Review: The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

9780312428815I was so excited to receive The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides as part of the Picador Book Club on Twitter.  I read Eugenides’ Middlesex two years ago, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2003, so I was really happy to get this book and started it as soon as it landed on my doorstep.

First published in 1993 and set in a quiet Detroit suburb, this book is about the Lisbon girls, 5 daughters in an unusual family who all commit suicide over the course of one year. It’s told from the perspective of a group of neighborhood boys years after the suicides; boys who became obsessed with what was happening in the Lisbon household and who were always watching and peering out their windows for clues. Boys who would have given their right arms to be close to these young women.

“They were short, round-buttocked in denim, with roundish cheeks that recalled that same dorsal softness. Whenever we got a glimpse, their faces looked indecently revealed, as though we were used to seeing women in veils. No one could understand how Mr. And Mrs. Lisbon had produced such beautiful children.”

Cecelia Lisbon is the first sister to commit suicide, followed a year later by Lux, Bonnie, Mary, and Therese. Cecelia is the youngest at 13. She fails at her first suicide attempt but succeeds quite spectacularly the second time around.

The girls’ motivations are never explained.  Maybe they’re depressed, maybe they’re disturbed, maybe they are stifled by the weight of their overbearing parents and can’t take it anymore.  Maybe not.  We’ll never know, because we aren’t hearing from them. The story is told by the boys and what they can remember, what they’ve assumed or picked up from talking to others, and what artifacts they were able to salvage from the home when it was cleared out after the family left the neighborhood. These boys knew the minute details of the girls lives- what kind of lipstick they wore, what feminine products they used, what music they listened to, games they played, food they ate, clothes they wore. But all their knowledge was from afar; they didn’t know the first thing about who they were or why they did what they did anymore than the media that swooped in to cover the story.

Jeffrey Eugenides, author of The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex

Jeffrey Eugenides, author of The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex

This book is really unusual, with comic moments and haunting passages. It’s bizarre, too, in its subject matter and structure, told as sort of a research report by this group of nameless boys. I enjoyed the setting since I grew up in the Detroit area, and details about fish flies, burning leaves, and Dutch Elm disease are like scenes right out of my own childhood.  Mr. Eugenides grew up in Detroit too and is only a few years older than I am, so it makes sense that he was able to capture the feeling of place so authentically.

This is an internal type of book; weird and wonderful and dark. A movie was made in 1999 with James Woods, Kathleen Turner, Josh Hartnett, Danny DeVito, and Kirsten Dunst as Lux Lisbon. I’m not sure how I missed hearing about it, but then again, my kids were babies at the time and I didn’t get out much. I’m going to see if I can get it on Netflix. Here’s a link to the trailer for the movie– I can’t embed it but you might want to check it out.  It looks really good.

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Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

imagedbcgiFuku. Call it bad karma, bad luck, legend, curse, or a Dominican ‘F-you’, but the family in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz cannot get away from it.

The family is doing a balancing act between two cultures. Oscar is an obese, sci-fi loving, nerdy teen living in New Jersey with his mom (who fled the Dominican Republic as a young adult) and his brilliant volatile sister, Lola. He wants nothing more than to be understood and to someday lose his virginity. He has high hopes for getting a girl to talk to him in college, but alas nothing changes there and the nerdy boy becomes a broken-hearted, socially awkward man when a girl he idolizes wants to be “just friends”. Fuku has followed his mother from the islands to New Jersey- mom has breast cancer, Oscar can’t get laid, and Lola’s relationships are doomed.

However, the book isn’t really about Oscar or his tragic family so much as it is about politics in the Dominican Republic, a place where you can get the snot beaten out of you for making a joke, where falling in love with the wrong person can get you killed, where defending your daughter from being raped by a public official can land you in jail for 18 years. No wonder the people believe in Fuku. How else to explain the atrocities inflicted on them by a corrupt government and a treacherous regime?

The book skips around from present day to the past. There are many fascinating stories being told, which gives a solid foundation and back story to Oscar and his family.

Let’s talk about footnotes. I HATE THEM anywhere outside of a research paper, and this book has a ton of them. They were informative and interesting, sometimes funny, yet lengthy, disruptive and annoying to me.

The narrator of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao speaks in a hip, edgy ghetto voice peppered with tons of slang and expletives in both English and Spanish. It was a powerful, interesting voice, but I have to admit that my white bread suburban soccer mom ears didn’t catch all of it. As someone said in the comments HERE, I had to let the book and it’s language wash over me, and while there were words on every single page that I didn’t know- Spanish words, Dominican place names, cultural references, and many English words, too- I believe I caught the gist of the book.

The narrator, Yunior, is himself a character in the book (my favorite character, actually), but doesn’t become a part of the story until about halfway through. He tries to help Oscar socially, but when you are cursed, who can really help you? Oscar is who he is.

So. Did I like this book? I did. It was really different and I can safely say that I’ve never read anything like it. It is powerful. It is deep. It made me feel ignorant and insulated in my little American bubble. Would I recommend it? Absolutely.  But for another take on it, see Sheri’s review from A Novel Menagerie HERE.  She’s just joined my real life book club and we’ll be discussing it next weekend.

Here’s a video of author Junot Diaz at the Sydney Writer’s Festival, talking about Oscar (totally entertaining and worth watching if you’ve read this book or if you intend to):

Junot Diaz is a professor at MIT and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in 2008.

