“Alternate Side” by Anna Quindlen

Genre:          Literary Fiction
Publisher:    Random HouseAlternate Side
Pub. Date:    March 2018

The author, Anna Quindlen, writes something you do not often find: bestseller literary fiction.  Most books on the bestseller list are usually commercial fiction, not literary.  Both types of fiction require talent.  But the aim of commercial fiction is entertainment.  The aim of literary fiction is art.  Generally, there is a more attention to style.  Also, the plot is usually less obvious.  I’m a big fan of literary fiction.  In Quindlen’s novel, “Alternate Side” (referring to alternate side parking) you will find a good example of such a style.

She writes about the residents who live on a dead-end block in New York City where all own their brownstones.  Each brownstone belongs to a single family.   If you are a New Yorker, you know that only the ultra rich can afford to own a house in Manhattan.  We meet a husband, wife, their college-aged twins and their Australian sheepdog.  The story goes back and forth in time.  We read about when the couple met in college.  They move into NYC, because of its hip reputation.   They do not have any money so they live in closet-sized rooms in cockroach infested buildings.  Even with the lack of space, and the pesky bugs, they fall in love with the city.    By the time they are in their 50s, they are overly privileged and their marriage is in trouble.  (Next sentence is a spoiler).  The marriage dissolves without any major blowups, or indiscretions, but simply because they have nothing left to say to one another.  Plus, the husband is ready to move out of the city and the wife’s love affair with the Big Apple is as strong as when they were young.  “There ain’t no good guy, there ain’t no bad guy.  There’s only you and me and we just disagree”

Their block is a tight-knit community.  They are excited when a new puppy arrives on the dead-end and mourn with the owner when a pet dies.  They have an annual summer barbecue, one with a police permit, not like those in other, less desirable, neighborhoods.   One resident throws an elaborate, yearly Christmas party.   At this time of year, all put wreaths on their door.  That is how you can tell if someone is renting: no wreath.  The owners don’t mingle with the renters but are welcoming when the owners return.  But not all are rich city snobs as it may sound.  Our wife knows that the block’s Latino handyman’s kids have colds.   She goes to his apartment in the Bronx to give him their unused humidifier.  She is disturbed to see how different he acts in his own neighborhood.  Before he sees her, his walk has a swagger.  She notices how, when not in his uniform, he dresses cool and loose, sporting a leather jacket.  When he does recognize her, he adjusts his posture into a meek manner and humbly addresses her as “Missus.”  They are both embarrassed and she wishes she never entered his domain.  As a one-time social worker who did home visits, I know this class difference embarrassment.  The author does such a good job with this moment.  She isn’t shy about it at all.  I cringed.

Despite being so friendly, we learn that not all the owners are so fond of each other.  Still, they are loyal and keep each other’s secrets. At parties, a dignified older woman is usually fall-down drunk.  No one gossips about her drinking problem.  When she goes away for a month or so, no one asks any embarrassing questions.  One self-appointed resident makes himself the official rule man on the block, sending the others’ silly emails regarding what is and isn’t acceptable.  They tolerate him but inside their own homes they are laughing at his made-up rules.  There is one guy known for his explosive temper.  Oddly, he is married to a psychotherapist.  Still, no one questions why a woman who helps others for a living is not capable of helping herself and stays married to a creep.

If you are familiar with alternate side parking in NYC, you know that people have been known to sleep in their car to ensure that they move their car at the set time to  have a space in the morning.   Before the couple arrived, one of the dead-end’s brownstones burned down, and the owner chose not to rebuild.  The other residents turn the space into a small parking lot for the block only.  The lot is not large enough to accommodate all residents.  You have to earn it.  The author doesn’t explain how one earns it, but income is implied.  The husband is so thrilled with getting the spot that he sends his kids a text with a picture of their car in the lot.  He feels he has finally made it into the big-time.  There is an act of violence that happens around this parking lot and the community begins to show their true feelings about their neighbors.  Stewing class and racial tensions boil over when an arrogant, rich, white lawyer resident (spoiler) hits the handyman in the leg with a golf club for blocking the entrance to the parking lot.   When the handyman is in the hospital, it becomes clear that some genuinely like the guy.   Others see him only as the hired help.  After the incident, arguments break out.

