Saturday, May 31, 2014

Book Review: "The Spark and the Drive" by Wayne Harrison

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

Seventeen-year-old Justin Bailey is growing up in a small, rural town just outside of Waterbury, Connecticut. Feeling socially isolated among his fellow high school students, Justin lands an internship at a garage owned by renowned mechanic Nick Campbell, famed for his ability to transform muscle cars into powerful machines.

In Nick, Justin finds a friend, a mentor, an inspiration, even a bit of a father figure, since his father moved out of the house a few years before. Nick encourages Justin's mechanical skills, finally guiding him in a direction for his future. Working alongside fellow mechanics Ray and Bobby, Justin begins to develop confidence, despite their good-natured teasing. And even though he is fiercely protective of his much-younger sister April and his mother, who is struggling with alcoholism, when Justin is with Nick, his wife Mary Ann, and their young son, he finally feels as if he belongs.

Yet when tragedy strikes Nick and Mary Ann, things change dramatically. For the first time, cars are returning to the garage requiring rechecks of work Nick performed, and the mechanics wonder whether this mechanic known across the country for his skills has lost his touch. As Justin tries to help Nick, he finds himself growing increasingly drawn to Mary Ann, whose emotional instability leads Justin to believe her marriage to Nick might be over. Justin is torn between the possibility of a relationship with Mary Ann and the idea of betraying the one man who has been consistently good to him.

Wayne Harrison is an excellent writer and while the elements of this plot may be familiar, his storytelling ability makes it tremendously compelling. This is a book about the dilemma between love and betrayal, about the emotional angst that the cusp of adulthood can bring, and of struggling to find your way in the world when you don't feel as if there is a place for you. While Justin's actions weren't always admirable, they were in keeping with a young man of 18 years old, and this only added to the depth and complexity of his character.

I really look forward to seeing what's next in Harrison's career. This was a book driven as much by talented writing as it was by plot, and I definitely hope it finds an audience.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Book Review: "The Rise & Fall of Great Powers" by Tom Rachman

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

Matilda "Tooly" Zylberberg is an American living in Wales, the owner of a struggling bookshop. She lives a relatively solitary life, as her only companion (since the shop has so few customers) is Fogg, the rumpled employee she inherited when she bought the store. In 2011, Tooly is a bit of an anachronism, as she lacks the desire or the means to connect with the outside world virtually, except through the shop's beat-up computer.

But when curiosity gets the best of Tooly, and she cyberstalks former friends on the internet using an alias, she is contacted by an ex-boyfriend, pleading with her to get in touch with him about an important figure from Tooly's past. This reconnection reminds Tooly of her childhood and young adulthood, a mysterious period of time even she doesn't quite understand to this day.

Taken from the life she knew as a young girl, she was raised around the world by a motley crew of people—Humphrey, the grumpy-but-cuddly Russian with a passion for chess, reading, and ping-pong; tempestuous, flighty Sarah; and Venn, the enigmatic leader of the group, who inspired their capers. Tooly learned early on to live a life of mystery and obfuscate the truth from those who sought to know her better, even if that hampered her ability to form long-lasting relationships.

"Friends required a life story. Your past mattered only if others sought to know it—it was they who demanded that one possessed a history. Alone, you could do without."

Hearing from her ex-boyfriend propels Tooly on a journey around the world, desperate to understand the secrets about her childhood that had eluded her for so long. Is anything in her life the way she thought it was? Is her identity predicated on the truth about her life, or is it based on those who raised her? Tooly is both desperate for and afraid of the answers she will find.

I enjoyed Tom Rachman's first novel, The Imperfectionists, but at times I felt as if the characters kept me at arm's length and I never felt fully engaged in their stories. I felt the same way with The Rise & Fall of Great Powers. Told in chapters that shift back and forth through time, from the late 1980s, Tooly's childhood and her first encounters with her abductors; to the late 1990s and early 2000s as she tries forming relationships but keeps running into the truth; to 2011, as she tries to understand who she really is, I felt the book was a little disjointed.

