Glad I read: The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing

The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing

“There are small blessings, tiny ones that come unbidden and make a hard day one sigh lighter.”

Good writing is one such blessing. I ordered this book based on my mom’s rave and spent a wonderful few days entranced by Mira Jacob’s wonderful debut novel. It’s the rare book that continues to get better as it goes on, but in this case I couldn’t put the story down once I was into the second half.

The plot is nothing remarkably new. Amina is a thirty-something who has to return home to deal with a sick parent. Of course her family is fractured, with buried secrets, tragedy and misunderstandings; but on top of the predictable, Jacobs layers an Indian immigrant’s story. Then, she goes a step further, through Amina’s career as a photographer, to highlight the ideas of isolation and belongingness. Without being overwrought or sappy, she breathes life into this family and into her themes in a compelling way.

“It wasn’t that she doubted their love or intentions, but the weight of that love would be no small thing.”

I understood Amina, but more importantly, I liked her. And I adored all the surrounding characters, especially her parents.  They start out as the typical stereotypes of overbearing mother and ambitious professional father, but their stories evolve to become complex and emotionally touching.

“Why is it that fathers so often ensure the outcome they are trying to avoid? Is their need to dominate so much stronger than their instinct to protect? Did Thomas know, Amina wondered as she watched him, that he had just done the human equivalent of a lion sinking his teeth into his own cub?”

Amina’s relationship with her parents held special resonance for me as they faced many quality-of-life decisions. What is real? What is right? Who controls the outcome? All of these questions (and more) come to play in very honest ways, bringing me to tears on several occasions.

Across the board, Jacobs does a terrific job of fleshing out every character she introduces, admirable given the fact that this novel stretches almost 500 pages, three decades and two continents. As the story comes to its beautiful ending, I found myself completely satisfied.

Highly recommend.

Read alikes:

The Lowland

The Namesake

Sister of My Heart

And the Mountains Echoed

Anatomy of a Disappearance

Paperback Pick – The Color Master

I saw in the New York Times that Aimee Bender’s latest masterpiece is now out in paperback, perfect for summertime beach bags.

The Color MasterThe Color Master

Aimee Bender

Aimee Bender’s collection of stories satisfied all my desires. Powerful, dark, magical, engaging and filled with unforgettable images.

Not surprisingly, I was most moved by the stories containing magical realism, especially “The Color Master,” “The Devourings,” and “Appleless.” Bender has an amazing ability to immerse readers in an alternate universe while making it seem all too real. These stories touch me emotionally and their “truths” are more real to me than a story set in my own backyard.

“And in it all, the sensation of shaking my fists at the sky, shaking my fists high up to the sky, because that is what we do when someone dies too early, too beautiful, too undervalued by the world, or sometimes just at all — we shake our fists at the big, beautiful, indifferent sky, and the anger is righteous and strong and helpless and huge. I shook and I shook, and I put all of it into the dress.”

I was pleasantly surprised that her more realistic tales held the same kind of resonance for me. “The Red Ribbon,” “The Fake Nazi” and “The Doctor and the Rabbi” are excellent examples of short stories that stand alone as full-bodied, if incredibly lonely, works of fiction.

“It is so often surprising, who rescues you at your lowest moments.”

I’ve determined that I will pretty much follow Aimee Benderwherever she goes. Immensely satisfying.

For more of my Aimee Bender love, read:

My review of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and Food for Literary Thought.


Thursday Flashback — World Book Night

Yesterday I received the official notice that I have been chosen to be a World Book Night Giver. With hundreds of thousands of other people, I will be part of an effort to give away a million books to light or non-readers. Once again I will work with my wonderful friends and I have been so heartened to hear from other readers on Goodreads that they too have signed on to be part of the fun this year.

I went in search of what I wrote about last year’s event as I look forward to making this year even better (perhaps without my youngest son in tow this time.)

Are any of you givers this year?

Originally published April 24, 2012

So I participated in the first-time-in-America World Book Night last night. As with many things in my life, it didn’t go according to plan.

Way back when (6 months ago), I stumbled across a Facebook post about World Book Night in the UK. When I followed the link, I saw it was coming to the US in 2012. I love books. I love promoting books. I wanted to be a part of something bigger. I signed up for the newsletter.

