Tuesday, June 30, 2015
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 livestheir 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
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
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
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 improbablebut 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
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
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
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.
Wednesday, June 10, 2015
I had been a fan of Rivers' since the 1970s, when I used to watch her on The Tonight Show, and I listened to her comedy albums, watched her television specials and her talk show, and even loved catching her on QVC hawking her products. And of course, nothing beat watching her and Melissa on the red carpet at awards shows.
Through all of her appearances and all of her insults, one thing about Rivers was ultimately clear: she loved her daughter Melissa more than anything, and their relationship was something she truly treasured. And the feeling was definitely mutual, as Melissa makes clear in her book, The Book of Joan: Tales of Mirth, Mischief, and Manipulation. This is a collection of essays that look at Joan's childhood, what motivated her to succeed, her habits, foibles, fears, and pet peeves, and especially her interactions with Melissa and her grandson, Cooper.
This is a sweet, funny book that provides some interesting insight into Rivers' persona outside the spotlight, and it chronicles a mother-daughter bond that was truly special. I laughed from time to time (and tried not to do it out loud on the plane) and unsurprisingly, I even got choked up a little bit. It's a tremendously engaging book, but I wish that Melissa didn't try to be as funny as her mother throughout the book, as sometimes her jokes undercut the stories she was trying to tell. (She even provided her own rimshots occasionally.)
If you were a fan of Joan Rivers, or of the pairing of Joan and Melissa, or you just enjoy reading stories about mothers and daughters, you may very well enjoy The Book of Joan. It made me miss Joan all over again, and I'm grateful to Melissa for sharing her mother with us for so long.
Tuesday, June 9, 2015
Kevin Jack McEnroe, the son of Tatum O'Neal and John McEnroe, tackles the effects of addiction on a family in his debut novel, Our Town, which he has said is a fictionalized account of his grandfather Ryan O'Neal's first wife, Joanna Moore, and another female relative.
Joanna-Rae Cook lived an idyllic life in Americus, Georgia in the 1940s, the daughter of a scientist and his wife, when her entire family is killed in a car accident. When she was adopted by a doctor and his wife, she changed her name to Dorothy. "Because she felt different here. Happier, somehow. And she thought it'd be nice, and fitting, to recognize that change. Starting over would be a theme in her life. She always felt she could be better than she was."
After winning the Miss Americus beauty pageant, she caught the eye of a talent agent and moved to Los Angeles. It is on the set of a television show that she meets Dale Kelly, a handsome young actor also making his debut. The two fall quickly and passionately in love, get married, and when Dorothy gets pregnant, she puts her acting career aside to raise their family. But as Dale's star slowly rises, the couple find themselves in the thrall of alcohol and drugs, especially when Dorothy tries to restart her career after giving birth twice. It isn't long before Dale's jealousy and anger turns to violence, and the two, constantly fighting addiction, divorce.
Our Town follows Dorothy through her life as she struggles with trying to stay beautiful, trying to appeal to men, although she constantly seems to pick the wrong ones. She needs alcohol, cocaine, uppers, downers, and other drugs to make it through her days, keep her weight off, and soften the rough edges of her custody battles with Dale and her frustrations with her children, Clover and Dylan. As frustration turns to neglect, her treatment of her children scars them in countless ways.
This is a tremendously bleak book which mirrors the real struggles of addictionglimmers of hope and recovery follows by long periods of decline and relapse. These characters are not likeable, but even as you are disgusted by their behaviors you see what fuels them. You know they are headed toward danger, and you are powerless to stop them; you can only hope they'll find their way before it's too late.
The premise of this book is a powerful one, but unfortunately, it didn't work for me in the storytelling itself. McEnroe is a talented writer but his style is scattered, and it is difficult to follow the plot because he often alludes to or foreshadows events without them actually occurring. I found the book very slow moving, but I wanted to see how McEnroe would tie everything up, and the ending of the book definitely provokes emotions. I just wish the rest of the book did the same.
Monday, June 8, 2015
The grief of losing a child is said to be one of the most painful and devastating, particularly when the child is an infant. My brother died of SIDS when he was six weeks old about 31 years ago, and I remember how debilitating that loss was for our entire family, particularly my parents, and that grief still resonates for my mother all these years later.
Sarah Shaw isn't sure she wants to recover after the accidental death of her infant daughter. But everyone tells her she needs to pull herself together and start living life again, especially to bring some normalcy back into the lives of her two young sons. Everyone, including her husband, watches her cautiously, expecting her to fall apart again. But it isn't too long before her husband gets caught up in the demands of work, leaving her to take care of their sons, despite that she is afraid something might go unexpectedly wrong at every turn.
One day she sees a young homeless woman pushing her baby in a stroller, and it taps into emotions Sarah thought she had dammed up. She pursues the woman, Josie, trying to help her, but Josie is wary of this woman suddenly wanting to help. Eventually, the two form an unlikely relationship of sorts, with Sarah determined to save Josie and her daughter. But Sarah doesn't understand the extent to which her help is needed, and she doesn't anticipate the toll this relationship will take on her own life, her marriage, and her psyche. All she knows is that saving Josie is key to saving herself.
How far would you go to help a stranger in need? What would you sacrifice for this help? Shelter Us attempts to answer those questions, filtered through a woman at the end of her emotional rope. But this type of behavior, obsessing over one problem because you can't control another, is far too common, and this book does an excellent job at exploring how a person can lose sight of what they're doing when lost in their own emotional issues.
This book is sad and hopeful, and Laura Nicole Diamond does a terrific job creating a situation that seems all too real and all too believable. The reader knows what Sarah is doing is out of control, but you understand why she is doing it. This is Diamond's debut novel, and she definitely proves that she is a writer worth watching in the future.
