Thursday, September 29, 2016

Book Review: "The Fall of Lisa Bellow" by Susan Perabo

When a tragedy strikes a friend, or even someone we're merely acquainted with, we wonder how that person or family is handling what happened. "I can't imagine what they're going through," we might think, or, sometimes more commonly, "There before the grace of God go I." Susan Perabo's new novel, The Fall of Lisa Bellow, looks at a tragedy through the eyes of a young girl who witnessed it, as well as her family, and illustrates reactions we might not be proud of, but which seem completely understandable in the wake of what occurred.

Meredith Oliver is an eighth grader with marginal self-esteem. She and her two best friends spend their time loathing the "mean girls" of their class—the pretty, popular girls who are the center of everyone's attention, criticize and belittle their classmates, and make many students hope they can avoid the girls' notice. One of the queens of the group, Lisa Bellow, was Meredith's friend in fourth grade, but obviously a lot has changed since then, and although Meredith and Lisa have lockers next to each other, Meredith lives in somewhat-constant fear that Lisa will embarrass her publicly,, relegating her to the bottom of the social strata of middle school.

One day after school Meredith goes to get a soda at a nearby deli before walking home, and Lisa is there, criticizing the sandwich maker. Without warning, a masked man with a gun enters the shop, orders both girls to get on the floor, and demands access to the store's safe. Meredith is calm at first, and helps Lisa deal with what is happening, but it's not too long before she herself begins to panic. The man demands Lisa stand up and he takes her from the store, leaving Meredith behind on the floor.

The Fall of Lisa Bellow looks at how Meredith handles the mixed blessing of being safe and being the one left behind. She vacillates between catatonia and rebellion, throwing her already worried parents further into a tailspin. She even imagines speaking with Lisa, and imagines what is happening to her, even picturing what it might be like if the two of them were abducted together.

Behind the fragility of Meredith's condition, the book also looks at how Claire, Meredith's mother, is handling this close call her daughter experienced. What happens when you realize you can't protect your children from everything out in the world? How can you keep living life as usual when you know there's a chance something might affect your children, something you can't control no matter how hard you try? How do you help your children if they won't tell you what they need, what they're feeling, what they're afraid of? And how do you handle everything else around you—your marriage, your job, your other relationships—when all that matters is what happened?

This is a tremendously thought-provoking book, and as she did in her incredible story collection, Why They Run the Way They Do (which made my list of the best books I read in 2015), Perabo pulls you into the story almost immediately. There is tension, there is emotion, there is even a little bit of disgust (perhaps even a bit more than you think), but there are also glimmers of hope.

Where I struggled with this book is that while I understood what might make the characters act the way they did, and certainly sympathized with them, I really didn't like Claire or Meredith's characters very much. Claire's behavior at different times in the book was almost horrifying, and while I realize Meredith was dealing with significant post-traumatic stress, her actions and reactions made her difficult to root for. But as I thought about how this book and these characters made me feel, I realized my reactions might be more true-to-life for observers of a family dealing with such a crisis, and I realized again what a genius storyteller Perabo is.

I didn't love this as much as her story collection, but this is still a very well-written book. If you're unfamiliar with Perabo's work, you owe it to yourself to pick up one of her books. You'll marvel at her words, but also the choices she makes in telling her characters' stories.

NetGalley and Simon & Schuster provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Monday, September 26, 2016

Book Review: "Eveningland: Stories" by Michael Knight

I don't know about you, but I have a list (both mental and written) of authors whose work I have enjoyed through the years, and from time to time I check all of the book-related websites to see if any of these people have books coming out in the near future. Some of these authors are more prolific so I don't have to wait a long time between books, but others keep me waiting for years, and in certain cases I wonder whether they're even planning to write another book.

I found Michael Knight's work when his first novel, Divining Rod, and his first story collection, Dogfight and Other Stories, were both released in 1998. The power of his storytelling emanated from his use of language and rich characterization, as well as his ability to create tension and drama without resorting to histrionics or elaborate plot devices. And although Knight's stories appeared periodically in publications following the release of his first two books, I waited five years for his next one, and then seven years for the one after that. (I wasn't aware he had written a holiday-related novella between the two.)

Since 2010 I've been hoping Knight had another story collection or novel in him, so when I saw on NetGalley that his latest collection, Eveningland, was due out in March 2017, you can bet I submitted my request as soon as possible! Six years of elapsed time haven't dulled his talent, and reading these stories felt like visiting with an old friend, a person with whom you can talk for hours on end.

Eveningland is a collection of seven somewhat-connected stories, each of which takes place in Knight's native Alabama. The stories are set between the Deepwater Horizon oil spill into the Gulf in 2010 to the arrival of a destructive hurricane, although not every story is firmly rooted in time as a concept. Each story focuses on relationships—between husband and wife, lovers, family, even strangers. And while each story seems relatively simple, it's surprising how quickly these characters find their way into your mind.

