Review: Breathing Lessons

20 Books of Summer 2017: Book 3

Many people say the most terrifying villain in Harry Potter isn’t the semi-immortal, power-hungry dark lord, but the pink-clad, doily-obsessed Professor Umbridge. She’s petty, meddlesome, and uses her power to harass, threaten, and bully the teachers and students at the school. She’s not an abstract embodiment of evil or power like Voldemort, she’s recognizable: We’ve all had a terrible teacher or boss who used their scrap of power to mock and demean the people beneath them. And so…

Even though she doesn’t kill anyone or seek world domination or do much of anything outside her familial sphere: Maggie Moran of Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons is my most-loathed fictional character. Are there more awful characters out there? Yep. But Maggie feels more like a person than most of them which means she provokes a stronger feeling of irritation. For the spoiler-y rationale: see page 2.

It’s hard to rate this book a 4.6. Someone might read this review and want to read the book. No one deserves to have Maggie inflicted upon them. She’s not a character whose scenes you can skip/skim then forget once you close the book. Reading Breathing Lessons is the same as being introduced to her. When you finish this book, you’ll know it’s not over. Somewhere out there, Maggie is finding new ways to needle poor Fiona and Jesse with her lies and manipulations. She can’t help herself.

Like all Tyler books, Breathing Lessons features a fully-realized (and dysfunctional) family living in Baltimore. Maggie and Ira have two children, one a lead-singer in a band who bounces between day jobs (Jesse), and the other a goody two-shoes leaving for college (Daisy). Maggie, faced with an empty nest, turns her attention to her former daughter-in-law, Fiona, and son, Jesse. If only there was a way for her to push them back together…

Maggie’s meddling seems harmless and well-intentioned at first, but it soon involves gigantic lies and fabrications. When Ira intervenes with the truth, Maggie turns on him for ruining things with “boring facts.” But, unlike Maggie, he isn’t willing to watch people make momentous decisions based on her half-truths. Her selfishness is startling at times and even cruel.

The writing is extraordinary. Even though Tyler’s prose is simple as ever, it conjures vivid imagery:

To find any place in Deer Lick, you just stopped at the one traffic light and looked in all four directions. Barbershop, two service stations, hardware, grocery, three churches—everything revealed itself at a glance. The buildings were set about as demurely as those in a model-railroad village. Trees were left standing and the sidewalks ended after three blocks. Peer down any cross street; you’d see greenery and cornfields and even, in one case, a fat brown horse dipping his nose in a pasture. (Loc 765)

The story begins with Maggie and Ira traveling to a funeral. There, the widow confides to Maggie:

“And then Linda’s kids started teasing the cat. They dressed the cat in their teddy bear’s pajamas and Linda didn’t even notice. She’s never kept them properly in line. Max and I used to bite our tongues not to point that out. Anytime they’d come we wouldn’t say a word but we’d give each other this look across the room: just trade a look, you know how you do? And all at once I had no one to trade looks with. It was the first time I’d understood that I’d truly lost him.” (Loc 909)

This is one of those tangible descriptions of grief that hits like a sucker punch.

It’s hard to talk about this book with my anti-spoilers posting philosophy, which is why my spoiler-filled rant was moved to page 2. It’s “safer” than posting spoilers after a break since you won’t see them unless you click the link. May this discovery of pagination herald a new dawn of tech-savvyness on this blog!

In short (and without spoilers), if you’re a fan of Anne Tyler, you’ll like Breathing Lessons. Her characters are as well-drawn as ever, but there’s more at stake than in her recent A Spool of Blue Thread. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant remains my favorite because its larger cast gives Tyler more to work with—she tackles romantic, parental, and sibling relationships across multiple generations. Here, Ira and Maggie are the stars and, to a lesser degree, Fiona and Jesse. As for the relationships between the parents and their son Jesse, more is implied than directly stated. I’d have liked to see more of his character and his interactions with Maggie, perhaps even a section from his perspective.

Overall: 4.6 out of 5  Technically, this score puts Breathing Lessons just above Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant which I preferred. Though Breathing isn’t as far-reaching or as moving, it does have Maggie. She and Ira feel authentic. I can’t say that another character has been such an irritant to my imagination. There were several times when I threw down the book and shouted: “Who do you think you are, Maggie??!” Usually the only people with the ability to bother me this way are people. Actual people. Technically, this book functions at the highest level, but Dinner is the better reading experience.

