The Piano Teacher (Elfriede Jelinek)

4 out of 5 stars

Cut to the Chase:
In 2004, the controversial Austrian author Elfriede Jelinek won the Nobel Prize for Literature for her novels and plays addressing violence against women, sexuality, and politics. I first read her work in 2008. I went on a feminist rant and whined that I wanted to read something gutsy written by a girl. A friend recommended Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher, translated from the German. I read the book and then I bought the movie on DVD.

Given the Nobel, I went into both the book and the film expecting to be impressed. (Whether that was a correct or incorrect expectation is a topic for another day.) But after all, a Nobel is a daunting achievement. Well, rest assured, this writer is daunting. She has no mercy. She’s not just gutsy – she’s all guts. And she is decidedly not for everyone, maybe not even for most. If you crave an inspiring, empowering girl-meets-world book – run away. If you want a feel-good movie, run away faster. This is a dark story. If you don’t have an agenda, stick around – it does get interesting.

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You Are Not a Stranger Here (Adam Haslett)

5 out of 5 stars

Cut to the Chase:
This is a beautifully written collection of short stories that explore mental illness, death, depression, homosexuality, and how we experience our own pain, as well as the pain of others. The descriptions are sparse yet powerfully compelling, and the stories that work will stay with you, pulling you in and forcing you to feel the turmoil the characters are experiencing. Though there are some weak stories here and there, the powerful stories are more than worth the purchase price of the collection as a whole. One of my favorites… though it is a bit of an exercise in misery, with all of the stories being tragic, tragic, tragic..

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The Yellow Birds (Kevin Powers)

3 out of 5 stars

Cut to the Chase:

The Yellow Birds is the debut novel of Kevin Powers, a veteran of the Iraq War with an MFA in Poetry. The book enjoyed billing this past season as the first great literary fiction to emerge from this war, but it seems many reviewers graded it on a curve (presumably) because of its subject matter and source. Politics aside, The Yellow Birds is not this generation’s war classic. It is, however, a new author’s formidable display of talent and potential – a tight, lyrical first chapter followed by a fractured narrative of 10 more chapters, much of it beautifully written, some of it problematic. Powers proves his enviable ear for language, and applies it well in many places, but overall the work lacks cohesion, and the lovely lyricism can be overwrought, especially when it stands in place of clear plot points and authentic characterization.

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Willful Creatures (Aimee Bender)

3 out of 5 stars

Cut to the Chase:
Bender’s writing is heavily stylized, and her situations make up a large part of the story’s effect – often they are metaphors for some more overriding emotion or experience, and sometimes it’ll click, sometimes it won’t. In general, I’m a fan: I think her prose is crisp and clear, and I can buy into the mystical universes because her characters are often, partially because they are featureless and nameless, more fully characterized and realized by their actions and what limited background we get.This collection however, is kind of hit and miss. It’s enjoyable at times, but nothing really stood out (unlike some of her other works) and nothing was grab-my-attention memorable.
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Last Night (James Salter)

2 out of 5 stars

Cut to the Chase:
On the one hand, Salter’s prose is tight and concise, and many of the scenes and characters are vivid and passionate. But there’s just too much similarity in the narrative voices, the character make-ups, and the struggles they face. The stories required a lot of patience to get through, and many had this kind of last act twist I found annoying. The writing isn’t bad, but there are better things by Salter and by other authors out there to pick up.
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Dancing Girls (Margaret Atwood)

2.5 out of 5 stars

Cut to the Chase:
The stories, although well-written for the most part, lack the fluidity and complexity we feel in Atwood’s longer pieces. Most of the characters feel trapped in various relationships and with a variety of shortcomings they are able to perceive in themselves, without being able or willing to change. We end up with a series of characters and stories where all of the action is internal, and all of the characters feel trapped in situations, which makes for a sometimes frustrating read. I’m a fan of Atwood in general, and list other books you might like by the author below, but ultimately feel like this was more of a miss than a hit for her.
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The Casual Vacancy (JK Rowling)

5 out of 5 stars

Cut to the Chase:
As others have pointed out, this is not Rowling’s first book for adults (she’s written seven others previously, and their titles all begin with Harry Potter and the), but it IS the first book she’s written that requires multiple trigger warnings (see spoilers below).  This is definitely not the Potterverse, but fans of Rowlings will find her humor, her large cast of different, believable characters, and her deftly interwoven storylines have carried through.  The book begins with the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother, who holds a seat on the Pagford Parish Council, and follows the inhabitants of the small town of Pagford through the aftermath of his passing, which has created the titular casual vacancy on the council.  While this sounds rather dull compared to wizards fighting epic battles, the magic here is in Rowling’s ability to bring characters to life and have them interact with each other in fascinating and believable ways.  She has answered the question of whether she can write non-Potter books with a resounding “Yes!”
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Noah’s Wife (TK Thorne)

5 out of 5 stars

Cut to the Chase:
This book is a wonderfully plotted, concisely written, enthralling blend of adventure, romance, fantasy and (lots-of-creative-license-taken) history. It begins a bit slowly: our heroine Na’amah is a young, innocent girl who takes a bit of patience to get used to initially (she’s just that green and naive). But… and this is a big but… like a classical concerto, it really builds, and though the anticipated flood (the title does after all refer to Noah’s wife) is one of the climaxes, it is not the only highpoint — there are several, very well plotted twists throughout the novel. I thought it began fairly well (like I said, a little slow, but still very readable), built up rather quickly, and by the middle, I was thoroughly entranced. The characters Thorne has created here are wonderfully complex, layered, and memorable, and this is absolutely one of the best books I’ve read this past year.

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Referred Pain and Other Stories (Lynne Sharon Schwartz)

3 out of 5 stars

Cut to the Chase:
Referred Pain introduces us to an eclectic group of protagonists and situations; some are surreal and fable-like. “Twisted Tales” and “The Stone Master” have unnamed protagonists trying to shift their way through imagined and imaginary fears and foes and have traces of Aimee Bender’s fantastical fiction.  The stronger works in this collection, however, focus on the everyday domestic situations and dramas which, often against the will of the readily recognized and empathy-inducing protagonists, are shaped by everyday crises. Like any collection, there are ups and downs, but overall, I laughed and empathized with many of the characters here, making it a worthwhile read.
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Two Girls, Fat and Thin (Mary Gaitskill)

2.5 out of 5 stars

Cut to the Chase:
This novel forced me to reexamine my prejudice against long and (I have always thought) unnecessary backstory. Well written and almost uncomfortably realistic at times, the internal, first-person narration of Dorothy’s horribly fractured childhood is almost hypnotic — and entirely backstory. On the other hand, other than one of the girls reminiscing about the past, and sex, very little happens in this book. It’s lucid, clear and well-crafted, but the narrators were frequently frustrating, and again, despite moments of sheer brilliance (like Dorothy’s backstory), there’s also just not a whole lot happening to keep you turning the pages (despite how well written parts are).
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