This novel is a great slice-of-life story on a large canvas.  Slowly, you begin to realize that the married couple are not the real protagonists after all.  The story is really about the enviable dead-end block, which turns into a metaphor of a divided city.  The author is subtle.   Still, you start to understand how this novel is direct in other venues.  She never mentions politics, but I cannot help but think that recently the United States is making global headlines for being a divided country.  If you are not accustomed to literary fiction, you may find the book a bit slow for your tastes.   For me, a few paragraphs are too detailed reading more like a poem than a novel.   But overall, Quindlen’s narrative is a remarkable character study on the complexities of neighborhood, family, and political dynamics.

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

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“Night-Gaunts and Other Tales of Suspense” by Joyce Carol Oates

Pub. Date:          June 15, 2018
Publisher:          Night-Gaunts and Other Tales of SuspenseGrove Atlantic
Genre:                 Psychological Thriller

Joyce Carol Oates is a literary powerhouse. A recurring theme in her work is the abuse of women: “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. Oates is a favorite author of mine. I admit that when I read her memoir, “A Widow’s Story,” 2001, I was surprised to see how very ordinary her marriage was (her husband, Raymond Smith, is deceased).  Like most wives, she used to share many moments of her daily life with her husband. For Oates, this was about her 36 years as a professor in Princeton’s University creative writing program, where she was nicknamed dark lady of fiction.  “Widow” is filled with the pros and cons of a typical long-term (almost 50 year) marriage. How lost, angry and disoriented she felt after the death of her husband. I assumed incorrectly that her grief would be atypical and written with a screaming evil rage as if it were one of her novels. But it was simply Oates, writing as any other woman would to describe their feelings after the loss of a spouse. I chose to begin my review of Oates’ “Night-Gaunts and Other Tales of Suspense” with the above summary because all in the collection are, as the title suggests, dark. In this book, there are six previously published stories. All characters are written with a piercing, uncomfortable clarity that will terrify the reader more than once.

eleven-am (1)

“The Woman in the Window” was inspired by Edward Hopper’s painting titled “Eleven A.M., 1926.” Oates’ imagination turns a lovely and demure painting of female sexuality into a tale of suspense. We meet a naked woman, sitting in a window of her home, waiting for her married lover, where the time is always 11AM because that is when he will arrive. But he is always late. She is never naked for he feels that naked is a coarse word. She is always nude. She wears only a pair of high-heeled shoes. After years of this arrangement, both of them begin to despise each other for different reasons. Their two points of views are woven into a story-line that revolves around sex and violence. (The rest of this review is a potential spoiler.) This taut story had me biting my fingernails, wondering who would kill and who would be killed. But then, I began to question if Oates is playing with her readers. How could anything happen when it is always 11AM? She is still sitting in the window.  He hasn’t even arrived yet. Damn the author is good. You will have to read the story yourself to make your own conclusions.

“The Long Legged Girl” Oates writes about a middle-aged housewife of a college professor. They live in a house on or near campus in a college town that reads like a map of Princeton University. She is an understandably jealous wife since “her husband might be distracted by a girl—or two, or three—but after graduation the girls disappeared.” And frankly, in her younger years, she was so busy with the children and her own career as a food writer that she was glad to have her husband out of her hair for awhile. But now that she has time on her hands, and age has seriously tainted her self-image, well what woman could fault her jealousy. She now believes a certain long-legged girl is her husband’s latest interest. And this one is especially pretty. “A girl with long straight silver-blonde hair that fell past her shoulders, a perfect patrician profile, gray-green eyes…skintight jeans curved down at her impossibly narrow hips.”

For these reasons, she doesn’t feel that any seasoned married woman would point a finger at her for inviting the girl over for afternoon tea.  A special kind of tea.   A deadly kind of tea that will turn the delicate Wedgewood teacups into a game of Russian roulette. The reader is aware of her intentions early on. I imagine that in the hands of a lesser author that the story might lose its punch. How many pages do you want to read speculating which one will drink the poison? But this story’s suspense is not about who lives and who dies. It is about how the author manipulates the reader to lose themselves inside of the wife’s insanity. She appears to have lived a normal life. When did her mind snap? Or, was she always unstable? It is nerve wrecking to read this one alone, at night, when your own brain is tired and vulnerable to confused thoughts.   You may end up questioning your own mental health.

