Jeanne Blasberg is a novelist, travel writer, and adventurer. She is a voracious reader and regularly reviews books on her blog, Goodreads, BookBub, LibraryThing, and Amazon.

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Vladimir by Julia May Jonas

Vladimir by Julia May Jonas

vladimir-julia-may-jonas-book-review-jeanne-blasbergI enjoyed the protagonist’s perspective so much. In Vladimir, a fifty-eight year old female English professor married to the former head of the department in a small college in upstate New York. Her husband has been relieved of his duties after 8 former students write letters accusing him of sexual impropriety. She and her husband have an open marriage seemingly born from her bad body image. Despite her own affairs and permitting her husband’s relations with other women, we catch the unnamed protagonist at a moment when she is coming unhinged, ultimately hatching a plan to kidnap and seduce an attractive new professor. Jonas writes with excellent nuance about all the modern day attitudes around sex and power dynamics. The first two thirds of the book were excellent, if I have any criticism it is the pacing of the last third. I would have preferred a slow but deep conclusion. I have been thinking about this novel for days now and this couple in particular, the detritus they left in their wake, while leading externally admirable lives. Also the cover is not a good portrayal of the literary gem inside – I almost passed because of the cover!!

 

About Vladimir:

A provocative, razor-sharp, and timely debut novel about a beloved English professor facing a slew of accusations against her professor husband by former students—a situation that becomes more complicated when she herself develops an obsession of her own…

“When I was a child, I loved old men, and I could tell that they also loved me.”

And so we are introduced to our deliciously incisive narrator: a popular English professor whose charismatic husband at the same small liberal arts college is under investigation for his inappropriate relationships with his former students. The couple have long had a mutual understanding when it comes to their extra-marital pursuits, but with these new allegations, life has become far less comfortable for them both. And when our narrator becomes increasingly infatuated with Vladimir, a celebrated, married young novelist who’s just arrived on campus, their tinder box world comes dangerously close to exploding.

With this bold, edgy, and uncommonly assured debut, author Julia May Jonas takes us into charged territory, where the boundaries of morality bump up against the impulses of the human heart. Propulsive, darkly funny, and wildly entertaining, Vladimir perfectly captures the personal and political minefield of our current moment, exposing the nuances and the grey area between power and desire. 

 

Read more of Jeannie’s Reviews on her blog, on Goodreads or StoryGraph, or on the New York Journal of Books. For more TBR inspiration, check out Jeannie’s curated book lists at Bookshop.org

 

Disclosure: If you purchase a book through one of these links, I may make a small commission at no additional cost to you, which I will donate to literary organizations in Boston and across the country. Thanks!

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I Came All This Way to Meet You by Jami Attenberg

I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home by Jami Attenberg

i-came-all-this-way-to-weet-you-jami-attenberg-book-review-jeanne-blasbergThis an especially good read for a writer. It is an inspiring story of perseverance from an author I admire. The opportunity to glimpse into her life and professional ups and downs was a treat. I have participated in Jami’s #1000wordsofsummer so it was no surprise to learn that her writing life is one where she doesn’t make excuses, she just writes. It is a testament that one doesn’t have to have a huge trauma or dramatic event in their life in order to warrant a memoir. This compilation of essays is beautiful with Jami transforming from one who led a nomadic life, crashing on people’s couches and in their guest rooms, to a home owning woman in New Orleans who is able to host friends overnight and feed them. One measure of success.

 

 

About I Came All This Way to Meet You:

From New York Times bestselling author Jami Attenberg comes a dazzling memoir about unlocking and embracing her creativity—and how it saved her life.

In this brilliant, fierce, and funny memoir of transformation, Jami Attenberg—described as a “master of modern fiction” (Entertainment Weekly) and the “poet laureate of difficult families” (Kirkus Reviews)—reveals the defining moments that pushed her to create a life, and voice, she could claim for herself. What does it take to devote oneself to art? What does it mean to own one’s ideas? What does the world look like for a woman moving solo through it?

