Monday, November 7, 2016

'Everything I Never Told You' by Celeste Ng: Not Just Another Gone Girl

“He can guess, but he won't ever know, not really. What it was like, what she was thinking, everything she'd never told him. Whether she thought he'd failed her, or whether she wanted him to let her go. This, more than anything, makes him feel that she is gone.”

Sometimes parents love their children so deeply and so much that they don't realize that they are smothering them.  The expectations we place on our kids are often from our own missed opportunities or things that we learned in life that we believe our kids need to learn in order to survive.

We don't mean to hurt them, but sometimes we love them too hard and just need to let them live their own lives by making their own mistakes and creating their own stories.

Celeste Ng's debut novel "Everything I Never Told You" adeptly studies the life of one family as they struggle to understand what happened to their daughter Lydia.  The book opens with the sentence "Lydia is dead." Although it might seem like an overdone opening to a cliched story line about the disappearance of a teenage girl, Ng's skillful writing is anything but cliche, and her characters are heartbreakingly flawed people who seem to be doing all the right things in a small Ohio town in 1977.  They are Harvard educated.  The parents are dedicated to the success of their children, Lydia, Nath and the often forgotten third child, Hannah.  The dad, James, is a college professor and he wants nothing more than his daughter to be well liked and for his son to get into Harvard.  The mom, Marilyn, devotes herself to helping her daughter  stand out academically - to be the best and the brightest and to pave a path of academia for her future.  She tells her "You have your whole life in front of you.  You can do anything you want."

Unfortunately, though, both James and Marilyn want too much for Lydia and never really see Lydia for who she might want to be.  Instead, both of them burden their daughter with what they always wanted in their lives.  James wants his Asian American daughter to fit in and not stand out, to be well liked and normal even amid the blatant racism in their Midwest small town.  Marilyn wants her daughter to be the best and the brightest just like she was before she sacrificed her own happiness to raise her three children.  She doesn't want her to settle.

Neither parent understands how putting their own struggles and past on their daughter essentially takes away her identity.

Selected as Amazon's Best Novel of 2014, and on NPR's and The New York Times' Best of 2014 list, Ng's novel glides through the aching landscape of a family torn apart - not just once by the disappearance of the mom, but twice due to Lydia's death.  It shows that some wounds don't heal and that even when we believe we are doing everything right, when our actions come from a place of past hurt, we often are doing more hurting than helping or healing.

This book was unanimously loved by our book club for the attention to details, the descriptions and the way the plot carefully unfolds.  We learn the depth of secrets, how quickly a family can grow apart, and the sadness that resides inside of each of us.  All of us liked, as well, that even in the melancholy and upheaval, hope exists.

To me, though, this novel sends a powerful warning to parents to let their children live their own lives and create their own stories.

Friday, October 14, 2016

"We Are Not Ourselves" by Matthew Thomas: One Family's Struggle with the American Dream and Alzheimer's

My best friend Cari and I have similar tastes in books.  When we taught high school together, one of us would rave about a book and the other would read it and then we would rave about it over lunch, or on a sushi date.  I saw her over the summer and explained that I was experiencing a reading drought meaning that no books that I read over the summer had really moved me enough that I could rave about them.  She shook her head and said, "Oh.  I have a book for you.  It will for sure move you." Although she forgot to give it to me before I drove back to Illinois, she mailed "We are Not Ourselves" by Matthew Thomas to my house.  I had a few other books to finish, before I tore into the 600+ pages of Thomas's highly acclaimed debut novel, but I couldn't wait.

The book begins slowly with the protagonist, Eileen Tumulty's hard life.  She's the caretaker of her Irish parents who succumb to alcoholism.  It isn't until Eileen meets Ed Leary, a promising scientist, that the book starts to wake up.  He seems an unusual choice for the hardworking Eileen, but when he kisses her at a New Year's Eve party, she knows she has found the one she wants to spend the rest of her life with.  After years of unsuccessfully trying to get pregnant, Eileen and Ed have a son who they name Connell.

After the first 100 pages of this book, I was captivated enough by the writing which is crisp and at times poetic, to keep going even though nothing significant happened.  These were rather ordinary people dealing with rather ordinary things in life.  But what I loved about Thomas's slow methodical storytelling is that the characters didn't need to impress me for me to be invested in their lives. I could feel the build up to something in the plot.  I could tell that the characters would change.

Eileen's chilly and tough demeanor reminded me of many women in my life.  She's kind to a point, but doesn't reveal much.  She works hard unapologetically, but she dreams of a more cushy life and urges her husband to strive for greatness at work - get more titles, take a promotion, switch universities.  She wants to move into a better neighborhood and becomes obsessed with finding a dream home for her family.  Ironically, once she finds the dream home (which is described as less than dreamy even though the location is ideal), her whole life unravels.  Ed is equally as perplexing as a character.  He is so soft and gentle with his son and so caring with his wife even when she is hard and unfeeling, that he creates a lovable foil to her.

About half way through the novel, Ed's memory is slipping.  He gets calls from the college where he works because students have started to complain.  He'll sit with headphones on for hours because his brain is "hazy" and he wants to get back to basics.  When Eileen finally has had enough and takes him to the doctor, they receive the cruel diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer's disease.  Ed is only 51 at the time of diagnosis, and Eileen wants to fight to keep him well and at home for as long as possible.  She hides it from his boss and even when she knows that keeping Ed safe is beyond her capabilities despite the fact that she is an amazing nurse, she still fights to keep him at home with as much dignity and grace as she can allow.

At this point in the journey with the Leary family, my heart broke for all of them.  Connell was too young and too selfish and too unskilled with emotions to deal with the care that his father needed.  Eileen was too unyielding to give in to the complete dissolution of her life dream.  Thomas meticulously describes each failing memory, each loss of human dignity that Ed suffers.  We see this largely from the perspective of Eileen, but one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the novel is when Connell tries to take care of his father for the day while his mother is working, and his father soils himself. Connell cleans him and again tries his best to deal with not only the physical and demeaning work of the clean up, but also the emotional toll that his father's illness has taken.

It isn't just the slow insidious decline of Ed's mental faculties that kept me reading.  I wanted to know how an ordinary woman would deal with the tragedy of losing her husband to Alzheimer's.  I wanted to know how her son would deal with the guilt and the loss of his father.  Although I have read many books about Alzheimer's, Thomas's novel delves deeper because of the slow build up to the life that Eileen wanted.  We get to know her American Dream, and how she was so close, but how quickly life can change.  As the reader, we get to see the daily discoveries of loss, the daily hope and the daily disintegration of the future that was in reach, but will never be fulfilled.

Ultimately, though, in all the bleak of this novel, it does not end up feeling like a tragedy.  Eileen changes.  Connell changes.  Ed, well . . . poor Ed.

It took me longer to love this book than I thought I would, but I will be thinking about the Leary family for quite some time even though I finished reading it today.  To me, this book has all the makings of an American classic and it deserves the distinction on the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2014.

Friday, October 7, 2016

"Brooklyn" by Colm Toibin: A Quiet Reflection of an Ordinary Girl in Search of Home

Not everyone wants a life full of adventure.

Some people want to remain in their hometowns and follow the same paths that family and friends chose before them.  Live close to the home where they grew up.  Marry someone who is from the same community.  Create a family and hope that their children will want to grow up close to home.

Twenty year old Eilis Lacey, the protagonist in Colm Toibin's novel "Brooklyn" (made popular by the highly acclaimed movie of the same name), does not want an adventure, but her dutiful yielding to her older sister, Rose, and her widowed mother sends her away from her beloved Enniscorthy in Ireland to Brooklyn, New York in 1951.

