Saturday, April 22, 2017

Book Review: "The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley" by Hannah Tinti

One thing about love, be it romantic, parental, filial, even platonic, is that sometimes you can't help whom you love, and you find yourself loving someone in spite of their faults (if not even because of them). Do we turn our backs on those we love just because they may be imperfect, despite all they may have given us? These ideas and questions are at the core of The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, Hannah Tinti's exquisite new novel.

For as long she can remember, it's just been the two of them—Loo and her father, Samuel. He's a mysterious man, with scars all over his body, including many from bullet wounds, but his rough exterior belies a deep sensitivity borne from the death of her mother, Lily, when she was very young. Samuel and Loo have a nomadic like existence in her childhood—just as it seems they're getting settled somewhere, suddenly one day her father will come home and tell her they're moving away, and they pack up only the essentials and flee wherever they're living, setting out on a new course. One of the only constants she knows is the shrine of sorts her father builds for her mother wherever they go, tiny glimpses into a life she never really knew.

"The marks on her father's body had always been there. He did not show them off to Loo but he did not hide them, either. They reminded her of the craters on the moon that she studied at night with her telescope. Circles made from comets and asteroids that slammed into the cold, hard rock because it had no protective atmosphere to burn them up. Like those craters, Hawley's scars were signs of previous damage, that had impacted his life long before she was born. And like the moon, Hawley was always circling between Loo and the rest of the universe. Reflecting light at times, but only in slivers. And then, every thirty days or so, becoming the fullest and brightest object in the sky..."

In Loo's teenage years, Samuel recognizes the need for constancy, so the two move to Olympus, the New England town where her mother grew up. He finds work—and challenges—as a fisherman, while Loo tries to fit in at the local high school. But it isn't long before the characteristics that make Loo special, the behaviors that come from a young girl raised only by her father, that she becomes an outcast, which awakens a surprising anger deep inside her, at the same time that she finds herself drawn to one particular boy.

The longer they stay in Olympus, the more entangled in the community and its quirks both become, yet the more Samuel can't seem to escape his old ways. Loo becomes more desperate to know about her mother, and the secrets her father has kept hidden all her life, and being Olympus helps to unlock some of those mysteries, yet leaves her questioning just who her father is, and whether the things he has kept from her all of her life were lies or simply sins of omission.

As much as this book is about Loo and Samuel's relationship, it's also Samuel's story, a chronicling of his criminal past and where each of his bullet scars came from, and the story of a love he thought would save him, a love he didn't nurture and care for as much as he should have. And it's also the story of a man trying desperately to tread the right path for his daughter despite his inability to keep his own demons at bay.

This was a fantastic, moving, beautifully told book. The relationship between Samuel and Loo is truly a special one, and even though he's not the best role model for his daughter, and he introduces elements into her life she would have been better off without, these things give color and shape to their relationship. There are times you wonder if Loo might be happier and more adjusted without her father, but then again, what would her life be without him?

While The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley is essentially a two-person story (with Lily's presence a strong third element), Tinti doesn't give the supporting characters short shrift. These are fascinating, flawed, memorable individuals who are so much more complex than they first appear. Not all of these characters are likable, but they truly bring something special to the book.

You may not think that Samuel is deserving of sympathy (or empathy, for that matter), but like many a flawed character in literature, you care about him despite his flaws, and for his good qualities, especially the fierceness with which he loves and protects his daughter. This is a book I won't soon forget.

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

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Book Review: "Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice" by Colum McCann

I love following friends on Goodreads who have similar tastes in books to mine. It's always fascinating to see different people's perspectives on books you've read, to see if they love the same ones you do, and if they were as disappointed as the ones which let you down. The potential downside? When it seems as if EVERYONE has read a book that you hadn't even considered, or just haven't gotten to yet. You know what I mean...

