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

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.”

Book Review: The Invention of Wings

the invention of wingsSince I’m one of the last people I know to read this book, I was familiar with its premise and prepared to find something emotional, powerful and inspiring (the words that pop up most often). I found a good and emotional read, but I didn’t get the powerful and inspiring. Is it me?

According to the author’s note, she set out to write about the Grimke sisters, real life abolitionists and women’s rights activists, mostly forgotten by history. Much of the novel is told by Sarah, a fictionalized account of the sisters’ journeys from slave-holding southern belles to Quakers, writers and public speakers.

To add perspective to the novel, Sue Monk Kidd also creates the character of Hetty/Handful, a young slave gifted to Sarah on her eleventh birthday. Like Sarah, Handful has a strong-will, intelligence and determination. I fell in love with her from page one.

“My mauma was shrewd. She didn’t get any reading and writing like me. Everything she knew came from living on the scarce side of mercy.”

I love a character whose wisdom comes from the heart and not the head.

“you got to figure out which end of the needle you’re gon be, the one that’s fastened to the thread or the end that pierces the cloth.”

It’s a good story, a slave and her mistress, neither of whom wants to be tied to the other, developing a friendship that can only lead to pain. In the tradition of good historic fiction, there are many details of life in Charleston in the early 19th century and as Sarah makes her journey northward, the novel is populated with historical figures.

But, as much as I was engrossed in the story (I flew through this novel in 2 days), I was bothered by the emotional distance between me and the characters. Handful and Sarah seem to be telling their stories as recollections from some unnamed point in the future which lacked immediacy for me.

I also kept waiting for the action of Sarah’s story to begin. It’s not until the last third of the novel that she becomes fully animated and involved in her own life. This might be the trouble in basing fiction on real people. The author is somewhat beholden to the slow pace at which real life takes place.

“I was very good at despising slavery in the abstract, in the removed and anonymous masses, but in the concrete, intimate flesh of the girl beside me, I’d lost the ability to be repulsed by it. I’d grown comfortable with the particulars of evil. There’s a frightful muteness that dwells at the center of all unspeakable things, and I had found my way into it.”

I wanted so much more of her story once she’s out from under her mother’s cane and her relationship with Nina once they’re on the road speaking. There seems to be so much undiscovered drama in the tension between women’s and slaves’ rights.

But that’s not the book Sue Monk Kidd wrote. She wrote the story of two women trapped and struggling to break free.

“My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way round.”

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.