Sunday, May 31, 2015

Book Review: "Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda" by Becky Albertalli

Wow. I cannot even begin to put into words how much I freaking loved this book, but I will attempt to. Sappy heart, be still!

Simon Spier is a friendly, slightly goofy high school junior. He knows he's gay, and doesn't think that either his family or his friends will have a problem with it, but he just doesn't want to make a big deal out of it, you know? But when he starts corresponding via email with a fellow gay student he only knows as "Blue," he starts to think more and more about letting everyone in on his secret, almost as much as he thinks about Blue, whom he's falling for, as much as anyone can for someone they've never met.

But when their email correspondence falls into the wrong hands, Simon is pressed into action. He needs to decide what to do—about coming out to his family and friends, and whether or not to continue to press Blue for the chance to meet each other. And all of Simon's decisions have the potential for disaster. What's a music-loving, Oreo-craving guy to do?

"It's strange, because in reality, I'm not the leading guy. Maybe I'm the best friend. I guess I didn't really think of myself as interesting until I was interesting to Blue. So I can't tell him. I'd rather not lose him."

Becky Albertalli's debut novel, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is beyond wonderful. I absolutely devoured this book in less than a day and now I'm sad that it's finished, because I want to spend more time with these characters. Unlike so many other young adult novels, I didn't feel like the dialogue was inauthentic or too clever for its own good, and I felt like most of the situations the characters found themselves in were realistic, even the negative ones. But beyond that, Albertalli all too perfectly captures the intense feelings of infatuation and indecision, the desire to share the real you with the world but the fear of actually putting it out there.

I've said many times before, I wish that books like this existed when I was in high school, but I am so glad that these books exist now. Everyone should know it's okay to have secrets that you divulge when you're ready to, and that you can never assume to know what another person is going through. I cannot wait to see what Albertalli does next, and I miss these characters already!!

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Book Review: "Thank You, Goodnight" by Andy Abramowitz

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

When you get to a certain age (and that age differs from person to person), many people find themselves thinking about the path their lives have taken, and wondering what might have been, if things might have gone differently. I'd imagine those thoughts can be more intense for people who once had a taste of fame, as they look back on their time in the spotlight and wish it had ended differently.

Thirty-eight-year-old Teddy Tremble is an attorney, but that hasn't always been his chosen vocation. For a few magical years, he was the lead singer of Tremble, a band that had one fairly well-known hit, won an Oscar, and even had their music appear in movies. Tremble was a fairly talented group of musicians, but their second album wasn't a critical or commercial success and the decision (Teddy's) to headline their own tour instead of opening for a more popular group was more hubris than anything else.

Then their label dropped them, the spotlight faded, his marriage broke up, and his fellow band members got on with their lives. A law career isn't quite how he dreamed his life would unfold, but it passes the time and pays the bills, and his relationship with Sara, an interior designer who has seen more than her share of anguish, is satisfying, although he's never quite sure where they stand with each other. And then one night while heading on a trip to Ireland to take a deposition, a random message from Tremble's former drummer sends Teddy on a journey that hits him both physically and emotionally, and inspires him to start writing songs again.

But once he writes a few songs with some potential, does he really want to try again? Can he convince his old band to get back together for another try, even though they've built totally different lives, and in some cases, there are issues between them? And is the vastly different musical world ready for the return of a one-hit-wonder band? Can a group of musicians pushing 40 still find a place? And does Teddy really want a second chance after all?

Even though we've seen this type of story before, I thoroughly enjoyed Thank You, Goodnight. It was a fun and compelling read, filled with endearing characters who transcend the typical stereotypes of aging musicians. I was really impressed with Andy Abramowitz' storytelling, especially given that this is his first novel, and you could tell he really cared about his characters. This is also a bit of a tribute to the power of music—how it can make us feel, and how it can bring back memories of certain people, places, and times in our lives.

Give this one a shot. You'll have a lot of fun, and you'll probably want to listen to some music afterward.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Book Review: "The Day We Met" by Rowan Coleman

So if you're averse to getting all choked up when reading a novel, even perhaps crying your eyes out at least a little bit, this is not a book for you. But it's one you shouldn't miss.

Claire has always been a free spirit, practically from the day she was born. She raised her older daughter Caitlin practically on her own, excelled in her career, and never expected to find love until Greg, a contractor, came to do some work on her house. But she was utterly smitten, and it wasn't long before the two had a child of their own, outspoken, three-year-old Esther.