It's not that I hadn't considered reading Colum McCann's Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice, it's just that there are always far too many books and far too little time, so I thought a foray into nonfiction might bog me down. And then the reviews started popping up—people were breathless with their praise, they were moved, some were even in tears! Well, hell, I couldn't let this one pass me by then.

The fact is, when I was in fifth grade I wrote my first novel. Since I was mostly influenced by my afterschool diet of soap operas and my prime-time consumption of television shows like The Love Boat and Fantasy Island (it was the 70s, after all), the book was a tad melodramatic. In fact, my very first reviewer, my aunt, said to me, "So, does anyone in this book do anything more than get married, have affairs, have babies, kill each other, and die?" Well, no. Needless to say, the novel died a quick death.

I have dreamed of being a writer for most of my life. I write quite a bit as part of my "real job," but not fiction (although the occasional marketing copy or memo to my Board of Directors might qualify). I've written a few short stories that I tried to get published, but I've never gotten that far. I know I have a story, or a novel, inside me, but I just can't seem to flesh out the ideas enough to get them on paper.

Needless to say, McCann's book didn't just speak to me, it sang. Filled both with new takes on advice I've heard before, and new perspectives I hadn't considered, Letters to a Young Writer both encouraged me and made me realize the things I've perhaps been doing wrong in my pursuit of the fiction deep within me.

"One day you might find yourself hating writing precisely because you want to make it so good. Yet this awful truth is just another form of joy. Get used to it. The sun also sets in order to rise."

Beyond the inspiration of this book, what I loved is that while McCann treated writing as a calling, something writers feel they must do, he recognizes it can't be the only thing. He talks about the need to escape the pressure of writing, the need to enjoy life outside (and the outside), and the importance and sheer beauty of reading, one of my most favorite activities in the world.

"You read to fire your heart aflame. You read to lop the top of your head off. You read because you're the bravest idiot around and you're willing to go on an adventure into the joy of confusion. You know when a book is working. Give it time. ... A good book will turn your world sideways."
I am energized by this book, with the desire to write, certainly, but also the desire to read more of McCann's work. The fact that he could dazzle me so with a book about writing, combined with how I felt about Thirteen Ways of Looking (see my original review), definitely convinces me to revisit the one novel of his I had trouble with, as well as his other books.

Do you need to be a writer, or want to write, in order to enjoy this book? It certainly helps, but the fact is, anyone with an appreciation of the craft of writing, or who simply marvels at the lyrical beauty of sentences will enjoy this. McCann is a writer at the top of his craft, sharing his craft with us as he tells us about his craft. It's a little meta, but it's a lot fantastic.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Book Review: "Who is Rich?" by Matthew Klam

If people were happy with their lives, if they weren't having to deal with crises of conscience, relationships, and faith, what would that mean for the state of fiction? Much in the way that evil characters are more fun to read (and write) about, unhappy characters definitely provide a richer mine from which to build a novel.

Rich Fischer, the protagonist of Matthew Klam's Who is Rich?, is definitely unhappy. At one point he was a cartoonist of some renown, but he now works as an illustrator at a magazine which covers politics and culture.

"Illustration is to cartooning as prison sodomy is to pansexual orgy. Not the same thing at all."

The only thing really left from those better days is that every summer he travels to New England to teach a four-day cartooning workshop at a week-long arts conference. It's not the most fulfilling opportunity, but it does get him away from his family and from the constant problems weighing on his mind and his psyche.

"I wasn't a teacher. I didn't belong here. I'd ditched my family and driven nine hours up the East Coast in Friday summer highway traffic so I could show off in front of strangers, most of whom had no talent, some of whom weren't even nice, while I got paid almost nothing."

Rich and his wife Robin are unhappily married and on the verge of utterly resenting each other full time. Their two young children have their own dysfunctions, and how the couple chooses to handle (and/or ignore) these issues adds more strain to their exasperating relationship. Money is always tight, their sex life is almost non-existent, and both are often bitter, about their relationship and their lives.