All of the stories in this collection worked for me on some level, but my favorites included: "Smash and Grab," in which a teenage girl turns the tables on a burglar—and keeps him guessing; "Grand Old Party," which tells of a man who suspects his wife's infidelity and decides to confront her and her lover, but doesn't think it through; "Jubilee," about a long-married couple preparing for the husband's 50th birthday party; "Our Lady of the Roses," in which a young art teacher at a Catholic school finds herself at odds with her career, her faith, and her relationship; and "Water and Oil," which tells of a teenage boy worried about the encroaching oil spill yet distracted by a more worldly waitress at his father's marina.

There are flashier short story authors out there, but Knight is a tremendously talented storyteller. Eveningland sneaks up on you quietly, hooks you quickly, and leaves you wanting more from Knight. I hope I don't have to wait six more years!!

NetGalley and Grove Atlantic provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Friday, September 23, 2016

Book Review: "Kids of Appetite" by David Arnold

As I was devouring (no pun intended) David Arnold's sensational new book, Kids of Appetite, I started pondering the existential question, "Why do I read?" As you'd probably imagine there isn't one easy answer to that question—at different times I may read for entertainment, escape, information, motivation, or to be moved, and quite often it's a combination of more than one of those.

While I didn't set out to read Kids of Appetite to be moved, this story of the bonds of friendship, preserving your own identity, overcoming tragedy, giving yourself (and others) a second chance, and the jumble of emotions which accompany first love absolutely moved and dazzled me. This is truly a special book, full of emotion, surprise, and beautiful storytelling, and it has found its way into my heart.

"We are all part of the same story, each of us different chapters. We may not have the power to choose setting or plot, but we can choose what kind of character we want to be."

Things haven't been the same since Victor Benucci's father died two years ago. Afflicted with Moebius syndrome, a neurological disorder that primarily causes facial paralysis, Vic is unable to blink or show much facial expression at all, which causes him to be ridiculed and treated as if he's stupid, which he most certainly isn't. He finds it difficult to make friends, and he misses his father tremendously, as he introduced Vic to the beauty of asymmetry in art. But as Vic's mother is trying to rebuild her life, he doesn't know how he fits in.

In the midst of an emotional crisis one night, Vic runs into Madeline Falco, a beautiful girl he's seen around a few times before. Mad has more than her own share of tragedy to overcome, but she recognizes in Vic a kindred spirit in need of help. She introduces him to her three companions, with whom she shares a unique family-like existence. They offer to help Vic with one major challenge he has undertaken—to solve the riddle his father left for his mother regarding where to scatter his ashes. But as Vic recognizes he can't hide forever, he is completely drawn to Mad, and he finds that she is as much in need of rescue as he is.

"I think Mad saw in books what I saw in art: the weightless beauty of the universe."

The book alternates between chapters narrated by Vic and Mad, and also shifts between the present, during which a police investigation is taking place, and eight days prior, when Vic meets Mad and her friends. While there are some twists in the plot that are given away in the book's synopsis, some are not, and part of this book's beauty is in letting the story unfold for you, so I'll stop with my plot summary.

I honestly cannot say enough great things about this book. While it's classified as YA, it definitely doesn't feel that way except for the fact that the main characters are teenagers. It's just so well-told, so moving, and anyone who has struggled with loss, feelings of powerlessness, and being ostracized for being different when inherently you're the same will identify with it. I haven't read Arnold's first book, Mosquitoland, yet, but you can bet I will.

It's amazing to think that there are still three months left in 2016 and I've already read so many incredible books which have left indelible impressions on me. Kids of Appetite is definitely one of those.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Book Review: "The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo" by Amy Schumer

Because I spend more time reading and going to the movies than watching television, I'll admit I was a little bit late to the party where Amy Schumer was concerned. I know I heard her name, but wasn't familiar with her comedy until I saw an article on Facebook referencing an appearance she made on Ellen DeGeneres' show, where she made Ellen laugh out loud more than a few times. (Needless to say, I did, too.)

Once I found her, I became a pretty big fan, watching most of her stand-up specials and her television show, and of course, seeing her movie debut, Trainwreck. Her humor is certainly not for everyone, and as a man, some of her jokes get lost on me, but I love her comic timing and her talent to be self-deprecating in a hysterical way. So while I don't traditionally read celebrity books, I decided to give The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo a try, not really sure what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised at the way she balanced her humor (including some things she has done in stand-up) and her journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance.

"I know my worth. I embrace my power. I say if I'm beautiful. I say if I'm strong. You will not determine my story. I will. I'll speak and share and fuck and love, and I will never apologize for it. I am amazing for you, not because of you. I am not who I sleep with. I am not my weight. I am not my mother. I am myself. And I am all of you."

