stuff I read

Everything I Never Told You

Summary from Goodreads:
A haunting debut novel about a mixed-race family living in 1970s Ohio and the tragedy that will either be their undoing or their salvation

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet . . . So begins the story of this exquisite debut novel, about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee; their middle daughter, a girl who inherited her mother’s bright blue eyes and her father’s jet-black hair. Her parents are determined that Lydia will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue—in Marilyn’s case that her daughter become a doctor rather than a homemaker, in James’s case that Lydia be popular at school, a girl with a busy social life and the center of every party.

When Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together tumbles into chaos, forcing them to confront the long-kept secrets that have been slowly pulling them apart. James, consumed by guilt, sets out on a reckless path that may destroy his marriage. Marilyn, devastated and vengeful, is determined to find a responsible party, no matter what the cost. Lydia’s older brother, Nathan, is certain that the neighborhood bad boy Jack is somehow involved. But it’s the youngest of the family—Hannah—who observes far more than anyone realizes and who may be the only one who knows the truth about what happened.

A profoundly moving story of family, history, and the meaning of home, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, exploring the divisions between cultures and the rifts within a family, and uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.

The first lines of this debut novel are so eye-catching: “Lydia is dead.  But they don’t know this yet.”  It just pulls the reader into the world of the Lees, a biracial Chinese-American family in college-town Ohio in the 1970s.  Lydia was her parents’ bright star, the fulfillment of all their dreams of success and acceptance.  Nath and Hannah have been shunted aside. Nath’s dreams of astronomy and space flight regarded as a passing fancy, Hannah’s dreams unformed but she is more observer than observed.

The narrative unspools both forward and backward from this first line in perfectly placed words.  James and Marilyn break the racial lines (and possibly an ethical line which is echoed later in the book) by first falling in love, then marrying.  James gains a professorship teaching about the representation of the “cowboy” in American culture.  Marilyn gives up her academic dreams to become a mother.   Lydia carefully crafted the image of the perfect daughter – popular, brilliant, and successful – and it became her cage.  Nath is accepted to Harvard yet still yearns for the approval from his parents; his frustration is unleashed on bad-boy Jack who knows more than he is letting on about Lydia’s death.  Hannah hoards the little items pilfered from each family member that together tell a much different story than what her family thinks they each know.

This is the heart of the novel: the secrets and lies, everything that went unspoken and wrongly assumed.  The Lees are so busy being the perfect American family they never actually listen or see each other as imperfect humans.  Race as an issue is suppressed within the family but it haunts each member.  James’s students walked out of his lecture at the realization he is Chinese no matter that he turned his back on his culture in an effort to fit into white America, the children are taunted at the local pool (the Marco Polo scene is heartbreaking), and James and Marilyn themselves never discuss how to deal with racists.  Gender issues are also largely ignored.  When Marilyn attempts to work part-time as a research assistant, which is possible given her chemistry background, James worries that it will look bad for his tenure application. Marilyn later breaks and leaves her family in an attempt to finish her degree but when she returns there is no acknowledgement that she needs an intellectual outlet.  Everything, all the hopes and dreams, are transferred to Lydia. Lock, stock, and barrel.  Even though Ng set Everything I Never Told You in 1977 it is so relevant to today with the pressure on students to be perfect, the gender imbalance in STEM subjects, and the racial issues that divide America to this day.

Everything I Never Told You is available on June 26 – which is today!  Definitely a recommended buy.  Take it with you on vacation, the beach, between innings at ballgames, everywhere.

Dear FTC: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via a Goodreads Giveaway.

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Romantic Reads · stuff I read

To Marry a Scottish Laird (An English Bride in Scotland #2)

Summary from Goodreads:

New York Times bestselling author Lynsay Sands returns to the Highlands of Scotland in her hottest new historical romance yet!

Highlander Campbell Sinclair is no stranger to battle, so when he sees a lad attacked by bandits, he jumps into the fray. He didn’t count on being stabbed. Grateful to the boy for nursing him back to health, Cam offers to accompany Jo safely to his destination. But when he accidentally comes across the lad bathing in the river, Cam discovers that Jo is actually Joan…with the most sinful of curves.

Joan promised her mother that she would deliver a scroll to the clan MacKay. But traveling alone is dangerous, even disguised as a boy. When a Scottish warrior lends his aid, she is more than relieved…until he surprises her with lingering kisses and caresses that prove her disguise hasn’t fooled him. As their passion ignites, will the secrets of the scroll force a wedding…and lead to a love she’s never known?

Hot, kilted man rescues a boy. Boy turns out to be an attractively-shaped woman. Man and woman have lots of (hot) sex. Plot causes them to marry. Things get crazy with jealousy, murder, and lies to get in the way of happily ever after.

