Goodnight, Beautiful Women – Anna Noyes

Noyes, Goodnight Beautiful Women jacket art 9780802124845
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Goodnight, Beautiful Women is a debut collection of eleven interconnected short narratives all revolving around young girls and burgeoning women in coastal Maine. I would not call this a collection of short stories; rather, they are brief scenes that give an overall sense of the confusion of desires of young women on the verge of understanding the motives of men.

The writing in this collection is intense. Noyes’ imagery in these short narratives creates piercing anticipation. The scenes she creates are gripping from the outset, with familiar but haunting characters. I loved the fullness of the stories she wove. One of my favorites, “Drawing Blood”, was reminiscent of Sarah Waters’ historical fiction. The stories are all about relationships, between husbands and wives, or between mothers and daughters, or first loves. The stories are dark, melancholy, and without redemption, usually leaving the main character hopeless.

The thing about literary short stories, however, is that often they’re just not stories. The stories in Goodnight, Beautiful Women were scenes, or paintings, or like the beginning-middle chapters of a powerful novel. These stories present an overall mysterious feeling of depression, but they weren’t stories as I’m used to stories. I’m expecting a beginning/middle/end story arc, an enticing story with a satisfying denouement, and that is not what you get here. With each of these stories Noyes easily grabbed my heart with riveting beginnings and then left me, wilted and abandoned, wondering what happened.

Noyes definitely has the skill and literary chutzpah to pull off a great collection here, but if you’re like me and like resolution, you may be disappointed. I’m looking forward to her next work. Many thanks to Netgalley, Grove Atlantic, and Anna Noyes for the advance copy.

The Girls – Emma Cline

thegirls
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“That was part of being a girl – you were resigned to whatever feedback you’d get. If you got mad, you were crazy, and if you didn’t react, you were a bitch. The only thing you could do was smile from the corner they’d backed you into. Implicate yourself in the joke even if the joke was always on you.”

 

The Girls follows the ennui-filled life of 14-year-old Evie Boyd in the summer of 1969. Evie is neglected by her recently-divorced mother, and her father is too engrossed by his new mistress to devote any time to his daughter. Spending her days envying other girls and wandering around lost, she is completely enraptured by a new girl she meets, Suzanne, who is bohemian, care-free, and utterly unlike the Country Club boarding school set she’s known her entire life.

Suzanne practically kidnaps Evie while Evie is stranded on the side of the road with a broken bicycle. Evie is captivated with Suzanne’s lifestyle, and the other girls in the van, who speak of the god-like Russell and life at the Ranch, a compound in the middle of nowhere where they all live together and share each other’s clothes. Evie is blind to the brainwashing, oblivious to the dirt and starvation. All she sees is the wonderment of “love,” the friendships and acceptance, and the hypnotizing ways of Russell and those who only want to please him. The insecurities of adolescence make Evie susceptible to the seduction of the Ranch, and to Russell’s hold on everyone. At one point, Evie brings a new outsider to visit the Ranch, and doesn’t understand his revulsion at the poverty and complacency of the girls.

This story mirrors the cult of Charles Manson in the 1960s, but also presents the reader with an explanation as to how those who followed him could get sucked into the vortex of his control. The anguish of adolescence, the yearning for acceptance and desire to be desired, are what Evie wants above all else. She also falls prey to the fixation she has on Suzanne, a crushing obsession only teenagers experience. Murder is alluded to from the beginning, so no spoilers there. The reader knows it’s coming, but not to what extent.

Cline’s writing is adroit and spot-on. She doesn’t dwell on descriptions, but instead offers tiny glimpses of appearance that give the reader and overall picture quickly and specifically: the gravel ground into the knees of an unsupervised, dirty child at the Ranch; the shiny belt-buckle on the hippie, shirtless field hand; the split-ends and pitted fingernails of the cult girls. Evie is the girl on the outside, desperate to be on the inside, desperate to even be noticed.

This story was spellbinding. I highly recommend it.

Thanks to Netgalley, Emma Cline, and Random House for the advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

When Captain Flint was Still a Good Man -Nick Dybek

When Captain Flint was Still a Good Man will blow you away. I picked up the book based on the cover alone (I judged a book by its cover. For shame.)

All the men of Loyalty Island, a peninsula jutting into the Strait of Juan de Fuca that separates Canada and the United States, leave for the Bering Sea every season to catch crabs. While at sea, the men long for home; when home, they yearn to be back on the open ocean. This liminality pervades everyone’s life on Loyalty Island.

The story begins when John Gaunt, the patriarch and owner of the fleet, dies and leaves the crab industry in the hands of his college-educated, feckless son, Richard. Richard has never even been

captain flint
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to sea, and his misdirected rebellion against his father threatens the men of Loyalty Island. Richard plans to sell the fleet to the Japanese, and the fishermen take matters into their own hands. Teenage Cal is left picking up the pieces after his family’s way of life is shattered.The men of Loyalty Island find themselves going to immoral lengths they never thought possible to preserve their way of life, and Cal is left with a grave life-or-death secret.

