The Book that Matters Most by Ann Hood

book that matters most

Ava is still feeling raw, even a year after her husband has left her for a woman who is famous for “yarning” statues and signs.  Thank goodness for her new book club, which has let her join for the new year.  Unfortunately, in her yearning to be accepted, she has sworn that she’d procure the author of her book to appear at their meeting at the end of the year – and it just might take the whole year to find this obscure author!

At first glance, this book appears to be a somewhat superficial novel – but it very quickly delves beneath the surface, plunging into Ava’s traumatic childhood, and focusing also on her daughter, Maggie, who is lost and has lost herself in Paris.  While there is not much discussion about feelings, there is much that is clearly felt, and the awkward moments are palpable in this book.  Maggie’s character, in particular, is extremely poignant and sympathetic, and I felt very drawn to her.  The change in voice from Ava’s to Maggie’s also helps to deepen the complexity of the plot and help move the story line along as well.  It is quite suspenseful in some parts, especially when it comes to Maggie, as she engages in some very dangerous behaviors.

Spoiler alert:  Don’t read the next paragraph if you don’t want to know my opinion about the ending…

Because my opinion is that the very ending is unfortunate.  The book is actually quite good.  I am not sure, however, why authors feel compelled to wrap their productions in such neat packages.  Life isn’t like that so why do stories have to be?  Even if the book had been as it is right up until the second to last page, it would have been ok.  But literally the last 2 pages undid the book for me – just sent it right down the path to cheesy.  Such a disappointment…

But overall, I’d still recommend this book – it’s a solid read and very engaging.  And I personally enjoyed the location – as most of it took place in my original home town of Providence, RI – which does not happen very often!

 

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Faithful by Alice Hoffman

faithful

After a devastating accident leaves Shelby with an onerous survivor’s guilt, she wilts into a depression and essentially withdraws from her life.  People around her — particularly her mother — try very hard to pull her out, but it is only when she begins to discover her drive to save mistreated animals that she finds a purpose in her life and a reason for her to actually connect with other people as well.

This story actually starts off so simply and slowly that it seems almost too simplistic.  But it builds insidiously and the characters develop a charm and sweetness that work their way into your heart even before you know it.  Even while Shelby is being rude and harsh, you can only feel sadness for her because of her tragic brokenness.

The writing here is remarkable as well.  It is written in the present tense, which I usually find annoying.  (I can’t even say why that is so.)  However, in this case, I actually think it works.  But Shelby can only live in the moment, in the here and now and has trouble thinking about a future; therefore a present tense is a logical way to express her story.  There is also an intentional stiffness to the writing in general – to the description as well as the dialogue.  It is very effective in relaying how awkwardly Shelby relates to others.  There is only a comfort or warmth that shines through with very few people, and that becomes obvious as time goes on.

This is a heart-wrenching story but very moving and well-written.  Another winner by Alice Hoffman!

 

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

little life

This is one of those books that becomes insinuated into your DNA as you read it.  You find yourself thinking about the characters even when you’ve put the book down.  You find yourself worrying about what has been or what will be with them even at the oddest moments.

It is the story of 4 roommates and best friends at Yale who have stayed extremely close throughout the years after.  And while the author gives backstory to each of them, there is greatest focus on the most mysterious of them, Jude.  Even the others, JB, Malcolm and Willem do not know what Jude’s story is.  They know he does not have parents, and they know he does not wear short sleeves, and they know he does not want to speak about himself – but they respect his privacy and he loves them for not pushing him about this.  As the characters grow together, the reader cannot help but cry with them, laugh with them and really love each of them as if they are real.

As you can tell, I did love this book.  It should, however, come with a disclaimer – it is extremely disturbing in many parts.  Jude’s history is extraordinarily dark, and what he’s endured is horrific – and while details have been spared, the imaginings are quite vivid.  What you see, tragically, is the devastation that child abuse has on self esteem and self worth – and Jude’s whole life exemplifies this.

This is a very sad (and very long!) book, but, at least in my opinion, one worth reading.  The characters are beautiful and engaging, and when it ended I felt I almost had to say goodbye to new friends.

