene happens at a Jill Scott concert; another occurs when a group of friends dances to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The author even has a playlist to accompany the book on her website. The narrative is firmly rooted in the gritty details of London, drawing on existing restaurants, shops, and neighborhoods. A story about a peripheral character encountering gang violence is especially heart-wrenching.

Sometimes the symbolism is heavy handed. Melissa and Michael live on Paradise Row, and Evans often returns to the Crystal Palace, a beautiful and hopeful structure that fell into disrepair and was destroyed by a fire in the mid-1800s. A supernatural strain that is either really evidence of otherworldly influence or simply an indication of Melissa’s deteriorating emotional state is confusing and therefore ineffective, and is so unnecessary and strange given the realistic grounding of the book otherwise. Even so, it was a very pleasurable read, and I plan to put Diana Evans’ other books on my to-read list.

I won this ARC in a Goodreads giveaway. Thank you Liveright Publishing Corporation and Goodreads!

The UK edition of the book was published earlier this year. I like the cover design released there so much better!

Evans, Diana - Ordinary People UK.jpg

BOOK REVIEW: Born a Crime Audiobook

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African ChildhoodBorn a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I first heard about Born a Crime, I decided to listen to it as an audiobook instead of reading it in a traditional format. I’m so glad that I did. I’m sure the book would be just as good, but it wouldn’t have the correct pronunciation of African phrases, the special voices Noah uses for his grandmother, mother, and other family members, or his emotional delivery.

Born a Crime focuses on Noah’s early years growing up under apartheid and ends in his mid-twenties as his comedy career was taking off but his family suffered a tragedy. As funny as Noah is–and he is funny–the book provides an unflinching look at apartheid and the effects of apartheid after it ended. He describes feeling like an outsider in school, recounts his schemes to make money, reflects on his relationship with his Swedish father, and laments his lackluster love life.

As Noah hilariously recounts his exploits, he never fails to situate them in the social and cultural context, asking difficult questions (e.g., might crime be at times legitimate?) or criticizing the policies of the South African state. Not only was I completely entertained, I learned a lot about the mechanisms of apartheid and the methods by which the government successfully oppressed the majority of the population.

Throughout, Noah returns to themes of empathy and understanding, often reflecting on how language can unite (or divide) people, as well as the love of family, particularly his strong though difficult mother. The last chapter of the book recounts his mother’s marriage to his stepfather, and the raw emotion it still raises was clear in Noah’s narration. Of course, the book also underlines the use of humor to cope with difficult situations.

The only drawback to the audio edition was the lack of pictures. I’m not sure if the hardback or ebook has pictures. When Noah described how he looked as a teenager and his attempts to preen for girls, I really wished I could see it!

I highly recommend this book for teenagers up!

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Dreamers, a mysterious sleeping sickness cuts through a college town

Walker, Karen Thompson - The DreamersThe Dreamers

by Karen Thompson Walker

Santa Lora College freshman Kara leaves a party early because she feels more tired than she’s ever felt before. Back in her dorm, she falls into bed with her clothes and shoes still on. Her roommate, Mei, finds her in the morning but isn’t alarmed since Kara’s fallen asleep that way before. But when Mei returns that night and Kara hasn’t moved, she calls for help. Soon, the “sleeping sickness” spreads throughout the dorm, the college, and the town until the government issues a cordon sanitaire, quarantining everyone inside.

The Dreamers tracks a handful of Santa Lora denizens: Mei, who had hoped to reinvent herself in college but instead found herself friendless, and her unlikely companion Matthew, whom the students in the dorm nicknamed “Weird Matthew,”; Ben, Annie, and their newborn daughter Gracie whom the new parents would do anything to protect; Sara and Libby, tween daughters of a survivalist and conspiracy theorist who have a soft spot for abandoned animals; Catherine, a psychiatrist from Los Angeles called to consult on the case; and Nathaniel, a biology professor whose partner, Henry, had to be put in a nursing home due to early-onset Alzheimer’s.

With any book shifting between multiple characters’ points of view, there is a risk that some characters are more interesting than others. That certainly happens in The Dreamers. Sisters Sara and Libby are intriguing, scrappy, and independent, and Mei has to push herself beyond her limits, and their stories are more fun to read. If I were a parent, I would probably empathize with Ben more, but instead, I found his reflections on parenting overly sentimental. Catherine is not fully developed, and while I found Nathaniel intriguing, his story was tangential. I applaud Walker for taking a risk in presenting so many viewpoints from diverse characters, but in this case, instead of adding to the tapestry of the story, it tends to dilute it. I think the novel would have been more effective if it offered fewer primary characters.

I love a good epidemic novel, and The Dreamers has interesting elements: a new and inexplicable sickness, people chafing against quarantine, and soldiers out of their element and uncomfortable policing an American town. Supplies run low raising tensions, and with anyone a potential carrier of the sickness, mistrust runs high. Although there are moments when I as a reader feared the worst, the book never indulges in the basest reactions to tragedy. I wonder if I am cynical and this is the point, that such an event doesn’t have to bring out the worst in people, or if in fact the novel is unrealistic about people’s worst impulses in a crisis. Though I’m sure this says more about me than the book, I expected and wanted a higher body count. But, what draws people together and what separates them, sometimes the same thing, is a background for the narrative. The book also highlights the challenges of separating fact from rumor in an the information vacuum that occurs during such tragedies.