Thus, we have a Lynsay Sands historical set in the Scottish Highlands (it’s not a spoiler that there’s a marriage – but why the marriage comes about is so I’m going to avoid that bit). These are my favorite Sands historicals. Do I think these are the best-written historicals? No, the language and vocabulary are full of anachronisms (i.e. “great” is used in its modern form), but the plots are fun and To Marry a Scottish Laird seems to borrow much less from her previous books (unlike An English Bride in Scotland which has bits from many of her previous books). Cam and Joan are interesting characters who are both disillusioned with the practicalities of having children: Cam’s first wife died in childbirth so he does not want to put a woman through that again and Joan has seen enough women die in childbirth that she never wants to have children herself. They are both agreed that they will avoid having children (Cam has brothers so it’s not like the Sinclair clan won’t have any heirs). Now, the way this detente is resolved isn’t quite the best-plotted idea and is actually skipped in the narrative so we miss out on our hero and heroine working out this problem. But Cam and Joan are very sweet together and I liked them very much. The Sinclair and MacKay families are both a riot. Some of the most enjoyable parts of the book were scenes with Annabel and Ross from An English Bride in Scotland who are now 20 years older and still themselves. I would have liked to see Joan demonstrate more of her healing skills as the book went on – we are told she’s a very good healer, and the other characters are told that she’s a very good healer, but after she treats Cam there aren’t any other chances for Joan to show those skills.

stuff I read

Elegy on Kinderklavier

Summary from Goodreads:
The stories in Elegy on Kinderklavier explore the profound loss and intricate effects of war on lives that have been suddenly misaligned. A diplomat navigates a hostile political climate and an arranged marriage in an Israeli settlement on a newly discovered planet; a small town in Kansas shuns the army recruiter who signed up its boys as troops are deployed to Iraq, falling in helicopters and on grenades; a family dissolves around mental illness and a child’s body overtaken by cancer. The moment a soldier steps on an explosive device is painfully reproduced, nanosecond by nanosecond. Arna Bontemps Hemenway’s stories feel pulled out of time and place, and the suffering of his characters seem at once otherworldly and stunningly familiar. Elegy on Kinderklavier is a disquieting exploration of what it is to lose and be lost.

During the Twitter flurry that is BEA-when-you’re-too-broke-to-actually-go-to-New-York a stray title in an RT caught my eye: Elegy on Kinderklavier.  Huh.  So I trotted over to opened a new tab in my browser for Edelweiss and looked up the title.  Interesting thing 1) it’s a short fiction collection from a small press, Sarabande Books.  Interesting thing 2) the author is both an Iowa Writers’ Workshop grad and is apparently currently teaching here, so he’s sort of a local.  I’ll bite – and I requested the DRC from the publisher.

These are not happy stories nor are they very short. They are not absurd or funny.  These are stories about people down in the shit.  They are soldiers with PTSD, a trio of Kurdish friends injured in a stray bombing, an African man with a repressed love for the white, dying son of an American businessman, a group of schoolchildren with repressed rage for the local Army recruiter, Jewish settlers in an un-Earthly settlement, and a father watching his child die.  Each story is a lamentation for not just those who have died but for those who can’t escape the memory of their dead and dying.

There are two stand-out stories in this collection.  The third story, “The IED”, is a stream-of-conscious look at man’s last moments as he realizes that he has stepped on an IED and cannot stop the motion of his foot and leg.  Thoughts flash through his mind.

The hinge of the cuneiform bone (beautiful term) extending into the gentle metatarsal has predetermined Abrams’ fate.  The application to the ground of the plantar fascia (horrible term) may not be stopped.  (p 63)

Beautiful.

The final piece in the collection is the title story, “Elegy on Kinderklavier.”  It is a heart-breaking examination of a father and mother caught in the horrible whirlpool of their child’s illness.  One parent stays the course, the other parent must leave when watching a child die becomes unbearable.  In a strange way, there is no judgement of either parent, just a reckoning of how these two people came together, made a child, and are each dealing with the stress of terminal illness.

Elegy on Kinderklavier will be available for purchase July 15 – it’s already been selected as a Barnes & Noble Summer 2014 Discover Great New Writers Selection so check in the Discover Bay in July.

Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

Ulysses and Us

Summary from Goodreads:
Declan Kiberd, a professor of Anglo-Irish literature at the University College Dublin, offers an audacious new take on Joyce’s classic novel. Ulysses, he argues, is a work written for and about the common person, offering a humane vision of a more tolerant and decent life in the modern world. In this passionate corrective to the widespread view of Ulysses as an esoteric tome for the scholarly few, Kiberd dispells the aura of academic mystique that has attached itself to the novel, opening our eyes to Ulysses as a celebration of the everyday and a model for living well in an unpredictable world.

