January books — 2013 off to a strong start

Not only is my 2013 off to a very quick start (I’ll never be able to keep up the 10 book/month pace), it’s off to a good one. Of the 10 books I completed in January, most were well above average. A couple surprised me. A couple disappointed me. And all made me glad I love to read.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

4 stars

fun homeA very quick, if mildly disturbing, read. This is my first experience with a graphic-book and I found the illustrations sometimes really added to the limited text,but in some cases stole from the sharp, crisp writing. Bechdel does not shy away from the discomfort inherent in not only her own coming out story, but the complicated back-story of her father’s closeted homosexuality. The complex father-daughter relationship was fascinating to me and I would have liked that to be fleshed out even more (in terms of text). Overall, I was impressed by this memoir.

He used his skillful artifice not to make things, but to make things appear to be what they were not.”

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

4 stars

Previously reviewed

The air would smell like taffy and drying seaweed, and they would wear white, and there would be still more happiness. So much happiness. It was almost as exhausting as this relentless February.”

With or Without You by Domenica Ruta

3.5 stars

Previously reviewed

Is it possible to have nostalgia for a time in which you never lived? I’m sure there is a word for this phenomenon in German — beautiful, absurd, and twenty letters long.”

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

3 stars

the chaperoneI really liked so much of this book (including Elizabeth McGovern’s excellent narration), but it just went on so long. I felt like it had several false endings, places where I was finished but then it kept going. Maybe the problem is just that I didn’t expect an epic when I began. The story covers almost 50 years of Cora’s life in a great deal of detail. And while I find the 20th century interesting background, I was frustrated at Moriarty’s need to touch on so many different “issues” — Prohibition, adoption, gay rights, reproductive rights, suffrage. Add to that, Cora happens to witness or read about dozens of historical events. I began to feel manipulated after a while. What a I loved was the relationship between Cora and Louise Brooks. I would have been much more satisfied had she ended the book after their summer together.

The young can cut you with their unrounded edges…but they can also push you right up to the window of the future and push you through.”

The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger

3.5 stars

Deceptively simple story about a Bengali woman, Amina, who meets her American husband on-line, moves to Rochester and struggles to bring her parents to America. Immigrations, marriage, family, desire, truth are the themes all tangled under the surface story.  I liked Amina a lot and thought the author brought up many interesting questions, but the other characters didn’t seem as truthful to me. I couldn’t understand their motivations or transitions,which is what prevents a higher rating. I would read more of this writer.

You thought you were a permanent part of your own experience, the net that held it all together — until you discovered that there were many selves, dissolving into one another so quickly over time that the buildings and trees and even the pavement turned out to have more substance than you did.”

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

4 stars

Reviewed previously

You must accept the reality of other people. You think that reality is up for negotiation, that we think it’s whatever you say it is. You must accept that we are as real as you are; you must accept that you are not God.”

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (audio)

4 stars

Another great installment of Harry Potter. I can see that the tone of these novels has really darkened considerably. There were moments when my youngest was truly afraid. It’s quite an accomplishment that, even knowing that Harry will survive, I feel the danger and fear he faces. The suspense and environment are so rich, that “spoilers” don’t even interfere with the drama. Can’t wait to start the next one.

If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.”

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison

2.5 stars

I really, really wanted to like this book but I couldn’t. In fact, I cared so little about it when it was over that I didn’t write any sort of review or notes and now I can only remember a disabled teenager, a grieving loser-ish thirty-something and a trip in a van where they pick up all sorts of oddballs. It sounds like a premise I’d love (kind of Little Miss Sunshine), but it never came together.

I know I’ve lost my mind. But I’m not concerned, because it’s the first thing I’ve lost in a long time that actually feels good.”

There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories byLudmila Petrushevskaya, Anna Summers (translation)

Dozens of short stories, most about people whose lives are not going to work out no matter what they do or hope for. I’m sure they are a reflection of the author’s Soviet reality, but, not only were they depressing, I never found any one or any moment to hold on to. Reading this was like skipping stones over a very flat, dark, lake. Ultimately unfulfilling. I received a complimentary copy of this book from Penguin Books in exchange for my honest review.

A Red Herring Without Mustard (A Flavia de Luce Mystery #3) by Alan Bradley

4 stars

A Red Herring without MustardWhile other books were failing me, Flavia was there to bring a smile to my face. As usual, this precocious 11 year-old amateur chemist/detective found herself embroiled in murder and mayhem. While there is a certain formula to all these books, Bradley wisely goes deeper into each character with the succession of novels. We learn more about Flavia each time and get to know more about her long-lost mother Harriet, who posthumously plays a huge role in the emotional undercurrent of this book. The “Buckshaw Chronicles” are a smart, entertaining, emotionally fulfilling series of mysteries. I’m so grateful their interesting titles drew my eye a couple of years ago.

Whenever I’m with other people, part of me shrinks a little.  Only when I am alone can I fully enjoy my own company.”