As the daughter of a traveling salesman in the Midwest, Attenberg was drawn to a life on the road. Frustrated by quotidian jobs and hungry for inspiration and fresh experiences, her wanderlust led her across the country and eventually on travels around the globe. Through it all she grapples with questions of mortality, otherworldliness, and what we leave behind.

It is during these adventures that she begins to reflect on the experiences of her youth—the trauma, the challenges, the risks she has taken. Driving across America on self-funded book tours, sometimes crashing on couches when she was broke, she keeps writing: in researching articles for magazines, jotting down ideas for novels, and refining her craft, she grows as an artist and increasingly learns to trust her gut and, ultimately, herself.

Exploring themes of friendship, independence, class, and drive, I Came All This Way to Meet You is an inspiring story of finding one’s way home—emotionally, artistically, and physically—and an examination of art and individuality that will resonate with anyone determined to listen to their own creative calling.

 

Read more of Jeannie’s Reviews on her blog, on Goodreads or StoryGraph, or on the New York Journal of Books. For more TBR inspiration, check out Jeannie’s curated book lists at Bookshop.org

 

Disclosure: If you purchase a book through one of these links, I may make a small commission at no additional cost to you, which I will donate to literary organizations in Boston and across the country. Thanks!

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Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

crossroads-jonathan-franzen-book-review-jeanne-blasbergCrossroads, the first book in the Key to All Mythologies trilogy, is everything I love about Franzen – a big, American, family story. The author commands the luxury of time going deep into the psyches of each member of the Hildebrandt family, all terribly flawed, all trying to do good. The novel tackles themes of morality, religion, and GOD, to name a few of the big topics, while obviously including all we come to expect from domestic drama—misunderstanding, unrequited love, disappointment. The setting is 1971, small town Illinois with the Viet Nam war raging as a back-drop. The themes are set up to continue on in the trilogy, presumably propelling us toward the current day in the future installments of the trilogy. I listened to 25 hours of this audiobook eagerly, the narration offering so much to my enjoyment of it.

 

About Crossroads: 

A tour de force of interwoven perspectives and sustained suspense, its action largely unfolding on a single winter day, Crossroads is the story of a Midwestern family at a pivotal moment of moral crisis. Russ Hildebrandt, the associate pastor of a liberal suburban church, is on the brink of breaking free of a marriage he finds joyless–unless his wife, Marion, who has her own secret life, beats him to it. Their eldest child, Clem, is coming home from college on fire with moral absolutism, having taken an action that will shatter his father. Clem’s sister, Becky, long the social queen of her high-school class, has sharply veered into the counterculture, while their brilliant younger brother Perry, who’s been selling drugs to seventh graders, has resolved to be a better person. Each of the Hildebrandts seeks a freedom that each of the others threatens to complicate.

Jonathan Franzen’s novels are celebrated for their unforgettably vivid characters and for their keen-eyed take on contemporary America. Now, in Crossroads, Franzen ventures back into the past and explores the history of two generations. With characteristic humor and complexity, and with even greater warmth, he conjures a world that resonates powerfully with our own.

 

Read more of Jeannie’s Reviews on her blog, on Goodreads or StoryGraph, or on the New York Journal of Books. For more TBR inspiration, check out Jeannie’s curated book lists at Bookshop.org

 

Disclosure: If you purchase a book through one of these links, I may make a small commission at no additional cost to you, which I will donate to literary organizations in Boston. Thanks!

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Weather by Jenny Offill

weather-jenny-offill-book-review-jeanne-blasbergWeather by Jenny Offill
This was a fast read both in length but also because of the writing style. Narrated in the first person, Weather by Jenny Offill is a beautiful portrayal of the modern mind at work, flitting to and from between the personal, professional, familial, and then of course the global situation around climate change. The book is written in shortish snippets of the narrator’s thoughts as she balances life as a wife, mother, and sister. She is under financial pressure, not in a fulfilling job, with a brother who is struggling. On top of all this, she takes on the job of responding to emails received by a popular climate scientist. It is the burden of these emails and the questions they pose that become too much for both our narrator and the climate scientist. The book is a reminder of how with science as well as domestic issues, it is easier for humans to live in a state of denial.

