Monday, June 30, 2014

Book Review: On Loss and Living Onward by Melissa Dalton-Bradford

Title: On Loss and Living Onward: Collected Voices for the Grieving and Those Who Would Mourn With Them
Author: Melissa Dalton-Bradford
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Digital Copy

When it was nearing time for me to leave for college, I started counting the days. As the day of departure grew near, and I got more and more excited, I was a little shocked to see my mom in mourning. It wasn't until I was working in college admissions that I realized that this was a thing-- that parents had a hard time letting go of their college-age children. When it was time for Melissa Dalton-Bradford's oldest son, Parker, to go away to college, she must have been going through some of these emotions. But her mourning for losing her son to college turned tragic when he died in a swimming accident during freshman orientation. Dalton-Bradford, who uses her skill as a poet to beautifully craft this memoir, uses this experience of losing Parker as the grounding narrative of On Loss and Living Onward, with stories about her own experience anchoring each of the sections of the book, but she also includes essays from others, along with quotes from famous (and not so famous) people who are intimately familiar with loss.

While I can see that On Loss and Living Onward would be very beneficial for people who are grieving a loved one, I read it as someone who does not know the pain of loss. For readers like me, it's an excellent primer, an insight into grief and loss, emotions none of us will escape if we're lucky to live long enough. Dalton-Bradford deftly shares her own story and instructs her readership. I feel like I now have a better sense of knowing how to mourn with those that mourn.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Book Review: The Shining by Stephen King

Title: The Shining
Author: Stephen King
Enjoyment Rating: *** or ****
Source: Kindle
Content Alert: Violence, language

Jack Torrance, an alcoholic, a failed writer and a recently fired teacher finds himself with so few career options that he moves his wife and five-year-old son, Danny, to the mountains of Colorado, where the family will live all by themselves at the Overlook Hotel, a sort of Biltmore in the mountains, twenty miles by snowmobile from the nearest town. Of course the place is haunted, and Danny, who has "the shining" can see all of the ghosts that inhabit the place, who want to take Jack over and claim the family as permanent guests of the hotel.

If I had to associate a single work of fiction with Stephen King, it would probably be The Shining (or maybe Carrie, or The Shawshank Redemption). And after reading and loving Doctor Sleep, I knew I had to read the prequel. I just finished writing my review for Night Music by Jojo Moyes, which was published yesterday, and as I was reading that novel the thing that struck me the most was how she has grown and developed as a writer since her early days. I was introduced to some of her later work first, and in comparison, her early work seems weak (although I probably wouldn't have seen it that way if I had read Night Music first). Now Stephen King is arguably the greatest living American author, and The Shining is one of his best-loved novels, but since I was introduced to King through his more mature work (11-22-63 and Doctor Sleep), it's evident how much his writing has improved in the nearly 40 years since The Shining was published. There were sentences that were overwritten, and places where the action went on so long that I found myself skimming. I'm still glad I read the book, but I find it heartening to see great progress in even our greatest writers. It seems to demonstrate what I vaguely remember King saying (and am too lazy to go look up) in his book on writing, that it's writing every day and working hard that makes a writer, not genius.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Book Review: Night Music by Jojo Moyes

Title: Night Music
Author: Jojo Moyes
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: A (pretty tame) sex scene

When Isabel's husband died in a car accident nine months earlier, it sent her into retreat. She hasn't paid a bill or paid much attention to her two suffering children. Instead, she has spent most of the year crying and playing her violin. She's on the verge of losing her London home, her son has stopped speaking, and her daughter has grown old beyond her years when she receives word that she's inherited a house in the English countryside from a distant relative, and it seems the answer to all of her problems. So she packs the kids up and moves to the house, completely unaware of the disaster she will face, both by the state of the manor home, and by vengeful Matt McCarthy, the only contractor in town, who expected that he would be the one inheriting the home.

I have read a few of Moyes's more recent novels and have found them complex and delightful, while Night Music was fairly predictable and not as well-written. It was a compelling story, and I loved to hate McCarthy, and had more complicated feelings for some of the other characters in the story. The ending was satisfying, but not completely surprising, and I appreciated watching Isabel and her family heal and grow stronger over the course of the novel.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Book Review: Police by Jo Nesbo

Title: Police (Harry Hole #10)
Author: Jo Nesbo
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: Violence, Sex, Sexual Assault, Swearing

Whenever I see that a new Harry Hole book is released, I'm always ridiculously excited, even though I know that going for a ride with Harry is going to be dangerous, dirty, and difficult. Hole is an addict whose alcoholism dulls his genius as a police detective, and at the end of the previous novel, he had just been shot in the head. When Police opens, Hole is nowhere to be seen, except possibly in a hospital bed that is guarded around the clock, and the guards don't even know the patient's identity.

In Harry's absence, his team delves into solving a series of murders in which the killer offs detectives who worked on unsolved crimes. The murders are grisly, and force is understandably fearful for their lives, and the dirty police chief (a former rival to Harry) seems somehow involved. When tragedy hits Harry's former team, they must take drastic measures.

