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

Glad I Read: My Salinger Year

My Salinger YearSometimes a book just picks me up in its pretty arms and carries me away for a while. Such was the case here. Joanna Rakoff picked me up and deposited me in a sort of timeless world where books and writing matter more than anything else. This is the year Rakoff accidentally fell into a job at a literary agency – a place stuck in the early 60’s despite a calendar which read 1996, a place where the obsessive reclusiveness of J.D. Salinger controlled behavior, a place where a young woman could discover her passion.

This is just the kind of memoir I love to read because I recognize so much of myself in Rakoff – the yearning, the confusion, the inability to take action when she should. Mostly, I recognize a kindred spirit in terms of book love. Along with her, I lament her boss’ inability to “get books.”

“She’d never spent entire days lying on her bed reading, entire nights making up complicated stories in her head. She’d not dreamed of willing herself into Anne of Green Gables and Jane Eyre so that she might have real friends, friends who understood her thorny desires and dreams. How could she spend her days—her life—ushering books into publication but not love them in the way that I did, the way that they needed to be loved?”

I love this idea that books need to be loved to fully come alive. I concur. It’s not what this memoir is about but it’s the background idea that drew me in and kept me engaged. Ironically, what pushed me away is that the book becomes more and more about Salinger and Salinger’s writing the longer it goes on. I’m just not in the Salinger Fan Club, so I automatically took an emotional step back just at the time I should have succumbed completely to the story.

But, really, it’s not much of a complaint. Rakoff is engaging and intelligent enough that even I could set aside my personal opinion to appreciate what she is writing. And, I love her retelling of her limited interactions with the man himself.

“Writing makes you a writer,” he’d told me. “If you get up every morning and write, then you’re a writer. Publishing doesn’t make you a writer. That’s just commerce.”

Ultimately a very satisfying memoir and one I won’t soon forget.

Read alikes
The Catcher in the Rye
Rules of Civility
Lit
Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading

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

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.”

Notes from Ann Patchett: Planning Ahead

In case you don’t yet know me well, I LOVE Ann Patchett. I’ve read all of her books, reviewed all her books, hand-pressed copies into people’s hands and generally swooned over her very being.

My husband and I have talked about a trip to Nashville and truly, my primary reason for wanting to go is the chance to visit Parnassus Books. Whether or not Ann is there, I want to step into her space and financially support her endeavor.

Anyway, that’s all an introduction into why I’m sharing Ann’s latest post on the Bookstore’s blog, Musing, which, by the way, I also follow.

Ann writes about the books that excite her, new releases, author interactions — you know, all the great stuff I’d hear if I were her real-life friend and not just a cyber-groupie.

In Notes from Ann: Planning Ahead, Ann not only gets me excited about some fall releases but reveals that she and I share an intense love for Colum McCann’s novel, Let the Great World Spin. (Swoon again.)

Notes from Ann: Planning Ahead

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?