I did it!  I finally finished this!  Whee! 

I gave up the idea of reading Ulysses and Us concurrently with Ulysses because, pfffft, that was really not happening.  Also, the cats did that thing where they knock the book down behind the furniture and I don’t find it for a few years.

This is a very readable guide to Joyce’s Ulysses.  It does make that work of high-modernism seem accessible (I read this in the hopes that by understanding some of the themes I can work on the language).

mini-review · stuff I read

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage

Summary from Goodreads:
The New York Times bestselling author of State of Wonder, Run, and Bel Canto creates a resonant portrait of a life in this collection of writings on love, friendship, work, and art.

“The tricky thing about being a writer, or about being any kind of artist, is that in addition to making art you also have to make a living.”

So begins This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, an examination of the things Ann Patchett is fully committed to—the art and craft of writing, the depths of friendship, an elderly dog, and one spectacular nun. Writing nonfiction, which started off as a means of keeping her insufficiently lucrative fiction afloat, evolved over time to be its own kind of art, the art of telling the truth as opposed to the art of making things up. Bringing her narrative gifts to bear on her own life, Patchett uses insight and compassion to turn very personal experiences into stories that will resonate with every reader.

These essays twine to create both a portrait of life and a philosophy of life. Obstacles that at first appear insurmountable—scaling a six-foot wall in order to join the Los Angeles Police Department, opening an independent bookstore, and sitting down to write a novel—are eventually mastered with quiet tenacity and a sheer force of will. The actual happy marriage, which was the one thing she felt she wasn’t capable of, ultimately proves to be a metaphor as well as a fact: Patchett has devoted her life to the people and ideals she loves the most.

An irresistible blend of literature and memoir, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage is a unique examination of the heart, mind, and soul of one of our most revered and gifted writers.

Ann Patchett isn’t an author I gravitate to.  It took two tries for me to get through Bel Canto (ultimately, I loved it) and I don’t think I would have picked up State of Wonder if it hadn’t been a BNBC Literature by Women pick.  For whatever reason, her subjects or blurbs don’t catch my eye.  However, she is a fantastic putter-together of sentences.  When I kept getting recs for her essay collection This is the Story of a Happy Marriage I decided I’d give it a try. 

This is an excellent book of essays with subjects ranging from her childhood to her second marriage (that first marriage – whoa, weirdness).  My favorite essay dealt with the zoo surrounding Clemson’s selection of her first memoir, Truth and Beauty as an all-freshman read (because wow, we shouldn’t introduce college freshmen to adult concepts ever) and it including the convocation address she gave that fall.  Patchett has a good style, glad I picked this up.

Dear FTC: I borrowed a copy of this book from the library.

stuff I read

The Most Dangerous Book

Summary from Goodreads:
For more than a decade, the book that literary critics now consider the most important novel in the English language was illegal to own, sell, advertise or purchase in most of the English-speaking world. James Joyce’s big blue book, Ulysses, ushered in the modernist era and changed the novel for all time. But the genius of Ulysses was also its danger: it omitted absolutely nothing. All of the minutiae of Leopold Bloom’s day, including its unspeakable details, unfold with careful precision in its pages. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice immediately banned the novel as �obscene, lewd, and lascivious.” Joyce, along with some of the most important publishers and writers of his era, had to fight for years to win the freedom to publish it. The Most Dangerous Book tells the remarkable story surrounding Ulysses, from the first stirrings of Joyce’s inspiration in 1904 to its landmark federal obscenity trial in 1933.

Literary historian Kevin Birmingham follows Joyce’s years as a young writer, his feverish work on his literary masterpiece, and his ardent love affair with Nora Barnacle, the model for Molly Bloom. Joyce and Nora socialized with literary greats like Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot and Sylvia Beach. Their support helped Joyce fight an array of anti-vice crusaders while his book was disguised and smuggled, pirated and burned in the United States and Britain. The long struggle for publication added to the growing pressures of Joyce’s deteriorating eyesight, finances and home life.

Salvation finally came from the partnership of Bennett Cerf, the cofounder of Random House, and Morris Ernst, a dogged civil liberties lawyer. With their stewardship, the case ultimately rested on the literary merit of Joyce’s master work. The sixty-year-old judicial practices governing obscenity in the United States were overturned because a federal judge could get inside Molly Bloom’s head.

Birmingham’s archival work brings to light new information about both Joyce and the story surrounding Ulysses. Written for ardent Joyceans as well as novices who want to get to the heart of the greatest novel of the twentieth century, The Most Dangerous Book is a gripping examination of how the world came to say yes to Ulysses.

