10 Books Leah Rodriguez Can’t Wait to Read in Summer 2018

This list appears on paperbackparis.com:

I’m slightly ashamed to admit that the books on my list are just a taste of the summer stacks spilling over in my bedroom. I’m even more chagrined to admit that I probably won’t make it through half of them in the summer months. But, hey, what’s wrong with being a little over ambitious? Maybe I’ll make it pretty far this year. I hold out hope for the best.

This summer reading list is another eclectic smattering of books comprised of award winners, bookstagram and podcast recommendations, classics I’ve been meaning to read forever, and sequels that I feel obligated to read. Though not included here, I’m even hoping to read the first Game of Thrones book. But, alas, I don’t want to start torturing myself just yet.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation Ottessa Moshfegh Book Review

My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh

Synopsis: From one of our boldest, most celebrated new literary voices, a novel about a young woman’s efforts to duck the ills of the world by embarking on an extended hibernation with the help of one of the worst psychiatrists in the annals of literature and the battery of medicines she prescribes.

Thoughts: When I read the description of Ottessa Moshfegh‘s latest, I immediately set it down as a must-read ASAP kind of book. The premise of a young woman shutting herself away from the world in a medicated stupor resonated with a part of me that I think most people of this generation can relate to. On any given day, we submit ourselves to hours of sensory data on social media and the like that it can be all too tempting to simply shut down for a while.

Home Fire Kamila Shamsie Book Review

Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie

Synopsis: Isma is free. After years of watching out for her younger siblings in the wake of their mother’s death, she’s accepted an invitation from a mentor in America that allows her to resume a dream long deferred. But she can’t stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister back in London, or their brother, Parvaiz, who’s disappeared in pursuit of his own dream, to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew. When he resurfaces half a globe away, Isma’s worst fears are confirmed.

Then Eamonn enters the sisters’ lives. Son of a powerful political figure, he has his own birthright to live up to—or defy. Is he to be a chance at love? The means of Parvaiz’s salvation? Suddenly, two families’ fates are inextricably, devastatingly entwined, in this searing novel that asks: What sacrifices will we make in the name of love?

Thoughts: Kamila Shamsie‘s novel just won the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction, an award bestowed upon one of my favorite books of recent years—The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney. I foolishly believed I could read the longlisted books before the winner was announced last month, but I didn’t even come close. I’m still looking forward to reading all of them, but I am especially excited to see what this year’s winner has to offer.

No Time to Spare Ursula K Le Guin Book Review

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, Ursula K. Le Guin

Synopsis: Ursula K. Le Guin has taken readers to imaginary worlds for decades. Now she’s in the last great frontier of life, old age, and exploring new literary territory: the blog, a forum where her voice—sharp, witty, as compassionate as it is critical—shines. No Time to Spare collects the best of Ursula’s blog, presenting perfectly crystallized dispatches on what matters to her now, her concerns with this world, and her wonder at it. 

Thoughts: When I found out Ursula Le Guin had turned to blogging late in her career, I thought, “someone should collect those into a book.” Turns out someone already did. Edited by Karen Joy Fowler, No Time to Spare shows the author at her best, pondering the ways of the world and her stretch of time in it.

Fifth Avenue 5 AM Sam Wasson Book Review

Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman, Sam Wasson

Synopsis: Audrey Hepburn is an icon like no other, yet the image many of us have of Audrey—dainty, immaculate—is anything but true to life. Here, for the first time, Sam Wasson presents the woman behind the little black dress that rocked the nation in 1961. The first complete account of the making of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. reveals little-known facts about the cinema classic: Truman Capote desperately wanted Marilyn Monroe for the leading role; director Blake Edwards filmed multiple endings; Hepburn herself felt very conflicted about balancing the roles of mother and movie star. With a colorful cast of characters including Truman Capote, Edith Head, Givenchy, “Moon River” composer Henry Mancini, and, of course, Hepburn herself, Wasson immerses us in the America of the late fifties before Woodstock and birth control, when a not-so-virginal girl by the name of Holly Golightly raised eyebrows across the country, changing fashion, film, and sex for good. Indeed, cultural touchstones like Sex and the City owe a debt of gratitude to Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Thoughts: Breakfast at Tiffany’s has always had a special place in my imagination solely because of Audrey Hepburn’s performance. It has never been my favorite of her films (it’s a tie between Roman Holiday and Sabrina), but watching her in this role consistently reminds me of just how groundbreaking it was and continues to be. Sam Wasson’s exploration of this time in cinematic history is just the type of book I want to be reading on a lazy Sunday afternoon this summer.