When it came time to actually register and request books, I faltered. Once again, the idea of this was more appealing than actually committing to the follow-through.

Choosing titles to give away was no problem, but writing about a place I’d go and why I wanted to do this was a little harder. I’m a curl up on the couch and share my book love with like-minded people kind of girl. The thought of seeking out a place where I could find light or reluctant readers scared me. But I did it.

First paperback edition book cover

First paperback edition book cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then I was chosen and I had to move beyond my comfort zone. I had a plan. I would go to the train station and just smile and offer my book, The Kite Runner, to strangers. Gulp.

As the date approached, I turned again and again to the virtual world for courage. I followed @wbnamerica on Twitter and “met” thousands of other people giving away books. I promoted World Book Night on Facebook and received loads of encouragement from friends and family. Ultimately, I connected with real-life friends and revised my work-alone plan.

Feeling better about a group of us working together with several titles, I wore my button, passed out stickers and packed my box. Then real life interfered with my best-laid plans. My husband could not get home in time for me to meet up with my friends. Sigh.

I could have used this as a reason to not interact with strangers, but I surprised myself by adapting quickly. I brought my youngest son along for the “fun.” He was none to pleased about being taken away from his backyard soccer game to “sell” books, but he had no choice. I explained how much this worldwide event meant to me and he agreed to help.

In the end, we had a blast walking up to strangers, talking up our titles and seeing people walk away with a new book. After a slow start, and quite a few skeptical looks, one train’s worth of commuters cleared out most of our books. My son was cute and charming and more than willing to run back to the box to refresh our armloads of books. I felt like part of a much broader community as I followed the experiences of givers across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Now that it is over, I can forever claim being one of the first in America. And, so can my youngest son. I like that.

Some of my favorite #wbnamerica tweets:

Stacey Mason ‏ @StaceyLMason

“Sometimes we need books. And sometimes books need us.” Perhaps half a million free books started a new conversation last night @wbnamerica

Martha Kiley ‏ @MarthaKiley

Gave Bel Canto to a bartender, barista, counter girl, pizza guy, new moms, dog walkers and a butcher. Great night! #wbnamerica

The Book Shepherd ‏ @mybookshepherd

Yesterday was World Book Night-continue it and donate books to those who will open them and fall lin for the love of the word.#wbnamerica

Gabe Eggerling @saysgabe: I have always been told it’s a Gift to receive a book, but thanks to @wbnamerica I can say it’s also a Gift to give a book!!


My box of WBN books


Proud book-nerds ready to talk to commuters.


My youngest son with an armful of The Hunger Games. Ready and willing.

Paperback Pick

Just going to show that books are just as good in paperback, here are a few of my picks for your weekend reading.

A Land More Kind than Home

A Land More Kind Than HomeWiley Cash

One of the best books I read in 2012 is now in paperback! Rural, religious zeal, coming of age, mystery — this book has it all.

From my 5 star review

Wiley Cash did not so much ease me into the disturbing world of his novel, as grip me by the throat and pull me along…The Appalachian mountains come alive through his descriptions. The characters’ voices practically sing off the page.

Cover image from Goodreads

Cover image from Goodreads


Tupelo Hassman

Another 5 star review of another harrowing book.

To love Girlchild as much as I did, you have to be willing to understand “raw.” Tupelo Hassman does not shy away from the anger, bitterness or shame that go with the broken down territory.

I am currently reading two books in paperback edition

Finally getting around to reading The Catcher in the Rye, which I’m liking not loving…

and one of absolute favorite books, which I am rereading (and enjoying even more the second time around), The Family Fang, by the uber-talented Kevin Wilson. This was another 5-star review.

The Catcher in the Rye

Book cover from Goodreads

Book cover from Goodreads

What are your weekend picks?

Happy reading.

Top Ten Tuesday: Which posts best reflect me?

Way back in August, I saw a meme on BookSpeakVolumes which I always meant to try. So, on the first Tuesday of the new year, I offer my own Top Ten. (And I thank Leah for the inspiration, even though it took me months to use it.)

top ten tuesday

Which 10 posts best reflect my blog? I’ve tried to combine personal favorites plus those that struck a chord with readers. Surprisingly, they aren’t primarily book/review related. The ones that stick are those that reflect my real life outside of books. Go figure.

