Monday, August 25, 2014

Television's Biggest Night

The countdown is on folks. Yes indeed, today are the Primetime Emmy Awards when we’ll be basking in the luminescent splendor of Hollywood’s A-list celebrities (or as Amy Poehler would have you believe, “the rat-faced people of television”) as they walk down the red carpet to receive their well-earned pats on the back for a riveting season of television. As most of you may know (or maybe not), Emmy nominations were announced a few weeks ago to really no fanfare because it was way too early in the morning, nonetheless, for those of you remotely interested, I’ve provided below a partial list of nominees.

Best Drama Series: “Breaking Bad”; “Downton Abbey”; “Game of Thrones”; “House of Cards”; “Mad Men”; “True Detective”

Best Comedy Series: “The Big Bang Theory”; “Louie”; “Modern Family”; “Orange is the New Black”; “Silicon Valley”; “Veep”

Lead Actor in a Drama Series: Bryan Cranston, “Breaking Bad”; Jeff Daniels, “The Newsroom”; Jon Hamm, “Mad Men”; Woody Harrelson, “True Detective”; Matthew McConaughey, “True Detective”; Kevin Spacey, “House of Cards”

Lead Actress in a Drama Series: Lizzy Caplan, “Masters of Sex”; Claire Danes, “Homeland”; Michelle Dockery, “Downton Abbey”; Julianna Margulies, “The Good Wife”; Kerry Washington, “Scandal”; Robin Wright, “House of Cards”

Lead Actor, Comedy: Jim Parsons, “The Big Bang Theory”; Ricky Gervais, “Derek”; Matt LeBlanc, “Episodes”; Don Cheadle, “House of Lies”; Louis C.K., “Louie”; William H. Macy, “Shameless”

Lead Actress, Comedy: Lena Dunham, “Girls”; Edie Falco, “Nurse Jackie”; Julia Louis Dreyfus, “Veep”; Melissa McCarthy, “Mike & Molly”; Amy Poehler, “Parks & Recreation”; Taylor Schilling, “Orange Is the New Black”

Kudos to all the nominees, but I have a small bone to pick with the Academy so bear with me while I go on a brief albeit pointless rant. Look, I fully grasp that there are so many good shows on TV that it’s hard to nominate everyone worthy, but I refuse to believe that quality television can only be found on cable channels, which is the impression you’d get from the snobs over at the Academy after a cursory review of the above list of nominees, especially in all of the drama categories.

The Best Actor in a Drama category for example is composed strictly of actors on cable shows; not a one, nada, zip, from the broadcast network channels. Really? Really? How about James Spader from The Blacklist, Mads Mikkelsen from Hannibal, or James Spader from The Blacklist? Umm, have I made my bias a little too obvious? Well, now that it’s out there, let me say in my defense that Spader was sheer genius as Raymond Reddington and his scene-stealing performances definitely merited at least a nomination.

Alas, tomorrow is another day (which is pretty obvious), but anyway thanks for letting me vent. Tune in to NBC tonight to watch Seth Meyers crack a few jokes and hand out some shiny trophies to some deserving winners.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Colour of Milk

The Colour of Milk by British author Nell Leyshon is a heartbreakingly haunting novel; a beautiful, gut-wrenching and unforgettable read that touches your heart with the simplicity of its words and its heroine. Mary begins her story with the words “this is my book and I am writing it by my own hand,” of significant importance since the previously illiterate farm girl has only recently learned to read and write. With her newfound knowledge and brutal honesty, Mary shares the truth of her tale of woe over the past year.

Beginning in 1830, spirited 14-year old Mary, born with a limp and hair the color of milk, and her three sisters – Beatrice, Violet and Hope – toil from sun up to sun down performing backbreaking work on their brutal father’s farm; bearing his anger and punishment whenever he’s dissatisfied. Determined to make the most of his useless daughter, her father hires Mary out to the local vicar to help with his ailing wife. Forced to leave the only world she’s known and her beloved grandfather, Mary finds her new surroundings foreign and unsettling, yet with her plain spoken ways and unguarded innocence she wins over the affection of her new employers, and goes on to realize her greatest dream, to learn to read and write, though that knowledge comes at a tragic price.

The Colour of Milk is a small book with all the weight and power of an epic saga. Tiny in both size and length, I read this mini-masterpiece in one sitting and cried for longer than it took me to read it. Written in the simple words of a child, each word shared without guile or artifice bears the truth of a life of hardship and struggle, where even dreams are a luxury you can’t afford. In its pages, we are charmed and enchanted by the most winsome of spirits; a child with fire, heart and wisdom beyond her years, whose hopeful spirit and optimism makes our journey with her that much more agonizing.

As gripping, emotional and riveting as Celie’s story from The Color Purple or Precious’ struggles in Push by Sapphire, Mary’s voice will resonate in your heart. You will love her, root for her and even at book’s end, with your broken heart at your feet, smile for this beautiful soul who’s lived her life by no one else’s rules and who finally finds triumph and freedom.

