Book Review: TANGERINE, two friends reunite in Tangier

Tangerine
Christine Mangan

1956, Tangier, Morocco. Alice Shipley, fragile and nearly housebound, is the opposite of her husband, John, who thrives in the spotlight but who is comfortable living off of Alice’s sizable trust fund. Lucy Mason, her college roommate, whom she hasn’t spoken with in a year is the last person she expects to see at her apartment door.

Alice and Lucy had been estranged since a tragic accident their last year of college, but Lucy wanted to put the past behind them and regain the intimacy they once shared. Although Alice is unsure of their relationship, she is so unhappy she tolerates Lucy’s insinuation into her life with John. But then, John mysteriously disappears; Alice is unsure if it is related to his secretive government job, Lucy, or something Alice herself did.

Tangerine poses questions of identity, trust, and betrayal, and while interesting, I thought the Moroccan setting was the most compelling aspect of the novel. As for the plot itself, it reminded of The Talented Mr. Ripley, and in interviews I did see the author was influenced by Patricia Highsmith, as well as other books and movies I’ve seen. It had interesting elements but was more derivative than I expected.

Book Review: INTO CAPTIVITY THEY WILL GO, a rural boy grows up believing he is the second coming of Jesus

Into Captivity They Will Go
Noah Milligan

Initially, I was interested in Into Captivity They Will Go by Noah Milligan because it’s set in Oklahoma, my home state. The book centers on Caleb Gunter, a preteen who is told by his mother Evelyn that the world is ending, and he is the second coming of Jesus. Even in the buckle of the bible belt, such a pronouncement doesn’t sit well, and the First Baptist Church in Bartlesville excommunicates the Gunter family. Leaving her husband Earl and older son Jonah behind, Evelyn takes Caleb to a rural religious community run by her stepfather’s friend, Sam Jenkins. The people there are more accepting of Evelyn’s message, and Caleb, speaking in tongues, lost in the spirit, and lifted up by the other congregants, finally feels at home.

Evelyn’s homilies, however, grow more extreme, and as her prophecies darken, she views the outside community with more and more suspicion. Meanwhile, Caleb struggles to accept what it means to be the savior who will lead the chosen people after the end of the world. After a series of cataclysmic events, Caleb loses everything familiar, including the foundation of his faith.

While the first two thirds of the book recount Caleb’s childhood and are told in third person, the final section gives Caleb a first-person voice and more insight into his reactions to the events surrounding him. I couldn’t help but think how damaged Caleb must be and how tempting it was to fall into old patterns of behavior, substituting one false god for another. He’s calm and accepting of his past, which is hard to understand, but Atchley, a character he later becomes close to, may provide the reader’s perspective wondering how he isn’t angry and resentful.

Throughout the book, I wondered why Evelyn had taken this religious path, but then I also asked myself if it mattered. Whatever the cause, Caleb was left to cope with the impact of her beliefs and actions and how they affected him; they also rippled into the family, changing the lives of Earl and Jonah, and beyond, so that others in the community were never the same.

One of the triumphs of the book is that Milligan writes with such compassion and empathy that is impossible to write any characters off as one-dimensional, fringe, or unbelievable. I thought that I would immediately feel anger and contempt for Evelyn. Instead, while I did feel some of that on behalf of Caleb, even more, I considered her with empathy and curiosity. Caleb’s general placidity evokes an air of forgiveness and acceptance, and despite the travails of his childhood, it seems that attitude serves him well. Furthermore, I loved the subtle Oklahoman references Into Captivity They Will Go such as the primacy of Dr. Pepper, the references to concerts at the Blue Door, the constant calibration of weather, and the love of Sonic and Braum’s.

Even though I did grow up in Oklahoma, I went to a relatively liberal church (for that state anyway), and I wasn’t familiar with the biblical passages from Revelations. I had to look up the seven seals to fully understand Evelyn’s references. I also wish that some of the characters, like Earl, had been more developed. The shift from third person to first person was a little jarring and unexpected, and Caleb seemed like such a different person, also with time passing and experience gained, the change did made sense once I reflected on it. Finally, some details concerning spatial and time relationships were confusing, but that may be a function of the advance copy I read and will be corrected in the printed version.

Readers who enjoy literary fiction, coming of age stories, narratives about extreme religion, and of course, books set in Oklahoma should read Into Captivity They Will Go.

Thank you to NetGalley and Central Avenue Publishing for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Right After the Weather, in a moment, everything can change

Right After the Weather
Carol Anshaw

Happy Publication Day!

