Monday, June 10, 2019

#25 [2019/CBR11] "Asymmetry" by Lisa Halliday

A friend of mine gave me her copy of Asymmetry (2018) by Lisa Halliday. She said that it was hard to describe, but well written and very interesting. I was intrigued, and then I saw that it was also on NPR's Best Books of 2018 (as well as many other "best of" lists with tons of critical praise). All of that was more than enough to make me start reading.

I thought Asymmetry was very well-written, insightful, and unique. If I'd had it in the Kindle version, I would have highlighted a number of passages. Unfortunately, my favorite passages have been lost to my laziness. I read a couple of reviews before and while I was reading this book. I found them somewhat misleading, which led to some confusion on my part, but I will discuss that more later.

Asymmetry is split into three sections taking place in the early 2000's, around the time of the Iraq War. The first section, called "Folly," is about a relationship between Alice, a young woman working as an editor in New York City, and Ezra Blazer, the much older, and very successful author. Their connection is obviously unequal although some of these dynamics change as time passes. I found this section to be challenging for two reasons. The first was that it was written in the third person in a very impersonal style. I often wondered what Alice was thinking and wanted to understand her more. The other reason was that Alice's relationship was reminiscent of another relationship I'd been in (although not to that extreme) and it was uncomfortable seeing a similar situation from a more objective viewpoint.

The second section, called "Madness," changes directions rather dramatically. Amar Jaafari is an Iraqi-American flying back to Iraq through Heathrow to see his brother when he is detained at customs. This part of the story is told in the first person from Amar's point of view. The discussions at Heathrow are interspersed with memories of Amar's life in the United States, his family, and their visits back to Iraq to see extended family. This section felt much more clear, detailed, and understandable. I was not left guessing at Amar's thoughts and experiences as I had in the first section.

The final section is a radio interview with Ezra Blazer where he discusses his favorite music records and what he would take with him to a deserted island. Nothing much has changed with Ezra, and he hits on the much younger, and married, radio host.

What I learned about this book when I read the critical reviews was that Lisa Halliday had an affair with Philip Roth when she was a young editor in New York City. Critics felt the first section was something of an autobiographical telling of this intimate relationship, and they often seemed to be intrigued to get an inside glimpse of such a famous author. I'm unsure how the literary circles became privy to such information, but it seemed to be well known.

This is a well-written book that would be great for a book club because it could garner a lot of discussion. I found parts of it very powerful. However, the first section, and especially the coda, sometimes felt like an inside joke among literary circles and not as meaningful for those who don't care about Philip Roth. For example, there is a lot of discussion about Blazer always trying to win a Nobel Prize, which was apparently meaningful because Philip Roth never won one. Besides seeing the shifting dynamic of the relationship between Alice and Ezra, I did not care much about Ezra Blazer.

***SPOILERS?***
What left me confused were some of the reviews and blurbs that discussed the book: "These two seemingly disparate stories gain resonance as their perspectives interact and overlap, with yet new implications for their relationship revealed in an unexpected coda." As I read, I kept waiting for the promised, expected revelation that would make this book so meaningful. And I think it's that Ezra Blazer hints in his radio interview that Alice wrote the second section of the novel as a short story. But there are hints to this in the first section of the story, so that didn't surprise me. Alice wonders if she would be able to write a convincing story from a middle eastern man's point of view. This brings up interesting questions about literature and does tie the story together--kind of. However, it wasn't what I was expecting after all the hubbub. Because Blazer's interview did not part any more information to me (unless I'm missing something, which is very possible), I could have done without it. After reading such a powerful story of Amar, I was kind of frustrated with Blazer going on and on about himself. However, I guess you could argue that Halliday is just showing us another example of asymmetry. I was left with lots to think about and some frustrations.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

#24 [2019/CBR11] "Hello Stranger" by Lisa Kleypas

I had a long drive when I went on my latest backpacking trip, so I picked up some books on tape to help me through it. The one I ended up listening to was Hello Stranger (2018) by Lisa Kleypas. I've read a number of Kleypas's books and knew what to expect. On the whole, this one was a good distraction while driving. The characters were likable, but I never got too attached. Part of this may be because it was on tape. I think I take more in when I read in print.

