Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The Guest by Emma Cline

The Guest
by Emma Cline
Read by Carlotta Brentan
8 hours, 36 minutes
Published May 2023 by Random House Publishing Group

Publisher's Summary: 
“Alex drained her wineglass, then her water glass. The ocean looked calm, a black darker than the sky. A ripple of anxiety made her palms go damp. It seemed suddenly very tenuous to believe that anything would stay hidden, that she could successfully pass from one world to another.”

Summer is coming to a close on the East End of Long Island, and Alex is no longer welcome.

A misstep at a dinner party, and the older man she's been staying with dismisses her with a ride to the train station and a ticket back to the city.

With few resources and a waterlogged phone, but gifted with an ability to navigate the desires of others, Alex stays on Long Island and drifts like a ghost through the hedged lanes, gated driveways, and sun-blasted dunes of a rarefied world that is, at first, closed to her. Propelled by desperation and a mutable sense of morality, she spends the week leading up to Labor Day moving from one place to the next, a cipher leaving destruction in her wake.

Taut, propulsive, and impossible to look away from, Emma Cline's The Guest is a spellbinding literary achievement.

My Thoughts: 
I read Emma Cline's debut, The Girls, in 2016 and was impressed with her writing and looked forward to reading more of her work. A lot of people were impressed with Cline's writing - so impressed that she was given a $2 million advance for three books. This is her third (the second was a collection of short stories). Was she worth $2 million? Hard to say; there are so many incredibly skilled authors who have earned so much less that it would seem she isn't. Unless publishers are going to start paying authors an amount of money that allows them to do nothing but write great novels. 

Still, she's absolutely a skilled author. Here she made me care about what's going to happen to Alex, a call girl who can't return to her apartment (her roommates have kicked her out, due to her not paying her rent and stealing from them), a drug addict, and there's so little to really know about her. That's intentional. Alex is a girl who lives her life pretending to be the person that she needs to be for the people she's with. We're well into the novel before we even find out that she has stolen a lot of money from Dom, a man who is incessantly reaching out to her, trying to track her down. It's hard to feel sorry for her, except that she seems to be a person who has exhausted all possibilities and who is in real trouble. 

When we meet Alex, she's with Simon, a wealthy older man who wants a Barbie on his arm. Alex knows it won't last...until he kicks her out and she is suddenly certain that he likes her well enough to take her back, if she can just wait him out and time her re-entry into his world at the right time. Meanwhile, Alex has no money, no car, only a bag of clothes, and a phone that's hardly working. But Alex is clever, more clever than the people who live in the area Simon lives in. She is able, again and again, to insinuate herself into people's lives, getting a night of sleep here, a meal there. People are slow to believe a person who seems to belong might not so they allow her into their privileged lives...until they don't. But while they're doing it, Cline gives us a window into the dark side of the lives of the rich and famous. 

Monday, April 15, 2024

Life: It Goes On - April 15

I'd like to say "happy Monday;" but I've been doing taxes for several hours now and it's definitely NOT a happy Monday. On the plus side, we've had three days in the 80's and I'm loving wearing shorts and short sleeves and being warm! 

It's been a busy last six days, in fact. My brother arrived last Wednesday evening and left midday Saturday after helping so, so, so much with getting my dad's apartment sorted and ready to move to his new place. We worked so hard for three of those days, but we did find time for fun Friday night. There's still a lot to do, most of the furniture still needs to find its new home, but we'll get to that later this week and into next week. 

Last Week I: 

Listened To: The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell and The Maid by Nina Prose. This week I'll finish Poverty by America by Matthew Desmond and I'm also listening to Amy Stewart's Miss Kopp's Midnight Confessions. 

Watched: The NCAA basketball finals, The Voice, and not a lot else. 

Read: The American Daughters by Maurice Carlos Ruffin. This week I started Lucky by Jane Smiley and James by Percival Everett. 

Made: Hmmm...can't say that I recall. Pretty sure I wasn't the one cooking most of the time. 

Enjoyed: Friday night my brother, The Big Guy, Mini-him and Miss C sat on the deck of a local winery/brewery and enjoyed the beautiful weather and some live music. It was the first time it's really been nice enough this spring for us to do that and we had so much fun. 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: On continuing to get my dad settled in his new home. 

Thinking About: How much I want to get back to decluttering my own home. Every time I've moved my dad, it reiterates to me how much I don't want to find myself with so much to sort through when it's time for us to move. 

Feeling: Exhausted. And we're supposed to get severe weather in the early hours so I'll likely be up during the night, only making the situation worse. 

Looking forward to: Book club tomorrow night. 

Question of the week: Do you do your own taxes? Do you have to do them for any other family member? 

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward

Let Us Descend
by Jesmyn Ward
Read by Jesmyn Ward
8 hours, 12 minutes
Published October 2023 by Scribner

Publisher's Summary: 
Let Us Descend describes a journey from the rice fields of the Carolinas to the slave markets of New Orleans and into the fearsome heart of a Louisiana sugar plantation. A journey that is as beautifully rendered as it is heart wrenching, the novel is “[t]he literary equivalent of an open wound from which poetry pours” (NPR). 

Annis, sold south by the white enslaver who fathered her, is the reader's guide. As she struggles through the miles-long march, Annis turns inward, seeking comfort from memories of her mother and stories of her African warrior grandmother. Throughout, she opens herself to a world beyond this world, one teeming with spirits: of earth and water, of myth and history; spirits who nurture and give, and those who manipulate and take. While Annis leads readers through the descent, hers is ultimately a story of rebirth and reclamation. 

From one of the most singularly brilliant and beloved writers of her generation, this “[s]earing and lyrical...raw, transcendent, and ultimately hopeful” (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution) novel inscribes Black American grief and joy into the very land-the rich but unforgiving forests, swamps, and rivers of the American South. Let Us Descend is Jesmyn Ward's most magnificent novel yet.

