Category Archives: american literature

Review: Cascade by Maryanne O’Hara

24th May 2013

pg1*This book was sent to me by the publisher Penguin in exchange for an honest review in coordination with Historical Fiction Virtual Author Tours.

In 1934, Cascade, Massachusetts holds tight to its vestiges of glamour. Once the place of a thriving Shakespearean theater where a young Rudolph Valentino graced the stage, the Crash has tarnished the appearance of the once-glitzy resort town.

Desdamona Hart Spaulding, the daughter of the theater’s owner, has left her dreams of a career in art and returned to care for her ailing and bankrupt father, marrying a local who has loved her for quite some time, Asa, in a move she quickly regrets. Once her father dies, Dez realizes just how provincial her life in Cascade will remain, particularly with the theater languishing and the town facing flooding to create a new reservoir.

When Jacob Solomon first appears on her property, commenting on Dez’s painting, Dez recognizes a kindred spirit, and her desire to be free takes over.

Charlie mentions in her review that the word “cascade” refers not only to the falls for which the town is named but also for the overwhelming emotion Dez experiences throughout the novel, and I think that’s apt. Jacob and his weekly meetings with her energize Dez. The two talk about art and artists, techniques and tools, the time flying by. She begins to romanticize their encounters until she obsesses over his visits.

Dez talks quite a bit about responsibility – her responsibility as a wife, a daughter, a citizen of Cascade – but ultimately, what wins out is her responsibility to her art. It’s a bold decision, as Dez leaves a good man, a man who cares for her, in order to pursue this life. O’Hara doesn’t help Dez either, making Asa out to be a hillbilly or a cad. Instead, he’s a stand-up guy and one that, even as you know it’s right for Dez to leave, you hurt for.

Though Jacob Solomon is ostensibly who Dez loves, I did feel that he’s just a means to an end. Dez wants to leave Asa and Cascade but cannot seem to leave just to paint and live in New York without something else propelling her forward. In fact, my one complaint would be that I wish Dez would have been able to acknowledge that. There was nothing to Jacob and Dez’s relationship that felt concrete or significant enough to have haunted her for as long as it does.

In some ways, Cascade reminded me of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub – the theater, the doting father, the failing marriage. Plus, both are interesting examinations of women who make nontraditional choices in order to forge a life for themselves.

Dez is selfish, but I think O’Hara explores the negative connotation of that word quite well. Dez sacrifices her marriage, her father’s legacy, and, though it isn’t all down to her, the fate of her town for her own gain. And if asked, I doubt she’d regret it.

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Review: Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara

7th May 2013

pg1*This book was sent to me by the publisher, Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, in exchange for an honest review.

In one of the greatest scenes I’ve read in recent memory, Julian English fantasizes about throwing his drink in the face of Harry Reilly. What has Harry done? Nothing, really. But at this particular dance, Harry Reilly tells story after story, and it’s not just that – Harry has a specific method to his storytelling, mannerisms of which Julian tires. But he dissuades himself, reminding himself that Harry has loaned him quite a bit of money to pull Julian out of a pinch at the Cadillac dealership. Plus, Julian’s afraid people might think it’s because Harry dotes on Julian’s wife, Caroline.

The narrative passes, and then one partygoer tells another that Julian did indeed toss his drink into Harry Reilly’s face, and as the inside of the book says, “in one rash moment born inside a highball glass, Julian breaks with polite society and begins a rapid descent toward self-destruction.”

Just a small indiscretion in the scheme of things, really, but in 1930s suburban Pennsylvania, Julian’s action threatens to topple the carefully placed house of cards that the city of Gibbsville and its elite have created. In a society where single men and women are paired off based on their looks and prospects, and the society page lists who attended whose party, Julian has willfully placed himself outside the rules, and O’Hara depicts Julian’s existential crisis in brilliant moments of stream of consciousness and internal monologue. As Julian remarks at one point, there are other, worse indiscretions – affairs conducted under the nose of one’s wife; domestic abuse; suicide – but those are one offs. Julian English’s breach is not just societal; it’s seen as evidence of English’s hatred of Catholics (Reilly is a Catholic), as evidence of his snobbishness, as his place is higher than that of Reilly’s.