"Was it a good life? Was I more joyful, sensitive, and compassionate in my deeply entangled commitment to them? Was there anything better than seeing the world through the eyes of my nutty kids? Was my obligation to Robin the most sincere form of love?...Was this as close to love as I was ever going to get? The closer I got, the more I wanted to destroy the things I loved. Something rose up in me, threatening me. I had to deflect it somehow."

There is one bright light drawing him back to the workshop this year—Amy. Amy is a painting student whom Rich met at last year's workshop, and they shared a flirtation, a little bit more than that, and then spent the winter alternately texting and longing to see each other, and punishing themselves for wanting this. She lives in a wholly different world than Rich—Amy is married to an extremely wealthy, reasonably loathsome Wall Street magnate who is barely home, and rarely pays attention to her and their children when he is. And as much as Amy wants more, wants something different, she isn't sure if she deserves that, and if so, if Rich is that something different.

This is an interesting meditation on monogamy, marriage, children, middle-age, financial success, and whether abandoning your dreams for something more stable makes you a sell-out or a failure. It's also an exploration of what kind of happiness we should expect from life—should you take what you're given or should you hope for more?

Klam is an excellent writer. I read his story collection, Sam the Cat: And Other Stories, about 17 years ago, and he's been one of those writers I've been waiting for years to write another book. This definitely didn't disappoint, although it's a bit more of a downer than I expected. Given the subject matter, it's not too surprising, but I felt the book flowed a lot more slowly because of its morose tone. There are moments of lightheartedness, even humor, but the dilemma that Rich and Amy find themselves in, and Rich's own struggles tend to take more precedence, at least early on.

Who is Rich? definitely made me think, and helped me keep the challenges of my own life in perspective. And isn't that why we read sometimes, to make us feel better about our lives than those the characters are living?

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

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Book Review: "The Dinner Party and Other Stories" by Joshua Ferris

Sometimes you love every book an author writes, and other times you have a completely different reaction to every one of their books. Joshua Ferris definitely falls into the latter category for me—Then We Came to the End left me bemused yet ambivalent; I absolutely couldn't get into To Rise at a Decent Hour; and I really enjoyed The Unnamed.

Despite that mixed track record, I still really enjoy the way he writes, so I jumped at the chance to read an early copy of his first story collection, The Dinner Party and Other Stories. Overall, I really enjoyed it—he kept some of the quirks which occasionally throw me in his writing in check, and these stories are compulsively readable. They're fascinating, some are really packed with emotion, some are a little bizarre, and you just want to know how Ferris will tie things up.

Many of the 11 stories in this collection seem fairly innocuous at first, with characters you think you've seen before—a husband dreading another dinner party with his wife's oldest friend and her husband; the retiree who laments growing old alone; a man who is falling to pieces because he believes his wife has left him. But as you delve deeper into these stories, you discover that nothing is quite what it seems, and which gives each story a little bit of an unexpected kick. Sometimes that doesn't quite work, but for the most part, it really does.

Only one story in the collection really didn't excite me, but my favorites included: "The Pilot," in which an insecure writer gets invited to the party of a famous writer he met once, but he wonders if she meant to invite him, and he struggles with whether to go; "The Valetudinarian," about an elderly man struggling with growing old alone, whose life is literally changed by the arrival of an intriguing gift from an estranged friend; "More Abandon, or What Ever Happened to Joe Pope," which tells of a man's exploits in his office after hours; "The Breeze," about a woman who nearly comes undone with the possibilities which arrive with an unexpected spring breeze; "The Stepchild," in which an actor seeks out a woman he met one night, in order to counter his despair that his wife has left him; and the title story, which tells of a couple awaiting friends to come over for a dinner party, despite the fact that the husband is utterly over them.

