Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

27746288I finished Goodbye, Vitamin on a screened-in porch on Folly Beach, South Carolina. I didn’t read very much on my vacation. Something about taking a vacation with a family group makes my attention feel very scattered, and I only picked up my books sporadically. But this is a short novel, and I was already a third of the way into it when we left for the beach. I was determined to finish at least one book while I was there. I’m glad I read it, but I don’t think I’m tempted to pick it up again.

Naomi, Deepika, and other bloggers I follow have read and reviewed this one favorably, so I knew I would probably enjoy it, despite the heavy subject matter. Fresh from a really tough break-up with her fiance, Joel, and at an impasse with her career, Ruth comes home (for a year) to help her mom care for her dad, who is in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Her dad, a former college professor and recovering alcoholic, is still under the impression he’s teaching classes because some of his students get together and take a fake “class” at various locations so that he’s not miserable. Ruth has a complicated relationship with all of her family members, including her younger brother Linus. In years past, her dad cheated on her mom and then there’s the whole alcoholism thing. But Ruth kind of idolized her father despite all of this, and seeing him decline is heartbreaking.

This sounds like a tremendous bummer. But somehow the mood of the book is never too sentimental or depressing. It’s quirky, because Ruth has a deadpan, matter-of-fact tone, and she is always including these odd little observations of her new strange life that have nothing to do with her family. For instance,

I see, walking on the other side of the street today, a man with enormous pecs. They look as inflated as popcorn bags right after microwaving.

The phrase “born humans” is what I think of whenever I see someone wildly different than me.

Fetal circulation is different from that of born humans. Fetuses have fine hair all over them that born humans don’t have. Fetuses do a thing like breathing that isn’t actually breathing – the motions develop their lungs. They take their first breath  when they’re born and that’s when the whole system changes incredibly: unborn to born.

We’re born humans, I think, about the huge-pec’ed man. With our functioning circulatory systems. Breathing, walking, having real hair. Just look at us.

Ruth is also slowly working her way back into life after the devastating breakup. She is on the verge of being detached, but this is probably a coping mechanism of her situation, I think. Her father gives her a book that he kept when she was little, where he wrote down the cute little things she said and did. That in and of itself is enough to trigger my tear ducts! But then, near the end of the book, Ruth starts keeping a book for her dad of the comical/strange things he says and does. When I realized this, I absolutely BURST into tears. I wailed and said to my husband, who was sitting on the porch next to me, “I don’t know if I can take this!” But I was so close to finishing I pressed on.  It’s a terribly crappy and unfair situation, one that everyone knows won’t have a happy ending. But in concentrating on the little things and living in the present moment every day, Ruth and her family come together in very moving and realistic ways.

In the end I am glad I read this. It was something I wouldn’t have picked up without the recommendation of bloggers I trust. I’m a sensitive reader, I cry easily, and sometimes I tend to shield myself from sad books. This one was really moving and tender without being maudlin or manipulative. I appreciate that so much. Writing this review made me start to cry again, just thinking about Ruth and her dad. Rachel Khong is a talented author who has created a family I didn’t necessarily want to join but one that I definitely believed and cared for. Four stars, sad but worth it.

 

Advertisements

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

I have NO idea what made me pick up My Name is Lucy Barton.  I didn’t even have it on my “To-Read” shelf on Goodreads!  Or rather, I did have it on my To-Read shelf, but somewhere along the line I had taken it off in one of my periodic purges.  Perhaps I just wanted something short to read (it’s 191 pages in hardcover.)  Behind on my Goodreads Challenge, I probably wanted the feeling of accomplishment that finishing a book can bring.  Once I started reading this, I didn’t want to stop.  I just loved it.

25893709This is a small story, told in snippets, of Lucy’s time in the hospital battling a serious infection, and how her emotionally and physically distant mother came to stay with her there for a short time.  It’s breathtaking in its spareness, with small moments of heartbreaking beauty surfacing from Lucy’s memories of that time.  We also get glimpses of her horrible, impoverished Midwestern childhood – just enough to show us their tragedy but not enough for the reader to become overwhelmed.

There are times now, and my life has changed so completely, that I think back on the early years and I find myself thinking:  It was not that bad.  Perhaps it was not.  But there are times too – unexpected – when walking down a sunny sidewalk, or watching the top of a tree bend in the wind, or seeing a November sky close down over the East River, I am suddenly filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep that a sound might escape from my mouth and I will step into the nearest clothing store and talk with a stranger about the shape of sweaters newly arrived.  This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can’t possibly be true. 

She escaped her upbringing because a teacher introduced her to reading, and she fell in love with books.  Also, she stayed as long as she could at school each day because it was warm, and her house had no heat.  She earned a full scholarship to a college in Chicago, and when she came home for Thanksgiving, she couldn’t fall asleep at night because she “was afraid I would wake and find myself once more in this house and I would be in this house forever, and it seemed unbearable to me.”  We get a glimpse of a horrific incident between her father and her brother when the brother was caught wearing his mother’s clothes, and we are told of times that Lucy was locked inside the family truck, before she was old enough for school, either as punishment or as a substitute for daycare.  Gilbert expertly portrays a young child’s terror at being left alone and thinking that no one is coming back to save her.

