Friday, February 27, 2015

We are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

This one has been sitting on my e-reader since the publisher sent it for review last October, and I finally got a chance to read it.  This is what they gave me to tempt me :
Born in 1941, Eileen Tumulty is raised by her Irish immigrant parents in Woodside, Queens, in an apartment where the mood swings between heartbreak and hilarity, depending on whether guests are over and how much alcohol has been consumed. Eileen can't help but dream of a calmer life, in a better neighborhood. When Eileen meets Ed Leary, a scientist whose bearing is nothing like those of the men she grew up with, she thinks she's found the perfect partner to deliver her to the cosmopolitan world she longs to inhabit. They marry, and Eileen quickly discovers Ed doesn't aspire to the same, ever bigger, stakes in the American Dream. Eileen encourages her husband to want more: a better job, better friends, a better house, but as years pass it becomes clear that his growing reluctance is part of a deeper psychological shift. An inescapable darkness enters their lives...through the Learys, novelist Matthew Thomas charts the story of the American Century, particularly the promise of domestic bliss and economic prosperity that captured hearts and minds after WWII. The result is a powerfully affecting work of art; one that reminds us that life is more than a tally of victories and defeats, that we live to love and be loved, and that we should tell each other so before the moment slips away. Epic in scope, heroic in character, masterful in prose, We Are Not Ourselves is a testament to our greatest desires and our greatest frailties."--
This is thoroughly engrossing story, even tho it drags a bit in the middle. I found the character of Eileen despicable although I suspect the author wanted us to have a great deal of sympathy for her. The slow and inexorable decline of the husband as he succumbs to early-onset Alzheimers is handled with discouraging and often depressing realism. At times, it appears the entire family is a train-wreck in the making, and then the reader realizes that may actually be what it feels like to live with this fearsome disease. The author may want us to see this as an epic portrayal of how life changed in the 1950s and 1960s, but it is more a study of the combination of impacts-- a disease of the brain and a huge case of greed.  It is certainly worth reading to get an idea of the devastating impact of Alzheimer's on not just the patient but the entire family, particularly in earlier times when it was not as well known, diagnosed, and discussed.

Title: We are Not Ourselves
Author: Matthew Thomas
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (2014), Edition: e-galley 640 pages 
Genre: Literary fiction
Subject: Adult on-set Alzheimer's
Source: e-galley from the publisher via Net Galley

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Review: The Free by Willy Vlautin

The stark title and cover of this books sets its tone, or so it seems if we are to believe the publisher's blurb:
Severely wounded in the Iraq war, Leroy Kervin has lived in a group home for eight years. Frustrated by the simplest daily routines, he finds his existence has become unbearable. An act of desperation helps him disappear deep into his mind, into a world of romance and science fiction, danger and adventure where he is whole once again. Freddie McCall, the night man at Leroy's group home, works two jobs yet still can't make ends meet. He's lost his wife and kids, and the house is next. Medical bills have buried him in debt, a situation that propels him to consider a lucrative '' and dangerous -- proposition. Pauline Hawkins, a nurse, cares for the sick and wounded, including Leroy. She also looks after her mentally ill elderly father. Yet she remains emotionally removed, until she meets a young runaway who touches something deep and unexpected inside her.
Out of all this despair and desperation Vlautin gives us a story of hope, a glorious portrayal of humanity and humaneness as ordinary people struggle to get by in a world that sometimes seems capable of only dumping more and more pain and problems on their already bent backs.  Still these characters are able to reach through their pain to various degrees to offer friendship, caring and hope.

As a reader, I was drawn into this story before I knew it, and could not put it down.  Although it is dark, depressing and overwhelmingly sad at times, I finished the book with a feeling of optimism that all was not lost.

I received a copy of this from the publisher as part of my participation in the panel for the Maine Readers Choice Award.   It is one that is on the long list, and will certainly receive a favorable consideration from me to make the short list.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Review: Redeployment by Phil Klay

Phil Klay's Redeployment takes readers to the frontlines of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, asking us to understand what happened there, and what happened to the soldiers who returned. Interwoven with themes of brutality and faith, guilt and fear, helplessness and survival, the characters in these stories struggle to make meaning out of chaos. 

 These stories reveal the intricate combination of monotony, bureaucracy, comradeship and violence that make up a soldier's daily life at war, and the isolation, remorse, and despair that can accompany a soldier's homecoming. Redeployment is poised to become a classic in the tradition of war writing. Across nations and continents, Klay sets in devastating relief the two worlds a soldier inhabits: one of extremes and one of loss. Written with a hard-eyed realism and stunning emotional depth, this work marks Phil Klay as one of the most talented new voices of his generation"--

I almost rebelled when I saw that another book about the current Middle East war was on the list of those I had to read for the Maine Readers Choice Awards panel, but books don't win the National Book Award unless they're good, so after seeing the publisher's blurb above, I began reading. This one is everything everyone says it is. Klay has given us a series of characters in inter-related short stories portraying hope and hopelessness, horror and honor and comradeship and patriotism and empty nothingness. It is as much a book about coming home as it is about re-deploying.