My Thoughts: 
I've been a fan of Ward's since I read Salvage The Bones, Ward's sophomore effort which I read in 2016. I've now read five of her books and I am always impressed by her writing skills, lyrical as they are, and her storytelling ability. Ward is never spares readers the brutality of her characters' lives and never allows us to turn away from them as we become attached to them against all hope. 

Despite the fact that Annis is born into slavery, we have some hope for her early on, as her mother teaches her the way of her warrior grandmother and Annis begins to learn by eavesdropping on her half sisters' lessons. But hope is not something we should expect from Ward. In fact, she goes into great detail as Annis travels south, forcing us to understand what so many enslaved people endured (and often didn't survive); it's the length of this piece that really makes us consider the horrors clearly. 

And here is where my opinion of this book, beautiful and haunting as it is, differs from others' opinions. You are all aware that I struggle with the supernatural in a book. This book is filled with the supernatural. While I can understand why Ward turned to it (why Annis would turn to believing in it), it often overwhelmed the story for me, making me question what was really happening to Annis. Perhaps that was Ward's point. Often the supernatural elements at play here appear to be doing Annis more harm than good. Perhaps precisely Ward's point - sometimes the things we cling to so desperately are harmful. As beautifully written as these parts were, and as much of a relief as they give readers from the reality of Annis' life, they didn't work for me. I know that I'm in the minority in feeling this way and wish I weren't. 

The genesis of the title is from Dante's Inferno and the descent into hell. It's an apt title, as Annis, who surely started in one hell, plunges further and further down. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Life In Five Senses: How Exploring the Senses Got Me Out of My Head and Into the World by Gretchen Rubin

Life In Five Senses: How Exploring the Senses Got Me Out of My Head and Into the World 
by Gretchen Rubin
Read by Gretchen Rubin
7 hours, 20 minutes
Published April 2023 by Crown Publishing Group

Publisher's Summary: 
For more than a decade, Gretchen Rubin had been studying happiness and human nature. Then, one day, a visit to her eye doctor made her realize that she'd been overlooking a key element of happiness: her five senses. She'd spent so much time stuck in her head that she'd allowed the vital sensations of life to slip away, unnoticed. This epiphany lifted her from a state of foggy preoccupation into a world rediscovered by seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching. 

In this journey of self-experimentation, Rubin explores the mysteries and joys of the five senses as a path to a happier, more mindful life. Drawing on cutting-edge science, philosophy, literature, and her own efforts to practice what she learns, she investigates the profound power of tuning in to the physical world. 

From the simple pleasures of appreciating the magic of ketchup and adding favorite songs to a playlist, to more adventurous efforts like creating a daily ritual of visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art and attending Flavor University, Rubin show us how to experience each day with depth, delight, and connection. In the rush of daily life, she finds, our five senses offer us an immediate, sustainable way to cheer up, calm down, and engage the world around us-as well as a way to glimpse the soul and touch the transcendent. 

Life in Five Senses is an absorbing, layered story of discovery filled with profound insights and practical suggestions about how to heighten our senses and use our powers of perception to live fuller, richer lives-and, ultimately, how to move through the world with more vitality and love.

My Thoughts: 
I'm a big fan of Rubin's. I regularly listen to her podcast, Happier (which gave me one of my greatest rules - if it can be done in one minute or less, do it immediately) and this is the third of her books that I've read. Every time I read one of her books, I'm inspired to follow suite. In 2017, when I read The Happiness Project, I launched my own happiness project. To be fair, I never finished it, life having intervened; but I took away the idea that I should look for happiness in life with intention. In 2020, when I read Outer Order, Inner Calm, I was reenergized to declutter my home (8 months after I read it, my mom died, upending my life and ability to work on my own home as much as I wanted). Still, I have carried with me the golden rule from that book that there should be nothing in my home that I do not find to be useful or believe to be beautiful; whenever I'm working on a space, I bear this in mind and it has allowed me to part with things I was struggling to purge. 

As I was listening to Rubin talk here about how she came to realize that she was under appreciating her five senses, I realized that I was doing the same thing. We are all aware that we can see, smell, hear, taste and touch. But how often do we really think about what we're seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting and touching? How often are we intentionally looking for ways to use our senses and to learn more about them? If you're like me, the answer is not often enough. As always, in listening to this book, I was inspired by Rubin to do better. 

Rubin always goes all in on her projects. Some of the things Rubin tried for this project were things that definitely seemed out of her wheelhouse (apparently I feel like I know her well enough to know what is and what isn't in her wheelhouse!), including a sensory deprivation tank and experiencing ayahuasca. Kudos to her for being brave enough to try them. They would definitely be a hard pass for me, as would be the three days weekend she spent in complete silence. But taking a perfumery course? I could see myself giving that a try. Has she convinced me to rethink ketchup? Maybe. 

I think that I'm pretty in tune with my senses; it's more a matter of being daily aware of them and working to expand them. For example, textures are something I'm keenly aware of and know what I like and don't like. Coconut? Might be ok as a flavor but I can't abide the texture. Microfiber cloth? Cannot stand the feel of it and refuse to use it to clean or sleep on it. Could I learn more about why I like or dislike certain things? Certainly. I love music, but not all music. What is it about some songs that I like and others that I don't? Taste - could I train myself to appreciate different spices more and to really be able to pick flavors out in foods? Probably and I'm surely willing to work on that. 

Will I start my own project to learn more about my senses? Probably not. I learned a lot about the senses from Rubin's own research, to begin with; and I don't have the bandwidth for it right now. I am going to try to be more aware, day to day, of the ways life around me impacts my senses and to go out of my way to find new ways to experience them.