Tooly is an interesting character herself, but I wasn't particularly enamored of many of the characters who surrounded her. I felt as if, much like Tooly did herself with those in her life, Rachman tried to hide the truth about her from the reader, when in reality, the truth was pretty obvious, and I really had trouble getting into the narrative.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Book Review: "The Painter" by Peter Heller

Jim Stegner is an artist of some renown. Possessing exceptional talent, when inspiration hits he can get lost in his paintings, and create something memorable, something beautiful fairly quickly. Tired of the Santa Fe art scene, and of having to play the game, he finds solace in rural Colorado, where he finds plenty of inspiration for his art, and plenty of opportunity to pursue his other favorite pastime, fishing.

However successful he is, Jim's life has not been without turmoil. He once shot a man in a bar, and spent some time in prison. His first marriage collapsed under the weight of mutual alcoholism and recriminations, and ultimately, in the wake of the murder of his beloved daughter, Alce. Another marriage came and went quickly. But now, he's finally been able to stay sober and take control of his life, and keep his demons at bay as much as he can.

"Sometimes I think that's all you need. A good man with a fishing tip, a wave. A woman once in a while. Some work to do that might mean something. A truck that runs...It's not much, but plenty when you don't have any of it."

One day on his way to fish in a secluded stream, he comes upon a man cruelly beating a small horse. His impulses take over, and he acts quickly to save the horse. Then later, still reeling from this encounter, he acts impulsively again, which puts him in the path of a ruthless family bent on revenge. Jim is determined to keep those he cares about away from the maelstrom of violence, but after fleeing to Santa Fe, he realizes this is easier said than done, and at times tries to figure out whether he should just stop fighting back and allow the violence to claim him.

This is a vivid, beautifully written, brutal book. Peter Heller created some fantastically complex characters, particularly Jim, and his storytelling ability was really mesmerizing. The Painter is such a compelling book because it so deftly tells the story of a man so broken by loss but so driven by his demons, one who cannot decide whether to embrace his talents or give into the destructive impulses that are trying to claim him.

Heller's language is memorable, poetic, and so evocative. This isn't an easy book to read because of the pain Jim is in, but it is a book you'll keep thinking about long after you've completed it.

On love, in sadness...

As I've written about on other social media outlets, my father, Fred, suddenly and unexpectedly passed away last Friday night.

Even a week later, I'm still reeling from this loss. It seems utterly surreal to be living in a world without my father, who was unequivocally the greatest man I've ever known. I still remember my total shock when I received a phone call from my brother telling me they were rushing my father to the hospital because he had apparently stopped breathing, and then hearing a short while later that he had passed away.

I was fortunate enough to have driven home the previous Sunday for Mother's Day, and spent a few hours with my family. When I said goodbye I never could have imagined in a million years that would be the last time I'd see or speak to my father, although we traded comments on social media and via email later in the week. How could I have known? And what would I have done differently if I did?

My father's funeral last Sunday was honestly the most difficult day of my life to date. Having to say goodbye in this fashion was hard, and the fact that my father was buried next to my baby brother, who died of SIDS in 1984, made the day even harder.

I honestly don't know how I feel right now. I'm devastated from this loss, worried about how it will affect my mother and siblings (being the oldest does that), and I'm a little angry, too. But more than that, I wish I had one more opportunity to spend with my father, just to tell him again how much I loved him and how important he was to me. I know that no matter how many times I had that chance it would feel inadequate, but that is certainly my wish.

To demonstrate that in some small way, I spoke during my father's funeral. Many people marveled afterward that I was able to (just barely) keep it together for the entire speech, but the truth is, it was important that I was able to say everything I wrote without falling apart. I'm going to share the entire speech below, and I'll add the one thing I wanted to say that I knew would bring me to tears, so I omitted it from the speech to be safe.

Dad, I miss you more than words can say. I'm grateful for everything you taught me, everything you did for me, and everything you were. My life won't be the same without you. But despite the obvious fact that I owe my existence in part to you, I owe so much of who I am as well. And I hope you knew, and know, how much I love you.

Today is a day that none of us could ever imagine. Now that we're living it, we keep hoping that this is only a dream, that we'll wake up and all of this will not be real. But we know that's not the case.

On behalf of my entire family, I want to thank you from the bottom of our hearts for being here today. If you're here, hopefully you had even a small chance to know what an incredible man Fred Hoffer was.

Hopefully you had the chance to talk with him a little bit. He could and would talk to anyone, anywhere—the gym, the grocery store, the mall, my nephews' school. I've had friends reach out to me the last few days and share with me memories of random conversations they had with my father during parties or other events, conversations I never even knew about.

