Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Book Review: "Our Souls at Night" by Kent Haruf

Few authors can captivate with simple, straightforward, moving storytelling as well as Kent Haruf did. I've read every one of his novels, and each time I finished one, I was amazed by the power of his writing and the impact his characters had. I definitely felt the same way upon finishing his last novel, Our Souls at Night. In less than 200 pages, Haruf made me think and made me feel.

In this book, Haruf returned to the small town of Holt, Colorado, where his novel Plainsong took place. One day, 70-year-old widow Addie Moore goes to visit her widowed neighbor, Louis Waters. The two have always known each other, but were never friends. But that doesn't stop Addie from asking Louis a difficult question: would he be willing to come over to her house one night and sleep in her bed, and perhaps talk?

The idea throws Louis for a bit of a loop, but ultimately his curiosity and his desire for companionship wins out. It isn't long before the two develop a strong friendship, perhaps tinged with love and a gratitude for the sort of second chance each is giving the other. Of course, the town is ablaze with gossip about the two, despite the fact that both are widowed and in their 70s. And it isn't long before Louis' daughter and Addie's son try and convince their parents that this type of thing just isn't done, no matter what kind of comfort they bring to each other.

"But that's the main point of this being a good time. Getting to know somebody well at this age. And finding out you like her and discovering you're not just all dried up after all."

Louis and Addie spend their nights talking about their lives—their happy and sad moments, their regrets, their unfulfilled wishes. They discuss their relationships with their late spouses and their children. They talk about life. But most of all, they revel in each other's company, and they don't care what their fellow townspeople have to say about their relationship. And when Addie's grandson comes to stay with her for the summer, she sees Louis in a different light, and he gets the opportunity to be the father he wished he could have been to his own daughter.

I thought this was such a beautiful book, hopeful and even a little emotional. I honestly didn't understand everyone's objections to Louis and Addie's relationship, given their age and the fact that they were both widowed, and people's reactions, particularly Addie's son's, were the only thing that bothered me about this story. Louis and Addie are such wonderful characters and their story proves that sometimes it's worth taking a risk in order to find friendship and love.

I wasn't aware that Haruf died at the end of 2014, and that discovery saddens me a great deal. I'd encourage you to pick up Our Souls at Night as well as all of his other novels, and get a glimpse of his tremendous talent. The literary world lost an artist, but his beautiful work will live on, lucky for us.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Book Review: "Music for Wartime: Stories" by Rebecca Makkai

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

A reality show producer. A cellist dealing with the presence of a growing shrine on her property. A minister in a town plagued by weather-related issues. A college professor for whom nothing seems to be going right. These are just a few of the characters in Rebecca Makkai's wonderful and intriguing new story collection, Music for Wartime.

Makkai is a tremendously talented author; her first book, The Borrower, was among my favorite books of 2011. I found her storytelling ability dazzling, particularly how she created such memorable characters. That talent was in full bloom in Music for Wartime, which juxtaposes a few stories with Holocaust-related themes or characters with other stories chronicling not-quite-everyday human struggles and foibles.

While not every story of the 17 in the collection worked for me, I was moved and captivated by a large number of them. My favorites included: "Cross," in which a cellist must deal with a growing shrine to an accident victim that is on her property, as well as her feelings about growing older; "The Museum of the Dearly Departed," which chronicles a woman's struggles to come to terms with the death of her fiancé, among other revelations; "Painted Ocean, Painted Ship," a story about how what we perceive isn't always accurate; "Good Saint Anthony Come Around," which chronicled the relationship between two artists, as told by another member of their circle; "The Miracle Years of Little Fork," about a small-town minister dealing with his town's struggles and his own emotional challenges; and "The Worst You Ever Feel," which told the story of a young boy captivated by a concert given by a famed Romanian violinist, and the revelations the boy has about the lives of the violinist and his own father.

For someone who didn't like to read short stories about 20 years ago, I have been fortunate to come across some tremendously beautiful and memorable stories. I'd definitely include some of the stories in Makkai's new collection among some of my favorites. While the book as a whole isn't perfect, it is still a fantastic example of her storytelling ability, and you'll find yourself thinking about some of these characters long after you've finished.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Book Review: "The Life and Death of Sophie Stark" by Anna North

"I thought making movies would make me more like other people. But sometimes I think it just makes me even more like me."

Anna North's fascinating, thought-provoking The Life and Death of Sophie Stark looks at the rise and ultimate fall (no surprise, given the book's title) of a young film director whose work causes people to marvel even while they're feeling unsettled or uncomfortable, told by a chorus of the people who perhaps knew her best.

Sophie Stark gets her start when she decides to film a documentary about a college basketball player she has a crush on. Her near-obsession with Daniel puts her younger brother on edge, as he is a student at the same college and only wants to be popular and meet girls. It also makes her more than her share of enemies. But her single-handed pursuit of her craft, even as it comes at great personal sacrifice, characterizes her style, and starts catching the eye of the film community, noting that she is a talent to watch.