For me, out of all in this collection, “The Experimental Subject” is the most unsettling. First, there is abuse against chimpanzees, which is disturbing. Then there is the mental and physical abuse against the main female character, which is heartbreaking. The reader will meet a male professor and his male senior technician in a government-funded primate laboratory. The heroine is an unattractive, friendless college girl with a family who wants no part of her. It is not a spoiler when I mention that there is something unethical in this experiment, something unholy. The first paragraph begins with “She was a solid-bodied female of perhaps twenty years of age with a plain face, an unusually low, simian brow, small squinting eyes…full bosom of an older woman, thick muscled thighs and legs, thick ankles…and a center of gravity in the pelvic region.” In the next paragraph, we meet this lonely girl as she enters the professor’s lecture hall. The technician sights her and is certain that she is a good candidate for the experiment. He befriends her and she begins to shine for the first time in her life. She falls in love with the technician and believes that he also loves her. But then the experiment begins and she is unaware that her life is now in danger.  If I go on anymore it will become a spoiler. Be prepared, this is a truly unique and bone chilling tale.

Not all of the stories were as thought provoking as the ones I chose to review. I didn’t find the title story, “Night-Gaunts,” as a stellar read. The haunted house setting just lost me. Still, there is no denying Oates’ enormous talent. She manages to turn a collection of thriller stories into a piece of literary fiction. Oates has been criticized for writing female characters with masochistic traits. It has been noted that there is a lack of strong, independent female role models in her fiction. In 1981, Oates wrote an essay titled “Why is Your Writing so Violent?” In it, she comments that she finds that question always insulting, always ignorant, and always sexist. Oates feels that “rape and murder fall within the exclusive province of the male writer, just as, generally, they fall within the exclusive province of male action.” She points out that, “in fact, my writing isn’t usually explicitly violent, but deals, most of the time, with the phenomenon of violence and its aftermath.” I believe the tales in “Night Gaunts” prove her point. To understand why that question is so insulting to the world famous writer, I suggest that you remember her words while you read this collection. She gets inside her characters’ psyches, and the reader learns of their hidden interiors. If you are brave enough to look, you may also find what you keep hidden about yourself. Oates will make you squirm. She forces you to look at your own sexual desires, your own feelings of loneliness, and your own death. These are the musings that will scare you more than any straight psychological thriller.

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

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“Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng

Genre: General Fiction (Adult)Little Fires Everywhere
Pub. Date: Sept. 13, 2017
Publisher: The Penguin Press

Celeste Ng’s second novel revisits many of the themes that were in her award-winning debut book (a novel I thoroughly enjoyed), “Everything I Never Told You”:  race, family, and the debatable advantages of similarity.  “Little Fires Everywhere” takes place in the suburban town of Shaker Heights, Ohio, where there are strict rules to keep the town picture perfect, such as the colors you can paint your house, how high your lawn is permitted to grow before it needs to be mowed.  Garbage cans are not permitted to be placed in front of the house, (even on garbage pick up day) and other obnoxious rules.  “Little Fires” has been a best seller for months.  I am wondering how many readers are aware that Shaker Heights is a real town in Ohio that was planned to be a utopia.   “In 1905, business partners and brothers Oris Paxton and Mantis James Van Sweringen began purchasing the settlement’s original 1,366 acres to develop a scenic residential suburb.  They based their plans on the popular Garden City movement.  Their intention was to create a suburban retreat, connected to the industrial powerhouse of nearby Cleveland but insulated from the bustle of the city: a place built on notions of harmony and cooperation.”   Personally, I think this concept screams of the beginnings of “white flight.”  And, sadly, as well as the current administration in the White House.   I admit I didn’t spend too much time researching Shaker Heights.   Still, I believe these rules were enforced until the 1980s, when the federal government more or less stopped enforcing housing rules.

