BOOK REVIEW | Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss

5/5 stars

Prentiss is ambitious with her first novel, crafting a complex, deeply interwoven narrative. The book spans countries and storylines, all the while offering a glimpse into the art scene in New York in 1980.

The story is built around a cast of fantastic supporting characters and 3 central characters: James, a synaesthetic and slightly eccentric art critic, Lucy, a small town girl who recently moved to New York, and Raul, a talented painter. These three characters will ultimately clash, a confluence of art and family. The story is so engaging that I never found myself seeking out the connections ahead of time, but rather enjoyed the progression of plot without expectation.

Prentiss’ prose is the sort that I soak up; witty, bold, and confident. Her characters are well drawn, each suffering a loss of great magnitude before ultimately finding new purpose. The character development is a driving force, moving the plot along effortlessly.

There’s a lot going on in this story, which is really its only downfall – I wasn’t ready to close the book on certain characters. I rarely say this, but this book could have been 100 pages longer and I’d be no less engrossed.

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BOOK REVIEW | Christodora by Tim Murphy

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
In this vivid and compelling novel, Tim Murphy follows a diverse set of characters whose fates intertwine in an iconic building in Manhattan’s East Village, the Christodora. The Christodora is home to Milly and Jared, a privileged young couple with artistic ambitions. Their neighbor, Hector, a Puerto Rican gay man who was once a celebrated AIDS activist but is now a lonely addict, becomes connected to Milly and Jared’s lives in ways none of them can anticipate. Meanwhile, Milly and Jared’s adopted son Mateo grows to see the opportunity for both self-realization and oblivion that New York offers. As the junkies and protestors of the 1980s give way to the hipsters of the 2000s and they, in turn, to the wealthy residents of the crowded, glass-towered city of the 2020s, enormous changes rock the personal lives of Milly and Jared and the constellation of people around them. Moving kaleidoscopically from the Tompkins Square Riots and attempts by activists to galvanize a true response to the AIDS epidemic, to the New York City of the future, Christodora recounts the heartbreak wrought by AIDS, illustrates the allure and destructive power of hard drugs, and brings to life the ever-changing city itself.

My thoughts:
This book gutted me; it tore me apart. It made me laugh and made me cry. It’s the kind of book that sticks – I know I will be thinking about this story and these characters for a long, long time. Tim Murphy’s Christodora is a bold story centered around AIDS activism in New York in the 80’s and 90’s. There’s so much more to it than that, though. There is love, death, and heartbreak. There is loneliness, addiction, and depression. There is beauty, art, and hope.

At the heart of this story is Milly – a talented young artist and daughter of Ava, a pioneer in the fight for AIDS research. In a story spanning 30 decades, we follow Milly from her youth into her middle-age, jumping back and forth in time to paint a clear picture of her life. Ava struggles with her mental health, something that impacted her ability to be a good mother to Milly when she was a child. As Milly gets older she begins experiencing depression and fears that she is following in her mother’s footsteps.

In her early 20’s Milly lives with her sculptor husband, Jared, in the Christodora House, an iconic apartment building in New York’s East side. Hector, their neighbour, was once a prominent AIDS activist, but after a personal tragedy turned to crystal meth. Jared is frustrated by his presence in the building and wants him out. However, Hector and Ava were a part of the early AIDS fight together, and Milly feels conflicted about where her loyalties should fall. Through Ava’s work, Milly and Jared meet a 5 year old boy, Mateo, whose mother died of AIDS when he was a baby. Milly falls for the little boy with the wild hair, and they end up adopting him. Mateo’s life will eventually crash with Hector’s in unimaginable ways.

Going into this book I knew very little about AIDS and the activism that took place during the 80’s and 90’s. For example, I had I no idea that early definitions of AIDS excluded women and that many believed women couldn’t contract the illness. I had no idea that there was a fight for proper medical funding and research, a fight for adequate medication. This book was an education, and I have to thank Tim Murphy for that – it was eye opening. That said, please don’t think of this as an AIDS book, it’s so much more than that.

Murphy has created something truly remarkable with this story, and I didn’t want it to end. Even though they are often selfish and flawed, I can’t recall the last time I felt so deeply invested in the characters of a book. Reading Murphy’s acknowledgements solidified for me how personal this book was for him, and I can only be grateful that he chose to share so much of himself, his experiences, and his losses with the reading world. Fans of A Little Life, this one is for you.

BOOK REVIEW | The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
This stunning, exquisitely written collection introduces a cast of remarkable characters whose lives intersect in ways both life-affirming and heartbreaking. A 1930s Soviet censor painstakingly corrects offending photographs, deep underneath Leningrad, bewitched by the image of a disgraced prima ballerina. A chorus of women recount their stories and those of their grandmothers, former gulag prisoners who settled their Siberian mining town. Two pairs of brothers share a fierce, protective love. Young men across the former USSR face violence at home and in the military. And great sacrifices are made in the name of an oil landscape unremarkable except for the almost incomprehensibly peaceful past it depicts. In stunning prose, with rich character portraits and a sense of history reverberating into the present, The Tsar of Love and Techno is a captivating work from one of our greatest new talents.

My thoughts:
We’ve given them all we can, but our greatest gift has been to imprint upon them our ordinariness. They may begrudge us, may think us unambitious and narrow-minded, but someday they will realize that what makes them unremarkable is what keeps them alive.

I don’t read too many short story collections, but am so glad that I picked this one up. The Tsar of Love and Techno is a gorgeous, heartbreaking, and hopeful work of art that pulled me deep into it’s world. Marra’s prose is breathtaking and poignant at times (some of the most beautiful passages I’ve ever read are in the final pages of this book), and biting and humorous at others.

9 interconnected short stories take the reader on a journey from the 1930’s USSR to present day Russia. Marra brilliantly ties the stories together through both a painting and the atrocities of war. The second to last story,  A Temporary Exhibition, binds the previous stories together, leading to a extraordinarily powerful finale.

This collection is so perfectly crafted that it read more like a novel to me, and I almost want to read this again right away. I’ll leave you with this passage that took gave me pause; I lingered on it, read it three times, and lamented the ending of this book.

The calcium in collarbones I have kissed. The iron in the blood flushing those cheeks. We imprint our intimacies upon atoms born from an explosion so great it still marks the emptiness of space. A shimmer of photons bears the memory across the long dark amnesia. We will be carried too, mysterious particles that we are.