Legendary Stephanie Garber Book Review

Legendary, Stephanie Garber

Synopsis: After being swept up in the magical world of Caraval, Donatella Dragna has finally escaped her father and saved her sister Scarlett from a disastrous arranged marriage. The girls should be celebrating, but Tella isn’t yet free. She made a desperate bargain with a mysterious criminal, and what Tella owes him no one has ever been able to deliver: Caraval Master Legend’s true name.

The only chance of uncovering Legend’s identity is to win Caraval, so Tella throws herself into the legendary competition once more—and into the path of the murderous heir to the throne, a doomed love story, and a web of secrets…including her sister’s. Caraval has always demanded bravery, cunning, and sacrifice. But now the game is asking for more. If Tella can’t fulfill her bargain and deliver Legend’s name, she’ll lose everything she cares about—maybe even her life. But if she wins, Legend and Caraval will be destroyed forever.

Thoughts: I had no compunction last year in relaying just how paltry I found Stephanie Garber‘s debut novel compared to her contemporaries in the young adult sphere. That being said, I’m giving the series a second chance if only to see how the story will develop, and, more importantly, because I suffer from the curse of obligation—I must always read sequels.

Sally Rooney Conversations With Friends Book Review

Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney

Synopsis: Frances is twenty-one years old, cool-headed, and darkly observant. A college student and aspiring writer, she devotes herself to a life of the mind–and to the beautiful and endlessly self-possessed Bobbi, her best friend and comrade-in-arms. Lovers at school, the two young women now perform spoken-word poetry together in Dublin, where a journalist named Melissa spots their potential. Drawn into Melissa’s orbit, Frances is reluctantly impressed by the older woman’s sophisticated home and tall, handsome husband. Private property, Frances believes, is a cultural evil–and Nick, a bored actor who never quite lived up to his potential, looks like patriarchy made flesh. But however amusing their flirtation seems at first, it gives way to a strange intimacy neither of them expect. As Frances tries to keep her life in check, her relationships increasingly resist her control: with Nick, with her difficult and unhappy father, and finally even with Bobbi. Desperate to reconcile herself to the desires and vulnerabilities of her body, Frances’s intellectual certainties begin to yield to something new: a painful and disorienting way of living from moment to moment.

Thoughts: I am jealous of Sally Rooney. There’s no getting around that fact. At 27-years-old, she has published a widely revered debut novel that has critics thirsting for more. Do I wish it were me? You bet your bottom dollar. Overlooking the green monster of jealousy perched on my shoulder, I’ve always had a keen interest in Irish writers, and Rooney is no exception.

A High Wind in Jamaica Richard Hughes Book Review

A High Wind in Jamaica, Richard Hughes

Synopsis: After a terrible hurricane levels their Jamaican estate, the Bas-Thorntons decide to send their children back to the safety and comfort of England. On the way their ship is set upon by pirates, and the children are accidentally transferred to the pirate vessel. Jonsen, the well-meaning pirate captain, doesn’t know how to dispose of his new cargo, while the children adjust with surprising ease to their new life. As this strange company drifts around the Caribbean, events turn more frightening and the pirates find themselves increasingly incriminated by the children’s fates. The most shocking betrayal, however, will take place only after the return to civilization.