John O’Hara is near brutal in his descriptions of the various characters in Appointment in Samarra – deftly describing a well-respected doctor and a small-time whiskey runner in equally harsh light. Even Julian’s wife, the lovely and admired Caroline, doesn’t escape his ire. Though she loves her husband, she’s much too concerned with the demise of the couple’s social status to concern herself with her husband’s rapid descent. Yet even in O’Hara’s bald depictions of these people, there is sympathy, to the end. For, if any people were more a product of the times, it’s the Gibbsville set. Bound by their conventions but expected to be young and free and daring, the men and women in Appointment in Samarra are, much like the title of the book, destined to burn quick and bright before meeting their fates.

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Review: An Uncommon Education by Elizabeth Percer

5th February 2013

Via Goodreads

Via Goodreads

*I received this book from the publisher Harper Perennial in exchange for an honest review.

Naomi is an odd child without many friends. Her father has a heart attack when she is young, holding onto her as he falls to the ground. Her mother has always been fragile, but when the reality of her father’s mortality strikes her, Naomi decides to become a doctor, receiving a copy of Gray’s Anatomy for her tenth birthday. Unlike some childhood career aspirations, Naomi’s doesn’t fade. Her photographic memory causes her problems in school, so when Teddy moves in next door, the two become fast friends. They forge a friendship, understanding the threat of loss, as Teddy’s father has a heart condition that makes him very ill. When her closest confidant moves away suddenly, Naomi bears it but doesn’t recover, apparently still unable, or disinterested, in making friends.

College is another chance for her, but Naomi finds Wellesley every bit as lonely as high school, filled with competitive girls, girls who pass one another on walks while studiously staring at anything but one another. Her solitude isn’t a welcome one, but an inauspicious meeting introduces her to Shakespeare Society, an enigmatic group full of odd, brash women who welcome Naomi. Here, even among women who slightly unnerve her, Naomi begins to make friends, and for a young woman who has only ever had one true friend, the society consumes her, making her reexamine who she is and what she wants.

If you’ve ever read a novel that you should like – it has all the elements that typically make a great novel for you – but didn’t like, then you can understand my dilemma. An Uncommon Education by Elizabeth Percer was that sort of book for me (and apparently others, too, if you check out Goodreads). An independent young girl is an introvert but loves learning and winds up at Wellesley, inducted into the notorious Shakespeare Society. I thought: yes, yes, and more yes!

But this novel struggles with a distinct lack of emotion. Not that there isn’t emotion, but the characters feel so wooden and distant, that I couldn’t empathize. I think the biggest problem is that Naomi never feels all that real. Her best friend moves away, and she comes close to visiting once but stops herself. As devastated as she is by his absence, even as an adult, she doesn’t try to find him but just leaves the loss of him as an open wound. As someone who moved away from friends and had close friends move away, I understood some of this, but as a young adult, those losses didn’t mar my happiness. They didn’t cause me not to make friends. Plus, after Naomi’s father recovers, he’s essentially fine. Yet Naomi can’t seem to quite ever get over that moment. Percer seems to be positing that Naomi isn’t truly happy unless she’s a caregiver, as Naomi says: Perhaps the strongest of these convictions, and the one it took the longest to let go of, was that believing that I needed to save those I loved from harm also meant that I could.” But the prose never really teases out why that’s a problem.

Here’s the deal: if you write a story about an intelligent man or woman privileged enough to attend a private, esteemed university without severe monetary problems or the necessity of working, there needs to be some draw, some real reason for me to relate and care about that character, and frankly, Naomi never felt fleshed out enough for me to do either.

But don’t take my word for it. These bloggers loved this book:

Nomad Reader

Dolce Belleza

Linus’s Blanket

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Review: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

30th January 2013

Via Goodreads

Via Goodreads

…America had picked up the globe by the heels and shaken the change from its pockets….So all of us were drunk to some degree. We launched ourselves into the evening like satellites and orbited the city two miles above the Earth, powered by failing foreign currencies and finely filtered spirits. We shouted over the dinner tables and slipped away into empty rooms with each other’s spouses, carousing with all the enthusiasm and indiscretion of Greek gods. And in the morning, we woke at 6:30 on the dot, clearheaded and optimistic, ready to resume our places behind the stainless steel desks at the helm of the world.

