Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Book Review: "Love Love" by Sung J. Woo

Sometimes you read a book you know very little about, and it utterly surprises you. That was the case with Sung J. Woo's Love Love, a moving, thought-provoking, endearing, and slightly zany novel about two siblings whose lives aren't quite going the way they planned—and every step they take seems to throw them another curve.

Judy Lee is, to put it mildly, unhappy. She hasn't pursued a relationship since her marriage ended, she hasn't forgiven her father for her mother's death, she has no career prospects, and she doesn't know what she's going to do with the rest of her life. And when she meets a new man she might be interested in, he's a little more complicated than most, plus he may or may not have been a member of the Japanese Yakuza gang at some point.

"Everyone else she knew was doing productive things like buying bigger houses, raising smart kids, getting promotions. And here she was, a temp at age thirty-eight, with no husband, no house, no job, nothing. She knew she should be concerned, and to some degree she was, but whenever she fully recognized her utter lack of everything, the sheer emptiness of her life filled her up, leaving no room in her heart to even feel scared."

The only constant in Judy's life has been her older brother, Kevin. But Kevin has more than enough problems of his own. His career as a professional tennis player never really hit its stride, he's still mourning the end of his marriage, and he's just had one heck of a bombshell—after preparing to donate one of his kidneys to their dying father, he learns he isn't a genetic match. That's right, he's adopted, and he's finding this out for the first time at age 40, and all his father can give him is a nude picture of his birth mother from the 1970s.

Love Love is about trying to cope and move forward when nothing in your life seems to be going right, and when every possibility turns up more chaos than you expected. It's the story of two siblings trying to decide whether to wallow in their misery or take control of their lives when they seem utterly, completely out of control on all fronts. It's also an interesting meditation on how we choose to live our lives, on the difference between selfishness and independence, and how much of a role fate plays in the choices we make.

I found this book utterly endearing and enjoyable. I really liked both Judy and Kevin's characters, and found many of the supporting characters to be so much more fascinating and complex than I imagined. At times things happen as you expect they will, at times Woo really throws some crazy twists into his story, and while it makes the book a little quirkier than I imagined it would be, it also makes it more entertaining. Woo is a terrific storyteller and you can tell that he cares about his characters, which makes you care about them, too.

What a pleasant surprise this was! Nothing like some good family and relationship dysfunction to entertain you.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Book Review: "The Bigness of the World: Stories" by Lori Ostlund

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Scribner for making it available!

About 20 years ago, I adamantly refused to read short stories, saying that I didn't want to invest a great deal of emotion or effort in getting hooked on a story that would end not long after it began. And even though I read some classic short stories in my youth, I didn't necessarily think I was missing much by boycotting this literary form.

But then I picked up one of the Best American Short Stories collections in the late 1990s, and found myself marveling at the artistry, emotion, characterization, plot, and imagery these writers packed into a small number of pages. I haven't looked back, and count myself tremendously privileged to have read short stories that have taken my breath away. Authors like Thom Jones, David Schickler, Robin Black, Nathan Englander, Alice Munro, Alethea Black, Amy Bloom, and Jacob Appel have taken residence in my head and my heart.

I can now add Lori Ostlund to that list of authors who have dazzled me with their literary gifts. Her debut collection, The Bigness of the World, which won the Flannery O'Connor Prize, will be re-released early next year, and I hope that she finds a multitude of fans like me, because her talent is definitely evident in these stories, which deal with seemingly ordinary men, women, and children confronting the unexpected.

Here is an example of how she captures thoughts and emotions:
"Is it possible, Noreen wonders, to locate the exact moment that fear (or hate or love) takes shape? And is there ever a way to convey that feeling to another person, to describe the memory of it so perfectly that it is like performing a transplant, your heart beating frantically in the body of that other person?"
Some of my favorite stories in this collection included: "Talking Fowl with My Father," which chronicled the strained relationship of a woman and her elderly father, both of whom have very different ideas about what constitutes a life well lived; "Idyllic Little Bali," about a group of American tourists who come together while on vacation, not realizing the emotional turmoil one of them is dealing with; "The Day You Were Born," which tells of a young girl caught between her mother and her father, who suffers from mental illness; "All Boy," about a young boy who is dealing with how he differs from his peers in the midst of his parents' marital woes; "Upon Completion of Baldness," which tells of a couple of teachers whose relationship hits a rough patch when one of them shaves their head; and the magnificent title story, about two siblings and their unique relationship with their one-of-a-kind babysitter.