The beauty in Toibin's novel stem's from the fact that he chose a very ordinary girl whose life moves at a normal pace under ordinary circumstances.  There are no huge twists and turns or breathless dramatic action scenes in this novel.  The quiet subtleties of the novel, though, are what make it so readable and lovable.  Even Toibin's writing is subtle and quiet without the flair of overt descriptions and highly emotional characters.  Everything in this novel has a dim glow about it rather than a sharply lit room.  It reminds me of my grandmother's home in Highlandtown, Baltimore which was old fashioned, impeccably clean, unsentimental and very straightforward.  Everything had a function. Nothing was whimsical or dramatic.  Life happened in that basement, though.  Friends and family gathered there for holidays and celebrations.  Conversations were never dull and everyone left feeling a semblance of home.

After Eilis's journey to Brooklyn (which was one of the most tenuous scenes of the book when she along with the other passengers battled sea sickness), she is personally escorted by a priest to a respectable boarding house full of other respectable young women.  She gets a job at Bartocci's department store and at the urging of the priest, studies bookkeeping.  When she attends a local Irish dance, she meets and falls for an Italian American named Tony who despite his family's disdain for the Irish, has a "thing" for Irish girls.

Their relationship, like all the relationships in this book, is subtle.  There are no dramatic moments when my heart beat out of my chest, but I was rapt to find out what would become of them.  That is the true art of what Toibin's book brings.  It doesn't go about shouting and showing off.  It's the strength of the ordinary that draws in the reader and holds her there until the ending.

Eilis returns to Ireland to attend a funeral and finds herself in a few more dilemmas involving her mother wanting her to remain there and her mother's stoicism.  She also begins a relationship with a charismatic man and puts herself in a situation where she needs to decide where her loyalties will reside.  Where will home be? What in our lives is worth our attachments and what should we abandon to grow and move on? What is love and how does it pull us in different directions? Most importantly what constitutes home?

These are the questions that "Brooklyn" examines quietly in the ordinary life of an ordinary girl.

For me, this is the perfect book for a fall weekend with a cup of tea, and a nice big fuzzy blanket which may not sound like a big adventure but there is beauty in the ordinary days of our lives.

 (credit given to Jo for so nicely giving me this book when I told her I was in a reading dry spell).

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

"Love Warrior": A Memoir of Rock Bottom, Redemption, Infidelities and Finding Your Spirit

Meet Basil, our new "office pug." He didn't quite understand the concept of sitting with a book, but he'll get the hang of it.  

"So even if the hot loneliness is there, and for 1.6 seconds we sit with that restlessness when yesterday we couldn't sit for even one, that's the journey of the warrior." - Pema Chodron "When Things Fall Apart"

Avid readers of Glennon Doyle Melton's blog "Momastary" already know the ending to the story of Glennon and her husband Craig's marriage.  In Melton's latest book "Love Warrior: A Memoir" (selected as Oprah's most recent Book Club pick), she delves into her painful past to make sense of the devastation of her marriage.

I don't want to spoil too much about this book because it's worth a read.  Melton has legions of devoted fans that may have gotten hooked on her truth waterfalls from her popular blog or from her other New York Times Bestselling book "Carry On, Warrior." Melton has a way of connecting with her readers.  She's an Amy Schumer Trainwreck meets Brene Brown's power of vulnerability meets Gloria Steinham.  She's not afraid to write the whole ugly truth and she's not afraid to own her story of pain and renewal.  She's a highly sought after speaker, and her TedTalk is one of my favorite of all time.  I like that she is real and unfiltered.  That she writes like a friend telling another friend about her pain and occasionally her joy.

Unlike the collection of essays about parenting in "Carry On, Warrior" that had a charming, playful parenting bent, "Love Warrior" is serious business starting with Melton's slide into bulimia and alcoholism.  As a young girl, she finds bulimia in attempt to keep herself small and beautiful.  Even after a stint in a mental hospital, she never shakes the habit of binging and purging.  In high school and college she turns to alcohol to numb herself from intimate relationships.  It's easier to be numb than to feel deeply.

When she meets Craig with his dashing smile and his charm and good looks, she can't believe he is truly interested in her.  Their relationship is anything but simple.  After she gets pregnant and he takes her to an abortion clinic, she leaves her alone to recover while he goes out for the evening with his friends.  The second time she gets pregnant by him and she finds herself at rock bottom on the bathroom floor, she decides that she will have the baby with or without him and that she will turn her life around with or without him.

He decides to stay and marry her.  She decides that the can stay and that she will marry him.

That should be their happy ending, but when you have two people - one that only communicates and feels with his body (Craig) and one that only communicates and feels with her head (Glennon), there are bound to be issues, especially when both of them have addictions and secrets and sordid pasts, but only one of them has chosen to be real about them.

What follows after the discovery of Craig's secrets is a story of how love can pull us together and tear us apart.  How marriage can be lonely and hopeful all at the same time.  How you can marry someone and be with them for years, but never really know them and when you do get to know them how you may not want "for better or for worse" with the person you thought you married.  It's a story about finding yourself at rock bottom but finding a way back to who you were truly meant to be.

I loved so much of this book especially that Glennon has a way of writing that speaks to her reader's soul.  There were also parts of the book that felt a bit sermonized for me.  You need to be okay with all of her God and Spirit talk to fully appreciate her journey.  At times the dialogue is so stilted that it was painful.  I can only imagine that those real life conversations were just as hard between her and her husband as they tread the delicate path of finding true intimacy with each other after almost losing each other and the family unit that they built.

As she tries to heal from her brokenness Glennon finds yoga as a way to get present in her body again.  She finds God as a way to reconnect with her spirit.  She learns to breathe.  She learns that she is a warrior - a love warrior.

The first 75% of the book had me completely hooked, but at times the long sermonizing and repetition of the second half of the book felt like too much.  It's not that I think she is wallowing in her misery (because she's definitely had a hard go of it and she has so much to teach the rest of us), but I wish there could be some joy from time to time.  Yes, the story is one of hope and overcoming incredible sadness to try to reconnect with yourself and your marriage, and so that entails a bunch of questioning without a bunch of answering.  I get it.

If you are like me, by the end of this book, you are rooting for both sides of the marriage - Glennon and Craig.  You hope for them individually and hope for them together. Avid readers of Glennon's  blog, "Momastary" already know what becomes of their marriage, but I'll save that for you to find out.

Friday, September 2, 2016

'Girls on Fire': A Vicious, Seductive Look at Mean Girls at Their Worst

Hamlet does not enjoy taking photos with books.
 Our new "office pug" will be joining our family on September 11th.  We can't wait for our new baby! 

"Girls today thought they could do anything.  Girls burned bright, knew what they wanted, imagined they could take it, and it was glorious and it was terrifying." 

It's Labor Day weekend which for many of us marks the last burst of sunshine laziness that we'll revel in before the sky gets dark earlier and then we descend into the gray days of fall through winter.

When you go on your last grasp of summer fun vacations, be sure to take along a page turning book to enjoy while you bask in the September sun.

I devoured Robin Wasserman's first adult novel 'Girls on Fire' which is the latest "It Girl" in a long line of psychologically deranged thrill rides about girls with big issues: Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, The Good Girl - just to name a few of the "Girl" books I have read.

The novel takes place in the early 1990s in Battle Creek, Pennsylvania and centers around three girls: Hannah (who becomes Dex) - a non descript outcast whose loneliness draws her into an obsessive friendship, Lacey - the intriguing, Kurt Cobain worshipping, rebel, new girl, who does what she wants despite an abusive step father who she nicknames "The Bastard" (I kept imagining the girl version of Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club), and Nikki - the beyond popular, mean girl that everyone wants to please despite the fact that even her boyfriend's recent suicide hasn't softened her hard edges.