While most of Nesbo's books seem to run together in my mind, this one felt more distinctive and better in many ways (which is saying something since I generally enjoy his books). It also has an extremely satisfying ending for fans of the series, which is all I will say about that.

In most cases, I would say that listening to an audiobook enhances my experience with a text, but in the case of Nesbo's book (and most novels in translation), I find that I get tripped up by names and places when I don't see them in print. If you're like I am in this regard, it might be useful to read this novel.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Book Review: Confessions of a Latter-day Virgin by Nicole Hardy

Title: Confessions of a Latter-day Virgin: A Memoir
Author: Nicole Hardy
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Kindle
Content Alert: some mild descriptions of sexual encounters, some swearing

It's been a couple of months since I read Confessions of a Latter-day Virgin, so I hope that my recollection is accurate. In other words, take any specifics in this review with a rather large grain of salt.

In the opening pages of Confessions of a Latter-day Virgin, Nicole Hardy is a thirtysomething Mormon woman, talking with her mom as she unpacks her belongings into a new condo. Over the course of the discussion, she says "shit," and I was like, "Awesome, a good Mormon girl who isn't afraid to swear in print. This is going to be my kind of book."

And while the book was funny, and well-written, and readable in a way that few memoirs written by MFAs usually are, I found that it didn't meet my expectations. This isn't a criticism of the story-- it's just that as a Mormon woman who got married before the ink on my diploma was dry, and as a Mormon girl who saw herself as a future mother above all things, Hardy's story was poignant and foreign and very eye-opening.

In the church, we are so quick to judge others, to second guess their motives and desires (like Hardy's desire not to be a mother), to pass people by in the hall that don't look like us or act like us or go to playgroup with us. We hear so much about being sensitive to single people in a church where being part of a couple is central to the doctrine, but I don't know what it feels like to be an adult member of the church who isn't part of a married couple. So I'm incredibly grateful to Hardy for writing honestly, and not bitterly, about that struggle, and also for being honest and vulnerable and open about her choice to explore her sexuality and leave the church when it wasn't what worked for her. The only thing that does disappoint me? That as a former Mormon, the being brave enough to swear in print thing kinda doesn't count.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Book Review: The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf

Title: The Weight of Silence
Author: Heather Gudenkauf
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: lots of violence, child sex abuse

The Weight of Silence is another book that was being offered as one of the Audible deals of the day, and I decided to buy it despite not knowing much about it (this must have been during the time when I was ignoring all of my favorite podcasts, allowing them to keep downloading until they filled the memory of my iPhone and I was left with over 120 podcasts on my to-listen list-- I'm slowly digging out, but I still have more than 80 TED talks to wade through). Anyway, Calli Clark is seven, and she hasn't spoken for three years on the morning she disappears from the quiet street on which she lives in a quiet Iowa town. Calli knows the woods that surround their town, so her mother Antonia isn't initially worried, but Calli's best friend Petra is also missing, and the secrets of the girls, their families, and other people in the town come to light for readers as the story unfolds.

The Weight of Silence is a hard book to listen to. As a mom, my greatest worry is that something traumatic will happen to one of my children, and this book is a fictionalization of my fear. Add in an abusive, alcoholic father, several other characters with questionable backstories, and some terrible things happening in the woods, and it becomes something that's hard to listen to. However, it's a compelling story-- once I got started I had a hard time turning it off. I needed to hear the resolution to the story, which is not an altogether happy one.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Book Review: Truth in Advertising by John Kenney

Title: Truth in Advertising
Author: John Kenney
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Library Copy
Content Alert: some swearing

Fin Dolan is a modern-day Don Draper, without the swagger, without the ladies, without the fabulous apartment, and without the genius. In other works, Fin is a hack who works in advertising. Like Don Draper, he tends to second guess himself, and looks back to a troubled childhood as the source of the problems in his adult life. Truth in Advertising feels like satire as Kenney explores the ins and outs of the advertising world, the most superficial business on the planet, but it takes a more serious turn as Dolan goes through the process of reluctantly nursing his father through his final days.

The book was fairly predictable and sweet, very readable, and pretty fun. It didn't rock my world or challenge me as a reader in any way, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Book Review: This is How We Grow by Christina Hibbert

Title: This is How We Grow: A Psychologist's Memoir of Loss, Motherhood, and Discovering Self-Worth and Joy, One Season at a Time
Author: Christina Hibbert
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Content Alert: none

Christina Hibbert was a mother of three, working as a psychologist, when her brother-in-law and sister died within months of each other. Christina and her husband became their two boys' guardians just a few weeks before she gave birth to a daughter, so the family grew from three kids to six in about a month. In This is How We Grow, Hibbert writes about the experience of how her family changed, how they processed their grief, and how they came to see themselves as joyful, whole people again.