It seemed the perfect life, at least until Claire was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's Disease. And while at first Claire felt things slipping away gradually, her decline becomes more rapid than anyone expected. Suddenly her mother has moved in to help care for Claire, she's not allowed to leave the house on her own or do much of anything she wants to, and much to everyone's chagrin, she doesn't feel comfortable around Greg anymore, even though she knows she is supposed to love him and that they had built a life together.

As Claire's condition further deteriorates, she discovers that 20-year-old Caitlin has secrets of her own, although they are no match for Claire's own secret involving Caitlin. And when Claire has a chance meeting with a handsome man in a café, it causes her to experience feelings she didn't think she ever would again, feelings she wants to hold onto as long as she can.

The Day We Met is a tremendously poignant and moving account of one woman's fight to hold on to her life and her memories as long as she can, and her struggles not to disappoint those around her. It's also the story of how her illness affects those she holds most dear, the wounds her condition causes, and how you can continue to be courageous in the face of bleakness. But more than that, this is a beautiful story of love, both between people and simply the need to find and hold on to it as long as you can.

While comparisons to Lisa Genova's Still Alice are certainly inevitable, and both books left me an emotional mess, what sets the two books apart is this is a more purely emotional account, without the clinical aspects of Genova's book. Claire is a much less passive character than Alice was further into her diagnosis. And I felt this book was much more willing to paint Claire as not entirely sympathetic—even though her condition was causing her to act a certain way, you didn't need to like everything she said or did.

Rowan Coleman has written a book to savor and think about, and one to cherish, as it is as lovely as it is sad.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Book Review: "Einstein's Beach House: Stories" by Jacob M. Appel

I know how much I love a book when I can't stop myself from devouring it in practically one sitting, although I want to savor it at the same time. And boy, did I love this one.

The eight stories in Einstein's Beach House are slightly quirky (but not distractingly so), somewhat moving and each at least a little bit humorous, and extremely memorable. Jacob Appel does such a great job developing his characters and the plot of each story, I honestly could see many of them developed into a full-length novel, and I'd definitely want to read those books, since I wanted more of the characters.

It honestly is hard to pick favorites, since each story was just so good, but the few that I can't stop thinking about right now are: "Paracosmos," in which a married couple is worried that their daughter is obsessed with her imaginary friend—and then the girl's father shows up; "La Tristesse Des Herissons," which tells the story of a couple whose relationship hits a bit of a snag when they adopt a depressed hedgehog; "Limerence," in which a man looks back on his crush on his much more worldly next-door neighbor; "The Rod of Asclepius," which tells the story of a young girl caught up in her father's acts of revenge; and the title story, in which a family tries to make hay of a typo in a travel guide, only to have the tables turned on them.

I had never heard of Jacob Appel until two friends on Goodreads raved about his writing, and this story collection in particular. They couldn't have been more on target. He is such an engaging writer, and even though the subject matter of these stories isn't quite your everyday stuff, the stories are tremendously human (and often humane), and really pack both a literary and an emotional punch. I'll definitely be picking up some of Appel's other books, but in the meantime, I highly recommend you pick this collection up. You won't regret it.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Book Review: "Mislaid" by Nell Zink

Hmm. This book was definitely intriguing.

Peggy Jackson grew up in Virginia in the 1960s, a girl of some means raised by parents with more of an eye on social niceties and appropriateness than actual parenting, especially when she realizes she is a lesbian. She convinces them to send her to Stillwater College, a small, all-girls school, where she can pursue her dreams of literary success, and perhaps find a girlfriend. They are none too happy to send her away.

But it isn't long before she winds up under the spell of Lee Fleming, Stillwater's resident poet, whose wealthy family allows him to indulge his profligate lifestyle and invite poets from across the country to share their talents, not to mention share their drugs and alcohol. Despite one major complication—Lee is gay and Peggy is a lesbian—the two begin an affair, which quickly leaves 18-year-old Peggy pregnant and forced to withdraw from school.

Peggy is unprepared for marriage and motherhood, despite the fact that she loves her son and daughter. But her jealousy at Lee's serial infidelity and his unwillingness to help her advance her literary career leaves her angry and depressed. An impulsive act has Lee threatening to commit Peggy to a psychiatric institution, so with no other choice, she runs away with her three-year-old daughter in tow, leaving her nine-year-old son Byrdie behind with Lee.

