Reading Ireland Month: All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan

I engineered these passions, these trials, to convince myself I was living a life.  Even misery was better than boredom.  

When we meet Melody Shee she is in her thirties, living in Limerick, Ireland, and twelve weeks pregnant.  The father is not her husband but the seventeen year-old Traveller boy whom she tutors in reading.  Her husband has left her, and she’s contemplating suicide.  We learn that she carries the blame for a childhood friend’s death inside her, and has for years.  We learn that she and her husband have suffered through two miscarriages, and he decided to get a vasectomy to spare them both any more pain.  We learn that her father and her mother didn’t really have a happy marriage, but that her father is the one person who loves and supports her perfectly.  He’s the one person whom she doesn’t want to disappoint, but she can’t quite ever feel worthy of his love.29752909

True confession time:  I almost abandoned All We Shall Know somewhere between pages 50 and 77.  Frankly, three things kept me going.  1.  It was a gift from a blogger friend, 2. it was short (186 pages,) and 3. I realized that, while it began bleakly, it was most certainly NOT dull.

I have the marvelous blogger Fiction Fan to thank for helping me to realize the last bit, in a comment exchange on my previous post.  She said she doesn’t really abandon books for being too sad, but rather for being dull.  It made me reconsider All We Shall Know in a totally knew light.  I realized that while I was saddened by the events in the novel, I was also invested.  I wanted to know what was going to happen to Melody Shee and her baby.  I alternately sympathized with and cringed at Melody’s passions and anger, but I couldn’t stop reading about her.

This is a lyrical, beautifully written book, full of sadness, full of intense emotions, and full of life.  There is a compelling, propulsive quality to the writing, and Ryan is masterful at making the reader care about a heroine that is troubled, to say the least.  Some may find her unlikable. I did myself at times.  But she is a fully realized character, someone who has suffered, made profound mistakes, and carries their weight with her always.  I also marveled at Ryan’s skill in depicting pregnancy.  It made me recall my own experience, the bodily sensations that change and surprise, and even made me have a dream about being pregnant.  The chapters begin at Week Twelve and end at Week Forty, so as the novel progresses the impending birth comes closer and closer.

Melody’s life takes a turn after meeting another Traveller, a young woman named Mary Crothery, a distant relative of the baby’s father.  She also turns to Melody for help learning how to read, and they strike up an unusual and fascinating friendship.  I found that her introduction into the narrative was a real turning point for me in that her character lightened the story up considerably, and softened Melody’s abrasiveness.  Her story line is fraught with peril as well, as she’s left her husband from another Traveler clan, and his family doesn’t like it one bit.  Yet even Melody’s sweet father is enchanted by her.

And the sky and the earth and the cut grass and the chirruping of birds and the low drone of insects and the slant light across my father’s happy face and the gleam of wonder in Mary Crothery’s eyes and the smell of the morning air and the weight of life inside me all seemed even, and easy, and messless, and perfect, and right, and every deficit seemed closed in that moment.

I have a Goodreads shelf labelled “Sad But Worth It” and this resides firmly on that shelf.  It’s a beautiful, raw book about impossible messy relationships and the hope for redemption.  I know I won’t soon forget fierce, flawed Melody, and I will definitely read Ryan again.

Have you ever had this kind of reading experience before, when a book you almost abandoned turned around for you?  Do you have a recommendation for an Irish writer or novel you love? Let me know in the comments.

reading-ireland-month_2017Cathy at 746 Books once again hosts Reading Ireland Month, a month dedicated to exploring all that’s good in Irish books and culture.  Check out all the fun here.

Juliet Takes A Breath by Gabby Rivera

I really enjoyed reading Gabby Rivera’s Juliet Takes a Breath.  Several bloggers I follow had  recommended this coming-of-age novel and I thought it would be a good pick for my goal of reading more LGBTQ authors in 2017.  What I didn’t anticipate was what a lively, energetic voice the character of Juliet would have.  I didn’t anticipate the extent to which I would identify with Juliet, despite not being Puerto Rican or a lesbian. This novel truly was a breath of fresh air.28648863

The bones of the story is this:  Juliet is a freshman in college, and she’s just come out to her close-knit family in the Bronx the day before leaving for a summer internship in Portland, Oregon.  She obtained the internship with feminist author Harlowe Brisbane by writing a beautiful, funny, soul-baring letter to her, which the book opens with.

