American by Day by Derek Miller

american by dayThe most accurate blurb/ review I’ve read about American by Day is that it’s a hybrid sort of crime novel. But a hybrid of what, exactly? It’s a story about a crime, and it’s a story about a Norwegian police chief taking an unexpected trip to America. But it’s not really a thriller, and it’s not really a methodical investigation like a police procedural.  It is a book that has stayed with me, despite the fact that I’m not as fond of it as I was by the first book in this series, Norwegian by Night.

American by Day starts shortly after the shooting at the end of Norwegian by Night. Sigrid, the police chief in the first book, is still grappling with the aftermath of the first case when she finds out from her father that her older brother is missing in the United States, where he’s lived for a number of years. Sigrid reluctantly travels to the US, and the plot slows a bit, and Miller is explicit about his narrative principle when Sigrid explains her investigatory technique: “Observations first. Questions next. Interpretation last.”

And the observations are about America, race, police, and more. Sigrid’s brother is suspected of murdering his girlfriend, and African American university professor who was despondent about her young nephew’s death at the hand of the police in his backyard. Sigrid is skeptical, and eventually she uncovers the truth, and that’s the satisfying part of the read, while the sociology-of-the-US portions are the parts of the book that make me more ponderous.

American by Day by Derek Miller

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 2018

I received a review copy from the publisher.

Startup by Doree Shafrir

startupI had high hopes when I started Startup by Doree Shafrir. It starts at a ridiculous MorningRave, a “clean living dance party” populated by all sorts of denizens of New York City’s startup scene, notably Mack, the founder of an app of questionable value, and Katja, a journalist covering the tech scene. I was expecting more satire, and instead the story was more heavy with ideas and a lot of characters who were kind of despicable at times and noble at other times.

Ultimately the characters never felt quite real to me and more representative of ideas: here’s the older journalist going off about how journalism has changed in the last ten years, here’s a young woman being sexually harassed in the supposedly-enlightened company she works for: the characters seemed more like ideas than people, if that makes sense. I’ve seen reviews talking about how readable and accurate the story was, and while I read it quickly, I just felt dissatisfied by the story. It’s a book filled with sad, disconnected people who work an awful lot, and it wasn’t my thing.

Startup by Doree Shafrir

Little Brown, April 2017

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.


Alice & Oliver by Charles Bock

alice oliverToday’s posts are about the latest batch of heavy-themed books I’ve read. First up is Alice & Oliver, a brutal and engrossing read about a young mother and fashion designer diagnosed with leukemia when her daughter was about 6 months old.  I have to psych myself up to read a book like this, or, say, watch a movie like Dead Man Walking, and ultimately I’m glad I read this but I’m not sure I’d read it again. I’m not sure I could take it, you know.

Anyway, Alice & Oliver is a cancer story that goes in depth into the treatment process/ protocol about 20 years ago. The sections of the book are divided into treatment steps as well as into Alice’s meditative steps as she copes with treatment and the prospect of dying. It’s also a story about Alice and Oliver’s relationship, their history in New York City, and the status of their relationship during many months of cancer treatment. Looking back at their pasts and Oliver’s tech start-up company are the only respites from the hard stuff in their story (there’s not a lot of black comedy), but somehow it was a fast read. I was drawn to the story because I don’t know the ins and outs of aggressive cancer treatments and because the main characters were so sympathetic. And sometimes I want to read something that will make me weep, and I was definitely a mess by the end of the book.

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

little lifeA Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Doubleday, March 2015

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

I read and was impressed by A Little Life, a very brutal and long story that’s been getting lots of coverage in blogs and mainstream media outlets. I tend to miss the big books, both because of size and because I’m a little leery about overly-hyped books, but I’m glad I read this one. You have to be prepared for lots of violence and repetition over the significant length of the book, though.

A Little Life begins as a story about four friends, all male, who meet in college, and who all have great ambitions in their artistic or legal careers. After an extensive opening section with the four characters finishing college and beginning their lives in New York City, the character of Jude, with a mysterious past that damaged him physically and psychically (he has a pronounced limp and is intensely reticent of his past before he began college at age 16), becomes the focus.

I’m not the first to mention that the book is a bit of a fairy tale: lots of horrible things happen to the main characters, and lots of fantastically good things happen to the characters. There isn’t much middle ground. It’s a bit odd to read a book that feels unrealistic in this way.

My biggest criticism of the book is that  it’s maddening to read such a long book that could be reduced to the subtitle: Complex PTSD, the Novel. Jude is so damaged and so unwilling to grapple with his abusive past, that his adulthood is almost more painful than what actually happened to him. I read somewhere else that Yanagihara wanted to make a point about the limits of male friendship: Jude and his friends don’t get him to grapple with his past, and it seriously stymies their lives and their friendships. That’s well and good, but using the vehicle of this lengthy novel to make that point feels a bit like overkill. I may be missing something about the art of melodrama or critics calling it the great American gay novel because of its reliance on melodrama, but I think a book half of the size could have been just as effective and make the same points about Jude and his friends.