Determined to live a life outside the margins, Peggy (now Meg) and her daughter Karen squat in an abandoned shack in the midst of an African-American settlement, and she adopts African-American personae for both of them (despite their outward appearances). They live in near-abject poverty, supplemented by Meg's odd jobs (including aiding a drug dealer), but eventually the two move into a housing project, where Karen can be closer to her best friend, Temple, whose intellect and potential far outweighs those around him, and this helps propel Karen forward as well, despite that she is younger than Meg has led everyone to believe.

Years later, Temple and Karen wind up as students at the University of Virginia (Karen on a minority scholarship), and it is there the two encounter Byrdie, now a senior, happy to be living a life away from his father's emotional complexity. The lives of the three intersect one Halloween night, the implications of which not only threaten to unravel each of their academic lives, but the lies that have been told for years prior.

I thought the concept of this book was really fascinating, and Nell Zink is a very good storyteller with a knack for language and dialogue. However, I felt more often than not, this book was satirical when I expected it to be serious, and chose a heavier hand when dealing with more farcical material. I think it wanted to be a commentary on the heavy weights of racial and sexual prejudice, social mores, and the damages that family can cause, but often it got mired in more exposition than it needed, and I felt the ending was a little too pat for a book that was really unique in most other ways.

If you enjoy social satire, this may be your cup of tea. Zink's writing is crisp and her ideas are really creative, but for me, Mislaid, well, missed the mark.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Book Review: "I'd Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them" by Jesse Goolsby

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

Sadly, war has nearly always been a part of our collective understanding, no matter what generation you are from. So much has been written about the cost of war, and the impact it has on those on the front lines. Jesse Goolsby's powerful, brutal new book, I'd Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them, takes this one step further, looking at war's impact not only on those who serve, but on those they leave behind, and those they interact with after their service has ended.

Wintric Ellis is a young man from a small town in California who decides to join the army directly after his high school graduation, if for no other reason than to provide him direction and give him an opportunity to see life beyond his small town. He leaves behind his girlfriend, Kristen, and winds up in Afghanistan. While he considers himself fortunate not to be in the middle of the deadly fighting in Iraq, the placidity of Afghanistan does little to quell his fears that the enemy is just around the corner, that every step or every encounter could mean peril. But he gets taken under the wing of two more experienced soldiers, Torres and Dax, and their friendship helps make the fearful days less so.

One day, the soldiers are forced to act in a split second, essentially making the choice between life and death. And that decision, made in the heat of the moment, is one that will affect each of their post-war lives and impact their relationships with others, and set each of them on a tremendously challenging path. And after his friends are decommissioned, Wintric faces a shocking incident of violence that further affects him.

I'd Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them is essentially told in snapshots, looking at the early lives of Wintric, Dax, and Torres, and how they wound up in Afghanistan, and how their lives unfolded after they left the military. The book looked at their relationships with family, loved ones, friends, children, and the demons that haunted each of them, many of which formed in that one moment in Afghanistan. The struggles are moving, at times brutal, and tremendously poignant, when you realize that many who have served our country deal with similar issues.

Goolsby is an absolutely talented writer, and his use of language and imagery is tremendously poetic. The characters are tremendously complex (although not always likeable) and you can feel for them and their struggles. My challenge with the book, however, is that in his vignette-like approach, Goolsby often doesn't paint the full picture of what happens to the characters, leaving you with more questions than answers. This was the case with several key incidents in the book—he is oblique rather than direct, and I had to re-read parts of the book a few times, and still didn't always come away with the answers I was seeking.

There have been many fine books written about the scars of war, both physical and emotional, and I'd Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them deserves to stand alongside them. I look forward to seeing what's next in Goolsby's career, because his talent is tremendous.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Book Review: "The Grown Ups" by Robin Antalek

Relationships. Can't live without 'em, can't, well...

The summer of Sam Turner's 15th year was an eventful one. Spending time with his group of childhood friends, he suddenly catches the interest of Suzie Epstein, and they begin a romantic relationship that they keep hidden from their friends, even though the hookups of others are known among them. But as quickly as it begins, their relationship ends when Suzie's estranged parents decide to give their marriage another try and move the family to another city. And then Sam suffers another blow, when his mother decides to leave his husband and move away.