Like I said, the book is tiny, so there isn’t much more to add, other than to say read it. The Colour of Milk is a book whose name deserves to be shouted from the rafters. Yes, it is sad. You will cry. But its beauty is so worth the price of a few measly tears.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Fever

The Fever by Megan Abbott sends us careening on an angst-filled trip back to high school as we're introduced to the Nash family in this disturbing drama. Deenie Nash is your typical teenage girl coping with divorced parents, boys, and the social dynamics of high school – the cliques, the caste system of popularity, and the stress of not knowing where you fall in that system on any given day. Eli Nash is a good looking hockey player and the proverbial girl magnet. While dad, Tom Nash is a chemistry teacher, still struggling to wrap his head around his wife leaving him, trying to raise two great kids on his own, as well as adjusting to lonely nights and being single.

Their relatively ordinary life is tossed into chaos though when Lise, one of Deenie’s friends, suffers a violent, terrifying and unexplained seizure in class that leaves her fighting for her life. Before long panic starts to spread among the Nash family, school, and community as the cause remains a mystery and more girls start to suffer attacks. With rumors swirling, the list of probable causes grows, everything from a virulent STD, to the HPV vaccine, to the effects of exposure to an eerie toxic lake with a lore all of its own, and as the paranoia grows secrets are revealed which threaten to destroy the families and friendships they touch.

Definitely not one of my favorite reads to date, The Fever was nonetheless an interesting and at times unsettling read. Narrated by the three main protagonists (Tom, Eli and Deenie), this short novel lags in the middle and falls short of delivering the promised chills and suspense central to the plot’s main mystery, yet through its characters the author does deliver a gripping and insightful look at teenage girls and their psyche– the flashes of anger and petty jealousies surrounding newfound passions and unrequited love, the power struggles on par with that of a small nation that take place in school halls, the frightening grip of those quintessential mean girls that rule over boys and girls alike, and the gut-wrenching insecurities which make the high school experience a nightmare for so many.

As for the tale’s mystery, Abbott throws countless red herrings in the reader’s path that unfortunately go nowhere and serve only to undermine the tale’s resolution with a final reveal that turns out to be rather watered-down, anti-climactic, and ho-hum. Though the kind of slow building or ratcheting up suspense that keeps you on the edge-of-your-seat never quite materializes, I will concede The Fever is infused with a dark, almost sinister tone throughout which sets the mood and piqued my interest enough to keep me reading. In addition to one or two compelling characters, Abbott also smartly conveys the ground swell of hysteria which seems to feed off itself during these type of events as parent’s let misinformation and panic prey on their fears and erase all rational thinking as more and more girls became ill.

I’d seen The Fever on so many summer must-read lists that I thought this would be a sure-fire hit; unfortunately for me, it didn’t live up to the hype. It never quite makes up its mind on what it wants to be - mystery or character-driven tale - and in so doing, doesn’t fully deliver on either front.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Like Father, Like Son

If you have a child, you know that you've loved him/her since the moment they were placed in your arms. Loved them so deeply and irrevocably, that you can't imagine life without them or life before them. You changed poopy diapers, caressed fevered brows, worried and stressed over the first day of school. Now imagine you're told that this child fully entrenched in your heart is not your child; there was a mix-up at the hospital and you've been caring for and loving a stranger's child. What would you do? Such is the agonizing dilemma facing two very different families in Like Father, Like Son, a Japanese film with English subtitles, winner of the Jury Prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival.

Ryota is a cold and distant businessman, an architect whose ambitions keep him long days and nights in the office and away from his family, while Midori is the stereotypical dutiful wife who cares and dotes on their only son, 6-year old Keita. After the couple is informed of the accidental baby switch six years earlier, the hospital representatives arrange a meeting with their biological child, Ryusei, and the parents that raised him. Unlike Ryota, Yudai (Ryusei's dad) is an appliance store shopkeeper, a big kid constantly tinkering with broken goods and his kid's toys, while mom Yukari is a waitress. Though lacking the fancy home, private schools and piano lessons to which Keita has been privileged, Ryusei has grown up loved, living in a warm and rambunctious home with two younger siblings.

As the families spend more time together, the fact hangs over their head that a swap must be made. Haunted and shaped by his own icy father-son relationship, Ryota struggles to make a decision; torn between the child he's loved for six years or the child, that like his father bitingly reminds him, carries his blood and will one day grow up to look like him. A compelling nature vs. nurture debate which keeps you on the edge of your seat as each family faces the heart-wrenching decision of chosing love or logic.

This was a beautiful, evocative and poignant film. Like Father, Like Son both tugs at your heartstrings and gives you chills as you reluctantly try to put yourself in the protagonist's shoes. A wonderful exploration of what it really means to be a father (or mother), which through the highlighted contrast between each family's means and wealth, also clearly and resoundingly reminds us of the fact that what matters most to a child's happiness is love; to be loved completely and unconditionally, not the trappings of wealth or lack thereof.

