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: Radio Sunrise

The pitch for Anietie Isong’s Radio Sunrise caught my eye because it seemed to be about making a documentary in Nigeria; plus, other sites describe it as satirical:

Ifiok, a young journalist working for the government radio station in Lagos, aspires to always do the right thing but the odds seem to be stacked against him. Government pressures cause the funding to his radio drama to get cut off, his girlfriend leaves him when she discovers he is having an affair with an intern, and kidnappings and militancy are on the rise in the country. When Ifiok travels to his hometown to do a documentary on some ex-militants’ apparent redemption, a tragicomic series of events will make him realise he is unable to swim against the tide.

Rather than being a teaser, this blurb is more like a summary. What I took as introductory/set-up material forms the first half of the novel. Ifiok doesn’t leave for his village until after the 50% mark and the documentary is pushed to the margins. The plot moves well and events accumulate naturally, but they’re often described in a cursory manner that doesn’t give a reader’s imagination much to do.

Ifiok is introduced as an observant journalist in the opening chapter, but so much sound, color, and vivacity are only hinted at. Things are often beautiful, opulent, or poor with few visual cues or specific details. A non-spoiler example: There is a scene in which Ifiok discusses fancy office chairs with a man who has purchased them via questionable funds. There’s a wall of dialogue about these chairs and their cost, but the reader doesn’t have a mental image to form his or her own opinion because the chairs aren’t described. Reading this scene feels like being the third wheel while two friends share an inside joke.

This sounds like a petty complaint and, if this were the only scene like this, I wouldn’t mention it. But there’s a curious mix of too much information and not enough throughout the book. Because Radio Sunrise is dialogue-heavy, conversations are the basis for most character development. The supporting cast is largely introduced via their conversations with Ifiok. Small talk is conveyed in great detail, but scenes often end when the real conversation starts, only for Ifiok to summarize its point and conclusion later. This makes it hard to connect with characters because the moments that would illuminate their views and motivations are happening off-screen.

It’s one thing to have small moments happen off the page, but there’s an instant in the climax when Ifiok is at his most passionate that should have been shown. He’s engaged in a screaming match, yet his words are unknown to the reader. Why? Because Ifiok can’t remember what he said. If he wants to forego a verbatim account, that’s one thing, but to not even give the reader a paraphrased piece of his mind? You could say Ifiok’s memory gap helps to reinforce the novel’s point, but a story and its subtext should not be at odds in such a way that one weakens the other. The ending is diminished for not hearing Ifiok’s views, even if his forgetfulness might be part of the story.

As to the positive, I liked that the story was told from Ifiok’s perspective as he tries to remain an ethical journalist—one who doesn’t prioritize bribes and money over reporting. The pacing is solid and the dialogue is ambitious; the dialogue does a lot of heavy-lifting in terms of character and plot development. There’s potential here too. Throughout, I wondered if this story would work better as a (long) short story or novella. If it were pared down, some of the transitions would be less jarring and the ending wouldn’t feel so rough. Ambiguous endings seem easier to take with short fiction, perhaps because there is much less of an investment (time- and otherwise).

Overall: 3.5 out of 5

NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Jacaranda Books (via NetGalley).
Image Credit: NetGalley