There were many times in these seemingly simple stories that I was wowed by Ferris' prose. One such example comes from "The Stepchild":
And what you are growing here, and there, and over there, are little moments, and the memories make a life that can't be taken away from you by anyone or anything, not other people's fickleness, not even death. In the long run, you know, that's better than bowls of dried flowers, or whatever.
I don't believe that every person who has been successful at writing novels is as successful writing stories, and vice versa. But I felt that Ferris' storytelling ability was on great display in The Dinner Party and Other Stories. These were stories which really resonated, and worked for me in ways that his novels haven't always succeeded. And even if you've never read any of his books but you're a short story fan, this is a collection worth exploring.

NetGalley and Little, Brown and Company provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Book Review: "The Upside of Unrequited" by Becky Albertalli

Becky Albertalli, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways...

I fell in complete and utter love with Albertalli's first book, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (see my original review). I devoured it in less than a day, and it was a no-brainer that the book showed up on my list of the best books I read in 2015.

As you might imagine, the minute her newest book, The Upside of Unrequited, came out, I pounced. I bought it at like 12:01 a.m. on the day it was released—I set my alarm and woke up to buy it, dork that I am. I tried really hard to keep my expectations from getting utterly out of control, because when you love an author's first book, don't you expect—and hope against hope—that you'll love every one of their subsequent books, too?

Molly Peskin-Suso is 17 years old. She's funny, smart, sensitive, and amazingly crafty—she can actually make the things you see on Pinterest. She makes desserts (including safe-to-eat raw cookie dough) in mason jars. She knows she has a bit of a weight problem, but everyone tells her what a pretty face she has, and sometimes her anxiety gets the best of her. But she's also a hopeless romantic—a fact that can be easily borne out by the 26 crushes she's had on boys throughout her lifetime.

"There's a reason I've had twenty-six crushes and no boyfriends. I don't entirely understand how anyone gets a boyfriend. Or a girlfriend. It just seems like the most impossible odds. You have to have a crush on the exact right person at the exact right moment. And they have to like you back. A perfect alignment of feelings and circumstances. It's almost unfathomable that it happens as often as it does."

One night, Molly's twin sister Cassie meets Mina, the girl of her dreams. (Actually, Molly meets her, but immediately knows that she's Cassie's dream girl.) For the first time, Cassie is smitten beyond a simple hook-up: Mina is relationship material. Suddenly Molly finds herself on the outside looking in—of course Cassie wants to spend time with Mina and talk about Mina, and she's totally happy for her, but she's a little sad, too. But it's not like Cassie is one of those people who throws everyone else away when she's in a relationship—one of Mina's cute hipster friends, Will, seems to like Molly, so they should totally hook up and they can double-date!

Will is cute and charming and seems to think Molly's funny. And while Molly has proven that she's more than capable of having crushes on boys, with Will it seems like she's more excited about the idea of having a crush on him than actually feeling that way. Maybe that's because she's just met Reid, a chubby, adorable fan of Game of Thrones, Tolkien, and the Renaissance Festival. Reid makes her feel that way, but if she lets herself fall for him, won't it ruin everything with Cassie?

"If I had to describe the feeling of a crush, I'd say this: you just finished running a mile, and you have to throw up, and you're starving, but no food seems appealing, and your brain becomes fog, and you also have to pee. It's this close to intolerable. But I like it. More than like it. I crave it."

Amidst the backdrop of a family wedding, a visit from their wacky, critical, slightly racist grandmother, and the emotional crises of other friends, Molly needs to decide what she feels, and for whom, before she ruins everything with everyone. Including Cassie. It's too much for anyone, much less a 17-year-old with questionable self-esteem and a history of public vomiting.

I really, really enjoyed this book. Becky Albertalli drew me in on the very first page and didn't let me go until the very end, and I'll admit, I was sad that the book ended. While I'll admit I found Molly's inability to express her feelings or thoughts to anyone tremendously frustrating at times, I understand that doing so poses a challenge for anyone, especially someone who suffers from anxiety.