Though this quote opens the novel in the 1960s, it’s apt for just about any generation, and it’s so lovely, so absolutely sad and lovely, that I had to include it, though it’s a bit long.

At a Walker Evans photography show in the 60s, Katey Kontent sees two photographs of Tinker Grey, one where he’s gaunt and very obviously broke and another where he’s dressed to the nines, handsome and smiling. Katey tells her husband she once knew him, and he points out that Tinker must have done well for himself when Katey corrects him and tells him the latter picture was in 1938, the former in 1939.

Katey then recalls the fateful night she met Tinker Grey in a Greenwich Village jazz bar, New Year’s Eve, 1937. One night of fun and champagne, and both Katey and her best friend Eve are smitten with Tinker’s charm and his obvious affluence. There is a desperation, particularly in Eve, that makes each scene with her feel electrified. When the three are together in a horrible accident, they are separated, unable to relate to one another, Eve’s electricity pitch high. On her own and a bit in love with Tinker, Katey thrives without Eve, meeting new people and slowly coming into her own.

This is the kind of New York City tale I love. Poor girl tries hard, and with a bit of grit, gains a whole lot of glamour. The descriptions of the girls and their rooms reminded me of the 1937 RKO film Stage Door, in which Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, and Lucille Ball all make appearances as aspiring actresses. Here, as in that film, Katey and Eve are young and flippant, full of sharp dialogue and sharper dreams.

And if you couldn’t already tell, I adored this book.

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Review: The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

23rd October 2012

*I received this book from the publisher Grand Central Publishing at BEA 2012.

Edie Middlestein is eating herself to death. As a child, she’s taught that food equals love, her mother passing her bread when she’s hurt, and as Edie grows in age and size, she can’t stop herself eating. Her mother and father died when she was a young adult, leaving her to marry one of the first men she dates: Richard. Thirty years later, Edie is over 300 pounds and still can’t stop eating. Diabetic and in failing health, her crisis evident to her family, Edie’s life is falling apart. Richard leaves, eager to escape and unable to watch Edie’s decline. Her daughter Robin, intense and alone, visits rarely. Her son Benny is married to Rachelle and has twins, twins conceived before the two were married.

Obsession runs throughout this book, in a variety of ways that are only evident as each story comes together. These characters are single minded, particularly Rachelle who becomes so obsessed with her mother-in-law’s health that she structures her family’s meals into health food manifestos, leaving nothing to taste and ironically, doing the opposite of what Edie’s own mother did for her. In her stringency, Rachelle leaves her family feeling unloved.

Richard, sad and missing the Edie he once loved, bears the brunt of it. Leaving Edie when she’s sick is the ultimate betrayal, and his daughter and daughter-in-law want nothing to do with him. His son, his caring, sweet son doesn’t quite feel the same, but he’s not sure why. In fact, no one in this family is quite sure why they care so much, except that they know they’re supposed to.

In the realm of family dramas, this one has a bit more heart, but even with an omniscient narrator, its main family members sometimes seem unknowable and flat. The prose, too, suffers, at times feeling a bit forced, like in this passage from Edie’s boyfriend, Kenneth alluding to William Carlos Williams’ poem:

He grasped desperately for another poem he had memorized once, the exact lines of which eluded him. It had something to do with an icebox and plums and being sorry for eating them, even though the person speaking in the poem was clearly not sorry at all. It had always felt like a joke to him. The funny poems were usually the ones he remembered. It still felt like a joke now. It read like a note you would leave someone on the kitchen table when you were walking out the door and never coming back.

Then other times, the observations are near painful in their loveliness, as in this line from Edie’s granddaughter Emily:

She pitied him for his blindness, and she envied him for his freedom, and if she had known just a few months before, during more innocent times, that she would feel that way for the rest of her life, not just about Josh but about a lot of people in the world, which is to say (in a polite way) conflicted, she would have treasured those unaware, nonjudgmental, preadolescent moments more thoroughly…Because once you know, once you really know how the world works, you can’t unknow it.

In the end, The Middlesteins embodies the idea that we don’t choose our families, and that, if anything, that lack of choice stains our relationships, constantly making us question and validate our connections to one another.

P.S. Check out others’ opinions on Goodreads.