The Leavers left me wanting to discuss it

The Leavers by Lisa Ko

3 words: sympathetic, character study, emotional

Wow. This book packs a serious emotional punch.

I first saw it on the “Penned & Picked by Patchett” shelf at Parnassus Books in Nashville. Ann Patchett had written a shelf talker about it, and I took note.

And then she wrote about it in an article about summer reading books, so I hustled it to the top of my TBR.

And I'm here to tell you: the story is pretty darn heart-wrenching. It’s about a pregnant teenager from China who comes to America, and her life is hard. I kept wanting her to catch a break, but the hard times just kept on coming. But the book felt realistic — none of the false happy coincidences that a lesser writer would offer.

There are two storylines here: the back story of Polly, the mother, and the current-day story of Deming, her son.

When working at a nail salon, Polly was swept up in a raid and sent back to China because she had arrived without the proper documents. And her 11-year-old son never knew what had happened to her. She simply vanished.

Deming was adopted by a white couple who renamed him “Daniel,” and they tried hard to give him a good life.

Everyone is trying, but usually they’re not succeeding. There are so many dashed hopes here, yet everyone’s doing the best they can.

After reading this book, you’re going to want to discuss it. (If you can’t find someone IRL, come back here and leave a comment, and we’ll chat!)

Give this book a whirl if you like… reading about cross-cultural adoption, complicated and troubled lives, immigration, the Chinese-American experience, musicians

What book are you aching to discuss?

We’re All Damaged… and that’s kind of OK

(Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash)

We’re All Damaged by Matthew Norman

3 words: wry, funny, open

This summer, our book club’s theme is Humor. And this is our lead-off book, and it was a home run.

Funny? Yes. In the things are really terrible but that makes them funnier way.

It’s set in the Midwest, so: bonus points. Living here in flyover country (don’t get me started), it always does my heart good to read a book with a solid Midwestern setting.

Andy had fled to New York after his wife left him for another man, but now his grandfather is dying, so Andy’s returned to Nebraska.

And his family’s hatched all kinds of (hilarious) new dysfunctions since he’s been gone, and he’s alienated from his best friend (aka his ex-wife’s brother), and basically his life is an unhappy mess.

Then a quirky young woman with a mysterious history pops onto the scene, and things get way more fun and way more complicated.

While his parents pursue their obsessive interests (his mom’s aiming to become a new talking head on Fox and he barely recognizes her, and his dad is preoccupied with an illegal motorcycle… and maybe something more), Andy bumbles around, trying to make things right.

Here we have a bunch of mostly good-hearted characters, all struggling in their own ways and crashing into one another and then trying to figure out the forgiveness thing.

It reminded me–in a good way–of This Is Where I Leave You. They both deal with loss and love with wry humor, and they both have the potential to make a person laugh out loud.

Give this book a whirl if you like… novels about returning home, post-divorce recovery, cringe-worthy gallows humor, quarter-life crisis, the Midwest

OK, if I’m looking for more books like this… funny about non-funny topics… Go!

Alas… that I hadn’t read it earlier

Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank

(Photo by Jeff Sheldon on Unsplash)

3 words: character-driven, unfolding, storytelling

Wow. I never knew I’d like this book as much as I did.

I know post-apocalyptic novels have been all the rage for a decade or more, but I kind of struggle with them. I mean, real life is hard enough, you guys! So tossing in a “this is the end of the world as we know it” scenario seems so freakin’ grim.

But I know: good drama makes a good story.

And in this book, first published in 1959, there’s some amazingly strong storytelling. It’s that good old Midcentury style, with a big story and well-drawn characters and an earnest social message.

I liked it so much.

Here’s what surprised me most: The characters really come first in this novel, even though obviously the plot’s drama is going to try to suck all the air out of the room. But the characters and their responses to a nuclear attack are believable and relatable. And while a person could dissect the story and describe each character as representing a different response to the nuclear winter, I didn’t feel like the characters were merely there to represent types. They felt too real.

So, the plot is basically this: the US and the USSR fire nuclear missiles at each other and lots of cities are destroyed, and outside the cities, people try to figure out how to survive. It’s actually pretty terrifying. If I’d read this book in middle school, back when we actually feared this crap would happen, I think I would’ve wanted to hide under the bed.

Though, ultimately this book offers some hope. There’s plenty-o-trauma, but in the end, some people actually survived.

Give this book a whirl if you like… post-apocalyptic stories, contemporary classics, Mid-Century novels, solid storytelling

So… anybody wanna talk me into tackling another post-apocalyptic book because: characters?

