Sunday, September 28, 2014

Book Review: "Stone Mattress: Nine Tales" by Margaret Atwood

It has been a long, long while since I've read anything by Margaret Atwood. In fact, the only two things I've read of hers have been The Handmaid's Tale and Cat's Eye years ago. Not sure why, exactly. However, my interest was piqued by her new story collection, Stone Mattress: Nine Tales, so I decided to remedy my long Atwood drought.

This is a (not surprisingly) well-written collection of stories which definitely intrigued me. In fact, there were several stories I wish ran even longer, because I so enjoyed the characters and wanted to know more about what happened to them when the stories ended.

The stories in Stone Mattress: Nine Tales are mostly about reasonably normal people dealing with unusual or emotionally challenging circumstances. My favorites included: "The Dead Hand Loves You," in which the author of a horror masterpiece, written to get him out of debt more than anything else, reflects on the circumstances in which he created the book, and the people who inspired him and fired his resentment; "Torching the Dusties," where an elderly woman in an assisted living facility is struggling both with the visions of little people she keeps seeing and the fact that an activist group has stormed her facility, threatening to burn it down and kill all the residents; "The Freeze-Dried Groom," about an antique dealer and thief who finds more than he bargained for when he bids on an unclaimed storage unit; and the title story, in which a woman rights a long-festering wrong, on an Arctic cruise, of all places. I also really enjoyed the trio of linked stories, "Alphinland," "Revenant," and "Dark Lady," which dealt with two writers battling the challenges of growing old and reflecting on their work, and a woman who once came between them.

I felt Atwood was at her best in this collection when her stories, dark as they may be, were slightly more grounded in reality than those which dealt with more fantastical subjects. I really enjoyed her writing, and reading this definitely has me thinking I'll need to read more of her books.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Book Review: "A Man Called Ove" by Fredrik Backman

This is one of those books you just want to give a hug.

Ove is, to put it mildly, a curmudgeon. He's not a very big fan of people. Or small talk. He believes in consistency, rules, simplicity. In Ove's mind, anything "newfangled" (cellphones, automatic cars, the internet) is unnecessary and just further evidence of how the world is growing lazier by the second. And don't get him started on people who don't obey signs, speed limits, regulations, or just common decency.

"People said he was bitter. Maybe they were right. He'd never reflected much on it. People also called him antisocial. Ove assumed this meant he wasn't overly keen on people. And in this instance he could totally agree with them. More often than not people were out of their minds."

But as we've seen in books and movies galore that feature the angry curmudgeon as its main character (everything from A Christmas Carol to Despicable Me), there's so much more to Ove than meets the eye. He is fiercely devoted to his wife, the one person for whom he'd do anything, even if it was accompanied by some grumbling and complaining. He is firmly rooted in his idea of right and wrong, and will fight the powers that be every way he can if he feels the situation isn't fair or just. But Ove's life is shaped by sadness and tragedy, and his behavior is a reaction to what has occurred around him.

When a new family moves in next door, complete with overly pregnant wife, clumsy husband, and two inquisitive young daughters, their first meeting is somewhat inauspicious—the husband flattens Ove's mailbox and drives into his flowerbed. (Another thing on Ove's list of dislikes: people who can't properly back up trailers.) But as much as Ove glowers and tries to push them away, they keep reaching out to him, they keep asking him for help, and involving themselves in his life—which leads him to (unwillingly) get involved in others' lives as well. And then the principled, fight-for-your-rights Ove comes out yet again.

From the first page, you pretty much know what is going to happen with Ove's character. We've seen it before. But it is a testament to Fredrik Backman's excellent storytelling that you absolutely don't care. This is a sweet, heartwarming book, and although Ove is a familiar character, Backman has made him so complex—and fleshed out his backstory and his reasons for his apparent anger and unwavering adherence to rules and principles so well—that your heart just aches for this man.

I've said numerous times before when writing reviews that I'm a total sap, and that when a book resonates with me emotionally I tend to really enjoy it. A Man Called Ove is definitely one of those books. At first I wasn't sure if I wanted to read a book in which I essentially knew what would happen at the start, but the journey that Backman takes you on is well worth it, even if there are familiar guideposts along the way. I found myself chuckling, and smiling, and even tearing up from time to time, so if a book makes you react in that way, how can you miss?

Friday, September 19, 2014

Book Review: "Reunion" by Hannah Pittard

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

The literary canon is full of novels about family dysfunction, with more than a few books focusing on the challenges which ensue when family members come together to mourn the death of one of their own. Sometimes hijinks ensue (such as in Jonathan Tropper's superlative This is Where I Leave You), and other times, things turn out infinitely more maudlin.

