Review: Broken People

Broken People: A Novel by [Sam Lansky]
Click to purchase Broken People on Amazon.

Sam Lansky’s Broken People, I suspect, will be quite divisive amongst the literary-minded folk who pick it up. On one hand, its masturbatory millennial philosophizing is tiresome to the point that it seemingly comes back around to satirize itself, an ouroboros for the 21st-Century intellectual elite. The characters are selfish, self-centered, unlikable, and mostly unremarkable, while the plot is nonexistent, despite its being at least 50 pages longer than necessary.
On the other hand, Lansky’s writing is maddeningly relatable, conveying all of life’s questions and existential angst with eloquence. The book is beautifully written, to the point that I’m struggling to narrow down quotes to use here. Do I focus on the purely poetic turns of phrase, a la “desire browned to loneliness, like fruit oxidizing”?, or stick with thematically-relevant passages?
This “novel” (I suspect it’s rooted far more in the author’s life than most novels, given its strong, singular point of view, which feels deeply personal at all times… Oh, and that the central character shares a name with the author) is angsty in the way that so many others try to be, but fail for winding up too whiney or else eye-rollingly dramatic. There’s nothing dramatic about Sam– the character, not the author, but maybe him, too– and I mean that in both the most positive and negative sense. But here is a portrait of a man almost crippled by his depression, though he doesn’t crave death. Instead, he occupies an eerily-relatable, suicide-adjacent space,

“He did not want to die, in a practical sense– the corporeal permanence of death terrified him– but rather, to already be dead, to skip the death process and coast into a static condition of un-being… Certainly that had to be better than sustained consciousness.”

What I liked best about this book is that it feels reminiscent of Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow or Julian Barnes’ Sense of an Ending, in that it is a meditation on memory, and what it is to be human, both in the abstract and corporeal senses. It’s an updated version, though, so it doesn’t risk being derivative.

You’re afraid of your shadow. But as you move, so does it. You and it are inextricable. And still you run from it… You think telling stories is a way of facing yourself. But it’s actually how you run from yourself.”

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4/5 Stars

Review: If I Had Your Face

How beautiful is this cover? Click to purchase your copy via Amazon.

I’m on the fence with this one as to whether I’d give it 3 or 4 stars. On one hand, it is beautifully written and features an array of unique characters and a world I’ve never gotten to see first hand, or in fiction. However, given the title, If I Had Your Face, as well as the phenomenal (if heavy-handed) dramas that have been a hallmark of Korean cinema, I was expecting something more plot-driven in this narrative piece. Given the banner advertisement that says “I would live your life so much better than you if I had your face”, I thought this was going to be something sinister, like some kind of Sci-Fi identity theft-meets-Memoirs of a Geisha (because of the secret room salons and emphasis on achieving a specific, rigid standard of beauty).

In actuality, Frances Cha’s debut novel is a slow, slice-of-life story with multiple narrators in which nothing monumental happens to any of them. Instead, Cha serves up unique characters and an opportunity to travel via her vivid and precise writing to a foreign country and experience the nitty gritty, day-to-day life. I have to admit, after reading the first chapter, I went on an embarrassingly long binge of before-and-after photos from the various surgeries mentioned in the book. It is quite astounding, and given the prevalence of surgery and the demand for physical perfection, it is undoubtedly ripe for authors (particularly a Korean female) to delve into, expose, and react philosophically, sociologically, and politically. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be a young woman living in contemporary Seoul, here’s your opportunity.

3.5 Stars – PopCultHQ
Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Review: My Dark Vanessa

My Dark Vanessa

“People will risk everything for a little bit of something beautiful”

First thing’s first: My Dark Vanessa is extremely well written. But it is not an easy or comforting read. If you are at all triggered by sexual misconduct, manipulation, or statutory rape, be warned. Though, to tack onto that– the author’s treatment of the subject here may actually open the door for difficult conversations, allowing victims to relate and feel understood and heard without judgment.

This book has been on my radar for quite some time, as I had requested to review an advanced copy (but was denied). Since I’ve got so many other approvals– and, because, let’s be real, I’m often quite bitter when I’m rejected– I rarely go back and read books where I’ve not gotten an ARC. However, this one really stood out to me because the teacher and willing student relationship is a situation about which I’ve always wanted to write a novel myself.

Having been in the position where lines have been crossed with older, more authoritative figures, I understand the complex relationships and feelings, both positive and negative, that can develop. Russell does an impeccable job conveying the convoluted dynamics– so much so, that she had to add at the beginning a disclaimer that the story was in no way borne of nonfictional events that occurred to her. The success of the book is largely due to its reading like a memoir rather than a fictional character study. I agree with other reviews which have found problems with its length, as it easily could’ve been half the length and been as effective, if not more so. However, the strength of Russell’s writing– her weaving of poetry and classical literature into the narrative, so that it isn’t gratuitous or derivative, but rather an integral and enriching part of the story.

“Your life is like a movie. She didn’t understand the horror of watching your body star in something your mind didn’t agree to. She meant it as a compliment. Isn’t that what all teenage girls want? Endlessly bored, aching for an audience.”