 

About Weather:

Lizzie Benson slid into her job as a librarian without a traditional degree. But this gives her a vantage point from which to practice her other calling: she is a fake shrink. For years, she has tended to her God-haunted mother and her recovering addict brother. They have both stabilized for the moment, but Lizzie has little chance to spend her new free time with husband and son before her old mentor, Sylvia Liller, makes a proposal. She’s become famous for her prescient podcast, Hell and High Water, and wants to hire Lizzie to answer the mail she receives: from left-wingers worried about climate change and right wingers worried about the decline of western civilization.

As Lizzie dives into this polarized world, she begins to wonder what it means to keep tending your own garden once you’ve seen the flames beyond its walls. When her brother becomes a father and Sylvia a recluse, Lizzie is forced to address the limits of her own experience—but still she tries to save everyone, using everything she’s learned about empathy and despair, conscience and collusion, from her years of wandering the library stacks… And all the while the voices of the city keep floating in—funny, disturbing, and increasingly mad.

 

Read more of Jeannie’s Reviews on her blog, on Goodreads, or on the New York Journal of Books. For more TBR inspiration, check out Jeannie’s curated book lists at Bookshop.org

 

Disclosure: If you purchase a book through one of these links, I may make a small commission at no additional cost to you, which I will donate to literary organizations in Boston. Thanks!

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Five Tuesdays in Winter by Lily King

Five Tuesdays in Winter by Lily King

five-tuesdays-in-winter-lily-king-book-review-jeanne-blasbergSuch a great story collection. The range of characters and situations was striking and highlights King’s gift of insight and observance. It seams like many novelists are publishing story collections recently and so I actually wasn’t anticipating this collection to be as great as it was. My favorite being a story about a young man coached along in love and life by two college students hired to housesit and look after him sort of as an afterthought by his parents. Brava, I am an even bigger fan of King’s now.

 

About Five Tuesdays in Winter:

Lily King, one of the most “brilliant” (New York Times Book Review), “wildly talented” (Chicago Tribune), and treasured authors of contemporary fiction, returns after her recent bestselling novels with Five Tuesdays in Winter, her first book of short fiction.

Told in the intimate voices of complex, endearing characters, Five Tuesdays in Winter intriguingly subverts expectations as it explores desire, loss, jolting violence, and the inexorable tug toward love at all costs. A reclusive bookseller begins to feel the discomfort of love again. Two college roommates have a devastating middle-aged reunion. A proud old man rages powerlessly in his granddaughter’s hospital room. A writer receives a visit from all the men who have tried to suppress her voice.

Romantic, hopeful, brutally raw, and unsparingly honest, this wide-ranging collection of ten selected stories by one of our most accomplished chroniclers of the human heart is an exciting addition to Lily King’s oeuvre of acclaimed fiction.

 

Read more of Jeannie’s Reviews on her blog, on Goodreads, or on the New York Journal of Books. For more TBR inspiration, check out Jeannie’s curated book lists at Bookshop.org

 

Disclosure: If you purchase a book through one of these links, I may make a small commission at no additional cost to you, which I will donate to literary organizations in Boston. Thanks!

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The Dangers of an Ordinary Night by Lynne Reeves

The Dangers of an Ordinary Night by Lynne Reeves

dangers-of-an-ordinary-night-lynne-reeves-book-review-jeanne-blasbergBrava to Lynne Reeves for a who-done-it that delivered on so many fronts. Not only was I constantly second-guessing myself on the identity of the true culprit, I was ensconced in Boston’s Back Bay, the world of the theatre, and high-stakes parenting—a subject on which I obsess a lot! This book is the perfect length for a train ride or airplane flight. Time will disappear as you get sucked into the complex lives of its characters. They were really well developed and have continued to stay with me long after reading the (quite satisfying) ending.

