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Gone Walking.

20 Dec

etta-and-otto-and-russell-and-james-9781476755670_lg

There are a handful of novels that I think of as falling into the category “fit for most women readers.” This genre would include things like Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Jim the Boy. The everywoman’s novel, perhaps, that is touching and deep and full of characters that hit home. Heartfelt. Tender. Funny. Easy-to-sell. Ones that I enjoy right along side of my mother and grandmother. Initially in my mind, I put Emma Hooper’s Etta and Otto and Russell and James into this category. Partly because the copy on the book jacket makes it sound like the twin novel of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Partly because the story starts out sweet and heartfelt and feel-good. And although I normally love these easy reads I feel ashamed to have lumped Etta and Otto in with them. Etta and Otto is something wonderful and rare.

The novel opens with a note to Otto, from Etta. Gone to see the ocean, it says. And Otto knows that she will have taken off on foot, and that she will have taken the longest route (can you see why it reminded me of Harold Fry?) What follows is the perfect story. Maybe it is just perfect for me, for my tastes, but it has everything I love to read: small farm town with a one-room schoolhouse, families bursting with brothers and sisters and work to be done. Best friends (Otto and Russell), love stories, a war story, whimsy and art and nature. I was expecting this tale of a woman who walks out of town to be sentimental, rewarding, ending in a happy bow. It was SO MUCH MORE. Every few pages I would find myself thinking “I love Otto best.” And then a few short pages later, “No, Russell is my favorite. I love Russell.” Again, but with Etta and then back to Otto and so on. James, the coyote that accompanies Etta on her journey, was perfect for what he was (a coyote, only mildly loveable).

That is how I feel, but it doesn’t really tell you anything about the story. So here is what I’d say: Etta has gone walking to see the ocean. She is old and maybe ill prepared. She leaves Otto behind at home with a box full of recipes and a promise that she’ll return. Russell, Otto’s best friend, has spent his lifetime loving Etta from the farm next door. As Etta walks, we get the story of their youths – Etta and Otto and Russell – from their childhoods through the war and back again to poor farmsteads. There was WAY more in this novel that I expected to find, I was blown away and think that most readers will be too. Plainsong meets Jim the Boy meets Mutant Message Down Under.

Danger in the Flock

10 Dec

Never in a million years did I expect to be talking about a Mormon mystery. If I hadn’t been so attracted to the book jacket, I probably would have missed out on this entertaining read.

TheBishop's Wife

Isn’t it a wonderful cover? I don’t read a ton of mysteries, but I ended up liking The Bishop’s Wife because it is full of really well-developed characters. Think Gone Girl if the characters had all been incredibly Mormon (not as well written or as thrilling, but close enough to be good). Linda, the narrator, is mother to five boys and wife to Kurt, the bishop. The story opens with a young man named Jared Helm knocking on their door late at night with his five year old daughter Kelly. Apparently in the Mormon religion, the bishop is on call all the time and counsels members of the ward in his home no matter the time. Jared is distraught because his wife, Carrie, has abandoned the family. Shortly after, Linda becomes convinced that Carrie hasn’t left town on her own volition. In fact, Linda quickly comes to believe that Jared has killed her. I ended up giving this 3.75 stars – it was good, but the religiousness was a little over the top.

Is it too early for The Best Litpicks of 2014?

18 Nov

I hope not, because I’ve come to the realization that I may not finish another book between now and the end of the year. And if I do finish one, it will likely be one that comes out in the new year. So, I’m bringing it on, bringing it out, ringing in the holiday season. Here are my top ten books of the year (alphabetically)!

I think I’ve talked about all but one of these in the blog this year – the exception being The Other Language. It was a crazy good year for books.

deepest secret

I read The Deepest Secret towards the beginning of the year, but I can remember precisely how it pulled me in. Sort of like Hitchcock’s Rear Window if you replace the apartment building in the movie with a secluded cul-de-sac in the suburbs.

all the light

OH my gosh was this one so good. A WWII saga, nominated recently for the National Book Award (announced on TOMORROW, November 19th!) – if you like epic family/war sagas and missed this one – go back and get it. The story follows two different people: a blind young French girl and an orphaned German boy. One of the bonuses in my mind was that although this sounds like a love story, it really never was. It was just an incredible story.

painter

Peter Heller. Sigh. Such a dreamboat of a writer. I loved his first one, Dog Stars, last year and this one is a chart-topper for me this year. It’s the story of an artist/flyfisher/canker-sore of a guy named Jim and his struggles with life and loss (and the occasional murder).

sleepwalker

I get giddy thinking about this one and find that random scenes come floating back to me at least every other week or so. And I read in December of LAST year. If All the Light is the WWII novel of the year, this may be the family saga of the year. It’s thick – but so good. The story is about an Indian-American young woman named Amina who works as a wedding photographer (and has a secret file under the floorboards filled with wedding outtakes, scenes I’ve thought of at every wedding I’ve been to since I read it) who gets word from her mother, living in New Mexico, that her father’s health is declining. So Amina takes a leave of absence and heads to her parent’s house. Then we get back/forth between the father’s past in India and the current story of Amina’s stay in NM. It was great.