Thoughts: Harriett Gilbert of my favorite BBC podcast, Books and Authors, says that Richard Hughes’ seminal novel is one of her all time favorites. Reading “classic” novels has always felt essential to me in terms of participating in conversations about literature, but I have certainly lost sight of my goals as new and shinier books come my way. Hughes’ inclusion here is an attempt to remedy that.

Tell Me Lies Carola Lovering Book Review

Tell Me Lies, Carola Lovering

Synopsis: A thrilling, sexy coming-of-age story exploring toxic love, ruthless ambition, and shocking betrayal, Tell Me Lies is about that one person who still haunts you—the other one. The wrong one. The one you couldn’t let go of. The one you’ll never forget.

Thoughts: I’m not going to lie to you—I took this book recommendation from none other than the greatest of insta sensations, Betches. I don’t even care. Lovering’s debut sounds super relatable and really well-written.

The Only Story Julian Barnes Book Review

The Only Story, Julian Barnes

Synopsis: First love has lifelong consequences, but Paul doesn’t know anything about that at nineteen. At nineteen, he’s proud of the fact his relationship flies in the face of social convention.

As he grows older, the demands placed on Paul by love become far greater than he could possibly have foreseen.

Tender and profound, The Only Story is an achingly beautiful novel by one of fiction’s greatest mappers of the human heart.

Thoughts: I’m not sure why I keep returning to Julian Barnes’ books. When I was younger, I think I found them profound in a way that made me seem older and smarter to people I wanted to impress. I think I’ve outgrown that phase of my life, but I’ll read his latest novel as a farewell to those times.

The Perfect Nanny Leila Slimani Book Review

The Perfect Nanny, Leila Slimani

Synopsis: When Myriam, a mother and brilliant French-Moroccan lawyer, decides to return to work, she and her husband are forced to look for a caretaker for their two young children. They are thrilled to find Louise: the perfect nanny right from the start. Louise sings to the children, cleans the family’s beautiful apartment in Paris’s upscale tenth arrondissement, stays late whenever asked, and hosts enviable kiddie parties. But as the couple and the nanny become more dependent on each other, jealousy, resentment, and frustrations mount, shattering the idyllic tableau.

Thoughts: There’s nothing better than reading a good psychological thriller during the dog days of summer. I’ve heard nothing but high praise for this novel, which draws on real-life events. Color me creeped out.

A House of Mirrors: On Jane Delury’s ‘The Balcony’

balconyThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Jane Delury‘s debut collection of short stories is a heady, atmospheric exploration of the comings and goings of a manor house in the French countryside. Set in the fictional town of Benneville, The Balcony weaves together the lives of those connected to the fabled Lèger mansion and its spectral grounds. Delury’s stories are not ghost stories, but they concern the lives of ghosts. From the Belle Époque to the present day, those who have touched the house remain tied to it in often inexplicable ways.

Each of the stories in this collection moves back and forth through time, but are placed in such a way that the reader discovers new information as they read; threads fall into place connecting people and places from one tale to the next. Some of the events that take place in Benneville and the mansion connect to larger tragedies–World War II and the Holocaust, the stigma of unwed motherhood, a sunken oil tanker in the Bay of Biscay.

But Delury’s finest exhibitions of craft exist in her depiction of the small tragedies within that broad scope: The lady of the house, once renowned for her sensuality and beauty, jumps from her balcony, making one last show for the young worker who is enamored with her; the sidelong glances that almost lead to affairs; the playing ground of young lovers.

Delury makes an admirable attempt to string the details of each story into a sustainable whole, and while many of The Balcony’s moments are beautifully done, the finished product doesn’t live up to the book’s ambitions.

The most important elements of the short story rely on what isn’t said — not so much a painting as a piece of wood whittled down to its most essential parts. Thematically, the book is cohesive: often dark in tone, its characters usually out of place or maladjusted in some way. Everyone has one foot firmly stuck in Benneville, and I think this conceit is what puts me off as a reader. I kicked this year off by reading Maryse Meijer‘s Heartbreaker, and it ultimately spoiled me on the short story front. Each story in that collection was fundamentally different from the next, but the sweeping darkness and yearning of the work as a whole made it completely unforgettable.