Finally, I want to dig into my disappointment with this book a bit further. Of course part of the draw of this book is trying to understand a character like Jude who in some ways overcomes a truly horrendous childhood filled with abuse and exploitation, and I feel like a get part of the story. In the last few months I watched a documentary called Family Affair by Chico Colvard that also addressed coping with childhood abuse and trauma, and that felt more rounded an approach to the issue. I also remember being disappointed by Middlesex when Eugenides left out lots of the story about the hermaphrodite Callie as she grew up. I think both Eugenides and Yanagihara are skipping out on research or something. 

Additional pieces about this book that I found interesting include this piece in Vulture about Yanagihara’s inspirations for the novel, Garth Greenwell’s piece in The Atlantic about this novel as the great American gay novel, and finally, an ambivalent piece about the book by Lydia Kiesling in The Millions.



Ending by Hilma Wolitzer

endingEnding by Hilma Wolitzer

Open Road Integrated Media, 2013 (originally published in 1974)

Source: Publisher via NetGalley

I picked up Ending by Hilma Wolitzer because An Available Man was one of my favorite reads of 2012.  Ending is Wolitzer’s first novel, originally published in 1974.  The edition I read is an ebook reissue, one of all of her novels reissued by Open Road Integrated Media.

Ending is the story of Sandy, a young wife and mother whose husband has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer.  It’s a story about the tunnel of grief she’s in in the final weeks of his life, and it covers not only her journey after his diagnosis but all of her memories of her short marriage.  It’s not a light novel by any stretch of the imagination, and there is not a lot of humor like I found in An Available Man.  It’s a story more about ideas and the process of grief than it is about character, and for that reason I felt a little removed from Sandy.  It’s a tough read, but, thankfully, it’s a short novel.  It was interesting to compare it to Wolitzer’s latest novel, which, while dealing with death, had much more developed characters and dashes of humor.  Ending is more of a psychological portrait of grief.

I previously reviewed An Available Man.

A Cold and Lonely Place by Sara J. Henry

cold and lonely place

A Cold and Lonely Place by Sara J. Henry
Crown, Feb. 5, 2013
Troy Chance book 2
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

A Cold and Lonely Place is the second book set in upstate New York that I’ve read in the last month, and I really liked it. Troy Chance is a freelance writer, formerly a sports reporter, living in Lake Placid, New York, a winter sports and tourist mecca. This particular investigation is into the freezing death of Tobin Winslow, an out-of-towner who dated one of Troy’s housemates. He is found frozen beneath a lake as a group is assembling the ice palace for the town’s annual Winter Carnival. It’s a harrowing scene, and it begins a harrowing investigation into a not-too-savory character. Troy writes a series of articles about Tobin, which is very different than reading about police officers investigating his death.

The strength of the story is how Troy humanizes the deceased Tobin. In lots of crime novels, it seems the criminals are the center of the story instead of the victims. As much of a loner as Troy is (she’s not from Lake Placid, she lives far from her family and people she cares about), she does grow closer to people during the course of the investigation as well as to Tobin, a person she didn’t know well while she was alive.

One minor quibble I have with the book is the large number of friends and relatives Troy has whom she uses as sounding boards during the course of the investigation. Those characters– her brother the police officer, a friend in the area, a police officer in Ottawa– are not very developed, but they may have been more developed in the first book of the series. In this book, she mostly contacts them by email or with brief visits, which is not enough time for me to really get to know them.

A Cold and Lonely Place is not a fast-paced or overly creepy thriller, and that’s exactly the kind of book I’m in the mood for. The characters at the center of the story, including the deceased Tobin, are interesting people in an interesting setting. I’ll definitely be checking out the first book in the series, Learning to Swim.

Cover of Snow by Jenny Milchman

cover of snow

Cover of Snow by Jenny Milchman
Ballantine, January 15, 2013
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Cover of Snow is the story of Nora Hamilton, a young woman who discovers her husband, a police officer, has killed himself at the beginning of the book. After a quite slow first half of the book, the action picks up in the second half of the book as Nora discovers more and more about her husband’s suicide.

The setting is a small town in upstate New York in the Adirondacks, and the setting and mood are the best parts of the book. Nora is an outsider, having only lived in Wedeskyull for the eight years she was married to her husband, whose family has lived in the town for generations. The actual mystery of why her husband killed himself is not the best part of the story for me, and I think that’s because the villains were not very well developed in the story.  The book has an interesting premise and setting, but I left the book wanting more: more action and more developed characters.

The setting and mood of the story is even colder than the northern midwestern winter here at home, and I think I’ll try books in warmer climates this time of year for a change of pace.

After All These Years by Susan Isaacs

  • After All These Years by Susan Isaacs
  • HarperPaperbacks, May 1994
  • I bought this copy.