This story takes place in 1997 and the rules still very much apply, maybe not on legal papers, but in the minds of those on the housing board.   The unwelcome change is not about a family of color moving into town but rather an unmarried artist, along with her 15-year old daughter.   This unconventional artist is more interested in making art than making money.   (I know, shocking.  No wonder she caused such an uproar).  They move into town and become the tenants in a rental house of the town’s most affluent upstanding citizen and wife who has teenage children of her own.  The tale begins when the house of the outwardly perfect-seeming family is burning to the ground.  No family member questions that it is their youngest offspring, always the rebel, who is the culprit of the fire.  We just don’t know why a 13-year old would do such a thing.  The novel then goes back in time to eleven months earlier, when the artist and her daughter first appear.  They rent a tiny one bedroom house owned by the wealthy mother who likes to rent to those who wouldn’t usually be able to afford to live in such a town.  In exchange for rent, the artist becomes her landlord’s cleaning woman.  The landlord mom is proud of her charity and sees herself as a philanthropist.

Throughout the novel, the author lays down the stepping stones that lead to the front gate of the burning house.  There is good character development throughout the plot, which revolves around the two mothers and their offspring.  Both mothers are baffled by the others’ morals and lifestyles. They clash with each other while simultaneously their children befriend one other.  Slowly, Ng lets us into their psyches and hidden pains.  The author does a superior job with all the adolescent characters, nailing teenage voices, feelings, crushes and sexuality as well as the ever-thorny subject of class.   One teenage girl has her own credit card while the other’s mother does not even own one.  One girl has her own car while the other has lived in a car.  Ng also introduces a heartbreaking local custody battle.  A one-year-old girl is wanted by both her Chinese immigrant mother and the white couple who has raised the baby.  The immigrant mother happens to be friends with the bohemian artist, which enhances the tensions between herself and her landlady/employer who sides with the white family.  One does not need to read between the lines to realize that there is more to this novel than why planned communities are destined to fail.  The book’s themes revolve around motherhood, planned and unplanned pregnancies, surrogacy, abortion, and adoption.   Most importantly it has the reader wondering just what magic ingredients make for a good mother versus a disastrous one.  Little fires are typical in a family and they are normally easy to extinguish.   How did the family dynamics in this novel create such an unstoppable blaze?  Although this is a question that has been asked many times before, Ng is such a talented writer that I still enjoyed her version of a familiar tale.

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“Girl Unknown” by Karen Perry

Genre:         (General Fiction) AdultGirl Unkown
Pub. Date:   Feb. 6, 2018
Publisher:    Henry Holt and Co.

This book is marketed as general fiction, but I feel it is a psychological thriller, as it appears to be with all books that have the word “girl” in the title.  The reader will meet a family consisting of husband, wife and two children, a 15-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl.  I liked the fact that the author did not present this Irish family as perfect.  Both parents have secrets from one another.  They certainly have their troubles, but the parents work hard on making their marriage work.   They do love one another and want the best for their children.  The father is a college professor.   In his first-year class, a 19-year-old female student informs him that he is her father from a relationship he had before he married.  The reader already knows that this girl’s mother is the true love of his life.

He accepts the girl into his world right away.  He is rather naïve in thinking he can easily integrate this daughter into his established family.  As the reader expects, almost immediately problems arise.  The novel is narrated by the husband and wife.  As the title indicates, this girl is an unknown variable in their lives.  She has more of her own secrets than this family ever had.  She seems to take pleasure in causing conflict, usually ending with the females in the family seeing her as a narcissistic person enjoying the drama she creates, while the males feel she is a troubled person who needs their support.  I imagine that this book is advertised as general fiction since it reads like a family drama and a character study.  Grant you, an easy character study that is a quick read: a beach book that will probably become a movie.

Half-way through the tale, due to the stressors, all family members begin to crumble.   Both parents have major setbacks in their careers as well as in their personal lives.  The son is acting out in school, while the 11-year-old daughter has become withdrawn.   But it is during a family vacation in France that all hell breaks loose.   I would ruin the story for you if I explain why.  The previous twists in the book were predictable, easy to find since the family dynamics became rather warped.  However, the twist on the last page of the novel did surprise me.   It actually left me wanting to know more, wondering what will happen now, which tells me that “Unknown” is a decent read after all.

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

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