Discussion questions for reading groups can be found HERE.

Review: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of 9 unique short stories with a common thread… the characters are mostly people of Indian descent, either in America or India.

Lahiri tells these fish out of water experiences of immigrants and first generation Americans with compassion.  They are stories of everyday situations and frustrations; snapshots of daily life. Lahiri’s precise attention to detail is what makes them so amazing.

All 9 stories are excellent, but my favorite was the first story in the collection.  “A Temporary Matter” is about a young married couple whose marriage is suffering after the loss of a baby.  Their relationship has disintegrated into long stretches of silence until they get a notice that, for a week, their power will be cut off for an hour each evening.  For that week, they share meals and secrets by candlelight, until one heartbreaking secret is more than they can bear.

Lahiri is a gifted writer whose style is very subtle, sensitive and restrained.   Her stories are realistic and touching, and are told from different perspectives (1st person, 3rd person, narrator).  She writes of arranged marriages, marriages in trouble, loneliness within marriages, an affair between a girl and a married man, envy, fear, love; in other words, the human experience.  I would highly recommend this Pulitzer Prize winning collection.

Book clubs can find discussion questions HERE.

Cravings for Chocolate and Books

Last night I had such a craving for chocolate. It was an out of control, GOTTA HAVE IT craving. B. worked late and wasn’t home or I would have sent him to Dairy Queen. The kids were already in bed so I couldn’t go myself. I went through my pantry, hoping for a stray leftover Christmas cookie, or one of those chocolate covered granola bars, anything! But all I could find was a can of chocolate fudge frosting. I came dangerously close to whipping it open and eating half of it. After a mental tug-of-war, and some quick calculations of how many hours I’d have to spend on the treadmill to work off oh, 900 calories or so, I went to bed (patting myself on the back), but it was a really close call!! When none of your clothes fit, the last thing you need is half a can of fudge frosting. In the harsh light of day, it occurs to me I really should throw it in the trash. (Ha, like that will happen!)

A couple of days ago I finished Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2000. I’ll probably write a review later today. I’m still thinking it over and deciding how much I liked it. Sometimes it takes me a few days to let it settle in my brain, if that makes sense. My kids are home sick today (which may explain some of the moodiness of the last few days) so in between waiting on them and doing extra laundry, I might write a review.

I started The Girls by Lori Lansens Sunday night, and it’s not what I expected. It’s about twin sisters conjoined at the head; interesting characters but so far the book is rather slow moving. Or maybe it’s just me. I’m trying to get into it.

My book club is reading The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler for our February discussion. I haven’t picked it up yet but need to start it soon. Masterpiece Theater on PBS is having a series of Jane Austen movies on Sundays. It began last weekend with “Persuasion”. See the schedule HERE.

I haven’t read any Jane Austen, ever, nor have I seen any of the movies. I’m not sure how I got through school without reading any Jane Austen, but somehow I did. For that reason, I worried that I might not be able to really appreciate our book club choice, but I’ve been assured by another book clubber (and huge Austen fan) that I don’t need to be familiar with her work to enjoy this book. I’ve been told that once I start reading Austen, I won’t want to stop. Is she really that addicting? Will I crave Austen books the way I do chocolate?

Well, I’m being summoned by the sickies. At times it feels like I work here rather than live here! Any other moms ever feel that way?

Review: Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

Crossing to Safety, by the late Wallace Stegner, is an eloquent novel that explores the complicated nature of long term friendship. The Langs (Sid and Charity) and the Morgans (Larry and Sally) meet and embark on a 40 year friendship that is sustained through births, illnesses, job loss, cross country moves, career success, envy, generosity, thwarted ambition, and failure.

The story is told from the perspective of Larry Morgan, who, of the two men, is the more accomplished author, but the less financially stable. The couples meet when Larry and Sid, working together at a Wisconsin university, attend a party with their wives. The wives, both pregnant and due around the same time, are immediately taken with each other. The husbands also have much in common and have great respect for each other. The relationship of the foursome deepens over time and becomes more like family than merely friendly.

Crossing to Safety is honest and human. It unfolds slowly, meandering through reminiscences and meditations on what it means to be a writer, the power of friendship, the depths of love and marriage, and the realization that even your closest friends and loved ones are ultimately unknowable. No one, not even a very close friend, can ever know what truly goes on inside another person’s marriage.

The novel has at least three covers. The one I bought looks like this: 13777373.jpg

but I like this one so much better: 9780141188010l.jpg

It captures the mood of the book more accurately. Then there is this one, which I don’t care for at all:

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The title of the book comes from the following quote by Robert Frost:

“I could give all to Time except-except

What I myself have held. But why declare

The things forbidden that while the Customs slept

I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There

And what I would not part with I have kept.”

I’m not a poet and I’m not sure how to analyze that, but I think crossing to safety as stated here refers to what remains of a relationship after it is over, after death. If anyone can enlighten me on this, I would appreciate it.

Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1972. Crossing to Safety was Stegner’s final novel before his death in 1993.

I enjoyed Crossing to Safety. It is a quiet novel with no great dramatic action, no affairs between the couples or big plot twists. It is simply an extremely well-written, mature and beautiful tribute to enduring friendship.