Delury relies much too heavily on the manor house and Benneville as connective tissue. There are hints of the fantastic, as in “Eclipse” when the story of a character’s suicide ends with her husband wandering the manor’s grounds during a solar eclipse. But the imagery that accompanies it does little to suit the potential richness of such a plot device, a recurring pitfall. She writes,

He called out again for his wife, louder this time, and continued through the courtyard, past the topiary, toward the rose garden. Something sharp grazed his heel. He cursed but didn’t stop. Behind the pergola, a wall of bushes grew at his side, barbed and shapeless, as if they had never been trimmed.

That is how “Eclipse” ends. This type of heavy-handed metaphor appears fairly frequently, but Delury sprinkles enough pretty lines throughout the book that the reader can sometimes forget that the prose too often plods along. The stories would have come across better had the writing been sharper across the board, but I suspect this is a matter of personal preference. I, for one, need good sentences to go along with my broody characters and French manor houses.

A collection of short stories that has the type of conceit that The Balcony does should delve more deeply into the unknown, touching on more than the varying shapes of tragedy. Delury hints at the unknown, occasionally building the sinister into the details of the house and its grounds, but it isn’t enough to mark the book as a worthwhile achievement. Quite simply, I wanted more.

All in all, reading The Balcony was an okay experience. I don’t believe it accomplishes what it sets out to do, but it is generally entertaining and quick to read. It will also help you brush up on your elementary school French, which could be a win for those of us who actually speak a lick of it. A.k.a., not me.

 

Junot Díaz Says ‘Me Too’ in Searing Personal Essay for ‘The New Yorker’

This article appears on paperbackparis.com:

Yesterday morning, The New Yorker published an essay penned by critically-acclaimed author Junot Díaz. This personal history, titled “The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma,” details Díaz’s being raped at the age of 8-years-old and how that horrific event almost destroyed his life.

He addresses the piece to an individual referred to as “X” — someone who approached the author during a book signing and asked if the sexual abuse alluded to in his books came from personal experience. Terrified of broaching the darkness of his past that had yet to escape him, Díaz avoided giving an answer and watched as X drifted away, “shoulders hunched.”

Of the harrowing encounter, Díaz writes:

“That violación. Not enough pages in the world to describe what it did to me. The whole planet could be my inkstand and it still wouldn’t be enough. That shit cracked the planet of me in half, threw me completely out of orbit, into the lightless regions of space where life is not possible. I can say, truly, que casi me destruyó.”

He outlines a childhood marred by bouts of depression, mood swings, emotional isolation, suicidal ideation, and the overbearing weight of shame. The shattering of his identity as a Dominican man.

Bravery isn’t a strong enough word for what is expressed in this essay — in reaching out to that individual fan who, like many of us, identifies with the boundless dimensions of the author’s work — Díaz offered readers a vulnerability in the beautiful and humane medium of language, giving hope to people who continue to suffer from such traumas.

Junot Diaz Legacy of Childhood Trauma New Yorker: Op-Ed
Courtesy of Junot Díaz for The New Yorker

It is an offering — it is a glimpse into the recovery process of someone who survived in darkness for so long.

The essay also illuminates the complex web of Díaz’s work, from his short stories in Drown and This is How You Lose Her, to his epic novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and his recently-published children’s book, Islandborn. Though it was the latter that profoundly influenced Díaz’s decision to finally recall his rape in such an open platform. In doing so, the age-old fear of being “found out” returned to him during a time when he was being questioned about his own childhood history more than ever before.

“Toni Morrison wrote, ‘Anything dead coming back to life hurts,’” writesDíaz. “In Spanish we say that when a child is born it is given the light. And that’s what it feels like to say the words, X⁠—. Like I’m being given a second chance at the light.”