Schumer made me laugh out loud more than a few times (if you're a fan, don't read this on public transportation unless you don't mind people thinking you're losing your mind), she made me chuckle and smile quite a bit, made me a little uncomfortable sometimes, and beyond that, made me think. She's not afraid to say exactly how she feels about issues, people, sex, drugs, her family, stand-up comedy, women's rights, even gun control. She touches on growing up as a child of a broken marriage, and how her parents' issues affected her. She also talks about her insecurity about her own looks, and how she finally was able to embrace confidence in the face of those who criticize and disparage her.

This is a fun and occasionally moving read, and while I felt she went on a little too long at times, I really enjoyed it. Schumer doesn't try to be anyone other than who she is, and I think she'd be a fascinating person to know and spend time with. If you're not a fan, or if strong language and sexual references make you uncomfortable, this might not be a book for you. But if you like a good laugh, and like to know how different celebrities are in "real" life versus their onstage/onscreen persona, check this one out.

"I look at the saddest things in life and laugh at how awful they are, because they are hilarious and it's all we can do with moments that are painful."

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Book Review: "Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana: Stories" by Jacob M. Appel

Often when I read a book by an immensely talented yet reasonably unknown author, especially when it's not their first book, I wonder about the randomness of fame. Why is it that some lesser-talented authors continue to see their books catapult to success, time after time, while others whose work is far superior don't get the level of recognition they deserve? I know it has something to do with the publisher they're with, and the publicity they receive, and at times the genre they're writing in might not generate the type of excitement that more bestseller-ready genres do, but it frustrates me sometimes.

I find myself asking this question a lot about authors, and I certainly asked it again when reading Jacob M. Appel's newest story collection, Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana. Here's a writer with so much talent, so much creativity, so much heart, that I just can't figure out why more people aren't saying, "Did you read Jacob Appels latest book?" And this isn't the first book I've red of his—I think I've said the same thing when I read two of his previous story collections last year, Einstein's Beach House and Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets, which both received honorable mention on my list of the best books I read in 2015.

How can you not love an author who starts a story with this line? "My father fancied himself a shrewd landlord—he refused to rent to lawyers, the children of lawyers, even a college girl 'who had law school written all over her'—but he bit off too much when he sublet to the mime." C'mon, short story fans, let's make this guy a star!

There are many things I love about Appel's stories. He's a great writer, and his stories all share a similar quirkiness, although one that doesn't detract from their overall power. But they also possess a great deal of emotion, which in some stories is utterly apparent from the start, but in others it surprises you until you've completed the story and you've realized how much you've just been moved in a short number of pages.

Among my favorite stories in this collection: "Pollen," in which a teenage girl schemes to trick her cousin and ends up being the one who gets hurt more; "Hearth and Home," which tells of a lonely diplomat's wife pondering an affair while they're living in Norway; "Saluting the Magpie," about a man struggling with his overprotective wife's fears about their infant daughter; "The Butcher's Music," in which a butcher has to deal with the unexpected return of her estranged, more successful sister, while also navigating striking workers and the romantic intentions of a rival; "Boundaries," which tells of a pair of border control guards facing a potential crisis; and "Coulrophobia," the story with the terrific opening line, about a family turned upside down when a mime rents the other half of their duplex.

Appel has such finesse with his stories, and every time I read one of his collections, I wish most of the stories were longer so I can know more about these characters and what happened to them when the stories are done. If you like short stories and you've never read any of Appel's work, I'd encourage you to do so. His stories are sometimes funny, sometimes moving, sometimes thought provoking, and always excellent.

The author provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Book Review: "When Breath Becomes Air" by Paul Kalanithi

Wow. I had to wait a little bit to pull myself together before writing a review of this exquisite book, even though I am tremendously late to the party on this one.

"...See what it is to still live, to profoundly influence the lives of others after you are gone, by your words. In a world of asynchronous communication, where we are so often buried in our screens, our gaze rooted to the rectangular objects buzzing in our hands, our attention consumed by ephemera, stop and experience this dialogue with my young departed colleague, now ageless and extant in memory. Listen to Paul."

Paul Kalanithi was, by all accounts, an excellent neurosurgeon, with the potential of being a true guiding force in medicine and science. He spent most of his early adult life seeking knowledge on multiple fronts, from literature and science to philosophy and ethics. When he finally decided to pursue a career in neurology, he wasn't just content to be a doctor—he wanted to understand and identify with his patients fully, to help them and their families adjust to whatever their new reality would be following a diagnosis, an accident, a surgery.

"I was pursuing medicine to bear witness to the twinned mysteries of death, its experiential and biological manifestations: at once deeply personal and utterly impersonal."