Wasserman's writing is as vicious and seductive as the girls in this book.  She captured my high school experience in the early 90s.  I had friends who worshipped Kurt Cobain.  I ate Snack Wells cookies believing they were good for me.  I thought Kirk Cameron was hot.  I remember mall dates when walking into Express to buy jeans felt grown up. I remember Benetton back packs (Nikki's dog's name is Benetton), and I remember Nancy Reagan's Just Say No campaign.  The undertones of Satanic cults were everywhere in my small rural, PA town, so much so that I chose the topic Satanism as my 9th grade term paper topic.  I remember the advent of the grunge scene. Wasserman's cultural references took me back to that uncomfortable time in my life, but to the darker side that I never succumbed to, or that never existed, or that I never knew existed.

I know teenagers are messy (and were messy), but are they this mean? Did Wasserman merely take the stereotypes of girls and present the dystopic vision of what really goes on at high school parties, or out in the woods, or in their beat up used cars, or down by the lake, or behind the closed bedroom doors?

As a high school teacher for 15 years, I know that high school girls are intense, but these girls are violent, horrifying train wrecks that I like to think are not the rule but the exception.

'Girls on Fire' never lets up.  It burns with a hungry, dark insatiability as Wasserman switches the perspective - past and present, Lacey to Dex and even throws in some thoughts from the parents who might even be sadder stereotypes than their desperate daughters.  The power of the novel comes from the suspense that builds and the "truth" of Craig's suicide as well as the fate of Nikki, Dex and Lacey. It would be cruel of me (crueler than the attitude of the girls in this book) if I revealed any of the unraveling.

Although the girls never rise about their labels nor do their character arcs give you any type of hero worth rooting for, more than likely you will find yourself caught up in the fire, burning through pages to see the inevitable, unrelenting destruction.  I was seduced and saddened.  Thrilled and let down.  Disgusted and worried.

When I closed the book at the end, I uttered one word, "Damn."

I rethought my high school experience and my obsession with the movie 'Heathers,' how I loved reading Stephen King novels, how I listened to Metallica, Joy Division, The Cocteau Twins, Kate Bush and Kurt Cobain. It reminded me that we all have a bit of darkness inside of us.  Most of us, though, know how to stay in the light.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

'Before the Fall': Suspenseful enough to make it a page turner

It's been awhile since I posted a book blog.

Just so you know, I've been reading.

Just so you know, the pictures with our new pug puppy, Basil, posing with the books, instead of our cat, Hamlet are coming.

Just so you know, I've read a bunch of good summery books that I think you would love.

As I look over my summer reading stack, the most out of my usual reading zone is 'Before the Fall' by Noah Hawley, so I want to start my summer catch up blogs with that one.  If you haven't heard of Noah Hawley, he's a big deal right now with huge accolades for his writing, executive producing, and show running of FX's Fargo.  'Before the Fall' is his 5th novel, but the first of them that I've read.

I'm not usually a suspense or mystery reader, but a good friend started reading this one and told me that it would pull me in and keep me turning the pages with good writing to boot.  The story opens like a disaster movie would.  A private chartered jet is about to take off from Martha's Vineyard on a foggy night which isn't ideal for flying, but not hazardous enough to question the safety of a short flight.  The reader is introduced to a slew of characters which are hard to keep straight in the first several chapters:

David Bateman - multimillionaire owner of a right wing news network that sounds similar to Fox News (he is the one who chartered the flight)
Maggie Bateman - David's younger, former school teacher wife
Rachel Bateman - Maggie and David's 9 year old daughter who just happened to be kidnapped when she was 2
JJ Bateman - Maggie and David's 4 year old son who is sleeping during take off

Ben Kipling - multimillionaire WallStreet dude who is good friends with David, but who is also facing possible indictment for money laundering
Sarah Kipling - the one dimensional wife of Ben who wants her husband to stop working so much

Gil - the Israeli born bodyguard of the Bateman family who has served them for 7 years since the kidnapping of Rachel

Scott Burroughs - the mysterious passenger invited last minute by Maggie Bateman, a struggling (failed?) artist who might just be getting his big break in NYC when the flight lands

A pilot who seems capable enough with his co-pilot and their strikingly beautiful, expert stewardess

16 minutes after the flight takes off, it crashes into the sea and only two people survive: Scott and JJ.  Even more amazing is that Scott swims hours in the dark with a dislocated shoulder, dragging JJ with him to save both of their lives.  This heroic act brings him into an unwelcome media frenzy that starts with praise and morphs into suspicion and conspiracy theories under the loud mouthed rhetoric of Bateman's Right Wing News Cable mogul, Bill Cunningham who has questionable morals and bends laws to get his version of truth out to his adoring fans.

The novel starts at a breathless pace capturing the tenuous moments after the crash and delirium of Scott and JJ as they desperately try to survive.  Then, the action slows down as Hawley takes readers inside the list of passenger names and gives the sordid details of their lives before the crash making each of the players a potential suspect to explain the reason for the crash.

Was it conspiracy? Was it an act of terrorism? Was there an illicit affair between would be hero, Scott and Maggie?

The backstory chapters are interspersed with chapters delving into the aftermath of the crash which might even be more dangerous than the shark infested waters that Scott Burroughs swam through in the pitch black.

Hawley shows us the ugly side of the media circus and speculation that so many of us are prone to believe after any disaster.  Sometimes random things just happen.  Random people come into our lives.  Random disasters happen even when multimillionaires are involved.

Or do they?

That is the central question of this book, and it takes until the very end for everything to unravel and the truth to be revealed.

I liked it.  I didn't love it.  I thought some parts were brilliant, but others were boring and repetitive.  Overall, though, it was suspenseful enough to make it a page turner. I'd be surprised if this one isn't made into a movie.

Monday, July 18, 2016

"When Breath Becomes Air": The Heartbreak of Cancer

*A note on the picture and my cat, Hamlet: Hamlet does not enjoy having his picture taken, nor does he enjoy having a book placed next to him while he is trying to sleep.  I miss my office pug, Loki, so very much with his happy energy.  He was always willing and excited about having his picture taken for this book blog.  Stay tuned! We are slated to get a pug puppy before the end of summer 2016.  Cute baby pug pictures will be forthcoming :)

"In a world of asynchronous communication, where we are so often buried in our screens, our gaze rooted to the rectangular objects buzzing in our hands, our attention consumed by ephemera, stop and experience this dialogue with my young departed colleague, now ageless and extant in memory.  Listen to Paul.  In the silences between his words, listen to what you have to say back.  Therein lies his message." quoted from the forward by Abraham Veghese in Paul Kalanithi's book "When Breath Becomes Air"

I hesitated when my good friend who always loves the same books that I do suggested that I read Paul Kalanithi's book "When Breath Becomes Air." She told me the short memoir dealt with Kalanithi's diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer when he was just about to complete his decade's worth of schooling and training and striving to become a neurosurgeon.  At the end of his journey he became a patient rather than a doctor.

Why did I hesitate?

I've been marinating in sad cancer stories for years, and I didn't know if I wanted to read another where I already knew the outcome was not favorable.  Cancer is a sad topic.  Almost everyone knows someone or has been personally affected by some sort of cancer.  My aunt died from breast cancer that came back in her lungs.  My grandmother died from pancreatic cancer.  My sister recently finished her treatments for tongue cancer (and no, she never smoked or did anything that would be considered cancer causing).  My husband's boss just finished his treatments for a rare form of leukemia.  My neighbor has cancer of the esophagus and is currently undergoing treatments.  My other neighbor's sister has brain cancer and was just told the devastating news that there is nothing else that they can try and to get her affairs in order.  My other neighbor's mother is undergoing treatment for throat cancer.  And my other neighbor just found out that her dog has cancer in his gums.