I’ve got a secret.  I think it’s going to kill me.  Sometimes I hope it does.  How do I tell my parents that I’m gay?  Gay sounds just as weird as feminist. How do you tell the people that breathed you into existence that you’re the opposite of what they want you to be?  And I’m supposed to be ashamed of being gay, but now that I’ve had sex with other girls, I don’t feel any shame at all.  In fact, it’s pretty fucking amazing.  So how am I supposed to come out and deal with everyone else’s sadness?  … You did this to me.  I wasn’t gonna come out.  I was just gonna be that family member who’s gay and no one ever talks about it even though EVERYONE knows they share a bed with their “roommate.”  Now everything is different.

While Juliet is in Portland she is dealing with the emotional fallout of her coming out to her family and also trying to maintain a long-distance relationship with her first girlfriend. She’s researching forgotten feminist heroines for Harlowe and learning new terms like “PGPs” (preferred gender pronouns.) She smokes weed and drinks soy milk and flirts with cute baristas and librarians.  She learns that while her idol may be an expert on feminism, she is still clueless when it comes to dealing with her white privilege.

What I really liked about this novel was the fact that we not only got to join Juliet on her journey, geographically and spiritually, but we also got to see a loving family grappling emotionally with her coming out.  There are some honest, wrenching phone conversations between Juliet and her mom, and she finds a safe haven later in the book with one of her aunts and cousins on a trip to Miami, FL.  I loved all the references to the music Juliet listened to – her description of Ani Difranco’s music absolutely cracked me up. (“Her music evoked images of Irish bagpipes and stray cats howling in heat.”) I loved seeing Portland through Juliet’s eyes.  I’ve visited the city a couple of times and could see Powell’s Books and Pioneer Courthouse Square in my mind.  I identified with Juliet in that I was once a fiercely feminist young woman in a conservative environment, eager to experience life in a more liberal place.  When I got to my small liberal arts college I, too, felt out of my depth with all the new-to-me terms and language people were using to describe themselves.  I liked seeing her wrestle with her lesbian identity, her feminism, and her brownness, trying to find a place for herself where the intersection of all three identifiers gets messy.  All sorts of characters in this book are earnestly trying to be good to one another, which is a refreshing tone in modern fiction.  It was funny profane, and sweet.  I think this book would be a lifeline to a young person trying to deal with their sexuality.  It’s an excellent pick for anyone looking to diversify and shake up their reading.  I’m glad I read it.

For a brilliant take on this book, check out Naz’s great review here.

Have you read Juliet Takes A Breath?  Do you have any other recommendations for a coming-of-age story or a novel by a LGBTQ author?  Have you ever visited Portland, Oregon?  Let me know in the comments.

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

So they sat beneath the statue of Christopher Columbus, side by side, hand in hand, surrounded by skateboarders and young lovers  and homeless people, looking north as cars came around the circle and went up Central Park West.  The spring air was crisper than she would have wished, but not crisp enough to send her rushing into the subway.  And even if it had been, she would have stayed in the circle, because it wasn’t every night she got a chance to enjoy the sounds of the city and its millions of lights blinking around her, reminding her that she was still living her dream.

fc9ef780abf3d053a5beb8a9289d2ec9I waffled a bit in the middle of reading Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers. As I wrote in a previous post, there was a moment when the pace lagged a bit, when I wasn’t sure it was holding my interest.  But I wanted to finish the novel, and I am so glad that I did.  I ended up giving it four stars on Goodreads.  It was a book that surprised me with its simple, quiet beauty and its wistful emotional tone.

It’s the story of the Jonga family from Cameroon, a husband (Jende,) wife (Neni) and their six year-old son, living and trying to make it in New York City.  Jende’s cousin Winston has come to America some time before, and is now a successful lawyer.  He sponsored Jende’s visa and tried to help him acclimate to the culture shock.  Jende worked and saved as a taxi driver and was able to bring his family to America;  Neni, hoping to become a pharmacist, has a student visa.  As the novel opens it’s 2008.  Through Winston’s connections Jende is hired as the chauffeur of Clark, a top banking executive at Lehmann Brothers on Wall Street.  Clark and Jende get along so well that Clark’s wife Cindy ends up hiring Neni to work for her as well as a part-time caregiver to their son, Mighty. Things are going well, and the Jonga family’s standard of living improves.  Over time, both Jongas become witness to troubles in the Edwards family.  Their wealth and privilege conceals great loneliness and disconnection.  As Lehmann Brothers implodes, the lives of both families are thrown into turmoil.  Both Jende and Neni make questionable decisions as their family’s security is threatened.