In the wake of Suzie's abrupt departure and the dissolution of his family, Sam finds himself drawn into a relationship with Suzie's best friend, Bella. Their relationship continues into college, but while Sam feels strongly for Bella, he can't seem to give her the full commitment she desires—and he can't seem to give that commitment to anything in his life, which also causes trouble in his relationships with his father and older brother. He finds himself drifting, from job to job, relationship to relationship, without feeling any pull to put down roots.

Suzie left her old life and her old friends behind, mostly out of embarrassment for the way her parents' marriage affected the lives of so many. She becomes the caretaker for her younger brothers and her alcoholic mother, and works hard to graduate high school one year early, so she can start anew. And she never thinks she'll be able to have a relationship that isn't dysfunctional, until, surprisingly, she connects with Sam's older brother Michael.

The Grown Ups follows Sam, Bella, and Suzie over a decade, as they weather romantic, professional, and familial crises. Robin Antalek does a terrific job weaving their stories, and even though her characters aren't completely likeable, their lives are tremendously compelling. Even though what happens in this book is more commonplace than unique, I still really enjoyed this book, and found it emotionally provoking at times as well. This is a book about all types of relationships—romantic ones, parent-child, siblings, and of course, friendships—and at least one of the relationships in the book may seem familiar to you.

"She could feel the world that Mindy was talking about pressing in on all sides, and then the crazy crooked line that ran from her mother to Sam. They had known each other all their lives. They were in each other's DNA. This place was all she had ever known."

A Year...

Dear Dad,

It's been one year. 525,600 minutes, give or take, since we lost you. And while the loss is perhaps not as raw as it was those first few days, there's still an ache, a hurt, and most of all, a gigantic void in all of our hearts.

There's been so much you've missed over the last year, although I try to believe you've been watching over us, so you've seen it all. Hopefully you've seen the birthdays, the boys' shows and special achievements, the holidays. Maybe you've not had to see the struggles or the tears.

So many times I've picked up the phone to call you, to share both random and specific news. I had to stop myself from seeking your words of wisdom while Wayne's mom was fighting her own battles, had to stop myself from checking in with you every time I was on the road. And of course, you were the missing piece in the absolute excitement I felt when I finally got my first executive director job a few months ago. You know how long and how hard I've worked for this, and (at least in my opinion) so far, I'm pretty good at it.

But you also missed another crappy winter. I know you would have had some pointed words for what's been going on in our world. And more than that, I know you would have had some funny stories to tell.

I'm still at a loss a lot of the time. I've spent the entire year holding it together for everyone else, but there are the occasional cracks. But honestly, most of all, I feel the same way I did when I wrote what I said at your funeral.

Dad, I don't need milestone days like these to remember you, to cherish the memories, or appreciate the man you were. I do that every day. It's just, on days like these, it's just a little harder.

We love you, and I love you, with all of my heart, and I miss you more than words can say. So often I still am grateful for what you gave me and what you taught me, and simply for your being the man you were.

I love you,


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Book Review: "All Involved" by Ryan Gattis

I remember the beating of Rodney King, but what I remember more than that was the outrage and violence which exploded in Los Angeles in April of 1992, when three of the four white policemen accused of the beating were completely acquitted, while no verdict was reached on the fourth. It was utterly surreal to be living in Washington, DC, watching the rioting, looting, destruction, and violence that followed, a feeling I'd never thought I'd have again, yet I felt similarly a few weeks ago when similar incidents occurred in Baltimore.

Over a six-day period in 1992, 53 people were killed in the riots. But what few really understood was the violence that occurred outside the immediate epicenter of the riots, as Los Angeles-area gang members used the incidents as camouflage for their own activities, settling old scores with rival gangs jockeying for control, and taking whatever they could, by whatever means necessary. Ryan Gattis' magnificent, powerful All Involved is a fictionalized account of gang members and others caught up in the violence on the fringes of the riots, and how righting alleged wrongs and working to save face proved dangerous and often deadly.

Ernesto Vera works on a taco truck, but he has dreams of becoming a chef, and wants to get an apprenticeship at an exclusive Japanese restaurant so he can learn from the masters. Sent home early by a boss worried about the rioting, he is nearly home when he encounters a group of gang members looking to settle a score with his younger brother. This clash sets up a series of confrontations that affect a number of lives, including nurses, firemen, and students utterly unprepared for what is coming down the pike, both good and bad.