But this book sounds so bleak when I write of these things!  Where is the beauty, you ask?  What made you love this book, Laila?  Well, the beauty is in the small ways in which Lucy and her mother fumble and try to connect while she’s in the hospital, the gentleness of Lucy’s doctor, the way Lucy falls in love with New York City, in the way she writes of her first husband and their early days.  It’s in the way Lucy clawed her way out of a horrible life.  Strout is simply a master as gutting the reader with the simplest of images and the most precise sentences.

What else made this book resonate so strongly for me?  Well, maybe it was the feeling I got while reading it, one of intense longing for my childhood.  My childhood was pretty good overall, no traumas like the ones Lucy faced.  My parents and extended family always loved me, of that I never once doubted.  But my parents are divorced, and I admit that if they told me today that they would get back together I would be overjoyed.  I know that my relationship with my mother has never fully recovered.  This is a story of mothers and daughters, a very specific, troubled mother-daughter relationship, but a reader like me can feel echoes of my own past here.  I also felt the nostalgia for the places of my childhood, like my grandparents’ house, which is no longer in the family, as they have both passed away.  So much of my life was spent there in middle Tennessee, in summers and on holidays, and now it’s just gone.  We have no reason to travel there any more, and it breaks my heart.  Lucy’s past was awful, but there were moments when she seemed like a little girl rather than a grown woman with kids, and she just wanted the security and reassurance of her mother’s love, like any of us want that from time to time.  What was most heartbreaking was the sense that she was worth more than the tiny scraps her mother was able to give her.

This was a book that connected deeply with me, but I’ve read Goodreads reviews and blog reviews where this was not the case.  So I don’t know – maybe it will resonate with you or may not.  I love that it took me by surprise, and that I randomly picked it up after disregarding it for so long.  I devoured it in two days, and still I wanted more, but I also felt like I knew Lucy enough to see her as a fully formed character.  She was doing the best with what she’d been given – she had flaws, but she also has great strength.  (I haven’t even mentioned that she became a writer!  There’s this whole side story line with a New York City author who inspires Lucy, it’s beautifully rendered.)  I immediately checked out Strout’s follow-up that came out this year, Anything is Possible.  I’m trying to not get my hopes up too much, trying to let it have room to surprise me in a good way as well.  My Name is Lucy Barton is going on my upcoming year-end Best Of List.

Have you read this, or any other of Strout’s novels?  What was the last book that surprised you in a good way?

 

 

Be Buried in the Rain by Barbara Michaels

I read a lot of Barbara Michaels and Victoria Holt in high school; both are authors who wrote Gothic style novels, the former more contemporary and the latter historical fiction.  For this year’s RIP Challenge (it’s November 1 – I’m sliding in with this review just a day late!) I chose Michaels’ 1985 novel, Be Buried in the Rain.  I chose it because I didn’t think I’d read it back in the day, and frankly, because it was short.  I also wanted some mind candy.

140455I got what I came for!  It starts off with an unsettling event – a local driver finding two skeletons in the middle of the road, dressed in moldy clothing from someone’s attic – one dressed as a woman, and a much smaller set of bones belonging to a baby.  Then we meet our heroine, medical student Julie Newcomb, the granddaughter of a mean old matriarch named Martha.  Martha has had a series of strokes and needs constant care but refuses to leave Maidenwood, the family home in Virginia that’s seen much better days. Julie’s mother persuades her to stay with her for the summer, relieving the live-in nurse, Shirley Johnson, during the afternoons and evenings.  Martha’s horrible, and Julie only agreed to take the job out of guilt and the fact that her cousin Matt, a state senator, is paying her.  She has nothing but bad memories of the few years she lived at Maidenwood as a child when her mother was trying to rebuild her life after a divorce.

There’s a remote possibility that the remains might be related to a very early British settlement connected to Jamestown, and, coincidentally, Julie’s former flame, archaeologist Alan Petranek, is the one Matt called in to dig on the property in search of more evidence!  Alan, honestly, is a non-entity.  He’s supposed to be handsome, tan, an Indiana Jones type, but he’s kind of insufferable if you ask me.  There was a beef between Julie and Alan from back in the day, so they trade barbs in the beginning, but then all too quickly the old attraction begins to flare up.  It’s all pretty chaste, which is probably why it made for good reading in high school.

51QYxQl9fyL._SX308_BO1,204,203,200_So there’s the mystery of the bones – who disinterred them?  Where did they come from? How old are they and who are they?  Is there really evidence of a historical British settlement?  There’s also a lot of family drama between Julie and Martha.  Julie starts having flashbacks of repressed traumatic memories from her childhood years spent at Maidenwood.  As Julie starts to dig deeper into the mystery, helping Alan and his grad student team, spooky and threatening things start happening to her.  She adopts a dog, a stray mutt she christens Elvis, and he’s a fun addition to the story.  (There’s even an incident in which Elvis himself becomes the target of an unknown would-be assassin.) Could the super-strictly religious housekeeper and her husband be behind the threats? Could it be the son of the nurse?  Or could Alan himself be behind some of the hijinks?  Everyone seems to be a suspect at some point. There’s a lot of small-town Southern family secrecy and gossip.  Julie herself is a likable character, feisty and strong in ways that I wasn’t sure a 23 year-old student would realistically be.  But I enjoyed her and rooted for her to slay her inner demons, stand up to Martha, and solve the mystery.

