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

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

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.”

Book Review: We Are Called to Rise

We Are Called to RiseEach of the characters in Laura McBride’s devastatingly beautiful debut novel has to face personal tragedy. Avis is the “bastard daughter of a teenage hitchhiker” facing the dissolution of her marriage and the crumbling of her son’s sanity. Bashkim is a young immigrant Albanian trying to behave perfectly to not upset the delicate balance in his home when several traumatic events occur. Luis is a messed up veteran, struggling to recover from a suicide attempt and digging his way through PTSD. Roberta is a volunteer children’s advocate who’s seen the worst of abuse, homelessness and helplessness.

What’s so brilliant about Laura McBride’s writing and story-telling is that this always remains a hopeful, even uplifting novel. I found myself reading with tears in my eyes several times, but was carried along by my confidence that these great characters would overcome. As the novel’s title implies, these are people called to rise up with courage in the face of great odds.

“If you wait too long to figure that out, to figure out that we are the ones making the world, we are the ones to whom all the problems — and all the possibilities for grace — now fall, then you lose everything. Your only shot at this world.

I get that this one small life is all we have for whatever it is that we are going to do. And I want in.”

I love the balance of failure and grace which underlies the story. I, too, wanted in. Most books with this much courage & goodness set in desolate circumstances make me feel manipulated by easy answers and untrue characters. McBride avoids falling into that trap, crafting four distinct voices for her narrators, each of which rings complex and true. While my heart broke wide open for young Bashkim, I identified most strongly with Avis.

“I don’t know what I’m doing. I never knew what I was doing. I just jumped in and tried, no manual, I tried as hard as I could, and for the second time in my son’s life, I missed the important cue.”

McBride slowly lets out the strings of each individual story before bringing them together in somewhat surprising ways, building the pace and drama of the book perfectly. I would have liked to have known Roberta a bit better. Her primary function seems to be to bring the pieces of the story together, as opposed to having her own journey, but that’s a minor complaint in the scope of the novel.

I appreciate that McBride also gave me a glimpse of Las Vegas I have never seen. I’ve only ever thought of Vegas as a place people pass through, not a community of families and friends and immigrants. While I wouldn’t describe it as a book about Las Vegas, the city’s boom-town nature certainly plays a role in the plot.

“Yes, Vegas children fight America’s wars. These most American, least American of children, the children of the nation’s brightest hidden city: the city that is an embarrassing tic, a secret shame, a giddy relief, a knowing wink.”

The only thing keeping this novel from a 5-star rating for me is McBride’s tendency to over-write her characters beliefs and intentions toward the end of the novel. It’s as if she didn’t trust me, the reader, to understand their inner fears and beliefs so she delves into inner monologues (especially for Roberta and Luis) which disrupted the flow of the book. I suspect this is the insecurity of a first-time novelist, unsure that the author’s message hasn’t come through organically.

Still, I never wanted to put this book down and I know I will keep these characters close to my heart for a while to come. I have no reservations about highly recommending this book.

Book Review: My Year of Meats – 5 stars

My Year of MeatsRuth Ozeki writes with such precision and honesty that I found myself walking alongside her main character Jane Tagaki-Little, completely immersed in the story rather than viewing it objectively. I had to keep reminding myself that this was Ozeki’s first novel, because it’s so fully formed and well-written.

Jane is a documentary maker who lands a job producing a television series for Japanese housewives called “The American Housewife” sponsored by the US Beef Conglomerate. She travels the country in search of families who exhibit American wholesomeness and values and can also provide a tasty meat recipe. (It’s really a great premise.) Across the world, Akiko is a bulimic Japanese housewife, watching and being moved by these shows. Opening each chapter are the words and poetry of a 1st Century female writer Sei Shonagon.

Given the alternating viewpoints, the mix of verse and prose, the author’s tendency to switch from first person to third person and a jumble of faxes thrown in, this could have been a hot mess of a book. Instead, it’s a work of art.

Both of these women are on a journey to find themselves which provides the emotional backbone for the novel. Akiko’s story seems to unfold in real time while Jane is writing with some self-awareness as she is looking back on “My Year of Meats.”

“It changed my life. You know when that happens — when something rocks your world, and nothing is ever the same after?”

While Jane’s assignment starts out as just a job, she grows immersed in the lives of the families she chooses to profile. She struggles to balance her desire to tell the truth with her need to serve her client, the show’s BEEF-EX sponsor, personified by Akiko’s husband. As she delves into “meaty” stories, she uncovers disturbing truths about the meat industry, which lends a very disturbing (almost sickening) undertone to the novel.

Ozeki clearly points out in the author’s note that this is a work of fiction, but it feels very much like the truth, complete with bibliography and footnotes. Issues of hormones, fertility, abuse, agriculture and culture all come to the forefront, but Ozeki resists the urge to preach.

“I chose to ignore what I knew. Ignorance. In this root sense, ignorance is an act of will, a choice that one makes over and over again, especially when information overwhelms and knowledge had become synonymous with impotence.”