Hannah Pittard's new novel, Reunion, falls somewhere squarely between the two. Kate Pulaski is a screenwriter struggling both professionally and personally. Her marriage is dissolving (and she's not sure just how upset she is about that) and she is trying to dig herself out of a great deal of debt. Just before her flight home to Chicago is about to take off, she learns that her estranged and oft-married father has committed suicide.

While this is shocking, she is even more surprised to learn that Elliot and Nell, her older brother and sister, are heading to Atlanta, where they all grew up, to go to the funeral and try to figure out what caused their father to kill himself, despite the fact that none of them had seen him for several years. And worse than that, they expect Kate to join them.

"I have a quick, searing feeling that the entire weekend is going to be a series of still lifes starring me and my siblings standing awkwardly three abreast, each of us waiting for one of the others to make the first move."

The siblings reunite and get together with Sasha, their father's fifth wife (who happens to be around the same age as them) and the daughter of their six-year-old half-sister. Of course, their father's suicide isn't the only thing weighing them down emotionally. Elliot has fears that his own marriage might be falling apart, Nell is unhappy with her own life, and Kate has a number of issues—not the least of which are her drinking problem, her inability to tell the truth, and her tendency to say whatever she wants, no matter who it might hurt.

As Kate, Elliot, and Nell deal with their own problems, and their unresolved feelings about their father, they also must navigate the presence of Sasha and Mindy, as well as the envy, jealousy, and childhood rivalries that once again rear their ugly heads. And how they deal with these issues may have a profound effect on their lives and their relationships with each other.

Much as in Pittard's first novel, the fantastic The Fates Will Find Their Way, her beautiful prose and storytelling talent are on full display in Reunion. While there certainly are emotionally charged scenes in the book, it's not particularly depressing, and in fact, Pittard shows glimpses of a dark humor from time to time. Kate is quite an unsympathetic character (although it's easy to understand why), but her behavior is a bit like watching a car wreck—it's upsetting but you can't seem to look away. It takes a talented writer to sustain your interest in, and your enjoyment of, characters who aren't particularly likeable, ones you'd like to shake a time or two.

My father died unexpectedly in May, and while that incident caused tremendous upheaval in my life and those of my mother and siblings, reading Reunion I felt that no matter what challenges we dealt with, we clearly weren't in bad shape compared to the Pulaski family. This is a complex book, but an enjoyable and emotionally complex one. Definitely makes you think how you'd handle the same situations.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Book Review: "Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel

"Hell is the absence of people you long for."

Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven is a big, ambitious, emotional, gorgeously written book that I absolutely fell in love with.

Arthur Leander is a famous actor nearing the twilight of his career. His life is full of unsuccessful emotional attachments, yet he is longing for simplicity, and a better relationship with his young son from a previous marriage. One night, during a stage production of King Lear in Canada, Arthur suffers a heart attack on stage and collapses. Kirsten Raymonde, an eight-year-old actress in the play, watches as Jeevan Chaudhary, a former paparazzi photographer and entertainment reporter-turned-aspiring paramedic, rushes up onstage to give Arthur CPR.

Strangely, hours after this incident, as Jeevan walks home, the entire world is overtaken by a massive flu pandemic, which spreads quickly. Those who do not become sick immediately react in panic—hospitals are flooded, roads are clogged with people trying to escape to a safer place, airlines stop flying. Jeevan holes himself up in his brother's apartment, and the two watch television stations cease broadcasting, the internet cease operating, and electricity die, and the subsequent rioting and looting that ensues.

Fifteen years after the pandemic, Kirsten is an actress with The Traveling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors who travel a path between different settlements, performing music and Shakespearean plays. Kirsten's life has been shaped by the violence and loss she has encountered along their travels, as well as the memories she has of life before the world changed. She is unprepared for how a random encounter in a small town with someone who calls himself "The Prophet" will affect her—and alter the course of her journey.

Station Eleven shifts perspectives and moves back and forth through time. We follow Arthur as his star rises and he blunders his way through relationship after relationship; Arthur's first wife, Miranda, who reinvents her life after her marriage collapses, and whose artistic talent has a reach far beyond her imagination; Jeevan, as he moves from career to career, continually tracking and encountering Arthur and Miranda; Clark, Arthur's childhood friend, who serves as a back-seat observer to the events and people who have moved through Arthur's life; and Kirsten, as she remembers glimpses of life before, and moves through a life different than anything she could have fathomed. Some have said the shifting narration and time makes the book seemed disjointed, but I loved how each person's story contributed to the rich tapestry of this book.