A set designer with a master’s degree, but an unsteady income, Cate, at forty-two, gets by—barely—only because her ex-husband bought her a condo and her parents still give her money. Still, she is working on Plan C which involves a new relationship with Maureen and the possibility of working with a renowned playwright and director Off-Broadway even as her old relationships simmer on the surface. Her ex-husband, Graham, separated from his third wife, has taken residence in her guest room and spends his days online discussing conspiracy theories, while she can’t shed feelings for Dana who is firmly committed to her girlfriend despite their passionate affair.

Cate’s singular constant is Neale, her best friend since childhood. When Cate arrives at Neale’s house to pick her up for a yoga class and sees her being brutally attacked, Cate responds with equal savagery. That moment of violence ripples through all Cate’s relationships, challenging her very assumptions about herself and her closest confidants.

Right after the Weather is highly character driven and low on plot, but the writing is spectacular, and the themes are thought-provoking. Set in the fall of 2016 and spring of 2017, the characters grapple with Trump’s victory and the associated issues it raised.

That Cate is in theater as a set designer shows an interesting profession but more than that, the act of designing a set can be seen to parallel that of presenting a particularly curated face, one that Cate has to defend when her story becomes public. Faced with such a clear delineation between before and after, Cate, Neale, and the other characters in their orbit must renegotiate not only what they mean to each other, but their very identities.

For fans of Ottessa Moshfegh, Binnie Kirshenbaum, and Jen Beagin.

Thanks to NetGalley and Atria Books for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF HEAVEN, uniting saving a slum in Bangalore

A People’s History of Heaven
Mathangi Subramanian

When the city government sends bulldozers to raze the Bangalore slum nicknamed “Heaven,” a group of women resolves to save their home and physically blocks the equipment from moving forward. Five teenage girls, friends since childhood, decide to join their mothers in protecting their neighborhood.

Though the conflict with the city provides the overarching structure to the novel, the real stories in A People’s History of Heaven comes from the histories of the five girls: Banu, an enterprising engineer and artist who can build or repair anything; Deepa, whose parents decided to pull her out of school due to her visual impairment; Joy, a transgender academic whiz from a Christian family; Padma, a transplant from a rural area with a complicated family history; and Rukshana, a Muslim, who is beginning to understand her queer sexuality.

Heaven has been left to the women: men have for the most part abandoned them for alcohol, younger women, or death. The grandmothers, mothers, and daughters are enterprising entrepreneurs and savvy in their manipulation of government schemes—the only way they can survive in a quickly gentrifying city.

Though the girls face discrimination, hunger, and poverty, they are quick to warn readers not to pity them, in one case noting, “Poverty might make our lives ugly. But in Banu’s drawings, our survival is full of beauty.” Still, the novel is full of bifurcations: girls versus boys; children versus adults; rich versus poor. As one character explained to Padma, though, “You can’t understand other people’s stories if you don’t understand your own.”

In this book, the story is narrated by the quintet. I don’t remember reading a book with a collective narrator since The Virgin Suicides. While the books aren’t the same in any other ways, that underlying similarity gave me all the feels.

The New York Times criticized Heaven for being heavy-handed with the symbolism, and Kirkus Reviews thought the book might be better positioned as YA. Looking back, I can see why the reviewers made these observations, but I really did enjoy reading this book. It showed the realities of living in an urban slum in India while allowing the characters to be fully realized and empowered.

Have you read this book? What’s your favorite book set in India or Southeast Asia?

Throwback Thursday: EVE’S TATTOO

Eve’s Tattoo
Emily Prager

When Eve’s Tattoo by Emily Prager was published in the early 1990s, I was in college and it quickly became one of my favorite books.

On her fortieth birthday, Eve gets a tattoo reproducing a prisoner number from a Nazi concentration camp. Her family and friends are horrified, but to explain the tattoo, which she calls a living memorial, she tells each person a different story of the woman assigned the number 500123, a version of the story that will resonate with them.

As much as I adored the book, I haven’t reread it since for fear it won’t hold up to my memories. Additionally, I worry about cultural appropriation which was not something I considered at the time.

I’m not sure if I ever will read it because I want to preserve my memories. However, even looking back, I find the themes relating to storytelling and memory compelling. And the dedication—For the women who resist, and the women who don’t—remains one of my favorites.

Unfortunately, the book is out of print, so it’s only possible to get used copies.