Ostlund's stories are set everywhere from Minnesota to Malaysia, but their themes are universal. And while many deal with gay and lesbian characters, their sexuality doesn't define them or the stories; it's just another plot point to consider in many cases. These are beautifully written, emotionally evocative stories which will move you, make you think, make you chuckle, and perhaps help you realize your life may not be so chaotic or problematic after all.

Book Review: "Still Life Las Vegas" by James Sie

When Walter was five years old, his mother left their family, driving away in her blue Volvo, and he never saw her again. Now 17, living a monotonous existence away from the Las Vegas strip and taking care of his bedridden father, he has spent the last 12 years searching for her, hoping that she'll someday mysteriously reappear in her life as quickly as she left it.

Working a dead-end job at a museum on Fremont Street, he has his whole life ahead of him but feels he has not much to live for. And then one day he meets Chrysto and Acacia, siblings who work as living statues at The Venetian. Their beauty and passion awaken something in Walter, and he suddenly finds himself looking forward to the end of work days so he can spend time in their presence. He also finds that Chrysto is making him feel things he never expected to, but isn't sure if he should trust anyone not to leave him.

James Sie's Still Life Las Vegas is more than just the story of a young man living under the specter of loss and abandonment. It tells the story of Emily, Walter's mother, and what led her to abandon her family, as well as the story of Owen, Walter's father, how he lost control of his life and his love, and how he ekes out an existence without both. It's also the story of how we shape the truth to help us cope, not realizing the ramifications that our version of the truth might have on others around us.

As you might imagine from the plot, this is a very moving story. Walter is a character you feel for, although you want him to strive for more, feel more, and begin living his life for himself. The emotion of the story is both complemented and supplemented by some beautiful comics-like illustrations by Sungyoon Choi, and at times, key moments in the plot reveal themselves through these illustrations.

My challenge with this book is the way it was told. Chapters fluctuate between Walter in the present, Emily from childhood through the moments after she makes the decision to leave, and Owen's search for his wife, but there isn't any linear order to the chapters, so I felt the story revealed itself in fits and starts, and at times it dulled some of its emotion. But while some of the discoveries Walter makes may not surprise, they still touch your heart, and his story finds its way inside your mind.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Book Review: "Fates and Furies" by Lauren Groff

Whoa. I'm not sure what to make of this one.

"Storytelling is a landscape, and tragedy is comedy is drama. It simply depends on how you frame what you're seeing."

Do we ever really know the person we're in a relationship with? What about the person we're married to?

Lauren Groff's dense, thought-provoking, occasionally meandering new book, Fates and Furies, is a weighty exploration of a 20+-year marriage between Lotto (Lancelot) and Mathilde. The two meet at the end of their senior year of college at Vassar and fall instantly in love—and lust—with each other. Both tall, confident, exuding charisma, they are the couple everyone wants to be, and be near.

Lotto was once a child of privilege, the heir to a fortune, only to have it all taken away by his manipulative, agoraphobic mother. He runs on the fuel of adoration and popularity, but once his acting career doesn't materialize, he falls into a depression until he discovers his true talent, writing plays. Mathilde is his muse, his inspiration, his business manager, the person who keeps their lives running as Lotto flickers in and out of the creative process. But why is she willing to put up with Lotto's mercurial nature, his desperate need to be adored, his feelings of abandonment from his family?

Fates and Furies tells Lotto's story first, seeing the marriage from his vantage point, and then switches halfway through to tell Mathilde's story, which provides an intriguing, complex perspective on incidents we've already seen. There are a lot of twists and turns in this book, some surprising, some not so surprising, and these are fascinating, flawed characters. (At times Lotto felt to me like a character from a Pat Conroy novel, not that that's a bad thing.)