At the age of 36, Paul was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. Suddenly his life has transformed him from doctor to patient, not an easy transition for anyone, especially someone as hands-on with patient care as Paul had been. While he and his internist wife Lucy are prepared for the worst, Paul's oncologist has hope, and doesn't allow him to wallow in his diagnosis. If he wants to stop being a neurologist, she tells him, it has to be because he doesn't want to continue or wants to pursue something else—his cancer won't stop him.

As he struggles with thoughts of his future, however long that might be, he ponders how to fill that time. Should he continue working in a field that has so richly given back to him, and given him the chance to touch so many lives? What gives a life value, and how can that value be measured? What obligations does he owe his family, his friends, his wife, his infant daughter?

"At those critical junctures, the question is not simply whether to live or die but what kind of life is worth living."

When Breath Becomes Air is an intellectual and deeply emotional memoir, written by a young man with so much promise, so much heart, so much empathy. It is both a reflection on coming face-to-face with one's own mortality and a commentary on the responsibility doctors have to help their patients and their families through that same reflection, whether it happens with some warning or suddenly. It is also a love story, of a man and his wife, a man and the child he will never truly know, and a man and his career.

You know from the very start of Abraham Verghese's introduction to the book that Paul lost his battle with cancer, yet the end of his life, and the epilogue written by Paul's wife still feel like sucker punches. You mourn a man you probably never knew, but you feel truly blessed he chose as one of his final acts to share his life, his death, and his thoughts with the world, because we are all better for them.

"'The thing about lung cancer is that it's not exotic,' Paul wrote in an email to his best friend, Robin. 'It's just tragic enough and just imaginable enough. [The reader] can get into these shoes, walk a bit and say, 'So that's what it looks like from here...sooner or later I'll be back here in my own shoes.' That's what I'm aiming for, I think. Not the sensationalism of dying, and not exhortations to gather rosebuds, but: Here's what lies up ahead on the road.' Of course, he did more than just describe the terrain. He traversed it bravely."

This is a beautiful book, truly a work of art that I won't soon forget. Easily one of the finest books I've read in some time. My thanks to the Kalanithi family, and Paul himself, for this opportunity to view such an exceptional man at such a critical juncture in his life.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Book Review: "Monsters: A Love Story" by Liz Kay

I love when a book comes from out of nowhere and charms you completely. That was definitely the case with Monsters: A Love Story. I can't remember how I found out about this book, and although the plot isn't necessarily earth-shattering, it's an enjoyable twist on the traditional love story.

Stacey Lane's world was rocked when her husband Michael died, leaving her alone with their two young boys. Michael was an actuary, a planner, someone who believed in the power of routine, not just in raising children, but in all aspects of life. This is only one area in which Stacey, a poet, feels woefully inadequate. She believes that she and her sons are doing their best to handle their grief, and she's trying to figure out exactly how to carry on.

"It's the boys and I who are floundering. Just in different ways. They want nothing more to change, and I want everything to."

She is tremendously surprised when she gets an email from a producer inquiring about adapting her second book of poetry, Monsters in the Afterlife, for the big screen. While it received some critical acclaim when it was released, this novel-in-verse (a feminist reimagining of sorts of Frankenstein) doesn't seem particularly commercial. But the next thing she knows, her book has been optioned for film, and she's flying to Turks and Caicos to meet the screenwriter and the film's male star, who also plans to produce the movie, as he's the person who first thought it would make a good movie.

Stacey is utterly unprepared when she realizes the man behind the movie is Tommy DeMarco, a certifiable movie star, utter heartthrob, and total ladies' man. It's easy to be attracted to Tommy, especially when he is such a passionate fan of her work, and of course, Stacey has been feeling lonely since Michael's death. When their intense friendship moves to the next level, the sex is intense and they really enjoy being together, but given that she lives with her family in Nebraska and Tommy lives in LA, and since Tommy has been known to sleep with nearly every younger woman with a pulse, there's no danger of their relationship going anywhere, and that's totally fine with her.

As Stacey and Tommy's friendship deepens and the two get more involved in each other's lives, Stacey still finds it easy to keep him at an emotional distance. After all, she's been warned not to get too serious about him. Yet as she starts dating someone more solid closer to home, she needs to figure out exactly what she wants, and if she really is content with someone who won't make her life bigger, but perhaps will make it more stable.

I really enjoyed this book even as I had a pretty strong feeling about how everything would resolve itself. I liked the way Liz Kay pretty much flipped the gender roles in this relationship, making Stacey the one who really was fine without commitment, the one who sent mixed signals. The dynamics of Stacey and Tommy's relationship worked well, and I enjoyed the book's intellectual side as well as its romantic one.

This is a fun, sweet, moving story about putting your life back together (or trying to), the challenges of single parenthood no matter how old your children are, the creative process, and the importance of trust. You may have seen this story played out before, but it doesn't feel pat or boring, just really enjoyable.