Glad I Read: The Free by Willy Vlautin

The FreeIn this heartbreaking novel, Willy Vlautin offers up the delicate balance of beauty and sadness. The three main characters are not exactly intertwined, more like tangentially connected in the way all lives touch upon similar struggles and experiences.

Leroy, Freddie and Pauline are all struggling to stay afloat, to break free to overcome their demons – emotional, spiritual and physical. Vlautin does a wonderful job of presenting their circumstances and strengths even in light of their challenges.

“The first thing I learned is that you can be and do whatever you want. You just have to get up each morning and try to get there.”

Most of the writing is straightforward, almost like an essay designed to tug at our heartstrings. I appreciated how the author let me come to know Freddie and Pauline slowly and honestly. But, then there’s Leroy, the injured Iraq war vet, struggling with a debilitating brain injury. His opening scenes are dramatic and terrifically compelling. Then, most of his story is told as a semi sci-fi story taking place in his fractured mind. While I admire the writing skills in this approach, it severed some of the emotional connection for me. I found myself glancing ahead to see how many of these pages I had to get through until I returned to what, for me, was the “real” story.

Overall, I loved how much I came to care about these characters and their journeys. I rooted for them and cried for them. I felt how easily our lives can slip beyond our grasp. I practically clapped at the ending, which trusts readers to form their own conclusions.

Without melodrama, he tells a compelling story, one that could be mine or my neighbor’s. Recommend.

Read alikes
We Are Called to Rise
The Facades
We Live in Water
The Burgess Boys

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

Very Glad I Read: The Stone Diaries

The Stone DiariesA true case of better late than never, I am so glad I finally read this book. It’s both epic and humble, quiet and bold, a true masterpiece in both content and style.

We meet Daisy the moment she is born in 1905 and follow her life until it ends sometime in the 1990’s. The book reads almost like an in-depth memoir, except that other perspectives (or versions of Daisy’s story) keep breaking into the narrative. Shields also chooses the third person, even when we are reading Daisy’s thoughts, which keeps just the right amount of distance between the reader and the characters.

Without being any sort of feminist track, the book is very much a woman’s story of the 20th century. For the most part Daisy takes the “traditional” path, but that doesn’t mean her life is without drama. “Orphaned” at birth, shuffled from Canada to the United States, widowed early and long-lived, Daisy faces each phase of her life searching to fill the void of her inner loneliness.

“We accept, as a cosmic joke, the separate ways of men and women, their different levels of foolishness…Men, it seemed to me in those days, were uniquely honored by their stories that erupted in their lives, whereas women were more likely to be smothered by theirs.”

Shields has such a light writing hand, I felt more like I was peeking in on Daisy’s life even though I was fully immersed in every thought and action. That’s a tricky balance and Shields handles it beautifully.

“In the middle of writing a check she forgets the month, then the year. She’s gaga, a loon, she’s sprung a leak, her brain matter is falling out like the gray fluff from mailing envelopes, it’s getting all over her furniture.”

This is my second Shields novel, and again I am reminded how sad it is that her life was cut far too short by cancer.

Read alikes:

Olive Kitteridge

Unless

Cover image uploaded from Goodreads

Dusting off the Bookshelf – September edition

I did it! I followed through with my August challenge and read one of the many titles lingering on my To-Read shelf.

Loved, loved, loved The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews! So now I’m ready to tackle another title for September. 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.

My September is actually off to a good oldie start, as I’m deep in The Stone Diaries, which I’ve wanted to read ever since discovering Carol Shields through Unless.

Many thanks to Chels & a BookIt’s All About Books and  Books & Cleverness for their never-ending inspiration.

For September 2014, my choices are:

How the Garcia GirlsHow the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez. Added to my shelf June, 2011 (published in 1991). Alvarez is one of those authors I know I should have read but haven’t. Not sure why…it’s just never come to pass. I’m also not sure if I should start with this one or with In the Time of the Butterflies (also on my bookshelf).

Goodreads describes it: Uprooted from their family home in the Dominican Republic, the four Garcia sisters – Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofia – arrive in New York City in 1960 to find a life far different from the genteel existence of maids, manicures, and extended family they left behind. What they have lost – and what they find – is revealed in the fifteen interconnected stories that make up this exquisite novel from one of the premier novelists of our time.

The God of Small ThingsThe God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. Added to my shelf August, 2011 (published in 1997). Everyone, and I mean everyone, assumes I have already read this modern classic, but I have not. I need to.

Goodreads describes it: The year is 1969. In the state of Kerala, on the southernmost tip of India, fraternal twins Esthappen and Rahel fashion a childhood for themselves in the shade of the wreck that is their family. Their lonely, lovely mother, Ammu, (who loves by night the man her children love by day), fled an abusive marriage to live with their blind grandmother, Mammachi (who plays Handel on her violin), their beloved uncle Chacko (Rhodes scholar, pickle baron, radical Marxist, bottom-pincher), and their enemy, Baby Kochamma (ex-nun and incumbent grandaunt). When Chacko’s English ex-wife brings their daughter for a Christmas visit, the twins learn that Things Can Change in a Day. That lives can twist into new, ugly shapes, even cease forever, beside their river….

The Art of FieldingThe Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. Added to my shelf in September, 2011 (published in 2011). I love baseball. I love good writing. This seems like a natural.

Goodreads describes it: At Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for big league stardom. But when a routine throw goes disastrously off course, the fates of five people are upended…Written with boundless intelligence and filled with the tenderness of youth, The Art of Fielding is an expansive, warmhearted novel about ambition and its limits, about family and friendship and love, and about commitment—to oneself and to others.

Any advice about what I should choose for September?

 

*All cover images uploaded from Goodreads

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

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.

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.”