If you knew my father, you undoubtedly knew he was a man who loved life. He was a man who enjoyed such a wide variety of experiences. He coached soccer for years for both my sister and my brothers. (He had a less-than-spectacular run as my soccer coach for one year, until he realized he was the only coach who would rather not ever put his kid in the game. And that was fine with me.)

He loved working out, and of course, on the flip side, he loved to eat. So many of us probably not only have memories of meals shared at restaurants, in homes, and at special events, but also those "secret" meals, the ones snuck in between other meals, which we just never mentioned to anyone.

He also was an incredible friend.

And if you knew my dad, what you knew more than anything was how much he loved his family. He was an incredibly devoted husband to our mother, a father beyond compare to my sister, brothers, and me, a fiercely devoted son, brother, cousin, and uncle, and one of the proudest, most involved grandfathers ever.

Without a doubt, Fred Hoffer was the greatest man I've ever known. A man with an unending generosity, an incredible personality, a gusto for life, and the most enormous capacity for love.

This loss is utterly incomprehensible to us. I keep walking into a room expecting he'll walk in any second.

We are so tremendously grateful to have had this man in our lives. I couldn't have been luckier to have him as a father, a friend, and a role model. So often in my life people told me how much I look like my dad, and how we share many of the same mannerisms. I have never had a problem with that. But all I keep thinking is of a line from Paul Simon's You Can Call Me Al: Who'll be my role model, now that my role model is gone?

The support and kindness and love you have shown my family and me is appreciated more than words can ever say. I can only imagine how touched my dad would be to see this outpouring of love for him.

Thank you from the bottom of our bruised and aching hearts.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Book Review: "By Any Means" by Chris Culver

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

"In a world full of sinners, the good guys couldn't all be saints."

Those words, spoken by Indianapolis Police Detective Sergeant Ash Rashid, couldn't sum him up any better. A Muslim and a recovering alcoholic, he's fiercely devoted to his family and strongly believes that those who commit crimes should be punished, even if his methods of uncovering evidence or ensuring criminals get what they deserve aren't always by the book.

After a run-in with his boss sees him transferred to the police department's community relations team, he finds himself advising city residents how to protect themselves and giving speeches to school groups instead of fighting crime. One late afternoon in the middle of Ramadan, on the way home from a day of speeches, he comes upon a car accident—an expensive car has apparently run into a telephone pole. The car seems out of place in the dangerous neighborhood. And it turns out this is no routine accident, as the driver and a passenger have apparently been murdered, and there's blood in the back seat of the car.

Of course, it gets worse. The suspected murderer has kidnapped a Good Samaritan, a nurse, who called 911 from the accident scene. Although reluctant to do so, Ash's supervisors put him in charge of the investigation, since he was the first officer on the scene. But everything gets more complicated—Ash has more than one enemy among his fellow officers, his supervisors don't trust him, the FBI gets involved and isn't interested in sharing information, and worst of all, one of the victims was the estranged daughter of druglord Konstantin Bukoholov, with whom Ash has a strange relationship, in that he'd like to throw Konstantin in jail, but the druglord often points him toward evidence he needs to convict people.

One of Konstantin's tips take Ash to a local bed and breakfast, which turns out to be an entirely different and more horrifying business than it appears. Ash is determined to uncover the truth, even if it means putting himself in danger, risking his own life, and taking ethical shortcuts to get the information he needs. And as he battles his superiors and the FBI, he also must beat Konstantin before he takes justice into his own hands.

The third book in Chris Culver's series featuring Ash Rashid, By Any Means is a quick, well-written read with a tremendously compelling main character. This is the second book I've read in the series (after the first book, The Abbey), and I'm still really enjoying Ash's character, despite his somewhat skewed sense of right and wrong. He's a refreshing addition to the detective/mystery genre, as he's flawed but not completely on the wrong side of the law, and conflicted by his job but not utterly angst-ridden.

While there isn't much that's surprising in the plot, that doesn't matter. By Any Means is compelling and enjoyable, with a good amount of both action and introspection. Ash Rashid is definitely a character worth getting to know.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Book Review: "The Snow Queen" by Michael Cunningham

Barrett and Tyler Meeks are brothers. They're different in many ways—Barrett, who is gay, hasn't been able to settle down enough in his life to pursue a serious vocation, while Tyler is a struggling musician, obsessed with what is going on in the world around him. But they're also fairly similar, as both brothers are fiercely protective of each other (owing to a promise each made separately to their mother when they were younger), and neither is utterly satisfied with the direction their life is taking.