The performance by the actress portraying Midori was a standout for me; she's the only one whose heartbreak is palpably conveyed in the way she gazes at this child not of her womb that she's come to love. All three of the other adult protagonists portrayals, especially Ryota as the central character, were almost stoic in the face of this tragic course of events, at times coming across as cold and unfeeling, but I didn't let it color my view of the movie, because in truth their bearing seemed in keeping with my impression of a more reserved Asian society where emotions are kept tightly in check.

Like Father, Like Son is an affecting film straight out of any parent's nightmares. A film that will leave you thinking long after the credits roll.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Landline

In Rainbow Rowell's latest novel, Landline, Georgie McCool adores her husband Neal and he her, but still their marriage has seen better days. "Things didn't go bad between Georgie and Neal. Things were always bad- and always good. Their marriage was like a set of scales constantly balancing itself. And then, at some point, when neither of them was paying attention, they'd tipped so far over into bad, they'd settled there." With Christmas just around the corner and plans set for Georgie, Neal and their two little ones, Alice and Noomi, to fly home to Omaha for the holidays, Georgie drops the bomb that she can't go. Georgie and her best friend and writing partner, Seth, have finally had their big break - a TV pilot and deal with their dream network - which requires a writing marathon of epic proportions. Sure that Neal will be upset, Georgie's a little disconcerted when he calmly agrees that she has to stay, but, he and the girls are going to Omaha anyway.

Georgie knows in her heart that he's got reason to be upset; Neal is the glue that holds the family together and as a stay-at-home dad he cooks, cleans, does laundry, and takes care of the girls. Not only that, but he's also accepted every one of her late nights at work and every time she's chosen work and her show over her family; so now with a silent house and her family thousands of miles away, Georgie's afraid she's finally done it and totally wrecked her marriage. Georgie's mom Liz seems pretty certain she's done just that and is determined to offer her support with home-cooked meals and sage advice; while her sister Heather is less than reassuring, quickly reminding Georgie that "Neal would totally get custody" if he did leave her - and Georgie knows "He totally would."

When Georgie keeps missing Neal at his mom's house, she starts to feel more than a little panic, but then while staying in her childhood room, which her mom has converted into a pug trophy room (more on Porky and Petunia later), Georgie decides to try him again, and with her cell phone dead as usual, she plugs in her old yellow rotary phone and dials to resounding success, only problem is it's Neal back in 1998, before they were even married. More than a little freaked out by the experience, Georgie considers a number of possible explanations for this interdimensional portal; "1. Persistent hallucination. 2. Really long dream. 3. Schizophrenic episode." or "10. Magical fucking phone." Having settled on number 10 as the most logical explanation, the options on what to do next were limited really; she could call a doctor and possibly end up institutionalized which could help in earning present day Neal's pity, pretend this never happened or maybe, just maybe, keep playing along. After all, this could all be some weird cosmic opportunity to actually save her marriage.

This was such a great book! Hilarious, touching, and insightful, Landline is filled from the first page to the last with great characters and great dialogue. Much like Rowell brilliantly delivered a beautiful and haunting story of first love in her best-selling novel Eleanor & Park, she's once again showcased her talent and witty humor in this honest, real and moving take on love and marriage, capturing all its joys and imperfections. A romantic caper that for all of our protagonists struggles and doubts is dotted throughout with their undeniable love.

The one thing you'll find as soon as you read a Rainbow Rowell novel, this being my second, is that she writes such amazing characters - they are real, human (aka flawed), and so relatable. Every character that's a part of Georgie's life adds a new dimension and texture to the story; from her pug-loving mom, currently on her third marriage to an African American man nearly 20 years her junior, to four-year old Noomi who thinks of herself as green kitty and meows through every conversation, to her sister Heather, who at 18 was a change-of-life-baby "meaning Georgie's mom had decided to change her life by sleeping with the chiropractor she worked for;" to Seth, her sarcastic and fashionable best-friend. Every character jumps off the page, even the ones in passing like the pizza delivery person or the non-human variety like Porky and Petunia, and make you wish you could call them friends.

Alternating between past and present, through flashbacks, we get to see the full span of Georgie and Neal's love and marriage; the ups - before life, work and kids got in the way - and the downs when every day seemed like a struggle, making us love them all the more. Rowell intersperses the countless chuckles and guffaws with simple reminders of the truth of marriage, "You don’t know when you’re twenty-three...You don't know what it really means to crawl into someone else's life and stay there. You can't see all the ways you're going to get tangled, how you're going to bond skin to skin. How the idea of separating will feel in five years, in ten - in fifteen. When Georgie thought about divorce now, she imagined lying side by side with Neal on two operating tables while a team of doctors tried to unthread their vascular systems." Absorbing the depths of feeling in that passage, a reader (especially one not married) can come a little closer to understanding what it really means to share someones life.

Landline offers loads of humor but also an almost poetic wisdom on love and marriage which belies the genre. With depth, heart, and a new cast of quirky and unforgettable characters, Landline reminds us that we have to earn our fairy tale love stories; we have to give a little more, try a little harder, and never take someone's love for granted.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Language of Flowers

During the Victorian era, there was a language of flowers which allowed suitors to send message-laden bouquets conveying their heart’s sentiments to their beloveds merely by the flowers selected; red roses for love, rosemary for remembrance, dahlias for dignity, and honeysuckle for devotion, to name a few. In Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s debut novel, The Language of Flowers, 18-year old Victoria Jones, newly emancipated from the foster care system where she'd found nothing but sorrow and solitude, uses her gift with flowers to change the lives of others while struggling to overcome the demons of her own past.