There was just so much to love about this book—dialogue and behaviors that actually seemed teen-like, as opposed to old-beyond-their-years; the flush of excitement that accompanies crushes, first loves, and infatuation; boys I could totally see myself crushing on if I was that age; and the realistic relationships between sisters, friends, parents and children, and those who like each other. Albertalli's characters are so special and memorable that you'd love to be friends with them in real life, even if their parents are probably younger than you. (Sigh.)

A lot has been made about the incredible diversity of the book's cast of characters—Molly and Cassie have two moms, one black and one white, they're being raised Jewish, characters are straight, gay, lesbian, and pansexual—but none of it seems forced, and very little of it is really a focal point. This is just a sweet, special book, about relationships, about finding the courage to believe you're worthy of love, and following your heart, not what people tell you your heart should feel.

If you've not read Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, read that, too, and you'll see why I'm a huge Becky Albertalli fan, and why I read her new book on the day it was released. (And then you can join me in my vigil for her next book.)

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Book Review: "Mrs. Fletcher" by Tom Perrotta

With books like Election, The Abstinence Teacher, The Leftovers, and Little Children, Tom Perrotta has proven to be a master commentator on the foibles of society, on people's attitudes toward love, sex, relationships, religion, parenthood, and morality. He has a wry wit and isn't afraid to expose his characters' flaws, and he does so again in his newest novel, Mrs. Fletcher.

A divorcee in her mid-40s, Eve Fletcher is at a bit of a crossroads. Her only son has left for college, leaving her completely alone for the first time. As she starts trying to figure out how to fill that loneliness, she gets a random text one night from a number she doesn't recognize, which tells her, "U R my MILF!" The text throws her for quite a loop, and as she tries to figure out who might have sent it to her, she suddenly finds herself on the internet, following an interesting chain which leads her to milfateria.com, a porn website she can't seem to tear herself away from.

"What that meant, Eve realized, was that you couldn't really say, I'm not a MILF, because a MILF was in the eye of the beholder. The other thing she'd learned was that you shouldn't google the term if you didn't want to find yourself swimming in an ocean of porn."

As Eve tries to fight her growing porn habit (or is it an addiction?), the videos she watches every day sends her mind into territory she had never thought about before, territory which has the potential to make things difficult in her job as executive director of a local senior center, as well as make her look at people and situations with a very different eye. She isn't sure which end is up, or with whom she wants to end up.

Meanwhile, Eve's son Brendan, a jock and, quite simply, a bit of a douchebag, is having a tough time adjusting to college. He's the type of guy who has multiple shirtless pictures of himself on his Facebook page, because if you look good shirtless, shouldn't you show your body off? Brendan had thought college would be an endless parade of parties, drinking, drugs, and, perhaps most importantly, sex with a wide assortment of women. But with his roommate mostly AWOL, and most of his friends into their own things, it turns out girls don't like it when you call them things like "slut" and "bitch," and college doesn't go so well when you barely concentrate on your classes.

Eve and Brendan both find themselves confronting the after-effects of mistakes they make, mistakes which cause both of them to despair in very different ways. Can Eve overcome her porn habit and find her way to a "real" relationship? Is college the right path for Brendan, and if so, will he find people who think the way he does, or will he need to be the one who changes?

Mrs. Fletcher is a fascinating, fairly explicit look at how our attitudes toward sex, sexuality, relationships, and morality are formed, and how they change. It shows that when sex is all you think about, and you think with your libido instead of your brain or your heart, the direction you move in is probably going to get you in trouble. It's also a book about finding happiness with yourself before you can find someone else.

I love the way Perrotta combines humor with social commentary. While his books have dealt with sexuality before, this was a pretty frank book, and it touched on some very interesting territory, territory which may make some uncomfortable. It's definitely very thought-provoking.