Tyler's fiancé, Beth, is dying. There's still some hope that she may beat her disease, but no one is optimistic enough to say so. Tyler's main task is to write a wedding song for Beth, one that won't seem maudlin or overly sentimental, despite the situation. He has been Beth's caregiver, her watchdog, her guardian angel, but he isn't sure what his life would be without her. And despite promises made to everyone, Tyler uses cocaine more often than he should, as he feels it gives him more clarity and enables his creative process. But, of course, he's not addicted.

"It seems possible that all the surprises (he didn't exactly plan on being an unknown musician at forty-three, living in eroticized chastity with his dying girlfriend and his younger brother, who has turned, by slow degrees, from a young wizard into a tired middle-aged magician, summoning doves out of a hat for the ten thousandth time) have been part of an inscrutable effort, too immense to see; some accumulation of lost chances and canceled plans and girls who were almost but not quite, all of which seemed random at the time but have brought him here, to this window, to his difficult but interesting life..."

Meanwhile, Barrett, dealing with the surprising (to him) demise of another relationship, sees a mysterious light in the sky while walking through Central Park one night. He knows it isn't a star or a comet or a plane, and almost believes it is some sort of signal from God, although he cannot figure out what it means. Desperate to understand the meaning of that light, he finds himself turning to spirituality and religion to try and find some answers.

The Snow Queen tells the story of Barrett, Tyler, and Beth, as each searches for fulfillment and the chance to understand their own destiny. The book spans from Election Day in 2004 through Election Day in 2008, and follows the three of them (along with a few of their circle of friends) as they struggle to find meaning in their lives. It's a tremendously introspective book, one which demonstrates (much like life) that there are no easy answers, and the answers are different for each of us. It's a poignant, moving story that definitely makes you think.

Michael Cunningham is one of my favorite authors. So many times in reading The Snow Queen, I was utterly mesmerized by the poetry of his language, even in describing simple emotions or situations. I enjoyed this book, although not as much as some of his others, like The Hours, A Home at the End of the World, and By Nightfall, but I was still moved, intrigued, and amazed by Cunningham's storytelling. Tremendously interesting read.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Book Review: "The Cold Song" by Linn Ullmann

It's amazing how destructive secrets and assumptions can be.

Siri Brodal is a driven, successful restaurant owner in Norway. She's married to Jon Dreyer, a well-known author who has written two-thirds of a popular trilogy, but can't seem to find the words or inspiration for a third book. Instead he spends his time staring at his computer, sending texts and emails to other women, and then having affairs with them (under the guise of walking the family dog or running errands). Siri knows that Jon is a philanderer, but she hopes that once he finishes his book their relationship might go back to normal, although it is consistently challenged by the erratic behavior of their older daughter, Alma.

In an effort to help Jon finish his book, the couple hires Milla, a young woman, to care for Alma and their younger daughter, Liv, when the family takes a summer holiday to the coast of Norway, where they stay in the mansion owned by Siri's formidable, eccentric mother, Jenny. Jenny and Siri's relationship has always been troubled, especially after the death of Siri's younger brother when he was four and she was six.

Milla's presence causes further friction in everyone's lives, especially as Milla takes an interest in Jon, one he appears to reciprocate. Then one night, during Jenny's 75th birthday, Milla disappears, seemingly without a trace. Although it takes a significant amount of time before her remains are discovered and the truth of what happened to her is revealed, her life—and death—brings to light suspicions and secrets that have remained dormant in many relationships. Both Siri and Jon wonder whether their actions played any part in what happened to Milla, and whether they could have done anything to prevent it from happening.

Linn Ullmann's The Cold Song is an interesting book, in that while there is a murder and that causes a bit of a mystery briefly, it is more of a book about how Milla's disappearance and death impacts the other characters and lays bare the fractures in their relationships. It's a tremendously atmospheric book, and you can almost feel the rain and mist that often surrounds the town where much of the book takes place.

Ullmann does a great job in creating her characters and giving them idiosyncrasies and layering them with complexity. While much of the plot is somewhat familiar, Ullmann's storytelling ability keeps you compelled, interested in finding out what issues will come to light and how the plot will be resolved.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Now that you've returned, please go away again...

