Shotgun Lovesongs: The Comfort of a Good Book

cover image from Goodreads

cover image from Goodreads

Sometimes you begin reading a book and it immediately feels comfortable, like slipping into an old sweater on a cool day. That’s what I felt reading Nickolas Butler. Even though I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and not small-town Wisconsin, I knew the Midwestern feel of this novel down to my bones. I knew the speech patterns, the sense of both belongingness and isolation. I knew these people.

“These men, these men who have known one another their entire lives. These men who were all born in the same hospital, delivered by the same obstetrician. These men who grew up together, who ate the same food, sang in the same choirs, dated the same girls, breathed he same air. They move around one another with their own language, their own set of invisible signals, like wild animals.”

Occasionally I still see my childhood friends, groups like these, pictured on Facebook. I marvel at how these packs of boys have maintained that closeness, that tribe mentality, well into adulthood. They still live in the same town, drink in the same bars, run with the same crowd. They leave and they come back. That’s not how my life evolved, but I get it.

“Henry’s voice — the voice of an old friend — like finding a wall to orient you in some strange, dark hotel room.”

So all of that is to say that I had no trouble believing the backdrop of Kip, Henry, Ronny, Lee and Beth in Little Wing, Wisconsin. They are facing their 30s, all reunited in their small town, with varying degrees of professional, relationship and personal success. There are the jealousies, secrets and broken hearts you might expect from such a small-town novel, mostly predictable, but no less interesting just because I could guess where it was going.

The story is told in alternating chapters from each of the main characters’ perspectives, allowing us a glimpse into their inner-thoughts and back stories. The strategy worked to keep me invested in each person, but perhaps sacrificed the momentum of the plot, which does pick up dramatically in the second half.

I can’t say this is a great story or brilliant writing, but I can say I enjoyed reading this book. I like reading about people, groups, places I know.

“Sometimes that is what forgiveness is anyway — a deep sigh.”

Read-alikes:

The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Midnight Champagne by A. Manette Mansay

What other Midwestern family dramas should I be reading? I’m open to suggestions.

July Reading Wrap Up

Summer hours and a week-long getaway made for a great month of reading for me. New releases and many titles that had been lingering on my to-read for far too long are finally finished.

July Reads

By the numbers: 13 books, 13 reviews on Goodreads, 5 reviews on alenaslife, 4 oldies from my shelf – #dustingoffmybookshelf, 2 from my 2014 personal challenge (set in a foreign locale & a classic), 1 audio

From most to least favorite:
The Painter, Peter Heller  Reviewed

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan Reviewed

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, Chris Bohjalian Reviewed

The Girl You Left Behind, Jojo Moyes  Reviewed

Birds of a Lesser Paradise, Megan Mayhew Bergman

This outstanding collection of short stories has been on my to-read shelf for years just waiting for my discovery. I fell hard for these brilliant, quirky, animal inspired stories. All are about survival despite the odds. They inspired me and entertained me. Bergman is definitely an author I’ll watch for.

“I wished for things to stay the same. I wished for stillness everywhere, but I opened up the rest of the bedroom windows and let the world in.”

The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd Reviewed

Bellweather Rhapsody, Kate Racculia

Another book that defies any easy description. Mix together temperamental artists, teen angst, middle-ages loneliness, and a mystery. Then plop all of it in a crumbling Shining-style grand hotel and you’ll get a feel for this novel. High drama and high stakes vs. ruin and decay. Really enjoyed reading it, even if I couldn’t swallow the actual story line.

“Maybe that’s what he reminds her of: they are both full of dark corners, odd places, possibly ghosts.”

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

A very difficult read for me for two reasons. 1) All of the dialog is in heavy dialect so I had to pick apart the language, especially in the first half. 2) I have a hard time not applying my modern values/standards to what I read — which is really unfair given the early 20th century, black community setting of this book. I sometimes wanted to shake the main character Janie, but ultimately, I’m really glad I read this book. It will stick with me.

“The years took the fight out of Janie’s face. For a while she thought it was gone from her soul…But mostly she lived between her hat and her heels, with her emotional disturbances like shade patterns in the woods — come and gone with the sun.”