Audiobook so good it ruins you, doggone it

(photo credit: By Bea A Carson [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Nix by Nathan Hill

3 words: wry, family, storytelling

So this happened…

After finishing this book, I drove around resolutely dissatisfied by three audiobooks I tried to begin. Nothing worked (I will never be satisfied) because The Nix had totally spoiled me with its splendor.

As the Dear Man’s dear nephew said, “Magnum opus. That is all.”

Except: here we’re not gonna let that be all. More words!

This book is one of those big stories you just fall into, and it carries you away. I kept feeling surprised by each new turn the narrative took, but it all worked.

The tone captured me right away. When describing the way the media responded to a middle-aged woman hurling pebbles at a politician, the wry sarcasm completely delighted me. When I’m smiling out loud during the first five minutes of an audiobook, that’s a good sign.

We start with Samuel Andresen-Andersen, then meet his pebble-throwing mother, his mother’s lawyer, his worst student, his literary agent, a gamer who lives in the video game where they both spend too much time, and people from his mother’s brief (accidental) foray into the 1968 protest movement.

And there are even characters from Iowa. What more can a person ask for?

With a nicely balanced blend of cynicism and hope, this story unfolds through flashbacks and interspersed storylines.

And just when I thought I had it figured out… it surprised me one last time.

Big, literary, entertaining, and immensely satisfying.

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… literary novels with a modern tone and sense of humor, complex family stories, narratives that interweave the past and the present, stories of 1960s counterculture, the past coming back to bite you

 

What book was so good it ruined other books for you?

 

 

Claire of the Sea Light

Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

3 words: somber, lyrical, layered

Is it because I grew up in landlocked Iowa, that I’ve always loved novels of the sea?

An ocean setting is one of the things I most romanticize. Even when there’s really bad crap going down.

So the title of this book drew me in.

And I’ve been hearing great things about Edwidge Danticat’s books for years, so: another bonus.

The short blurb I read about this book emphasized the plotline involving a missing seven-year-old girl and the effect on the community. But really, that’s just a leaping off point to tell the stories of several people who live in her small fishing village in Haiti.

The novel is constructed as though it were several linked short stories that combine to tell the story of this village.

The central character is a widowed fisherman who is on the verge of giving his young daughter to a more well-to-do woman, so his daughter can live a better life. Then the little girl goes missing.

And that storyline would be enough, but Danticat adds several layers to the story by introducing several more characters and diving deep into their backstory. The town and its residents relationships are really at the heart of this story, which was sometimes mystical, sometimes harsh, and sometimes poignant.

Give this book a whirl if you like… interwoven stories, settings involving the sea, Haiti, and small towns where everyone knows your business

So, my fellow readers… wanna suggest some other books about the sea for me to read?

A Man Called Ove. She likes it, she likes it!

(photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)

A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman

3 words: heartwarming, sad, wryly humorous

Oh, good people. I’m pretty sure I know Ove IRL. And it’s sometimes tough to like a guy like that, but dang it, he wins you over.

This is the book everyone’s been reading, which kinda makes me not wanna read it.

But someone somewhere said something that changed my mind. I wish I could remember who, so I could thank her/him.

And yeah: the curmudgeonly codger with a heart of gold is kind of a tired trope. But there was enough gentle humor in this book to tame the sour and cut the sweet.

And the plot veered a little darker sometimes than I’d expected, which made the heartwarming parts easier to take.

Ove is that grouchy neighbor who hates the world, but eventually his neighbors — and a cat in need of some TLC — make him realize life’s worth living. But he’s not staying alive without a fight.

Give this book a whirl if you like… curmudgeons with a heart of gold, stories of neighbors and a sense of community, getting a new lease on life, and a blend of sorrow and humor

So, readers… who’s your favorite famous grouch?

Elinor Lipman and the power of the comfort authors

On Turpentine Lane by Elinor Lipman

3 words: witty, light, romantic

We all have go-to comfort authors, and Elinor Lipman has been one of mine since the happy day I discovered her books.

My favorite Elinor Lipman books are her clever romantic comedies–books like The Inn at Lake Devine and The Way Men Act and Then She Found Me.

(Some of her other books involve less likeable characters, and I really gotta like the characters!)

So I was flipped out with happiness when I found out that not only was her latest a romantic comedy, but it also involves real estate. And man do I love reading about houses.

So we had ourselves here the kind of book that made me stay up past my bedtime alarm, reading against the rules.

(Unruly? Heck, yeah!)

In this book, Faith is engaged to a probably-unfaithful loser. She works at a school, where she shares an office with a very nice, very single man. So there we have it.

And while her ne’er-do-well fiance is gallivanting around the countryside, taking selfies with old girlfriends (and new?) Faith buys a house. A darling little cottage of a house. Which she neglects to tell him about. Cuz: dude’s lost the right to know things.