It has been 10 years since Monica Lewinsky stormed into our public consciousness following the disclosure she had an affair with President Clinton while she was a White House intern. Eventually, however, like any scandal-fueled celebrity buzz, the Saturday Night Live skits lampooning Lewinsky and Linda Tripp, and the mention of her name in every comedian's monologue eventually faded, and she left the public eye.

But now, 10 years later, Lewinsky has resurfaced, to tell her story to Vanity Fair (and perhaps every other media outlet which will listen). Having suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts from all of the public scrutiny and besmirching of her character back in the mid- to late 1990s, she has now decided "to get involved with efforts on behalf of victims of online humiliation and harassment and to start speaking on this topic in public forums."

While that is admirable and not worthy of a rant, what has enraged me is that she compares what she went through and her feelings during that time to those of Tyler Clementi, the gay Rutgers University student whose encounter with another man was broadcast on the internet by his college roommate and then circulated via social media. Clementi later committed suicide by jumping off of the George Washington Bridge.

Monica Lewinsky, you are no Tyler Clementi.

You were an adult who knowingly engaged in an extramarital affair with a married man who happened to be the President of the United States. Did he abuse his power? Certainly. But you were a willing party to this dalliance.

Tyler Clementi was, plain and simple, just another college student coming to terms with his sexuality. He kissed another man during a private moment, when those who would seek to ridicule him decided it would be funny to film this encounter and disseminate it.

You may think you honor Tyler's memory by comparing your struggle and your feelings to his, but instead you denigrate it. Kissing someone is far different than having sexual relations (however you define the term) with the married leader of the United States. Whether or not you thought anyone would find out, you were doing wrong. Tyler Clementi was not.

And while the reason for your return to the public eye is admirable, would you be returning if Hillary Clinton wasn't a frontrunner for the presidency in 2016? I think we know the answer to that question.

You can do some good, but never equate your situation with those of an innocent college student who did nothing wrong.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Book Review: "Monday, Monday" by Elizabeth Crook

Life can change in a split second, and one's actions can have ramifications that ripple for years to come.

One August day in 1966, Charles Whitman climbed to the top of a clock tower at the University of Texas in Austin and began shooting at random people. He killed 16 people and wounded more than 30 others that day, striking fear into a quiet summer day on campus, and changing the lives of numerous people.

Shelly was one of the people shot by Whitman that day, as she was leaving one of her summer classes. She was lying in the middle of campus, wounded and bleeding, fearing that she would die, when she was rescued by two fellow students, no-nonsense Vietnam vet Jack Stone, and his art student cousin Wyatt Calvert. The split-second decision to rescue Shelly has tremendous ramifications for both young men, and it sets into motion a number of things—a secret affair, an unexpected pregnancy, and a life-changing decision—actions that link the three of them together for years to come. And then many years later, the three are brought together again, forced to confront the decisions they made and the secrets they and some of their loved ones have kept.

Monday, Monday is a moving story of the consequences of our decisions, some made in a split second, some made with significantly more consideration. It's a story about how love endures, even through time and distance, yet the shape of that love may change. It's the story of how tragedy can both wound and unite, and it's also the story of the myriad ways in which secrets can touch so many people in so many different ways.

Elizabeth Crook did a great job laying out this story and the ripple effects of both Whitman's shooting spree and the decisions the main characters made in its aftermath. She's a tremendously talented storyteller, because while so much of the plot seems inevitable and familiar, you feel truly engrossed in the characters' lives, so you want to keep reading even as you're fairly certain how the plot will proceed. At times it's a little more melodramatic than it needs to be, but Crook's ability to convey emotions and created layered characters keeps the book from being overly maudlin and sustains your interest.

I thought this was a really well-written, emotional book. Definitely worth a read.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Book Review: "Next Life Might Be Kinder" by Howard Norman

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

"After my wife, Elizabeth Church, was murdered by the bellman Alfonse Padgett in the Essex Hotel, she did not leave me."

Sam Lattimore has been rocked by the death of his beloved wife, Elizabeth. Their marriage was brief but passionate, emotionally and sexually charged, and occasionally tempestuous, but Sam is unprepared for the depth of his grief. A novelist before their marriage, he is unable to move forward with his writing, and seems stuck in a state of emotional limbo. He finds himself blacking out from time to time, and has been seeing a therapist weekly, although their encounters are usually punctuated by bursts of anger.