Monday, July 26, 2010

What I've Been Reading (and Not Reviewing), Part I

I've been reading constantly: on the subway in the morning, at lunch, on the subway home, and late into the evening. I've found myself enchanted by stories, drawn in by narratives, thinking long after I close a book. But as soon as I end one, I've been quickly picking up another, swept up anew and forgetting to pen some thoughts. I am going to provide some short reviews of some my recent reads. And I am also going to post some longer reviews for a handful of my recent reads - stay tuned!

1) The Kids Are All Right by Diana and Liz Welch

I literally devoured this book. I stayed up to about 4 in the morning, needing to finish. Once I finished the book, I was on the authors' website, searching for more answersl. I suppose that is the thing with reading memoir - afterwards you need to know how the story has turned out. When I read fiction I can choose to believe in a certain ending. But with memoir you get drawn into a spellbinding story and a need for closure.

This memoir is engaging, probing, fascinating. I think it helped me a little to understand why people get drawn into reality television: seeing other people's humanity is engaging in such a different way than fiction. The Kids are Alright is the story of four siblings who went from a storybook childhood in a beautiful house in Bedford New York to being split up and in unbearably precarious situations. First their handsome father dies in a car accident. The rumor mill leaves them with lingering questions. And the family's subsequent debt leaves them with even more. Then their soap opera actress mother who has had to learn how to support her four children alone, is diagnozed with cancer. While their mother works on a soap and receives treatment, the oldest experiements with drugs in college and the second oldest daughter takes on the role of mom to the youngest sister who is around six or seven. After their mother dies the older siblings (Amanda who is 19, Liz who is 16) are left deciding what will happen to their reduced family of four. Believing that the stability of their hometown is important, they choose to split up and place the youngest Diana (who is 7) with a family Liz used to babysit for. The brother is sent off to a boarding school for learning disabled boys but no one is willing to be his guardian until their mother's old friend Karen steps in.

I love the way this story is told in alternate voices. All four siblings pipe in, correcting and conflicting one another's stories. The style felt reminiscient to Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.

2) If I am Missing or Dead: A Sister's Love Story by Janine Latus
I have mixed feelings about this book. The story itself sounded fascinating. In April 2002, Janine Latus's youngest sister, Amy, wrote a note and taped it to the inside of her desk drawer. "Today Ron Ball and I are romantically involved," it read, "but I fear I have placed myself at risk in a variety of ways. Based on his criminal past, writing this out just seems like the smart thing to do. If I am missing or dead this obviously has not protected me..."

I found reading the book harrowing to read. I felt so soundly in the author's shoes that her own low self-esteem seemed to be taking up space in my own body. And yet I found it hard to believe that she took so much ongoing mental abuse from her husband. So maybe it wasn't her self esteem that I took on, but her discomfort. It was very discomforting at times to read this memoir. The story, while about a sister's loss of her sister, is really about explaining why Amy and Janine, two sisters wound up in a series of relationships with abusive men. The authors childhood was so different from my own, and it was fascinating to learn about a large Catholic family and individuals who couldn't assume they would attend college. I applaud the author for wanting to help raise awareness about domestic violence and I think she is a talented story-teller. But at times I found her so frustrating. She is willing to let all of her flaws hang out and I suppose that is brave. But its hard to understand someone who would accept daily weigh ins from their husband, or choose to so easily cede control about major decisions such as whether to have children or whether to have plastic surgery.

3) Saving CeCe Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman

There was something incredibly charming about this story. I can't put my finger exactly on what it reminded me of. At moments it seemed Candidesque. It also reminded me of some sort of YA story or fairy tale. All of the female characters are memorable and the setting Savannah in the 1960s is fascinating. I would definitely say this is an engaging read with larger than life characters but it isn't particularly deep or thought-provoking.

4) Short Girls by Bich Minh Nguyen

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I loved the perspective provided about the unique experiences of second generation Vietnamese Americans (caught between two different worlds), as well as the experiences of "short" girls (and short men) living in a world designed for taller people and in need of the Luong Arm. Nguyen is a gifted writer. Interestingly, while this novel focuses on the contrasts between two disparate sisters--the older goody-goody and the "slacker," who never graduated college and made some questionable choices--something many other novels focus on including Jennifer Weiner's latest (which I will be reviewing soon!) it felt fresh and realistic without ever bordering on cliche. While I wanted to understand what propelled these two sisters in such different directions, I didn't question the reality. I loved that this book provided me with a front row view tour of the mid west (Michigan to be exact), the life of an immigration lawyer and the colors, behaviors and customs of Vietnamese Americans. This book swelled with an authenticity and vibrancy that made it a enjoyable and thought-provoking read.

5) Any Bitter Thing by Monica Wood

I really enjoyed this story and it was a truly novel read for me since a Priest is a central character in the novel. At the heart of this novel is a man who is granted custody of his young niece, who has lost both her father and mother. He is a Father in church, but he becomes a father in every other sense when he takes in his young niece. While he is a central character and his love for his niece is so vividly evident, for most of the novel he is just a memory. His niece, now grown, is rooted to the town she formerly lived in with her beloved Uncle who she was taken away from at nine years old, shortly before he passed away. The adult niece, a guidance counselor married to a man she believes is about to leave, goes for a run in the rain and is hit by a car. While recovering in the hospital, she sees a ghost of her Uncle and the experience sets her on a path which leads her to revisit her childhood and the lies that structured her tumultuous childhood. I highly recommend this book. It was a surprising gem. The book is filled with imagery and tons of surprises. I was truly surprised with how much I came to enjoy the unfolding story.

6) This is How by M.J. Hyland

I am almost positive I've read Hyland's first novel. She is a highly praised author and while reluctant at first to pick up this novel, I found it engaging while sitting at the library and opening the narrative. I was truly shocked with the direction of this story. And I found the turns in the plot so abrupt and unexpected that I found myself disappointed the story was not going to progress in the direction I imagined. I found myself flipping around great a deal in the second half of the book, wanting closure for the story, even as I found it so vexing and off-putting. Maybe I missed something with this one, but I really can't say I enjoyed it.

7) The Season of Second Choices by Diane Meier

This is a story about a college professor who leaves life in NYC for a position at Amherst College, and a chance to reinvent herself. It is a coming of age story of a forty-eight year-old woman. Considering that my other blog is called adultelescence, this novel was truly designed for a reader like me. The main character is evidence that it's never too late for someone to change.

What I really enjoyed about this book is the way it melded diverse topics. As one of the blurbs on Amazon says: "Diane Meier's liberating novel values both the arcane scholarship of college professors and the practical, artistic insights of handymen and real estate agents." This novel truly is liberating in the way it thrusts together so many different elements of modern life. There is a motley cast of characters: "coyotes," middle-aged professors on the prowl for a fresh meat, a zany thirty-year old handyman with true talent who lives with his mother, single female professors who are cousins and live together, funny secretaries and small town eccentrics. There is discussion of a unique new curriculum, but also a focus on home repair. There is physical violence but also various layers of romance. And there are surprises at every turn.

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