Silver Linings Playbook, Matthew Quick

Engrossing and enjoyable read despite the heavy mental illness subject matter. Even though I didn’t see the movie I was heavily influenced by its stars in visualizing this book as I read.

“I am practicing being kind over being right.”

Emotionally Weird, Kate Atkinson

This novel has so much confusion — stories within stories, mysterious characters coming and going, multiple fonts, unreliable narrator(s) — all purposeful. I was often lost, but never frustrated or disinterested because it also has Atkinson’s wit, humor and beautiful writing. I suppose there’s a plot — mother and daughter on a decaying Scottish island trying to tell their personal truths, claim identity. It’s all rather circular and a little bit beside the point (although, true to Atkinson’s other works, there are multi-layered connections among characters and everything gets tied together well.)

“Memory is a capricious thing, of course, belonging not in the world of reason and logic, but in the realms of dreams and photographs — places where truth and reality are tantalizingly out of reach.”

The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes, Diane Chamberlain

This book is much more made-for-tv-movie than my usual reading choices, but I had no trouble getting caught up in CeeCee’s story. It’s fast paced and engaging, even if I don’t want to believe any woman (even a 16 year-old) would be gullible enough to fall for the lines that ensnared CeeCee.

“You got dealt some crappy cards. But you’re the one who has to decide how to play them.”

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A carry over from June, I struggled to make my way through this book, which I truly wanted to love. I liked the first part and the last part (up until he final 2 pages), but the 300+ pages in the middle left me unmoved, even a little bored. There were some things I loved. I love the blog posts that show up in the novel. These were the most enlightening, passionate, personal moments in the novel, I loved learning about Nigeria and Nigerian culture. Certainly my eyes were opened to the many ways in which Americans (myself included) are blind to racism and cultural identity.

“And her joy would become a restless thing, flapping it’s wings inside her, as though looking for an opening to fly away.”

The Wife, The Maid and the Mistress, Ariel Lawhon on audio

This historic fiction is based on the real-life disappearance of New York State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Creighter in 1930s. Lawhon does a great job of evoking the era, filled with politicians, gangsters and corruption and sets up some delicious characters as the title implies. I wasn’t crazy about the mystery itself. The plot developments felt a little forced and overall, it moved too slowly to make it thrilling. (I probably would have preferred to read the print instead of listening to the audio over the course of a month.)

“His hand left a trail of shame across her skin.”

My July Photo Collage is comprised of book covers provided by Goodreads.

W…W…W…Wednesday: Books read, reading and to read

I missed all of my fellow WWW-ers last week, but I decided I would not spend a day of my family vacation glued to WordPress. Instead, I was reading!!!! More books than I’ll even mention in this post, but reviews and wrap-up are rolling out on the blog this week.

Thanks to Miz B at Should Be Reading for inspiring so many of us to get involved in WWW Wednesdays. It’s always so great to see what everyone is reading.

www_wednesdays44

I’d love to know what everyone is reading.  To play along, just answer the following three (3) questions…(or post a link to your blog.)

• What are you currently reading? • What did you recently finish reading? • What do you think you’ll read next?

 

cover image from Goodreads

cover image from Goodreads

What are you currently reading?  Just starting a short story collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise that has been on my shelf for a couple years. I needed something completely different in style to sort of clear my mind and this does the trick. Really strong writing and interesting characters, which are key to successful short stories. On audio, I’m back into The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, the 6th installment in the Flavia de Luce mysteries. I just adore Flavia and I appreciate how Bradley is bringing together the previous stories and mysteries in this one (which I hope is not his last).

 

 

cover image from Goodreads

cover image from Goodreads

What did you recently finish reading? So many books! Most recently I read a classic (another of my personal 2014 goals). Their Eyes Were Watching God was a very difficult read for me for two reasons. 1) All of the dialog is in heavy dialect so I had to pick apart the language, especially in the first half. 2) I have a hard time not applying my modern values/standards to what I read — which is really unfair given the early 20th century, black community setting of this book. I sometimes wanted to shake the main character Janie, but ultimately, I’m really glad I read this book. It will stick with me.

