Feeling all the feels: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Actual real-life small town in actual Iowa

3 words: stark, moving, somber

 

Oh, Marilynne Robinson… you make me so sad. And so happy-sad. But mostly so sad-happy.

 

If you’re reading a book by Marilynne Robinson, here’s what to expect: lovely writing, deep and quiet inner lives, and an in-depth examination of the ways we care for–and sometimes fail–each other.

 

She puts her characters, with their harsh lives, into a mean world and then comforts them with other characters. But then the mean world barges in and threatens to mess things up.

 

And since the characters have become people we care about… this is tough to take.

 

Yet: I keep coming back for more.

 

But only at measured intervals, because my heart can only take so much.

 

Like the other two Robinson novels I’ve read, Gilead and Home, this book revolves around the lives of the Ames and Boughton families in small-town 1950s Iowa.

 

In this book, Lila, the “old man” preacher’s young wife, is the central figure, and her story is a sad, sad, sad one. She’s probably an orphan, and she’s homeless, and she doesn’t know her actual last name. Dear heaven.

 

It’s the kind of book that made me specially grateful for the simple things, like my sturdy-roofed little house with running water. It’s even got electricity this house!

 

So there’s Lila’s resilience and self-reliance. And there’s the unlikely love story of Lila and Rev. Ames. And there’s the simplicity of the story, plus its complexity.

 

It leaves me feeling wildly melancholy yet hopeful.

 

What about you? Ever read a book that made you feel so emotionally conflicted?

 

Neil Gaiman: the true story

 

The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman

3 words: wise, impassioned, bookish

Two minutes into listening to this audiobook, I got a little verklempt.

And really, this should not surprise us, cuz when Neil Gaiman writes about the importance of books and reading and libraries, it’s powerful stuff. And when a person listens to him reading those words aloud… holy Toledo, people.

Get out the tissues, my fellow readers.

So this book starts out with essays and speeches about the power of books. And then there are oodles of other topics: graphic novels, introductions to the works of various fantasy authors, and creativity.

And while I thought I might bog down during the introduction to the work of H.P. Lovecraft, I found that I just kept learning new things.

And then I started to curse Neil Gaiman, because I kept adding books to my already too huge TBR. Books like The 13 Clocks by James Thurber. And Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones.

And then, toward the end of the book, there’s his famous “Make Good Art” commencement address.

It made me want to make good art.

 

 

So, if you’re anything of a Neil Gaiman reader, and especially if you’re a Neil Gaiman devotee, this book is rather a treat.

And if you’re an audiobook listener, I highly recommend the audio version, cuz Gaiman reads it himself and he’s seriously skilled at the narrator thing.

What’s the best author-narrated audiobook you’ve listened to?

Hillbilly Elegy… but is it hopeful?

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

3 words: unflinching, troubling, personal

OK, this one’s really something. I just keep thinking about it, and that probably isn’t gonna stop anytime soon.

Vance grew up in poverty in Appalachia, and he tells his story with some serious candor.

His family had it all going on: drug addiction, mental illness, abuse…  you name it, they had it. He grew up bearing close-range witness to a boatload of dysfunction.

And somehow, he got himself out and attended Yale Law School.

So the big question that pulls you through the book is: How did he do it?

(Answer: A dedicated grandma, plus the military)

This book’s primarily Vance’s personal story, but he interlaces it with some fascinating sociological facts and studies that give the bigger picture, as well.

(Every time I write the name “Vance,” I remember that he had to choose that name for himself, after years of surname changes due to his mother’s many marriages, his father’s giving him up for adoption, and oh my gosh this is a sad story in so many ways. Yet: then he claims a surname for himself that carries meaning, and that’s triumphant. So many feels to feel!)

I am decidedly not one of those people who loves to read the memoirs of dysfunctional families (my heart can’t take it), but I was able to stay with this one easily. I think it’s cuz we know Vance’s story has a mostly happy ending (though he still bears the emotional scars of his abusive childhood).

And it also strongly appealed to me because of the sociological/narrative nonfiction nature of the book. He makes this book about more than just himself, and that elevates it. Though, for some readers, this might be where the wheels come off. Citizen Reader conveys this nuance really well in her fine review.

Vance narrates the audiobook himself, and that worked out well. (It’s not always that way, when an author reads his/her own work.) Hearing the story in his own voice, with the emphasis placed exactly where he intended, added another dimension that enriched the reading experience.

Searing, stark, and extremely cautiously hopeful. A remarkable book that makes a person think.

How to find great audiobooks

June is Audiobooks Month, and I’m seriously celebrating!
And you can, too. 
Here are some ways to find great audiobooks.

Library
Of course. Ask your librarian for some suggestions! (We love that.)

Personal recommendation

First, you know know an avid audiobook listener, ask that person! A friend of mine did this recently, and it totally made my day to suggest audiobooks to her.  

Awards
Yeah, you’re gonna want the Audies website.
Every year AudioFile gives Audie awards to audiobooks in tons of categories, so all you have to do is find a category you like, and listen to a winner. These are all solid choices. They’re also safe bets if you want to venture outside your usual reading comfort zone, because the Audie’s have got you covered: this stuff’s gonna be great.
Online
Listen to audiobook samples online. They’re available all over the place: your library catalog and eAudiobook apps; Audible; Audiobooks.com. Because let’s face it: some audiobook narrators are going to make you want to reach for headphones of the voice-cancelling variety. Some narrators’ voices, you’re just not gonna like. It’s OK. Just “acknowledge and move on,” as my wise and hilarious friend would intone.