I'm a huge fan of Lauren Groff, and her storytelling ability and her use of language is sensational. At times I marveled over her words but at times her prose was so weighty, so laden with metaphors and references to Greek mythology and Shakespeare that I found myself a little lost. (The last segment of Lotto's section was particularly confusing, as I couldn't figure out what was a dream and what was reality.) But in the end, this is a fascinating and compelling book, an intriguing character study, and I can't get it out of my mind.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Book Review: "Brailling for Wile" by James Zerndt

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Fliterati Press for making it available!

Scrabble fans, the word "brailling" means feeling the surface of a tile while your hand is in the bag in order to draw a blank or other specific letter. This practice is strictly against the rules. (Don't worry, this isn't a book about Scrabble.)

At times while reading James Zerndt's moving but slightly scattered Brailling for Wile, I felt as if I could benefit from brailling to help me find my way to the beautiful heart of this book. At its core, this is a book about love, loss, redemption, and recovery, and it touches you and makes you think. It's just at times it loses its way a little bit.

Thirteen-year-old Mattias Long and his older sister Georgie have been left reeling since the suicide of their father Wile (so called because "his crazy plans to build his family a better life...ended up with an anvil falling on him," like Wile E. Coyote) one year ago. Mattias has been responsible for watching over their mother, who is so consumed with grief that she hasn't been able to reopen the family's Colorado restaurant, The Sad Cafe. And then their mother makes a discovery that changes all of them, sending them reeling and pondering their next steps.

Mattias and his family aren't the only ones struck by life and loss. Brailling for Wile follows a number of other people in the small ski town where they live, and many are trying to overcome their own dilemmas and figure out their own lives. And then a seemingly simple request from Mattias' mother sets a course of events in motion that affects an ever-widening circle of people and forces them to confront their own issues.

As you might imagine from a book about loss, there is a lot of emotion conveyed in this story, and it's very engaging. There are a lot of different threads of the plot to keep straight, although they eventually intersect, and while most of them work, one subplot involving Mattias' friend Helyana and her ultra-religious grandfather seemed utterly unnecessary and unrealistic, and I found it tremendously distracting. I don't think the book needed to artificial chaos that those characters brought about—it was almost as if Zerndt didn't trust the power of his story without that, and it was moving more than fine on its own.

But despite the one discordant thread of the story, this is still a moving, well-written book that I felt in my heart and my head. It definitely makes you think how you'd handle the situations the characters find themselves in, and I was left thinking about these characters even after I finished the book. I'm glad I read this one.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Book Review: "Young Skins: Stories" by Colin Barrett

Gritty, sometimes bleak, but full of well-developed characters and emotions, the stories in Colin Barrett's collection Young Skins are tremendously compelling and memorable.

Set in the small Irish town of Glanbeigh, Barrett's stories evoke the weariness one feels when they have spent most of their life in one place, with the same people, following the same path they always have. Sometimes his characters are down on their luck, sometimes their facing a major crossroads, and sometimes they're just hoping for a little more out of life. And even when they aren't the most upstanding people (to put it mildly, in some cases), Barrett's respect for his characters makes you care about them anyway.

I really enjoyed all seven stories in this collection. Some of my favorites included "Stand Your Skin," about a man whose face was damaged by someone else's act of recklessness, and how he tends to live his life on the margins; "The Moon," about a senior bouncer at a bar, whose infatuation with his boss' college-aged daughter makes him ponder a different life than he has known; "Calm with Horses," which followed Arm, the enforcer for a neighborhood drug dealer, whose life is far more complex and complicated than you'd expect; "The Clancy Kid," about a lovelorn young man and his larger-than-life best friend, who is obsessed with the kidnapping of a young boy from their neighborhood; and "Kindly Forget My Existence," in which two old friends and romantic rivals are reunited when both try to avoid a solemn occasion.