It was easy to relate to Jende and Neni – they worked hard, saved willingly, and wanted to provide a better future for their family. They enjoyed the material and cultural gifts that living in New York City could provide, even as they marveled at how much money people spent on things here, and what that same amount would purchase back home in Cameroon.

She hadn’t expected the prices in New York to be the same as in Limbe, but she found it difficult not to be bothered whenever she bought a pound of shrimp for the equivalent of 5000 CFA francs – the monthly rent for a room with a shared outdoor bathroom and toilet for all the residents in a caraboat building.  You have to stop comparing prices, Jende advised her whenever she brought up the issue.  You keep comparing prices like that, he’d say, you’ll never buy anything in America.  The best thing to do in this country, whenever you enter a store, is to ignore the exchange rate, ignore the advertisements, ignore what everyone else is eating and drinking and talking about these days, and buy only the things you need.

Their struggle to achieve the “American Dream,” to stay here in this country and try for a better life, even if it meant doing some things that compromised their dignity – this moved me greatly.  Learning a little bit about Cameroon (a country I admit that I am woefully ignorant about) and placing myself in the Jendes’s shoes made me reflect on my own unearned blessings, simply by random luck of birthplace.

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          Mbue

It would have been easy for Mbue to portray Clark and Cindy Edwards as heartless, mindless buffoons, but she gave them shades of complexity and depth.  They were undoubtedly wealthy people by any standards, but they were not cruel or mean-spirited; rather, they seemed a bit clueless about the way the rest of the world lived.  I especially enjoyed the rapport that Jende and Clark had.  There is a lovely scene where both men sit on a bench in Hudson River Park and watch the sunset together.  I was surprised by how much Clark opened up to Jende.  Sadly, it seemed that he could talk to Jende in a way that he couldn’t connect with his wife.

Mbue puts very human faces on complicated issues of immigration and class privilege in America.  Good fiction is one of the best tools we have to foster empathy among people of different countries, races, and economic classes. How I wish I could make certain politicians read this compassionate, humane, emotionally intelligent novel!  How I wish that more Americans read immigrants’ stories, both fictional and biographical, period. But I can try to take solace in recommending this particular novel to library patrons and to you, dear blog reader.  It is engaging literary fiction with appealing characters and plenty of questionable choices to ponder and debate.  It would make an excellent pick for a book club.  I now want to read and learn more about Cameroon, and I eagerly await Ms. Mbue’s next book.

 

 

 

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

Aubrey wondered if they were the only ones who felt that they didn’t know their mothers.  Maybe mothers were inherently vast and unknowable.

You know that bookish phrase you see frequently in reviews – “I wanted to like this more than I did?”  Like most cliches, there’s a reason you see it a lot: it describes a real feeling. The Mothers by Brit Bennett was one of 2016’s most highly lauded and promoted novels, and many of the book bloggers I follow had high praise for it.  To top it off, it has one of the most appealing covers of any hardcover in recent memory.  The fact that a debut novel by an African American woman had so much buzz around it is refreshing and hopefully a sign that the publishing industry is changing.  (I hope?)

28815371The Mothers is what I call a family saga.  The main plot deals with romantic relationships and a long-standing friendship, but the weight of family drama is ever present and influences the actions of the main characters throughout.  Nadia is a seventeen year-old living with her father after her mother’s suicide.  She and her father don’t know how to communicate with one another after such a horrific tragedy.  As she moves numbly throughout her days, making some poor choices, she ends up secretly dating Luke, a preacher’s son and an “older man” at 21.  Nadia also befriends an introverted newcomer to her school, Aubrey, who harbors her own painful family past.  Nadia and Luke’s relationship turns physical, and she becomes pregnant.  What Nadia and Luke decide to do that one summer has repercussions throughout the rest of their lives.

Providing an interesting structure throughout the book is a Greek chorus-style group of women who are the elder lay leaders of the Upper Room church that Nadia’s father attends, and where Luke’s father serves as preacher. These are women who serve on the committees, bring casseroles to the bereaved, and pray collectively for people of the church.