Cancer sucks.

Sometimes the signs make sense.  Behavior A caused Cancer B.  Sometimes it's the sticky finger of fate that points at an unsuspecting victim who has trouble getting up stairs, or just feels like something is off in their bodies and all of a sudden it's treatment time.

The burning away with the radiation.

 The poisoning of the body with chemotherapy.

The never ending cycle of other medicines that ward off the side effects caused by the burning and poisoning.

So, the prospect of reading the sad tale of a promising doctor whose life ended way too early at the age of 37 due to stage IV lung cancer wasn't super appealing.  I read it anyway, and just as Abraham Veghese says in the forward about the dialogue that Kalanithi presents as he wrestles with his diagnosis, the impending birth of his child, what actually gives life purpose and meaning . . . it could be anyone's story who has ever suffered from cancer or watched a love one suffer.

Being a neurosurgeon who has been on the other end of devastating diagnoses his whole professional career, his perspective goes even deeper than those with no medical background.  I know his book helped me see inside what was happening with my sister and the thoughts and feelings she must have been wrestling with as she underwent her complicated tongue surgery and subsequent 35 radiation treatments and 4 chemotherapy appointments.

The uniqueness of Kalanithi's story stems from his extraordinary writing ability and the way he presents his feelings with such unflinching honesty.

I cried.  If you read this book, there is no way not to cry.

But it's worth it to read it.

Cancer doesn't suck any less because I read this book, but the insider's perspective has helped me make sense of the process of treatment, the trial and error that needs to occur, the devastation, the ability to let go, and the hopefulness of moving on.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

"A Man Called Ove": Hard on the Outside, Soft on the Inside

“Ove is fifty-nine. He drives a Saab. He’s the kind of man who points at people he doesn’t like the look of, as if they were burglars and his forefinger a policeman’s flashlight.”

We all know one curmudgeon or two in our lives.

These cantankerous individuals grumble at insignificant things that they really can't change.  Just the other day when I was at the local Jewel, I stood behind an angry older man who decided to lose his anger on the unsuspecting cashier.  He waited in line too long to buy his bottles of seltzer water and he wanted answers as to why they recently removed the self checkout aisles.  His words were condescending and rude, and he wanted very much to prove the point that he considered every employee at Jewel an idiot.

When I met the main character Ove of Swedish writer Fredrik Backman's debut novel "A Man Called Ove" I was reminded of every curmudgeon that I met while working on the farm (where they were rampant going as far as returning a quart of strawberries because they weren't juicy enough), or while I waited tables through college.  I thought of past colleagues when I was a teacher and even some family members.

Ove is the kind of man who sticks to his routine without fail.  He has black and white ideas about the types of people he likes (those who drive Saabs like he does) and those who he does not (those who are unable to back up a trailer or computer salespeople or those who drive on a on a motor vehicle prohibited street which is clearly marked or especially anyone who drives a BMW).  He walks around the neighborhood spreading more complaints than joy and everyone seems to be able to ruffle his 59 year old, cranky feathers.

But, everyone has a story to tell about how their past influenced their present day emotional status and Ove's story is one of sadness and hardship as well as love and companionship.  He grew up to be a man of principles and little compromise on his hardened belief system until he met the love of his life, Sonja, who was able to see the beautiful person that he was inside.  Their love story is full of touching moments. "People say Ove saw the world in black and white.  But she was all color.  All the color he had." Even when someone finds the perfect mate, life has a way of not turning out the way you expect it and Ove's life hardened him until his outer shell was so thick he didn't even want to go on living.

And that is where the reader meets him - when he's at the end of his rope from life's stupidity and outrage, missing Sonja's color in his life of black and white.  He would rather cease to exist than go on living.  At least that is what he believes.  When his new neighbors move in - Parvaneh (the pregnant mom), the dad (who Ove just names The Lanky One), and their two daughters - Ove's whole life begins to change.

I don't want to give away too much about this novel, because the real joy stems from the way Backman skillfully unfolds the backstory and present day story of Ove simultaneously.  At first I was irritated by Ove's unbending ways, but by the middle of the book, I couldn't wait to read more about his past and see what other circumstances would surface in the present.  Quite a few moments made me laugh out loud or smile.

And, yes.  I did shed a tear or two (maybe way more than that).  I love a good story about how even the hardest of hearts can soften (just think about how you watch The Grinch Who Stole Christmas or A Christmas Carol every single year), or how many people who seem like the grumpiest recluses are really the ones who have a history of good deeds and who are the most helpful in a crisis.

Redemption, friendship, love, a stray cat, an amazing cast of neighbors, a grumpy old man bent on ending it all, and the beauty of owning a Saab all combine to make "A Man Called Ove" one that might make you rethink your internal remarks about the crabby old men who yell at the cashiers in Jewel.  It will remind you for sure that everyone has a story to tell.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

"Chains": Another YA Historical Fiction Victory for Laurie Halse Anderson

An Important Note: It has taken me awhile to muster the courage to return to my book blog.  My loyal friend and office assistant, Loki, passed away on May 26th 2016.  I've never had a dog that I loved like Loki, and it has been so much quieter and a little less joyful now that he isn't at my feet every day while I work.

But as in all things, life goes on, and whenever I see the stack of books that I have already read, the pictures of Loki with all those books (he absolutely loved to pose with books because he always got a special treat afterwards.  I only had to hold a book and my camera and he would run to a good spot and pose) and have yet to write about, I am reminded that it's okay to move forward even if it hurts a little.


As I have mentioned before, my daughter, Raina and I have our own book club.  There are only two members (the two of us), and we try to read a variety of books that we think are worth discussing.  A few requirements:
1) the book has to be something we both want to read
2) the book has to be one that neither of us have read (or if I have read it, it was so long ago that I don't remember it)
3) the book has to be substantial enough that we have something to talk about
4) we need to go out to dinner somewhere to discuss the book

For our third selection, we chose Laurie Halse Anderson's National Book Award Finalist, "Chains." Both Raina and I read Anderson's Fever 1793 and loved it, so we thought another glimpse into early American history would be a good bet for both of us.  Raina also decided that we needed to have our discussion dinner at the local restaurant, 1776 (clever, right?). Neither of us were disappointed by the harrowing insider's perspective of slavery in 1776 that Chains depicts (or with our dinner at 1776).

The story revolves around a 13 year old slave girl named Isabel and her sister Ruth.  When their mistress dies, her will states that the girls whose mother also died are to be set free.  Unfortunately, two young slave girls don't have control over their fate in 1776, and their former mistress's nephew refuses to consider that Isabel and Ruth are not property on which he can make a profit. Dismissing the fact that Isabel is able to read and read the will herself, he sells the sisters to a very wealthy Loyalist couple, The Locktons.

To say that the girls suffer under the ownership of Mrs. Lockton would be an understatement.  She takes an instant liking to Ruth, but casts her aside thinking she is infected with the devil after she has a series of seizures.  As much as Mrs. Lockton immediately likes Ruth, she feels the same in disdain for Isabel and makes it her sole mission to inflict pain and punishment on the independent, headstrong girl.

With heart racing suspense and uncomfortable torture scenes, Laurie Halse Anderson creates the tense world of life from the perspective of a young slave girl caught in the middle of Loyalists and Patriots at the advent of the Revolutionary world.  She explores the depths of torment and imprisonment as well as lofty ideals of loyalty and freedom.