"There's a truth in that somewhere and maybe it's this—there's a hidden America inside the one we portray to the world, and only a small group of people ever actually see it. Some of us are locked into it by birth or geography, but the rest of us just work here. Doctors, nurses, firemen, cops—we know it. We see it. We negotiate with death where we work because that's just part of the job. We see its layers, its unfairness, its unavoidability. Still, we fight that losing battle. We try to maneuver around it, even occasionally even steal from it. And when you come across somebody else who seems to know it like you do, well, you can't help but stop and wonder what it'd be like to be with someone who can empathize."

Gattis tells 17 interconnected stories, imbuing his characters with life, emotion, and complexity, and he manages to make many of them characters you root for despite what they're doing. It's a talented author who makes you care about those who kill, injure, steal, and destroy, yet he doesn't paint over their flaws either. As you might imagine, some of the chapters are more interesting than others—I honestly would have been happy if the book had remained focused on the rival gangs and those caught up in their activities; I felt the book lost a bit of steam when it turned to other characters with only a slight connection.

Gattis' storytelling is gritty, violent, poetic, and powerful, and I was utterly hooked for the majority of the book. We hear all too often about the human toll that violence takes, but All Involved brings that home without being overly preachy. It's an unflinching look at a not-too-far-distant time in our society that sadly, we're not completely past yet. If you're a crime novel fan, this is definitely one to read and savor.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Book Review: "Bream Gives Me Hiccups" by Jesse Eisenberg

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

I tend to be dubious when I come across a book written by an actor. It's not that every actor is a bad writer; in fact, I've read some well-written books authored by actors, such as Ethan Hawke, Meg Tilly, and Lauren Graham. But of course, for every actor deserving of a book deal, there are many whose books are published only on the strength of their name and not any display of writing skill. (Cough, James Franco, cough.)

When I saw a friend had raved about Jesse Eisenberg's collection of stories, Bream Gives Me Hiccups, I was definitely intrigued. I'm a big fan of his acting and hoped that his wry, sarcastic sense of humor I've seen displayed in interviews would shine through. I also hoped that a book being touted as hysterically funny actually lived up to that billing.

I'm pleased to say Eisenberg succeeded on both fronts. This book is composed of a number of stories and humorous anecdotes which take different forms—text messages, email conversations, letters, conversations—and many made me laugh out loud. From the hilarious and touching title story, in which a nine-year-old boy reviews meals he has in different locations, many with his troubled mother, to an email conversation between a dating couple which gets hijacked by his sister, who is a scholar of the Bosnian genocide, some of these stories are laugh-out-loud funny and many others make you chuckle and shake your head at Eisenberg's ingenuity. And more than a few times, I could hear his voice coming through the narration, which added an extra layer of depth and humor.

In addition to the two stories I mentioned above, some of my favorites in this collection included (and many of the titles say all that needs to be said about the stories themselves): "My Prescription Information Pamphlets as Written by My Father"; "Carmelo Anthony and I Debrief Our Friends after a Pickup Game at the YMCA"; "If She Ran Into Me Now," in which a man is waiting for a glimpse of an ex-girlfriend; and "A Bully Does His Research," which I found perhaps a little too short.

Not every story works; there are times when Eisenberg goes for one more laugh where he could have held back, and times when the stories are more one-liner than plot, but even those are enjoyable in their own way. This was a quick, fun read, and I look forward to not only seeing more of his movies (he's playing Lex Luthor, y'all), but reading more of his books in the future. Perhaps he can pave the way for more actors with writing talent being published instead of those without it.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Book Review: "Bright Shards of Someplace Else" by Monica McFawn

One thing I love so much about reading short stories is stumbling upon story concepts and characters I haven't seen before, and of course, finding beautiful writing. Both were on display in Monica McFawn's collection Bright Shards of Someplace Else.

The characters that populate McFawn's stories are all different—a nanny and her precocious charge, a boss tasked with firing a problem employee, a pompous scientist and the art critic that comes into his circle, a pair of horse trainers and vets—but there is such heart at the core of each of the stories. And each story chronicles a need of some sort—some far more obsessive than others.