While Barrett's writing style reminded me a bit of Roddy Doyle's, he has a voice all his own. I had read about this collection a number of times over the last several months, and it always had been on my to be read list, but I'm so glad I finally picked it up. These stories are rich with character, plot, and introspection, and they definitely leave you marveling. Colin Barrett may be a relative newcomer to the world of fiction, but I don't anticipate he'll be a flash in the pan given his talent.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Book Review: "The Truth Commission" by Susan Juby

Will the truth really set you free? In Susan Juby's quirky and enjoyable The Truth Commission, three art students believe so, and strive to compel their fellow students to expressing the truth about the various situations they're in—but they don't realize that the truth comes at a price, and that facing your own truths may cause more difficulty than you realize.

Normandy Pale is a student at the Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design in Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada. She is a tremendously talented artist and embroiderer; trouble is, she lives in the shadow of her older sister, Keira, also a graduate of Green Pastures. Keira became famous with a series of graphic novels that lampooned Normandy and their parents, but their parents don't seem to care, and only seem to indulge Keira's behavior.

One day Normandy and her two best friends, Neil and Dusk (whose real name is Dawn—gotta love it), launch what they call The Truth Commission, designed to get their fellow classmates to reveal their not-so-secret secrets. As they start questioning their peers, they find the whole process tremendously empowering, although they're not the ones telling the truth, but their efforts start an interesting domino-like effect across the school, which has both positive and negative results.

But the truth that Normandy finds herself most compelled to uncover is the truth about Keira, who left her university studies and returned home, ostensibly to write the next installment in her graphic novel series. Keira is acting more eccentric than ever, and Normandy can't quite understand why their parents won't get to the bottom of what's going on with her. And then, without warning, Keira starts to confide in Normandy about an incident that has left her shaken. Normandy faces the ultimate dilemma: as she and her friends pursue their search for other people to reveal their truths, should she try to do the same with Keira? Will anyone care if she does?

This was a warm, amusing, and utterly engaging book, populated with really intriguing characters. While so many of the issues the characters dealt with are familiar, Juby makes you care about her characters, so you want to keep reading. The book is ostensibly Normandy's junior project in school, so it's a reflection on the events that occurred and how they made her feel, along with her wry (and sometimes off-topic) observations, even some drawings here and there.

I don't know how you read a book, but this one has a lot of footnotes, mostly Normandy's observations and comments to the readers of her manuscript. When you read a book with footnotes on a Kindle, you have to click back and forth between the footnote and the text, so it took a little longer to get through the text, and sometimes the footnotes didn't advance the story that much. But in the end, it's a tiny irritation that didn't dampen my enthusiasm for this terrific book in the slightest.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Book Review: "The Art of Crash Landing" by Melissa DeCarlo

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to HarperCollins Publishers for making it available!

"Most people would probably have a hard time totally f--king up their life in under an hour. But then again, I'm not most people. I'm amazing. I'm like some kind of f--kup savant."

This may be it. This may be the point at which Mattie Wallace hits rock bottom. Fleeing her boyfriend (whom she affectionately refers to as Nick the Asshole), Mattie is broke, pregnant, and unsure of what her next move will be—and she has all of her worldly belongings in six large trash bags. She is worried she's turning into her late mother, an alcoholic who seemed to sabotage her own life at every turn, and Mattie has no end of regrets about their relationship.

When she finds out that she might inherit something from her late grandmother, a woman she never met, she makes the split-second decision to drive more than 800 miles to Gandy, Oklahoma, where her grandmother and mother once lived. She quickly discovers that her mother had a tremendous amount of potential but her life was derailed by several incidents in her teenage years, which led to the disappointments of her adult life. But as Mattie tries to figure out exactly what caused her mother to abandon the possibilities which lay in store for her, she finds a lot more questions, secrets, and more than a few angry people.

Can we overcome our regrets and our mistakes and start a new course for our lives, or are we doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again? Why are we so determined to push those who care about us away, and not tell them the things we should?

From the very first sentences of The Art of Crash Landing I was utterly hooked, and this book didn't let me go until it ended. It's not that there was necessarily anything earth-shattering about the plot, but Melissa DeCarlo did such a great job unfolding the story, and creating so many fascinating characters. This book is just over 400 pages, and I read the entire thing in less than a day—and I didn't sit around all day reading, either! I was just completely drawn in by the plot and just couldn't stop reading, because I really enjoyed Mattie's story, as dysfunctional as it was.

