“His Favorites by Kate Walbert

Genre:          General Fiction   His Favorites
Publisher:    Scribner
Pub. Date:   Aug. 14, 2018

“His Favorites” is a slice of life story about the wealthy with two different plotlines connected by the female protagonist, Jo.  It is written by the acclaimed American author Kate Walbert.  Similar to Curtis Sittenfeld’s debut novel, “Prep,” this tale is a powerful coming of age story that spotlights (no matter how rich you are) the vulnerability and powerlessness of female girls.  Unlike “Prep,” there is no laughter in “Favorites.”  This is a sad story which might have been easier to read with a little tension-cutting humor.  Walbert is also writing on the same female issues that follow girls into womanhood.  The story is narrated by an adult Jo, who is recounting painful memories.  In the 1970s, she was twice traumatized.

At fifteen, she and her two childhood best friends go on a drunken joyride in a golf cart. Jo is the driver.   The ride ends tragically when the golf cart flips over.  Two girls are left laughing and the third girl is left dead.  The author asks the reader to question if the tragedy is a type of privileged entrapment.  The girls are usually unsupervised.  They live on the grounds of a country club.   They know where the golf cart keys are kept.  Did Jo really do anything that most teens in her position wouldn’t have done?   I don’t think so, do you?  Nevertheless, after the death of her friend, Jo becomes the neighborhood’s version of a human pariah—Avoided.  Detested.  The dead girl’s mother, who is like a second mother to Jo, spits on her.  Her parents pretty much desert her.  Scared, alone, grieving her friend and brimming with endless guilt, she is sent off to a boarding school in New England.  I felt real anger at how heartlessly Jo is punished for being a teenager.

The second plotline begins at the boarding school.  It feels as if Jo is once again set up by affluent adults.   Isolated from family and friends she is easy pickings to become the next favorite (there are/were many) of her 34-year-old male teacher.  She has an unwanted sexual relationship with him.  The author now goes into society’s sexual unfavorable biases towards females of all ages.  She nails why Jo or the other girls didn’t say anything to the school’s authorities about their teacher’s sexual misconduct.  Who would believe them?  He is a powerful man and an academic award-winning teacher.  Who would believe them?  Everyone knows that girls and women have embellished imaginations. Who would believe them?  None of the girls actually said no.  They were so manipulated into the relationship that they themselves never realized that they were abused.  Of course, they were but, The Me Too Movement is decades away.  Hopefully, the days of powerful men getting off scot-free are nearing an end.

The reader never learns how adult Jo coped living with so much undeserved shame.  Was the rest of her life a wipeout like another one of the professor’s favorites?   Adult Jo has an unexpected encounter with her.  The other favorite now suffers from a cocaine problem.  (Possible Spoiler) After this meeting, the author teases the reader with the idea, ‘that the power might finally be in Jo’s hands.’  But, we really don’t know.   I have mixed feelings on the novel’s conclusion.  I think I would have preferred going back full circle to the story’s beginning with an explained ending.  But then again, Walbert’s ending gives me food for thought.  In a weird way, it is similar to the last scene in the last episode of another fictional wealthy family—“The Sopranos.”  Does, Tony live or doesn’t he?  We are left with the same question regarding Jo.

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I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“With Shuddering Fall” by Joyce Carol Oates

Genre:          Literary Gothicwith shuddering
Publisher:    Vanguard Press
Pub. Year:    1964

It was such a joy to find Joyce Carol Oates’ debut novel, “With Shuddering Fall.”  She is an all-time favorite author of mine.   Written in 1964, when the author was in her mid-twenties, the novel does not disappoint.   In a previous review of  “Night-Gaunts,” 2018, I wrote that a recurring theme in her work is the abuse of women, as portrayed in  “Do With Me What You Will,” 1973,  “We Were the Mulvaneys,” 2002, “The Gravedigger’s Daughter,” 2007, “Blonde: A Novel, 2009,” “The Sacrifice”, 2016.  I have read them all. They are flawless.  (I admit that when I read her memoir, “A Widow’s Story,” 2011, I was surprised to see how very ordinary her own marriage was).   So I wasn’t overly surprised to read that she began her career on a theme that we have come to associate with this author— a dark tale of two lovers entwined in sexual chaos.

On Oct. 25, 1964, the NY Times reviewed “Shuddering” and wrote of the female protagonist,Karen Herz at 17 is fragilely beautiful, and, as she herself recognizes, a little “queer in the head.” Her impulses are ungovernable; her whims must be carried to the limit.”   Her being queer in the head actually reads as if she may be autistic. If she is autistic, I did wonder if Karen embraces a twisted love affair as a means to feel. I have no idea if that is how Oates meant for her character to present, but that is my take on Karen.  Her born angry 30-year-old racecar driving lover is Shar.   He appears to have a death wish.  There is little doubt that his violent occupation symbolizes their relationship.  Karen marries Shar and things go from bad to worse.  Remember the Billie Holliday song “My Man?”  “My life is just despair, but I don’t care, He beats me, too, what can I do?” Well, that can be Karen singing about her man Shar.  But then again, Shar’s feelings about Karen are just as bizarre.  He literally cannot live with her (he never was a one-woman kind of guy) or without her (he stays since he is obsessed that he cannot bring her to sexual orgasm).  There is a constant struggle of brutality and indifference between them.