20 Books of Summer 2017 hosted by Cathy at 746 Books

17 to go!

  1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  2. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  3. Dead Wake by Erik Larson
  4. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  5. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  6. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
  7. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
  8. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  9. Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
  10. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien
  11. The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri
  12. She by H. Rider Haggard
  13. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
  14. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  15. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  16. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
  17. ??? (To Be Determined)

Previously On:

  1. The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
  2. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

Review: A Darker Shade of Magic

20 Books of Summer 2017: Book 2

V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic holds up pretty well to all the hype around it. The end was a little anti-climactic, but that’s almost to be expected since it’s part of a series. The ending of the final book has a higher bar to clear now.

(from the dust jacket)
There’s Grey London, dirty and boring, without any magic, and with one mad king—George III. Red London, where life and magic are revered—and where Kell was raised alongside Rhy Maresh, the roguish heir to a flourishing empire. White London—a place where people fight to control magic and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. And once upon a time, there was Black London. But no one speaks of that now.
Officially, Kell is the Red traveler, ambassador of the Maresh empire, carrying the monthly correspondences between the royals of each London. Unofficially, Kell is a smuggler, servicing people willing to pay for even the smallest glimpses of a world they’ll never see. It’s a defiant hobby with dangerous consequences, which Kell is now seeing firsthand.
Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs into Delilah Bard, a cutpurse with lofty ambitions. She first robs him, then saves him from a deadly enemy, and finally forces Kell to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure.

It took me a while to warm up to Lila. Her introductory chapters are alright, but the initial scenes between her and Kell make her seem awful. When they meet, she mistakes Kell’s injured stumbling for intoxication and lifts a rare, magical stone from his pocket. He finds her hideout where she plays an irritating game of keep-away, using the stone’s ominous power to create a fake Kell which she compels to strip and dance around. Inevitably, the fake Kell attacks her and the real Kell saves her. As he’s saving her, it’s obvious to everyone (except Lila) that he could have confiscated the stone at any time by force. He’s just not that kind of guy.

From this point, Lila blunders around for a while and doesn’t behave like the intelligent person we’re told that she is. Fortunately, Kell always shows up in time. Lila never exists for the sole purpose of being saved (a la damsel-in-distress clichés), but she does need a fair amount of saving because she conducts herself poorly when outmatched. But hey, it’s not easy to be a non-magical person in a magical world. When she smartens up and does a little saving of her own, the book improves. I don’t like reading how smart a character is while watching them do dumb things.

Here is the part of the review where I should clarify that A Darker Shade of Magic is a YA book. If I were reading this as a high-schooler, and not as a curmudgeonly adult on the workday commute, I’d probably like Lila more. At 19, she’d be a little older than me and her overconfidence would be less obvious because I’d be entertaining my own feelings of invincibility. Back then, I would never have said “Stop wandering off!” or “Listen better!” to a worldly 19-year-old like Lila.

But there are some positives, quite a few, actually. I really like the world-building in this series. If I keep reading, it will primarily be to find out more about Grey/Red/White/Black London. At times, the setting is more interesting than the characters. By extension, Kell is the most engaging since he knows the most about the four Londons. Also, he has the greatest coat of all time (Schwab rightly starts the book with its description). Some readers are upset that there’s no origin story for how the four Londons became connected, but this type of parallel universe might collapse under too much backstory. At its heart, A Darker Shade of Magic is a “return-the-dark-thing-to-the-dark-land” story; it needs the extra pizazz.

The other, and more surprising positive, is how dark the story is in places. When Kell and Lila are in danger, it feels genuine. There are some creepy moments early on when I worried about Kell. Logically, I knew he wasn’t going to die a third of the way through the first book of a series, but I fretted and gripped the book tighter nonetheless. There’s memorable imagery and plenty of clever details. The writing is much stronger than I expected and the Required Fantasy Words aren’t overused like in other books. Question: Has anyone ever “freed” a knife outside of a fantasy novel? (The Sword of Truth series is an outlier; there, Richard “clears” his sword in its sheath at every opportunity.)