We don’t think of ourselves as “prayer warriors.”  A man must have come up with that term – men think anything difficult is war.  But prayer is more delicate than battle, especially intercessory prayer.  More than just a notion, taking up the burdens of someone else, often someone you don’t even know.  You close your eyes and listen to a request.  Then you have to slip inside their body.  You are Tracy Robinson, burning for whiskey.  You are Cindy Harris’s husband, searching your wife’s phone.  You are Earl Vernon, washing dirty knots out of your strung-out daughter’s hair.  

If you don’t become them, even for a second, a prayer is nothing but words.

I liked the collective voice of these women, which sometimes separated into a single person and then came back together.  I cared about Nadia, Aubrey, and Luke, and was invested in seeing how their lives played out.  But choices were made that really frustrated me.  And I wondered about the likelihood of some of those choices as well.  Things didn’t ring true at times.  I kept thinking, these people are in their late 20’s now.  Shouldn’t they be moving on a little bit, expanding their social circle?  Are they doomed to keep repeating patterns?  Sometimes it felt a bit like a soap opera, a bit overwrought.  I’m being deliberately vague because I don’t want to spoil anything.

That said, Bennett is a lovely writer.  I marked passages that were simply beautiful to read, like this:

Grief was not a line, carrying you infinitely further from loss.  You never knew when you would be sling-shot backward into its grip.

Or this one:

…magic you wanted was a miracle, magic you didn’t want was a haunting.

The strongest, most nuanced parts of the novel for me were Nadia’s and Aubrey’s fraught relationships with their families.  Nadia’s strained relationship with her father was particularly moving to me.  I felt how much they loved one another, but they just couldn’t find a way to communicate their love.  The sections detailing with Aubrey’s painful past and how she tried to find a way to live and love afterwards were beautifully written as well.

I liked this lyrical, haunting debut novel and would most definitely read something else by Brit Bennett.  She is certainly an author to watch, and I am so glad she’s getting media attention.  This would make a good book for a book club – lots of things to discuss, both in plot and in structure.  This was a case where my own high expectations for the book weren’t quite met, which is not the author’s fault.  If you like a book about modern, complicated families and relationships, secrets and regrets, you should give The Mothers a try.

Top Ten 2016 Books I Meant to Get to Last Year

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic, hosted by The Broke and Bookish, is Top Ten Books from 2016 I Wanted to Read But Haven’t Yet.  There is only so much time in the day, what with having to work, converse with one’s husband and child, and binge-watch Supernatural – or whatever your priorities might happen to be.  I totally intend to read these ten books. Sometime.  You get it, right? 51tusm5ixll-_sx331_bo1204203200_

Modern Lovers by Emma Straub

Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple

The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race edited by Jesmyn Ward

9781594206856_custom-fe4eae454a97795906f50c3ff61245f8a47f095e-s300-c85The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Y. Dennis-Bennows_146853560754311

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

I could probably have chosen ten different books for this list, but these were the ones that leaped out at me as I perused my massive Goodreads list. Maybe you’ve read some of these?  Let me know what you think of them.  What shows were you binge-watching in 2016 instead of reading books? Is there one book from 2016 you wish you’d gotten to last year?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly: a Mini-Review

29154543The Wrong Side of Goodbye is Michael Connelly’s twenty-first Harry Bosch book.  I’ve never before read a mystery series for this long.  Years ago I was into the Hamish Macbeth series by M.C. Beaton, but I think I stopped somewhere around the sixteenth book or so, because things just got too repetitive.  I used to read Martha Grimes’s Richard Jury series but decided to quit, coincidentally, after the 16th, mostly for the same reason (boredom) but also because that one involved investigating a snuff film with kids (NOPE NOPE NOPE!)  I’m still digging Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford series, of which I’m on the fifteenth book.  But let’s face it, it’s Ruth freaking Rendell, the queen of smart psychological mysteries, and she’s a goddess in my book, so I think I’m safe there.   (Sadly, she passed away in 2015; I wrote a tribute to her here.)  The thing about series is, at some point they have to end, right?  I’m definitely hanging in with Detective Harry Bosch until the end, whenever that may be – and based on how much I enjoyed this one, I hope that’s not any time soon!