My fellow audio addicts… What’s your favorite way to discover new audiobooks?

Beach book

The Violets of March by Sarah Jio

3 words: quietly dramatic, romantic, family secrets

 

First, a few observations:

  1. Sarah Jio. Why had everyone else on earth heard of her, while I remained oblivious?
  2. It occurred to me that the alternate title could be The Clue in the Diary.*
  3. Apparently I’ve become one of those readers who yells, “Don’t do it!!” at characters in books.**

 

Here’s how the book got on my radar:

Sarah Jio’s name came up at BEA during a conversation about women’s fiction. So I asked Katie of Words for Worms, who was all knowledgeable and helpful and modest about it, and she told me everything I needed to know about Jio.

Then I did the Good Reads “Want to Read” thing.

And a couple of weeks later… I’d been casting about for a good Beach Read for Book Bingo, and I realized this book fit the bill.

There were even beaches in it!

And a woman reinventing herself after a horrible experience, and family secrets from the past, and an old diary with mysterious clues, and an island setting, and budding romance, and a marvelous great-aunt.

I like all of these things.

And Jio weaves them together into a story that had me paying close attention to my eAudiobook, even while sorting the laundry. (Sometimes my mind really wanders while I’m doing that. I really like doing the laundry. [I know: Sick.])

I’m notoriously picky about reading more than one book by an author, so this is a big statement, even though I’m using careful language so as not to over-commit:

I might listen to another Sarah Jio book one day.So… wanna spill? What author did you discover late in the game? 

 

*Nancy Drew mystery. You knew that though, right?

**Woman! When the lying, cheating ex-husband calls, you don’t consider a reconciliation even for a split second!

 

Unfeathering the nest

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

3 words: character-driven, warm, ensemble cast

Is it just me, or is everyone else hearing tons of buzz about this book?

After it popped up for about the 50th time, I decided to give in and give it a try.

Though I gotta tell you: I was a little bit concerned that, based on the plot summary I’d heard, I wouldn’t be able to like any of the characters.

The book’s set-up is this: four siblings, once they reach middle age, are to inherit a princely sum of money from their parents.

And all of them have set up their lives so they’re completely dependent on this big cash infusion for their future happiness.

Or so they think. (Or maybe they’re right?)

And then: Guess what??

Since they’re all set on inheriting the money, of course one of them messes up in a big way, so their mother decides to bail him out using the vast majority of the funds… thus ruining the lives of his siblings.

Or so they think. (Or maybe they’re right?)

Given that these people had all counted their chickens before they hatched–or put all their eggs in one basket–or whatever other obvious metaphor you’d like to use–I expected to feel little sympathy for these characters.

And this is where the author’s genius comes through.

She made me care about these people, even the ne’er-do-well brother whose irresponsible actions set the whole mess into motion.

So maybe I didn’t exactly like many of the characters, but I cared about them.

A big cast of characters, all fully developed and quite real — and with an author whose warmth toward them infuses an unexpected level of humanity into a story about the ways money can infest family life.

Fish story

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

3 words: somber, melancholy, empathetic

I’ve always wanted to like Hemingway, but have never gotten there till now.

And the only reason I read (listened to) The Old Man and the Sea is because Book Bingo made me do it. (Hello, “Embarrassed to Admit” [I’d never read it])

And then I strapped myself in for the ride. (Literally. I listened to this audiobook in my car, so: seatbelt.)

It was surprisingly eventful, the experience of reading this book. I was stunned by my emotional engagement with the thing.

It started with the narrator.

Donald Sutherland.

I just don’t like ’im.

He’s lispy when he talks, and I don’t like the way he looks, either (not that that has any bearing here; I’m just being petty).

So I began listening in a state of mild annoyance, because: The Donald.

But then the story took over, and I (sorta) got past the voice.

And I was truly surprised by the way I was rooting for the old man, yearning for him to catch that fish. I was actually leaning forward in my seat, urging the fish to be caught.

But then I slumped back, as Hemingway described the way the fish’s mate would trail along as the fish died on the line. The fish’s mate would mourn the loss. (Who knew?)

So then I was all mixed emotions.

And that made me delighted, because: how many books can do that?

So I was left marveling at Hemingway’s enormous sympathy for the characters he had created, but also marveling at his easy brutality toward them. Made me realize why he’s considered one of the greats. I get it now.

Bonus: Book’s available in an adorable little edition in a sardine can

 

Unspooling a story

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler 

3 words: homey, storytelling, heartfelt 

Just when I think I’ve experienced enough Anne Tyler and I could spend time with some other author’s work instead, she goes and ups her game. 

And now I’m seriously aching for someone I know to read this book so we can talk about the scene where the word “dashiki” made me burst out sobbing. 

Yeah, that was kinda weird. 

But also rather wonderful. 

Tyler has some serious storytelling powers, and she ain’t afraid to wield them.
This family story is fairly quiet, but it runs deep. 

The Whitshanks are a fairly ordinary family, but Tyler’s writing elevates them. And her unmatched ability to weave a story makes their family fascinating. 

Just when I thought the book would focus on the parent/child relationship of a prodigal son with his parents, it veered into the past and picked up the long-hidden, rather scandalous, very sad story of his grandparents. 

Another aspect of the book that had me from the start: the beloved family home is nearly a character itself. 

 At times, the dryly humorous, realistic depiction of family dynamics made me actually laugh out loud. 

And then there was that sob storm. 

Dang, people. This is some seriously good fiction action.