Ozeki takes this novel from sharp-witted and playful to emotional and honest seamlessly. Her writing shines in the descriptions of each of the families Jane profiles, adding layers of richness to the main story.

“Each sojourn into the heartland had its own viscosity – a total submersion into a strange new element – and for the duration, the parameters of my own world would collapse, sucked like a vacuum pack around the shapes of the families and the configurations of their lives.”

This is my second Ozeki read. Last year I fell in love with A Tale for the Time Being. I will now actively seek her out. I am officially a super-fan.

Highly Recommend.

5 stars for The Enchanted

 

Cover image from Goodreads

Cover image from Goodreads

I had no sooner closed the back cover on this astonishing novel than I wanted to flip right back to the beginning and start again.  In fact, I finished this book in one day because I simply could not put it down. From the very first page:


“I see every cinder block, every hallway and doorway…I see the chamber where the cloudy medical vines snake across the floor…I see where the small men hide with their tiny hammers, and how the flibber-gibbets dance while the oven slowly ticks.”

I knew I was hooked.

Denfeld so deftly balances the horrors of Death Row with lyrical storytelling that I often found myself breathless. How did she create something so beautiful out of people and situations so ugly? 

Most of the book is told from the perspective of an inmate who remains nameless until the end. This anonymity and mystery surrounding his story (apart from his guilt) allows the author to interweave other stories without any sense of judgement.

“York knows the truth doesn’t matter in here. Inside, the lies you tell become the person you become. On the outside, sun and reality shrink people back to their actual size. In here, people grow into their shadows.”

Our other nameless narrator is “The Lady” trying to gather evidence to commute a prisoner’s death sentence. Her deep issues and personal back stories come to light slowly, complicating an already complicated quandary. All of this propels the plot.

But what’s even more brilliant than the storytelling is the way Denfeld digs in to the environment of Death Row. Without preaching or excusing or solving, she lays bare this enchanted place in a way that broke my heart. I was captivated by the idea that some of these characters have seen the flight of their own souls.

“My soul left me when I was six. It flew away past a curtain over a window. I ran after it, but it never came back. It left me alone on a wet stinking mattress. It left me alone in the choking dark. It took my tongue, my heart, and my mind.”

Once the soul has flown, there’s nothing to stop the bad thoughts from taking over.

Warning: this novel contains almost unbearable scenes of violence, often against children, but the pain is worth the price of reading.

Brilliant.

 

For more thoughtful critiques of this brilliant debut, I encourage you to visit:

Worn Pages and Ink

The Writes of Woman

lauriesnottheworst

Four stars for The Light Between Oceans

 

Sometimes a book will just take me in its arms and carry me away. That’s how I feel about The Light Between Oceans. I really felt carried away by this story of love and heartbreak on an island of Australia’s coast.Split Point Lighthouse, Aireys Inlet, Victoria...

“There are times when the ocean is not the ocean – not blue, not even water, but some violent explosion of energy and danger: ferocity on a scale only gods can summon…And the sound is the roaring of a beast whose anger knows no limits. Those are the nights the light is needs most.”

Tom is a veteran of World War I, described by others (never by himself) as a hero, who signs on to be a lighthouse keeper. He craves the solitude, the exactitude, the rules inherent in months on Janus with a single task to occupy him. Of course, while on leave, he falls in love, and despite his better judgment, marries Isabelle, a mainlander, and attempts to open his heart to happiness and family on Janus.

I have to admit, this is not the sort of premise that would normally engage my interest, so I’m grateful to the friends and Goodreads community members who raved about this novel. M.L. Stedman transforms what could have been a typical romance into a story of moral complexity and inner turmoil. In Tom we meet a man who is torn apart struggling between his honest nature and his desire to do right by Isabelle. We know he has witnessed untold horror in the war and considers himself unworthy of happiness and yet his basic goodness makes him an ideal hero.

“You could kill a bloke with rules, Tom knew that. And yet sometimes they were what stood between man and monsters….At night, Tom began to dream he was drowning, flinging his arms and legs desperately to find ground somewhere, but there was nothing to stand on, nothing to hold him afloat except a mermaid…”

What surprised me was how interesting Stedman makes the island and the lighthouse. The lighthouse becomes an extended metaphor for the underlying hope in this book. Her descriptions of life on Janus, the care of the light and the larger ideas of what that beacon represents for others are what elevate this book from good story to great novel.

Plus, to my eternal gratitude, she doesn’t make it easy or neat. It’s the kind of book you want to read in a cozy spot, wrapped in a blanket, with a box of tissues handy.

“He turned his attention to the rotation of the beam, and gave a bitter laugh at the thought that the dip of the light means that the island itself was always left in darkness. A lighthouse is for others; powerless to illuminate the space closest to it.”

While writing this review, I kept hearing Jon Troast‘s song, With a Smile Like That. I couldn’t find video, but here are the lyrics and, if you don’t know his music, I encourage you to give him a listen.