Tell the Machine Goodnight by Katie Williams

It feels so good to have enjoyed a novel so fully that I read it in a day and a half. What had me so keen on the premise of Tell the Machine Goodnight is a) the fact that the synopsis “playfully illuminates our national obsession with positive psychology, our reliance on quick fixes and technology” and b) Gabrielle Zevin, one of my favorite authors who excels with her subtle little quips on our daily lives, blurbed it.

Pearl’s job is to make people happy. Every day, she provides customers with personalized recommendations for greater contentment. She’s good at her job, her office manager tells her, successful. But how does one measure an emotion?

Meanwhile, there’s Pearl’s teenage son, Rhett. A sensitive kid who has forged an unconventional path through adolescence, Rhett seems to find greater satisfaction in being unhappy. The very rejection of joy is his own kind of “pursuit of happiness.” As his mother, Pearl wants nothing more than to help Rhett–but is it for his sake or for hers? Certainly it would make Pearl happier. Regardless, her son is one person whose emotional life does not fall under the parameters of her job–not as happiness technician, and not as mother, either.

Told from an alternating cast of endearing characters from within Pearl and Rhett’s world, Tell the Machine Goodnight delivers a smartly moving and entertaining story about relationships and the ways that they can most surprise and define us. Along the way, Katie Williams playfully illuminates our national obsession with positive psychology, our reliance on quick fixes and technology. What happens when these obsessions begin to overlap? With warmth, humor, and a clever touch, Williams taps into our collective unease about the modern world and allows us see it a little more clearly.

Thankfully for my impatient temper, the introducing story starts off compelling enough, in particular, hits the spot for me upon introducing Pearl’s sixteen-year-old son, Rhett, who’s recovering from an eating disorder. His unknowable, remote nature makes for a natural pull in getting to know more about him. Incidentally, he’s also all the things that make me feel fond of a character: distant, moody, hates school, rarely leaves his home, is close to his mother (or getting to it).

Tell the Machine Goodnight 4To counter his anguished withdrawal, Pearl’s powerless state seeps in, when all she craves is to bring her child back from hovering on the brink, so she channels in her overprotective, overbearing, OVEReverything nature, similar to Joyce Byers in Stranger Things.

The following stories move deftly between alternating characters, such as Pearl’s ex-husband, Elliot, Pearl’s shifty coworker, Carter, Pearl’s high-end secret client for Apricity, who gets name-dropped throughout the book so that when we finally meet her it feels like all else has led up to this exact moment. At the heart of it all, though, stands Pearl with her fierce protectiveness (of herself, of her child, of her machine) at her beck and call.

Tell the Machine Goodnight gets so many things right by going outside the box not only on the platitudes of motherhood but through the whip-smart writing and a tremendous cast that lead to having numerous moments and turns of phrase to remind me of how good this book can be. Leading examples include:

  • #1

Tell the Machine Goodnight 15“unique store-bought personality” is one of the more memorable lines I’ve read this year.

  • #2Tell the Machine Goodnight 2

Typically, we’d fill in the brackets on our own, but Katie Williams is here to reminds us not to succumb to gender stereotypes.

  • Another moment where I felt the author truly shine was with Zihao’s introduction (Rhett’s college roommate, an international student from China). It takes a special type of writer to succeed at showcasing a character’s personality through text messages (and with emoji, no less).Tell the Machine Goodnight 1-- bookspoils
  • But he truly caught my attention when he got randomly along with Rhett’s mom.Tell the Machine Goodnight 2-- bookspoils The subtle ingenuity disposed between Rhett and Zi had me smiling like a fool.
  • And I’ll leave my review with one last riveting insight on something that I’m running over and over in my mind:

Tell the Machine Goodnight 5

I love how, throughout my reading experience, this novel remains utterly self-aware and keeps up with the whip-sharp and INNOVATIVE remarks on our deepest desires. And I know I said the above was the last passage I wanted to share, but I have one more subtle quip for the road: “Being home from college for the summer is like sleeping over at a friend’s house you’ve only ever visited in the afternoon. The furniture is familiar, but the light has gone funny on you.” 

ARC kindly provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Publication Date: June 19th, 2018


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Review: Three Floors Up by Eshkol Nevo

“For you, everything’s a story, eh? It’s just too bad that for me, it’s real life”

This slow-revealing, insightful Israeli novel was one that took me by surprise.

