Review: Florida by Lauren Groff

36098092Verdict: Meticulously structured, deeply depressing, brilliant sense of place.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Published by Random House UK, Cornerstone, June 5th 2018

Genre: General Fiction, Short Stories

Find it on Goodreads.

Lauren Groff is a writer of rare gifts, and Florida – her first new book since her ‘clear the ground triumph’ Fates and Furies (Washington Post) – is an electrifying, expanding read.

Over a decade ago, Groff moved to her adopted home state of Florida. The stories in this collection span characters, towns, decades, even centuries, but Florida – its landscape, climate, history and state of mind – becomes their gravitational centre. Storms, snakes and sinkholes lurk at the edge of everyday life, but the greater threats and mysteries are of a human, emotional and psychological nature.

Groff’s evocative storytelling and knife-sharp intelligence first transport the reader, then jolt us alert with a crackle of wit, a wave of sadness, a flash of cruelty, as she writes about loneliness, rage, family and the passage of time. With shocking accuracy and effect, Groff pinpoints the moments and decisions and connections behind human pleasure and pain, hope and despair, love and fury – the moments that make us alive. Vigorous, startling, precise and moving, Florida is a magnificent achievement.

Any book called “Florida” needs to be infused by a thorough sense of place and Lauren Groff does just that. I have been a fan since LOVING Fates and Furies a few years back and have been meaning to pick up more of her books and this very strong collection of short stories has cemented her place in my heart.

While not every story is set in Florida, Groff’s protagonists all have a connection to that place, a connection they sometimes strain against and sometimes welcome. Her protagonists are women, depressed and difficult and wonderfully flawed women, often mothers with a difficult and believable relationship to motherhood. I loved the way these women are allowed to be difficult while Groff shines an unflinching spotlight on them and their flaws and the way they are suffocating in their own skin. I adore that theycan be unpleasant while ultimately staying sympathetic. I do wish this unpleasantness did not always also show itself in a disdain for their own and other bodies. Once I noticed that I could not unsee it. I would have liked there to be more variety in their deepest flaws because as it is the fixation on (often overweight) bodies feels unkind and unnecessary.

Lauren Groff is in perfect command of her language; her sentences are sharp in the way that I like them to be in realistic short fiction (comparisons to Roxane Gay came to mind here and that is obviously one of the highest compliments I can give a short story writer). The stories are meticulously structured and surprising while her perfect tone is recognizable in all of them.

Now, excuse me while I buy everything else she has ever written.

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Random House UK, Cornerstone in exchange for an honest review.

Review: The Rules Do Not Apply – Ariel Levy

32572166Verdict: Intensely readable, very thought-provoking.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Date Read: January 4th, 2018

Published by Random House, 2017

Find it on goodreads.

When thirty-eight-year-old New Yorker writer Ariel Levy left for a reporting trip to Mongolia in 2012, she was pregnant, married, financially secure, and successful on her own terms. A month later, none of that was true.

Levy picks you up and hurls you through the story of how she built an unconventional life and then watched it fall apart with astonishing speed. Like much of her generation, she was raised to resist traditional rules–about work, about love, and about womanhood.

“I wanted what we all want: everything. We want a mate who feels like family and a lover who is exotic, surprising. We want to be youthful adventurers and middle-aged mothers. We want intimacy and autonomy, safety and stimulation, reassurance and novelty, coziness and thrills. But we can’t have it all.”

In this memoir, Levy chronicles the adventure and heartbreak of being “a woman who is free to do whatever she chooses.” Her own story of resilience becomes an unforgettable portrait of the shifting forces in our culture, of what has changed–and of what is eternal.

To talk about this book, I have to also talk about memoirs and my relationship with them in general. This book challenged me and my ideas of memoirs, especially those written by women. I have talked about my enjoyment of memoirs elsewhere so it is safe to say that it is a type of book I gravitate to and read a lot of.

Ariel Levy’s memoir is a memoir about loss: the loss of her child, her spouse, and her house. She talks in absolute honesty of that loss and of the person she was beforehand, a person who thought that ‘the rules do not apply’. Living an unconventional life mostly governed by what she wants rather than her surroundings, she stands before a massive pile of broken pieces, having to rebuild not only her life but also her understanding of it. So far, there are plenty o similarities to any number of brilliant memoirs I have read in the last few years (exhibit a, exhibit b, exhibit c), but there is a crucial difference, I think: Ariel Levy does not apologize for the person she is, with all her flaws and edges. This is not a memoir about growth through loss, because why should it be? I adore this, somehow. I adore how unapologetically herself she is, even if that person is probably not somebody I would be friends with. And why should that be a criteria to judge a literary work on to begin with? I think, and a brief look through reviews seems to agree with me, that often female narrators (in fiction) and female authors (in non-fiction) are somehow judged on likability. As if that has any influence whatsoever on the literay merit. As if the way she deals with her (horrific) loss is in any shape or form up for debate. This is her life and her book and her way of framing the story. (This is something I also find to be the case in Lidia Yuknavitch’s writing as well as in Maggie Nelson’s writing, both authors I enjoy immensely and who are also criticized occationally for making things all about them.)

I found this memoir intensely readable, very gripping, and super thought-provoking. Ariel Levy’s writing is impeccable, her structure (both within a sentence as well as in the complete book) works absolutely wonderful, and her voice is perfect. The made me realize that I need to stop thinking about the likability of an author; it made me question my assumptions about the genre. I am so very glad to have read this.

First sentences: “Do you ever talk to yourself? I do it all the time.”