Flashback Friday: This is Where I Leave You

This is Where I leave youWith one week (and impatiently counting) until the film release of This is Where I Leave You, I thought I would suggest, beg, demand that any of you who have not yet read Jonathan Tropper’s outstanding dark comedic novel should do so before seeing the movie.

Need more persuasion? Here’s my review from August 3, 2012.

I can’t remember the last time a book made me laugh out loud, but this one did. It also made me blush, got me a little choked up at times, and introduced me to another author whose work I will actively seek.

Forced to take part in a traditional Jewish 7-day shiva for his father, Judd Foxman ping-pongs between his hilariously dysfunctional siblings, his larger than life newly widowed mother, and the agony of his failed marriage. By using the shiva as a tactic to force intimacy (or at least proximity) on his characters, Tropper provides the perfect background for high drama.

“Childhood feels so permanent, like it’s the entire world, and then one day it’s over and you’re shoveling wet dirt onto your father’s coffin, stunned at the impermanence of everything.”

Tropper brilliantly avoids overplaying his dramatic hand. Instead he inserts some borderline slapstick comedy for Judd and his family. I wasn’t sure in the opening chapter, which contains the funniest version of marital infidelity I’ve ever read (burning testicles and all), if Tropper could maintain that level of pitch-perfect dark comedy, but he does.

He finds the humor in life’s tragic situations, without ever lessening their importance.

“…the first thing you do at the end is reflect on the beginning. Maybe it’s some form of reverse closure, or just the basic human impulse toward sentimentality, or masochism, but as you stand there shell-shocked in the charred ruins of your life, your mind will invariably go back to the time when it all started. And even if you didn’t fall in love in the eighties, in your mind it will feel like the eighties, all innocent and airbrushed, with bright colors and shoulder pads and Pat Benetar or The Cure on the soundtrack.”

As I was reading, I could picture the film version, cast with the finest 30-somethings in Hollywood, a kind of Big Chill for the 21st Century. I believe Tropper is already at work on an adaptation. I sure hope Hollywood doesn’t manage to wreck the brilliant balance of a little raunchy, a lot funny, and perfectly heartfelt that Tropper has achieved.

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The deep, dark and ugly of Fourth of July Creek

Fourth of July CreekThe Montana Visitors Bureau will not be hiring Smith Henderson any time soon. The Montana of Henederson’s gripping debut novel is bleak and desolate, filled with alcoholics, addicts, guns, separatists and loneliness. Even his brilliant depictions of the state’s wilderness seem hard-edged and dangerous. Henderson’s characters are beyond broken; they are fractured into tiny pieces and spinning out of control.

This is not a pretty novel.

“The children were like children from anywhere, maybe a little less so.”

Pete Snow, a Department of Children’s Services social worker, should be our hero, but he’s an alcoholic who abandoned his own child and shelters more than one criminal. The fact that I still have sympathy for this man is a testament to the strength and power of Henderson’s writing.

His adversary, Benjamin Pearl, is a wild near-animal zealot, raising his son and hiding from society. (Conspiracy theorists will love his philosophy and anti-system rants.) Again, he is the antithesis of everything I believe in and yet, my heart broke for him and I was unable to compartmentalize him in the role of “bad guy.”

Is it any accident that these men have the names Snow and Pearl which evoke images of innocence and purity? I’ve got to hand it to Henderson. Down to the characters’ names, he doesn’t leave any detail of this novel to chance.

Snow and Pearl almost dance around each other through the events of this novel, alternating between trust and betrayal. Their relationship illustrates all the themes and questions of freedom, relationships, loyalty and democracy.

Meanwhile, Snow’s daughter is missing. In some of the most emotionally powerful chapters of the novel, we hear directly from Rose.

“What was it like on the way to Texas? It was Wyoming, which means to drive forever through ugly subscrape the color of dirty pennies. It was just wyoming along.”

The way in which Rose continues to use “wyoming” as a verb, noun and adjective to describe the nothingness she feels is absolutely brilliant.

