Sunday, August 24, 2014

Cluster Critiques

An Untamed State by Roxanne Gay

I went into this book thinking it was a true story and, although I now know it isn’t, I still have a hard time believing it isn’t true. This is a tribute to the stabbing strength of Gay’s writing.

Mireille, the main character is a modern-day attorney, wife and mother who was raised in a large, well-to-do Haitian family. When she and her husband and young son go from their home in Miami to Haiti to visit, Mireille is kidnapped for ransom, which is apparently not uncommon in Haiti. Mireille’s husband has no money and her father refuses to pay the ransom, saying that will only reinforce the thugs’ dedication to their lucrative crime. Coming to grips with her father’s decision is heart-wrenching for Mireille, and for us.

In the days that follow, Mireille is tortured and raped and Gay doesn’t spare our sensibilities by describing the acts as “disgusting” or “painful.” She holds your head, forcing you not to look away, and then shoves it down for a really close look until you feel raped and tortured yourself. She also movingly narrates with piercing observations about what could cause humans to be so inhuman.
I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men
with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin
and strengthened their will right through their bones. 

As you can imagine, life changes forever for Mireille – what she calls the “before” and the “after.” I recommend you read An Untamed State because, although it is a grotesque story about the inhumanity that happened in a country of crushing inequality, it is also an uplifting story of the strength of the human spirit, all beautifully told.

Read it.

A Paris Apartment by Michelle Gable

I’m so damn mad about this novel. The set up is so juicy. You have a Paris apartment discovered in 2010 that was once owned by a famous 19th century courtesan of the Belle Epoque, Madame de Florian. Madame de Florian’s granddaughter inherited and closed up the apartment in 1945, which was not entered again until the granddaughter passed away at the age of 91. Upon entering the perfectly preserved apartment, one of the many prizes discovered was a never-before-seen, unsigned painting of Madame de Florian that appear to be painted by famed Italian artist Giovanni Boldini. Love letters confirm an affair between Boldini and de Florian and seemingly, the authenticity of the painting as it recently sold for €2.1 million.

Unfortunately, in spite of this ripe setting for a fabulous story, Ms. Gable writes a fluff story about a Sotheby’s furniture specialist who goes to Paris to assess the value of the furnishings and ends up being pursued by French men, or worrying about being pursued by French men, or wishing she were pursued by French men.

Mon Dieu! Skip this one.

To sum up this book, there are a frightening number of weird things to worry about, 90% of which have never even occurred to you. Take ‘worrying’ for example. It’s good for you in the right dose, but can paralyze you when not taken in good measure. OK, maybe that’s not the most profound example, but I found the essays to be so specifically tied to who wrote them that they all seemed a little myopic. The financial guys worried about the global economy, scientists about global warming and the lack of funding for their programs, and a few unexpected red flags pop up like the internet ruining writing, the dearth of desirable mates, our continued taboos of "bad" words, etc.

Some of the essays are engrossing. Some are better than a sleeping pill. 

So read it if you don’t have enough to worry about, or if you suffer from insomnia.

Shotgun Lovesongs: A Novel by Nickolas Butler

Shotgun Lovesongs is sort of a millennium version of The Big Chill but not as well edited. Five characters grew up together in a small town and stayed friends.  They include a famous rock star who just wants to live the simple life (sort of), a rodeo cowboy bounced a few too many times on his head, a developer frantic for success and acceptance, and a soulful but struggling farmer and his wife, the latter of whom spends a lot of time suppressing her lust for the rocker.

Shotgun Lovesongs has all the right ingredients, just not enough of any of them. 

Read this one only if you’re desperate.

You can find all of the above books at and at

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