When Captain Flint was Still a Good Man is salty, overcast, suspicious, brooding. The story takes place under the dark, roiling turmoil of moral dilemma and the question of how far one should go for filial duty. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Nick Dybek has writing chops, and it shows. Unlike many Workshoppers, Dybek’s writing is subtle and effective. I was drawn in and gave up every other book I was reading to devote all my eye-time to this. This story will haunt me for a long time.

Recommended for those readers who enjoyed The Shipping News, Sweetland, The Man in my Basement, and Mystic River.

 

Gushing over LAB GIRL

Where have I been?

Well, I applied to be a contributor to BookRiot, so I’m waiting to hear back to see if I’ve been accepted. Considering that their acceptance rate is about 20 out of the 1600 or so applications they receive, my chances are about as good as getting into Harvard Law. Worse, actually.

So, rather than leave you all in nail-biting anticipation of when I may post again, I’ve decided to gush about a book I’m super excited about that came out yesterday:  Lab Girl by Hope Jahren.

lab girl
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Part non-fiction science book about plants, trees, flowers, and soil, and part memoir, Lab Girl entails Dr. Jahren’s coming of age as a geobiologist. From the reviews I’ve read online, this book is perfect for scientists and non-scientists alike, especially those who like a little humor and human interest thrown in to their educational reading.

 

Currently a professor at the University of Hawaii, Jahran includes the stories of her lab work, relevant plant information that will interest even the passive naturalist (as I am), her upbringing in Minnesota, her marriage, and her symbiotic relationship and scientific capers with her lab manager, Bill Hagopian. Most importantly, Jahren addresses her struggle with manic-depression and how she manages to pursue her scientific passions without losing sight of her priorities. I haven’t read her book yet and I already think I want to be BFFs.

As a former lab girl myself, I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy.

I applied to NetGalley to be a reviewer for this book, but, alas, the publisher turned me down. NetGalley so placatingly suggested that this may be because I’m American and am therefore “outside the UK publisher’s territories” (translation: a dumb colonial). Heads up, UK publisher: Americans read books, even books from the UK. This is probably not the reason for the stiff-upper-lip UK “territorial” refusal of Little, Brown, considering the US book edition that just came out is published by Knopf (last I checked, Broadway NYC  is not in the UK), but thanks, NetGalley, for the tea and sympathy. I’m still going to read the book. In the meantime, until I hear from BookRiot, I will keep hurling my bookish thoughts into the ether à la Carl Sagan’s Voyager Golden Record. Perhaps if I also include “hello” in 55 human languages more people may read my blog. Just an idea.

Other books you might want to check out if Lab Girl interests you:

Wild – Cheryl Strayed      Find it on Goodreads

wild

A Garden of Marvels: How We Discovered that Plants Have Sex, Leaves Eat Air, and Other Secrets of Plants – Ruth Kassinger      Find it on Goodreads

marvels

 

 

The Blue Bath – Mary Waters-Sayer

bluebathThanks to NetGalley, Mary Waters-Sayer, and St. Martin’s Press for the opportunity to read this book in advance and provide an honest review.

The Blue Bath is an absorbing, tumultuous read from debut author Mary Waters-Sayer. The story centers around Kat Lind, a middle-aged, married mom recently returned to London after the death of her mother. Her days are filled with the mundane: renovating her newly-acquired aging English mansion, taking care of her son, Will, and occasionally speaking on the phone to her businessman husband calling from Hong Kong. Kat’s life is up-ended when her former lover, Daniel Blake, shows up in London to display his new paintings at a show at the prestigious Mayfair Gallery. Kat surreptitiously attends the show, hoping to catch a glimpse of Daniel from afar. She is astounded to discover that all the paintings are of her, young and beautiful, from their long-ago love affair in Paris. The affair ended abruptly, but apparently never really died.

Water-Sayers’ writing is exceptional. There are some philosophical passages in this book with thought-provoking ideas. I also got a striking sense of place in her descriptions of both London and Paris, which became characters unto themselves.  She focused on small wonders: the morphing shadows on the wall, the strength of a tendon in a wrist, the delicateness of light. I appreciated the attention to detail, and how these small details add up to a whole picture.

The story goes back and forth between Kat’s present life in London and her short time in Paris when she was 19 and lived with Daniel. The book is never explicit; sex is implied, or begun and then skipped over. This approach actually enhanced the romance of the story, as Kat and Daniel’s relationship was more about the beauty they saw in one another. Water-Sayers doesn’t dwell on plot points, but often just hints at backstory and lets the reader fill in the details.

The only complaint I have about this book is that Daniel was not fully fleshed out. I needed more from him, more about him, more dialog from him. When he first meets Kat, there is instant attraction, though he only speaks in practiced phrases or profound statements. There is little motivation for their initial relationship, other than this undeniable, inexplicable force of attraction. They have no conflict, just dreamy Paris days spent languishing in bed together, surviving on minimal food and charcoal sketches. We never get any normal, everyday talk from Daniel. He’s too far above, too mysterious and deep, which is unbelievable for a love affair that would last more than 24 hours. But it still made for an enjoyable story.