My two favorite stories bookend the collection. The first, "Out of the Mouths of Babes," follows a nanny who finds her new charge has a remarkable facility with making phone calls, so she tasks him with helping her solve a few problems. The final story in the collection, "The Chautauqua Sessions," chronicles an aging lyricist whose reunion with his former musical partner is waylaid by his drug addict son, and the lengths he goes to keep his son from affecting his inspiration. A few other stories I enjoyed included: "The Slide Turned on End," which follows a pompous scientist inspired by the intersection of art and science, and the art critic who becomes a somewhat unwilling participant in his work; "Line of Questioning," in which a poetry professor is questioned by police about his relationship with a former student; and "Key Phrases," which follows a fairly new supervisor at a company who is tasked with firing a problem employee.

McFawn, who won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, is a truly gifted writer. There were times, honestly, where her use of language and imagery actually hooked me more than the story's plot itself. Here is one example, from "Line of Questioning":
"Theirs was a comfortable relationship of light mutual contempt that drummed on them bracingly like a light rain when they were together. The old demons of their relationship were soggy but still smelled alluringly like hellfire."
This collection was a bit more cerebral at times than I'm used to with short stories, so I didn't always warm to the plot or the characters. But when I did, I realized what a talent McFawn has, and I look forward to seeing it continue to develop in the future.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Book Review: "The Before Now and After Then" by Peter Monn

Sam and Danny Goldstein are identical twins. Sam is the confident one—athletic, popular, and tremendously protective of his brother. Danny is more than content to live in Sam's shadow, sharing his friends, and knowing that the two share an inseparable bond. Sam is always looking out for Danny, and plans an elaborate scheme for Danny to finally come out to their parents.

In an instant, everything changes, and the world and the life that Danny has known and depended on is totally turned upside down. He finds himself in a new school, living in a new house, and realizing that the reason he was always to content to live in Sam's shadow is that he's not comfortable standing out or being noticed. He isn't really sure who he is, and he doesn't know if he's all that interested in finding out the answer to that question. But what he does know is that he's tired of people telling him how he should feel, or what he should do, and he's tired of being angry and sad all the time.

"All of my life, I had always felt like I was watching other people's lives instead of being part of my own."

When Danny meets Cher, a larger-than-life fellow classmate who has always been dying for a gay best friend, she starts to force him out of his shell, little by little, even if he's still not quite comfortable talking about himself or knowing how to be a good friend. And then he meets Rusty, a boy who appears fearless, who helps Danny discover who he is, and what his heart wants. All the while, Danny's journey is helped, and at times complicated, by his former punk rocker parents and his mother's lifelong best friend Alex, an author whose most famous book was a way for him to deal with the isolation he felt about being gay.

I've said this before, but I wish books like The Before Now and After Then existed when I was a teenager, if only to help me convince that I wasn't alone, that life beyond the angst and anger and bullying of high school could and would dissolve into something better. This is a sweet, funny, emotional book, and Peter Monn does an excellent job making you care about his characters and what happens to them. The book is a little overly dramatic at times, and Danny in particular isn't always the most likeable person, but I kept thinking of him as if he were real, saying, "Well, he's been through a lot..."

Books like this give me hope, and I hope they bring those same feelings to others who are lucky enough to find it. I look forward to reading more from Monn in the future.

"I realized that time kept ticking whether we liked it or not. Life kept happening. And sometimes things weren't measured in time. Sometimes, hours, weeks, and even years went by without us even noticing. Sometimes people died and sometimes people left, but not always. Sometimes they stayed."

Monday, May 4, 2015

Book Review: "Know Your Beholder" by Adam Rapp

When I started reading Adam Rapp's Know Your Beholder I expected it to be a vaguely hipster-ish lament about a musician with slacker tendencies. Having never before read anything that Rapp has written, I was honestly surprised at the complexity of the characters, the humor, and the emotions this book contained. And for me, there are few things better than a book that pleasantly surprises you and surpasses your expectations.

Francis Falbo is in his mid-30s, a former musician living in the small town of Pollard, Illinois. He's struggling quite a bit—he's still mourning over the end of his marriage (despite the fact that his wife has moved on and gotten remarried), the death of his mother, and the end of his band. Winter seems endless, he has been stranded in his apartment for a while now, and he's taken to growing a colossal beard and wearing the same bathrobe over and over. And even if he could leave the house, he's finding himself in the grips of a pretty debilitating case of agoraphobia.

"Is this approaching grace? I wonder. Or is the aggregate narrative of my life a series of small, ill-shaped rationalizations that mask an enormous failure? I probably won't know until I reach old age, if I'm that lucky."