And the house… the house is adorable, but it’s got some baggage.

Then there’s her family. Her dad left her (very calm) mom for another woman, and that’s got the family all in a tizzy. Except for the mom, who appears to be taking it in stride. So Faith and her brother (whose friendship is completely charming) try to figure out how to deal with that.

Throw all of these things into a bowl, stir gently, fold into a pan, and bake at 350 for 45 minutes. The results: utterly delicious.

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… romantic comedies, books about houses, witty repartee, mysteries from the past, and quirky extended families

So, my friends… Who are your comfort authors?

LaRose: quiet and surprising all at once

LaRose by Louise Erdrich

3 words: somber, interwoven, lyrical

This is one of those books where you hear the premise and you go, “Whaaaaaaaaaaaat?”

Here’s the premise: a man accidentally kills his neighbor’s young son while deer hunting, so he gives his own child to the neighbor to balance things out.

The hunter is Ojibwe, and this is an old tradition that he’s honoring, in order to repay his debt. A very old tradition, carried out in the current day.

I gotta say: I had to suspend my disbelief that anyone would do this. But then I thought: everyone else is not me.

And while the giving of the child is at the heart of the book, the story expands to encompass the lives of both families — with a focus on the two marriages and the teenage girls in each family — and the priest on the reservation, and a retired teacher, and a ne’er-do-well who’s stealing medication from the older folks.

There’s all kinds of drama coursing through this book, but even so, the book is quiet.

Maybe this came through extra much because I listened to the audiobook, which is read in lovely fashion by the author. She keeps the story sedate, even as people make choices that are fairly eye-popping.

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… stories of complicated family situations, reading about contemporary Native American life, mild doses of magical realism, and exploring the effects of long-held traditions

 

I know it happens to us all…  What’s the most recent book that made you suspend your disbelief?

Charming. And I liked it anyway.

The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood

3 words: charming, quirky, heartwarming

Yes, I said “heartwarming” without retching. I know. That’s not supposed to happen. Cuz man I can’t abide heartwarming.

Then this book came along.

And I loved every heartwarming minute of it.

Apparently, this is the recipe for getting me to read and actually like this type of thing:

Start with one lively 104-year-old woman. Add one 11-year-old boy on the autism spectrum. Add his devastated mother. Add his absentee father, who wishes to do penance.

Then add a Boy Scout project that matches up the centenarian with the boy, who proceeds to interview her about her life.

And since he’s obsessed with the Guinness Book of Records, he decides she should try to set one. Or several. Here’s an excerpt from one of their conversations…

“‘Oldest sky diver is taken. Plus oldest pilot. Plus oldest showgirl.’ He frowned.” (p. 63)

That totally cracked me up. The woman is 104 years old!

The charming thing about the book is that the author perfectly captures the speech patterns of a woman of 100+ and a boy with autism. They sound exactly like they would really sound.

And their friendship becomes a real thing.

Then the boy dies, and I know… if you’re like me, you can’t handle the dying children books. But in this case, it happens quickly, and he’s still present throughout the rest of the book. So it’s sad, but man did he ever make a difference in people’s lives. Lots of people’s lives.

So: heartwarming.

Also: read this book anyway.

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… the Guinness Book of Records, intergenerational friendships, reinventing one’s life, stories of one person’s small actions having a big impact on others

 

What heartwarming books would you suggest to a reader with low tolerance for such things?

High-flying lying: gymnastics & family secrets

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

3 words: tense, secretive, unputdownable

The only mistake I made in reading this book is that I didn’t choose it for my book club. Cuz now all I want to do is discuss it. And it’s not my turn to pick the book for another couple of months.

Here’s what I want to discuss…

First… Does this book reflect the reality of family life for Olympic level teenage athletes?

Second… Who is the most flawed character in this book?

Third… Who is the most admirable? (Is anyone?)

Fourth and fifth and sixth… All kinds of things I can’t mention here, because: spoilers.

Here’s what I can tell you…

This novel is set in the high stakes world of elite gymnastics, where the training of those tiny powerhouses of girls is the most important thing in their families’ lives.

So already: we’ve got ourselves a powder keg of a set-up. There’s gonna be drama.

Then throw in a beautiful young man who all the girls (and their mothers) are gaga for.

And, voila: match to powder keg. Watch out, people!

This book has all the stuff that’ll keep you turning the pages: jealousy and a prodigy and all-the-eggs-in-one-basket and lies and money trouble and betrayal and dumb things young people do and dumb things grown-ups don’t see.

Give this book a whirl if you like…gymnastics, stories of intense young athletes under pressure, and reading about secrets within families

What’s the most recent book you just couldn’t put down?