Saturday, January 17, 2015

Book Review: The Widower's Tale

This, my first book finished in 2015, was a really wonderful way to start the year. I actually began reading this novel by Julia Glass in December but had to put it away so I could read our book club's book.

Glass's style feels familiar, like Anne Tyler and Gail Godwin mixed with a little John Irving. (Or maybe it's only the "widow" part that is Irving-esque to me.) I read so much Southern lit that it is refreshing to me to read a novel that takes place in New England. (And to I used to think New York and New England were the hub of the world.)

Percy Darling has been a widower for longer than he was married. He's raised two daughters and is settling at last into a quiet retirement from his career as a Harvard librarian. He lives alone in the historic and secluded house that he and his wife bought when they were newlyweds—until his troubled daughter, Clover, begs him to turn the barn into a preschool. Because he feels that the preschool will give Clover a chance to start over, he agrees—and everything about his life changes

I thought this was going to be a  novel with a bumbling older man and an array of preschoolers who change him, but it was absolutely nothing like that. Percy is a thoughtful, quirky man who adores his daughters and their families but is happy to remain somewhat detached from their lives. The proximity of the preschool, howeveer, forces Percy to participate in life.

There are several stories that are intertwined within the novel: the developing relationship between Percy and one of the preschool moms; the life of Celestino, a landscaper (this one was interesting but never felt like it was fully explored/explained); Percy's grandson, Robert, and his involvement in an ecoterrorist group (sounds strange, but it kind of worked); Percy's girlfriend's life; Ira and Anthony, a gay teacher and his partner; and Percy's daughters and their lives. It sounds like a lot, and at times, I had to backtrack a bit to figure out what was going on; however, all the stories were intriguing. Loosely woven together at times, but intriguing.

Julia Glass is a wonderful writer. I found myself really adoring Percy. The side stories were interesting, but I'm not sure how much all of them contributed to the novel. They were perhaps not integral to the story of Percy, but still interesting. Regardless, I will be seeking out other novels by Julia Glass,  in hopes that I'll meet other characters are richly drawn as Percy.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Book Review: This Dark Road to Mercy

We read, loved,  and discussed Wiley Cash's debut novel A Land More Kind Than Home last year for book club, so I was excited for a chance to read his latest book, This Dark Road to Mercy. First of all, I love the titles to his novels. And I love the name Wiley Cash and how I know it's pronounced here in East TN (Wah-lee). But I love the books, too.

Easter Quillby is the main voice in this novel, although various chapters are narrated by other characters, as well. She's a 12-year-old in foster care as the novel opens. Her mother has just died of a drug overdose, leaving her and her little sister to the system. And then the deadbeat Dad shows up, determined to give his girls a home.

Wade is a former minor league baseball player who is also mixed up in a multimillion dollar robbery. He steals his girls from their foster home in the middle of the night and heads out on the road. He has no idea how to be a father to two girls who don't trust him at all, but somehow he figures it out. He needs to protect them—that much he knows. But he is up against a lot more than he figured. Two men are in hot pursuit of Wade and the girls: an evil bounty hunter and a gentle court-appointed guardian.

Easter is a tough, smart girl who is trying to figure out what all these crazy adults are doing. She's much more than a pawn in the system, though. Her Dad really loves and wants her, her court-appointed guardian is desperate to find her, and her grandparents in Alaska, whom she's never met, are waiting for her. Does what Easter wants matter?

Wiley Cash is a great storyteller. His characters have an almost immediate depth, and I like knowing characters right away. This is a fast-paced novel, one that is hard to put down; I think I read it in a few hours. And now I will look forward to Cash's next novel. He is definitely a Southern voice to follow.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Book Review: The Way Life Should Be

Christina Baker Kline has a lot of great stories brewing around in her brain. She's published two other novels just this year  (Sweetwater, Desire Lines)  as well as the best-seller Orphan Train. And I've got to say: I'm impressed. These aren't literary masterpieces, but they are darned enjoyable reads.

The Way Life Should Be follows a well-used storyline: girl (Angela) and guy meet via internet. Girl loses job and on a whim, moves to guy's state. Guy ends up being a jerk. Girl ultimately lives happily ever after. It's been done before; it will be done again and again. But Kline isn't really about the plot—she's about insights, the I-know-that-feeling-exactly moments and the moments of pure poetry. Her characters are incredibly vibrant—they are people we know without being stereotypical. She is not only a close observer of how we humans behave, but she really captures those thoughts we thought no one else had. I love that.

A bonus in this novel: lots of recipes. I know: it sounds corny. But part of the story line is that Angela learned to cook from her Italian grandmother, and I am always happy to read about fabulous food being cooked and eaten among friends. I've bookmarked the "Pasta with White Bolognese" sauce to try on of these days.

Ultimately, this is a novel about finding one's place in adulthood—where do we fit in? Who is our family? When does my real life actually start? This is a quick, happy, familiar (in a good kind of way) read—perfect for those times you don't want to invest in something heavy. And—there's always pasta and pound cake.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Book Review: Gone Girl

We had Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl on our Book Club list to read in spring, but when we saw that a movie was coming on this fall, we decided to read it now and then go see the movie together.


(And that goes for the movie and the book)

First of all, the book itself was completely captivating. I could not stop reading it, even when I was kinda flinching at the language and the amount of graphic sex. We did but out a book club warning for some of our more sensitive members, who opted out of reading this one.

I was completely surprised by the plot's twists and turns. Flynn is an astounding writer. This is the kind of book that leaves me utterly impressed, wondering, "How did Flynn do this?"

The plot seems obvious at first: Nick, the husband, an obvious jerk, kills his smart, beautiful wife Amy. But this is a psychological thriller (not my usual genre, but why??), and so we know there are going to be layers to the story. But I didn't try to guess the layers, and I let myself be completely swept up in the story. It was a wild ride.

And that's about all I can say about the book without revealing anything. It's amazing.

And the movie did not disappoint. The movie wasn't nearly as graphic as the book, although there was plenty to be disturbed about. In other words, it totally deserves its R rating. Usually I like to wait a year until I see the movie version of a book so that I forget most of the details. But we all felt like the movie, while omitting a lot of background information, was quite true to the book. Nothing major was changed. Some of us said that they just didn't picture the characters looking like the actors, but besides that, we all agreed it was excellent—though disturbing.

I'm thinking about checking out Gillian Flynn's other novels, although I may need to read some fluffy books before I do. She is not for the faint-at-heart, but she is soooo worth it.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Book Review: The Pearl That Broke Its Shell

I have to admit: I came this close to giving up on this book by Nadia Hashimi after about 50 pages. I  could not follow what was going on, couldn't engage with the characters. And just as I was about to call it quits, everything started clicking. And I'm glad I didn't give up.

The novel traces the lives of two women, Rahima and Shakima, in Afghanistan nearly a century apart. The premise of the story is that both women lived as boys for a time during their youth, and thus they experienced the amazing freedom that comes with being a boy vs. the oppressive life of living as a woman.

Rahima is the contemporary story. She is the third in a family of five girls. Because her father is a drug addict and a soldier, the family desperately needs a son to be able to do all the things women are not allowed to do. When Rahima is nine, she becomes a bacha posh, which is apparently a bizarre Afghan custom that allows young girls (in sonless families) to dress as boys and navigate the world as such until they reach puberty.

Rahima experiences this incredible freedom for several years: going to school, trading in the marketplace, playing in the streets with the boys, even being treated as a son in the home. But then at age 13, her father makes a deal with the local warlord and gives his three oldest daughters, ages 13-15, in marriage to him and his relatives. Rahima becomes the fourth wife of this abusive warlord who is 30 or 40 years her senior. Needless to say, her life is filled with nothing but horror in a home ruled by cruelty, fear and jealousy.

Rahima's one saving grace is her unmarried aunt, who, from her earliest memories, has told her stories of her great-great-great grandmother, Shakima. These stories carry Rahima through her childhood and give her hope for her future. Shakima's childhood was made up of one tragedy after another. She dumped hot oil on her face as a toddler, scarring her horribly. By the time she was twelve, her beloved mother and siblings had all died of cholera, leaving her and her brokenhearted father to maintain the farm and home. Shakima becomes her father's son, working in the fields as hard as any man. When he dies, Shakima is forced to live with her extended family, who hate her. Ultimately, Shakima becomes a palace guard for the king's harem: a job that requires she dress as a man.

I think what struck me the most in this novel is how little the life of women changed in the hundred years separating Shakima and Rahima. It's really incomprehensible to me. As I consider my own great-great-grandmother, I realize that, although I certainly have more freedom and different expectations as a woman than she did then, she had more rights as a woman than Shakima and Rahima could ever imagine. There really isn't anything happy about this novel, although one does come away with hope for both Rahima and Shakima and intense gratefulness for living in a country that doesn't (as a whole) delight in the oppression of women.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Book Reviews: Sweet Water and Desire Lines

I was excited to have the opportunity to review two new novels by Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train. The first one, Sweetwater, I must admit I approached skeptically because the setting of the novel is just down the road from me in Sweetwater, Tennesseee. Kline was born in England, after all, and grew up in Maine and the "American South." Who says "American South"? Surely not anyone who knows anything about the South.

I was prepared for a stereotypical portrait of a small town in East Tennessee, where everyone is a dumb redneck or a suppressed genius who dreams of getting out of the small town but gets pregnant instead. I was pleasantly surprised to encounter almost none of the silliness that often accompanies contemporary novels set in the South. (There was once scene, early on, in which the main character hears singing from local churches as she drives down Interstate 81 on a Sunday morning. Nope. I've been on I-81 a hundred times, and there is no singing to be heard above the traffic from cute little churches along the way. That was a romanticism I could have done without.)

Sweet Water is the story of Cassie, a sculptor in New York City, who inherits the family homestead in Sweetwater, TN, upon her grandfather's death. Cassie knows almost nothing about this side of the family; her mother died in an accident caused by this grandfather when Cassie was a little girl, and bad feelings abound. But Cassie is at that stage in life when she needs to make major changes or suffer a bland and directionless life, so she moves from NYC to rural Tennessee.

Interspersed with Cassie's story is that of her maternal grandmother, whose chapters reveal a woman trapped in a miserable marriage to Cassie's philandering grandfather. There are all kinds of family secrets surrounding the death of Cassie's mother and the events that led up to the accident, and Cassie is determined to find them. First, she has to crack her grandmother's tough shell.

Somehow Sweet Water really resonated with me. Part of it was Cassie's determination to find her place in her extended family. Having a large extended family of which I've never been a part, I understand that desire to be included—to know the secrets and the back stories that everyone else knows so well. I liked that Cassie and her grandmother managed to break through the barriers and finally share some truths. And again, I appreciated Kline's treatment of rural Tennessee. It was neither overly sentimental, stereotypical, nor critical.

I just finished Kline's Desire Lines, which I read in about a day because I couldn't put it down. The story centers on the mysterious disappearance of Jennifer, the perfect girl-next-door who disappeared the night of her high school graduation. Ten years later, her best friend, Kathryn, comes back home to Bangor, Maine, when her live unravels. She's given the task of writing an article about Jennifer's disappearance, and, in doing so, Kathryn has to come to terms with how little she knew about Jennifer and how little she knows about herself.

Again, Kline touches on familiar areas to me. And again, a lot of that has to do with back stories and reflecting upon what was really going on way back then. You know that feeling, when peering back into one's life, that you really had no idea what all was beneath the veneer? That so much else was going on, and you wonder how you could have been so oblivious—or, sometimes, so intentionally ignorant?

Sweet Water and Desire Lines are both fantastic books for when you need a fast read that sucks you in and keeps you captivated. Neither books is a literary masterpiece. They both have some holes that leave you kinda wondering what just happened. But I'm OK with that. Kline is an excellent writer. Her dialogue is great and her whole exploration of the story-beneath-the-story really appealed to me.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Book Review: Riding the Bus with My Sister

This was our book club pick for June, selected by me because I absolutely adored Rachel Simon's Story of Beautiful Girl. Riding the Bus with My Sister is Simon's story of a year she spent reconnecting with her sister, a mentally challenged woman who spends her days, well,  riding the bus.

As the story opens, Simon is moved by guilt and obligation to visit her sister Beth, who lives alone in mid-sized town in Pennsylvania, a couple hours away from Simon. They are both in their late 30s and have left behind a difficult and at times dangerous childhood. Their parents, though divorced, clung to one family mantra: Beth will never be institutionalized.

Simon and her siblings see Beth's life as wasteful and depressing. All day, every day, Beth hops on one bus after another, riding around the city and, as they see it, annoying people. They want her to get a job or volunteer—to do something. But riding the buses is Beth's world, and when Rachel visits her sister, she is issued a challenge: ride the bus with Beth for one year.

At first Rachel, a dedicated workaholic, balks: she doesn't have time for this nonsense. But something nudges her to say yes, and so she heads over to Beth's one day each month to spend 12 hours riding the buses. And in the course of the year, Rachel discovers who her sister really is—and finds out a lot about herself, as well.

The story alternates between vignettes of the bus drivers—men and women whom Beth has carefully selected as the most caring, sensitive people; flashbacks from Beth and Rachel's tumultuous childhood; Rachel's own adult life; and Rachel's discovery of who Beth really is.

It's all done beautifully and with great honesty. I loved every part of this book, although I had to devour it quickly in order to have it read in time for our book club discussion. This was a fantastic choice for our book club, although our discussion was rather limited as we conducted it in a noisy restaurant! I'm going to spend this evening watching the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie based on the book—and then I'm hoping I can find more books written by Rachel Simon!