Dr. Garrett Gibson is the only female physician in Britain. She went to France and trained at the Sorbonne because women were not allowed in medical schools in Britain. Garrett has her own practice and also volunteers with the poor. She runs into Ethan Ransom, a former detective for Scotland Yard, one night as she's returning from her volunteer work. Garrett is accosted by three drunk soldiers. She fights back, and Ethan, who's been following her, jumps in to help. Ethan and Garrett apparently met a couple times in earlier books that I haven't read.

Ethan offers to teach Garrett some self defense and she agrees. Ethan Ransom is intrigued by Garrett, but every time they meet, he says they'll never meet again. Ethan has discovered that his boss and mentor is really a bad guy--manipulative and controlling and intent on murdering innocent people. For this reason, Ethan is turning on his old boss, and risking his life in the process. He's afraid that anyone close to him could be used to control him. For that reason, he tries to keep his distance from Garrett, but generally fails.

When Ethan is shot, Garrett is brought to his side to say goodbye to him, but she is determined to save him. They go to a country house to allow him to recuperate safety, but they know people are still after them. There are more fights and threats, but it all works out in the end.

I liked that Garrett was independent, and that she played a large part in her own story. I also liked Ethan's competence and intelligence. The love story was fine, but I never got too into it. There were also couples from previous books that I did not know. I might have appreciated them more if I knew their stories. So, Kleypas is a reliable romance writer, as always, but it wasn't my favorite.

Friday, June 7, 2019

#23 [2019/CBR11] "The State of Affairs" by Esther Perel

I first heard Esther Perel when she was a guest on Dan Savage's relationship podcast. She's been a therapist for many years and has distinctive ideas regarding romantic relationships and infidelity. Apparently, there was so much interest in the chapter on affairs in her first book, Mating in Captivity (2009), that she decided to write a second book entirely on that subject. When I saw this book, The State of Affairs, on NPR's List of Best Books of 2017, I decided to put it on my list. I found it both interesting and thought provoking.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, my relationships tend to end before cheating becomes an issue. Although some of the stories of long-term betrayal were so bad, they made me hurt and angry, I don't have any personal experiences that would make this book particularly difficult (or maybe helpful) to read.

Perel has great sympathy for spouses or partners dealing with the devastation of discovering that their loved one had lied to them and cheated on them. However, she also argues for a more nuanced view of cheating and what it means. Affairs have occurred for as long as we can remember, and they are so widespread that she argues we need to look deeper into why they're happening. It may be easier to demonize the cheater and move on, but couples who don't want to throw away their family and past can sometimes work through a cheating scandal and end up stronger on the other side. Perel does not recommend that all couples going through a cheating crisis should try to stick it out, she just doesn't think divorce should be an automatic requirement after cheating. She also thinks it is helpful to look deeper and try to figure out where the cheating is coming from.

My views of cheating have softened somewhat since I was younger and more idealistic. What if the cheater has been denied love and affection in their marriage for years? What about an elderly man whose wife is in an Alzheimer's unit and can't even remember him? He wants to continue to care for her, but is it bad if he finds some love and affection for himself? What if the cheater is physically or emotionally abused by their partner and finds someone who finally makes them feel worthwhile? On the other hand, honesty is incredibly important to me. I don't think I could ever trust my partner again if he lied to my face--especially if it were a long-term affair.

A theme that runs throughout this book is the thrill of new relationships and the seductive power of secrecy that motivates many affairs. Relationships can become so stagnant that one or both people can feel that they've lost their sexuality entirely--until they meet someone new who inspires them again. For this reason, Perel argues that it is helpful to keep your sex life new and exciting. She floats Dan Savage's idea of "monogamish" and discusses some couples who have opened their relationship to other sex partners. She makes sure to emphasize that even with open relationships there are betrayals and cheating, but that it has helped some couples keep the spark alive.