Euphoria

Every title on this list gets me so excited about books. This one? also awesome. Loosely based on the life of Margaret Mead (whom I knew nothing about), I thought this was the best “journey into the heart of darkness” tribal story I’ve read. Far surpassing State of Wonder, last year’s blockbuster.

WeWereLiars

Of all the ones on my list, this was the only one I rated 4 stars. It was the 10th one that came to mind. It’s a YA sort of suspense story that takes place on a private island. One of those endings that makes the whole novel seem way more interesting.

Station Eleven

Another one that is on the National Book Award short list. I can find a reason to recommend this one to just about everyone I know. Although some say that they’ve had enough post-apocalyptic explorations, this one is much smarter than a lot of its contemporaries. I’d say it feels like Michael Chabon and Peter Heller and maybe early Colm Toibin? That last one may not be quite right, but Emily SJM has turned the apocalypse into a work of Literature.

other lang

Remember how last year I had The News from Spain on my list as perhaps the perfect collection of short stories (and I don’t read short stories!)? Well, this one sits right next to it on my all-time favorite shelf. I think I could recite word for word the first three or four stories, they’ve stuck with me that much over the last few months.

image

Every great list has to have at least one tearjerker and this is mine. This one will break your heart but in the great way that only a really amazing story can. It’s set up like the movie Crash, four different characters whose stories converge. The young immigrant boy, one of the four narrators, is the greatest child voice of the year. If this one doesn’t move you, well I don’t know what will.

astonish me

This was a late addition for me. If you had asked me when I read it if it would be on my Best Of list, I’d probably have said no. But when I started thinking about this list last week, Astonish Me kept popping back up. It’s more of a slow-burn of a novel that has stuck with me much more than I expected it to.

 

That’s my list, and I have maybe 1 already for next year. Fingers crossed that I can find enough time to read in 2015!

Lydia is dead, but the Royals are still alive in the Post-Season

15 Oct

Who would have thought I’d ever claim the Kansas City Royals as a reading distraction? But seriously, my free time has been swallowed by extra-inning post-season wins. Craziness. Somewhere in the past week I found time to read Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng.

everything

The first sentence of the novel? “Lydia is dead.” Catchy, right? Lydia is a 16 year old high school student who, at the beginning of the novel, is missing (but we know she’s dead). So slowly we get to unravel her life; her parents, older brother, little sister and her hoodlum of a boyfriend, they all play a part in her disappearance. I was surprised where this story went, relatively quickly. Instead of being a murder mystery full of suspense and intrigue and hidden clues, it was an onion of a family saga (peel back those layers!). High family drama at its best, with a fair bit of heartbreak thrown in. I really loved the way she wrote it, the tenderheartedness of the children and the crushing hopes of the parents. 4 stars, but worth waiting for from the library or in paperback (read: not a hardcover I’ll Keep You Forever sort of a novel).

I’ve also started and am LOVING the new Colm Toibin. Hopefully I’ll get that knocked out between now and the World Series!

Not so Nifty.

23 Sep

ArsonistOk, Sue Miller. I don’t know what happened here. Chances are high that I’ve just been reading too much JoJo Moyes and have no patience for literary-love (i.e., love that is not super believable and passionate). I didn’t for one second believe that Frankie and Bud had a romance that was at all romantic. The dialogue was a major weak point for me. When was the last time you fell in love with someone who uses the term “nifty” seriously?

What I did like about The Arsonist was the arson. Such a great premise. And I liked the setting, I could picture clearly the town that was flooded by people during the summer but lived in year round by others. I loved the segregation between the “summer people” and the locals. SO, the story goes that Frankie (a 45ish year old woman) returns from her aid work in Africa to her parent’s home – actually what once was their summer home but now that her parents have retired, it’s their year-round home. She is sort of undecided as to whether or not she wants to return to Africa so stays with her parents long enough to strike up a *romance* with the owner of the local newspaper, Bud. Shortly after Frankie’s arrival, houses belonging to the “summer people” start to burn (hence the title). There were lots of interesting things going on – the arson, the *love* story, her father’s battle with dementia, her mother’s backstory. I’d give it 3.75 stars.

 

National Book Award time!

17 Sep

Just tonight the long-list for fiction was announced. There are some REALLY exciting things on here – two of my five-star reads! Station Eleven and All the Light You Cannot See are both nominated! And also Some Luck (which I just gave a lukewarm review). I will say that my best book rep friend LOVED Some Luck, he describes it as “looking through a family photo album but knowing the story behind each picture.” And I can see that being true. So, definitely don’t discount it based on my review. You can see the other nominees if you follow this link: Long List for the National Book Award

STOP EVERYTHING and read this!

8 Sep

Seriously, put down what ever you are reading and rush out to get Emily St. John Mandel’s new novel, Station Eleven. She’s written three other novels, all of which were great. The problem with them was that they came from a really small publisher, in really small print runs, with bad covers and in awkward sizes. A lot of people overlooked them. SO, when I heard that Knopf had picked up her new novel and that the early buzz was “This is going to be Big,” I got really excited. It didn’t sound like it’d be my cup of tea fiction-wise; post-apocalyptic and featuring a traveling Shakespeare troupe. Sounds pretty terrible, actually. BUT IT WAS SO GOOD.