Set in an upper-middle-class Tel Aviv apartment building, this bestselling and warmly acclaimed Israeli novel examines the interconnected lives of its residents, whose turmoils, secrets, unreliable confessions, and problematic decisions reveal a society in the midst of an identity crisis.

The first thing that piqued my interest upon starting my reading of Three Floors Up was the author’s brilliant ability to make his characters shine in quiet moments. As well as having this disquieting nature at the very base of the introducing story that makes the narrator’s actions brim with tension, even when there’s nothing crucial happening on the surface.

“You can’t always pinpoint such things. Sometimes it’s just a feeling. The very slightest sense of menace in the air.”

Following interweaving threads between the three narratives, Three Floors Up is, at its core, about life and all its accompanying beauty, complexity, ease, and flaws.

I found the second floor is where I feel this book really flourishes, where Hani, known as “the widow,” is writing a letter of confession of sorts to her longtime friend, Netta. This story reverberated in its quiet resonance most strongly when her brother-in-law (Eviatar) shows up at her doorstep out of the blue.

Though, to give credit where credit is due, Hani starts of the story quite remarkably on her own terms. I still remember the utter thrill I felt at reading the passage below, of having Hani reminiscence to the one psychologist she clicked with years and years ago, whom she now decides to call, only to reach the son.

“I remained standing there with the phone in my hand even after we hung up, listening to the beeps that came after the call was disconnected. What a nerve she had, I thought, to die on me like that.”

I also appreciated the author’s efforts of never leaving a character without expanding on their thoughts or breathing some life into them. Speaking of which: Eviatar. He’s one of the more morally gray characters I’ve read about, which, when I really think of it, are essentially all of the characters in this book. But the author handled their flaws expertly, as this next passage best captures: “But I’m not going to talk about Eviatar yet. If I talk about Eviatar now, you’ll judge me harshly and I want you to understand the background first and then judge me (harshly, what else?).”

It’s all in the underlying sentences that aren’t said but are felt.

From telling captivating bedtime stories to handling the kids naturally in the mornings before school, it was nearly impossible not to get caught up in Eviatar’s charisma. Which is best cemented in this single paragraph:

“Before I opened the door to leave the house, he bent down to Lyri and said, “Remember what we agreed!” (They already have agreements?)
Lyri nodded. Hesitantly.
“If Mica says she doesn’t want to play with you at recess,” Eviatar persisted, “what will you tell her?”
“That’s your loss.”
“And what does that mean?”
“That I’m a terrific girl and anyone who plays with me can only profit from it.”
“And what does ‘profit from it’ mean?”
“That she’ll have fun.”
“Good. And you”—he turned to Nimrod—“give me a high five. Hard. Harder. The hardest. Now a hug. Tight. Tighter. The tightest.”

It was this, finally, that made the tears well up in my eyes. It’s also at this point that I was thinking, ‘This is a true man,’ but then I also remembered that he’s at the house because he’s being hunted down by loan sharks and needs to hide… So this is where it gets tricky in regards to his character because we feel all these conflicting emotions where we see him acting so kindly with the family, but then his business is unquestionably shady. Like, how do these two versions of Eviatar align?

So, without a doubt, Eshkol Nevo raised lots of important questions by introducing these characters. Also, if we’re already on the topic, I have to mention that the writing in here is sublime and unlike anything I’ve read before. I felt it in particular when I read this:

“Why are you helping me, Hani?”
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t have to.”
“Because you’re desperate.”
Or maybe I said, “Because I’m the only one who will.”
Or maybe I said, “Because Assaf wouldn’t want me to help you.”
Or maybe I didn’t say anything.”

“(I’m not trying to be smart, Netta. I’m really not sure what I said. Or what I just wanted to say. What happened, or what I wanted to happen. Honestly.)”

The breaking of the fourth wall, combined with perceptiveness, subtle humor, and a sense of timing all made for a transcendent reading experience. Full of slow-revealing storylines that are so worth the wait and fleshing out the characters through tiny detailed moments in time are what really make the story for me. Plus, the biggest bonus for me: capturing the essence of Israeliness, which I always turn for in books. Bottom line: I highly recommend this read.

Many, many thanks to the Jewish Book Council’s Israel Bookshelf for providing me with a physical copy of Three Floors Up.



