Book Review: VACUUM IN THE DARK, a sequel that doesn’t live up to its predecessor

Beagin, Jen - Vacuum in the Dark (4)Vacuum in the Dark
Jen Beagin

Two years after the events in Pretend I’m Dead, Mona Boyle, the sardonic cleaning professional, sometimes artist, and compulsive liar returns in Vacuum in the Dark. She’s made little progress since the events of the previous volume.

Partly because of her past sexual abuse, Mona’s boundaries are ill-formed. Not only does she act unprofessional while cleaning–taking pictures in her clients’ clothes or nude while posing in their houses–she develops inappropriate relationships with them, having an affair with the husband of one client, posing nude for another client, a semifamous painter. One of the things I enjoyed so much about Pretend I’m Dead was Mona’s funny metaphors involving cleaning products and her obsession with external order, in contrast to her internal chaos. For the most part, that is absent from this book.

Mona continues her path of self-abasement, engaging in casual sexual experiences and drug use. She unquestioningly takes a pill from a client, not wondering if it is a good idea, not even wondering what it is or what it’s effects might be. Even her internal voice, Terry Gross, a welcome dose of rational thought, doesn’t interject. As much as the imaginary Terry Gross serves a purpose by keeping Mona engaged with reality, I thought the device was overused in the novel and it pulled me out of the narrative.

Mona seems not just unwilling but unable to call people by their correct names. At first, it’s amusing, and her nicknames are either funny or telling, but on further thought, it reflects Mona’s inability to see others beyond their role in her own narrative, revealing her fundamental selfishness.

A trip to Los Angeles to see her mother (whom she refers to as Clare, even though her name is Darlene) and retrieve some boxes from storage mends her relationship with Clare and her stepdad and introduces her to Curt (whom she calls Kurt, for its backbone). Mona attempts normalcy in a loving relationship with Curt, but she chafes at its ordinariness. When the chance to return to her risky, previous world arises, she can’t resist, but a harrowing encounter shakes her like nothing else before. I hope that if there is a third Mona Boyle book, we’ll finally see at least a little bit of growth from this experience, since that wasn’t the case between the first two.

Book Review: IF, THEN: Disturbing visions strike neighbors in an Oregon college town

day, kate hope - if, then coverIf, Then
Kate Hope Day

Neighbors in a small Oregon college town near a dormant volcano begin to see visions. Mark sees visions of disaster that push him to make preparations beyond all logic. His wife, Dr. Ginny McDonnell, observes herself living happily with a different partner. Samara Mehta watches her mother–who has been dead a month–prepare to sell the family house. And new resident Cass, a brilliant graduate student and new mother struggling to find balance, glimpses visions of herself pregnant.

The idea behind If, Then is fascinating, but the execution did not completely deliver. The book began with an interesting premise and the beginning was fueled by the question of the meaning of the visions and introduction of the characters.

Telling the story from four points of view provides variety and, in the case of the plot of this book, is absolutely necessary, but the characters are not all equally likable. And while I know it’s a reality for new parents, I did get tired of the descriptions of Cass’s baby’s incessant crying.

It seems clear that Kate Hope Day conducted careful research because there are meticulous details about Ginny’s surgeries and Mark’s research, but the narrative at times gets bogged down in these details, and they come at the expense of characterization. Some of the most interesting characters are secondary: Samara’s mother, Cass’s graduate advisor, and survivalist Harry, perhaps because they are among the few characters to have backstories.

With the lull in the middle of the book, I was hopeful the ending would provide a big payoff, but the denouement was rather anticlimactic and the visions and their “rules of engagement” weren’t consistent or explained.

If, Then is solidly written though and I think will appeal to readers who are interested in the “Theory of Everything” and the possibility of multiverses.

Thank you to NetGalley and Random House for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: THIS WILL BE MY UNDOING, an incisive book of essays

Jerkins, Morgan - This Will Be My Undoing (3)This Will Be My Undoing:
Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America
Morgan Jerkins

In This Will Be My Undoing, Morgan Jerkins combines incisive social commentary with revealing personal memoir to unabashedly portray the experience of a young black woman in the United States.

Her stories are heartbreaking. At ten, all she wanted was to be a cheerleader, and she threw herself into practice, but after tryouts, the new squad was comprised completely of white girls. Throughout her teens and twenties, she excelled academically and grew professionally, but did not achieve the relationship success she desired–in fact, she had a knack for choosing rather horrible men. Meanwhile, although ambivalent about the procedure, she had surgery for a painful hypertrophic labia minora. She was supported by her mother with whom she had a close bond as well as an evolving understanding of her relationship with God.

As she writes about her own experiences, Jerkins relates the particular constraints society has placed on her as a black women. Her body is problematic, sexualized, objectified, and a source of shame. She is expected to be the Strong Black Woman and bear all burdens. Yet at the same time, she cannot show any kinks in her armor. She explains the lengths she goes to perfect her hair: “black women are conscious of how much our appearances are scrutinized, so we painstakingly put ourselves through these beauty rituals to paradoxically create some kind of peace, to ‘fit in’ and therefore be left alone.” She feels she cannot make a mistake or someone (white) will conclude she is unworthy, that is not like them.

