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

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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!!

20120424-091233.jpg

My box of WBN books

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Proud book-nerds ready to talk to commuters.

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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

Girlchild

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:

https://alenaslife.wordpress.com/2012/06/05/my-ann-patchett-project-truth-and-beauty/

https://alenaslife.wordpress.com/2012/04/03/ann-patchett-one-of-times-most-influentional-people/

https://alenaslife.wordpress.com/2012/03/31/the-patron-saint-of-liars-ann-patchetts-first-novel/

https://alenaslife.wordpress.com/2012/05/08/revisiting-state-of-wonder-in-celebration-of-todays-paperback-release/