"Some people choose a profession. For others, there is a calling. Of course, I had never questioned what I did. I was born to it. I loved it."
Jack was a journalist for the New York Times, but that's not the profession he's speaking of. Instead, he's referring to his "second," more profitable jobas a hit man for the Russian mob.
In Steven Rappaport's If Jack Had, his now-elderly protagonist, whose body and mind are in the midst of daily decline, looks back on his rich, full life. He had a beautiful, devoted wife who was always the love of his life, four children of whom he is proud, wonderful grandchildren. But it is his many years as a hired gun for a Russian mobster and his family that he thinks about most. But make no mistake: these aren't the regrets of a dying man, more the marveling of a life well lived, even if at times it was a bit more exciting than he'd have liked.
This book is a rollicking ride through Jack's life, from being shuttled between two parents who wanted little to do with their child to finding nurturing love from his stepmother, how he pursued his "freelance" career, and some of his most notable assignments. It's also tremendously reflective, a man looking back at his legacy, so to speak, and the few times he actually struggled with what he did. Sure, this is a story of a cold-blooded killer, but it's also the story of a flawed man with a tremendous capacity for love and a tremendous need to be loved. Jack is definitely a colorful, complex, multidimensional character.
If Jack Had is a breezy, fun read. Sometimes it spent a little too much time dwelling on his father's behavior, but it is understandable given the effect his parents' behavior had on his life. And when I read that Rappaport wrote this book to create a life for his son, who died suddenly at at age 40 from an unknown neurological disorder, the book took on a little more gravitas. Definitely a fun one.
Friday, June 5, 2015
"I'm thirty-two and I'm barely responsible for myself. I spend all my disposable income on cigarettes and beer."
C.J. Neubauer isn't exactly living the dream. A writer who can't seem to get his big break, he works in a coffee shop while mostly living off his sort-of girlfriend, with whom he has a relationship which is more antagonistic than anything else. After college, he fled across the country to get away from his family, and apart from sporadic visits home (which never quite seem to go very well), he rarely speaks to his parents or his siblings.
Needless to say, it's a little surprising when late one night C.J. gets a call from his father, who seems more interested in his life than he has been recently. Even more surprisingly, his father ends the call by saying, "I love you," and it so catches C.J. off guard that he figures he'll reciprocate when he's home for his older brother's wedding in a few months. But the next morning, C.J. finds out that his father committed suicide, leaving a note that read, "Sorry I wasn't what you needed," although no one is quite sure to whom the note was directed.
So C.J. heads home sooner than he expected, and he isn't home long before nearly everyone is ready to kill him, and the old resentments and wounds quickly surface. As he and his siblings try to figure out what might have prompted their father to take his own life, they each fall into familiar behavioral patterns. But having been out of the familial loop, C.J. is surprised to see how much his mother's drinking has increased, and how troubled her relationship has become with her second husband.
"He wasn't the kind of man you appreciate when you have the chance," C.J.'s mother said of his father. And C.J. realizes that there was far more to his father than he realized: he touched more lives, felt more deeply, and cared more about his children than C.J. knew. As he tries to figure out what to do with his life, he can't decide whether going home to his combative relationship is more palatable than staying near his family.
While comparisons to Jonathan Tropper's This Is Where I Leave You are inevitable, Sorry I Wasn't What You Needed is a different book and it deserves to stand on its own. While James Bailey certainly treads into Tropper-esque territory, there is more poignancy than humor in this book (although the characters do have some zany shenanigans), and this is a family with more than its share of flaws and issues. The characters aren't necessarily likable but you can see how many of them wound up the way they are, and C.J. is so messed up I kept forgetting he was only 32.
I always love books about family dynamics if for no other reason than they help me keep the craziness of my own family in perspective. But while Bailey's book might not break any new ground, Sorry I Wasn't What You Needed is a well-told, compelling look at the way family ties can sometimes pull and sometimes comfort.
Thursday, June 4, 2015
Deb Shanley knows that her artist husband, Jack, has had problems with fidelityin fact, when she and Jack first began their relationship, he was still married to his first wife. But since he promised that his latest affair had ended, she is more than just a little thrown when his jilted lover sends Deb a box of all of the emails (many of them sexual in nature) that Jack sent her, especially when that box is delivered to her children's hands instead of her own.
As Deb tries to make sense of her feelings, and Jack vacillates between guilt over the emails and anxiety over the future of his career, their children, 15-year-old Simon and 11-year-old Kay react in different ways. Simon takes advantage of his mother's distraction to dabble in drugs, sex, and delinquency, while Kay struggles with understanding her approaching maturity and the meanness of her fellow classmates. And both look to Deb to set the tone for their relationship with their father; when she waffles on how to deal with Jack, they're unsure of how to deal with her as well.
Julia Pierpont's Among the Ten Thousand Things is an intriguing look at a marriage in trouble, and how others, including children, get caught in the crossfire. It's also the story of trying to find your own strength in the face of crisis and not allow yourself to be taken advantage of, as well as a commentary on whether what goes around truly comes around.
I thought this book was very well written, but the way the narrative structure unfolded ruined the book for me. The first quarter of the book starts out terrifically, providing emotion, anger, frustration with some of the characters, even a little suspense about how the story will proceed. Then, inexplicably (at least for me), the second quarter of the book quickly summarizes what happens to the characters from that moment on, and does so in very short sentences. But there's still half of the book left, and the third quarter of the story goes back to where the first quarter ended. So it was hard for me to remain interested in the story when I ultimately knew what was going to happen.
I saw, after the fact, a reviewer on Goodreads suggesting you read Section 1, then Section 3, then Sections 2 and 4, and I'd imagine if you do that, you might enjoy this book even more. Regardless, Pierpont has a tremendous amount of talent, and I'll be interested in watching her career unfold.