Victoria describes herself as “more of a thistle-peony-basil kind of girl” (misanthropy-anger-hate). After a childhood spent going from home to home, at the tender age of 10 following a tragic chain of events that separated her from the only person that had ever truly loved her, she was declared “unadoptable” by the County and shipped off to a group home where she resided until her 18th birthday when she was finally on her own; with her future and its success or failure now laying solely on her shoulders. With nowhere to go, no job, friends or education, Victoria ends up on the street, sleeping in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own.

Scared and hungry, Victoria’s saving grace proves to be Renata, a local florist willing to overlook the dirty clothes and leaves in the young girl’s hair and instead see her talent. Renata asks for only part-time help at first, including assistance at the wholesale flower market, where Victoria meets Grant, a mysterious flower farmer with a stall at the market. Angry and mistrusting, Victoria rebuffs Grant’s simple overtures of friendship, but he scales her defenses by speaking to her in a language she understands, flowers. Grant’s first gift is mistletoe, meaning I surmount all obstacles, and the next, a sketch of white poplar meaning time.

Soon Victoria has a roof over her head and a place to rest her head at night, even if it is only a closet; a job at Renata’s shop, Bloom, where she helps old Earl woo his forgetful wife and Bethany find love, and (pardon the flower-related pun) a blooming relationship with Grant, whose connection to her past and its painful secrets, forces her to question herself and the lengths to which she’ll go to grasp a chance at happiness.

The Language of Flowers is a stunning debut that awes with the palpable emotion the author has managed to bring to the page; effortlessly exposing the raw wounds found in a broken heart, as it journeys towards healing. In its pages you’ll find a story of heartbreak, forgiveness and redemption; featuring an unforgettable heroine whose voice poignantly touches your heart with the depths of her fear, anger, suffering, and ultimately hope. An honest to goodness page-turner which I loved.

With chapters alternating between past and present, Diffenbaugh slowly reveals the source of Victoria’s pain; the 9-year old's desolation at being unwanted, the feeling of guilt and shame that somehow it’s all her fault, and the desperate need to be loved which drove her to commit an act for which she can’t forgive herself and that haunts her dreams 'til this day. I wept for both Victoria’s past, but also for her present; a present guided by lessons ingrained in her fragile heart and psyche over a lifetime, and eagerly read each new page with both hope and trepidation, anxiously awaiting the truth of her future and for her to find the love and joy so long denied.

The Language of Flowers is a gift to its readers; offering a red rose of love and a starwort of welcome, it is a testament to the healing power of love and forgiveness.

Monday, August 11, 2014

One Plus One

One Plus One, the latest novel from Jojo Moyes, the best-selling author of Me Before You was everything I expected; equal parts funny and touching, featuring an engaging tale and likable and relatable characters so finely drawn that I felt like I’d known them a lifetime.

In spite of the fact that life hasn’t been especially kind to her of late, Jess Thomas believes in karma and that “good things happen to good people.” After her husband’s vanishing act, Jess was left to pick up the pieces financially and emotionally. Working two jobs as a house cleaner and bartender to help make ends meet, Jess is a single parent to Nicky, her 16-year old stepson who copes with endless bullying by losing himself in video games, and her quirky math genius 10-year old daughter Tanzie. Oh, and lest I forget, she’s also responsible for Norman, a drooling mammoth of a dog who’s basically an “enormous eating and crapping machine” with a slight flatulence problem that makes him a lethal weapon.

When Tanzie gets a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend St. Anne’s, a school for gifted children, Jess is thrilled and disheartened at once, since even with a partial scholarship the expense is outside her limited means. Though forced to do the wrong thing for the right reasons, renewed hope comes to Jess in the form of a Math Olympiad offering a cash prize that would make their dreams a reality; and so she packs up the kids and Norman in her ex’s beat up old junker and embarks on what will turn out to be a life-changing odyssey. Murphy’s Law being what it is, they’re stopped by police and their car is impounded only miles from home, but that’s where Ed Nicholls, the unlikeliest of knights in shining armor comes to the rescue.

Tech millionaire Ed Nicholls’ life is currently falling apart after being accused of insider trading. With a possible prison sentence hanging over his head, a best friend and partner who refuses to speak with him, and a sick father he’s too ashamed to visit, the last thing Ed needs is to deal with his cleaning lady and her menagerie of problems. Yet when he comes across the small family stranded on the side of the road, in a moment of madness or a rare bout of pure unselfishness, Ed offers to drive the desperate ragtag bunch to the Olympiad, including Norman and his wide array of evil odors, thereby ensuring a road trip to end all road trips; one which just might change all of their lives.