Over a sea scallop spinach salad (say that 10 times fast) and a wood fired chicken pesto pizza, Raina and I both agreed that this was a great book that taught us so much about the life of a slave girl. Both Raina and I squirmed when Isabel was publicly branded for trying to escape.  We both loved the  relationship between Isabel and Curzon which showed that even in the most dire of situations, a friend is exactly what you need.  And, we also loved that Mr. Lockton's aunt looked out for Isabel and helped her to survive.

Raina thought that many parts were a bit slow, but ultimately that she really enjoyed this book.  She also thought that it was awesome that it took her deeper into the dynamics of the start of the Revolutionary War than what she learned in Social Studies at school.  I thought it was an amazing gazing ball into a tumultuous time in US History.  What I love so much about Laurie Halse Anderson is her attention to the historical accuracy of her historical fiction.  She included quotations from actual documents from the time period that coincided with what was happening in the story.  I can't remember ever being engaged in learning about the Revolutionary War when I was in elementary school, but if I had read this book, I am sure that I would have been captivated and wanting more information.

The best part of this book is the action packed ending which really isn't an ending at all because this is only part 1 of the Seeds of American Trilogy.  Although we aren't going to choose Book 2: Forge for our next book club book (we both decided that we needed something a little bit lighter for the summer), we both will read it as well as Book 3: Ashes (out in October 2016) because we need to know what happens to Ruth, Isabel and Curzon.

We are rooting for them!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

"The Last Anniversary & The Hypnotist's Love Story": Two Liane Moriarty Snacks that Do Not Make a Meal

It's May!

In the spring, my reading style lightens a little.  I choose less of the dense "rip your beating heart from your chest" sorts of books, and lean more towards the "I know I will fly through this book, but it will have a little bit of substance" sort of books.

In honor of the switch from my heavy winter reads, I turned to tried and true Liane Moriarty whose huge sensations "Big Little Lies" and "The Husband's Secret" propelled her into the literary spotlight.  I've also read her earlier book "What Alice Forgot" which was my favorite of the three.

For spring travel I picked up two of Moriarty's older books, "The Last Anniversary" and "The Hypnotist's Love Story." Both were readable, sometimes predictable, sometimes lovable, and sometimes put-downable.  It wasn't that I struggled to get through either, but the page turning of the three aforementioned books did not occur for me in either of these books. The characters in both were good, but not great.  Both of the books had female characters that were a little bit too neurotic for me.

In "The Last Anniversary" Sophie Honeywell stars in an unlikely inheritance tale.  Although her ex-boyfriend, Thomas Gordon, did not turn out to be the love of her life, his Aunt Connie was so taken with Sophie that she willed her house on mysterious Scribbly Gum Island to her. Undaunted by the disapproval of Thomas's sister, Sophie can't wait to begin her new life in her new home.  Twists and turns ensue including postpartum depression, potential suitors, a Weight Watcher's affair (sorta), a bizarre love interest, anniversary carnival drunkenness, and the unraveling of a family mystery.  Sophie is at times likable, and other times annoying, as were the plot twists of this convoluted tale.  I read it but was not necessarily satisfied at the end.

In "The Hypnotist's Love Story" Ellen O'Farrell who helps others solve their problems through hypnotherapy can't seem to solve her own problem - finding a relationship that will last.  She blames a bit of this on her unconventional upbringing by her stern mom and her mom's two best friends.  When Ellen meets single dad Patrick, she thinks she may just have stumbled onto the love of her life.  There's only one big problem - Patrick's ex-girlfriend, Saskia, stalks him.  Oh, and another problem, he's a widower who might just still be in love with his dead wife, Colleen. At times a bit ridiculous, this book may have annoyed me a little bit more than "The Last Anniversary."  Patrick seemed adorable at times, but other times, he was miserable.  For all of Ellen's open mindedness and knowledge of the human mind and relationships, she has a hard time showing empathy for others and gets neurotic in her own relationship.  She is more concerned with the feelings of the woman stalking her boyfriend (and her), than she is in working through her problems or showing compassion for her fiancĂ©'s feelings.

Ultimately, with both of these books, I was mildly entertained while reading them.  They were quick, but they weren't very satisfying like an empty calorie snack when you just need a pick me up at 3pm.  If you haven't read any of Liane Moriarty's books, I recommend the aforementioned first, then maybe if you need a quick snack turn to these two novels.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

"Circling the Sun": Into Africa With a Fearless Heroine

We’re all of us afraid of many things, but if you make yourself smaller or let your fear confine you, then you really aren’t your own person at all—are you? The real question is whether or not you will risk what it takes to be happy.

Beryl Markham's prophetic statement "I could come through nearly anything my world might throw at me" after being nearly mauled by a neighbor's pet lion, becomes her mantra for a life of adventurous tumult.

In Paula McClain's "Circling the Sun" McClain delves once again into a novelized memoir like her huge success "The Paris Wife," the fictionalized autobiography of Ernest Hemingway's first wife, Hadley Richardson.  Instead of focusing on expats behaving badly in New York during the 1920s, this time McClain sets her sites on expats behaving badly in a more wild and earthy backdrop, Kenya before it was Kenya.

"Circling the Sun" follows the unflappable Beryl Markham, the first woman to fly solo, east to west, across the Atlantic.  Her 1942 memoir "West with the Night" came to fame when Ernest Hemingway raved about it and the writing prowess of Markham.

McClain's account of Markham follows more of her upbringing - moving with her family from England when she was 2 years old to the untamed landscape of a 1,500 acre farm in Kenya.  Her father was a distracted farmer who was better at horse training and her mother was neglectful and unsuited to the African wilderness and subsequently leaves Beryl and her father.  Beryl's childhood is far from ordinary.  She learns to spear fight with the local tribe boys and runs free on her father's ranch.  She's fearless and headstrong.

Her life continues to throw obstacles in her path from poverty to a loveless marriage to a jealous and cruel drunk to being exiled and giving up a baby, and she navigates each with grace - each tragedy that could destroy an ordinary person only serves to strengthen Beryl's resolve to live life her own way. She becomes the youngest and only female race horse trainer in Kenya, and she also becomes a famous female pilot.

The novel focuses heavily on Beryl's love interest - the womanizing, poetry spouting, large game hunter, Denys Finch Hatton who Robert Redford played in "Out of Africa." Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen) loved him much the way that Beryl did.  He was a commitment phobe who used women for his own purposes, but that didn't stop Beryl's infatuation and pursuit of Denys.

It is Hatton's love of flying that draws her to it, and leads to her to pursue it even after Denys dies in a tragic airplane crash.

The novel is easy to read with beautiful imagery of the untamed African wilderness throughout.  It's ambitious with a rowdy cast of secondary characters who are for the most part historically accurate in their depiction. I did get a little bit restless by the end of it feeling as if McClain was hurrying through the years too quickly or maybe trying to do too much and was running out of room to finish.

Overall, though, I was caught up in the romantic sun drenched Kenyan landscapes, and the unflinching life of a very strong woman whose mere presence felt magnetic.  If only all of us could use the tragedies of our lives to build us stronger than weaker.  And if we could learn to live our own lives vs. follow what everyone else deems appropriate for us.  Beryl Markham will remind you what it means to live your life out loud.

Friday, April 29, 2016

"Preparation for the Next Life": An Achingly Gritty Love Story

But, he said, you cannot have these beautiful things if you lead a bad life, if you are sinning, doing what you want.  of course you must live properly and obey the law.  he pointed at the bilingual Arabic and English sign over the mosque's doorway, which he read aloud for her.  It said Preparation for the Next Life. 

Sometimes reading a book hurts.

Atticus Lish's highly praised debut novel "Preparation for the Next Life" might just break your heart. It might make you rethink The Patriot Act.  It might make you understand the endless cycle of tragedy that many veterans face.  It might make you consider the plight of illegal immigrants who only want to work hard and find a way in to the American dream.  It might make you ponder what real love means, and sacrifice, and poverty, and PTSD, and prison release, and justice.