All of these journeys are incredibly sad. I never shy away from dark reading material. In fact, I couldn’t help but compare this book to The Painter, Once Upon a River and Girlchild. All of these are fiction about the darker underside of America. The difference is that Fourth of July Creek, I found no hope. I could not put this book down, but I didn’t want to read it.

“the world is a blade and dread is hope cut open and spread inside out.”

Read-alikes:

The Painter by Peter Heller

Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman

BINGO!

My Lita loved BINGO. I have fond memories of accompanying her to the church hall, where’d she set up her cards, red plastic discs and lucky elephants while she sent me to the concession stand for potato chips and pop. It was a weekly date and I loved her focus as she quickly scanned dozens of cards. I remember her excitement when she’d yell BINGO and raise her tiny hand in the air. I eagerly awaited the last game of the night when Lita would bring out her BINGO stampers and let me choose the color I wanted. (Of course I wasn’t technically allowed to play as a minor, but she always let me watch a card or two.) We never won the big jackpot, but I won something much more important those nights.

Reading-Bingo-smallSo when I saw a Reading BINGO card pop up on Facebook in January, I knew I had to play along. (The game was posted courtesy of Random House Canada and can be found here.)

I started strong, getting multiple BINGO lines in the first couple months of the year without having to try too hard — female author, different continent, short stories, non-fiction– this was a cinch. But, around April, I realized which squares would provide the challenge: B1 (more than 500 pages); I2 (non-human characters); I5 (scares you); N2 (funny book); G5 (second book in a series) and O3 (bottom of the TBR). I had to consciously go looking for those.

But I’m proud to raise my tiny hand in the air and yell BINGO!!! Tell the man with the microphone to get ready, I hit the big jackpot. I know my Lita’s smiling down on me.

Here are my BINGO titles. I’ve included links to those titles I reviewed on this blog and my 1-5 star ratings.

1) more than 500 pages – What is the What *****
B2) written by someone under 30 – How To Be a Good Wife ****
B3) one-word title – Cartwheel **
B4) 1st book by a favorite author – Songdogs (Column McCann) ****
B5) your friend loves – The Enchanted *****

I1) forgotten classic – BUtterfield 8****
I2) non-human characters – Hollow City****
I3) short stories – The Color Master: Stories ****
I4) heard about online – Black Swan Green ****
I5) scares you – 101 Great American Poems **** (and, yes, reading poetry scares the hell out of me)

N1) became a movie – This Boy’s Life ****
N2) funny book – Same Difference **
N3) FREE- Quiet Dell***
N4) best-selling – Eleanor & Park ****
N5) more than 10 years old – The Daughter of Time **

G1) published this year – Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir ****
G2) female author – The Book of Unknown Americans ****
G3) set on a different continent – Sister of My Heart ***
G4) based on a true story – When I Was Puerto Rican***
G5) 2nd book in a series – You Suck ***

O1) number in the title – Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore ****
O2) a mystery – Speaking from Among the Bones ****
O3) non-fiction – Orange Is the New Black **
O4) bottom of your to be read pile – The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes ***
O5) blue cover – All the Light We Cannot See*****

 

Anyone else playing along? What were your hardest spots to fill?

It’s not too late to climb aboard to Reading BINGO train.

June Reading Wrap Up

The month of June offered a pretty terrific mix of books to read, both in new releases and me finally settling down with some “meant to reads.” I spent time with two of my favorite authors, Jonathan Tropper and Dan Chaon, plus cemented my love for Ruth Ozeki. I found three new authors and started the beautiful Americanah, which I’ll undoubtedly review in July.

June 2014 Reads

Here’s my June reading list, best to worst.

My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki — already reviewed

We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride – already reviewed

Among the Missing by Dan Chaon

I love best Chaon’s ability to tap into our innermost insecurities for examination. From the insecure widow looking for comfort from an inflatable torso in “Safety Man,” to a survivor wracked with unspeakable guilt in the title story. He doesn’t cross the line into magical realism but his stories retain an other-worldliness that appeals to me. It’s the stuff of deepest fears and imaginings, our dreams and nightmares, and even our everyday weaknesses. All of these stories somehow hinge on a seemingly random twist of fate.