This was pure genius! It was a smart and hilarious page-turner in which I couldn’t wait to see what hijinks this lovable bunch got into next. A love story filled with heart, compassion and hope, between two people from different worlds that proved good guys and girls, don’t always finish last. You will absolutely fall in love with each member of the Thomas family, Ed and of course, Norman, and at book’s end hate having to say goodbye.

The novel is narrated by all four of the major protagonists in the tale, namely Jess, Ed, Tanzie and Nicky, giving readers an insightful look into the heart and mind of each throughout their journey. The character development and story arc for each was so brilliantly and movingly written that each one – even the darn dog – came across as real, struggling and flawed, but endearing and someone for whom to root for their ultimate happiness. In particular, I loved Jess’ positivity and the tenacity with which she faced life; she might fall, but she plastered on a smile, dusted herself off and got back up again. I think anyone (everyone) will empathize with her struggles and admire her determination to offer her children a happier life.

One Plus One is a heart-warming and at times laugh out loud novel with characters that jump off the page (Hollywood movie? Yes, please). A beautiful, albeit slightly predictable story, that reminds us that love can conquer all.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Lunchbox

Summer is definitely not my movie-going season. Whether it’s the idea of being cooped up in a movie theater on a beautiful day or the fact that the movie industry has relegated summer as the dumping ground for every superhero, blow em up/shoot em up action, or raunchy comedy film, I haven’t stepped foot inside a theater since I think May (when I went to see Edge of Tomorrow, which by the way was great). I know I sound like a total movie snob, but the truth is movies aren’t cheap – by the time you add in parking, popcorn and drinks you’re looking at $30 down the drain– and films make it onto OnDemand so quickly nowadays, so unless I’m dying to see something, I exercise restraint and a modicum of patience and wait to pay $5.95 and watch them in the comfort of my living room. With that said, all bets are off during the Fall when I madly scramble from weekend to weekend to stay on top of the great movies I know will pop up on award show ballots.

TV isn’t much better when it comes to quality fare during Summer, so I’ve been gobbling up books lately, but last night I took the time to check out my OnDemand menu and came across The Lunchbox, an Indian film in Hindi with English subtitles that I’d wanted to see and missed at the theater. I am so, so happy that I watched this film. The best word to describe this film is lovely. It was beautiful, poignant, sad and hopeful...and as I said, lovely.

Set in Mumbai, India The Lunchbox uses as the foundation for its tale the city’s century-old dabba wallah service. A fact which I didn’t know, but looked up after viewing the film, is that supposedly some 5,000 delivery men called dabba wallahs hand deliver 200,000 home-cooked hot meals to doorsteps across the city. The Indian-style stackable metal canisters or tiffin boxes travel miles on bicycles and trains, sometimes transferred three or four times, before they make it onto a worker’s desk, and then the empty-boxes are later returned safely back to the home where they originated their journey.

The Lunchbox tells the story of Sajaan (portrayed beautifully by Irrfan Khan, whom you probably know from Slumdog Millionaire and Life of Pi), a lonely widower who works as an account and is planning an early retirement. Sajaan was used to getting the lousy cooking from a local restaurant near his home, but one day there’s a glitch in this century old system and he mistakenly receives a scrumptious meal from Ila, an equally lonely beautiful young woman who had been hoping to win back through his stomach the heart of her cheating and neglectful husband.

Realizing the mistake, the next day Ila sends a note thanking the unknown recipient for sending back the tins empty and for the few brief moments when she’d thought she had actually touched her husband’s heart. The response from Sajaan, a grumpy old curmudgeon who grumbles at the kids playing ball outside his home, is initially short and brusque, but soon the two are corresponding, opening up their hearts and sharing their memories, fears and hopes; making a heartwarming connection of love and friendship that could quite possibly save them both.

I loved this movie. It was perfect in so many ways. The two lead stars never share a scene together during the film, yet like Sleepless in Seattle, the emotions and connection of our star-crossed lovers is no less palpable and like that aforementioned film, as Sajaan and Ila read each note, it’s like magic. You feel their joy and excitement with each new revelation, their heartbreak and fear as they face their own vulnerabilities, and their hope as they dream of a better tomorrow.

The acting was phenomenal. Khan was pitch perfect in his portrayal of Sajaan, convincingly conveying his melancholy and loneliness with a simple pensive gaze or his newfound feelings with a small, almost bashful smile. Nimrat Kaur as Ila is striking, not only in her beauty but the understated way in which she portrayed her character. I didn’t remember to write down the name of the supporting actor who played Sajaan’s replacement and later friend, Shaikh, but he did a wonderful job as well and managed to stand out even amongst the two engaging and talented leads.

Offering a veritable smorgasbord of romance and charm, The Lunchbox is a true gem that enchanted me with its beautiful yet unconventional love story.

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett, the best-selling author of State of Wonder and Bel Canto, was the perfect book selection last week given my crazy work schedule. The book is a wonderful compilation of some of Patchett’s previously published essays which varied in length, with some only four or five pages long; as such, whether arriving at 10 pm (which I did on Monday) or 8:30 pm (which I did on Tuesday and Wednesday), I was still able to easily find a choice each night that proved to be a short but engaging read to help me unwind after a trying day.

