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.

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.

 

Lincoln In The Bardo by George Saunders

Sometimes it’s nice to not have the weight of expectations behind an author’s newest work.  I’ve only read one book by George Saunders, his breakout short story collection Tenth of December.  (I loved that, by the way.)  So coming into his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, I didn’t have all the expectations that someone who’d read and loved his other three short story collections and novella might.  I just knew from reading December that he had the capability to make me cry and make me laugh and terrify me in the span of 300 pages.  I knew that he has one of the most inventive voices in modern fiction, as well as one of the most humane.97808129953431

I was only slightly aware of Bardo’s premise: President Abraham Lincoln, a year or so into the Civil War, distraught over the death of his beloved young son Willie, ventures to the crypt where he is laid to rest to visit his son’s body.  Various spirits, including Willie’s, talk and swirl around Lincoln. “Bardo” is a Buddhist term for the spiritual state between death and rebirth.  That’s all I knew going in.  When I type that it seems kind of weird and morbid and, frankly, kind of boring.  But knowing what a master Saunders is, I knew I wanted to give it a try.

I’m so glad I did.

It’s a difficult novel to describe.  The structure took a little while for me to settle into.  I wasn’t exactly sure who was speaking in the first chapter (turns out it’s two spirits in the graveyard,) and then the next few chapters chronicle a White House state dinner that President Lincoln and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln are having, while the country is at war and while Willie and his brother Todd are both lying in bed very ill.  These chapters are comprised of snippets of facts and first-hand accounts from people who were there or who wrote of the dinner.  Saunders uses this technique to give a framework to the novel and inform the casual student of history of what was happening in the country at the time.  It was disorienting at first but I grew to appreciate it as a way to ground the more fantastical, imaginative elements of the novel.

We meet many, many spirits while we are in the cemetery, including a drug-addicted, foul-mouthed couple who bemoan the fact that their children never visit them, a prodigious hunter who has had a change of heart and is atoning for his kills, and an anxious mother who is convinced that her husband can’t be trusted to raise her children. All of the spirits here are tethered to the world for some reason, and they don’t seem to understand that they are dead. Young people who linger are particularly in danger, for if they don’t move on to the next realm quickly, they become ghastly, gruesome vessels of anguish, chained to the cemetery forever.  Three spirits emerge as main characters:  Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins, and the Reverend Everly Thomas.  We get to know each of these spirits very well over the course of the book, and they valiantly work together to try and shepherd young Willie Lincoln to the next spiritual level before it’s too late.  In trying to help him they are also figuring out things about their own spiritual predicaments.

This book may hold the record for The Most Times Laila Cried While Reading.  I picked it up and put it down dozens of times in the first half just because I didn’t want to sob in the break room at work during lunch.  So it took me a week to read it.  But once I got into the second half of the book, it flew.  I couldn’t put it down.  I still sobbed, but I knew I could handle it, because it was going somewhere that felt… satisfying and authentic.  This is a book about a father learning to let go of his beloved child and simultaneously coming to a deeper understand of all the other parents losing beloved sons to the horrors of the Civil War.  It’s about how human beings contrive all sorts of ways to forget that all the people we hold most dear will one day die, and that one day we will too.  It’s about loving and letting go, and helping others along that difficult path.  It was bawdy, quirky, heartbreaking, and utterly astonishing in its agility and scope.  It’s one of those kinds of books that I like to say are “about everything.”  For me, it’s about life itself.   It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read.  George Saunders is full of compassion for his characters and for his readers, even though he may put us through the emotional wringer.  Don’t let my emotional state put you off reading this.  I’m a huge cry-baby!  I fully admit it!  I have a Goodreads shelf called “Sad But Worth It,” and Lincoln in the Bardo is definitely on that shelf.  Although it’s only March, I’m confident than this will be on my year-end Best Of list.

 

In A Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

I’ve now read both of Ruth Ware’s novels, and I’m here to say that I’m down to try anything else she publishes.  I read The Woman in Cabin 10 late last year, and was entertained all to heck by it.  In a Dark, Dark Wood, Ware’s first novel, is another four-star reading experience for me.  Both are twisty, secret-filled, suspenseful page-turners.  Both are a bit campy and improbable at times.  Yet I couldn’t stop reading either – the kind of books where you don’t want anyone to talk to you while you’re reading, you just want to cram the words into your brain as quickly as possible.

9781501112317_custom-b94a64187bf3180e71db57fd0feedeb786ff5a89-s300-c85The bulk of the novel takes place over a weekend at a “hen do” (a bachelorette party to Americans.  I quite like the term “hen do.”)  Our heroine, a young writer named Leonora, has been invited to the festivities by an old high school friend, Clare, whom she hasn’t been in contact with for ten years.  Curiously, she hasn’t been invited to the actual wedding.  (Alarm bells should probably have been going off internally, am I right?)  But for some reason (remembered fondness?  curiosity?  boredom?) she agrees to go, along with a mutual friend, Nina.  There end up being six people staying at the house in the middle of nowhere England, in the winter.  Oh, and it’s a glass house.  A creepy, glass house belonging to the aunt of the hen do’s host, Flo.  Flo and Clare are college pals, and as the action unfolds, we see that she is mentally… fragile?  Unbalanced?  She is desperate for the weekend to go perfectly on Clare’s behalf.

However, from the start we know that something has gone terribly wrong, because the first chapter opens with Leonora (Nora as she now wishes to be called) in the hospital, in pain, and a nurse telling her where she is, that she’s had a head injury, and that she’s going for a scan.  So the reader alternates between the events of the weekend and Nora’s time in the hospital, desperately trying to remember what happened to put her there.

