Tag Archives: love

“Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn

Gone GirlTitle: Gone Girl
Author: Gillian Flynn
ISBN: 9780307588364
Pages: 432
Release date: June 5, 2012
Publisher: Crown
Genre: Thriller
Format: Ebook
Source: Library
Rating: 5 out of 5

Their life together wasn’t perfect—after five years, it was safe to say they’d left the honeymoon phase—but Nick Dunne never expected this. On the morning of their anniversary, his wife, Amy, went missing.

Amy, a gorgeous and gregarious blonde, instantly becomes a poster woman for missing wives, making national news. Nick, unsurprisingly, becomes the main suspect in the investigation. As pressure mounts on Nick, his indiscretions and betrayals seem more and more telling.

But did he do it?

In chapters alternating between Nick’s increasingly desperate search for Amy—and his attempt to clear his name—and old diary entries of Amy’s that detail how their blissful life together devolved into something more sinister, the story pulls readers into its convoluted web.

After all, how well do you really know anyone—even (especially) the person you’ve pledged your life to?

Warning: This isn’t exactly a review, per se. In order for me to explain why I loved this book so much—to the point of considering a 6-out-of-5 star ranking—I would need to spoil the ending for you. Normally, I don’t mind writing reviews with spoilers, but I just can’t on this one. You have to experience it for yourself.

I pride myself on being fairly observant while I’m reading, but the plot twists (and there is more than the big one everyone mentions) caught me entirely by surprise. It’s sort of like strapping in for a theme park ride. For the first part, you go up and down and around a bit. You’re enjoying it, but kind of chuckling to yourself, “This is it? I’ve been on much crazier rides!” And then the bottom drops out, and you scream your head off for the last half.

With complex characters, a dizzyingly intricate plot, and insight into relationships—not just between spouses, but between fathers and mothers and siblings as well—Flynn is a master storyteller. She takes unreliable narrator—one of my favorite devices, when done well—to a whole ‘nother level. She explores how the people we know shape us, for better or worse, and she dives into the ways you truly discover who someone else is as time goes on. And, although the book’s power is derived from its keen observations of people and their relationships, Gone Girl is also a look at an America slumping in the recession.

This was one of those books that kept me up half the night to finish it, and the other half thinking about it. One of my reading friends who took me up on the recommendation told me that it seemed unrealistic—that no one is that complex or twisted. But in my opinion, Gone Girl is a perfect example of how characters don’t need to be likable to be compelling. As a reader, you get sucked into their vision of the world, and you spend days trying to figure out what was real and what wasn’t.

Gone Girl was definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Quotes of Note:

They have no harsh edges with each other, no spiny conflicts, they ride through life like conjoined jellyfish—expanding and contracting instinctively, filling each other’s spaces liquidly. Making it look easy, the soul-mate thing. People say children from broken homes have it hard, but the children of charmed marriages have their own particular challenges.

My dad was a man of infinite varieties of bitterness, rage, distaste. In my lifelong struggle to avoid becoming him, I’d developed an inability to demonstrate much negative emotion at all.

Sometimes I feel like Nick has decided on a version of me that doesn’t exist.

Amy made me believe I was exceptional, that I was up to her level of play. That was both our making and undoing.

Don’t just take my word for it! Buy Gone Girl from an independent bookstore or Amazon (Kindle version is available).

“Pandemonium” by Lauren Oliver

Title: Pandemonium
Author: Lauren Oliver
Series: Delirium, #2
ISBN: 9780061978067
Pages: 384
Release date: March 2012
Publisher: HarperCollins
Genre: Dystopian fiction; young adult
Format: Hardcover
Source: Personal collection
Rating: 4 out of 5

Warning: This review contains spoilers for Pandemonium’s prequel, Delirium. For more on that book, check out my enthusiastic review.

Alex is gone. He was gunned down, caught in flames, unable to cross into the Wilds with Lena, and now she’s on her own. Dehydrated, thirsty, and injured, she’s on the edge of defeat when she’s rescued by a small band of those whom she used to fear: Invalids.

As Lena recovers, she quickly learns how to survive in this new world—one where the memory of Alex constantly haunts her. It’s not long before she has bigger things to think about, though; the resisters who have taken in Lena begin plotting their next mission, and Lena wants in.

Each chapter alternates between “then” and “now,” and the juxtaposition emphasizes how Lena evolves and hardens. In a world where love is a disease, hatred is a tempting alternative. In the fraught months after losing Alex, Lena explains:

It will feed you and at the same time turn you to rot. It is hard and deep and angular, a system of blockades. It is everything and total. Hatred is a high tower. In the Wilds, I start to build, and to climb.

She’s no longer a dewy-eyed teen but a lean mean rager against the machine. But as she dives deeper in the cult-like world of the Resistance, she finds a world that is threatening in new and unexpected ways. Her new friends aren’t as friendly as they may seem, and Lena finds herself in deeper and deeper trouble.