The novel meditates on the difference between dream and living states and the nebulous barrier (if any) between past, present, and future. As interesting as these questions are, I’m not sure I feel any more elucidated after reading The Dreamers nor do I have a sense of Walker’s message in raising these questions.

On the surface, as a disaster novel of sorts, The Dreamers is a well-written entry in the genre, and, though flawed, has interesting characters overall. Drilling down into the deeper themes though leaves me feeling like I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be seeing. How much a reader likes the book will depend a lot on what they are seeking.

Thank you to Netgalley and Random House for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review.


Greer, Andrew Sean - Less (3)Less

by Andrew Sean Greer

Normally, I am not drawn to comedic novels, but Less had so many good reviews and the Pulitzer Prize to recommend it, so I put it on my reading list. I’m glad that I put my preconceptions aside to read it. Not only was it funny, clever, and charming, it was emotionally affecting.

When Arthur Less, a forty-nine (not yet fifty, thank you very much) minor novelist receives a wedding invitation for his former lover, Freddy’s wedding, he knows attending the ceremony would be too painful and humiliating; not attending would be just as bad. His solution: accept every literary event invitation he’s received, cobbling together an around-the-world itinerary that will take him away from San Francisco for several months.

The ingenious structure allows Less to encounter myriad settings and characters so we see him interact in different contexts. (Of course, the downside is that interesting characters make only a brief appearance, but isn’t that like life?) Many of these settings are literary events, such as an award ceremony, and much has been made of Greer’s parody of this milieu. Less’ name itself provides Greer ample opportunity to play on the meaning of the surname and reflect on feelings of anxiety and literally feeling less than others around him. Less’ novel-within-a-novel, Swift, and it’s changing focus parallels Less’ own journey.

Early in the novel, I was struck by its humor of the absurd when Arthur Less’ guides take him to the Pyramid of the Sun and Pyramid of the Moon. One of the guides, Fernando, tells Less about everything he must see in Mexico City, yet, every site is closed for renovations, to mount a new exhibit, or simply because it was Monday. Another very funny aspect was Less’ unshakable belief he was fluent in German, skilled enough to teach a five-week class in German in Berlin. Less is absolutely not fluent in German.

Yet, the novel at times unveils truths that are gut-wrenching, though Greer always presents these moments subtly and without pedantry. For example, Less, considering his upcoming fiftieth birthday, thinks that he has no gay role models for growing older. The generation before his never had the change to age as they were struck down by AIDS. In another moment, in India, Less, slightly irritated, wonders why so many people picnic on the grounds of the Christian retreat center where he booked himself without realizing the “brand,” is told that nowhere else is safe for the Christians to congregate. (He then castigates himself for being an asshole.)

So, in a sense, calling the novel comedic does it a disservice, insofar as comedic novels are viewed as frivolous and empty. Less is divinely funny but certainly not frivolous or empty. It is a satisfying read addressing serious issues that will make you laugh out loud.

Author’s Site

Less-a-Novel on Instagram

The Incendiaries

IMG_8111The Incendiaries

by R.O. Kwon

In this slim but rich volume, R.O. Kwon offers a meditation on faith, guilt, and loss. Will, formerly a staunch Christian, has transferred to Edwards University from Jubilee Bible College after losing his faith. Phoebe, a former piano prodigy, is grief-stricken after losing her mother in a car accident. The two college students are drawn together as they find comfort, if not honesty, in each other. Their happiness, though, is challenged when Phoebe becomes involved with John Leal, formerly a student, who founded Jejah, a religious group. Will believes Jejah is a cult and that he needs to save Phoebe from the misplaced belief that colored his life for so many years. His single-minded focus on rescuing Phoebe leads to an unspeakable betrayal and unimaginable tragedy.

The Incendiaries unfolds with luminous prose, primarily through Will’s point of view. Of particular interest to me was the loss he expresses over losing his faith. For him, it wasn’t a forgone conclusion or a relief from orthodoxy but the painful parting with a figure he loved, even if he came to believe he constructed it himself. Yet, for him, it wasn’t an authentic life, and he wanted Phoebe to avoid the traps from which he emerged. Additionally, observing Will construct the narrative was absorbing. At one point, Kwon writes, “Recollection is half invention” so teasing out possible invention was a fascinating proposition.

Recollection is half invention.

Since Phoebe and her mother immigrated from South Korea, Phoebe’s story offers a glimpse of her experience as an immigrant. While it’s not the focus of the book, it does show the challenges and highlights South Korean culture. As Phoebe’s family faces American culture, Will, from an impoverished, religious background, faces the mores of the secular, upper class when he arrives at Edwards. How each integrate into the dominant cultures affects their relationship with each other and with the Jejah cult (using Will’s word). The Incendiaries also asks what counts as a gift and what obligation the recipient has to use such gifts, from musical talent to money.

While I enjoyed the reading experience throughout the book, I did prefer the first two-thirds to the last section, which might be described as the reckoning. And with the focus on a narrow story, Kwon is economical with events outside those directly relating to the trajectory of the plot. For me, time in the novel occasionally passed in a dreamlike way, with months or years compressed into sentences or paragraphs that made me curious.

That said, I do plan on reading the Incendiaries again, and I don’t doubt it will be as rich and deep an experience. I’m not sure this book is for everyone, though I expect those who enjoy contemporary fiction will appreciate the style.