This was a good choice for an atmospheric, gently spooky Fall read.  The very last page introduces a supernatural element that was alluded to but not explicitly portrayed in the rest of the novel, which makes for a fun new way to reconsider what’s happened.  If you’ve never read Barbara Michaels before and you want some light, Gothic entertainment, give this one a try.

(Note:  Barbara Michaels is pen name for Barbara Mertz, who also wrote under the pseudonym Elizabeth Peters – she wrote the Amelia Peabody mystery series.  Mertz was an Egyptologist!)  You can read more about her here.)

Reading Ireland Month: The Visitor by Maeve Brennan

The Visitor, a novella, was written sometime in the 1940’s but just published in 2000, after being discovered in papers acquired by Notre Dame University. I learned about Maeve Brennan only last year, from a review of The Rose Garden on Cathy’s blog 746 Books.   Brennan was the daughter of an Easter Rising rebellion leader, and moved as a teen with her family to the U.S. in 1934, when her father was appointed as Ireland’s first ambassador to the United States.  Apparently she became part of the New York City literati and was rumored to be inspiration for Truman Capote’s character Holly Golightly. She worked for The New Yorker, writing pieces for “The Talk of the Town” and her own short stories. After a brief marriage to the editor of the magazine, St. Clare McKelway, she drifted into mental problems and homelessness, dying in obscurity in 1993.

41oRlBr3jeL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Visitor is a dark, atmospheric volume about a supremely dysfunctional family. Anastasia, a twenty-two year-old young woman, is coming to stay with her grandmother, Mrs. King, after being away for six years.  We learn that she was in Paris with her mother, a woman with whom her grandmother did not get along, and that her mother has recently died.  Her father, who stayed in Dublin, has recently passed away as well.  Anastasia is adrift, returning to her childhood home, even though it becomes clear that it was not a place of happiness for her or her family.

She kissed her grandmother hastily, avoiding her eyes.  The grandmother did not move from the door of the sitting room.  She stood in the doorway, having just got up from the fireside and her reading, and contemplated Anastasia and Anastasia’s luggage crowding the hall.  She was still the same, with her delicate and ruminative and ladylike face, and her hands clasped formally in front of her.  Anastasia thought, She is waiting for me to make some mistake.

Anastasia’s parents marriage was not a happy one.  A large age difference and a difference in temperament, possibly mental problems, are alluded to in flashbacks.  Her grandmother blames Anastasia for her father’s death, or at the very least harbors resentment towards her for following her mother to Paris and not coming back to Ireland. When Anastasia  expresses a desire to remain with her grandmother, she shuts her down resolutely, coldly.

“I’m afraid that you’ve been counting too much on me.  You mustn’t do that.  I have no home to offer you.  This is a changed house here now.  I see no one whatsoever.”

She smiled with anger.

“I stopped seeing them after she ran off, when I found them asking questions of Katherine in the hall outside.  I go out to mass, that’s all.  When I got your telegram, I hadn’t the heart to stop you.  You need a change.  It’s natural that you should want to pay a visit here.  But more than that, no.  It might have been different, maybe, if you’d been with me when he died.   But you weren’t here.”

This is pretty much what Anastasia confronts as soon as she arrives to the house.  She drifts aimlessly through her days, taking walks, shopping for Christmas gifts, and visiting an elderly friend of her grandmother’s, Miss Kilbride, the only person her Mrs. King has over to tea.  Miss Kilbride tells her some of her own secrets, and makes an unusual request of Anastasia in the event of her passing on.  Will Anastasia honor Miss Kilbride’s request?  Will she somehow persuade her grandmother to let her stay, or will she return to Paris?  Is Anastasia even a trustworthy narrator?

reading-ireland-month_2017I was very much impressed by this little gem, I have to say.  Not a word is wasted.  The writing is assured, elegant, evocative.  I was left with questions, but was mesmerized by the steady hand with which Brennan portrayed what was left of this supremely dysfunctional family.  I felt sorry for everyone in it, from Katherine, the determinedly kind housekeeper, to the thwarted Miss Kilbride, who had disappointments of her own she never recovered from.  I even felt sympathy for Mrs. King, who lived a sad and circumscribed life.  It seems such a shame to live a life with so little room for joy, and so little capacity for forgiveness.  I somehow hope that Anastasia is able to break the cycle of sadness that her family has bequeathed to her, but we are not privy to that outcome, if it is to pass.

I’m so glad to have learned of Maeve Brennan, and intend to read everything of hers  and about her that I can find.  What a fascinating life!  What a powerful writer!  This was a terrific choice for Reading Ireland Month.  To read more blog posts about Irish novels, films, and culture, click here.