“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 it was that in “making a living” Patchett wrote this delightful array of essays published over the years in various publications, including Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, GQ, and New York Times Magazine, to name just a few. The collection of essays compiled is diverse in subjects, covering everything from advice on writing, her relationship with her grandmother, the happy marriage referenced in the title, her beloved dog Rose, and Sister Nena – the a Catholic nun that helped to teach her to read and write.

As Patchett tells it “Many of the essays I’m proudest of were made from the things that were at hand – writing and love, work and loss. I may have roamed in my fiction, but this work tends to reflect a life lived close to home.” Patchett's heart is most definitely found on the page, especially those written about those she loved most which proved to be my favorites, including This Dog’s Life, On Responsibility, Love Sustained, Dog Without End, and The Mercies. Those dearest and nearest (like Rose and grandma Eva) are found in a number of stories that span many years, giving the reader a chance to capture an evocative glimpse of each at various points in their life (young and old, sick or healthy); making the connection with each that much deeper and the emotion more palpable.

Patchett infused so much love and warmth in most of the essays, and filled them with truly inspiring and insightful words of wisdom. There were so many lines and passages that I just loved, and though too many to list them all here (I’ll give you each the joy of discovering them on your own), I will share one or two of my favorites. In This Dog’s Life, in talking about the wonder and beauty of her dog Rose, she says “People seem able to love their dogs with an unabashed acceptance that they rarely demonstrate with family or friends…I want to learn to love people like this, the way I love my dog, with pride and enthusiasm and a complete amnesia for faults. In short, to love others the way my dog loves me.”

This particular passage moved me to tears; it appears in the essay Love Sustained which deals with her beloved grandmother, whom Patchett cared for lovingly and diligently (bathing her, doing her hair, feeding her and more) until the day she passed. After the pain and sorrow of her death, she dreams of her grandmother being well, walking and laughing and not needing her anymore, instead they are “simply together and glad for it“ and then sagely adds “there are always those perfect times with the people we love, those moments of joy and equality that sustain us later on…I try to study our happiness so that I will be able to remember it in the future, just in case something happens and we find ourselves in need. These moments are the foundation upon which we build the house that will shelter us into our final years, so that when love calls out, “How far would you go for me?” you can look it in the eye and say truthfully, “Farther than you would ever have thought possible.”

I’ll admit that I didn’t love every essay in This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage though I enjoyed them all, but the ones I did love were incredibly moving and poignant and spoke directly to my heart. I'll definitely be looking for more from Ms. Patchett in the near future.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by author Chris Bohjalian is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year; it is an utterly chilling, engrossing, and brilliant novel. By no means a “feel good” novel, like The Rosie Project or The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, it is nonetheless a MUST read novel that offers an at times heartbreaking coming of age tale I won’t soon forget.

In Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands 16-year old Emily Shepard shares her harrowing tale of homelessness and drug abuse, and the tragic chain of events that led to her living in Burlington, VT in an igloo made of ice and trash bags. Alternating between past and present, Emily splits her tale between B.C. and A.C. (Before Cameron and After Cameron; I’ll get to him shortly) and begins the story of her odyssey by telling us of the nuclear power plant meltdown that killed both her parents. While Bill and Mira Shepard were both employees of the plant, it was Bill as the lead engineer that was quickly used as the scapegoat for the events that lead to thousands, including Emily, having to flee from their schools and jobs, leaving their pets, homes and normal lives behind in a mad dash to safety.

When an incident during the early panic surrounding the meltdown causes Emily to fear for her safety because of her name, the irrational and panic-stricken teen runs away from all connections to her past; taking on a new identify, that of Abby Bliss, a name inspired by her idol Emily Dickinson, and ends up first at a teen homeless shelter and then on her own at Poacher’s apartment, a drug dealer that’s more than willing to lend a helping hand to runaways in exchange for the money or drugs earned stealing or through sex. Six months after the meltdown, Emily is still lost and struggling with grief, pain and guilt, but life takes an unexpected turn when she befriends Cameron, a 9-year old foster care runaway, with whom she forms an unexpected bond, but when fate throws her yet another curveball, Emily decides to stop running and make a new plan no matter the consequences.

I loved this book; it was so poignant and unforgettable. While the aspects surrounding the meltdown itself were engrossing and downright frightening; from the evacuating school buses, to two lane highways becoming five lanes of traffic, to the depictions of “walkers,” people desperately fleeing on foot away from their homes; it was the more human tale, namely the narrative surrounding Emily herself, her sense of hopelessness and loss, and all of the events encompassed in a seemingly endless life-altering 9-months that were the most riveting.

I find it amazing that Bohjalian was able to so perfectly capture the voice of a teenage girl and make her so real. Emily was such a dichotomy of emotions; hopeful and hopeless, fearful and courageous, cynical and trusting, but when it came down to it, you could see she was just a kid – a scared, lonely kid. While honest and reliable as a narrator, Emily’s thoughts are at times scattered and haphazardly organized, jumping back and forth in time, a fact of which the protagonist is fully aware; as a result, as a reader you’re forced to remain fully engaged in the story so as to not get lost, but honestly that isn’t difficult because every page is enthralling.

