The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud (2013)

womanI have complex feelings about this book. It has such a strong narrator, equally well represented in audio. It will appeal to 20- and 30-something professional women who don’t feel like they have it all figured out. And yet… it never really got past three shells for me. So I set out to interview my friend and fellow librarian Shannon (and the one who recommended it to me) to find out where I took a turn. Here goes:

Erica: You really enjoyed this book. Why?
Shannon:  I really liked The Woman Upstairs because it was feminist. This woman makes her own choices and goes her own way. They might be bad choices, but they are hers and she owns them. Also, the central conceit of being the “woman upstairs” really spoke to me. How women are supposed to be nice and sweet and unnoticed most of the time, and how the main character railed against that.
Erica: Why did you think I would like The Woman Upstairs? What made you recommend it to me?
Shannon:  I recommended it because we share similar values and ways of thinking. We both enjoy feminist characters and ideas, we both strive to be strong and independent like the main character, and I have the feeling we both have felt the way the main character does as a woman upstairs: chafing against what society expects women to be.
Erica: Yes. But back to your earlier comment about how she rails against that concept. Does she? I got the sense that she thought about doing it but kind of just kept going along with her day to day existence as expected. She just thought about it a lot.
Shannon: It’s been a while since I read it, so my memory may be hazy.
[SEMI-SPOILER WARNING]
Erica: Ok, so she kind of does art when she has her awakening. And she kind of has an affair. And then at the end she takes a small break from teaching to travel. But then what? Does she remake her life? Or does she fall back passively into the same life?
Shannon: I have the suspicion that she falls back, and that’s the true tragedy of it, I suppose. Or is this a watershed moment for her? I don’t know.
Erica: I also thought that nothing would change. She had tried and failed and been broken. I mean, yeah, sure, she’s angry. But she was kind of already angry. I think I was disappointed that her drive just wasn’t there. I was half asleep on the plane when I got to the point where she went to Paris and I was so excited that she was finally doing it! Making her art! Doing her thing! Traveling! And then I listened again and was like “Oh…” She just… doesn’t do what I thought. I think it was the let down that kept me from rating it higher. I think I wanted this strong voice to be a strong character. How do you reconcile the two?
Shannon: Well I guess that’s the thing. Her character is complicated, and that is what makes her interesting as well as frustrating. I think you would need an entirely different character to have the ending we want, where she strikes out on her own and does her art. Maybe we are supposed to take her as an example of what not to do.

And there you have it. Sometimes characters who don’t have it all figured out just don’t figure it out. I for one am not fond of that type of narrative, but that’s ok. Every book its reader.

Erica’s rating: three-shells
Shannon’s rating: three-and-a-half-shells

Pax by Sara Pennypacker


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What it’s about: Peter is a 12 year old boy and Pax is fox. They’ve been inseparable since the day Peter rescued Pax as a kit. Now they are being forced apart, but will go the distance to find their way back each other.

What made me pick it up: I actually picked this one up because the cover is so compelling.

My favorite things: Wow, reading Pax felt like getting punched in the gut-in a good way! Peter and Pax have an incredible bond, and I loved that we got to read about it from both of their perspectives. I was surprised to find that this story is really as much about war as it is about friendship. I wasn’t expecting war to feel as close as it does. Pennypacker does a great job of making war very real and very personal. Despite the heavy themes, Pax is mostly a story about love and friendship and how they can flourish even in troubled times. You’ll definitely want a box of tissues on hand before you dive into this one.

Who it’s great for: Tweens who can handle some graphic content. Those looking for a story of resilient love and friendship. Fans of The Fox and the Hound.

Abby’s rating: three-shells

A Truck Full of Money by Tracy Kidder (2016)

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What it’s about: The life and career of entrepreneur Paul English, most notable as the founder of Kayak.com.

What made me pick it up: Kidder has a wonderful way of writing about individuals that captures their charisma on the page and make you want to follow them on their journey. His previous book Mountains Beyond Mountains did this for Partners In Health founder Dr. Paul Farmer. I have been an avid follower of PIH since reading that book, so I wanted to read this immediately to find out who could have been so compelling that Kidder needed to write a book about them.

My favorite things: I’m consistently impressed with how the author humanizes successful individuals. He shows all of the traits, good and bad, that make them who they are and lead to their success or in some cases their failures before and in the midst of their successes. In this case, the manic side of English’s bipolar disorder is a driving force in his serial entrepreneurship.

Who it’s great for: Anyone who has enjoyed Kidder’s other books. Those looking for a good biography. Fans of Silicon Valley pioneer stories — I was reminded strongly of Creativity, Inc.

Erica’s rating: three-and-a-half-shells

The Fireman by Joe Hill


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What it’s about: It’s the near future and the apocalypse is nigh. A quickly spreading disease, known as Dragonscale, threatens the future of the human race by causing the infected to spontaneously combust.

What made me pick it up: After reading The Sunlight Pilgrims I was in the mood for a much warmer vision of the apocalypse. Actually, I put the ebook on hold a while ago and it was finally available to me.

My favorite things: The spontaneous combustion was nice spin on the pandemic story. The beginning of this book is really well done, and I was immediately hooked. The story follows Nurse Harper, an infected woman who is determined to deliver her baby healthy and free of Dragonscale. Harper is a compelling character who brings meaning and a sense of urgency to the story. Hill includes references to current public figures and pop culture that are fun to read, but make me glad that I didn’t wait to read this one. Bonus:fans of Hill’s father (Stephen King) will appreciate the subtle references to his work.

Who it’s great for: Readers looking for an apocalyptic story that doesn’t feel imminent. Fans of dark fantasy and horror.

Abby’s rating: three-shells

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

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Originally published in: 2016

What it’s about: Newly minted The Daily Show host Noah recounts his childhood in South Africa just as apartheid ended.

What made me pick it up: I’m a huge fan of Noah. I’ve watched his stand up and enjoyed immensely his new hosting duties. He shares many key features with former host Jon Stewart – a quick wit and a wide understanding among them.

My favorite things: This was a great tale well told about Noah but the best bits were actually the inter-chapter focus pieces on apartheid. I really liked how he wove them in so seamlessly. He reads his own books, so the audio is equally great.

Who it’s great for: Noah fans. Daily Show fans. Anyone who has a strong interest in Africa or apartheid. Those looking for a great, quick, memorable memoir.

Erica’s rating: four-shells


Get a copy of this book on Amazon (affiliate link) or at your local library.