These characters, particularly Brendan, aren't particularly sympathetic—they make a lot of stupid mistakes and sometimes don't even realize they're doing so. I found myself amazed at what Eve got herself into, and how she thought, but at the same time, she wasn't willing to speak up to her son about the way he was behaving.

I enjoyed this book, but I don't think this ranks up there among Perrotta's best. Still, he writes like very few other authors out there, and it's always great to read his work.

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

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Book Review: "Skyscraper of a Man" by Michael Bowe

There's a sense of nostalgia that pervades Michael Bowe's novel Skyscraper of a Man, and it's not just because the book takes place in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s. The book felt old-fashioned to me, but not in a negative way—it's a story told utterly without gimmick or guile, simply a well-told story rich with character and plot, the kind of book that seemed much more prevalent years ago than it does today.

"While some accomplish great things, others like myself simply manage to be in the right place at the right time as momentous events occur, members of a fellowship that I call The Coattails Club. It is, after all, an inevitable aspect of human history; a talented, inspired few will live noteworthy lives while a fortunate few will bear witness. And for any writer, again like myself, there is no role more fortuitous than that of witness."

Peter Dalton, the Nick Carraway-esque narrator of Skyscraper of a Man, grew up in a middle-class household in suburban Delaware in the 1960s and 1970s, what he referred to as "perfect conditioning for an insignificant life." His parents placed education above almost all else, so Peter decides to go to Stanton University in a town called Cavanaugh (I never quite figured out where in the U.S. it was supposed to be). He is overwhelmed about being away from home but excited about the future.

Within the first few days of college, he meets Benjamin Franklin Matthews, a local Cavanaugh boy of modest means, raised by a Revolutionary War buff and owner of the local printing press. Pete realizes very quickly that Ben is unlike anyone he has ever met—someone so sure of himself and his place in the world, someone with the bravado to dream big but with the intelligence and ambition to build a foundation for, and the drive to work to achieve, his dreams. Ben awakens a slightly lower-grade ambition in Pete, and quickly the two set their sights on becoming the first freshmen in more than 20 years to get an article published in the college newspaper.

As they pursue their journalistic ambitions, Pete and Ben, along with Pete's roommate Danny, once a promising football player sidelined by injury, and Ben's girlfriend Tyler, an aspiring journalist whose ambitions might rival Ben's, form a quartet of sorts, each working to pursue their dreams and enjoy this formative time in their lives. But it's not long before Ben takes the first step and launches Cavanaugh Weekly, a newspaper he hopes will position his hometown for significant growth in the future, and put him on the road to the fulfillment of his dreams. He convinces Pete to drop out of college with him and become the newspaper's editor, a move that Pete quickly jumps at.

As the years pass, Cavanaugh Weekly becomes a paper of significant influence and success, and Cavanaugh itself is on its way to becoming the city Ben imagines it can be. While Pete is tremendously fulfilled by his work, Danny and Tyler each experience roadblocks they don't expect. But it is Ben who is the shining star, and he decides to run for mayor, tangling with a dangerous career politician. Can Ben run as a truly principled candidate, or will the system—and his opponent—break him? Is Cavanaugh ready to elect a political neophyte on the strength of his personality and his vision for the future?

One review of Skyscraper of a Man hailed its "silver screen potential," and truly, I could see this adapted into a riveting television miniseries, because the themes of friendship, ambition, disillusionment, fighting for your dreams, and realizing life rarely winds up as we plan, are tremendously resonant and universal. Bowe imbues his characters with passion, flaws, and complexity, so you want to know what will happen to them, if they will achieve all they hope to.

While the plot isn't necessarily surprising—you pretty much know what will happen in many cases before it does—the storytelling draws you in and keeps you hooked. This is simply good old-fashioned storytelling—I know I keep using that word but it's always refreshing when you read a book that generates excitement without pyrotechnics, violence, or suspense, but on the strength of its plot and its characters.

The author provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks, Michael, for making this available! I look forward to seeing what comes next for you!