1. Love and Guacamole ~ March 22, 2012

One of my first WordPress posts, it remains one of my favorites. It reflects my love of family and tradition. Plus, my Lita made the best guacamole ever and I provide the recipe.

2. World Book Night with a little help from my son ~ April 24, 2012

In one post I was able to combine so many passions — my sons, books, sharing my opinions about books, photography and Twitter. Really, it’s a doozy.

3. Goodbye Dad ~ September 17, 2012

Opening up about my father’s illness and death was a natural part of grieving for me. I am still so grateful for the love and prayers I received in response to this post.

4. I said “yes.” Now what? ~ May 23, 2012

I laid my insecurities bare and felt the immediate love of the blogging community. As my life took a sharp, blind turn, I was consoled by my ability to write as a way to process fear.

5. Monday Quote: Say Yes ~ May 7, 2012

Somewhat related to the above, I really enjoyed the few months when I always started my week with a quote from literature and personal reflection. This was one of my favorites.

6. Monday Quote: Resilience ~ July 16, 2012

First and foremost, I am a mom. I make a conscious effort not to write “too much” about my boys (for both their sakes and mine), but when I do write about them, it always turns out well.

7. Secret Relief ~ March 29, 2012

And then there’s mom-guilt, always a great topic for a blog post. This is one of those posts that touched a nerve with other people. I think we’ve all been here as parents.


My favorite book reviews of the year  round out my list. These are the cases where I really took my time to provide a thoughtful and intriguing review.

8. Girlchild sparks a raw memory ~ July 7, 2012

9. The Best Book I’ve Read All Year – Tell the Wolves I’m Home ~ November 19, 2012

10. Just as great the second time: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake ~ June 20, 2012


It was amazingly difficult to choose 10 posts that best reflect Alena’s life. How’d I do?

Jonathan Tropper – a review and a meeting

Jonathan Tropper has rescued loser middle-aged white men as lead characters for me. After basically writing off any more books about whiny men (The Ask, Freedom, A Hologram for the King), my last two Tropper reads have reminded me that these men are not without redemption.

His latest novel, One Last Thing Before I Go, tells the story of Silver. (Silver has a last name, but no one used it. Everyone, including his daughter, just calls him Silver. Not Gold, not Bronze, just middle of the road Silver.) Still reeling from his days as a one-hit-wonder drummer in the Bent Daisies, Silver’s life is a downward spiral of divorce, drink and the occasional one night stand. Then his estranged daughter shows up pregnant.

Amidst all of this and driving the plot forward, Silver discovers he is “living” with a torn aorta that’s causing strokes and mini blood clots to swirl around. This condition causes him to speak all of his thoughts out loud, much to the chagrin of the people he’s with. No filter. He declines the life-saving surgery, leading to the book’s many scenes of friends, family and foes trying to convince him to save his own life.

If this all sounds a bit contrived, it is. But in Tropper’s hands it’s also brilliant and funny and heartbreaking. Once again, his characters are so complex and lifelike that I can’t help but root for them. Far-fetched scenarios seemed completely believable because Tropper invests those moments with sincerity and a great deal of wit.

He always felt this way around distressed women, that there’s something they’re waiting for him to say, and if he could figure out what that is, he could soothe the thing in them that needs to be soothed…he always believed that if, just once, someone had given him this vital piece of information, his entire life would have shaken out differently.”

This book is, quite simply, a great read – one of those novels I never want to put down. And, I certainly didn’t want it to end. But, once it did, I gave a rare “Hooray” for an author choosing a brave, smart ending that trusts his readers to figure the rest out on our own. Loved it.

Full disclosure: I read this book a week after meeting the author at a book reading. I’d been following @jtropper on Twitter and saw that he was going to be at Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville so my mom and I made the last-minute decision to go see him.

Not being the type of person who normally does things like that, I did not know what to expect. What I found was exactly the man I would have expected to write This is Where I Leave You. Tropper is smart and funny, somewhat foul-mouthed, brutally honest and adoring of his family. He was self-deprecating at times, but unafraid to state his opinions.