The only thing Francis has going for him is that he has divided his childhood home into several apartments, and all are full, relegating him to a cozy apartment in the attic. His tenants are a motley crew—a former Olympic athlete; an artist with a curious portfolio; a former teacher with a heart as big as his enormous stomach; his ex-brother-in-law, a stoner trying to disengage from life; and a pair of former circus performers whose young daughter has gone missing, and they're not overly interested in helping the police try to find her. While Francis is struggling to overcome his own problems, he can't help but become immersed in everyone else's lives, which leads him to make some questionable decisions and occasionally act in unlandlord-like ways.

Francis pines for his ex-wife and wishes that they could get back together. He also misses his band, mourns the circumstances that led to its demise, and wishes he and his bandmates could reunite. But when both his ex-wife and an old friend return to his life in different ways, he realizes that life doesn't always give you what you want the way you want it. And he makes a surprising discovery about his mother, which deepens his feelings of loss for her, and makes him realize she was even more complicated than he ever knew.

"I'm convinced that part of leaving someone is carefully arranging the pain that will be left behind. Like gluing a broken dinner plate to the wall."

I really enjoyed this book tremendously. Even though it was a little zany in places, Rapp's storytelling ability made me chuckle, made me think, and even made me get emotional from time to time. Francis is a far more complex character than he appeared, and although I'll admit the constant descriptions of people's lack of hygiene made me a little queasy (I'm squeamish; what can I say), I found Know Your Beholder quite compelling and I needed to keep reading to see how Rapp would tie the story together.

Maybe it's because his brother is Anthony Rapp of Rent fame, but for some reason I kept picturing Adam Pascal (who played Roger in the original Broadway cast and the motion picture adaptation) as Francis. I think this would be a tremendously interesting movie, but regardless, it was a really enjoyable book.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Book Review: "The Miracle Girl" by Andrew Roe

"Word spread. Somehow they heard about the little girl on Shaker Street, the one who almost died—who should have died—but didn't, and now she can't speak or move, she's paralyzed, mute, hooked up to machines and tubes, her body a living statue, but also holy, blessed, a gift from God, a child who heals and gives hope to those in need."

Eight-year-old Anabelle Vincent is in a coma-like state called akinetic mutism. She is unable to move or speak, and no one is sure whether she has any idea what is going on around her. Following the accident that left her in this condition, her parents made the decision to care for her at home rather than institutionalize her.

One day, a friend of her mother experienced what seemed to be a miracle after spending time in Anabelle's presence. She also noticed a religious statue weeping. Word quickly spread, and the visitors started coming from near and far, desperate to spend a few minutes with Anabelle, hoping against hope that she might help them or a family member combat disease, distress, infertility, poverty, or other problem. Within a few months, Anabelle has become an utter phenomenon, and people wait for hours on end outside her house for a chance to experience the same type of miracles that so many others have.

Anabelle's mother, Karen, has made it her life's mission to care for her daughter, even at the expense of her marriage, as well as her physical and mental well-being. She often can't remember the last time she left the house. Yet as she sees what hope Anabelle is bringing to others, she realizes she cannot deprive people the opportunity for the miracle that evaded the girl herself. So she opens her home to the visitors, the media, even the army of volunteers who help with everything from website updates to schedules.

Anabelle's father, John, left because he couldn't handle the pressure that caring for his daughter was putting on him and his wife. But as he drifts from place to place, job to job, never putting down roots for long, he can't help but wonder if his place is back with his family, despite the strain it may cause. And he wonders if Anabelle might give him the miracle of a family one more time.

Andrew Roe's The Miracle Girl is an insightful look at American life just before the millennium, the desperation of people to believe in miracles and have hope, and how a family copes with the idea that their daughter, whose own life is far from the one they dreamed for her, can provide such benefit to total strangers. It's also a look at the lives of some of those who come to Anabelle for help, as well as a teacher bent on proving that the miracles are hoaxes, and the priest who is part of his archdiocese's investigation into the purported miracles.

I found this book intriguing but uneven. Sometimes it was really compelling, fascinating even, but when the book shifted to the mundane details of Karen and John's lives, I lost interest. The book doesn't really take a position on what is happening, but a plot twist leaves a lot of things unresolved, and actually causes a few more questions than answers. But Roe is very talented, and definitely has created a thought-provoking story that may challenge your own ideas of whether miracles like these truly exist in our world.