Station Eleven

If I had to compare this to other things you might have read, I’d say it is a lot like Michael Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but also like The Dog Stars by Peter Heller and maybe a smidge like Jose Saramago’s Blindness. It opens with a play – a snowy night in a big city. The main actor dies mid-scene and havoc ensues. And then havoc really ensues – a deadly virus quickly spreads throughout the city, carried over on a flight from Asia. And just like that, civilization changes. Flash forward fifteen years in the future and we pick up the pieces of five lives touched by the death of the actor, survivors of the plague. All of the unexpected tenderness found in The Dog Stars reappears here – the story is not so much about the actual plague or the end of the civilized world, but about memory and love and hope as well as survival. There is really nothing quite like it out there, and I have to agree with the early buzz, this book is going to bring Emily St. John Mandel out from the shadows (and hopefully her older books with get some much-deserved love, too). FIVE stars.

Oh, to be Irish in NYC

30 Aug

We are not ourselvesWe are getting close to the release date for Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves. I’ve been thinking for a while about how to talk about this massive book (620 pages!). Right off the bat, it reminded me of Brooklyn by Colm Toibin or Someone by Alice McDermott. To an extent. If you read either of those slightly episodic books about young Irish immigrants in NYC and thought “oh, I really loved that, I wish I knew her entire story,” then We Are Not Ourselves is something that will completely appeal to you. If you read either of those other two and thought “this was the perfect amount of story for me,” then steer clear of this one. We meet Eileen Tumulty as a young girl living in an apartment with her problematic parents and follow her well into middle age. The best part of the story, and the meat of it, is her husband’s descent into illness. Which was SO well done. I could picture Eileen so perfectly, down to every detail that even now – weeks after reading it – I can close my eyes and see her right down to her shoes. At times towards the middle/end of the novel, I found myself “remembering” her childhood, it seemed so long ago that I was recalling it as memory, not as something I’d just read (which is weird to try to describe). To sum up, a great Irish-immigrant-gal-in-NYC novel. 4.5 stars (minus .5 for sheer length, it wiped me out!)

A Garrulous Gaggle of Geese

15 Aug

colorlessThe first time I read Murakami, I was a sophomore in college and he pretty much changed my world. I read Kafka on the Shore and was completely blown away by the world that he created. His imagination is CRAZY. During college I read through his oeuvre and have felt a bit of excitement ever since every time a new book comes out. But I haven’t read anything since college. His last one, IQ84 was such a doorstop that I never could work up the nerve to crack it. But this new one, out this past Tuesday, is so cute and little I was excited to start it. And I really liked it! I made a list of things as I was reading that struck me particularly:

1) Tsukuru is passionate about building/designing train stations (how incredibly obscure is that?!)

2) much of the story is based around Tsukuru’s group of high school friends – the four others all had colors in their last names. Names that meant “red pine” and “blue sea” and “white root” and “black field” while poor (colorless) Tsukuru’s last name only meant “builder.” I loved that this was recognized by the friends and also that it gave Tsukuru a complex.

3) I loved that Murakami described some minor character as looking as though she’d been “raised with a garrulous gaggle of geese.” What a wonderful translation – I can only hope it sounded so good in Japanese!

The premise of the novel is that one day, when Tsukuru was a sophomore in college, the four friends abruptly cut him out of the group. He was thrown into a severe depression, and even now, 16years later, it is still affecting him. His girlfriend Sara urges him to find the four friends and figure out what happened, why he was outcast all those years ago. I really enjoyed it, but there were a few threads that I wish had been tied up, a few things that I felt were forgotten about and unresolved. 3.5 stars, but an excellent Murakami to read, especially if you haven’t read him before and find him intimidating (which some people do).

Out of This World

11 Aug

I just finished a novel that is completely outside of my wheelhouse. I’m not even sure where that phrase comes from, but I’m sure it fits.

Martian

The Martian by Andy Weir is classified as “Sci-Fi,” something I tend to stay pretty far away from. Here is how this ended up in my queue: My darling, smart, high-school cousin Ian was looking for recommendations for an upcoming trip. I knew he’d been in a Michael Crichton phase lately, and that The Martian was getting good reviews and felt like it’d be Crichton-y. Guess what? He LOVED it. So into the queue it went. I really liked it. I don’t know if I loved it, but I can definitely see the appeal. Some bad luck and poor weather conditions leave Mark Watney, botanist and engineer, stranded on the planet Mars. MacGyver meet Apollo 13 say all of the jacket blurbs and that may be the best way to think of it. It is also a lot of math (completely above me) – he needs this many liters of water to survive and he can get this percentage here and that percentage there. He needs this many calories a day multiplied by x many days which means he needs to plant this many potato spurs in x-many meters of modified soil etc., etc. If the entire novel had been Mark’s journal while trying to navigate an empty planet I might have given up on it. But fairly quickly we get to see the NASA people on Earth figure out that he is out there and begin working to bring him back. 4.25 stars and an easy recommendation for anyone who likes survivalist/space/action/Crichton-ish novels.