“It’s not like it ruined my life, I was going to say, but then I didn’t. Because it occurred to me that maybe it had ruined my life, in a kind of quiet way–a little lie, probably not so vital, insidiously separating me from everyone I loved. ”

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez — already reviewed

Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement – already reviewed

Everything Changes by Jonathan Tropper (audio)

Not his best work, but any Tropper is good reading. The story felt familiar — Zach is a 30-something Jewish guy with serious father issues who faces a life-altering crisis. Drama, humor and fist-fights follow. It’s the standard Tropper mix but I’m OK with that. Sometimes I want something familiar and not too challenging. I like that Tropper’s protagonists, for all their self-pity, are smart, acerbic and disarmingly self-aware. (Scott Brick is a great narrator for Tropper’s work.)

“Somewhere there’s a therapist alone in his office staring wistfully at the door, just waiting for a patient like you.”

China Dolls by Lisa See — already reviewed

The Last Days of California by Mary Miller

It’s a great premise — a family trapped in the car together as they drive from Alabama toward California to witness the Rapture, which is scheduled for Saturday. The narrator is a 15 year-old girl, insecure in comparison to her bombshell sister and in search of life’s meaning before it all ends. Religious fervor. Coming of age. Sexual awakening. Family drama. These are all components I love, but it never quite came together.

“Why didn’t I feel things the way others felt them? It wasn’t that I didn’t care about people. It was more like I couldn’t really believe they were real.”

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James – already reviewed

Bark by Lorrie Moore

I really did not like this story collection despite the quality of the writing, which is often brilliant. Once again, I have finished reading Lorrie Moore and wondered why her work does not appeal to me at all. Instead of feeling engaged and satisfied and moved, I feel like I’ve just gotten off a roller coaster. I went for a crazy ride, zig-zagged and looped, but in the end I got nowhere and have a slight headache. I know Moore has passionate fans, some of whom are my good friends, but I saw none of the humor or tenderness or truth they find in her work.

“Rage had its medicinal purposes, but she was not wired to sustain it, and when it tumbled away, loneliness engulfed her, grief burning at the center in a cold blue heat.”

W…W…W…Wednesday

I’ll tell you mine and you tell me yours. Thanks to Miz B at Should Be Reading for hosting.

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?

AmericanahWhat are you currently reading? I am slowly making my start in Americanah. Only 70 pages in after 3 days and I can tell I will need to spend some time with this novel. The writing is great and I already love the two narrators, but it’s dense. The Nigerian names and culture are very unfamiliar to me, so instead of devouring it, as I’ve done with books recently, I’m really trying to absorb it slowly. So far, so good. (I am also slowly making my way through the audio version of The Wife, the Maid and the Mistress — an interesting, based-on-real-life story set in the 20’s. I just haven’t had enough time alone in the car to finish.)

the book of unknown americansWhat did you recently finish reading? I posted a full review of We Are Called to Rise, which is a great book, but I also finished The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez this week. Not sure how I ended up reading a string of books in which immigrants play a major role, but they’ve all been really good. The Book of Unknown Americans is a teenage love story set against the backdrop of an apartment building inhabited by immigrants, all Spanish-speaking, but from many different countries. I like how Henriquez balanced the main story (which has all the makings of great YA) with the short narrations from so many other people. There were times when the book seems to lose its rhythm, but all in all, a really enjoyable read that opened my eyes to the world around me.

The Invention of WingsWhat do you think you’ll read next? I finally picked up a copy of The Invention of Wings. It’s the summer read for the high school where I work and I’ve been wanting to read it since it’s release.  I loved The Secret Life of Bees, but didn’t love The Mermaid’s Chair. I have high hopes for this one.

How about you?

What are your W…W…W… titles?

The Long Arm of Jane Austen

First, a confession: I don’t love Jane Austen.