The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs

bright hour

Wow, this is a book you definitely have to prepare yourself for.   Written by an actual descendent of Ralph Waldo Emerson, this memoir is a beautiful, almost poetic reflection on dying.   Not only does the author contend with the death of her mother from multiple myeloma (a form of cancer), but then she has to face her own impending mortality, as she battles her own aggressive form of metastatic breast cancer.  As we follow her through her musings and her fears, we glimpse into her very heart — sometimes full of self-deprecating humor, sometimes of abject sadness, and sometimes of sheer tranquility.

There is, of course, a lot of sadness here.  You cannot escape that when you’re talking about cancer.  But there is a lot of sweetness and humor as well.  Nina did not have a polyannish view of life at all – on the contrary, she was fairly sarcastic – but she did keep a faith and a hope for her future that was positive while still being realistic.  Her discussions with her 2 boys are honest and yet often comical, maintaining the innocence that young boys deserve.  She includes some details of her pain and suffering without dwelling on these.  She chooses to appreciate the days she has rather than lament those she has not.  This is something I think we can all learn from!

So while your heart will inevitably break from this book, it will also be touched in important ways, if you choose to read this one.

How to Start a Fire by Lisa Lutz

how to start a fire

Anna, Kate and George (short for Georgianna) could not be more different from each other – and yet, they inexplicably become fast friends in their college dorm.  Unfortunately, life moves them beyond their usual frolicking to a shared traumatic experience that alters the trajectory of their respective life journeys.

I should have loved this book.  It had all the right elements.  I loved the characters.  They were colorful, complicated, and clever.  I liked the overall story and the intertwining of events.  There were multiple layers of stories, which kept things interconnected and engaging.  And the dialogue was witty and occasionally made me giggle out loud.

The problem was that it was extremely choppy.  I love when the voice changes or the time changes – but the transitions must be smooth so as not to lose the reader.  It was not done smoothly here.  Every time a new chapter started, I felt like I was starting a new book over again – just with the same characters.  There were such different scenes in such different locations with the characters in such different times of their lives, that it took a long time to figure out where we were in the story and how this part connected to the whole.  I feel as the reader, I should definitely not have to work that hard.

Ultimately, though, I am glad I read this book – I did like it overall.   I’d love to know what others think!

Among the Living by Jonathan Rabb

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“Ike” Goldah seems to be finding his way to adjusting to life after the concentration camps of World War II.  He has come straight from the DP camp to live with his cousins in Savannah, Georgia.  His cousin has set him up with a room in their house, a job in his shoe store, and he is even looking into doing some writing on the side, which was his previous career before the war.  That is, until he has a surprise visitor who is like a ghost from his past – and seems to turn his world upside down.

I really like this book for its many plot threads and themes.  You can look at the Jewish Holocaust themes, but there are also comparisons between the Jew/non-Jew and Black/White race relations that are laid out so starkly here.  In addition, Goldah’s cousin is involved in illegal dealings with his shoe business that are a bit murky but that give the story another dimension.   Goldah’s love interests also create another side story, giving his “visitor” addition a real shock value.

I actually think the book could have been expanded upon.  It felt like it ended much too soon.  The characters were great and there was so much happening in it that it could have been broadened further.  I was left wanting much more.

I think this book was a good read, but probably edited down a bit too much.

My Italian Bulldozer by Alexander McCall Smith

italian bulldozer

This is an example of a great idea poorly executed.

Paul is a successful writer of food and wine books who has just been jilted by his girlfriend of 4 years.  In a bit of depression and in a rut, his agent (who of course, happens to be single, intelligent, and attracted to him) sends him to Italy to work on his next book.  In a bizarre set of circumstances, he ends up with a rented bulldozer as his means of rented transportation during his stay.  On his first foray to explore his new town, he happens upon a beautiful, intelligent woman who has run her car into a ditch and lo and behold (!) a bulldozer just might do the trick!

There are a few tiny plot strands that are started in this book that could make the book so interesting that unfortunately are never pursued.  There is the evil-looking man that Paul is jailed with on entering the country (yes, jailed!), there is the boyfriend of the beautiful woman who has a port wine stain, and there are other towns folk who might be more involved in a more interesting plot than they are.  But no, the author chooses to make his former girlfriend as truly shallow and predictable as she is (then why would he have spent the past 4 years with her??), and the ending as neat and predictable as it becomes.

There is so much potential here.  I did finish it, but I spent most of the book waiting for something of substance to happen.  I think I’m still waiting…