I'm still thinking about the edgy story of Zou Lei, an illegal immigrant from Central Asia, who only wants a better life, but finds instead a dirty mattress in a New York tenement building that redefines living in the slums.  She meets Skinner who is fresh off of his third, violent tour in Iraq.  While she wants to work and make New York City her home and prove that she can make it as an American, he wants to find a good time and forget the lost friends and exploding life in Iraq.

Their story broke my heart.

Skinner isn't a bad guy, but his circumstances made it hard for him to be a good guy.  He suffers from PTSD and suffers even more from the neglect of the U.S. Government after he served 3 tours in Iraq. Drinking, drugs (prescription and non-prescription), smoking and pornography cloud his days spent in a small basement apartment in Queens.  Zou Lei tells him "Something has shook your mind.  It could be some bruise inside the head." Maybe that is why he chooses the terrible place to reside where he's only asking for trouble due to his landlady's  ultra violent son, Jimmy who recently was released from prison.

Zou Lei and Skinner fall in love even though she is older than he is, even though she is an illegal immigrant, and even though he is sometimes very mean and rough with her.  They bond over an almost spiritual love of hard workouts.  She loves to run (which comes in handy for her many times throughout this novel) and he loves to push his body over his edge with weightlifting.

Lish's style is jarring and coarse and at times hard to slog through.  Each sentence is densely packed with details.  There are no quotation marks for dialogue and everything in this novel is grim, depressing and violent.  At times the song "Skid Row" from the musical "Little Shop of Horrors" popped in my head, but even skid row is too happy of a place for Skinner and Zou Lei who can't get a break regardless of how much they try.  And they do try to get ahead, but life and circumstances don't always allow them to get where they want to go.

It's a tough read, but I was reminded of Ken Kesey and his rambling "fog" chapters with the Chief in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." There is power in the rambling stream of consciousness writing style of Lish and the book needs the grittiness of the prose to tell the story truthfully.

Life isn't always beautiful, and this book is a harsh reminder of that brutal reality.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

"A Monster Calls": Letting the truth loose

"Stories are wild creatures," the monster says.  "When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?"

Back in the summer of 2011, I attended a Summer Writing Institute at Millersville University.  The professor in charge of the whole institute recommended the book 'A Monster Calls' by Patrick Ness to all of us.  I paged through it when she passed it around for us to inspect; it looked dark, and creepy - a twisted childhood nightmare.

It's not that at all.

This book is one that I will be recommending to everyone, and one that I am so glad my daughter, Raina, and I chose for our 2nd mother / daughter book club selection.

I finished it in a day.  Raina (who is now in 5th grade) finished it in about 3 days.  We both loved it.

The premise of the book is that thirteen year old Conor is visited by a giant yew tree monster different from the monster in his reoccurring nightmares.  The visiting monster tells Conor that he only comes walking in matters of life and death.  Conor's mother has been very sick so Conor believes the monster is there to save her, but in reality what the monster wants more than anything is for Conor to tell the story of his truth.  When the clock strikes 12:07,  the monster comes walking and shares 3 separate stories with Conor that explore the complexity of human beings.

Big questions of evil and good, invisibility and loneliness, loss and pain, the power of holding on to our beliefs, betrayal, revenge, and telling the truth resonate through this beautifully crafted novel.

The story itself was inspired by Siobhan Dowd, who died from cancer before she was able to write it. Ness does her story incredible justice and 'A Monster Calls' won both the Carnegie Medal for literature and the Kate Greenaway Medal for Illustration (the illustrations by Jim Kay are haunting and absolutely perfect for this novel).

Raina and I decided to go out for sushi (which she discovered that she loves on our trip to Mexico ).  At first she was distracted by the activity or people pouring into our favorite local sushi place, Kumi.  But when we started uncovering the layers of the monster's 3 stories, she got her quizzical look on her face and asked important questions and gave insights into what she believes in situations where the truth is involved.  We discussed at length when it is important to lie to yourself and when it is important to tell the truth because the monster tells Conor "Sometimes people need to lie to themselves most of all." Most people in the book (with the exception of the monster) lie to Conor possibly to protect him, but it is only to his detriment.

I don't want to give the entire story of this book away, so I will stop gushing about it.  Know that it is short.  It isn't necessarily a happy book, but there are moments that the banter between the monster and Conor might make you smile.  You also might cry, but I don't think this book will give you nightmares of any sort.  It will stick with you after you finish it. And, it will make you think deeply about the complexities of the human spirit; we often have contradictory thoughts, but it is our actions that are most important of all.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

"Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda": A new spin on YA romance

We all keep secrets.

In high school, those who we had the biggest crushes on rarely knew our true feelings.  I remember staring at that back of one my crushes in my AP English course every single day knowing that I would die of embarrassment if he ever found out.

In Becky Albertalli's debut novel, 'Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda' she deals with the coming of age / coming out / first love story of Simon Spiers, a 16 year old, whose secret email correspondence with the mysterious Blue is about to blown wide open by Martin, a class clown who blackmails Simon to help him get closer to Simon's friend, Abby.  Martin stumbles upon Simon's open email to Blue in the school library and takes a screenshot of it explaining to Simon that he truly believes most people would be totally cool with him being gay at the same time he tells Simon that if he doesn't help him with Abby, he'd share the email with others.

That's just not cool.

So Simon sweats it.

He worries about Blue who wants his identity to be concealed.  He worries about how his totally heterosexual 'Bachelor' addicted family will take the news if they find out he is gay. He worries about his friend Abby and how he will actually get her to even notice the goofy and annoying Martin.  He's always just worrying about something because when we have our secrets that we don't want others to know, it makes us worry when we think they might find out the truth.

Albertalli does a great job of creating lovable characters that her readers adore and want to protect.  Her years as a clinical psychologist helped her get inside their heads and create believable email correspondences as well as believable high school drama (and we aren't just talking about Simon's role in his high school's theater production of Oliver).  There's friend drama and love drama beyond Simon and Blue, but the sweetest moments of this book come in the form of Blue and Simon's growing email flirtation and Blue's concealed identity.

In their emails they discuss family and friends as well as the burden of coming out.  "Why is straight the default? Everyone should have to declare one way or another, and it shouldn't be this big awkward thing whether you're straight, gay, bi or whatever.  I'm just saying." It's true.  It's hard enough to deal with being in love and revealing your vulnerability to another or your family when you are straight, but adding the extra pressure of society's perception is almost soul crushing.

In the twists and turns of this novel, Albertalli tries to keep it real.  And it feels mostly real until the truth comes out and then all the sudden things feel too easy like the wrap up at the end of Family Ties. Maybe I am cynical after teaching high school for so long, but not everyone would be so excepting of homosexuality and those who chose to voice their distaste would not be dealt with so swiftly.  Don't get me wrong, we've come so far even in the last 5 years, but there are still a bunch of close minded individuals who are under the guise that their religion tells them that homosexuality is wrong who have plenty of support for their beliefs, too.

I'm glad, though, that love in this novel, prevails vs. ignorance. I'm glad that Simon doesn't succumb to the few haters.  I'm glad that all the friends stay friends and that Simon's family is as awesome as they are.

I needed a fun, quirky, nerdy love story to restore my faith in homo sapiens everywhere, and that is just what 'Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda' does.

Becky Albertalli has a long and beautiful writing career ahead of her with many devoted fans who are eagerly awaiting another novel.  And that's no secret.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

"The Vacationers": A Book to Take On Vacation

I just returned from a fabulous vacation in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico.  Living in Chicagoland means that weather through April is iffy at best.  One sunny day of 65 degrees can easily transgress into a snowy day of 39 degrees.  On Saturday (the day we returned from Mexico where the weather was 85 degrees and sunny every day), Mother Nature melted down with one huge 24 hour tantrum.  It rained, it snowed, the sun came out, and then we even had thundersnow before the winds started punishing us for being human.

