The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

At the center of this book is Romy Hall, a stripper and single mom who gets sentenced to life in prison for killing a man who was stalking her–having had no decent defense put on at her trial. But there are a lot of voices around hers, about life both in and out of prison– in particular, Gordon Hauser, a young man who comes to teach English in the prison and struggles with boundaries, Doc, the crooked cop who also gets a life sentence for participating in a murder with one of the women in prison with Romy, and, yes, Kurt Kennedy, the stalker/murder victim. It’s really quite bleak, and although all the pieces do intersect, they don’t do so neatly (as is Kushner’s way). I was fully drawn in, and felt a sense of immersion in another world, despite its close relationship to my day-to-day work.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

This is a beautifully written book about a marriage and the people in it (Celestial and Roy) and what happens when justice goes wrong — Roy is wrongly accused of rape and sent to prison. What can Celestial reasonably be expected to do? For how long? The book doesn’t take sides–it left me feeling that both parties were right, even though their wishes were in conflict–a true testament to psychological storytelling. And of course there is an element of commentary on race, but the book doesn’t dwell on it, and successfully avoids any sort of didactic tone. A great read.

The Line Becomes a River by Francisco CantĂș

I liked this–a memoir or relationship to the border, partly about working in the Border Patrol, partly about family history, and partly about friendship with an undocumented family, and how all these things fit together. The writing is smooth, reflective, and sensitive. It’s told largely in isolated moments, with only a hint of an overarching narrative, but that seems to work. It avoids being overly political–no easy feat, on this topic.

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

The book sets off from a well-defined premise–what happens if you’re told the day you’re going to die. That sort of thing always concerns me–that you end up with characters created to serve an idea, rather than real people. I get shades of that in this book as well as pockets of over-research, and dialogue that puts the book’s subtext too much on the page. Also, characters voicing known political debates in ways that just aren’t original or interesting (Zionism, anyone?)

Still, I enjoyed this. I liked the Simon and Varya sections the best; theirs felt more believable as reactions to the prophecy. But in the end I like my books to be less concept-driven.

 

Theft By Finding (Diaries) by David Sedaris

Having read pretty much everything else he’s written, it was fun to read these and see both pieces of things I recognized and some personal insights and background that didn’t make it into finished essays. The later I got in the book, the more I started to recognize his familiar voice–I wonder if he started writing the diaries in a more self-consciously crafted way once he had become a somewhat recognized writer, or if his natural, casual voice evolved and populated both private and public writing–or maybe he edited the text more heavily in the later years. Either way, this was great fun to read for this Sedaris fan.

The Golden House by Salman Rushdie

And here we have Rushdie doing what Rushdie does. There is a grand-scale plot that fits neatly in the pages–it starts at the beginning and ends at the end–and too many tangential thematic elements. Here, it’s the story of the Golden family, or so they call themselves, their attempt to leave behind a previous life and their ultimate demise (3 sons and a patriarch) as observed, and interfered with, by their young filmmaker neighbor. There are Rushdie’s characteristic riffs on film, current politics, the Romans, and gender politics–perhaps too heavy a load for this narrative to carry. But it’s Rushdie–to be expected.

In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende

A story of three lives joined together by chance–and an overly unlikely adventure involving trying to dispose of a dead body, older people falling in love, digestive issues, and fear of deportation. I’m not sure I quite bought the plot of the present story, but we also got the highly engaging histories of the three characters, and that was where the book was at its best. The portraits were lovely, the lives–all three of them–difficult and sad without being overly grim.