By showing us the struggles of several different players who don't always star in the war flicks, Klay allows us to soak up the utter distress experienced by troops who are sent into the fracas that is Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to ground troops engaged in the daily task of avoiding IEDs, we see a chaplain whose Christian beliefs are sorely tested by his inability to provide any true comfort or support to soldiers trying to deal with the emotional impacts of death and destruction; we get a glimpse of the non-military component of our foreign policy by accompanying a Foreign Service officer as he tries to help Iraquis "improve their lives" by learning to play baseball; and we accompany a mortuary officer as he collects the remains of victims -both US and Iraqi.

Redeployment is a book to be read, to be re-read, to be discussed, and most of all to be taken to heart by all who haven't had the privilege of serving.  It is only after absorbing some of the emotion Klay confronts us with that our rote offering of "thank you for your service" will have any depth.

My thanks to Penguin Press for furnishing the review copy of this one.

Title: Redeployment
Author: Phil Klay
Publisher:Penguin Press HC, The (2014), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 304 pages
Genre: Fiction - short stories
Subject: War stories
Setting: Iraq/Afghanistan
Source: review copy from the publisher
Why did I read this book now? It is on the longlist for the Maine Readers Choice Award

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Another snowy week .... another week of reading ....

This week as the snow piled higher, and the wind continued to blow,  we hunkered down to some wonderful reads, some old movies on TV, some homemade soups and breads, and  hours of lazy, "sunglare on the snow" relaxing and re-charging mental batteries.  Since we have a dependable "plow guy" and we park inside a garage, we have been able to get out when we need to - to weekly MahJongg sessions, doctors appointments, church, going to the Post Office to pick up badly needed new boots we ordered  and refreshing the milk and egg supply.  Then we just read, and knit, and enjoyed being retired.

As I looked through my book piles and lists, I discovered a few more I finished last month and didn't get posted, and then I managed to finish my reading of the 25 on the Maine Readers Choice Longlist.
It's going to be very difficult for me to choose my favorite top 10 - there were only actually about five I really would not want to advance, so we'll see how the rest of the panel feels.  I'll keep you posted.
Here's this week's offerings, including two I really didn't care for.

The Headmaster's Wife
by Thomas Christopher Greene

Fantastic read. A hard one to review without giving away the story. A New England boarding school setting always promises to provide room for intrigue.  You know you'll in for a good story when the publisher says
 Found wandering naked and mentally traumatized in Central Park, the headmaster of an elite boarding school imparts a story that is shaped by complicated memories, the evolution of a loving relationship, and a tragedy he cannot comprehend.
 Each character has a fatal flaw, and the story is told in a rather uneven pace - we start in the middle, and are constantly surprised whether looking back, being present, or looking forward. It's an incredible piece of story telling, not too much for plot or setting, but for the relationships of the characters. Definitely a keeper and and one I know I'll want to read again.

* * * * 

The Laughing Monsters
by Denis Johnson

I actually started this last year and put it was awful. I had to finish it although I found this book to be ugly, and physchologically draining. I only read it because somehow it made the long list of books nominated for the 2015 Maine Readers Choice Award. The subject matter was distasteful--the publisher says "soldiers of fortune". I'd say evil rogue egotists amoral characters, and the whole reading experience was one I hope I don't have to repeat too soon (better yet ever again.) Denis Johnson is supposed to be a good author, but he's not going on to my list of favorites if this cock-of-road, devil may care, how many people can we kill/deceive/cheat/screw is his normal genre. It got 1 1/2 stars because at least he can write in sentences.

* * * *

The Ploughmen
by Kim Zupan

Rarely do I abandon a book I receive from the Early Reviewer program on LibraryThing, but I gave this three tries in 4 months and finally threw in the towel. I wanted to read this - the story line sounded intriguing, and the setting is one I normally enjoy:

"A young sheriff and a hardened killer form an uneasy and complicated bond in this mesmerizing first novel set on the plains of Montana. Steeped in a lonesome Montana landscape as unyielding and raw as it is beautiful, Kim Zupan's The Ploughmen is a new classic in the literature of the American West."

