America is over itself. What else can you assume, given the appetite for post-apocalyptic books and movies right now? Dystopia is the buzzword of the day. That’s not to say California, Edan Lepucki’s debut novel, isn’t interesting. It follows Frida and Cal, a couple who have escaped the violence and destruction of L.A. to live in the wilderness. But of course, the solitude is oppressive, and when they discover even the suggestion of others nearby, they have to investigate. It’s a provocative meditation on homesteading–the requirements of the body and those of the spirit. Lepucki’s message seems to be that when people are forced to rely on one another for survival–when there is no infrastructure, no social backup–no one is ever truly safe.
It’s a decent premise, but unfortunately the writing doesn’t quite live up to the book’s potential. The two main characters feel thoughtless and irresponsible, rather than conflicted and complex. Despite hearing all their thoughts, I never felt like I understood them. The tone of the book is also uneven–sometimes slow and monotonous, sometimes jarringly (misleadingly) suspenseful. And despite the implied promise of the suspenseful tone, the end lacks resolution. Recommended reading for devotees of the dystopian genre or back-to-the-land fanatics–others would do better to read the older masterpieces of the genre.
Read if you enjoyed: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, A Friend of the Earth by T.C. Boyle.
Find California at Multnomah County Library.
Astonish Me is a beautiful little novel, a brief treatise on love and art and talent, and also the unanswerable question of individual perspective. If one person sees you as brilliant and another sees you as mediocre, who is right? The story follows Joan, a classical ballet dancer who graduates high school in the 1970s and goes off to Paris to dance in a professional company. The story is both hers and not hers, as the choices she makes have far-reaching effects and long, permanent ripples in others’ lives. Shipstead weaves various themes throughout the narrative: the fetishization of the dancer’s body; the limits of natural ability; private life versus artistic life; and finally love and loyalty. If I have any complaint, it is that Joan’s neighbors are less three-dimensional people than hastily sketched plot devices. But the story isn’t about them–it is about the people in and around and near the ballet. Frankly, this book is begging to be adapted for a visual medium–many scenes include line after line of poses, steps, French phrases. They sound like an incantation, but as an outsider, there’s a level of understanding I can’t reach–an apt analogy for the story itself.
In any case, it is a lovely taste of the world of ballet, much darker and more heartless than I had imagined. Recommended reading for ballet aficionados, Russian defectors, and anyone whose reach exceeds their grasp.
Read if you enjoyed: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, Dancer by Colum McCann
Find Astonish Me at Multnomah County Library
This novel manages to pull off a tricky feat: through an alternating series of he-said, she-said chapters of varying reliability, it paints a vivid, complete picture of a complicated relationship. At its surface, it is a mystery about a woman who disappears. But that is merely the jumping-off point. It quickly delves into the manipulative intricacies of obsession, and how our personalities are shaped by outside pressures and internal forces. This is a gripping story, and one worth obsessing over.
Read if you enjoyed: Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King, Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow
Look for Gone Girl at Multnomah County Library .
Junot Díaz has the golden touch—so far, each of his books has been better than the last. Following Drown (his 1997 collection of short stories, one of which you can hear him read here) and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (a sweet, heartbreaking novel about a hopeless young man on a quest to find love), comes This Is How You Lose Her, a collection of short stories that almost reads like a chapter book. The stories all center on Yunior, a Dominican-American with a singular talent for screwing up relationships. That may sound like the makings of a comedy, but this book is nothing if not sincere. I found myself rooting for Yunior, even as I watched him take one misstep after another. Díaz’s prose is lyrical and authentic at the same time, honest and earnest and painful. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.
Read if you enjoyed: How the García Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez, Ten Little Indians by Sherman Alexie
Look for This Is How You Lose Her at Multnomah County Library.
Any group of friends, examined closely enough, is fascinating. The group at the heart of this novel, six people who meet as teenagers at an arts camp in the 1970s, decide through a mixture of hubris and ironic self-deprecation to dub themselves “the interestings.” And so they turn out to be, though not in the way they imagined. We see the group through the eyes of Jules Jacobson, an average girl with a comic spark that she might be able to parlay into the acting career of her dreams. The novel spans their lives from youth to middle age, follows the far-reaching consequences of a sudden, violent incident, and peers into the chasm between mediocrity, talent, and wasted potential.
Read if you enjoyed: The Group by Mary McCarthy, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Look for The Interestings at Multnomah County Library.