Díaz’s openness is a beacon for those who no longer believe healing is possible. The process might seem never-ending, but examining and channeling the pain into words–emboldening the universe as we speak — is the first step.

You can read Junot Díaz’s “The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma” in full at The New Yorker.

On “The Young Elites” by Marie Lu

Image result for the young elitesA friend recommended The Young Elites to me at least a year ago, and I just got around to reading it the other day. I wish I hadn’t waited so long. It’s one of the strongest YA series I’ve read in a long time–up there with the work of Sarah J. Maas and Maureen Johnson, partially because of her fantastic world-building, but mostly because of the strength of her writing.

The snappy clip of Lu’s plotting, much like Maas’ and Johnson’s, keeps the reader hooked from the beginning. There isn’t a moment when I thought a section was boring, or misplaced in the greater scheme of the narrative, which attests to the author’s crucial choices about how to present this unusual story.

The Young Elites–the first novel in Lu’s Young Elites trilogy–introduces the readers to a world that resembles Italy in the 1400s at a time when a generation of “malfetto” children is reaching maturity. Some years prior to the events of the novel, a blood fever tore through the world, leaving many dead; the few who survived were left with permanent markings.

Some of these “malfettos”–as they are derisively called–have developed special powers, and a special legion controlled by the throne, known as the Inquisition Axis, is determined to root them out of society through the passage of harsh laws and, increasingly, through state-sanctioned murder.

The story focuses on sixteen-year-old Adelina Amouteru who flees home after accidentally murdering her father with her powers. She is spared from capital punishment at the hands of the Inquisition Axis by a group of vigilante malfettos known as the Young Elites.

As she slowly joins their ranks, she learns that their ultimate goal is to overthrow the king and queen in order to finally undo the unjust system oppressing people like them. Adelina believes in their mission, but it becomes clear that there is something dark wedged deep into her soul.

Through deft characterization, Lu develops a compelling anti-hero–a protagonist who is, essentially, a villain–but who blurs the lines between good and evil in the most fascinating ways. She is joined by a series of similarly scarred Young Elites who are driven towards the same goals, but some of whom distrust Adelina.

When I reached the end of the first book, I found myself so immersed in the Young Elite world and Adelina’s fall from grace–that I know Lu had created a truly compelling piece of fiction.

On Chiara Barzini’s “Things That Happened Before the Earthquake”

51ujUY47TCL__SX329_BO1,204,203,200_I finished this book several months ago, but never got around to doing a write-up about it. It took a few weeks for me to get through it; I found that I was conflicted about a few components of the novel, and wasn’t able to construct a clear argument regarding those elements.

The novel concerns the experiences of an Italian teenager named Eugenia who is forced to leave Rome for Los Angeles by her hippy-ish, champagne-socialist parents. The Rodney King riots have just rocked the city, and sections of the city are still smoking from the damage when Eugenia’s family arrives.

She gradually learns how to navigate an American high school…well…the LA version of an American high school, where gang affiliations are rampant, and the ability to sample sex and drugs is open to most. A stranger to these things at first, Eugenia lets herself sink into the experimentation and immediacy of her surroundings. She befriends a young Persian gang member who is endearing and kind in their private moments, but won’t be seen with her in public.

Her sexual experimentation enrages her parents who, despite their seemingly liberal ways, deem her a whore. When she meets Deva–a beautiful, illusive girl–Eugenia ventures into Topanga Canyon where California morphs into another one of its ever-changing personalities. What becomes a one-sided romance (on Eugenia’s end), becomes complicated by the strange, likely incestuous relationship between Deva and her overbearing father.

Eugenia’s story hinges on the sharp-edged wilderness of Los Angeles in the early 90s–from Hollywood kitsch and gang violence, to the harshness of the surrounding landscape and the disasters that surround it–leading to the novel’s eponymous climax.

Though the book adheres to some of the main YA tropes, there are several aspects of the book that jumped out at me.