The prose was so overblown, stilted and contrived that I COULD NOT READ IT. I had two other trusted reader friends try it and they both handed it back after a few days and said what amounted to YUCK. Mr/Ms Zupan needed an editor who wasn't afraid to point out that all sentences don't need to be compound, that adjectives don't all have to be multisyllabic, and that not all readers are going to want to stop a dozen times per page to look up a new word. A shame, because I have a feeling the story is a good one.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

And Yet More Snow! And Still more Books

What a week this was! This is the view from our deck to the river BEFORE we got ten more inches mid-week after I took this shot. We had two major snow storms, and a fantastic Super Bowl game to watch. The fact that our favorite team won made it even better. We managed to finally get all the Christmas decorations taken down, sorted, packed away, and sent up to the attic on our dumb waiter. Tutu was the lucky one who got to be at the receiving end of this evolution. As I waited in the very very very cold attic, Mr. Tutu loaded up boxes and pulled the ropes to send stuff up. Since I knew where I wanted each box to go, I got to take the boxes off the lift and stow them away. It was actually fun to have things well organized and cleaned up.

In between cleaning, piling wood, and prepping food for our friends who came to watch the game with us, I still found time to read. I'm now down to just one more books on the Maine Reader's Choice Awards candidates, and then will have to do some real soul-searching to pick 10 of the 25 to urge forward to the short-list. It's going to be difficult.  Here's what I finished this week:

The High Divide
by Lin Enger

Westerns are not usually my thing.  That said, Lin Enger's sparcely written story of a family in turmoil during the late 1800's on the high plains of the Midwest had me hooked from the beginning.  Set against an historical backdrop of the demise of the bison herds, the mistreatment of the Plains Indians with Custer's last stand on the edge's of the story, this one is at once about finding redemption (the father), forgiveness (the mother), and coming of age (the two sons).  We get to hitch rides on railroad box cars, learn about the quests of early Smithsonian curators to gather specimens, ride wild ponies to hunt buffalo, sleep under stars during storms.

It was similar to the epic Come Spring our book club read last month showing how hearty those who came before us must have been.   High Divide is definitely one that I'll want to re-read some day.  In spite of its lean prose, there's a lot in this one.  It definitely won't disappoint anyone looking to explore the area, the time frame, or sink into a good story of family relationships.

* * * *

Cocaine Blues
by Kerry Greenwood
a Phryne Fisher Mystery

Several of my reading friends have given this series good marks for fun, and easy reading.   Kindle had this first in the series for 99¢ so it was easy to try it out.  Now  I can't wait to read the next one in the series.   Phryne Fisher is a fun woman - amateur detective, air pilot, racing car driver, smoker, drinker, not above some good gratuitous sex, etc etc etc.   Plus, she's filthy rich with a poor little rich girl's view of the world that says all women should be given the same opportunities she has, so let's make it happen.  In this first one she's off to Australia to find out why a young Englishwoman seems to be very ill with no one to figure out why.   Great characters, many of whom I'm betting will become regulars in future adventures.  Reminds me a lot of the Maisie Dobbs series.

* * * * 

A Man Called Ove
by Fredrik Backman

Slow start, but then quickly settled into a delightful bittersweet story of Ove, a lonely, hypercritical widower whose aim in life is to be sure that everyone does everything correctly. No deviations of laws or rules are to be allowed in Ove's life. When he decides that he can't go on any longer without his darling wife (the only woman who ever understood him), he tries to kill himself. The first attempt is thwarted, as is the second, and the third, and in fact everytime Ove tries to find a way to dispatch himself with a minimum of mess and bother, life happens instead.

This is a story of friendship, of acceptance, of loneliness, with a cast of marvelous characters who relate to each other with the ability to bring a neighborhood together and bring a lonely man to the awareness of his worth. It's very reminiscent of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Ove is one of the most loveable old curmudgeons I've encountered in a while.

* * * *

And finally............I also finished Redeployment by Phil Klay.  This National Book Award winner deserves a post all its own.  Look for one mid-week, but don't wait to go get your hands on a copy.  It is a definite 5 star read. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Review: The Thing About December

I loved Ryan's other novel, The Spinning Heart, winner of the Irish Book Awards Book of the Year last year. This one was actually written earlier but just published in December 2014. I can't even begin to say which is better. I certainly will be reading anything Donal Ryan writes.

The Thing About December features one of the most loveable characters I've come across in a long time. Johnsey Cunliffe is a grown boy who would probably be labeled today as "developmentally disadvantaged". He has a job, he has a good home with loving parents on a run-down farm, but he is often bullied by other punks in town who sense the weakness in him. Johnsey has a difficult time talking, forming words to express his thoughts, and when both his parents die in a short time span, he finds himself alone in his house, beset by many who want to get their hands on the land his parents have left him. When, after a mugging by neighborhood thugs, he lands in the hospital, temporarily blinded.   There he meets Nurse "Lovely Voice"and  his life changes.

This is a bittersweet, lovely, heartwarming and heartbreaking story of a year in the life of a gentle man who simply wants a friend, wants to be understood, wants to be sure his parents would be proud of him.   He just wants to let others know how he feels and do the right thing.

An author to be read, and a story to be relished. Another 5 star stunner.