I have to admit that the fact that I myself live only 10 miles away from a nuclear power plant (Indian Point in Buchanan), definitely played a part in the depths of the book’s impact on me. It wasn’t necessarily a conscious thing to put myself in Emily's shoes, but I couldn’t help but shiver in real fear thinking ‘what if’ as I read those evacuation scenes. While the book doesn’t make an outright case against nuclear power, it really is more about Emily’s journey with the meltdown serving as the catalyst and backdrop to her story, the descriptions of the mass exodus and refugees caused by the event are eerily real and startling enough to give both proponents and critics of nuclear energy pause.

Lastly, the truth of the novel’s title, revealed near the end of the book, is as touching as the story itself, and the epilogue offers the perfect ending to this equal parts gritty and beautiful novel. Despite Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands somber and at times gut-wrenching moments, its tale is a testament to the power of the human spirit and its young protagonist offers a hopeful message to keep faith and courage alive, and we too can be at our best when the world is at its worst; a poignant and memorable life-affirming tale.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Little Mercies

Heather Gudenkauf’s latest, Little Mercies, seems ripped straight from our newspaper headlines as it focuses on the tragic tale of a mother accidentally leaving her 11-month old daughter alone in a hot car on a stifling summer day and the heartbreaking consequences of that event on her small family. Social worker Ellen Moore has seen it all when it comes to the damage parents can inflict on their children; the atrocities - broken bones, skull fractures, sexual abuse, cigarette burns and hot water burns, she’s seen them all firsthand. Despite the long hours, sacrifices and stress, Ellen loves her job and finds refuge from its horrors within her own happy marriage and family, especially her beloved children Leah, Lucas and Avery. Yet one hectic and frantic summer morning will make her one of “those parents” in the eyes of the law and society.

It’s been them against the world for 10-year old Jenny Briard and her dad since her mom left them. Jenny loves her father despite his drinking and his inability to hold down a job, and when he says it’s time to start over and move again, she bravely dreams of a better tomorrow, but then the two get separated and Jenny is left all alone with only the few dollars in her backpack and her own street savvy. Jenny knows firsthand the evil that people are capable of, but thankfully a chance encounter brings her not only a newfound sense of family and hope, but a chance at a brighter tomorrow.

Despite being a part of the system, Ellen is unprepared for the damage her carelessness has wrought. Facing the possibility of losing not only her job but more importantly her family, Ellen struggles to face a protective order that separates her from her baby daughter when she needs her most, a potential grand jury, and the harrowing ordeal of being arrested like a common criminal, but none of those tribulations can compare to the sheer agony of knowing she’s responsible for everything Avery is going through as she fights for her life. As Ellen and Jenny fight for their respective futures, the two will cross paths and touch each other’s lives in immeasurable ways.

As usual, I thoroughly enjoyed Gudenkauf’s latest novel, but I will say that unlike her past suspenseful thrillers, this story’s tension and drama comes not from any mystery but from the novel’s relevant cautionary tale. Ellen’s tale offers a simple reminder to stop, listen, and be present in every moment of our life; all too often we are rushing from one moment to the next and sometimes (if we’re lucky) the things we overlook are minor, but sometimes they can have tragic consequences.

The story alternates narrators between Ellen and Jenny, and each offers a compelling dialogue on fear and hope. Jenny’s innocent ruminations on her life, including hunger, deprivation and abuse, are heartbreaking; all the more so because of her resignation at the state of affairs. While I liked Jenny, I felt like her story was a bit of a distraction from the main narrative and didn’t add much to the story as a whole. As for Ellen, I’m not a mother though I love my knuckleheads as if they were my own, but I readily empathized with her anguish.

Gudenkauf did a wonderful job in portraying Ellen’s own self-imposed punishment and the weight of her guilt; effectively conveying the fact that we as readers could never judge her as harshly as she judged herself for her carelessness with something so precious. The fact that Ellen never sees herself as the victim in the set of events that follow Avery’s rescue (no matter the number of looks, questions, harassment by the press, or the arrest), and that she never forgets that her pain and that of her family is of her own making (albeit accidentally), tempers our own instinct to judge her harshly.

Gudenkauf draws the book’s title from the insightful reminder that “we all have those times when we turn our backs, close our eyes, become unguarded” but when we do it’s how we and others respond in those moments that makes the difference. For in those moments of human weakness and sorrow, we “have to look for the little mercies, the small kindnesses and good that comes from the terrible;” the blessings that make our burdens and crosses bearable – our family and friends – and the compassion and forgiveness that can serve as a balm to our or someone else’s pain.