Kat wants to hide her identity as the girl in the paintings, especially when Daniel begins painting her as she is 20 years later. If she’s discovered, she could lose everything, but being truly “seen” by Daniel is the purest form of love she’s ever known. Can she give that up?

Water-Sayers deftly weaves in recurring themes into this book: outsiders can never understand the nature of a relationship, what others see in you may not be what you see, the core of your beauty is what is seen when someone loves you.

If you love Paris, London, art, or first loves, this is the book you should pick up next. This is not some sappy romance. The Blue Bath is best for experienced readers who have had a relationship or two, readers who will appreciate the conflict between the pull of the comfort of security and the lure of nostalgia. I look forward to reading Water-Sayers’s next book!

 

 

 

A Good School – Richard Yates

a good schoolI am a total sucker for prep school stories, and A Good School doesn’t disappoint. Yates delves into the private lives of the prep school boys and their disillusioned professors without the pitfalls of sentimentality or melodrama. There is no doubt that the tales related in this novel are semi-autobiographical.

Set in early 1940s Connecticut at a second-tier boys’ school, Dorset Academy, A Good School mainly follows the newly-admitted-at-reduced-tuition Bill Grove. Pigeon-chested from a family of divorce, Grove is a lackluster student who only thrives while working on the school paper. So many adolescent concerns are addressed here: trying to break in as the “new kid,” wanting to be besties with another boy and not knowing how to handle it without being smothering, being smothered by another boy who thinks you’re the bees knees, all while trying to pass French and find a tuxedo for the dance. The sexual hazing is fierce at Dorset, and there is a touching scene with a boy and his father who are both trying to accept it and move past the humiliation. These stories all happen under the threatening future that as soon as they graduate, they will be fighting in the war.

There are several privileged rich boys at Dorset, but, much to the surprise of many professors, there are several boys in attendance from lower-income households as well. It comes as no surprise, then, that Dorset is in bankruptcy. These boys and their parents are clinging with a tenuous grasp to the idea that Dorset is still “a good school.”

This is mostly a coming-of-age tale, although Yates also includes the stories of some of the professors: the cuckolded handicapped professor, the nonchalant French professor doing the cuckolding, the sexual awakening of Dr. Stone’s blossoming daughter. These stories present a well-rounded view of Dorset Academy, but also touch on the human condition, and include the failings and unwitting triumphs of these men struggling to find purpose at a floundering institution.

The closure of the school, and the final chapters that focus on Bill Grove reminiscing about his time at Dorset, are under the shadow of a sense of resignation and anguish, but also nostalgia.

This a fun story with dark undertones. Highly recommended.

 

 

 

The Burgess Boys – A review

burgessboys

Compared to Strout’s other novels that I’ve read, the famous Olive Kitteridge, Amy and Isabelle, and, most recently, My Name is Lucy Barton, The Burgess Boys was a disappointment. This novel will not let you down if you’re seeking relatable character development and subtly crafted family dysfunction that Strout adroitly molds into her novels; however, this one fell flat for me.

Based on the flap copy, I expected this story to focus on the inflammatory tale of a young boy, Zach, arrested for throwing a pig’s head into a mosque in a small town in Maine, and the racially-divided townspeople’s reactions to this hate crime. Strout introduces some Somali characters here, but never takes them anywhere, and occasionally drops in mild epithets to explain the complacent attitudes of the Mainers towards the immigrant Somalis, but that’s as far as it goes. This aspect of the story just eventually faded into nowhere. Instead, Strout takes a left turn and begins to explore the relationships among Zach’s mother, Susan, and her two brothers, Jim and Bob.

The Susan/Jim/Bob dysfunction was mildly interesting, but not nearly as introspective as the relationships explored in Strout’s other work. These characters were slightly more one-dimensional: the difficult sister, the ignored but has a heart of gold middle brother, the asshole litigator eldest brother. I didn’t really care for any of them. The minor characters were much more fascinating – the Somali refuge, the woman minister whose aims are only vaguely described, Bob’s conflicted ex-wife. Those characters would have possibly made a more interesting story than the trio of Maine upper-middle-classers dealing with a long ago family tragedy.

My main complaint with this book? Jim was a self-indulgent, insecure, arrogant asshole and everyone kowtowed to him. Over and over and over again. “It’s okay, Jim, we know that you were rude to everyone, but you’ve had a difficult time keeping up with all your lies. Poor Jim! Come here and give me a hug!”

Kill him, already. Come on, Bob, throw a drink in his face. Kick him out, Susan, and slash his tires. I kept waiting for this to happen and it never did. It left me exhaling at the end with a “that’s it?” expression on my face.

If you’ve never read Strout, start with Olive Kitteridge or Amy and Isabelle. They’re both awe-inspiring. Try this one if you’re a die-hard fan, as I am. I’ll keep reading anything she puts on paper and I’d love to take her out for tea. Call me, Elizabeth, I still love you!