He skewered Random House, admitting he basically found working with them so intolerable that he paid the publishing house to get out of writing another book for them. (He is now published by Dutton, a seemingly much happier arrangement.) He also admits he wrote his first book Plan B, just to prove he could follow a formula and get a book published. He definitely does not recommend it – and wishes instead that he could “unwrite” Plan B.

I just did not expect an author trying to sell his books to be so forthright about the industry. I should have. Tropper speaks the way he writes. I would go see him again in a heartbeat.

My Ann Patchett Project: The Magician’s Assistant

Could I be tiring of Ann Patchett? Or could it be that The Magician’s Assistant just doesn’t live up to the magic of Patchett’s other books?

Determined to read all of Ann Patchett’s books during 2012, I never thought to read them in order of publication. I went into this project already loving State of Wonder and Bel Canto. These are high benchmarks to be sure. It’s no wonder that her early work doesn’t reach the standard of these two later titles, but this particular book almost feels as if it were written by someone else.

The Magician’s Assistant is the story of Sabine, left adrift after the death of her beloved Parsifal, the Magician. Parsifal was in fact her husband, despite the fact that he was gay and desperately in love with (and later grieving for) is life partner, Phan. After Parsifal’s death, Sabine discovers that the family he told her was dead and gone is very much alive and they want to meet her. She ends up moving in with them in Alliance, Nebraska, where she uncovers the truths of Parsifal’s childhood and the damaged people left behind.

Does it sound melodramatic? It is.

But, and this is a big but, Patchett is a good writer. Despite episodes of histrionics, she keeps the plot and characters on this side of reality. In some ways the book feels dated, very much the product of the 1990s. On the other hand, Sabine feels very real to me. I understand her grief and her need to live among Parsifal’s childhood possessions, as if meeting him anew.

But the plot developments once Sabine is in Nebraska felt forced. I just wasn’t buying the actions of Sabine or Parsifal’s family. And, surprisingly, I never felt anchored to that location. Whereas Patchett normally excels in her descriptions of setting, I could never really get anything but snow from the second half of the novel.

I have to say this is my least favorite of all the Patchett I’ve read. I’m glad it wasn’t my first novel of hers.

More posts from my Ann Patchett Project:

Teaser Tuesday: The Next Best Thing

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. I actually discovered the idea on one of my favorite blogs, Up All Night Reading.

Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

Grab your current read.
Open to a random page.
Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page.
BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

This week’s teaser is from Jennifer Weiner‘s latest, The Next Best Thing. Even though I’ve only begun reading, I see another familiar Weiner Chick Lit. That’s not a criticism by the way. Reading her books feels like wrapping myself in a fuzzy bathrobe. No challenge, not exactly flattering, but really comfortable.

“The next morning, I woke up with the sun and looked around the wreckage of my room, the piles of unwashed clothes, the streaked mirror, the dusty hardwood floors, the boxes of scripts and memos and printed out e-mails from Rob that I’d hauled from The Girls’ Room‘s office. My cotton nightshirt was stuck to my chest, either with sweat or with tears, and my hair hung in chlorine-smelling clumps against my face. You can do this, I told myself, and swung my legs out of bed, first the right one, then the left, feeling the hooked wool rug beneath my feet, the one my grandmother had worked on in a series of doctors’ offices and hospital waiting rooms during my surgeries when I was a girl. I had survived all of that. I would survive this too.”

Perfect for an easy summer read.

Children’s voices telling adult stories

I’m the first to admit that I’m a sucker for a charming narrator, especially when that narrator is young, trapped in impossible circumstances, and wise beyond his/her years. This all started when I was young, in pretty decent circumstances and not at all wise. I fell in love with Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird and Francie Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (novel)

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (novel) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Those voices never left me. Since then, I’ve added countless others – boys and girls who inspire, charm, and generally break my heart. I marvel when an author can so perfectly capture the voice and tone of a child or a teenager (as I am equally frustrated by authors who try and fail to find that thin line between naiveté and cynicism.) I wanted to wrap Scotty Ocean up and bring him home with me when I read An Ocean in Iowa.  Rose Edelstein’s warmth and charm anchor one of my all-time favorite books, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. And I will never forget the brilliant 12 year-old mapmaker T. S. Spivet, the heart of one of the most unusual books I’ve ever read (The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet).