As Sophie's career blossoms, she connects with people whose stories intrigue her, and she uses those stories to make her films. She is dogged in her vision and knows exactly what truths she wants to convey in each film, even as she alienates those closest to her. She wants to succeed and will not compromise her vision to do so, and she recognizes that success might take an emotional toll, but she appears all too willing to take those risks and move on.

Is Sophie a true artist, or is she simply a troubled, emotionally distant person willing to sacrifice those who care about her for the sake of her art? Does she recognize that she hurts or offends people, and if she does, does she care?

"I used to think I was special and that was why I seemed to fuck everything up all the time. But now I know it's just because I'm not a very good person."

Sophie Stark is one of the most fascinating characters I've come across in at least the last several years. At times she is utterly unlikeable, almost asocial, but you have to admire her drive to succeed and her passion for her craft. You also can't help but wonder whether the emotional connections she forges are legitimate or if she is simply using them to advance her career.

A number of my Goodreads friends absolutely raved about this book. While I was reading it, I honestly wasn't sure what to make of it because Anna North kept me guessing at where she'd take Sophie and the plot. North is a tremendously talented writer, as it takes skill to keep you intrigued by an unsympathetic character. But as someone who loves movies and those who make them, this book really resonated with me. Pick this one up.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Book Review: "Another Day" by David Levithan

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

Over the last few years, David Levithan has written or co-written some of my favorite books. And after reading his latest, Another Day, I'm starting to wonder if there's anything Levithan can't do.

Another Day is a companion novel to Levithan's excellent, moving, Every Day, which was one of my favorite books of 2012. This new book tells the story of Rhiannon, a high school student who is pretty much resigned to the fact that every day of her life will be no more exciting than the day before. Her relationship with her troubled boyfriend, Justin, causes her simultaneous happiness and frustration, and while all she wants is to plan a future with him, he rarely gives her the satisfaction of even treating her the way she deserves to be treated, let alone make her believe they have a future.

"I am in love with someone who's afraid of the future. And like a fool, I keep bringing it up."

One day, however, things with Justin seem different. He's more attentive, romantic, spontaneous, and the two spend the type of day together Rhiannon has always hoped for. But the next morning, things go right back to normal, with Justin being sullen and argumentative. And worse than that, he has no real memories of the day they spent together and why it made Rhiannon so happy. And all that does is make her realize how absent this type of happiness is from her life on a regular basis.

She can't seem to figure out why Justin is acting the way he is, and why he doesn't remember their day. And then one day she meets a stranger who explains the truth, which seems utterly improbable—but the more Rhiannon thinks about it, the more she wants to believe it, and the more she realizes that she is worthy of being loved. But that's just the tip of the iceberg.

"There is nothing that can make you feel quite so dumb as wanting something good to be true."

Like Every Day, Another Day requires you to significantly suspend your disbelief. But these books evoke so many emotions, so many ideas to consider, that no matter how improbable the plot is, I fell for it entirely. This is another wonderful book, and Levithan demonstrates his immense affections for his characters and the world that he has created for them. (I've been deliberately vague about the plot because you could read Another Day first and not be hampered in any way.)

I've said many times before that I love books that make me feel all the feels. This one certainly does, as does nearly every book that Levithan has written. If you're a sap like me, give these books a try. Hopefully you'll be as moved as I have been.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Book Review: "The Rocks" by Peter Nichols

The Rocks begins with a confrontation. Lulu and Gerald were married for a very brief time in 1948. And although both have lived on the island of Mallorca for years, Lulu in particular goes out of her way to avoid Gerald at every turn. Yet when the two run into each other nearly 60 years later, the anger, hurt, and resentment is still tremendously intense, leading to a tragedy.

What happened on Lulu and Gerald's honeymoon all of those years ago that could still generate so much hurt and animosity? How has what transpired shaped their lives and their other relationships, yet allowed them to (reasonably) peacefully coexist on the same island?

The Rocks is a story told in reverse. It starts in 2005 with the confrontation, and travels back, a decade or so at a time, until that fateful day in 1948. With each section you see how Lulu and Gerald's lives progressed, their happy moments and their tragedies, and how their lives intersected again with the Romeo and Juliet-like relationship of their children, Lulu's son Luc, and Gerald's son Aegina, which, too, ends abruptly. Their stories are full of adventure, hope, anger, loneliness, and a love of Mallorca and those they care about.

I'll admit that what first attracted me to this book was that the cover reminded of Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins, which I loved unabashedly (despite a very different setting than Mallorca). I enjoyed this book and in many ways liked its narrative structure, although it got to the point toward the end of the book where I just wanted to know what happened back in 1948. Peter Nichols is a talented writer, and I could just visualize Mallorca's beauty so many times throughout the book, and he also infused his story with a lot of emotion.

I thought the book moved really slowly at times, and yet at times I wanted more explanation of what happened with the characters at a particular juncture of the story. And while I found the characters fascinating, Lulu's behavior throughout the book really irked me, until I realized why she was the way she was.