This is a book about love, loss, friendship, connection, and the power of memory. It's bleak and beautiful, heartfelt and heartbreaking, and it seriously made me think about whether I would be able to survive in a world like this, and the things I'd miss most. Yes, this is a book about the end of the world as people knew it, but there are no zombies or rebellions or shadow governments or anything like that. I told someone recently that I often read from a place of emotion, and that if a book makes me feel, I like it more than books that don't. While Station Eleven definitely provoked emotions and feelings, the writing is so utterly captivating as well. Easily one of the best books I've read this year.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Book Review: "The Naive Guys: A Memoir of Friendship, Love and Tech in the Early 1990s" by Harry Patz Jr.

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

Reading Harry Patz Jr.'s first novel filled me with nostalgia. Mark Amici graduates from Boston College in 1991 (the same year I graduated from college), ready to take on the world. But the struggling economy takes its toll on Mark's job prospects, so he moves home to New York to live with his mother, his uncle, and his older sister. As he subsists on bartending and catering jobs from his uncle, he longs for a "real" job while pining for the carefree life he had in college.

While job hunting, Mark spends his time looking for love with his motley crew of best friends—Sally, Pete, and Kostas—and rooting for Boston College and New York's athletic teams to excel in football and basketball. He's a pretty serious sports fan, and just as serious about wanting to find someone special (or at times, just someone). But his wanting to find the perfect relationship sets him on the road to heartbreak a time or two—and confuses the heck out of him most of the time.

When Mark lands a job at Fishsoft, an up-and-coming tech company, he is excited about the opportunity, and despite having to negotiate some interesting office situations, he enjoys his job and excels at it. This is a time when email is just being introduced, a time before cell phones, and where laptops weighed almost as much as a desktop, but he revels in the success he is able to achieve.

Nothing truly earth-shattering happens in The Naive Guys, but that doesn't really matter. Patz has written a tremendously engaging book about a young guy trying to make it in the world, and doing his best to understand work, his family and friends, women, and the rapidly changing world around him. As the title promises, Mark can be a spectacularly naive character (at times nearly bordering on cluelessness), yet his sensitivity and his strong feelings about certain things (particularly sports) make him appealing.

While I really enjoyed the characters, what I enjoyed the most was Patz's pitch-perfect depiction of the world in the early to mid-1990s. From the advent of email and cell phones, to the portable Walkman and Discman (plus the adapter so you could listen to CDs in your car), to cultural touchstones like the first World Trade Center bombing, the 1992 presidential election, the Los Angeles Riots, and the OJ Simpson case, this book brought back so many memories and really made me say, "Wow, I remember feeling that same way!"

This was definitely a fun read, and proof that a book doesn't have to have an action-packed or drama-filled plot to be enjoyable. If you remember the early to mid-1990s, take this trip with Mark and his friends down memory lane...

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Book Review: "The Wonder of All Things" by Jason Mott

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

It was an exciting day in the small town of Stone Temple, North Carolina. Many people were gathered to see a local man-turned-pilot perform in an air show for his hometown. But the show ended in tragedy, with the plane crashing into the crowd of spectators. Underneath the rubble, nestled in a small pocket of air, is 13-year-old Ava, the daughter of the town's sheriff, and her best friend, Wash. When Ava realizes that Wash has been injured by a piece of the rubble and lays bleeding near her, she places her hands on him and heals him.

The discovery of this miraculous ability of Ava's rocks her family, her town, and the country. She has kept this a secret from everyone except her mother, who died when she was younger, and so many in Stone Temple are angry that she has kept this miraculous talent to herself, since she could have saved so many people. But what everyone outside her family and friends don't comprehend—or even care—is that every time she heals someone, it leaves her increasingly weakened, both physically and emotionally. To continue doing so would be dangerous.

"There is always comfort in pretending that change has not happened in life, even when we know full well that nothing will ever again be the way it was."

Thousands of people descend upon Stone Temple, hoping that Ava will help them, and trying to make sense of her talent. Also arriving in the town is the Reverend Isaiah Brown, a charismatic television preacher who leads a large flock. While he wants to understand the religious reasons behind this miracle, he also has personal motives for wanting to find his way into Ava's life.