 

About The Dangers of an Ordinary Night:

On a chilly fall evening at the prestigious Performing Arts High School of Boston, best friends Tali Carrington and June Danforth go missing after auditioning for a play. They’re last seen in grainy, out-of-focus surveillance footage that shows them walking side-by-side. Two days later in a town south of Boston, Tali is found disoriented and traumatized by the ocean’s edge, while June is pronounced dead at the scene.

Tali’s mother, Nell, is so bent on protecting her daughter from further emotional harm that she enlists the help of Cynthia Rawlins, a renowned therapist for families. Meanwhile, Detective Fitz Jameson is assigned to the investigation and dives into the lives of high-performing students who may be harboring dark secrets.

As Nell, Cynthia, and Fitz confront their own contributions to the tragedies and scandals that beleaguer them, their lives turn out to be more deeply intertwined than they’d ever imagined. And they must decide what lengths they’re willing to go to protect the people they love while also saving themselves.

 

Read more of Jeannie’s Reviews on her blog, on Goodreads, or on the New York Journal of Books. For more TBR inspiration, check out Jeannie’s curated book lists at Bookshop.org

 

Disclosure: If you purchase a book through one of these links, I may make a small commission at no additional cost to you, which I will donate to literary organizations in Boston. Thanks!

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Sankofa by Chibundu Onuzo

Sankofa by Chibundu Onuzo

sankofa-chibundu-onuzo-book-review-jeanne-blasbergI listened to this title and believe the narration added to my enjoyment. Sankofa takes you in to the world of Anna Bain at the moment she discovers her father’s diaries. The thing is, she has never met her father nor had her mother ever told her much about him. The pages she reads in his hand are of a young man from West Africa, a student in London, who experiences racial injustices and inequities while abroad. They paint a romantic picture of her white mother falling in love with her father, a man who returns to Africa, claiming he would return one day. When Anna Bain eventually decides to travel to her father’s homeland to seek him out for herself, he is a much different person. He was the ruler of the country for many decades, ushering the country into independence and in so doing gaining a reputation as harsh and dictatorial. This novel paints many pictures of the man, the most important being the one Anna reconciles in her own mind. It is equally revelatory that discovering who her father is helps profoundly in determining how she will move forward with her own life.

 

About Sankofa:

Anna is at a stage of her life when she’s beginning to wonder who she really is. She has separated from her husband, her daughter is all grown up, and her mother—the only parent who raised her—is dead.

Searching through her mother’s belongings one day, Anna finds clues about the African father she never knew. His student diaries chronicle his involvement in radical politics in 1970s London. Anna discovers that he eventually became the president—some would say dictator—of a small nation in West Africa. And he is still alive…

When Anna decides to track her father down, a journey begins that is disarmingly moving, funny, and fascinating. Like the metaphorical bird that gives the novel its name, Sankofa expresses the importance of reaching back to knowledge gained in the past and bringing it into the present to address universal questions of race and belonging, the overseas experience for the African diaspora, and the search for a family’s hidden roots.

 

Read more of Jeannie’s Reviews on her blog, on Goodreads, or on the New York Journal of Books. For more TBR inspiration, check out Jeannie’s curated book lists at Bookshop.org

 

Disclosure: If you purchase a book through one of these links, I may make a small commission at no additional cost to you, which I will donate to literary organizations in Boston. Thanks!

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The Teller of Secrets by Bisi Adjapon · NYJB Review

The Teller of Secrets by Bisi Adjapon

This review was originally posted on the New York Journal of Books.

teller-of-secrets-bisi-adjapon-book-review-jeanne-blasbergThe Teller of Secrets by Bisi Adjapon is a coming of age, character-based novel that follows Esi’s first-person recounting of her girlhood in newly independent Ghana in the 1960s. The narrator’s voice is fresh and observant, and in the opening chapter age-appropriately and amusingly naïve. The opening lines are a warning from a young friend to watch out for frogs after it rains. If a frog jumps on you, says Esi’s friend Elisha, you’ll turn into a man. Thus, Adjapon introduces readers to a central theme: the conflict of wanting to remain a girl in a man’s world.