If you’ve never read a Bosch book before, let me get you up to speed.  They’re set in L.A. (with a few detours here and there to Vegas, Florida, and even once to China.)  Harry’s real name is Hieronymous (yes, like the 15th century painter!) His mom died when he was young, and he was put into foster care.  He’s a Vietnam vet, and flashbacks play a role in many of the novels.    He’s horrible at relationships, and as of this last book, he hasn’t found his one true love.  (I admit, the relationship plot lines are my least favorite and most cringe-worthy elements of the books.)  But he does have a daughter, and he manages to forge a pretty good relationship with her.  And his relationship with a half-brother, who he doesn’t discover until many books in, is really compelling (no spoilers!)

What I like about Harry is that he’s the guy fighting the system, fighting corrupt cops and politicians alike, always fighting for justice and the underdog.  He’s smart but he’s not perfect – he sometimes misses things and makes mistakes, and he’s got a bit of a hot temper.  He usually reads people well and is a good study of character.  I like how he will often think that something about a case is bothering him but he can’t quite make the connections, so he’ll let it sit and percolate, go about his business, and all of a sudden BAM! He’s cracked the case and it’s a mad race to see if he can save the next victim or catch the bad guy after all. Connelly’s plots are page-turners, but it’s really Bosch himself that keeps me coming back.

This one was a bit different because there were two cases being worked simultaneously.  Harry’s part-time now at the small San Fernando Police Department, since he’s no longer with the LAPD.  He’s also a private investigator on the side.  He’s working a serial rapist case for the department while also trying to find a potential heir to an ailing millionaire’s fortune. He gets so caught up in one case that he makes some crucial missteps in the other, possibly endangering someone he is close to.  It was a typically fast-paced Connelly thriller; I raced through it in two days, even willingly staying up way past my bedtime to finish it.

518cjmm-dxl-_sy344_bo1204203200_If you’re thinking about trying one of these books, I’ll tell you that the first three were solid three-star books for me.  It wasn’t until the fourth book  (The Last Coyote) that I knew that I was invested in the series for a while.  Harry is a capable, complicated, tough, caring, haunted man, and he made me want to keep coming back. Mysteries make great, entertaining palate-cleansers in between heavier literary fare, so if you’re game, I say give Michael Connelly a try!

 

Top Ten Tuesday: Second Half of 2016 Most Anticipated

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic, hosted by The Broke and Bookish, is Top Ten Most Anticipated Releases For The Second Half Of The Year.  This was a fun list to compile!  I’m mostly a backlist, free-range reader.  But since I work at a public library, I do have access to new books as soon as my library can acquire them and put them in the system. Some of my favorite authors are coming out with books this fall, so without further ado, here’s my list!

  1. 22813605Hunger by Roxane Gay.  I’ll read anything by her, and this is about body image/weight/food issues, which is something I’ve dealt with my whole life.  It’s a no-brainer for me.  I’ll probably buy it.
  2.  A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.  I know almost nothing about this except it’s set in Russia in the 1920s.  All I need to know is that Amor Towles wrote it.  I LOVED his first novel, Rules of Civility.  This man can write.
  3. Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple.  Semple is a funny, quirky writer and I really enjoyed Where’d You Go, Bernadette?  That’s enough for me.
  4. 28250841The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.  Whitehead is such a fantastic writer,  and many trusted sources have said that this one is amazing.  I can’t wait.
  5. Commonwealth by Ann Patchett.  Family Saga!  Ann Patchett!  SOLD!
  6. Known and Strange Things: Essays by Teju Cole.  Having recently become a Teju Cole fan, I’m delighted to know that he’s coming out with a book of essays.
  7. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.  This one is not slated to come out until 2017 but this is my list, so I make the rules.  I can’t wait to see what the master of the short story does with a novel.
  8. The Mothers by Brit Bennett.  From the Goodreads blurb: “Set within a contemporary black community in Southern California, Brit Bennett’s mesmerizing first novel is an emotionally perceptive story about community, love, and ambition.” Looks good!
  9. Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood.  Atwood’s revisioning of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.   I am so there for this.29245653._UY2250_SS2250_
  10. Talking As Fast As I Can by Lauren Graham.  I love fluffy celebrity autobiographies!  And I love Gilmore Girls!

So what books are you looking forward to in the next six months?  Go ahead, make my TBR even longer!