Because I was lucky enough to rejuvenate in Mexico, the tantrum didn't bother me.  I stayed inside and snuggled up next to the fire with a big cup of coffee and finished the second book that I took with me to Mexico - Emma Straub's novel "The Vacationers."

I admit that I purchased the book because of the pretty cover with the people floating in a pool of aqua blue (my favorite color).  It's a shallow reason for purchasing a book, but it called to me on the table of recommended reading at Barnes and Noble.  I'm so glad it did, because from the first chapter I was addicted to the story of the Post family's two week vacation to Mallorca, Spain.

The Posts are a family in crisis.  Jim, the 60 year old Post patriarch, recently retired from his job as Editor at the magazine Gallant, and spends his days moping around the house.  His early and abrupt retirement stemmed from his affair with a 20 something intern named Madison.  She tempted him and he gave in to her youthful seduction and was "let go" by the board.  His wife, Franny who is a food journalist and loves to cook, vows to never forgive him his transgression.  Their daughter, Sylvia, a petulant college bound slacker is saddened by her parents, but even more disgusted by her gym rat brother, Bobby, who has become a Miami stereotype - a muscle clad, club hopper who hates his real estate job and is indifferent to his cougar girlfriend, Carmen.  No one in the family enjoys Carmen's company because her thoughts veer to physical fitness all the time and she shares no common interests with the cultured Posts.

Along with the four Posts and Carmen, a gay couple, Charles and Lawrence join the family for this two week getaway.  Charles is Franny's oldest friend and confident and his decade younger husband, Lawrence is set on adopting a baby.

Once they arrive in Mallorca, the tensions and truths start to come out.  All of the Posts and even Charles and Lawrence must deal with infidelity in some way throughout the 14 day stay (the book's chapters are divided by the days - 14 chapters for the 14 day vacation).  Sylvia is still reeling from her kinda sorta boyfriend's betrayal with her best friend, and Bobby gets into predicaments because he doesn't want a long term commitment to Carmen.  Even Charles and Lawrence must deal with infidelity.

The men in the book are a bit drab with the exception of Sylvia's Spanish Calvin Klein model tutor, Joan (pronounced Jo-ahhhn).  Jim's sullen sulkiness becomes redundant, and Bobby's adolescent behavior is boorish.  Charles and Lawrence are almost indistinguishable.  Sylvia, Franny and Carmen add some spice to the book, but oddly the ones that are supposedly unlikable become likable.  Franny bugged me more than Jim.  Sylvia was more annoying that Bobby in parts.  And Carmen, the one the family liked the least, was at times the most genuine and likable character in the book even if her whole life revolved around the next workout and protein shake.

Nonetheless, the setting in the mountains of Mallorca along with the conversations and thoughts of the characters and their dinners together (tense and delicious), were enough to sustain a great narrative revolving around growth.

How do you move on after failure and heartbreak? How do you start the next phase of your life? How do you know for certain when it's time to move on in a different direction? All of these questions are central to this story and Straub is able to equally capture the tension and the wit in delicate family situations.

Even with the too quick wrap up at the end of the novel which seemed less than real, the rest of the story pulses with the times in life where we are conflicted with who we are and what decisions we need to make to move forward.  And who doesn't love a vacation story that ends well (especially when reading a book about a vacation on a vacation)?

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

"Bone Gap:" Original and Fresh YA Magical Realism

Before I get too far into this, I must admit that "Bone Gap" by Laura Ruby was VERY hard for me to get through.

It's not because this book isn't a book one it's more that I am not a fan of magical realism.  I prefer my reality to stay reality and my fantasy to stay fantasy.  When everything gets twisted together I get somewhat agitated.

But here's the deal -
Ruby's book is original.  It's fresh.  It's lyrical and it has stayed with me.  It was a National Book Award Finalist as well as a Printz Honor Winner and those awards and numerous accolades make sense.

At the center of the story are two brothers - Sean and Finn O'Sullivan who live on their own after a tragic accident that took the life of their father and then the subsequent departure of their bereft mother.  Sean vows to take care of his younger brother, Finn, who is odd even for a small town full of a menagerie of trippy characters.  Finn is often beat up by the Rude brothers and called "Moonface" or "Sidetrack" because of his spaced out demeanor.  His saving grace seems to be that he's beautiful just like his mom.

When a gorgeous Polish woman named Roza suddenly turns up in their barn with injuries and no story, the brothers quickly fall in love with her - one in a romantic way and the other in more of a brotherly sort of way.  When Roza suddenly disappears one year later, no one wants to believe Finn's story that she has been taken by a man whose face he can't describe.  Sean believes that everyone wants to leave them, but Finn knows that they need to find her and save her.

Based on the tale of Persephone who gets taken by Hades into the underworld, the realism of small town life gets tangled with black mares, pomegranate cookies, barren gardens, talking corn fields, and prosopagnosia.  Ruby's own poetic style interspersed with a honey laden, young love story make the novel even more dream like.

I appreciate the craftsmanship of the complexities and layers of this tale.  At it's heart is love and how we view the people that we fall in love with and who love us back, and how that changes the way we view ourselves.  It's also about the interconnectedness of small town life full of gossip and secrets - the gaps we fill with stories and those that we leave open for others to discover, as well as the gaps that sometimes swallow us whole. When Charlie Valentine tries to explain the mysteries of Bone Gap to Finn he tells him, "Because we don't have your typical gaps around here.  Not gaps made of rocks or mountains. We have gaps in the world. In the space of things. So many places to lose yourself, if you believe that they're there.  You can slip into the gap and never find your way out.  Or maybe you don't want to find your way out."

It's quite beautiful when I think about it, but I slogged through the reading of this novel vs. enjoying the tale unfold. At times I thought I should abandon it in favor of the other books in my towering bedside stack.  But I stuck with it, and I'm glad that I did because I keep thinking about the story and the characters, and I want to read more about Persephone.

If you want something that isn't ordinary or expected, with a mystery, a love story, and a modern twist on a mythological tale, "Bone Gap" is going to be your new favorite book.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

"Fever 1793": An education about yellow fever

Sometimes I am astounded about my lack of historical knowledge.

I consider myself a rather intelligent person who has an advanced degree plus years of extra schooling and workshops, and 15 years of classroom experience.  Unfortunately, I had the worst ever high school history teacher three years in a row.  His idea of teaching was sitting at his desk and going on tangents of his choosing with his hands behind the back of his head and his feet propped up on his desk.  Occasionally, he'd break out an ancient slide show while many students slept through it. I always volunteered to read the slides aloud for no other reason than to keep myself awake.

I've learned all of my history through self study and through reading historical fiction.  When I read a great one, I do more research to find out even more about a specific period of time.  During the time I taught, I did the same thing; I immersed myself in the history of whatever novel we read.  For "The Great Gatsby," I had the students study famous people of the time and then come to a "Shindig for Smarties" dressed as those people and interacting as them during Charleston contests and mingling.

Recently, my daughter Raina came home and told me about Laurie Halse Anderson's book, "Fever 1793." She said, "You've got to read this book, Mommy.  It's totally gross and totally amazing."  How could I pass up that perfect book review?

I happened to own a copy (leftover from my days in the classroom), so I cracked it open at lunch and didn't stop reading for over an hour.  I finished it that evening before I went to bed.  It's YA (maybe even considered middle reader) so the pace of the storyline is fast and furious.