There, I’ve said it. I know I will get grief (or maybe stunned silence) from all the Austen fans out there. I can appreciate that she has had an amazing literary impact, was ahead and of her time and wrote women well while still admitting I just don’t get the appeal. I love the movies based on her novels but when I sit down and try to make my way through the language and manners, I just can’t do it.

So, it’s with some surprise that I realize I’ve read not one, but two novels recently that were based entirely on Pride and Prejudice. Not as surprising, I liked, but didn’t love, both.

LongbournLongbourn by Jo Baker

It says a lot about me that I didn’t know the Austen connection when I picked up this audiobook because of it’s gorgeous cover. It seemed many of my book-loving friends had been posting about this title. As I listened, the characters sounded familiar, but I never made the connection. I most certainly would have had a deeper appreciation of the story had I realized, but these were my impressions.

A good audio for those of us missing Downton Abbey — same time period, although almost entirely the “downstairs” perspective. It just went on too long. I wanted it to end long before it did. Also, in this case I think I would have preferred Sarah’s first person perspective — the 3rd person kept too much emotional distance between me and the characters. Still, an interesting period piece.

Longbourn is out in paperback this week and would make a good addition to any beach bag.

Death Comes to PemberlyDeath Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

If it weren’t for my monthly book club, I would never have chosen this title, but at least this time I knew what I was getting into. Still, not a complete winner for me.

This is a perfectly fine novel, maybe better than average for Jane Austen fans. Continuing the stories of characters made famous in Pride and Prejudice, P.D. James brings a murder to the Pemberley estate of Mr. & Mrs. Darcy.

I expected more of a who-done-it than I got. But I also didn’t expect to be as engaged as I was. I wish more of the story would have been about Elizabeth. In fact, I don’t think James ever settled on whose story this is. The focus changed often with many extraneous characters getting plot lines. It all felt a little scattered.

It almost seemed liked James was afraid of delving too deeply into Elizabeth or Jane or Lydia. Lydia, in fact, disappears for the entire second half of the book despite her husband’s central role, a fact I found very frustrating. This becomes very much a man’s story.

My Book Club wasn’t a fan of this book either. We met after I wrote my review and I found the Austen fans in the room (quite a few – no surprise) frustrated by the characterizations of their beloved characters.

Unfortunately, neither of these titles inspired me to go back and read the original work, but I can respect that Jane Austen’s influence continues to spark creativity from authors today.

Book Review: Prayers for the Stolen

“The best thing you can be in Mexico is an ugly girl.”

Prayers for the StolenThese are some of the first words of Ladydi Garcia Martinez and they set the tone for this brutal, yet beautiful coming of age novel by Jennifer Clement. Ladydi is a teenager in Guerrero, Mexico, a place where mothers masquerade their daughters as boys, blacken their teeth or rub chili powder on their cheeks, all to disguise their beauty. They dig holes outside their homes for the girls to hide when the SUVs rumble into their barren town.

This is a place where girls are stolen by the drug cartels. This is place where poisonous scorpions and stinging red ants await every step. This is a place where poison can, and does, rain down from the sky. This is a place where the government corruption runs so deep there’s no seeing over the top of it. This is a place where there are no men.

Ladydi’s father has disappeared into the United States along with all the other grown men of their mountainside, but not before sleeping with every woman in town. Ladydi’s mother is a contrast of fierce protectress and debilitating drunk. Her only other adult role models are the “teachers” who pass through the town school to fulfill their social service obligation. Basically, what Ladydi is taught is that she can never hope for happiness.

“Don’t ever pray for love and health, Mother said. Or money. If God hears what you really want he will not give it to you. Guaranteed. When my father left my mother said, get down on your knees and pray for spoons.”

I read this slim novel in one day with my heart in my throat the entire time. It’s not easy to watch the events unfold, but the story is told so well and so beautifully that I didn’t want to stop reading. Clement has created a smart, tenacious and hopeful heroine in Ladydi — no easy accomplishment given the setting in which she is placed.

4 stars