All of these characters captured my heart. But now there seems to be a new crop of young narrators telling absolutely horrific stories, intent on breaking my heart into a million pieces. I noticed it first in the uproar surrounding Emma Donaghue’s Room, a story of kidnap and abuse told completely through the voice of 5 year-old Jack. I heard from several people that they found the child’s POV difficult and a bit creepy, but I bought it completely. For me, the unusual perspective elevated the novel from good writing to an outstanding book.

When I tell her what I’m thinking and she tells me what she’s thinking, our each ideas jumping into the other’s head, like coloring blue crayon on top of yellow that makes green.”

Likewise, Girlchild is a story that can only be told in the first-person perspective. Rory Dawn suffers the kind of mistreatment and abuse that turn readers stomachs, but her voice is so honest and determined that I couldn’t put the book down.

I haven’t found a mirror yet that doesn’t reflect the curves of the Calle back at me, my dirty ways, my fragile teeth and bad skin, my hands that won’t stop picking at themselves.”

cover image from Goodreads

This week, I’ve added a new voice.  Admittedly it took a while for me to get into the groove of Stephen Kelman’s Man Booker Prize nominated Pigeon English. Kelman turns vocabulary and syntax completely upside down in order to capture the mixed-up world of young African immigrant Harri Opuku.

I put my alligator tooth down the rubbish pipe. I heard it fall down to the bottom and disappear. It was an offering for the volcano god. It was a present for God himself. If I gave him my best good luck then he’d save us from all the bad things, the sickness and chooking and dead babies, he’d bring us all back together again. He’d have to or it wouldn’t be fair. It was a good swap, nobody could say it wasn’t.”

Again, Harri is trapped in poverty and violence, especially considering the dead body that opens the book. But he is an innocent. He finds beauty in the rubbish of his life. Once I caught the rhythm and lyricism in his broken language, I was a goner.

If Agnes dies I’ll just swap places with her. She can have my life. I’ll give it to her and I’ll die instead. I wouldn’t mind because I’ve already lived for a long time. Agnes has only lived for one year and some. I hope God lets me. I don’t mind going to Heaven early. If he wants me to swap places, I will.”

I love Harri for his courage, his uncomplicated bargains and his pure heart.

None of these books are easy reads. They don’t wrap up in tidy little bows. Instead, they open up worlds which I hope my own children never have to face. In fact I ask myself if I am allowing myself to be manipulated by this style. Are these authors trading in on the inherent sympathy readers have for the innocent? Maybe.

Regardless, it’s a style I love and will continue to seek out. I’d love to hear your suggestions.

Gone Girl is a perfect thrill

cover image from Goodreads

I find it difficult to review this book without giving the whole thing away. Any spoilers would ruin this brilliantly crafted novel by literary “It Girl” Gillian Flynn. So let me say instead that Flynn has forced me to completely re-examine my belief that I’m not a fan of thrillers.

What starts out as a straightforward premise – woman goes missing on her 5th wedding anniversary; husband is primary suspect – twists and turns in so many directions that I was left guessing, often. The author’s decision to move both forward and backward in time through diary entries and the current investigation, constantly switching perspectives, serve to keep readers on our toes.

Flynn investigates the bonds of marriage, obsession and identity in the modern world. She uses language to expertly pull her characters apart and put them back together.

It’s a very difficult era in which to be a person, just a real, actual person, instead of a collection of personality traits selected from an endless amount of characters.”

The primary characters are both out-of-work writers, which, again, compounds the mystery of who they really are. Flynn evokes just enough of my sympathy to keep them from being completely unlikable, but still does not pull any punches when it comes to their faults. So in the end, I found them both painfully real.

Writers (my kind of writers: aspiring novelists, ruminative thinkers, people whose brains don’t work quick enough to blog or link or tweet, basically old stubborn blowhards) were through. We were like women’s hat makers or buggy-whip manufacturers: Our time was done.”

Again, without spoiling anything, I will say that I found the ending spot-on perfection. It was as sick and twisted as the rest of the novel.

Gone Girl is such a satisfying thrill. I will certainly seek out more work by Gillian Flynn.