This is a can of worms that is fascinating to think about, but I'm pretty sure an open relationship would be impossible for me. It doesn't help that the only open relationships I've seen firsthand (not very many) were decidedly unequal. One side of the couple only agreed to it because they didn't want to lose their partner. However, if it works for others, the more power to them. One thing that bothered me, though, was Perel's encouragement of using a third party to up the sexual thrill in a marriage. For example, a wife would sleep with another man, with her husband listening in the next room. Personally, if you're setting that kind of thing up, you need to tell that third party--otherwise it's super creepy. Agreeing to no strings sex is not the same thing as agreeing to have sex with a married woman while her husband listens in the next room. I'm sure a couple could find someone who would enjoy that, but--again--honesty matters a lot to me.

This book definitely covered an interesting subject in a unique and compassionate way that I admired. However, I did not finish it thinking I'd figured out the problems of cheating. On the contrary, The State of Affairs only illuminated some of the many layers of heartbreaking complication.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

#22 [2019/CBR11] "Nine Perfect Strangers" by Liane Moriarty

After coming across Big Little Lies back in 2015, I've read most if not all of Liane Moriarty's books. When I saw that Moriarty had written a new novel, Nine Perfect Strangers (2018), I immediately got myself on the wait list. Like her other books, I found this one very readable and interesting. I was happy to see Moriarty switch up her format a little bit and not lead with a mysterious "big event" and then show what lead up to it. Moriarty did a good job in creating memorable characters, but there may have been a few too many for me to feel invested in all of them.

Nine Perfect Strangers is the story of an unconventional health spa retreat called Tranquillum House. Nine strangers arrive for a ten day retreat that promises everything from relaxation and weight loss to marriage counseling. I'm going to call Frances the main character. We meet her on the drive to Tranquillum House. She is a romance writer having trouble selling her latest book. Frances is also reeling from an internet scam that lost her what she thought was true love as well as a significant chunk of money. On top of that, she's dealing with intense hot flashes from menopause.

Ben and Jessica are a young couple on the rocks. They won the lottery, but Ben lost his purpose when he stopped working, and he hates all the plastic surgery Jessica can now afford. Carmel's husband recently left her for another woman. She is obsessed with the idea that losing weight will make him want her again. Carmel has four daughters. Heather and Napoleon brought their grown daughter Zoe with them to this retreat over the anniversary of their son's death. Lars is a gay divorce lawyer who is struggling with the idea that his partner wants kids. Finally, Tony is an old sports star, now middle-aged and overweight, and looking for change.

Tranquillum House is run by Masha, a woman who drastically changed her life after being brought back from death after a heart attack. One of the paramedics on that call was Yao, who works with her now. Delilah is her other assistant. Masha is a mesmerizing combination of beauty, charisma, self confidence, and ego.

The book unfolds as the guests arrive at Tranquillum House, and we learn more about them as well as the routine at this "life-changing" spa. The retreat seems like an enviable experience with fantastic food, yoga, and activities. Everything is personally designed for each guest in order to fulfill their goals. On the other hand, there is also the feeling that everything is a little off--that the promises are too good to be true, and that the staff is a little too controlling. As time goes by and the guests surrender to their pampering, this balance shifts towards a third act that I did not expect.

I liked this book. Perhaps compared to some other Moriarty books, it did not have quite as much tension. Even though I was always entertained, I sometimes wondered where it was going to go. And even though I remember all the characters, I was not too invested in some of their stories. I was probably most interested in Frances and Heather, Napoleon and Zoe. The other characters did not have as fully developed stories.

***SPOILERS***
Occasionally I felt that Moriarty was playing with the idea of fiction and romance. When Frances goes on her drug trip later in the book, she imagines herself the main character of a book and is told that her love interest is obvious--which it was. Also, after tying up most of the characters' lives with a tidy bow, the only character (a very minor one) to come to a bad end was the romance novel critic who wrote an especially harsh review of Frances's writing. I almost saw Moriarty winking behind the fourth wall in these scenes.

Friday, May 24, 2019

#21 [2019/CBR11] "Intercepted" by Alexa Martin

I was heading out on another backpacking trip and needed some tent reading that I would find both entertaining and not scary/disturbing. Romances usually do the trick, and I found one from NPR's Best Books of 2018 List. NPR recommended Intercepted (2018) by Alexa Martin as a fun, sporty romance involving football.