Full confession time: I have not actually read the entirety of James Joyce’s Ulysses.  I know, right?  Trust me, I chip away at it every year but my fast-reading brain just cries every time I make it read Ulysses because it’s like reading a foreign language (to me).  It lasts about 4 pages before rebelling and going wandering for a book that actually reads like proper English.  I’ll grab my copy of Ulysses on Bloomsday next week, along with one of the many guidebooks/keys that I’ve accumulated, and get a bit further in the novel.  I actually know what’s going on in all the episodes of Ulysses because I’ve read all those guides – I haven’t decided if that’s good or bad yet.

Which brings me to The Most Dangerous Book by Kevin Birmingham.  Ulysses has what is likely the most infamous publication history of any modern novel.  Joyce wrote or re-wrote much of the book while enduring horrible pain from eye disease.  The book was banned before even completed in both the UK and the US simply on the basis of the parts published in periodicals.  Multiple court cases regarding the publication of such an “obscene” work.  Birmingham took all the material – personal letters, legal briefs, manuscripts, etc. – and turned out a really solid, readable look at the publishing history of a (very) divisive book.  Wherever you fall on the Ulysses continuum (from “this is amazing and groundbreaking” to “this is puerile garbage” ) it’s worth a read to understand how government-sanctioned censorship came about and how it began to recede.

Do you have to have read Ulysses to understand The Most Dangerous Book?  Nope.  As long as you know the basic summaries for Homer’s The Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses you’re good because Birmingham explains the salient parts.  He provides a little bit of Joyce biography (if you’re squeamish about eyeballs, there are a few descriptions of Joyce’s harrowing eye surgeries, ow ow ow), a little bit of literary criticism, a little bit US Law history regarding the origin of the obscenity laws, and snippets of Ulysses, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Dubliners (just one of Finnegan’s Wake).  Read it to find out why one of our most sacred rights in the United States – the right to Freedom of Speech – was not used to defend or protect material some high-moral muck-a-muck decided was “obscene.”  It brought to mind the articles I read about book challenges at schools and libraries because some of the rhetoric hasn’t changed in almost 80 years.

My only complaint about The Most Dangerous Book is that the narrative feels a bit unfinished at the end – what happened to Miss Weaver after the British government stopped banning Ulysses? What did the Ulysses case mean for other writers of work that had been banned in the US? What about the book pirater (jerk)? Or the Booklegger? Or Slyvia Beach, who did so much for Joyce until he pissed her off? It sort of ends with Ulysses being legalized (yay!) but what happens to all the real people whose lives and opinions came to bear on the book and it’s publication? Maybe one more chapter would have been good.  We got so much information about all the major players pre-Ulysses we need more post for balance.

Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this book from the publisher.

mini-review · stuff I read

Orfeo

Summary from Goodreads:
In Orfeo, Powers tells the story of a man journeying into his past as he desperately flees the present. Composer Peter Els opens the door one evening to find the police on his doorstep. His home microbiology lab the latest experiment in his lifelong attempt to find music in surprising patterns has aroused the suspicions of Homeland Security. Panicked by the raid, Els turns fugitive. As an Internet-fueled hysteria erupts, Els the “Bioterrorist Bach” pays a final visit to the people he loves, those who shaped his musical journey. Through the help of his ex-wife, his daughter, and his longtime collaborator, Els hatches a plan to turn this disastrous collision with the security state into a work of art that will reawaken its audience to the sounds all around them.

Orfeo popped up on my radar when the Millions website released their list of most anticipated books for January – June 2014.  I’d never read Richard Powers but the description was compelling.  The situation Els finds himself in could conceivably happen.

I like the ideas in this book, all the thoughts of a life and regrets and creations rolled into a few days on the run.  Els’s life was interesting and the digressions into his backstory are quite a read.  I don’t know if the book was hard to put down because of the story or because there weren’t any chapter breaks AT ALL (there was a really annoying perspective shift from limited 3rd to 3rd omnicient to 2nd about 10 pages from the end that was really unnecessary).

However, I seriously did not have enough information/experience in mid to late 20th century classical composition to even start to understand the things Els is talking about (I top out at Shostakovich with a little Shonberg thrown in).  Ron Charles’s review for the Washington post notes how much music he purchased; I didn’t actually buy anything – I already had most of it – but the Messaien went on the wishlist.  The worst sections for me were trying to make sense of what Richard Bonner was doing; it just seemed like random garbage to me.  This was a good read, but it didn’t blow my socks off.

Dear FTC: I borrowed a copy of this from the library.

ETA: Orfeo has been long-listed for the 2014 Booker Prize (and it is still weird to me that non-UK/Commonwealth/Ireland writers – i.e. Americans – are eligible for this award).