With or Without You – a new review

with or without youI read a Tweet recently along the lines that memoirs need not be the “Olympics of tragedy.” I apologize for my inability to credit the source, but the phrase stuck with me. I had just finished reading With or Without You, a new memoir by Domenica Ruta, whose life seems like the 1600 IM of tragedy and abuse.

The daughter of a drug addict, albeit a high-functioning and dynamic one, Ruta writes about coming of age among drugs, sexual abuse and addiction. But, remarkably, that’s not really what the book is about. The story derives its drama from the unusual mother-daughter relationship (another prevailing memoir theme).

It is the declaration of every thinking woman at some point in her life, a manifesto that crosses all barriers of class or color or whatever arbitrary thing we try to pretend separates us. It starts out as a girlish whisper, grows louder with each passing year, until that faint promise we traced in the sand becomes a declarative, then an imperative: I will not become my mother.”

The drugs, sex and neglect of her childhood seem almost like minor details compared to the agony of her painful mother love. It took me a while to understand that, in my horror at her upbringing, I was missing the main point of this memoir.

Understanding how much Ruta wished she, and not addiction, were the center of her mom’s universe was heartbreaking. Kathi is a flamboyant, intelligent, (formerly) beautiful, larger-than-life character, at least in Ruta’s retelling. As a reader, as angry as I felt at her actions, I couldn’t help but like, and sometimes even admire, her.

In this way, Ruta provides an unusual tension in the story-telling. Over the course of her life, you can almost see the logical part of brain, which writes almost clinically about her mother, fighting with her heart which writes with emotion and longing.

Ruta wisely includes a great deal of self-deprecating humor to break up the pathos.

Kathi and I were the two most outrageous snobs ever to receive public assistance.”

“Is it possible to have nostalgia for a time in which you never lived? I’m sure there is a word for this phenomenon in German — beautiful, absurd, and twenty letters long.”

She also shines the harsh spotlight on her own flaws and addiction, but perhaps I wanted even more in terms of soul searching. I was horrified throughout, but I never came to love her (which I want in an Olympian…oops…I mean a memoirist).

I received an Advanced Reading Edition of this book as part of the Random House Reading Circle. Please note that the quotes included in this review are not taken from the final edition. Expected publication date is February 26, 2013.

My Ann Patchett project: Truth and Beauty

Cover of "Truth and Beauty: A Friendship&...

Cover of Truth and Beauty: A Friendship

Having now read Ann Patchett’s honest look into her inspiring and unhealthy friendship with Lucy Grealy, I feel I have a greater understanding of the complex female relationships in her works of fiction. She delves deeply into what it means to be a friend, what it means to love unconditionally, and what it means to lose yourself in someone else’s pain. I felt like a fly on the wall of their 20 year relationship.

Patchett tackles this memoir unafraid to expose both herself and Grealy. From the very beginning, we understand that she is unapologetic about this relationship. She will present it honestly, warts and glories.

…after all, what novel or poem or play in an Introduction to Literature class couldn’t benefit from a truth-and-beauty discussion?”

Knowing nothing at all about Grealy, but feeling deeply familiar with Patchett, I tended to wonder how the two got entwined so deeply. It seems one of those inexplicable attractions when the solid, grounded anchor (Patchett) attached itself to a flighty, yet dynamic bluebird (Grealy).

I love that Patchett is willing to let Grealy look bad, really bad. Grealy is selfish and angry. She spends any money she has and continually “borrows” from her many friends.  She must, at all points, be the center of attention and, on the surface, does not seem to return Patchett’s loyalty and dedication. And yet…I too grow to love her, to understand her fierce talent and deep longing.

About Grealy’s desire for one true, all-consuming love, Patchett compares her need to the scale of Grand Central Station. She talks about first filling it with Grealy’s friends and lovers which might fill one restaurant. Next you could add her fans and those who have read her book and it might look like a smattering of bodies against that immense space. But, ultimately, Grealy could not find enough people/happiness/love to fill the space.

You could pack in thousands and thousands more people, and still it wouldn’t feel full, not full enough to take up every square inch of her loneliness.”

That image just about broke my heart and I immediately understood Patchett’s deep love and devotion. Not that she tries to portray herself as a saint. Just like with Grealy, she writes her own strengths and flaws with precision. It’s no fun to always be the anchor and she tries (unsuccessfully) to shed her own persona. But, as Grealy points out to her,

It’s your blessing and your curse. You’re always going to be fine.”

More than a memoir about two talented, engaging women, Truth and Beauty is an ode to friendship. Patchett celebrates the deep love these women share. Despite the tragic outcome, the reader comes away with the feeling that Patchett would not have done it differently.

Whenever I saw her, I felt like I had been living in another country, doing moderately well in another language, and then she showed up speaking English and suddenly I could speak with all the complexity and nuance that I hadn’t realized was gone. With Lucy I was a native speaker.”