 

 

cover image from Goodreads

cover image from Goodreads

What do you think you’ll read next?  I have a lot of reading goals for August, including two non-fiction books, Brain on Fire and A Curious Man, and another classic, 1984, but first up a fiction book recommended by a friend, Shotgun Lovesongs. I love a good small town drama.

Happy reading everyone!

How about you?

What are your W…W…W… titles? Please feel free to share a link to your own W…W…W…Wednesday posts or share your reading plans in the comments.

 

Peter Heller’s The Painter — just, wow

I know it’s sexist to categorize books as either masculine or feminine, but I do it anyway. Don’t’ get me wrong, I read both. Dennis Lehane is one of my favorite writers and his dark, gritty, violent books definitely fall in my definition of masculine. Toni Morrison, on the other hand, with her magic and poetry and search for identity, belong in my (again, sexist) definition of literature.

cover image via Goodreads

cover image via Goodreads

What is rare is to find an author who so fully embodies both sides of the spectrum, but that’s the only way I can think to describe Peter Heller and his current book, The Painter.

My immediate reaction after turning the final page was simply, Wow.

The story-line is surprisingly violent (like in a Clint Eastwood way), but the language of the novel is thoughtful and thought-provoking, making the book’s appeal both powerful and gentle. The protagonist, Jim Stegner, is not easy to like. He’s an alcoholic artists with a troubled past and a violent temper, searching for peace and beauty.

“I almost cannot contain — the rage and the tenderness together like boiling weather front.”

Heller writes him so vividly that he does almost seem to boil on the page. His actions are despicable, but his conscience (soul?) runs deep with guilt which comes out through his artwork. Art, particularly Jim’s painting his own conscience, plays a huge role in this story. Again, Heller finds a brilliant way of combining almost poetic language with the gritty realities of what it means to be a working artist.

“The reason people are so moved by art and why artists tend to take it all so seriously is that if they are real and true they come to the painting with everything they know and feel and live, and all the things they don’t know, and some of the things they hope, and they are honest about them all and put them on the canvas. What can be more serious?”

This is my first experience reading Heller and I now must move The Dog Stars up to the top of my To-Read shelf. I think I’m about to become a superfan.

“We can proceed in our lives just as easily from love to love as from loss to loss. A good thing to remember in the middle of the night when you’re not sure how you will get through the next three breaths.”

Another winner from Jojo Moyes

cover image from Goodreads

cover image from Goodreads

A quick reading Q&A with myself:

Do you read romance novels?   Never.

Do you like books when you are sure you know where the story is going and how it will end?   Not at all.

Do you like authors to wrap up all the loose ends in a novel?   No.

Judging by the answers above, I should not have ever chosen The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes, but I did. And I loved it.

“All that counts is the truth. Without it you’re basically just juggling people’s daft ideas.”

The emotional truth of Jojo Moyes’ characters as well as the strength of her writing elevates this novel beyond its romantic story-line. I was completely engrossed by the dual stories of women left behind, both in wartime and modern day.

The book’s title refers to a mysterious painting at the center of this novel, but the words also describe the heroines of the two intersecting stories. Sophie Lefevre is a French citizen trying to survive without her artist-turned-soldier husband under German occupation during World War I. Liv Halston is the widow of another artist (an architect) trying to rebuild her life despite impending financial ruin a century later.

Both women look to the painting for strength and hope with varying degrees of success. Part historical fiction, part modern day romance with a little bit of old-fashioned mystery; the book’s success comes from the honesty and identifiable emotions of these two women. I cared deeply for each, and even though I guessed their fates early on, was eager to follow their journeys.

“Do you know how it feels to resign yourself to your fate? It is almost welcome. There was to be no more pain, no more fear, no more longing. It is the death of hope that comes as the greatest relief.”

I can recommend this book (as well as Me Before You, which is even better) without any reservation. Moyes tells great stories and she tells them well.

#100happydays: Days 11-20

#100happydays began as an Instagram exercise in gratitude, a challenge to take a moment to be purposefully thankful for the many happy moments that make up my days.