Much as he did in The Returned, where he explored the idea of people long-dead returning to the world of the living, Jason Mott raises many interesting questions to ponder in The Wonder of All Things. It's an intriguing, well-written, emotional novel that definitely makes you think. Is Ava's responsibility to heal people, even at great risk to herself? Or should she be able to live as "normal" a life as she possibly can?

I thought this was a good book, and enjoyed Mott's storytelling ability. I really enjoyed both Ava and Wash's characters, but found many of the other characters not quite as well developed. There were a number of plot points in the book that the moment they were mentioned I had an idea of what would happen, and I wish the story wasn't quite so obvious in places as it raced toward a conclusion. But in the end, I'm still thinking about Ava and Wash, and still left pondering the questions the book raised, so it definitely is both intriguing and affecting.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Book Review: "The Drop" by Dennis Lehane

It all started with a puppy.

Bob Saginowski is a sad-sack bartender, living in the house he grew up in, spending his time shuffling between work, home, and mass at his childhood church. He's a loner; his only real companion (and that's a bit of a stretch) is his cousin Marv, who used to own the bar Bob works at, although the bar is now really owned by Chechen mobsters. Bob spends his days wishing for a way out of his loneliness, and he's hiding a secret or two as well.

One cold winter night while walking home from work, he finds a badly beaten puppy in a trash can. Although the responsibility of caring for something scares him, he rescues the dog and ultimately bringing it home with him. When he finds the dog he also encounters Nadia, a world-weary woman who has seen more than her share of problems. Without expecting it, he finds himself caring for both Nadia and the dog and is utterly unprepared for how it feels.

But all is not rosy for Bob—not only is his church closing, but the bar gets robbed, he catches the eye of a dogged cop determined to make something of himself again, and the dog's original owner, an unstable ex-con with an agenda of his own, returns and wants what he believes is his. It's more than enough to make Bob wonder what path he should follow, and what the consequences of his actions will be.

Dennis Lehane is one of my favorite authors of all time. While this isn't as good as Mystic River or a number of his Kenzie and Gennaro novels, I really like Lehane best when his writing leans more toward grittier, violent character studies than some of the historic material he's covered in his last two books. I love his use of language, both in dialogue and description, and while not everything that happens in the book is surprising, he still knows how to create some good tension.

I learned after I read The Drop (in a little more than one day) that it is an expansion of a short story Lehane wrote in 2009, which explains why, even at just under 250 pages, I felt the book was a little short, and would have liked more time with Bob, Marv, Nadia, and even Detective Torres. There was a lot of intriguing material that could have been developed further, although I didn't feel as if the book ended abruptly or was too short.

I forgot that a movie adaptation of this book is due out later this year. While I try not to read books that close to a movie adaptation (especially one with a little suspense in it), I'm looking forward to seeing how the actors bring to life the characters I've pictured in my head. If you're not planning to see the movie, and you enjoy crime novels, this is one to read. It's a fast read, it's well-written, and most importantly, it's good to have Dennis Lehane back in his element. (Of course, now I want another book, Dennis.)

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Book Review: "Being Miss America: Behind the Rhinestone Curtain" by Kate Shindle

When Kate Shindle was crowned Miss America 1998 in September 1997, she became one of the most polarizing Miss Americas in some time. Some thought she was the clear winner the moment she stepped onstage; some said she only won because the pageant was fixed. Some loved her talent; some hated it. Some thought her swimsuit was fun and unique; others HATED it. But most of her detractors couldn't deny the intelligence and passion with which she spoke about her platform issue or cause, awareness and prevention of HIV and AIDS.

"I have been called courageous, a trailblazer, the first socially relevant Miss America ever, fat, thin, beautiful, handsome, ugly, talented, untalented, inspiring, infuriating, deserving, undeserving."

I've always been a fan of Shindle's, as I feel she is never afraid to tell it like it is. In Being Miss America she speaks candidly both about what it's like to be Miss America—the good and the bad—and the triumphs and challenges the Miss America Organization has dealt with historically, and those it is facing currently.

"Most of the young women who strive to become Miss America see it as the public sees it: as a dream, a wish fulfillment that guarantees one will be respected, praised, and lifted up as an example of all that is right about young American women. Little do they know what they're actually getting into if they win. Decades of stereotypes, expectations, scandal, myths, media scrutiny, public skepticism, and questionable leadership choices have made actually being Miss America nearly impossible."