Perhaps one of the things I loved most about the novel was that, while it’s clear that Vanessa (and all of those like her) has suffered greatly, it also allows the space for her to hold contradictory beliefs without judging her. What I mean by this is that often, people refuse to acknowledge that there may be legitimate feelings of love or attraction on the part of the “victim”. To negate those feelings because the victim is ‘too young’ or was being ‘coerced/manipulated/seduced’ is to undermine that person, who has already been through so much already. Russell never once strays into that territory, always giving her character the benefit of the doubt and allowing her to voice her various beliefs.

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Rating: 4/5 stars

Review: Musical Chairs

Musical Chairs

This book isn’t scheduled to be released for a while, but I’m going to do something I’ve never done before and post a pre-review, because this should definitely be on your radar. Stay tuned for my full review, which will be posted on publication day, July 20, 2020. Let me know in the comments if you’re excited to read Musical Chairs, or if you’re already a fan of Amy Poeppel!

Let’s start with: this is not my usual fare. I almost exclusively read and review books with twenty-or early-thirty-something protagonists, often set in urban landscapes, with edgy subject matters and/or a biting sense of wit. Musical Chairs has none of that. Instead, it is a tame book about family dynamics, set in rural Connecticut, with a middle-aged protagonist and zero Millennial angst.  Nevertheless, I genuinely enjoyed this book, which is a testament to Amy Poeppel’s writing. There’s not a ton going on here as far as plot, but the characters are all well-developed and the world feels immediately available for entering and viewing, as flies on the water-dampened walls of Bridget’s home. Usually, I’ve found with novels like this, the details drown out all else, but Poeppel manages the fine balance of detail, dialogue, and action. Her skills are so evident that I plan to go back and read her previous work, Small Admissions.

This will be popular among book club enthusiasts, for its quaint story that opens up larger discussions of what it is to be a middle-aged woman, raising children who are struggling to find their way, taking care of aging parents, and having a life of one’s own romantically and professionally. How does the modern woman navigate all of life’s nooks and crannies (which is what it is here, rather than the cliche ‘ups and downs’)? While this isn’t the book you’d go to for thrills, laughs, or a steamy romance, it is the perfect book with which to curl up on a rainy day.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

Pre-order Musical Chairs on Amazon here.

Review: The Light We Lost

Image result for the light we lost book

HOW DID I MISS THIS BOOK WHEN IT WAS RELEASED LAST YEAR?! Cue existential crisis-slash-anxiety attack that despite my attempts to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s hot in the literary world, great books are still falling through the cracks. Ladies and gentlemen– or however it is you folks are defining yourselves; don’t let me confine you– I’m giving out what I believe to be my first five star review of the blog. And possibly of 2018 (even though this was released in 2017).

Page One: Jill Santopolo reached right into my chest cavity and grabbed my still-beating heart.

The Light We Lost is stunning, from start to finish. It is that rare book that is both literary and relatable, which I think is due to its using beautiful language not as flourish, but because it’s from the soul. It’s the language of love and loss. Every word is meticulously wrought, but never pretentious or gratuitous. Or perhaps I’m just a hopeless romantic– emphasis on the ‘hopeless’. I think that my having not discovered this book until I did has to be for some reason. I mean, is it a complete coincidence that I randomly found it on September 11th? Social scientists would say yes, total coincidence. But again, I’m somewhat of a romantic.

This book is designed for those among us who are prone to losing themselves, at least occasionally, in the ‘what if’s?’. Those among us who are seemingly content in our lives, but who struggle to resist the urge to stalk the social media accounts of a former flame. Those among us who wonder about ‘the one that got away’– the one that, over time, rather than deteriorating in our memories, has built up, becoming super-human, invincible.

If none of those things sound familiar, then you’re lucky. But not really, because you’ll likely not appreciate the magic of this book. Santopolo is a genius at crafting meals out of mere moments, like this gem:

“Your face closed. I could see it, like a door shutting behind your eyes… I had stumbled into a fault line I didn’t know was there. I filed that away– I was discovering the landscape of you. Already I was hoping it was terrain I’d learn well, one that would become second nature to navigate.”

To me, this book captures the same tragic emotions of one of my absolute favorite soliloquies in Shakespeare: To be, or not to be. It captures perfectly the “heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”. The only other contemporary author I’ve read who comes close to capturing this kind of heartbreak and longing is Julian Barnes, though I have to say, I think Santopolo’s feminine perspective gives it more resonance, at least for me.

A few other samplings I love from the book:

“It always seemed like you belonged to you and let yourself out to me when you felt like it; I never had complete ownership.”

“Sometimes a year feels like an eternity, broken up into tiny capsules of time. Each chunk is so monumental that it seems like its own lifetime within a life.”

Okay, guys, I could go on and on. And honestly, I’m getting annoyed with the fact that I don’t have anything snarky to say. The worst thing– the only bad thing, really– is that it had to end. I want to cry. I want to hold it in my hands, clutch it to my chest, crush it to bits so that I never have to let it go.

Now that I’ve set your expectations way too high, please check it out and then argue with me.

Rating: 5/5 stars

Buy The Light We Lost on Amazon

(PS: Because this is the first of Santopolo’s novels in this genre, I’m unable to binge read her and thus, would greatly appreciate any recommendations, if you know of any similar books– fiction or nonfiction, either way works for me– or if you have been similarly touched by a book.)