Overall: 4.5 out of 5  I’m surprised too, given how rough I was on Lila, but like I said: I would have liked her more back in the day so it doesn’t seem fair to slide off too many points for her grating presence. Especially since she gets better as the book goes on. Why, though, do I have a sinking feeling she’s going to be overpowered in the next book…

Translation: Read it, but don’t take it too seriously.


20 Books of Summer 2017 hosted by Cathy at 746 Books

18 to go!

  1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  2. Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler
  3. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  4. Dead Wake by Erik Larson
  5. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  6. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  7. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
  8. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
  9. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  10. Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
  11. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien
  12. The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri
  13. She by H. Rider Haggard
  14. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
  15. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  16. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  17. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
  18. ??? (To Be Determined)

Previously On:

  1. The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie

Review: The Moving Finger

20 Books of Summer 2017: Book 1

I’ve been reading the Miss Marple books in order. Even though they’ve all been murder mysteries, the small-town vibe and gossip keep them light. Usually, series with a recurrent investigator feature that character as the lead, but the three Miss Marple stories I’ve read all feature different narrators. Miss Marple has been increasingly far from the action until here, in The Moving Finger, she only makes an appearance at the end.

The placid village of Lymstock seems the perfect place for Jerry Burton to recuperate from his accident under the care of his sister, Joanna. But soon a series of vicious poison-pen letters destroys the village’s quiet charm, eventually causing one recipient to commit suicide. The vicar, the doctor, the servants—all are on the verge of accusing one another when help arrives from an unexpected quarter. The vicar’s houseguest happens to be none other than Jane Marple. (Goodreads)

Jerry is my favorite narrator so far. He’s in the country to recuperate from a flying accident and has a jovial relationship with his sister, Joanna. They’re initially outsiders in Lymstock and Joanna doesn’t immediately get the memo on country dress:

I added: “Your face is all wrong too.”
“What’s wrong with that? I’ve got on my Country Tan Makeup No. 2.”
“Exactly,” I said. “If you lived in Lymstock, you would have on just a little powder to take the shine off your nose, and possible a soupçon of lipstick—not very well applied—and you would almost certainly be wearing all your eyebrows instead of only a quarter of them.”
Joanna gurgled and seemed much amused.
“Do you think they’ll think I’m awful?” she said. (Loc 8022)

The pace of the mystery is slower than in other Christie books I’ve read and the body takes a while to show up. Through the first act, Jerry and Joanna are left to puzzle over anonymous notes which don’t seem terribly threatening at first. Tension builds nicely through these scenes while the reader waits for something to happen. The letters make wild and improper accusations, but they’re so obviously false that everyone’s reaction is to throw them on the fire. For a time, this is the biggest mystery: in a tiny town where everyone knows each other’s business, why would anyone put so much effort into fake secrets:

“There are so many things the letters might say, but don’t. That’s what is so curious.”
“I should hardly have thought they erred on the side of restraint,” I said bitterly.
“But they don’t seem to know anything. None of the real things.”
“You mean?”
Those fine vague eyes met mine.
“Well, of course. There’s plenty of adultery here—and everything else. Any amount of shameful secrets. Why doesn’t the writer use those?” (Loc 8835)

In related mysteries: Why does Miss Marple take so long to arrive? Without her, the case moves along fine. Jerry makes a few deductions of his own and the investigators seem competent enough. Miss Marple’s presence feels tacked on (even though it’s very welcome). I suppose it’s for the best that she’s minimally involved. For her to be centrally involved in each case, all the murders would have to take place in, or very near, St. Mary Mead, which would quickly strain credulity. St. Mary Mead is lovely, sleepy village; it shouldn’t be awash with corpses. It’s amazing how many TV shows slide into this pitfall—as soon as the “regular Joe” starts investigating murders, bodies turn up everywhere… at weddings, in their favorite cafe, falling from the sky, and so on.

And Then There Were None is still my favorite Christie novel. The Miss Marple stories are more fun, but the solutions have yet to be as satisfying. In The Moving Finger, Miss Marple’s explanation verges a bit close to “if everyone is acting according to stereotypes and generalizations, here is the motive for the murder.” There was some of this in Murder at the Vicarage too, but it wasn’t as vexing since Miss Marple could also draw on her first-hand knowledge of her friends and neighbors.