I would recommend you read this book while you're on vacation somewhere sunny and beautiful, because this is a book that deserves a sun-drenched setting. It's well written and compelling, and I think it would make a really interesting movie.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Book Review: "China Rich Girlfriend" by Kevin Kwan

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

Kevin Kwan's first book, Crazy Rich Asians, was a fun, campy look at the outrageous lives and foibles of people in Singapore who are richer than you probably can even imagine. There was drama, intrigue, gossip, scheming, and a whole lot of shopping and eating. Kwan has brought most of his characters back in China Rich Girlfriend, giving you even more glimpses into the world of the ridiculously rich and infamous.

China Rich Girlfriend picks up where the first book left off: American-born Rachel Chu and her fiancé, Nick Young, have overcome the machinations of Nick's family and others who believed that one of Singapore's most eligible bachelors deserved a more worthy bride, and are preparing for a relatively quiet wedding in California. But if there's one dark cloud over the couple's happiness, it's that Rachel still doesn't know who her birth father is, despite the couple's trying everything in their power to find him.

But when Nick's mother, Eleanor, finds herself getting involved with a wealthy family in distress, she figures out the identity of Rachel's father. And while he is happy to discover Rachel's existence, his wife is not, to say the least. Rachel finds herself in the middle of more family drama, although she has the opportunity to build a relationship with some fascinating people, including Colette Bing, a fashion icon and web celebrity, whose wealth and consumerism is enviable and outrageous. But while Rachel and Nick have the opportunity to travel in ultra-first-class fashion, and shop and eat beyond their wildest imaginations, they don't know what risks they face.

Meanwhile, former television actress Kitty Pong, now married to the heir to the Tai fortune, is desperate to become accepted in society, yet no matter where she spends her money, or how many magazines she appears in, no one will give her the time of day. And Nick's cousin, Astrid Leong, is having problems of her own. While her husband Michael has become the IT guru of Singapore, their relationship is again on an uneven keel, as Michael's celebrity rises (much of his own doing), and the pressure and his expectations rise exponentially as well.

Kwan ups the soap opera quotient in this book, but doesn't skimp on the shopping, societal dramas, and, once again, the descriptions of the food, most of which made me incredibly hungry. I cannot even imagine a world or people like this, although I know they exist. While I really liked many of the characters, I found this book became a little rote after a while with the recitation of every designer and product that these people owned or wanted to possess. And when the melodrama ramps up toward the end of the book, I felt it took away from the core of the story.

Still, China Rich Girlfriend is another look at lifestyles you might not be able to fathom, but it does so in a fun way. It's like watching an episode of Rich Kids of Beverly Hills or some other show, but you don't want to slap most of these characters. (Most of the time.)

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Book Review: "Sparrow Migrations" by Cari Noga

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

One of the more harrowing and spectacular moments in recent history was on January 15, 2009, when a US Airways flight piloted by Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger struck a flock of geese shortly after takeoff, and Captain Sullenberger made an emergency landing in the Hudson River. All passengers and crew on the plane were saved. The images of the plane floating in the river, with the passengers standing on the wings waiting to be rescued, remain indelible memories.

Cari Noga's excellent novel, Sparrow Migrations, uses that event as a catalyst in the lives of three families. Twelve-year-old Robby Palmer, who has autism, is on a ferry on the Hudson River with his parents when he becomes fascinated with geese flying nearby, and then he becomes amazed to see a plane in the water. When he learns that a bird strike is believed to be the cause of the plane's malfunction, he becomes obsessed with learning as much as he can about Canada geese and other birds, and this quest for knowledge despite his intellectual and emotional struggles provides both stress and joy for his parents.

Deborah and Christopher are emotionally exhausted after two unsuccessful attempts at in vitro fertilization, and Christopher is reluctant to support a third try. But being on the plane that landed in the river has intensified Deborah's need to be a mother, and her belief that this is a sign that life is too precious. Yet when Deborah gets news that could impact her future, she has to decide whether to press on with her plans or share this information with Christopher and run the risk that her dream of having a baby may not come true.

Brett is a preacher's wife in Scranton, Pennsylvania, who has kept her true self and her true desires locked inside of her for years, for the sake of her marriage and her teenage daughter, Amanda. But a chance meeting at a food bank conference reopens old feelings, and when a news camera catches her on one of the ferries that rescued the passengers from the plane, she believes this is a sign that she should tell the truth about how she really feels and what she really wants out of life, despite the consequences this decision might cause.

The lives of these people intersect in different ways throughout the book. Each faces challenges that seem insurmountable, but they find unique ways of dealing with them, and trying to move beyond what is holding them back. I found this to be a compelling, well written book, and I really like how Noga unfurled the plot. Nothing that happens is particularly surprising, but it is still very satisfying, and even a little emotional at times. (Or maybe that was just me.)

It has always amazed me how your life can change in an instant. That truth was certainly the case for the characters in this book, and their journeys from that moment were interesting and fulfilling. This is a quiet gem of a book.