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?

Reading recent Morrison

God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

3 words: complex, unsettling, layered

You know how some books improve after you’ve read them?

This is one of those.

As I was reading, I was reasonably engaged with the story and the characters. But when I finished the book… wow.

It became something altogether better.

The flavors all melded. The storylines converged. The layers lined up (though not too neatly).

This is also a book that surprised me, because I thought I knew where it was going–a story of a woman and her mother. But then it took some unexpected turns — not in the “Oh my gosh, what a plot twist!” way, but in a way that was more like real life, where the story unfolds in ways we just don’t expect.

This is the story of a woman who names herself Bride, who dresses all in white to set off her blue-black skin. And it’s the story of the mother who was ashamed of her. And the man who abandons her. And the friend who might not be a friend to her.

And then there are hippies living off the grid, and a woman torching bedsprings, and all of these things make sense.

I listened to the audiobook, which Toni Morrison reads herself. Her voice is quiet and expressive, but in a mild way. She lets her words do the work, and her voice is just the vehicle. It works just right.

Give this book a whirl if you like… literary fiction, multiple narrators, hints of magical realism, and a story that’ll keep you thinking long after the reading is done.
So, readers… What’s a book that improved after you read it?

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?

 

All you can read: The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat

The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat by Edward Kelsey Moore

 

3 words: warm, gently funny, engaging

 

When I think of how I would describe the plot of this book (three lifelong friends, in middle age, each facing a tough challenge), I realize we better start with the tone.

 

Otherwise, this book sounds like it might be depressing (because: cancer, a cheating husband, and alcoholism — these things are not jolly).

 

It’s the tone of the book that keeps it light in a way that sometimes made me smile. This book is warm and witty and focused on friendship.

 

So when life gets messy and the tough stuff comes along for each of the main characters, the author’s writing style lets us know it’ll be OK, even if the ending isn’t perfectly happy.

 

The women were called “The Supremes” in their youth, because they were a group of three lovely African-American girls who hung out at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat after school.

 

And four decades later, they still meet there once a week.

 

The coziness of the restaurant adds to the comfortable feeling of this book, and the social commentary adds some serious humor. (The stories of a young woman planning an over-the-top wedding made me nearly laugh out loud.)

 

And there’s some wonderful quirkiness, including the fact that Odette was born in a tree.

 

The story of these women’s friendship has stayed with me during the weeks since I finished reading this book. I’m really glad I got to spend some time in their company.

 

What book characters have you enjoyed hanging out with lately?

Bonfire of the Vanities

Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
3 words: cynical, absorbing, storytelling
I gotta tell you: I wasn’t all that jazzed about reading this book. 
But my book club selected it, so there we were.
My thoughts before reading it went something like this…
  • Darn long book
  • 1980s touchstone, so do we really need to care anymore?
Yes. I was exactly that cynical, even though Tom Wolfe and I have long dwelt happily together in the Magical Land of Re-Reading. (The Right Stuff makes me happy just thinking about it.)

Suffice it to say, once again, your girl Unruly got it wrong. 
This book is magnificent.
Even though I didn’t like a single character within its pages.
(That’s some seriously high praise, because I’m one of those readers who absolutely must like at least someone.)
And the thing that really knocked my socks off is how timely this book is today.
It deals with race and privilege and wealth and the media and the justice system. And nobody comes out of it looking good.
While this book has a big cast, there are a few of the central figures:
  • a wealthy bond trader who hits a young African-American man with his car (while The Other Woman is with him)
  • the struggling district attorney who argues the case against him
  • the free-loading, alcoholic journalist who breaks the story
There’s enough egotism in this book to sink a ship.  
And yet I kept reading… and wanted to.
Wolfe is such a fine writer, he carried me through these pages despite my intense dislike of the characters.
And now that I’ve read this book, I keep finding ways it connects to other novels I’ve recently read. It seriously is one of those touchstone books that’s bigger than itself.
I’m so glad I read it.
So, now I’m wondering… What book surprised you by its current relevance?

