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Bite-sized book review: A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano

20 Sep

A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano is the exquisitely written, emotionally taut, and compelling story of four people doing their best to navigate their lives in a small Southern town. That one of these people is a fascinating and fictionalized version of Flannery O’Connor only adds to the complicated tapestry Napolitano weaves here, braiding the sins humans can commit out of boredom with the pain of a physical disease and the events of a tragic afternoon.

Napolitano’s gift is getting inside the heart of her characters, so that readers are rooting for every one of them, so that it’s possible – even when they have done terrible, selfish things – to forgive them their frailty. Her believable, research-based portrait of Flannery, channeled through the menagerie of peacocks that roam the O’Connor estate, screaming in the night and eating each flower as it blooms, heightens the sense that there is redemption to be found, to be sure, but only after we realize we all a little flawed, and a little doomed.

(If, like me, this book sends you on a mad quest for nonfiction about FC, I urge you to consider Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch.)

Bite-sized book reviews: The Help, What Alice Forgot, Russian Winter, and Swamplandia!

2 Aug

Okay, so:

The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Go read it. It’s as good as everyone you know has said (wailed, screamed) it is. As if it wasn’t enough to write a compelling novel about a very real time in American history, Stockett has the nerve to be an excellent writer who created vivid, interesting characters and a delicately suspenseful plot. Skip whatever else you’ve got on the TBR pile. Go read this now.

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty is the kind of book I dream about finding on the shelves. (You know the ones. They suck you in and keep you there, blissfully, for days.) I don’t know why I bother mentioning that Moriarty is a good writer, given that I don’t bother reading anything by anyone if it’s not well-written, but she is a good writer. This novel’s creative plot, coupled with realistic and complicated family dynamics probably anyone can relate to, makes this story about one woman’s unexpected and accidental amnesia a perfect one to disappear inside.

Russian Winter by Daphne Kolatay. My grandmother told me to read it, and really, she’s never wrong. Kolatay has crafted a fascinating and atmospheric historical novel, and I’m not even into ballerinas. That she manages to jump through both time and perspectives with no loss of momentum or character development is a testament not only to her writing ability but to the pull of a great story. I’m also pretty sure that right about now you’re willing to read anything that involves winter.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell is the best book I’ve read so far this year, and it will take a lot to change that opinion by December 31. The only thing more breathtaking than the haunting, imaginative, and sad tale of the Bigtree siblings is Russell’s tremendous talent. This was some of the most incredibly creative writing I’ve read in years, with line-by-line inventiveness that positively ripped my head off (read the first few pages to see exactly what I mean). My grief at the end of this expertly woven, heartbreaking novel was palpable.

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So hey, you may have noticed this post is different from the ones that came before. Congratulations. You’ve figured out that things around here are going to change. Turns out I am better with short and sweet, especially if you’re into short more than sweet. (This surprises no one, I’m sure.) Anyway, thanks for your patience.

Book review: The Lover’s Dictionary: A Novel by David Levithan

23 Feb

Every relationship has three distinct parts: the beginning, the middle, and the end. Whether the whole exists for mere days or goes on for decades doesn’t detract from this simple dissection: beginning, middle, end.

The Lover’s Dictionary: A Novel by David Levithan is the story of one such relationship, told in the form of dictionary entries:

imperceptible, adj.

We stopped counting our relationship in dates (first date, second date, fifth date, seventh) and started counting it in months. That might have been the first true commitment, this shift in terminology. We never talked about it, but we were at a party and someone asked how long we’d been together, and when you said, “A month and a half,” I knew we had gotten there.”

It’s the choice of this form where Levithan’s talent shines through, the structured lack of structure that gives the reader a guided tour through the cycle of one relationship. Its well-crafted roller coaster of a ride matches its subject matter perfectly. What better way to chronicle the ups and downs? What better way to make sense of the senseless?

It’s just a perk that Levithan’s prose is spare and poignant, that his writing is just as excellent as the idea of the book. In a small space, he manages to capture the enormity of this specific love.

Yet it’s the tenderness and the doubt, the rage and the joy this book contains that makes it a book about every love.

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This book was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in January 2011. For more information, visit the author’s website. You can also follow The Lover’s Dictionary on twitter. Please consider purchasing this book from an independent bookstore, and showing me some love as an IndieBound affiliate. As always, happy reading.

FTC Disclosure: This review was based on my own copy of this book.

Book review: You Lost Me There by Rosecrans Baldwin

6 Nov

No one ever tells you what a bloodbath marriage can be. Of course everyone says it’s hard, and you hear all these comments about how it’s a slog, how it’s unimaginably difficult, how crazy it can make even the most sane. But you never really believe all of that, because it’s hard to grasp when you’re on the outside, and it’s hard to imagine when you don’t really want to. You’re too busy being sure nothing will change after it happens. You’re too confident you’ll be the couple that rises above.