Little Mercies is a wonderfully moving and insightful story that reminds me why I loyally read all of Gudenkauf’s novels. Chillingly real and beautifully compassionate, Little Mercies is a story of family, love and forgiveness.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Author Spotlight: Heather Gudenkauf

Author Diane Duane once said “Reading one book is like eating one potato chip;” a truer statement has never been uttered. Whenever I find a book I love, my first instinct is always to quickly find that author’s previous works or their next. Finding a great book is easy, but finding a great author that reliably, book after book, delivers an edge of your seat suspense, heart-melting romance or a page-turning thriller isn’t such an easy feat; so when I do find such an author, I love to share them with you, my family and friends, which was the rationale behind my author spotlight posts.

This month I selected Heather Gudenkauf, the New York Times best-selling author of the book I’m currently reading, Little Mercies, as well as three older novels which I had previously read, making her a perfect spotlight candidate. As you’ll note from my previous author spotlights, my reading preferences lean toward gripping suspense novels or spine-tingling thrillers and Gudenkauf’s novels are no exception. Not only do her novels deliver on the tension, drama and the always requisite twist and turns you’d expect from the genre, but she offers compelling and insightful character development for each of her protagonists, ensuring moving, poignant and always memorable stories you’ll carry with you long after you’ve finished the last page.

All three of Gudenkauf’s novels (The Weight of Silence, These Things Hidden, and One Breath Away) are set in Iowa, where she’s supposedly lived nearly all of her life and you can readily see in each why it pays to write what you know, because she perfectly captures the local color, people and culture. She also conveys with seeming ease the sense of family and close-knit bonds found in those small towns, while never overlooking the fact that human frailties – weakness, evil and sin – are found in rich and poor families, and large cities and small towns alike.

A key feature in all of Gudenkauf’s novels is the fact that she uses multiple narrators, written in both the first or third person. Gudenkauf’s talent is notable here in the fact that despite the sometimes obvious similarities in gender and age between her multiple narrators, she manages to create characters that for all their commonality still remain uniquely different from one another with singular voices, including their own hopes, fears, and longings. Gudenkauf has equal ease in finding the voice of a child – their innocence, fear, and sometimes blind courage (in an author interview I read, she credits this ease with the fact that she was a classroom teacher and in education for 20+ years), as she has in conveying the heartfelt gratitude and love of an adoptive mother (“You were a wish that we made every morning when we woke up and a prayer we said before we went to bed each night;” Claire’s beautiful words to Joshua in These Things Hidden).

In short, I love Gudenkauf’s novels because while her stories show the darkness present in many human hearts; tackling subjects sometimes ripped from the headlines, like child abandonment, child abuse or school violence; she also hopefully reminds us that at heart we are all flawed individuals trying to do our best and sometimes we deliver on that innate potential for good. So without further ado, here's a brief summary of each novel, from oldest to newest.

The Weight of Silence. It happens quietly one August morning. As dawn's shimmering light drenches the humid Iowa air, two families awaken to find their little girls have gone missing in the night. Seven-year-old Calli Clark is sweet, gentle, a dreamer who suffers from selective mutism brought on by tragedy that pulled her deep into silence as a toddler. Calli's mother, Antonia, tried to be the best mother she could within the confines of marriage to a mostly absent, often angry husband. Now, though she denies that her husband could be involved in the possible abductions, she fears her decision to stay in her marriage has cost her more than her daughter's voice. Petra Gregory is Calli's best friend, her soul mate and her voice. But neither Petra nor Calli has been heard from since their disappearance was discovered. Desperate to find his child, Martin Gregory is forced to confront a side of himself he did not know existed beneath his intellectual, professorial demeanor. Now these families are tied by the question of what happened to their children. And the answer is trapped in the silence of unspoken family secrets.

These Things Hidden. When teenager Allison Glenn is sent to prison for a heinous crime, she leaves behind her reputation as Linden Falls' golden girl forever. Her parents deny the existence of their once-perfect child. Her former friends exult her downfall. Her sister, Brynn, faces whispered rumors every day in the hallways of their small Iowa high school. It's Brynn—shy, quiet Brynn—who carries the burden of what really happened that night. All she wants is to forget Allison and the past that haunts her. But then Allison is released to a halfway house, and is more determined than ever to speak with her estranged sister. Now their legacy of secrets is focused on one little boy. And if the truth is revealed, the consequences will be unimaginable for the adoptive mother who loves him, the girl who tried to protect him and the two sisters who hold the key to all that is hidden.

One Breath Away. In the midst of a sudden spring snowstorm, an unknown man armed with a gun walks into an elementary school classroom. Outside the school, the town of Broken Branch watches and waits. Officer Meg Barrett holds the responsibility for the town's children in her hands. Will Thwaite, reluctantly entrusted with the care of his two grandchildren by the daughter who left home years earlier, stands by helplessly and wonders if he has failed his child again. Trapped in her classroom, Evelyn Oliver watches for an opportunity to rescue the children in her care. And thirteen-year-old Augie Baker, already struggling with the aftermath of a terrible accident that has brought her to Broken Branch, will risk her own safety to protect her little brother. As tension mounts with each passing minute, the hidden fears and grudges of the small town are revealed as the people of Broken Branch race to uncover the identity of the stranger who holds their children hostage.

Why not give one of these three novels a try? You won’t be disappointed.