A Gentleman in Moscow delights a lady in the U.S.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
3 words: gracious, engaging, triumphant

I was pretty sure I’d love this book, given the way I felt about Amor Towles’s debut novel, The Rules of Civility.

And then when I heard him speak about this new novel at BEA, that completely clinched it. (And I spoke to him, and he was gracious!)

So when I actually started reading, it shouldn’t have surprised me — but did — that I loved it so very much.
And all of these things happened despite the fact that I don’t like novels set in Russia. And I don’t like novels of political imprisonment. And I’m not all that very much into historical fiction, though I wish I were.
And this book is all of those things, but it won me over almost immediately.
Here’s how it did it…
Count Alexander Rostov is the central figure in this book, and the dude is witty, cultured, good-humored, and positive to a degree that’s seriously impressive.
If there’s anyone on earth who would not like this man, I hope I never meet that person.
So we have a delightful main character whose charm and humor and approach to life create an atmosphere that’s like breathing fresh air.
Then you plunk him down in a luxury hotel in Moscow, where he’s been ordered to live out his days. In a tiny attic room.
And so it begins…  this story of a man whose life has been turned into a miniaturized version of itself, who responds by expanding his world within those hotel walls and creating a family from those who work and stay there.
And then there’s the author’s writing style, which perfectly matches its subject. It’s sophisticated and wry and urbane and witty, and it’s smooth and smart and polished, and it makes a person feel very comfortable. The author is like a fine host who caters to his guests.
I read most of this book on the flight home from Reykjavik, and I truly felt like I was soaring. 
So now I’m doing that thing, where I dart around telling everyone about this book. (If I see you in person, prepare yourself. This book’s coming up in conversation.)
Fellow readers… what book are you pushing these days? 

Modern Midwestern Gothic

Arrowood by Laura McHugh
3 words: Midwestern Gothic, somberly suspenseful, uneasy
I’ve been hitting the “uneasy” books pretty hard lately.

Arrowood offered just the right amount of quiet suspense and creepiness to give the thing some good intensity and page-turner-ness, but not so much that I wanted to flee the book. (I’m a delicate flower when it comes to suspense novels. I was able to read this one before sleep, and that means it was suspenseful but not terrifying.)
Add to the mix that this sucker’s set in Iowa, and I was all super happy to be reading it.
The situation in the book is this: Arden, a twentysomething grad school dropout, returns to her childhood home when she inherits it. And it ain’t no ordinary childhood home. She grew up in a mansion along the Mississippi, and it’s haunted by the memory of her twin toddler sisters, who were kidnapped and never reappeared.
Not actually haunted, as in “ghosts,” but there are eerie reminders of the missing little girls. 
And the house makes scary sounds and seeps water in ways that are seriously frightening.
And there’s a caretaker who seems a little creepy, and a murder researcher who also seems a little creepy, and poor Arden is pretty much on her own in the world.
 
It felt lonely and disquieting, this book.
Darn good ambiance, guys!
And there were lots of ways it could have played out, but the way it went… The ending was satisfying and believable.
If you’re into Gillian Flynn, give this book a whirl.

Anyone else read a good neo-Gothic novel lately?

Marital politics

The Hopefuls by Jennifer Close
3 words: domestic, conversational, uneasy
She’s got some serious talent at both creating believable characters and writing stylishly and elegantly. 
I had a really hard time putting this book down. It just kept tugging at me. And not because it’s some wild, adrenaline-rush thriller. It’s pretty much the opposite: a domestic novel about a young, newly married couple and the way the guy’s career affects their lives.
And it’s all super pleasant to read, because of all that nice writing.
Though: basically, this book is kind of a quiet, peaceful horror story.
It goes something like this:
Young happy beautiful couple befriends another young happy beautiful couple, and then Things Go Bad.
In this case, it all goes bad in a realm I completely love love love.
This book takes place in the world of electoral politics.
And people, I love a good campaign.
But this book… it exposes the dark underbelly. Here, we’re seeing it from the point of view of Beth, who is married to the manager of their good friend’s campaign.
And the results… they ain’t pretty.
Happily for us, this makes for a whopping good story. 

So… anyone else read anything fictionally political this election year?