Marlee Harper is the long-time girlfriend of star receiver, Chris Alexander of the Denver Mustangs [Broncos]. She's been with him since high school--about ten years. But when she catches him cheating on her--again--she dumps him for good. Marlee is done dating athletes, but Gavin Pope. the new, hotshot quarterback complicates things when he arrives in Denver. About four years earlier, when Marlee and Chris were on a break because of another cheating scandal, Marlee had an amazing one-night stand with Gavin Pope in Chicago. Neither one has forgotten.

Marlee isn't keen on jumping back into a relationship with another professional athlete, but Gavin Pope is irresistible. It doesn't help that most of the players' wives are hostile and judgmental. They label her a slut for jumping from player to player and are generally horrible. This comes to a head when Marlee has to decide if she's going to follow Gavin Pope back to New York.

On the whole, I enjoyed this book. It was entertaining and fun, and there was a lot to like. First, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it took place in Denver and was written by a Denver native. Martin knows the area and neighborhoods well, and it was fun for a book to be placed in a city that I know as well. Second, Marlee and Gavin were generally fun, likable characters and I wanted them to get together. Martin had me feeling real emotion when Gavin and Marlee run into actual complications with their relationship.

However, there were a number of things that did not quite work for me or took me out of the story. I did not like the constant hashtags that Marlee threw in to her narrative. Some of them did make me laugh, but most of the time I found them distracting. They were constant reminders that Marlee and I did not have much in common. Also, Marlee turns on the news or television exactly twice in the entire book, and both times the news just happens to be talking about her.

I also found that Marlee was attacked or in the position of needing rescuing an awful lot in this book. Especially since I live and work in Denver, I just could not believe that she would be in so much danger. A drug dealer went after her, some random guys on the light rail (after a game when it's full of people), as well as her ex-boyfriend. I appreciate that Gavin Pope was always there to help, but by the end of the book I was expecting her to get attacked as soon as she stepped outside. None of these scenarios felt very realistic, but I especially had problems with the light rail scene.

Also, the focus on all of the bitchy wives made me uncomfortable. Why was Marlee even in this group of horrible women? And when she bickers with them, even though she is much more reasonable, it doesn't reflect well on her. And I cannot even imagine why Marlee would show up at the charity fashion show so shortly after a breakup. I don't care if her friend wants her to go, that's a ridiculous and painful situation in which to voluntarily put yourself.

In addition, it is probably a good idea that Martin didn't go into too much detail about the one-night fling between Marlee and Gavin in Chicago because it is a huge coincidence and doesn't make a lot of sense. Why was Marlee in Chicago? She is the girlfriend of an NFL football player and she doesn't recognize an NFL quarterback? No one else in Chicago noticed the famous quarterback among them?

Finally, the kindle version seemed to have a large number of typos and word errors. Much like the hashtags, I found it distracting.

So, I did have a lot of nitpicking problems, but even with all these little things distracting and irritating me, I could enjoy the story.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

#20 [2019/CBR11] "It Happened One Wedding" by Julie James

I needed a break from serious reading, so I picked up It Happened One Wedding (2014) by Julie James. I'd enjoyed some other books by James, and this one was available now at the library. Unfortunately, it wasn't my favorite of her books. There was nothing especially wrong with it. The characters were likable, and the story line was fine. There just wasn't much excitement, and my whole experience was rather bland.

Sidney Sinclair recently moved back to Chicago after a painful breakup with her fiancé. She is a hedge fund manager/financial analyst-type businesswoman at a fancy company, and she is in charge of a ton of money. And now her younger sister, Isabelle, is getting married. Right before meeting her new brother-in-law for dinner, Sidney runs into an arrogant man who aggressively hits on her. Sidney snubs him, offending his tender feelings and the two part ways with no love lost.

When she arrives at dinner, Sidney meets her sister Isabelle and the new groom, Simon. Unfortunately or fortunately, the arrogant playboy also shows up, and it turns out he is Simon's brother Vaughn. Vaughn is an FBI agent who often works undercover in the white crimes division in Chicago. Sidney and Vaughn pretend their negative encounter never happened for the sake of their siblings, but the two are thrown together often because of wedding plans and other machinations.