Although the story may revolve around sex her prose is never porn-like.  The Times reviewer also wrote, “This material is not as garish as it sounds _because of the clarity, grace, and intelligence of the writing.”  For Oates to pull this off at such a tender age is nothing short of amazing.  This does not mean “Shuddering” is flawless.  The story can wander off at certain times with unneeded subplots, which detract from the real tale.   She was still in the process of learning her craft.

So why does Oates’ unwavering theme on the abuse of women keep working for her?  I believe it is her willingness to unabashedly dive into the darkest cavity of the human psyche.  And let’s face it—such tales are fascinating to read.  She always seems to ask the question just what is insanity?  Aren’t we all just a little scared to find bits of ourselves in her unstable characters?  You might cringe, but Oates has a unique voice and is one hell of a storyteller.

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“Wunderland” by Jennifer Cody Epstein

Genre:         Historical FictionWonderland
Publisher:    Crown Publishing
Pub. Date:   April 23, 2019

Though I found “Wunderland” to be a letdown, this may be my own fault. The author, Jennifer Cody Epstein, has written for BCHBO, and The Wall Street Journal, among other prestigious journals.   Because of her credentials, maybe I was expecting something unusually good and/or different.  Or, possibly my disappointment may be because historical fiction is my favorite genre.  I may have simply read one too many WWII stories revolving around the Hitler Youth movement. Nevertheless, surprisingly, I did not feel the empathy and rage that I should have when the persecution of the German Jews began in this novel.

The story goes back and forth in time from 1933 to 1989.  In 1933, we are in Berlin and meet two preteen and then teenage female best friends.  In 1986, we are in the East Village and we meet the grown daughter of one of the Berlin friends who is estranged from her mother. The daughter has no idea who her father is and her mother is still mum on the subject.  There is some suspense as to her paternal parentage.  Could she be the daughter of a nameless Nazi?  Was her mom part of the breeding program wherein German women were impregnated to produce children of alleged Aryan purity?   Unfortunately, the writing is underwhelming, making the reader not invested in the question.  I do believe that Cody Epstein does a good job in catching the dynamics of female teenage friendships (competition for a boy’s interest) as well as mother/daughter relationships (always knowing how to push each other’s buttons).  But, this insight into relations is not enough to hold the reader’s interest long enough to care about the characters.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“The Sentinel” by Jeffrey Konvitz

Genre:           Horror FictionThe Sentenal
Publisher:     Ballantine Books
Pub. Year:     1974

My Halloween book for 2018 was written in 1974 by Jeffrey Konvitz.  I read this book the year after I graduated high school (dating myself) and I remember it scaring the bejesus out of me.  I was wondering if it still could. It did, but with noticeable flaws.  As a teen in 1968, I read “Rosemary’s Baby.”  And in 1973, I read “The Exorcist.”  Both books better stand the test of time than this one did.  I can see what attracted me back then to the “Sentinel.”   As a native New Yorker, I enjoyed that the setting takes place in the Big Apple.   The teenage me would have found the protagonist, a beautiful-but-troubled fashion model to be a fascinating character simply because she was a model.

Here is a snapshot of the plot.  The heroine moves into an old brownstone building and befriends the other occupants who are bizarrely eccentric.  Sounds like “Rosemary’s Baby” right?  Wrong—I actually found these neighbors even spookier (possible spoiler) because the reader is not sure if they truly exist or are part of the model’s imagination.  The house is inhabited on the top floor by a reclusive blind Catholic priest, who may or may not be evil.   He spends his time sitting at his open window.  Yes, such a thought can still scare the Catholic schoolgirl in me.  Is our heroine crazy or is she in hell?  The book also has an unsolved murder in its plot.  This would be the deceased wife of our heroine’s boyfriend.  I can’t say anymore about him or it would be a spoiler.

So why didn’t this book stand the test of time?  First of all, as an adult, I was pissed off that her loving boyfriend uses his hands on her.   Plus, her abusive father is written as such an insane deviant, he is not a believable character. Not to mention that a lesbian couple are referred to as perverts.   Okay, there was no PC in the 1970s hopefully we have all grown since then.  But what bothered me most was how the story’s lewdness seems to have been written for shock value only and that seldom works.  Maybe I am being too critical.   Stephen King’s “Carrie,” which was published in 1973, also had a crazy religious fanatic parent who beats her daughter.  I guess I need to reread King’s first novel to see if it also feels dated.  Still, I feel that “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Exorcist” are superior to “Sentinel” because, like another King novel “The Stand,” they are basically fables about good vs. evil, which means we are talking about the Bible. According to the March 2007 “Time” edition “the Bible has done more to shape literature, history, entertainment, and culture than any book ever written. Its influence on world history is unparalleled, and shows no signs of abating.”  Now that is staying power. And let’s face it: when it comes to horror inspired by the bible nothing is more terrifying.

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