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Review: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

“I was raised among books, making invisible friends in pages that seemed cast from dust and whose smell I carry on my hands to this day. ”

Just as I was thinking to myself how implausibly good it feels not having DNF’ed a book in a long while, The Shadow of the Wind comes into my life.

I went into this pretty open-minded expecting a book about loving books and reading, instead I receive a pretentious piece of confusing fiction, trying to appear smarter than it really is. Plus, having it use one of my most hated writing techniques of telling with little to no showing. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough we then have the dialogue whose sole job in this book is to convey information. There’s not even one point where the author tried to humanize the characters by making them appear more complex and dynamic, as one would expect. Or achieving that feeling of creating “characters who seemed as real to me as my surroundings.” Instead both the dialogue and the action grew extremely stilted the more I read on.

Take for example this next passage that had me saying enough is enough:

“Bea, wait.”
I cursed myself and ran after her. I stopped her halfway down the corridor, grabbing her by the arm. She threw me a burning look.
“I’m sorry. But you’re wrong: it’s not your fault, it’s mine. I’m the one who isn’t as good as your brother. And if I’ve insulted you, it’s because I’m jealous of that idiot boyfriend of yours and because I’m angry to think that someone like you would follow him to El Ferrol. It might as well be the Congo.”
“Daniel . . .”
“You’re wrong about me, because we can be friends if you let me try, now that you know how worthless I am. And you’re wrong about Barcelona, too, because you may think you’ve seen everything, but I can guarantee that’s not true. If you’ll allow me, I can prove it to you.”
I saw a smile light up and a slow, silent tear fall down her cheek.
“You’d better be right,” she said. “Because if you’re not, I’ll tell my brother, and he’ll pull your head off like a stopper.”

No one talks like that in real life… Also, this passage shows just how utterly lazy the author is with his writing by making two characters that were supposed enemies (literally) one page ago “bond” by appearing in the same location. It’s pretty obvious that instead of creating a new multifaceted character, Zafón opted to reuse a character we already know, who has a boyfriend, mind you, and have the main character be suddenly infatuated…

Also, this next passage illustrates my point perfectly of the dialogue being between detective and suspect.

“Are you a collector?”
“Something like that.”
“Do you have other books by Carax?”
“I’ve had them at some point. Julián Carax is my specialty, Daniel. I travel the world in search of his books.”
“And what do you do with them if you don’t read them?”
The stranger made a stifled, desperate sound. It took me a while to realize that he was laughing.
“The only thing that should be done with them, Daniel,” he answered.
He pulled a box of matches out of his pocket. He took one and struck it. The flame showed his face for the first time. My blood froze. He had no nose, lips, or eyelids. His face was nothing but a mask of black scarred skin, consumed by fire. It was the same dead skin that Clara had touched.
“Burn them,” he whispered, his voice and his eyes poisoned by hate.”

Please, don’t write dialogue just to convey information to the reader. I want to read and feel emotions from the characters, not like I’m reading a transcript from a court case.

It’s been too long since I’ve last been this heated over my lack of interest with a book. And I least of all expected it to be The Shadow of the Wind, which has such beautiful quotes here on Goodreads.

“As I walked in the dark through the tunnels and tunnels of books, I could not help being overcome by a sense of sadness. I couldn’t help thinking that if I, by pure chance, had found a whole universe in a single unknown book, buried in that endless necropolis, tens of thousands more would remain unexplored, forgotten forever. I felt myself surrounded by millions of abandoned pages, by worlds and souls without an owner sinking in an ocean of darkness, while the world that throbbed outside the library seemed to be losing its memory, day after day, unknowingly, feeling all the wiser the more it forgot.”

And that’s exactly what rendered me the most dissatisfied. The fact that most of the well-known quotes are taken from the first 100 pages of the book left me feeling exasperated, so much so that I couldn’t come up with one reason to continue reading. I didn’t care at all for the cardboard characters with zero storyline, so I had to put The Shadow of the Wind down after just 115 pages. And frankly, I have no regrets.

I will say, though, that this book had magnificent moments at the start when I put in the effort to listen to instrumental music (like this playlist). It heightens the reading experience by a landslide. The book goes from an effort to read to feeling like you’re watching a movie, which is why I was eager to look into whether this had any adaptions in the works… But unfortunately the author “will not sell the rights to any studio” because “he says that the story was written in order to be a book and we don’t want to lose the magic in a movie.” Figures…

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