Those of you that know me are probably aware that I've been a volunteer with the Miss America Organization for more than 10 years. I've been tremendously fortunate to watch some dynamic young women compete in this system, and watch the amazing things they've done with their lives and for their communities, partially as a result of the skills they've burnished through competition, and partially thanks to the scholarships they receive. I've also had the tremendous opportunity to meet a number of immensely dedicated volunteers, who are the lifeblood of this organization. Their love for the system, despite its flaws, and the incredible amount of work and sweat and tears and money they put in (most of the time for no personal gain) is both inspiring and humbling.

That's why as much as I enjoyed this book, it saddened me to get a more in-depth understanding of the problems the organization has, and get Shindle's perspectives on both the causes and the potential solutions. Being a volunteer, even in my own small way, I'm aware of some of these issues, and I also understand them as a person who has worked in the nonprofit association management field for nearly my entire career. Sure, some would say these are only Shindle's perspectives, and she has an axe to grind, and maybe not everything she says is entirely accurate, but I hope this book serves as somewhat of a wake-up call to those with the power to make change happen. Think what you must about the Miss America system, it has made a tremendous difference in millions of women's lives, and still can.

Shindle writes as I'd imagine she speaks, and I found this book really compelling. I read it in just a little more than a day. My only criticism is that the book could have used some more judicious fact-checking: in a few instances, former Miss Americas are referenced by incorrect years, and one recent Miss America's last name is spelled quite wrong throughout the book. But that's the savant in me—many people might not even notice that.

If you have an interest in the Miss America Organization or what it's like to be Miss America, you'll find this book tremendously interesting. If you love the system and/or have given any time to being a part of it, you may feel as I do. But if all you've ever thought about Miss America is she's nothing more than a crown-wearing bimbo who doesn't do anything, I'd encourage you to read this. You may not change your mind, but you should.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Book Review: "The Magician's Land" by Lev Grossman

Another series of books I really enjoyed has come to an end. As I've said many times before, I'm always hesitant to read the last book in a series, both because I don't want to be left without another book to look forward to, and I'm always nervous about how the author will conclude a series I've grown attached to.

Lev Grossman's The Magician's Land is the conclusion to his Magicians trilogy, a series that followed a group of young magicians as they discovered the magical land they had read about in children's books was actually real, and it was in need of rulers to lead it. In this final book, Quentin Coldwater has found himself banished from his beloved Fillory, where he and his best friends had ruled as kings and queens, defending the kingdom where necessary and protecting the magic within it.

"Six months ago he'd been a king in a magic land, another world, but that was all over. He'd been kicked out of Fillory, and he'd been kicked around a fair bit since then, and now he was just another striver, trying to scramble back in, up the slippery slope, back toward the light and the warmth."

Left with nowhere else to turn, Quentin returns to his alma mater, the Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic, to try and find a new purpose in his life. While he discovers a love for teaching, it's not long before circumstances connect him with Plum, a graduate student with tremendous talent and a mysterious history, and they both find themselves exiled from Brakebills as well. The need for money and a purpose lead the two toward a dangerous mission, which is connected to Quentin's past in more ways than they can imagine.

Meanwhile, in Fillory, Eliot and Janet, the High King and Queen, have found that all is not harmonious in the kingdom. Enemies are invading, and the magic that has kept the land protected for years on end seems to be failing. The end of Fillory is at hand, and they are desperate to find a way to stop their kingdom from being destroyed, and them along with it.

This is a book about trying to discover your true purpose, and not losing sight of the person you are, even in the face of tremendous adversity. It's also a book about trying to save the things that mean the most to you. And more than anything, this is a book about the pull of friendship, and the willingness to do whatever is necessary for those we care about.

In all of the books in this trilogy, I marveled at the immensely creative and poetic details that Grossman brought to his descriptions of Fillory and the other magical places, and the powers that the magicians have. I also loved the unique voices he gave each of his characters, how their personalities remained relatively consistent throughout, and I really enjoyed the interactions between them.

I found the concept of Fillory's imminent destruction tremendously intriguing, and felt the book really hit its stride whenever it focused on that, as well as the dynamics between the characters. More than the other two books, however, I felt as if The Magician's Land got a little more bogged down in backstory and details that threw it a bit off course. This is definitely a trilogy where you're expected to read the books in order, because Grossman doesn't provide much information about what happened previously, instead simply mentioning characters and incidents without elaborating.

In the end, while this wasn't my favorite book in the series, I did enjoy the way Grossman concluded everything. I really found Fillory to be a special, intriguing place, and so enjoyed spending time with the characters, and I'm just sorry to see everything end. If you believe in magic, and want something a bit more cerebral, definitely check out this trilogy.