The story revolves around 14 year old Mattie Cook who is stubborn and lovable.  She lives with her mother and grandfather in the year 1793 in the capital of the new United States, Philadelphia.  Her mother owns and operates the Cook Coffeehouse, and Mattie helps her as much as she can.  News starts to spread about a disease enveloping the city during one of the hottest and buggiest summers ever and people start to panic and flee the city.

The book quickly becomes a survival story when the disease infects Mattie's world and she needs to use all of her courage and instincts just to stay alive.

My daughter was absolutely correct in her review of this book being both totally gross and amazing.  Laurie Halse Anderson knows how to draw her readers into a story.  This is the first historical fiction book of Anderson's that I have read, but I have others on my shelf-  "Chains" (which was a National Book Award finalist in 2008 and won the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction in 2009) and "Forge".  "Fever 1793" received numerous awards including the ALA Best Books for Young Adults.

It's worth the praise and worth the education.  Anderson thoroughly researched the epidemic and included quotations from actual documents and diaries of the time period at the beginning of each chapter.  My scholastic version of the book even includes more historical information at the very end of the book, so after I read it, I felt like I had received a better education than my high school history lectures.

More than anything, by the end of the book, I was so thankful to be living with modern medical techniques.  We still have epidemics to contend with in our modern era, but hopefully we can learn from the not so pretty outbreaks in our history.

Monday, February 22, 2016

"The Giver": A classic dystopia

My daughter Raina and I started our own two person book club.  On Friday, we had our first meeting at Marzano's, a wood fired pizza place, to discuss our first selection, Lois Lowry's Newbery Medal winner, 'The Giver.'

Raina reads just as much if not more than I do.  Most nights my husband and I need to repeatedly ask her to close her book and get to sleep.  Sometimes after we have gone to bed, she gets back up, and takes her book under her covers to finish it.  When the Book Fairs come to school, she is in heaven; she plans her purchases and after she has reached the limit I set, she dips into her own precious savings and goes on her class "buy day" and purchases every other book she was unable to get.

I knew all this, but I still wasn't prepared for how amazing it was to have a real adult conversation about a complex book with my 11 year old.

She's smart, analytical and quizzical.

Her analysis of the complex topics presented in the book were spot on.

If you are one of the few people who has never heard of "The Giver" or you haven't read it, it follows a boy named Jonas who lives in a utopia.  Everything is fair.  No one feels pain.  No one fights.  No one needs to make any choices because everything is decided for you.  There are special, all inclusive ceremonies for age groups.  All 9 year olds have a bike ceremony, and all 12 year olds have a special ceremony where they are given their assignments (jobs) in the society.  At the assigning ceremony, Jonas is named the new Receiver and needs to attend special top secret meetings with the current Receiver.  It is there, he begins to learn the truth about his world.  And the truth isn't pretty.

Raina and I discussed topics in the book ranging from euthanasia to what it means to be a family.  We talked about euphemisms and why people use them and we discussed the ambiguous ending of the book.  Raina blew me away when we talked about language being controlled and about the nature of love and why a society might want to take away the power to love.

It was an amazing conversation and it made me appreciate my daughter as the unique and intelligent young lady that she is; I am so proud to be her mom.

Choosing 'The Giver' as our first book to discuss was perfect.  At first when Raina started reading it, she told me, "Mommy, this book is a real snoozer." I told her to stick with it because it picks up and gets very interesting at chapter 7. She stuck it out and just as I suspected when she got to chapter 7, she was hooked.  We even talked about how some books that have slow starts can still be awesome to read and the pay off can be even better than books that are quick to get through.

'The Giver' is a classic YA dystopia that even reluctant readers would enjoy (especially after they get through the first 6 chapters), but even more importantly, it presents so many important discussion points about the ways societies are run and individual rights, the importance of memories - good ones and bad ones, and why love can save us.

I highly recommend not only reading 'The Giver' but also reading the books that your kids are reading so you can talk to them on a literary level.  I loved my first book club outing with my daughter.  I can't wait for the next one.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

"Big Magic": A Beautiful Reminder To Create

And while the paths and outcomes of creative living will vary wildly from person to person, I can guarantee you this: A creative life is an amplified life.  It's a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life, and a hell of a lot more interesting life.  Living in this manner - continually and stubbornly bringing forth the jewels that are hidden within you - is fine art, in and of itself. 

Because creative living is where Big Magic will always abide. - Elizabeth Gilbert

Sometimes so many people recommend a book to me that my only choice is to read it.

Elizabeth Gilbert's "Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear" is one such book.  When I saw that it was featured as a signed book at Barnes and Noble for Christmas, I gently suggested to my husband that it might be a book that I would love to see under the tree on Christmas morning.  He listened and it was mine.

Unlike most books that I get for Christmas, I waited to read this one until I was ready to fully take it in.  I read it with a pencil in my hand to underline important passages and to let Elizabeth Gilbert's message really sink in and resonate with my soul.

My reader relationship with Elizabeth Gilbert is hot and cold.  The book that propelled her to success, "Eat, Pray, Love" was good, but definitely not one of my favorite memoirs.  At times her story of self discovery during her world travels really mattered to me, but at other times I felt completely disconnected to her journey.  I felt the same thing with "The Signature of All Things."  I really, really loved parts of it, but other times I found myself flipping pages to just get it done.

Regardless of this relationship with Elizabeth Gilbert, her Ted Talk titled Your Elusive Creative Genius is one of my favorites of all time.

So I figured that an entire book dealing with the same subject matter would speak to me.  

And it did. 

Gilbert's conversational tone throughout the book drew me in immediately.  It was as if she was talking to me as a friend, a confidant, a fellow creator on this planet who has a voice and a message and doesn't always know how to use it.  She tells stories of her own creative process, her failures and her successes.  

My favorite part of the book was when she explained that ideas are living entities that are waiting to find a medium to bring them into the world.  "Remember: All it [an idea] wants is to be realized.  It's trying its best.  It seriously has to knock on every door it can." She illustrated this point by recounting a book idea she had.  It was set in the Amazon and included an adventure for a reluctant heroine named Evelyn whose ordinary life gets overturned when she travels to Brazil to recover a missing young man.  Gilbert had to side track this idea even though it was bought by her publisher. 

Life happened and she neglected this book idea, and then several months later, she attended a panel discussion about libraries and met Ann Patchett.  They formed a strong friendship that was forged mostly through old fashioned letter writing.  In one letter, Ann mentioned her new book idea which was about an adventure in the Amazon jungle.  When they met for lunch a few weeks later, Ann told her more about the book idea which was so similar to her own that she got chills.  She realized that her idea got impatient and jumped to Ann who could realize the idea's full potential.  Ann wrote the widely renowned book "State of Wonder" which essentially was Elizabeth's idea.  Sometimes if we wait too long, an idea will do what it needs to do in order to be brought to fruition.  

From this story, Gilbert goes on to talk about her own journey with writing- how she was persistent even when she didn't feel like she was any good at writing.  When she got rejections, she would work harder, and she never quit her day job nor did she go through a fancy MFA program.  She worked hard and listened to ideas as they came to her.  

At times Gilbert does get a little preachy, but overall, she remains true to her message that creativity is a beautiful gift and that all of us need to create, even if it's just for ourselves.  Even more she says that if you create with only your audience in mind, you are doing yourself a disservice.  Create because you can and then maybe your message will reach others in ways that you don't even anticipate just like her success with "Eat, Pray, Love" which she really wrote in order to work through her own emotional turbulence.  

For anyone that ever wanted to create but was afraid to do it, and for anyone who lost their way as a writer but still feels like they have something to say - pick up this book which is a beautiful reminder of why we should uncover the jewels within us and bring them to life.