But it’s true. All of it. Some days it’s all you can do to wake up next to your spouse and resist the urge to hold a pillow over their face, or yours. Sometimes, even though you’d never admit this to anyone, you consider simply not showing up and doing all you can every day. There are fantasies of what it used to be like when you were Independent George, or what it could be, daydreams about freedom from everything heavy or unmanageable, thoughts that stay a little too long and detail a little too carefully the loopholes in the sheer hard labor that marriage requires.

Victor Aaron, the main character in You Lost Me There by Rosecrans Baldwin, is a man who has forgotten completely these truths. He sees the marriage he shared with his dead wife, Sara, as “a perfect, if tumultuous, duet between two opposite but precisely matched souls.” Until one day, he discovers a series of notecards Sara wrote as part of a couples therapy session, detailing the major shifts in their 30-year relationship, and the tectonic plates of Victor’s beliefs start to slip apart.

Peppered with a cast of characters who possess real depth and variety, You Lost Me There is a cornucopia of the complexities of what it means to be human – how our memories can betray us, how our bad habits can bog us down and hold us back, how our connections to other humans can break us utterly and yet still set us free.

Baldwin knows marriage, and it’s a little heartbreaking to read, if you know it, too. But his terrific writing, coupled with his amazing ability to splice scenes so that we are watching two characters in a conversation while one is experiencing something different in his head, save this novel from being overly sentimental, or even too bittersweet. 

For better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, this is a nuanced portrait of one man’s grief and of his journey towards, through, and out into the other side of change.

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This book was published by Riverhead Books in August 2010. For more information, visit the author’s website. You can also listen to the prologue by watching the book trailer. If you’d like to purchase this book and support independent booksellers at same time, click the IndieBound link that follows, and as always, happy reading. 

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FTC Disclosure: This review was based on a copy of the book that I borrowed from the public library. 

Book review: Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross

28 Aug

A quarter of the way through Mr. Peanut, I’d decided not to review it. The story had already twisted into a double helix, the ideas about marriage and its ever-changing kaleidoscope of emotions had already set my mind spinning; I knew I couldn’t do it, and what’s more, I didn’t want to try.

But to not tell you about this book would be a disservice to this blog and my master plan to take over the — no, I just wanted to tell you what I can about this complex, dramatic, ruminative novel by a talented writer with one dark mind.

The jacket copy of Mr. Peanut describes the novel as “structurally and emotionally” complex, and for once, the jacket copy is right. The frame from which the book hangs is the story of David and Alice Pepin, a video game designer and a counselor for troubled kids who have been together for 13 years and through many, many of Alice’s desperate and destructive diets. But when the Pepins’ story turns complicated – Alice is found dead in her kitchen, covered in the peanuts she is deathly allergic to, and David’s fingers have been down her throat – we are suddenly sucked into the stories of the two detectives involved, as well. Ward Hastroll, whose wife Hannah has not gotten out of bed for five months for no apparent reason, and Sam Sheppard, the Sam Sheppard, each have their own stories of marital woe.

Almost every review of Mr. Peanut references Ross’ first lines: “When David Pepin first dreamed of killing his wife, he didn’t kill her himself. He dreamed convenient acts of God.” Which sums up the rest of the book both succinctly and inefficiently, as statements both enough and not-enough at the same time. (Just like anything that can be said about marriage, really.)

If the plot and the characters sound a tad challenging, it’s because they are. Ross is a gifted writer, but even his talent might not have carried this book. What kept me reading – indeed, what has already made me describe Mr. Peanut as “great” – were the sections where he broke down marriage, as much as anyone can.

Page 256:

‘She said, “Prove it.”

“Prove what?”

“That it’s going to improve.”

It required nothing miraculous of him. He simply had to be there, for Marilyn and for his son. There, as in inhabiting his life at home. There, as in treating now first. On a practical level it was the simplest thing: He took the boy off his wife’s hands when he returned from work. When she asked him for something – a favor, a last-second errand, or help with a household chore – he gave it. When she came to bed they talked. But spiritually and psychologically it was entirely different and required what couldn’t be faked: he was there. Whereas before he’d seen his wife and son as a kind of encroachment on his life, their needs as something that halved and rehalved the distance between him and what he wanted, and he’d therefore at every turn resisted every little thing asked of him, now he did the opposite. And he could feel the small joy it added to everything, and which in turn added accrued interest. It was so simple, really.’

That it’s not that simple - not that simple at all - is what sets this subtle, circuitous, and curious novel apart, all on its own. 

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This book was published by Knopf in June 2010. For more information, including an excellent Q & A, visit the author’s website. And if you click the IndieBound logo below to buy your own copy of Mr. Peanut, you’ll support independent booksellers, me, and your own loving and murderous marriage. 

Shop Indie Bookstores

FTC Disclosure: This review was based on a copy of the book that I borrowed from the public library. 

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