In my quest to read something a little less somber, clear my bookshelves, and fulfill another requirement in the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge (book published over 10 years ago), I read After All These Years.  I’ve read a handful of Susan Isaacs novels, and one was a family saga (Almost Paradise) and another was a sort of amateur-investigator book (Compromising Positions).  The focus in After All These Years is definitely on character over plot, and I’m thankful for the comedy throughout.  Additionally, I’m very glad for the low body count.

The book begins with soon-to-be-divorced Rosie Meyers finding her husband Richie dead in her kitchen in her mansion on Long Island.  She is the prime suspect, and she escapes after her husband’s funeral in order to investigate his life in New York City in order to find out who actually killed him.  The plot is not fast-paced:  most of the story involves Rosie meeting with her husband’s work colleagues, clients, and romantic interests.  There is also a heavy dose of Rosie and Rick’s backstory as a couple.

While the book was entertaining, it felt a bit long to me.  There’s a lot of uncovering of her husband’s infidelities and the unhappiness among her well-off friends.  Also, Rosie falls into the category of extremely lucky amateur investigators.  This is not a police procedural obsessed with accuracy.  I’m ready to get back to a somewhat grittier read.

An Available Man by Hilma Wolitzer

An Available Man is my favorite kind of novel, and it’s my favorite novel I’ve read this year so far as well: it’s a comedy of manners, it’s very astute about its characters and their interior lives, and it’s beautifully written.

The titular available man is Edward Schuyler, a recently widowed biology teacher in his early sixties. His stepchildren and step-daughter-in-law place a personal ad for him inthe New York Review of Books, and this book follows his adventures and misadventures in the dating world of a sixty-something man. The story moves between suburban New Jersey and New York City (his home and work bases), and it covers the first three years of life without his beloved wife Bea.

The story draws you in from the beginning because it begins with Edward alone and remembering Bea’s struggle with pancreatic cancer as well as their relationship. You also feel sorry for him because he was left at the altar by his first serious partner, Laurel. Wolitzer also draws you in with the details that make the characters feel very vivid: Edward buries the letters responding to the personal ad in the kitchen’s crazy drawer, which is just how this character would describe what I would call a junk drawer. He’s too buttoned-up to call it a junk drawer.

There are several delicious set pieces in the story as well: Edward at his first dinner party as a widower and Edward’s semi-disastrous dates with women who responded to his personal ad. Wolitzer has a sense of humor. None of the characters, including the women he meets along the way, are caricatures or flat: Wolitzer clearly has affection for all of her characters ,including his needy stepdaughter Julie, Edward’s mother-in-law Gladys, and even the dogwalker Mildred who’s interested in the occult. The family life feels real, and the places Edward inhabits feel real.

This is a story about grief, this is a story about the dating lives of widows and widowers, and this is a portrait of marriage. Nothing is easy for these set of characters, but they are interesting and are striving to become more alive, which makes for an interesting read.
An Available Man by Hilma Wolitzer
Publication date:January 24, 2012
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Heft by Liz Moore

          Heft has been getting some buzz lately from Jennifer Weiner, and I decided to read and review it based on some glowing reviews I came across on Twitter and in Oprah. It is a lovely book told from the perspective of two very lonely men:  severely obese Arthur Opp, a former English professor who’s been holed up in his family’s Brooklyn brownstone for twenty years, and eighteen-year-old Kel Keller, a high school senior who dreams of being a professional baseball player. Their connection is Kel’s mother Charlene:  she was Arthur’s former girlfriend and student nearly twenty years before the story takes place.
          What’s especially lovely about this book is all the details about the characters’ lives:  Arthur’s solitary existence and especially Kel’s life as a high school jock who lives inthe run-down town of Yonkers and attends high school in a wealthier town of Pell’s Landing, where his mother worked as a secretary in the high school.  Kel is the most self-aware high school athlete I’ve come across in fiction, and I think it’s because he’s so hyperaware of people since he grew up with a mother who could not cope with her life:  she was depressed, solitary, and an alcoholic, all of which forced Kel to care for her from a very young age.  He notices so much about others because he’s trying to figure out how normal people function.
          Moore is fabulous at making us feel empathy for her characters, even though I felt a little less for Charlene because her story is not completely obvious.  There are no chapters from Charlene’s perspective, which is a bit of a limitation, but I think it’s supposed to be there since both her son and her ex-boyfriend did not know her that well.  I have a soft spot for tales of loners, and I have an especially soft spot for teen angs ttales.  Heft is an especially vivid teen angst tale for over half of the story.
          I loved Heft because I was so wrapped up in th echaracters’ lives.  I wonder what’s next for both Arthur and Kel, which I consider a sign of a good book.
          For an interview with the author and a more Arthur-centric review of the book, please see Jennifer Weiner’s blog.
Heft by Liz Moore
W.W. Norton
Publication date:  January 23, 2012
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley