Wednesday, March 25, 2015

"What Alice Forgot": A Decade to Do-over

It isn't summer yet, but Liane Moriarty's 2008 "What Alice Forgot" made me dream about the warm days spent on beach sands with a page turner that is funny, touching, poignant and full of love drama and dilemmas.  Liane Moriarty whose "Big Little Lies" and "The Husband's Secret" propelled her to best seller success, shows heart and substance with her story of Alice, a 39 year old woman who falls and hits her head during a spin class and loses an entire decade's worth of memories.

When Alice regains consciousness, she believes that she is 29, pregnant with her first child, and madly in love with her husband, Nick.  Unfortunately for her, she discovers that she is a hyperactive PTO mom whose marriage is on the brink of divorce who has become estranged from her sister and her neighborhood.  Obsessed instead with possessions, her schedule, and her workouts, Alice's 39 year old self is a far cry from who she was and believed she would become a decade earlier.

In typical Moriarty form, she shines a sinister light on the state of the modern day suburbanites - harried parents who are too self-obsessed, too busy, too overworked, and too over committed to everything except for their marriages or their children.  Considered a book club favorite, this novel asks important questions like who do you think you will become in 10 years, or what has drastically changed in the past decade of your life? What would you like to change if you got a decade do-over?

The strength of this novel lies in the slow recovery of Alice's memories.  She encounters "friends" who she doesn't know, indifference where there was once warmth, a schedule that frightens her, a house that seems unfamiliar, and children she has never met.  The most touching aspect of the book comes in the form of her fragile relationship with her estranged husband.  What happened to her marriage? It's a slow discovery of the facts of her life and who she (and her husband) have turned out to be.

I raced through this book, and found myself wanting to shut out the rest of the world to read it. Moriarty has mastered the art of making her reader turn the page.  But this isn't all fluff and soap opera amnesia antics; she's a smart writer who crafts characters who are both strong and vulnerable, real and relatable, who fall apart and grow in the span of 300 pages.  I enjoyed this book more than "Big Little Lies" (which I also liked), and MUCH more than "The Husband's Secret" (which I found a bit bland and too sinister).

Each of Moriarty's novels, although addictive and easy to read, bring up big life questions like how do we mend our mistakes and broken relationships? What makes a strong marriage fall apart in a decade? What is important to hold onto and what is okay to let go? It is a perfect book club book and a perfect pre-summer read to get you dreaming of warm sunshine and toting the perfect page turner to your sandy, summertime oasis.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

"The Silent Wife": A terrifying and realistic portrait of a relationship gone awry

I was beginning to think that maybe I am adverse to thrillers - especially dark ones about domestic issues that end in very unsettling ways.  Although everyone I know LOVED "Gone Girl" and "The Girl on the Train," I found both of them okay at first, but stopped enjoying them about half way through the book.  What was missing for me in both of those books was a likable character.  They were page turners, though, and many people seem to judge books by how quickly they want to finish them.  I, on the other hand, judge books by how I would like them to never end (like "All the Light You Cannot See" . . . I would have been happy if Anthony Doerr tacked on another 200 pages to that book).

So, what was it about "The Silent Wife" by A.S.A. Harrison that intrigued me enough to say that I enjoyed it way better than either "Gone Girl" or "The Girl on the Train" when it hasn't received as much attention from the press or from readers?  For me the methodical, terse narrative about Jodi Brett and Todd Gilbert, a very antiseptic couple who are more quiet roommates who tolerate the others' faults to stick to a routine, felt way more plausible than the over the top follies of the characters in other thrillers that I have read.  On the first page, the narrative tells us that her marriage to Todd "is approaching the final stage of disintegration, that [Jodi's] notions about who she is and how she ought to conduct herself are far less stable than she supposes, given that a few short months are all it will take to make a killer out of her." This sets up the insidious tale of how Jodi becomes a killer.

In the every other chapter set up (one chapter is titled "Her" and the next is titled "Him", and it flip flops like that throughout the novel), we find out that Jodi never wanted to get married, but after 20 years together, she and Todd, at least in her mind, are married.  She allows him his infidelities knowing that he always finds his way back to her.  She spends her days counseling a few select clients, walking her dog, making gourmet meals and taking the occasional floral arranging class.  Her life seems cold, calculated and very controlled just like their beautiful streamlined, clutter free lake view apartment in Chicago.

Todd, on the other hand, is a self made successful real estate flipper.  He takes the edge off of his stressful job by having a daily joint, and one woman or another on the side. Although his little flings never seem to amount to much, he strays too far from Jodi after his young girlfriend (the daughter of his best friend) tells him that she's pregnant.  She's young and makes Todd feel alive after a crippling bout of depression.  Although he loves Jodi, she doesn't make him feel vibrant in his mid-40s the way his girlfriend, Natasha does.  The only problem, though, is that he doesn't know how to break it to Jodi that when he leaves her she quite literally will lose everything that they built together in the past 20 years since they are not legally married.  He also isn't prepared for the backlash from his best friend.

Maybe what I liked so much about this book was the psychological aspect.  Although I didn't love the flashbacks (written like a movie script) with Jodi's therapist Gerard, I did love the deep psychological exploration of what made Jodi tick. The other aspect of the book was the probability of it.  Relationships sometimes reach a tipping point even as both people involved are aware of the issues because no one wants to disturb the routine.  Sometimes it's the silence in a marriage that ends it, or the lack of passion, or dishonesty. Both characters in Harrison's book are smart, too smart really for what happens to them.  The writing is smart as well, and it's a pity that this debut novel from A.S.A. Harrison was her last novel since she died shortly before the release of "The Silent Wife."

If you liked "Gone Girl" or "The Girl on the Train" most likely you will like "The Silent Wife" as well.  If you are like me, though, maybe you'll like it even if you didn't enjoy the other two more popular, sinister books about dysfunctional marriages that end in tragic and unexpected ways.

Monday, March 9, 2015

"The Martian": A wild ride with an American hero through the red planet

"So that's the situation. I'm stranded on Mars.  I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth.  Everyone thinks I'm dead.  I'm in a Hab designed to last thirty-one days. If the oxygenator breaks down, I'll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I'll die of thirst.  If the Hab breaches, I'll just kind of explode.  If none of those things happen, I'll eventually run out of food and starve to death.  So yeah, I'm f'd."

Six days prior to Mark Watney's break down of his predicament on Mars, he was one of the first people ever to walk on the surface of the red planet, but now it looks like he'll be the first person to ever die there unless he figures out a way to survive . . . for 4 years when the return mission to Mars can rescue him.

It's not the best situation, but somehow Mark Watney who was left behind by his fellow crew mates after a freak wind storm threatened to kill all of them, finds a way to not let his Martian dilemma deter him from using his engineering skills, botany expertise and his witty sense of humor to help him survive even the most dire of circumstances that arise in his fight for survival.

In the same strain as movies like "Castaway" or "Gravity," the readers of Andy Weir's NYTimes Best Seller "The Martian"roots for Mark's survival.  He's alone.  He's in a place with no other human beings.  His likelihood of getting out alive is REALLY LOW.  Unlike either of these movies, though, the weakness (maybe the strength for some readers) is the tendency for Weir, a self proclaimed "space nerd," to veer too much in the technicalities and science behind each of the emergency situations that arise.  When Mark decides to harvest potatoes to keep himself alive, the reader gets a lesson in farming, soil production, fertilizer needs (Mark uses his own human waste), how to create water, and how to even split the potatoes.  For some readers, they might love the pages and pages of mathematical equations, the space / science technical problem solving, and the hypothesizing about potential hazards that will arise.  For me, I wanted more of the life and death dilemmas that Mark was facing to surface in a more philosophic and psychological ways, and I never really got that.  Mark simply seemed to crack more jokes as NASA and his own unflappable ingenuity helped him to survive day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year.

My husband read this book on our vacation and urged me to read it.  I am not a Sci-Fi / Fantasy lover, and usually tend to steer away from books that my husband loves, but hearing him laugh out loud and basically eat this book like a bowl full of dark chocolate almonds made me reconsider.  I need to get out of my reading comfort zone of murky memoirs, epic historical fictions and my favorite, books about dysfunctional families.  This space thriller did make me turn the pages quickly (except the overly technical parts which thankfully dissipated as Mark's journey lasted longer and longer), and I did actually laugh out loud in two different parts of the book.  I found myself criticizing the writing style (the word "nerd" is used quite a bit and let's face it, Weir is more of a space nerd than a writer), and I thought that a few of the characters were heavy handed stereotypes with really badly written dialogue.

Overall, though, I loved that Mark survived by watching "Three's Company" reruns.  I learned about space travel - especially about travel to and on Mars, and I had a renewed sense of the spirit of the American "survival at all costs" and innovation that Watney represents.  What he does to survive is truly amazing, and it will have you questioning your own problem solving capabilities.  It may even make you consider the question, "If you were left behind in space and no one could rescue you for four years, what comfort items would you want with you to help pass the time and help you with morale?"

This book will surely become a blockbuster movie.  It will surely sell millions of copies.  It will surely make Andy Weir a well known author, and people will surely enjoy it.  I'm glad that my husband from time to time can pull me out of my reading ruts and introduce me to new stories that teach me something new. "The Martian" taught me that staying calm and laughing in the face of even the most improbable dilemmas is better than panicking, and it provided me with a hero worth cheering for.

Monday, March 2, 2015

"I'll Be Seeing You": Letters, Love, and Loss

My friend Rose told me that her experience reading "I'll Be Seeing You" by Suzanne Hayes and Loretta Nyhan (who never actually met each other while writing this book) was like finding a box of letters in her grandmother's attic and reading them with a cup of tea in hand - learning about the past and being privy to secrets and the stories shared from a friendship forged by longing. 

"I'll be Seeing You" follows the 1943-1945 correspondence between Rita Vincenzo, a sensible woman from Iowa whose husband and son are both away serving in WWII, and Glory Whitehall, a wealthy young mother from  Massachusetts whose husband is also in the war. Their letter writing begins after a 4-H meeting urged  women who were waiting for their loved ones to return from the war to find comfort in other women who could understand their circumstances.  The women develop a strong friendship as they share their respective stories of their families, and how they try to pass the days as they wait for life to return to a new sense of normal.  Their worry over their loved ones, their fear of receiving the dreaded death telegram, their daily joys and sorrows bond them together and help each of them overcome bouts of despair and depression as the war continues.  

Glory writes about the birth of a baby girl, parenting a rambunctious toddler (who contracts an illness that leaves him a shell of his former self), and mostly with the intensity of her relationship with her husband's (and her) best friend, Levi who was asked to "look after" Glory in her husband's absence.  Rita writes about her loneliness, her wicked neighbor, her son's secret girlfriend, and her best friend's relationship with a handsome stranger with a shady past.  Each of their stories bring them closer together and gives them a sense of comfort that there is someone sharing their pain and joy.  Along with the more personal stories they share, Rita also gives Glory gardening advice for her victory garden to grow in her seaside climate and they each share war time recipes like Tomato Soup Cake and Mock Veal Cutlets.  

What this book did for me was show me a very personal side of WWII that is often forgotten - what the women did while they waited.  1943 differed greatly from our modern day society where many women work outside of the home and enjoy choices that women in the 1940s could never dream of.  The women then relied on their men, but in their men's absence what many of the women learned is that they are strong beyond measure - especially when they could help each other.  In one letter Glory adds, "P.S. I love being a woman.  A woman among amazing women.  Women who understand just how much we need one another." 

It's true.  

The power of women's friendships and connections through tragedy and triumph is a beautiful thing.  Women connect in different ways then men connect - ask any woman who has a life long friend about their soul connection with that woman.  Ask any woman about the special women in her life and how important those bonds are for her - the talks, the sharing, the nights out spilling their hearts to each other over bottles of wine or meeting for coffee just to connect face to face and share in each others' company.  

This book made me want to connect with all my best friends.  It made me want to sit down and write good old fashioned letters (not Facebook messages or text messages, but real in depth letter writing).  Our best friends are the ones who make us feel connected to something larger than ourselves, who tell us the truth even when we don't want to hear it, who bring us back from the brink of destroying ourselves, and who help us make sense out of the world even when nothing makes sense. They are our truest allies in wartime and in peacetime. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

"The Snow Child": She comes from the land of ice and snow

I read seasonably.

In the summers, I enjoy romantic stories without heavy handed writing, books that I can get through quickly, but that still have substance.  In the winter, I enjoy the sad, hearty historical fiction books, books that are a challenge and can take me weeks to finish.  Because we took a break from our Chicagoland harsh winter and went south to Florida to feel some sunshine, I was torn on what to read.  Do I go with my more summery books, or should I stay with a heavy winter book? I opted to take one of each and see how much reading I could accomplish in the week I was away.  My wintery book, "The Snow Child" by Eowyn Ivey, made me feel warmer than the book I chose as my summer read (Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins).

Although I was reading about Jack and Mabel, a couple who moves from Pennsylvania to the Alaskan wilderness in the 1920s to begin a homestead after suffering the birth of a stillborn child, I felt warm due to the "Little House on the Prairie"-esque vibe of their lives.  It's quiet and a bit lonely inside of a cabin in the Alaskan wilderness.  They need to live off of moose meat - all winter long (talk about getting tired of leftovers) - in order to survive.  Mabel continues to suffer under the crushing weight of the Alaskan winter with it's darkness and hostile environment that leads her to thoughts of loneliness and lack.  For Jack to succeed in potato farming, he needs to do countless hours of back breaking physical labor that is both hard and dangerous on his aging body.  But the warmth of their love in their small, tidy cabin in the woods gives comfort and hope.  This book paid reverence to the beauty of the Alaskan wilderness, but made no mistake about the dangers of this wintry world where ice can swallow people whole, and humans cannot survive without a struggle against loneliness, darkness and isolation.

As the story unfolds, the couple who have longed their whole lives together for a child but are now too old to have one, uncharacteristically become playful during a snowstorm.  They build a snow child, and Jack even carves a beautiful face for it.  Mabel puts a hat and gloves on it, and in the morning when they wake up, the snow child sculpture they created is gone.  Mabel soon witnesses a little girl who cautiously approaches their home (almost like a wild animal seeking shelter) wearing the hat and gloves that she placed on the snow creation.  Is this the child that they have always longed to have? Or are they imagining this girl because they are suffering from loneliness and they've always wished to have a child with them?

In Eowyn Ivey's debut novel, she shows amazing prowess as a magical realism writer.  She creates quiet ambiguity with her storyline, and she crafts characters who are believable and likable.  The characters and the readers know about the fairy tale that tells the story of an old couple who want a child and fashion one out of ice and snow.  The fairy tale never ends happily, though.  The child melts or leaves forever in the spring.  Mabel truly believes that she and Jack have created a child, just like in the fairy tale she remembers from her childhood.  The girl that comes into their world, who goes by the name of Faina and travels with a loyal red fox, seems magical enough - with her hair in tangles of the Alaskan wilderness and the smell of the herbs and nature. She leaves blizzards in her wake, holds single snowflakes in her palm, and most of all she can survive the harsh, unforgiving landscape of the Alaskan winter unscathed.  Ivey divulges nothing and even leads the reader to question Faina's existence by never using quotation marks when she talks to anyone.  Is she real? Is she imagined? Is she magical? It's hard to know even by the end what's real and what's imagined not just for the reader, but for the characters in the novel as well.  Mabel swears that Faina is magical and even warns against getting her too warm out of fear that she will melt just like in the fairytale.  "You did not have to understand miracles to believe in them, and in fact Mabel had come to suspect the opposite. To believe, perhaps you had to cease looking for explanations and instead hold the little thing in your hands as long as you were able before it slipped like water between your fingers." Jack, however, knows something about Faina's past that he promises never to tell anyone even if it's the right thing to do.

What is clear, though, is the magical charm of this simple story of a couple who longed to be parents and find themselves in the role asking themselves the same questions parents everywhere ask.  What decisions do you leave to your child? How do you allow your child freedom without losing them forever? How do you hold onto someone who only wants to be free? When do you push and when do you let go? What is done out of protective love and what is done out of the fear of loss? What role does fate play in our lives and do we have the power to change our fate or are we powerless in the face of it? Do you believe in miracles?

Many questions come up throughout this novel, but the mysterious world of Faina will keep the reader interested, regardless of the season that he or she chooses to read this book.  "The Snow Child" is an impressive debut novel that will allow you to love the winter a bit more and see the beauty in the snow and ice and harsh extremes.  It will show you how strong every individual is even when they believe they are weak, and it will make you question the notion of "good parenting" without lectures or research.  It's just good, magical storytelling in any season.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

"The Girl on the Train": Get Me Off Of This Ride

I know that "The Girl on the Train" is the "IT" book right now.  Everyone is comparing it to "Gone Girl" because of the mystery, the intensity of it, and the thrill ride and pace of the plot.  I couldn't wait to read it, and was bummed when we went on vacation and it had not arrived at the library yet for me to take with me.

When I saw it at the airport bookstore, I bought it even with the hefty hardcover price. Having a good book with me makes any vacation feel complete.  I started to read it and was immediately sucked into the story of Rachel, a depressed, jilted, obsessive, alcoholic who is pretty much a train wreck.  She spends her mornings and early evenings on the London bound commuter train staring out the window and making story lines about one stop in particular and one couple in particular.  She's basically stalking the couple from the train until one day she sees something that disturbs her and that sets even more disturbing events into motion.

I can't reveal too much more about the plot or the characters because it will spoil the book which many of you will read even if I tell you not to.  Because that's what I'm going to do - tell you not to read this book, which will then make you want to read it even more.

Why should you stay away from Paula Hawkins' thriller that is gracing the Bestseller list and flying off the shelves (even at the airport bookstore)? The characters are all so unlikeable that it didn't really matter to me what happened to them after I read the first 100 pages (which I did read very quickly).  I get it.  We all have a dark side, but when ALL the women are depressed and co-dependent in some way or another (a door mat, a stalker alcoholic, a stay at home narcissistic brat, and a liar and cheater), and all the men are abusive tyrants, it makes for an unlikeable cast of characters that might even deserve the tragedies that befall them.  This is a VERY harsh statement, too because what happens to them isn't really all that pleasant. But I know that you know the feeling in a horror movie when the dumb girl leaves by herself to take a midnight walk in the woods because she is depressed about her ex-boyfriend and she doesn't listen to the advice of all of her friends to stay close and then the guy with the chainsaw comes up behind her and she just stands there crying before she even hears the chainsaw, and then you think "you had it coming to you because you are a ridiculous human being" . . . well, that's what I felt pretty much the whole way through this book.

It also feels much like being on a commuter train - monotonous, repetitive, and dreary.

The writing was okay, but nothing too bold or beautiful.  Getting the multiple perspectives from the different, broken women was nice, but may have revealed too much.  It would have been an interesting twist to just stick with Rachel's perspective the entire novel.  With such an unreliable narrator, the book could have created more edginess or even more intensity.  It certainly would have lead to a more dramatic and original unfolding.  It's no good when the reader can figure out the mystery with over 100 pages yet to read.

I wanted to like this book, but it wasn't what I thought it would be.  I regret spending the money on it at the airport bookstore and regret even more that now I own it.  This isn't a book I will be loaning to others unless they insist that they must read it, which I know that even after I tell them not to, they will anyway.

Monday, February 2, 2015

'The Girl You Left Behind': Jojo Moyes Knows How to Play Me Like a Fiddle

After a hefty book like "All the Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr, I thought I would reward myself with a light Jojo Moyes book, so when I saw "The Girl You Left Behind" actually on the library shelf (Jojo Moyes books are perpetually checked out), I did a happy dance right in the M aisle.     What I didn't realize was that the story line in "The Girl You Left Behind" revolves around WWI and art reparations due to German soldiers' fine arts confiscations during WWI and WWII.  Another war time book wasn't really what I wanted, but Moyes knows totally how to play with my heart and make me plow through her fiction.  Although her writing isn't anything like Doerr's lyrical writing that feels more like poetry than prose, Moyes gives a straightforward narrative of two strong female characters, Sophie Lefevre (from the WWI storyline), and Liv Halston (from the current day storyline).

I was instantly captivated by the 1916, small town, France storyline centered around Sophie Lefevre and her passionate artist husband. Eduoard intoxicates her with his bear-like, rowdy presence and asks to paint her.  After a failed attempt to truly capture her on the canvas, she returns to his studio determined to sit for him.  The result is a stunning painting which shows the inner light of Sophie - erotic, honest, and absolutely beautiful.  They also end up falling deeply in love and getting married.

When Eduoard is sent to the front line of WWI, Sophie and her sister are forced to entertain German soldiers after their small French time is occupied, and the German Kommandant becomes obsessed with both the painting and with Sophie.  Sophie uses his affections to her advantage to help others in her town, and even further to try and reunite with her husband.

In the midst of Sophie's treacherous wartime story, Moyes introduces the modern day storyline of Liv Halston, a recent young widow whose husband acquired Sophie's painting while helping a woman on their honeymoon.  Her brilliant architect husband's death has left Liv devastated, lonely and lifeless and her only happiness seems to come from her painting of Sophie.  When she meets the handsome and overly helpful, ex-police officer, Paul McCafferty, it seems as if she can love again until she finds out that Paul is an art recovery officer who is actually seeking to return Sophie's painting with members of the Lefevre family who know it's worth a fortune.

Even though I loved the piecing together of the entire history of the painting (much like the storyline in the book "The Girl in Hyacinth Blue"), I must admit that I wasn't as captivated with the Liv Halston storyline as I was with Sophie's.  There were times where I actually rolled my eyes at Liv and her tirades about her beloved painting.  When she started to push Paul away, I am pretty sure my eye rolling increased, BUT . . . JoJo Moyes brought me back into her emotional tug of war by the end of the book where I most definitely cried as both story lines wrapped up - both with trials (Sophie's didn't take place in the courtroom like Liv's) for their female protagonists.  I cheered, openly wept and read with rigorous speed to see how everything turned out.

Moyes knows how to play with her readers, and just like her books "One Plus One" and "Me Before You", the emotional upheaval will leave you a bit breathless and wanting another helping of her writing after you read the last page.  Be forewarned.  You will get addicted to JoJo Moyes; her books are too good not to, though, so just enjoy being played like a fiddle.