Because this is an Instagram project, I am limiting myself to something I can photograph. Likewise, I use very few words to describe these images. Days 11-20 mostly fell during my family’s annual vacation at Beachwalk Resort.  I probably could have posted 100 happy moments for each day of our vacation, but here is what I chose.

11Day 11: Fresh haircuts for these handsome boys.

12Day 12: Officially in my happy place.#beachwalk #terrapinstation

13Day 13: He caught one! #fishing #beachwalk #lakekai

 

 

14Day 14: Brothers #topdog #beachwalk

15Day 15: 2 Pats, a sunset, a football & Lake Michigan. Perfect!

16Day 16: So great to have a couple of days with Mima. #beachwalk

 

 

17Day 17. A chill in the air won’t stop @matty1217 #pool #beachwalk

18Day 18: Blueberry picking at Billy Boy’s. #tradition — at Billy Boy’s Blueberry Farm.

19Day 19: A week of happy days and wonderful memories with these 3 angels. Bye-bye Beachwalk.

 

 

20Day 20: Celebrating family and the first wedding anniversary of @chrisuphues and @jenkoehl

 

 

How about you? How do you practice gratitude?

All the images in this post are my own. Please don’t use them as yours.

Renewing Excitement, Dusting off the Bookshelf

I often get caught up in conversations about never-ending to-read lists with other book lovers. Most of my to-reads exist on a virtual shelf, but I also have stacks of “someday I’m going to read” in boxes, on shelves and even in my car. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to read more books than I can possibly get to in a lifetime, but sometimes in my excitement to read the latest releases, or keep up with my book clubs, I fear some good books might be getting lost in the shuffle.

Apparently, I’m not alone. Other book-loving bloggers are facing the same dilemma. First, I saw the “Renewing Excitement” idea on the thoughtful and smart book blog, Chels & a Book, and it made me realize that I don’t reach past the top 10 or 20 books on my to-read list very often.

dusting-off-the-shelf-read-a-thon-graphic1Then, I stumbled across a similar idea while reading It’s All About Books. Yvo was herself inspired by Emily at Books & Cleverness. (Really, bloggers are the most creative and inspirational group of people.)

So, inspired by these lovely women, each month I will choose a few from the middle or bottom of the list (meaning they’ve been sitting and waiting patiently for over a year), determined to read at least one per month. If I can read even more than one, all the better. Any advice or guidance you can offer would be much appreciated.

For August 2014, my choices are:

Look At MeLook at Me by Jennifer Egan. Added to my shelf July, 2011 (published in 2002). Full disclosure: I did not love A Visit From the Goon Squad so I don’t have the love affair with this author that many do. However, I loved The Keep and really like The Invisible Circus.

Goodreads describes it: At the start of this edgy and ambitiously multilayered novel, a fashion model named Charlotte Swenson emerges from a car accident in her Illinois hometown with her face so badly shattered that it takes eighty titanium screws to reassemble it. She returns to New York still beautiful but oddly unrecognizable, a virtual stranger in the world she once effortlessly occupied.

The Flying TroutmansThe Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews. Added to my shelf August, 2011 (published in 2008). I never got around to reading this book and now Toews’ new book, All My Puny Sorrows, is getting tons of buzz.

Goodreads describes it: Days after being dumped by her boyfriend Marc in Paris – “he was heading off to an ashram and said we could communicate telepathically” – Hattie hears her sister Min has been checked into a psychiatric hospital, and finds herself flying back to Winnipeg to take care of Thebes and Logan, her niece and nephew. Not knowing what else to do, she loads the kids, a cooler, and a pile of CDs into their van and they set out on a road trip in search of the children’s long-lost father, Cherkis.

Open CityOpen City by Teju Cole. Added to my shelf in October, 2011 (published in 2011). I know I should read Teju Cole. I suspect I’ll love Teju Cole, but it’s never made it to the top of the list.

Goodreads describes it: Along the streets of Manhattan, a young Nigerian doctor doing his residency wanders aimlessly. The walks meet a need for Julius: they are a release from the tightly regulated mental environment of work, and they give him the opportunity to process his relationships, his recent breakup with his girlfriend, his present, his past.

 

Any advice about what I should choose first?