Adjapon’s novel has much in common with Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley. Although set in different countries and decades, both books open with precocious protagonists witnessing the hypocritical behavior of a parent. In the case of Clever Girl, as is the case with many books of this ilk, the protagonist rails against a mother, trying to make meaning of an absent father. However, in Teller of Secrets, Esi lives with a domineering father—who is nevertheless, “the man I love the most”—and her stepmother and half-sisters in Ghana, while under the impression for most of her youth that her Nigerian mother is too busy to spend time with her.

As the novel begins, Esi and her father are on a trip to see a doctor in Accra because of Esi’s painful ear infection. They stay in a hotel where Esi reports, “the bed is making shweequaw shweequaw shweequaw sounds. I open my eyes. The moon is shining and Papa is a shadow on top of a woman who is also a shadow. The shweequaw shweequaw is because of the way they are moving. Something tells me I shouldn’t be watching, but my eyes won’t close.” In those innocent lines spoken by a nine-year-old is an image that hangs over the entire novel: illicit sexual behavior committed in secret yet out in the open, coupled with Esi’s inability to look away or deny what she and everyone around her must see.

The Teller of Secrets offers many interesting insights into the place and time of its setting. The particular historical moment and the traditional family structure in which Esi is raised enables Adjapon to amplify the theme of patriarchy and its effects on a young woman’s life. Esi’s father is the headmaster of a school, a valuer of education. He is proud of Esi’s intellect, saying she is “cooked with intelligence. Like Fire.” She knows she is her father’s favorite, a fact not lost on her stepmother and sisters, which causes a fair share of domestic drama. Esi’s father is determined for her to excel and surpass the professional stations of her sisters; however, that success appears out of Esi’s control, meted out sparingly by her father and his surrogates.

The novel’s powerful rebuke of the patriarchy continues in its willingness to explicitly recount Esi’s sexual maturation and the confusion and consequences that come with it. It is as if in portraying Esi’s sexuality in painstaking detail, Adjapon is daring the reader to not look away, just as Esi couldn’t make herself look away from the squeaking bed in the motel room during the book’s opening pages. It is as if the author is asking, Does the detailed description of a young woman’s sex life make you uncomfortable? Are you complicit in setting patriarchal expectations as well?

Early in the book Esi touches her genitals and then is raped by a young boy who was supposed to be watching her. Afterward, her stepmother forces her to sit in scalding water and ginger, saying, “I hope you’ll remember how it burns the next time you’re tempted to touch your under-canoe, you bad girl!” Of the experience, Esi tells readers, “Auntie says the punishment will help me close my legs until a man chooses me for a wife.”

As she grapples with these events, Esi continues to yearn for her mother: “If she were here, maybe she could explain about boys and girls and my secret place. When I ask Papa, the words come out wrong and his jaws clench and his bottom lip rolls out. When I keep at him, he asks me if I want a cup of Milo or do I want money to buy peppermint.” But she and her brother, Kwabena, will eventually learn that their mother is not absent but dead, though their relatives believed they were too young to be told.

Throughout the book Esi is funny in her very direct and sometimes biting language. Esi enjoys masturbating as well as “playing romance” with older girls at her boarding school. She embarks on a sexual relationship with a member of her extended family named Kayode who lives in Nigeria and later on conducts a relationship more appropriate in her father’s eye, with a man named Rudolph. In addition to finishing at the top of her class, she is a star sprinter and continues, after a much sought-after secondary school education, to university. Esi seemingly enjoys, more aptly put, demands certain freedoms in her life because of her father’s protection; however, the heartbreaking conclusion of the novel portrays a father who cannot, in the end, abide all his daughter’s wishes, trapped by the way “things are done.”

The early chapters of The Teller of Secrets are particularly gripping as Adjapon does a masterful job of portraying the world through Esi’s childish eyes. If the book has a shortcoming, it would be the speeding of time and events in its second half. The author touches on so many important topics in this novel—racism, abortion, fertility, divorce, as well as conflicts between Ghana and Nigeria in post-colonial Africa—that one could argue they were not all given their due time on the page. Still, the novel never loses sight of the thematic tension of its opening, as Esi vows, “I’ll never again wish for a frog to turn me into a man.”