Honestly, I’m still not sure I can elucidate these things clearly now since it’s been so long, but I’ll just make a few points about it:

  1. Chiara Barzini needs to write more fiction for young adults. More fiction period. Her style is lyrical by nature, capturing the essence of Eugenia’s experiences in long waves rather than the short bursts of observation that I’ve come to associate with young adult fiction.
  2. There is a section in the middle of the book that follows Chiara and her brother back to a remote island off the Italian coast where the narrative shifts rapidly into a primitive environment that lacks most modern amenities. Without getting into too much detail–that section was a surprising and incendiary exploration of violence and jealousy.
  3. As characters, Eugenia’s parents are extremely well written considering the fact they don’t get much page time, but their personal politics seriously irked me. Besides reacting poorly to Eugenia’s sexuality, other aspects of their behavior reveal them to be slightly narcissistic and almost entirely hypocritical about their alleged belief system. And I cannot stand the way they call everyone fascists…but I think that’s a particularly Italian reproach…

These are the things that stood out to me, and I know I’m neglecting a lot. The book has a lot to unpack. All in all, it’s a gripping coming-of-age story that I would recommend for older teenagers.

5/5

On “The Last Black Unicorn” by Tiffany Haddish

34974310__UY2113_SS2113_Anyone who’s seen the 2017 smash hit Girls Trip starring Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Tiffany Haddish will know that it catapulted the latter comedian into stratospheric success. Her high-energy performance is unceasingly funny, and most viewers will say, with confidence, that she makes the movie.

I found out about her memoir, The Last Black Unicorn, when Trevor Noah interviewed her on the Daily Show. It’s a relatively quick read comprised of vignettes that chronicle aspects of Haddish’s youth and her connection with comedy. Obviously, her account of various mishaps in her past are extremely funny, but are often equally painful. I would have loved to see more detail in some of her earlier memories, which would have served to flesh out the stories a bit more. Instead, most of them rely heavily on the distinct cadence of her voice. It does not always translate well to the page, and several passages jumped from one idea to the next with little to no transition.

Stylistic failings aside, the book is worth reading for no other reason than the reader’s exposure to Haddish’s indefatigable spirit. Despite the atrocities of her younger years, The Last Black Unicorn radiates positivity and vibrancy, and Haddish is consistently smart, observant, and hysterical.

I’ve heard the audio book is the best way to experience the book because hearing her tell the stories jives perfectly with her stand-up chops.

All in all it was a solid choice for my lazy weekend at home (which is every weekend…who am I kidding?)… 3/5 stars.

A snippet from Paperback Paris…

Hi all–

Here’s a snippet from a short list the contributors over at paperbackparis.com put together to highlight the best books they read in February. I was completely gutted and transformed by Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name, so I’m making my obsession known far and wide:

Best Books We Read February 2018: Call Me by Your Name, Andre Aciman

Leah Rodriguez’s February 2018 Pick: Call Me by Your Name, André Aciman

“It escapes me now, how and when I came across André Aciman‘s work, but I remember placing his entire bibliography on my TBR. Call Me By Your Name has been on my radar for some time, I just never got around to it…Until the movie was released to wide critical praise, and I knew I needed to read it as soon as possible. I am devoted to the concept of reading an adaptation’s source material before viewing said adaptation (which annoys all my Game of Thronesobsessed friends). I was especially happy I read this particular novel first. I don’t know how James Ivory managed to capture Elio Perlman’s internal anguish and recursive thinking over Oliver — a young scholar spending his summer with the Perlman family at their home in northern Italy. Elio — a precociously intelligent seventeen-year-old — struggles to understand the dynamic that unfolds between him and Oliver. The obsession becomes all-consuming.

I dove into this novel as a reprieve from another book with heavy thematic elements. The atmosphere of Call Me By Your Name, which is all sun, heat, water, and northern Italian landscapes, pairs perfectly with the nascent blossoming of Elio and Oliver’s relationship. It is completely immersive and gorgeous.”