Despite losing Alex—in fact, because of it—the idea of a world without love is impossible. But what will Lena do when she’s confronted with a new love interest? And what will happen when her old and new worlds collide?

I loved Delirium—it was one of my favorite books in 2011. I read a review copy of the first book, and had to wait more than a year for the next installment—as my appreciation for Delirium deepened and my hopes for Pandemonium rose perhaps too high. The buzz around its release didn’t help; School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews both gave Pandemonium a starred review, with Kirkus naming it one of the best books of the year. So, with all of the build-up, maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I wasn’t crazy about the second book.

Part of what appealed to me about Delirium was Oliver’s creativity—the very concept of love as a disease, and how that would affect society. But in the second book, the conceit began wearing thin. Girl cannot live on idea alone. That means Oliver needs to rely on the strength of her characters and plot—and there were some definite misses for me there.

The romance between Lena and the new man, Julian, seems a little contrived. I suppose you need a love interest in a book about the danger and power of love, but it just didn’t work for me.  Their romance is rushed—they are pushed together in prison—and their “love” is a hothouse flower. In fact, Oliver propagates traditional romance-novel ideas of love. Sure, there are no long walks together on the beach in the Wilds, but love isn’t just butterflies in the stomach; it’s a commitment. As in, remember Alex?

As Farrah at I Eat Words points out: “I thought it was quite unnecessary to create a love triangle type of thing. Oliver’s writing is strong, the plot is strong, and both Alex and Lena are strong. Why throw this in? It felt cheap.” Farrah also points out the similarity of the prison sequence to V for Vendetta—a very good point.

Speaking of borrowing a bit too heavily from other books… I was distracted by the many traces of Hunger Games: navigating a love triangle, resisting a dystopian world, finding oneself to be a pawn of the Resistance, even hiding out in the sewer. Thanks, but I already read Mockingjay. Does Oliver think that’s what all readers are looking for in YA, or was it just a horrible coincidence?

Despite these weaknesses, Pandemonium did not lack suspense. The twists themselves are not surprises—it would have been disappointing if they hadn’t happened, since that is the direction clearly set up in the first book. But the ways in which these twists are presented are exciting. Oliver cleverly sets up one surprise within another; you’re so focused on the first development that you’re off-guard with the second, bigger twist—great timing.

As in the first book, Oliver’s prose is fantastic. She avoids clichés in her writing (even if she succumbs to clichéd ideas of love), and her dialogue feels fresh and natural. She includes poetic descriptions and sensory details that heighten the emotion of a given scene, as when Lena finds herself on the run:

On our left, just off the highway, is the city: billboards and dismantled streetlights and ugly apartment buildings with purple-gray faces, bruised complexions turned toward the horizon.

When I finished Delirium, I couldn’t stop thinking about this world and its characters. I pre-ordered Pandemonium about a year in advance, and obviously had high expectations. While I enjoyed the book, it didn’t blow my mind. I’m curious to read Requiem, the final book in the series, but it’s not killing me. It must be hard to write a sequel to such a popular book.

Worth noting: Reading for Sanity points out that this book contains a good bit of profanity, if that sort of things bothers you.

Don’t just take my word for it! Buy Pandemonium from an independent bookstore or Amazon (Kindle version is available).

“Whatever You Love” by Louise Doughty

Whatever You LoveTitle: Whatever You Love
Author: Louise Doughty
ISBN: 9780062094667
Pages: 384
Release date: March 2012 (paperback)
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Genre: Fiction
Format: Paperback (ARC)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Whatever You Love, Louise Doughty’s sixth novel and a finalist for the Orange Prize, begins with every mother’s worst nightmare.

Laura Needham knows why the police officers are standing at her door, but her mind seizes up with shock regardless. For the first time, she had allowed her nine-year-old daughter, Betty, to walk home from school without her. Betty, the police now inform Laura, was killed in a hit-and-run accident.

As Laura later mourns beside her daughter’s lifeless body at the hospital, she clings to alternate scenarios in which Betty is alive:

I wonder how long I can keep this going, if it is possible to live with this alternate narrative for the rest of my life. I know—dear God, already I know—that this alternative is only mine as long as I am alone. Already, I am in love with alone.

Sequestered with her grief, Laura looks back on the last few years of her life, which, she slowly reveals, were less than serene. Laura and David Needham had been happy at first, and the birth of their daughter Betty had signified a high point in their relationship. As their marriage began to unravel, however, Laura had become pregnant with their second child, a boy. Rather than cement their crumbling relationship, Roos’s birth only served to drive a wedge between Laura and David. Soon thereafter, David’s unrelenting infidelity landed him with another woman, Chloe, who didn’t waste much time getting pregnant herself.