 

Read more of Jeannie’s Reviews on her blog, on Goodreads, or on the New York Journal of Books. For more TBR inspiration, check out Jeannie’s curated book lists at Bookshop.org

 

Disclosure: If you purchase a book through one of these links, I may make a small commission at no additional cost to you, which I will donate to literary organizations in Boston. Thanks!

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Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

braiding-sweetgrass-robin-wall-kimmerer--book-review-jeanne-blasbergIf I hadn’t already been feeling a deep pull back to the earth, this book was everything I needed to choose a different path moving forward. The author starts out this beautiful book of connected essays by painting a picture of her young self, an aspiring scientist hoping for validation of the indigenous wisdom she’d been raised with. Little did she know that the scientific community and the traditional community rarely crossed paths and her career would become one of discovery and illuminating others in the lessons plants have to teach us. Reading Braiding Sweetgrass coincided with my departure from city life, delving into farming. I hope it isn’t just me and that this book’s popularity suggests there might be a movement afoot. A human understanding that healing lies somewhere beyond the pharmacies and hospitals the post-industrial population relies so heavily on. I will carry this book with me on my journey like a trusted friend, full of gratitude.

 

About Braiding Sweetgrass:

As a botanist, Robin Wall Kimmerer has been trained to ask questions of nature with the tools of science. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she embraces the notion that plants and animals are our oldest teachers. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer brings these lenses of knowledge together to show that the awakening of a wider ecological consciousness requires the acknowledgment and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world. For only when we can hear the languages of other beings are we capable of understanding the generosity of the earth, and learning to give our own gifts in return. 

 

Read more of Jeannie’s Reviews on her blog, on Goodreads, or on the New York Journal of Books. For more TBR inspiration, check out Jeannie’s curated book lists at Bookshop.org

 

Disclosure: If you purchase a book through one of these links, I may make a small commission at no additional cost to you, which I will donate to literary organizations in Boston. Thanks!

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Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

crying-in-hmart-michelle-zauner-book-review-jeanne-blasbergZauner’s book is one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. The devastation of losing a mother, trying to piece together who that woman was, intense memories around the smells and tastes of food, coming of age with parents who are far from perfect, told all with wisdom, humor, and incredible honesty – Crying in H Mart is filled with gorgeous language and succinct powerful descriptions, you will finish it and want to start reading all over again.

 

About Crying in H Mart:

In this exquisite story of family, food, grief, and endurance, Michelle Zauner proves herself far more than a dazzling singer, songwriter, and guitarist. With humor and heart, she tells of growing up one of the few Asian American kids at her school in Eugene, Oregon; of struggling with her mother’s particular, high expectations of her; of a painful adolescence; of treasured months spent in her grandmother’s tiny apartment in Seoul, where she and her mother would bond, late at night, over heaping plates of food.

As she grew up, moving to the East Coast for college, finding work in the restaurant industry, and performing gigs with her fledgling band–and meeting the man who would become her husband–her Koreanness began to feel ever more distant, even as she found the life she wanted to live. It was her mother’s diagnosis of terminal cancer, when Michelle was twenty-five, that forced a reckoning with her identity and brought her to reclaim the gifts of taste, language, and history her mother had given her.

Vivacious and plainspoken, lyrical and honest, Zauner’s voice is as radiantly alive on the page as it is onstage. Rich with intimate anecdotes that will resonate widely, and complete with family photos, Crying in H Mart is a book to cherish, share, and reread.

 

Read more of Jeannie’s Reviews on her blog, on Goodreads, or on the New York Journal of Books. For more TBR inspiration, check out Jeannie’s curated book lists at Bookshop.org

 

Disclosure: If you purchase a book through one of these links, I may make a small commission at no additional cost to you, which I will donate to literary organizations in Boston. Thanks!