I love books that give you so much more than you expect. For an author writing her debut novel, Melissa DeCarlo has talent in abundance, and knows how to tell a story. The Art of Crash Landing is moving, funny, and compelling. You can't ask for much more than that when you pick up a book.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Book Review: "Did You Ever Have a Family" by Bill Clegg

Bill Clegg's novel, Did You Ever Have a Family, is a lot like life itself—at times it's poignant and emotional, at other times it's vague and somewhat frustrating, and at still other times you find yourself shaking your head at the wonder of it all.

"I've learned that people will believe what they believe no matter what you say or do."

The night before June Reid's daughter is to get married, an unexpected tragedy takes the lives of her daughter and her fiancé, as well as June's ex-husband and her current boyfriend, Luke. Utterly unsure how to process a loss of this magnitude, she is emotionally overwhelmed, wracked with anger, sadness, and guilt. The only solution she sees to coping with those around her who feel the need to pass judgment on the situation and assign blame, even if they don't know the truth, is to run, as far away and as fast as she can.

As June follows a path across the country that her daughter once took, from Connecticut across the country, to an oceanside motel in tiny Moclips, Washington. Along the way she reflects on her rocky relationship with her daughter, and finally finding love again, with a much younger man, and the issues that arose from both relationships. Hers is a stoic grief, but one that threatens to consume her, little by little.

While June mourns, we get other glimpses of what led up to the tragedy, the people involved, and the aftermath. Portions of the story are narrated by Lydia, the town outcast and Luke's mother, who has secrets and regrets of her own; Silas, the teenage stoner who knows more about the tragedy than he has told anyone; the two women who own the motel where June settles in to mourn; and others with peripheral involvement in one way or another. Some of what is told is more gossip than anything, a slightly bitter version of Liane Moriarty's Greek chorus in Big Little Lies, but much of what is told is like participating in an archaeological dig, where an artifact (or the truth) is uncovered, little by little.

This is a book of tragedy and hope, of optimism and bitterness, and one of the strength of relationships of all kinds. Things start out vaguely murky, and it takes a little while to make sense of all of the voices and where the story really is. But once the plot starts to pick up steam, and connections and truths are revealed, at times you feel this story deep in your gut. Just like real life, it is amazing how life hinges on split-second decisions we make, and how the things we don't say sometimes can be more destructive than the things we do.

I had never read anything Clegg had written before, but there is a lyricism to his storytelling as well as a tremendous amount of emotion evoked by his words. This is a sad book, and it's not entirely satisfying, but I can't get it out of my mind.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Book Review: "Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets" by Jacob M. Appel

You know when you read a book by an author you've never heard of before, and you love it so much, but when you read another book by the same person you're disappointed? I was utterly captivated by Jacob Appel's quirky, moving story collection, Einstein's Beach House, but I wondered if Appel's charm would be apparent in his newest collection, Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets, or whether the quirkiness would become cloying.

I'm pleased to say that this new collection is equally as good, and that once again, I am so dazzled by Appel's talent. These stories are unlike many I've read, but they're not outlandish; each is full of so much heart and emotion and incredibly unforgettable characters. This is a brief but powerful collection that left me wanting more.

Some of my favorite stories in the collection include "Invasive Species," in which a woman struggles with the impending death of her young daughter, and tries to decide whether the romantic attention of her next-door neighbor is a good thing; "Phoebe with Impending Frost," which follows an expert in climate change as he tries to deal with the return of his high school crush amidst a true climate crisis; "The Resurrection Bakeoff," in which a man is worried that one of his darkest secrets will be revealed to his wife before she dies; and "Measures of Sorrow," about a graduate student who teaches a cab driver about everything he knows so he can woo a woman he's attracted to.

And then there's the amazing title story, in which an alien masquerading as a Latvian immigrant in Birmingham, Alabama, keeps the peace between pro-life and pro-choice advocates—and finds himself falling in love.

I don't know why Jacob Appel isn't a household name, because the way he writes, the way he weaves emotion and humor and heart and makes you think, deserves more recognition. These stories pack a punch, and will stick in your mind, and you'll want to tell everyone you know about them.