Overall: 4.4  Unexpectedly, I have mixed feelings about Miss Marple’s presence in her own mystery series! She has a great way of making cryptic observations until she’s ready to solve the case, but she didn’t get to do much of that here. Also, the romantic side-plot felt unconvincing. I’m still not completely sure whether it’s entirely comedic or if it’s meant to be heartfelt too.

Translation: Read it.

20 Books of Summer 2017 hosted by Cathy at 746 Books

19 to go!

  1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  2. Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler
  3. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  4. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
  5. Dead Wake by Erik Larson
  6. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  7. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  8. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
  9. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
  10. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  11. Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
  12. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien
  13. The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri
  14. She by H. Rider Haggard
  15. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
  16. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  17. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  18. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
  19. ??? (To Be Determined)

20 Books of Summer 2017: Sign Up

My favorite reading challenge is back! Cathy at 746 Books is hosting her annual 20 Books of Summer reading challenge. It’s just like it sounds: read 20 books—any 20 books—between June 1 and September 3, 2017 (visit Cathy’s site for more information). This is the third year I’ve participated and the last two years have taught me that reading 20 books is far easier than reading and reviewing 20 books. Last year, I read 20 books, but most of them were off-list and few were reviewed.

Past lessons:

  1. Don’t scrape the bottom of the TBR pile. A little excitement for each title is required.
  2. Cool it on the lit fic…which I haven’t done.
  3. Leave room for procrastination.
  4. Don’t read 100 Years of Solitude on a deadline.

There are other lessons, I’m sure, but these were the biggest obstacles of past years. Three months always sounds like plenty of time at the start, but stuff comes up—late nights at the office, social obligations, and so on.

I’ve also picked books that other reviewers have described as impossible to put down. This signs me up for a few late nights, but the hope is that I’ll finish everything I start because all the books are just awesome. I’ve always been more inclined to finish books in a few long sessions rather than in 30-minute installments over a week.

I aim to keep my schedule: reviews on the 3rd, 6th, 9th, 12th, 15th, 18th, 21st, 24th (and sometimes the 27th). BUT, with Rule 4 in mind, I’ve made a spreadsheet of dates and marked the last 20 as dates to post books read during the challenge. A little jiggling was required to leave room for the NetGalley books I’ve already read/reviewed that’ll be published during the challenge.

Wish me luck and go sign up!
Happy Summer!

20 Books of Summer 2017 Reading List

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Still chugging away on the list of Pulitzer winners. Given my own eye issues, I struggle with books about blindness, but it’s on my list and everyone seems to like it. I haven’t heard from any traumatized reviewers. A good sign, right?


Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is a favorite and A Spool of Blue Thread was beautifully written. Breathing Lessons won the 1989 Pulitzer, so I can’t resist the hope it’ll surpass both.


The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

I read the first third of this book when it was published. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is a favorite story of mine, so I can’t resist stories that add Gawain as a character. However, The Buried Giant is tedious. Soon after quitting, I found a stack of reviews saying the ending makes the meandering worthwhile and friends I trust have strongly recommended it. Arguably, this breaks Rule 1, but the curiosity has been mounting for so long that I really want to read it now.


A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

I was briefly subscribed to a YA monthly box. YA has been making a comeback lately and letting a pro recommend some new books seemed a safe way to check it out. This was the first book I received and it has been hailed as a great example of clever world-building and lovable characters.


Dead Wake by Erik Larson

I read the first quarter of this book but was interrupted. There are so many names/places/dates that I’ll need to start at the beginning, but it’s completely fascinating/horrifying and the amount of research is incredible. I’ve been saving it for a time with few distractions. Larson’s style offers a unique representation of history. I have all of his books (except one). Each is better and more tightly written than the last.


The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

This book keeps popping up online even though it’s no longer recent. It sounds a little like those over-sharing autobiographies that try to one-up each other: “I see your miserable childhood and raise you one narcissistic parent.” Sharing is good and useful, but some details are no one’s business. When the gratuitous details aren’t even the author’s, it feels exploitative. There’s a line and I’m curious where this book falls along it.


Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

This book has spent a long time on my shelf since I picked it up for less than a dollar at a used book sale. I bought it mostly for the cover; it looks sophisticated and mysterious. Having just read New Boy, I’d like to try another of Chevalier’s books. This one should be better; it allows for more originality since, as far as I know, it’s not a retelling of a famous story like New Boy.


Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier

I’m a big fan of Daphne du Maurier (see JI, MCR, and R). Hungry Hill sounds like a stylistic departure from her others and I’m curious to see her writing from a new angle.


The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead

I dislike paying full price for books. It happens sometimes when a) I am really excited about a book, or b) when I feel bad for blocking a beloved author’s royalty check. Whitehead is on my radar for The Underground Railroad but I haven’t found a copy yet. I’m not in a rush, though. I like to read an author’s latest after reading some of their earlier stuff. This way, every book is potentially better than the last, not worse. The plot of The Intuitionist sounds weird, but good weird.


The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie

I’m reading the Miss Marple stories in order and this one is next. I love the small-town vibe of these stories.


My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

From what I hear, people all but take time off from work to read this book (and its sequels). This has been on my TBR for a while and I thought the summer challenge would be a great time for it. I need at least one compulsively readable book to make up time at the end!


Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

I don’t read much science fiction, so I often feel lost when browsing. The sci-fi on my shelf was all gifted to me or recommended by a trusted friend; this one’s the latter. It’s the first of a trilogy, so it’s not impossible books 2 and 3 won’t supplant two books on this list if the series is spectacular. It would have to be super-spectacular though; they’re not short and this year’s page count is already pushing it.


Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien

A short book! I read this when I was little—before The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings—and the illustrations caught my eye when I was browsing my shelves. It’s such a sweet and imaginative story. Rumor has it that Tolkien wrote it for his son after his favorite toy was lost at the beach.


The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri

I borrowed this book from a friend years ago and feel uncomfortable each time I see it on my bookshelf. Even worse: it’s sitting there with the second book of the series right behind it. I must read and return it (with its accompaniment) for the sake of my conscience. If this book is really good, the second may supplant some other book on this list. I don’t know why I haven’t read it; I suspect I’ll like it.


She by H. Rider Haggard

Now that I’m long out of school, I’ve been rereading books assigned for papers/presentations. Sure, I’ve already read this book, but I read it from the perspective of “what’s the theme of this book so I can pull quotes and write a paper.” For the most part, all the books from HS/University are much better now. After I read The North Water, I read Heart of Darkness, which made me think of H. Rider Haggard.


Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood

A short fiction collection is a good add for summer reading—stories can be read nightly for steady, effortless progress.


The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

I picked this up a couple weeks ago and read the first chapter. I was surprised that it was good, really good. So many people seem to have a beef with Hemingway that I’d about written him off. I thought about reading it then, but when I realized how badly I wanted to read it I put it aside for the summer challenge. Also, it feels like a summer book somehow.


A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Secret: I have never finished this book. I’ve read the opening chapter about five times to marvel at it, but I haven’t read much farther. I’m not sure why. It’s fragmented and I had an odd worry that each section wouldn’t live up to previous sections. I wanted to quit while it was ahead. Reading Manhattan Beach (which is amazing) gives me renewed energy for this book. Egan has an odd representation on this blog: one rave and one lackluster review. Here’s hoping for two rave reviews.


White Teeth by Zadie Smith

This book is supposed to be funny and clever and I keep seeing Zadie Smith’s name around. She gives great interviews and I’m excited to read one of her books. When I ask people to recommend “something funny,” White Teeth comes up a lot.

Book 20: TBD

There’s an expression: Know Yourself. I tend to procrastinate and have yet to stick to my summer list. This year, I’ve built in a detour to keep me on the straight and narrow. What will it be?—a sequel to something above? something irresistible from NetGalley? or something recommended by a fellow blogger?

(Originally, Brideshead Revisited held this spot, but it’s a long book and I don’t expect it to read quickly. I’m excited about it, but everything I’ve heard says it lacks the satirical edge that I loved in A Handful of Dust. Best to read it without a time limit.)


This is the easy part of the challenge: I can look at the pretty stack of books and feel the optimism: not only am I going to read them all, but I’m going to review them all, have a great time, and make a huge dent in my TBR. Such joy! A few weeks from now, I’ll be looking at the stack and urgently dividing the number of minutes until the deadline by the number of unread pages. But for now: joyous optimism!

Happy Summer, All! I look forward to seeing everyone’s summer lists!