517zkkkjmxl-_sx324_bo1204203200_Secrets abound in this thriller.  Why did Clare and Nora have a falling out?  Why has she been invited to the bachelorette but not the wedding?  Who is the groom?  Why is Flo so strange?  What has happened to Nora, and why can’t she remember?  I admit that I didn’t discover the answers to these mysteries as quickly as I should have, and was thrown by more than one red herring.

It is just as I’m drifting off to sleep than an image comes to me: a shotgun hanging on a wall.  

And suddenly I know.

The bruise is a recoil bruise.  At some point in the recent past, I have fired a gun.  

If you’re interested and want to try one of Ware’s books, I would start with this one.  The sense of dread in this one built much more convincingly, and the heroine wasn’t quite as annoying as the one in The Woman in Cabin 10.  Don’t say that I didn’t warn you that at times you may be frustrated with the main characters and find yourself thinking things like, “What are you doing?” or “Take your damn phone with you, woman!”  But if you want to be entertained and feel a need to escape, you could do much worse than these two books.

Do you enjoy thrillers or suspense?  Just what is the difference between those two terms anyway?  Have you read this one?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Mini-Reviews: Sarah MacLean and Jen Hatmaker

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Not sure about this cover.

Ten Ways to Be Adored When Landing a Lord was only my second ever romance novel.  I read her Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake last year, just for fun, as an experiment.  I’d been curious about the romance genre and wanted to go outside my reading comfort zone a bit.  It was fun, a bit predictable, but smartly done, and I certainly wanted to try another one of her books.  Ten Ways is set in the same time and place as Nine Rules, (1820’s England) only it features a different St. John brother, Lord Nicholas.  He is an expert in antiquities and also a renowned “tracker” (you kinda have to just go with that) hired by a Duke to find his missing sister.  While searching a town in Yorkshire, he ends up saving our heroine, Lady Isabel, from a team of runaway horses.  Lady Isabel’s father (nicknamed “The Wastrearl” for his gambling addiction) has just passed away, and Isabel is desperately trying to keep the crumbling estate going.  She has help from several young women who have come to the manor, which they have christened Minerva House. The ladies have sought shelter there for a variety of reasons, from physical abuse to poverty.  Isabel, ignorant of the real reason Lord Nicholas is in the area, invites him to examine her family’s collection on marble statues, in the hopes that they can sell some to make money for the estate.  Of course, sparks fly!  Of course, Nicholas doesn’t tell Isabel about his hunt for the duke’s sister!  And naturally, Isabel is very wary of men, as the only example of a husband she’s had was her good-for-nothing, cheating father, who ruined her mother’s life and left them in poverty.

This was a good change of pace for me, a light, fun, sexy read.  I liked that Isabel was so resourceful and so devoted to caring for the young women who depended on her, as well as trying to do her best to raise her younger brother.  She was a very appealing heroine.  The group of young women at Minerva House were spunky and resourceful as well.  Not having read many romances, I’m really not sure if I’m a good judge of this particular one, but I very much enjoyed it, and I plan on reading more MacLean novels, as well as venturing further afield in the genre.  For a fun list of 10 recommended historical romance series, check out this Book Riot article.  (Four stars.)

12171769My next read was Jen Hatmaker’s 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess.  This fits in with my goal of reading more books about religion and spirituality in 2017.  I’m a sucker for “person does wacky experiment for a year” kinds of memoirs anyway, so I figured I’d be into this, and I was. Hatmaker is a Christian writer and she and her husband started a church in Austin, TX.  After hosting hurricane victims in her home, she became fully awakened to her family’s privilege and decided to do something about it.  So they embarked on a seven month quest to simplify and serve their neighbor.  She writes in the introduction,

As I write this, I enter the next seven months for (at least) two of these extreme reasons.  First, and foremost, repentance.  7 will be a tangible way to bow low and repent of greed, ungratefulness, ruined opportunities, and irresponsibility.  It’s time to admit I’m trapped in the machine, held by my own selfishness.  It’s time to face our spending and call it what it is: a travesty.  I’m weary of justifying it.  So many areas out of control, so much need for transformation.  What have we been eating?  What are we doing?  What have we been buying?  What are we eating?  What are we missing?  These questions grieve me, as well they should.  I’m ready for the deconstruction.

So the areas her family focused on were Food, Clothes, Spending, Media, Possessions, Waste, and Stress.  One month she wore only seven articles of clothing (underwear excepted,) another she and her family abstained from seven forms of media.  They gave away their belongings, started a garden plot on their backyard with the help of an Austin organization that gives jobs and shelter to the homeless, and made due with just one car for a month. Hatmaker documents her struggles and her small victories with a good sense of humor and humility.  But what I liked the most about this memoir was her passion for embodying her faith in action, actually walking the walk.  Here’s another quotation I really liked:

Sometimes the best way to bring good news to the poor is to actually bring good news to the poor.  It appears a good way to bring relief to the oppressed is to bring real relief to the oppressed.  It’s almost like Jesus meant what He said.  When you’re desperate, usually the best news you can receive is food, water, shelter.  These provisions communicate God’s presence infinitely more than a tract or Christian performance in the local park.  They convey, “God loves you so dearly, He sent people to your rescue.”

I guess that’s why “love people” is the second command next to “love God.”  And since God’s reputation is hopelessly linked to His followers’ behavior, I suspect He wouldn’t be stuck with His current rap if we spent our time loving others and stocking their cabinets.

By the end I grew a bit weary of Hatmaker’s folksy, aw-shucks writing style, but overall I enjoyed reading her tale.  It was refreshing to read about someone so committed to acting out the tenants of her faith, so passionate about serving others.  It seemed as if her family came away from this experiment with a real sense of purpose moving forward.  It gave me a lot to think about, and it was a good way to begin my year of spiritual reading.  (Three stars.)