As a result, Jerkins writes about the importance of black spaces, of black writers publishing about their experiences, and of black women supporting each other. Finishing the book, I was angry on behalf of Jerkins and other black women, but also hopeful. At the same time, I was unclear how to be an ally. White women, of which I am one, were eviscerated in the book for either ignoring or appropriating the experiences of black women. While I totally understand that historically feminism has not excelled at understanding intersectionality, surely there is something allies can do. Although, maybe that thing is just to be active, supportive listeners.

Speaking of intersectionality, while I thought This Will Be My Undoing a well-written, engaging, and valuable essay collection, I was disappointed that Jerkins did not give more attention to the topic. A few times, she did mention there is no one way of being a black woman, but overall, she lapses into homogenization or stereotype when dealing with racial, ethnic, and gender groups. Her inability or unwillingness to complicate others often undercuts her arguments and positions her as uncompromising.

Finally, although I adore the title This Will Be My Undoing, I find it inappropriate for Jerkin’s book. What she faces as a black woman could be her undoing, but it is decidedly not. In fact, as she concludes the book, she celebrates not just the presence of black women in previously barred spaces, but their excellence. For those that wanted to subjugate her and others, “This was their nightmare and my joy. Surprise. You should have known I was coming.” This is the battle cry of someone not even on the verge of being undone, someone who is claiming all the places she deserves.

Book Review: AMERICAN SPY, stop what you are doing and read this, please

Wilkinson, Lauren - American SpyAmerican Spy
Lauren Wilkinson

American Spy is an espionage novel that transcends genre. Marie Mitchell, an FBI agent working in the late 1980s who was seconded to the CIA to help undermine the administration of popular communist prime minister of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara. After an assassin almost completes his mission to kill her, she retreats to her mother’s farm in Martinique with her four-year-old twin sons.

The novel takes the form of a letter Marie writes to her sons in 1992, shortly after their arrival in Martinique, so they will know her and understand her decisions that led them to that point. Her narrative shifts from her childhood in the 1960s, to her active years in the FBI/CIA in 1987, to her present.

Marie actually didn’t want to be a spy, but her older sister, Helene, knew from an early age that she didn’t just want to be a spy; she wanted to manage spies. Immediately following her high school graduation, she enlisted in the army to join the intelligence division. Her abrupt departure created a rift in the family which catalyzed much of Marie’s later behavior.

When she had a chance to join the FBI, she took a job as a field agent, but her race and gender sidelined her, and her ASAC limited her to recruiting and running agents instead of working on larger undercover operations which might advance her career. At the same time she was losing patience, CIA operative Ed Ross enlisted her to get close to Thomas Sankara (an actual historic figure). Participating in the operation may get her close to men who can provide answers to long-buried family secrets.

Though Sankara was a communist, he also was an environmentalist and advocated gender equality plus he’d made significant gains in children’s health and education. However, he resisted any overtures towards a multiparty democracy.

Marie admires Sankara’s accomplishments and is attracted to him physically, but she also has a mission to complete. Furthermore, she has her personal agenda. She struggles with how to reconcile her conflicting loyalties while protecting herself against those with seemingly unlimited power.

Wonderfully written and provocative, American Spy on one level offers a story about spycraft from the point of view of a marginalized agent tasked with undermining a target with whom she sympathizes. On another, it is about growing up black, particularly black and female, in the United States.

In a sense, we are all spies at one time or another, but for blacks in white culture, “hiding in plain sight” is often expected. This can create ripples of betrayal: betrayal of one’s authenticity, one’s intimates, one’s community, or one’s ideals. The first black undercover operatives in the FBI, for example, were used to infiltrate and discredit civil rights organizations.

As a result, spies are often isolated and mistrustful. In such a world populated with spies, can there ever be unadulterated love and justice? Marie hopes that in telling her truth to her sons, there might be hope.

Also, I cannot express how much I love the cover design for American Spy. It is fabulous!

Book Review: BRING ME BACK, mysterious signs of a long-disappeared fiancee strain a new engagement

Paris, BA - Bring Me BackBring Me Back
B.A. Paris

In Bring Me Back, a fast-paced psychological thriller, Finn McQuaid prepares to marry Ellen Gray, a beautiful and even-tempered illustrator–who just also happens to be the sister of Layla, his previous fiancée who went missing during a trip to France twelve years previously.

Shortly after they announced their engagement in the local paper, Ellen found a small matryoshka in their driveway, a doll that had special significance only to her and Layla. Finn, then, began receiving cryptic emails from someone using the name Rudolph Hill.

Ellen was convinced that Layla had returned; Finn, though, believed that a kidnapper was making contact or even that someone close to them was trying to manipulate his emotional state and halt the wedding.

As the gestures continued, Ellen questioned whether Finn really wanted her–or if he’d only loved Layla all along–and their marriage suffered as Finn slipped into obsession.

Bring Me Back is a perfect “palate cleanser” or airplane book. It’s easy to read and gripping, entertaining while not requiring much intellectual effort.

There are some cliches: the rich protagonist who doesn’t need to worry about work, the beautiful and perfect wife, and at times, the writing can be less than sophisticated, but that’s not really what I’m looking for in this genre of book. At times, the plot is a little unbelievable and contrived, but in this book, it worked for me, and I was satisfied with the ending.