The two are immediately attracted to each other, but Sidney, still hurt from the betrayal of her last relationship, is only looking for men who are ready for commitment. Vaughn, however, is open and honest about not wanting a serious relationship. The attraction wins the day, however, and the two begin sleeping with each other with no strings attached. Not surprisingly, as the two get closer, they both realize that they want a relationship after all.

I was underwhelmed partly because I did not feel too much of a connection between our protagonists. They looked at each other intensely a lot, but had limited interaction in their lives. Their work was completely separate and didn't overlap. The only thing Sidney knew was that Vaughn hung out in dangerous and seedy places, and Sidney and Vaughn never really discussed Sidney's work. Also, as progressive as Sidney was meant to be—a successful businesswoman in charge of a large financial endeavor—she was stereotypically feminine and passive in her interactions. Vaughn finished a triathlon and Sidney wished she could watch him finish. Sidney called Vaughn over because she was having trouble with her smoke detector (ugh!). Most of the time Sidney and Vaughn simply ran into each other because Isabelle and Simon had invited them to some or other wedding event.

So, I didn't hate it, I didn't love it. I'll consider it a nice distraction and move on.

#19 [2019/CBR11] "Still Life" by Louise Penny

I'd seen recommendations for new books by Louise Penny popping up all over the place. I was interested in reading them, but I thought it best that I begin at the beginning. So, I picked up Still Life (2005), the first book in Penny's prolific Inspector Gamache series. And I found Still Life to be a very pleasant murder mystery. I'd like to read the entire series, but there are so many books, it will take me awhile to get to all of them.

An elderly woman is shot through the heart with an arrow. Her body is found on a trail in the small, french-canadian town of Three Pines. The woman was Jean Neal, a beloved school teacher and long-time resident. Chief Inspector Gamache, of the Sûreté du Québec, is sent down to Three Pines to investigate the murder. He brings his team, a number of people, including: Jean Guy Beauvoir--his very reliable second in command, as well as Yvette Nichol--a rookie determined to prove her worth.

At first the townspeople assume that Jane Neal was tragically killed by an out-of-town hunter, but the more we learn about the circumstances, we realize the less likely it was an accident. In addition, as Inspector Gamache digs into the history and relationships in this idyllic, little town, it turns out that a number of inhabitants may have motivation for murder.

Chief Inspector Gamache is not what most would consider your typical murder investigator. He is sensitive, compassionate, and caring. Although his wife is not a part of this book, his actions towards her show how much he cares about her. He reads poetry, and he quietly stands up for what he believes in without drama. In addition, I found Yvette Nichol to be an especially memorable character because she was trying so hard and failing so dramatically. Her judgments and views were so arrogant and annoying. But when Yvette Nichol turns out to be both mean spirited and a bad investigator, Inspector Gamache tries to mentor her before giving up on her.

The rest of the characters in this book were drawn well and add to the novel. There is Oliver and Gabri, a gay couple and owners of the local inn/cafe. Peter and Clara are two, poor artists who married for love. Myrna is the burned-out psychologist from the city who has more recently opened up book store in Three Pines. Ruth is the grumpy, old woman who also happens to be a famous poet. Yolande is Jane's niece and she lives outside of Three Pines, but as the last remaining family and possible suspect, she plays an important role in the book.

This mystery did not feel especially suspenseful or scary until nearly the end. It focused much more on the characters, their lives, and how they interacted. I definitely enjoyed it.

***SPOILERS***
The only problem I had was with the final reveal in the book. We learn from almost everyone that Ben's mother is a horrible woman who treats Ben terribly. Her house is run down and contaminated with snakes. But this is a woman who's lived in Three Pines her entire life. The town took turns sitting by her bedside when she was dying. So, they know her personally. Why would they believe and spread these lies about her? I did suspect Ben because Inspector Gamache found that Ben did not go on a hike every morning like he said, but I wasn't sure why until it was all revealed. It felt like a bit of a cheat, so I was a little disappointed.
***END SPOILERS***