I think This is How We Grow is a book where the strengths of the story are also some of the weaknesses. Hibbert kept a journal during this time in her life (now about six years past), and the book is largely sourced from the journal. This means that sometimes readers have to wade through the minutiae of her life. But I think that's also kind of the point. Lives are often made up of minutiae and small, seemingly insignificant moments. And the life of a stay-at-home mom of six is sometimes a mind-numbing rotation of crisis management and wiping bums. She also does enough stepping back and taking a long-view look at the experiences to make them feel relevant. However, I wish the book had a different title, because I think I would have read it a lot sooner if I had known that it would be such a good mirror for my own experience.

Like Hibbert, I've also adopted two kids. They were both abandoned as newborns and lived for about a year in an orphanage. Then we adopted them and they gained a family, but they also lost everything familiar. A lot of times, I don't think people (myself included) recognize how much loss in involved in adoption, and how much grief my little ones carry, and will have to process at some point in their lives. My experience parenting them is so different from my experience with my biological kids, and a lot of it comes from the grief and loss they have suffered. I think I highlighted more passages in this book than in any book I've read since college, and I was both pleased and surprised to find a book that recognized and reflected my own parenting experiences.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Book Review: Love and Treasure by Ayelet Waldman

Title: Love and Treasure
Author: Ayelet Waldman
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Library Copy
Content Alert: Some sex

When Natalie's beloved grandfather Jack is dying of pancreatic cancer, she leaps at the opportunity to escape her life in New York to help him in his final days. Just before his death, he gives her a mission-- to return a peacock necklace he stole from the Hungarian gold train when he was an Army officer at the end of World War II. Readers follow the story of the necklace from the recent past to the distant past, tracing its provenance and searching for the relative who should inherit it.

I'd never heard of the Hungarian gold train, a train filled with the spoils taken from the homes of Hungarian Jews by the Nazis. And the historical sections of the novel, which take place primarily in the 1940s and the 1910s, are fascinating. I loved reading about the feminist movement in Budapest, and psychoanalysis at the same time period. But the modern story of Natalie was not nearly as powerful as the historical stories. I've read other books by Waldman, and I don't think Love and Treasure is her best.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Book Review: The Storied Life of AJ Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Title: The Storied Life of AJ Fikry
Author: Gabrielle Zevin
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: Mild language

A couple of mornings ago, I went out for a long run with nothing but my audiobook to keep me company. A couple of hours later, I found myself running up the big hill near the zoo on Sunnyside, and I looked like a maniac. Tears were streaming down my face, and I'm pretty sure I was hyperventilating. And yes, the hill is big and the wind was blowing in my face, but that wasn't why I was crying. It was because I'd come to the end of The Storied Life of AJ Fikry, a happy/sad kind of novel, and I wasn't exactly sure if I was crying because of the poignancy of the ending or because I didn't want it to be over.

When the book opens, AJ Fikry is the crank who runs Island Books, the only bookstore on Alice Island (which seems to resemble Martha's Vineyard). His typical day is to terrorize employees and publishers' reps, to snarl at customers, and to drink himself to sleep at night. All of this bad behavior is only excusable because AJ is a recent widower, but regardless of that fact, he's a jerk. Then, one night, he's robbed of his only possession worth anything, which leads him to leave the door of his bookstore unlocked, which leads to a young woman leaving him a baby to raise, which changes everything.  Fikry soon finds his life, which was once difficult and depressing, full of people and surprises, and, of course, books.

If you love books like I love books, you'll love this one. The story itself, while very well-constructed and written in a way that keeps you reading, is fairly predictable. I knew who AJ would end up with by the end of the first chapter. But you'll keep reading because you'll want to inhabit a world where people love stories as much as you do-- where AJ starts the police chief reading dime-store potboilers and pretty soon he's reading The House of Sand and Fog. I love that AJ communicates with his daughter through the notes he writes her about different novels and short stories, and that the existence of his bookstore really does seem to make Alice Island as a whole a better place to be. This would be a great book club read. It's the first novel I've read by Zevin, who has formerly written mainly YA, but it won't be the last.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Book Review: Life, Animated by Ron Suskind

Title: Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism
Author: Ron Suskind
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: I don't remember anything objectionable

Owen Suskind was almost three years old when he stopped talking. Soon after that, he was diagnosed with autism, and his parents Cornelia and Ron (a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist) threw themselves into helping Owen through schools and therapies. But it was the films of Walt Disney that eventually started to bring Owen out, after several years of barely speaking at all. At first, he just repeated lines from the movies, but gradually, it became evident that he was internalizing emotional truths from the films, which prepared him to meet some of the challenges in life that his parents feared he might never be capable of tackling.

I think any reader would root for Owen and his family, especially since Suskind writes about his family's experience so movingly. But as the mother of a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, I felt like the book showed that it is possible to engage and draw kids out, and that what works for some kids might not work for others. I also love that Owen appears to be living a happy and fulfilled young adulthood. It's a feel-good story that any reader would appreciate.