Laura was left alone, clinging to the remains of her once-happy life in a small, windswept English town by the sea. Her children—especially Betty, who reminded Laura of all of the joy her marriage had once held—were her only source of comfort.

Now, the loss of Betty seems to have driven Laura over the edge. Roos, her son, is all but forgotten. Laura rarely eats or sleeps, subsisting instead upon thoughts of revenge. She begins looking for her daughter’s accidental killer, and she vows: “I am going to find out what you love, then whatever it is, I am going to track it down and I am going to take it away from you.”

Laura’s thoughts are also clouded with bitterness toward Chloe, David’s new wife—who seems to have stepped into Laura’s shoes of dutiful wife and mother both naturally and happily. But Laura won’t relinquish those roles so easily.

Laura moves from grief-saturated remembrances of joyful times to paranoid thoughts of revenge against those who have stolen her happiness. The novel takes on a dreamlike quality, slowly building to a bizarre twist. It’s a story of a mother’s grief, but also her dreams of redemption. Laura seeks reassurance that she was a good wife and mother—and she will stop at nothing to get it.

Although she seems to find the redemption she seeks, the ending didn’t ring true for me. It felt too neat, too fantastical, and it made me wonder if Laura got her wish for an alternate reality—if she stepped far enough back into her mind to construct an entirely different outcome of her own story. However, taken at face value, the book’s ending was puzzling and unsatisfying.

Despite my confusion over the ending, I enjoyed Doughty’s writing. Her voice is strong, laced with nostalgia and a kind of dreaminess that makes reading the book feel like moving through clouds of thick cotton.

Throughout the story, Doughty draws clear parallels between pain and love. When Laura sees Betty in every child she encounters, Laura feels liberated from her grief in an unexpected way. “[Betty] must have loved me so much, to give me this gift—to sacrifice herself so that I don’t need to be frightened any more,” Laura marvels. Ultimately, she discovers that “love built on pain” is the only kind that endures, for “whatever we love can be taken away from us at any moment but the loss of what we love belongs to us forever.”

Interested? Read it for yourself! Buy Whatever You Love from an independent bookstore or Amazon (Kindle edition).

I receive a very, very small commission when you purchase the book through the above links. Thank you for helping to support my site–and my book addiction!

Don’t just take my word for it. Check out what other reviewers have said:
Lit and Life
Book Hooked Blog
Broken Teepee
A Bookish Way of Life
Life in Review
The Lost Entwife
Peeking Between the Pages
Walking With Nora
Kritters Ramblings
The House of the Seven Tails

“All There Is” by Dave Isay

Title: All There Is: Love Stories from StoryCorps
Author: Dave Isay
ISBN: 9781594203213
Pages: 176
Release date: February 2, 2012
Publisher: Penguin
Genre: Nonfiction
Format: ARC (hardcover)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

The period of time between Christmas and Valentine’s Day is the worst. You can’t swing a cat without hitting some diamond ad. (Sorry, Kizmet.) It would appear that it’s not love if he didn’t go to Jared, and it won’t last forever if it wasn’t designed by Jane Seymour. Let’s not even talk about eHarmony.

Needless to say, in the weeks leading up to the holiday, the last thing I wanted to hear were corny stories about love. Luckily, Dave Isay’s volume of real-life love stories, All There Is, is the opposite of all that.

Dave Isay is the founder and president of StoryCorps. A little more about that:

StoryCorps is an independent nonprofit whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives. Since 2003, StoryCorps has collected and archived more than 40,000 interviews from more than 60,000 participants. Each conversation is recorded on a free CD to share, and is preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. StoryCorps is one of the largest oral history projects of its kind, and millions listen to our weekly broadcasts on NPR’s Morning Edition and on our Listen pages.

In this collection of stories, men and women from all walks of life share their experiences with finding, losing, and recapturing love. Bobbi and Sandi, who committed to each other at age 19 and then again many years later when gay marriage was legalized in Massachusetts, allow their tenderness for each other to shine through their words. Martha Ward’s optimism is impossible to miss; she just knew that she would meet someone special after she went to a voodoo priestess. Lauren Weitzman creatively proposed to Stuart Drescher by tucking a note under a seat in the airport they would often fly through, sending him a map so he could find it.

The narratives are long enough to tell a good story, but short enough to keep me interested in the love stories of strangers. These are gripping, wonderfully human stories that struck emotional chords in me.

There are sweet stories, like that of Rachel Perez Salazar and Ruben Paul Salazar. They began writing to each other after an errant email was sent to the wrong RP Salazar. Despite the distance between Texas and Thailand, they became best friends, eventually marrying!

There are heartbreaking stories. In 1990, shortly after Cindy White met Eric Ernsberger, she found out that he ex-husband had infected her with HIV—and she had passed it along to her new boyfriend. But when she told him the news, he said, “It’s a blessing that I’m HIV positive, because we can do this together.” After years of caring for each other through healthy and sick times, he passed away, but he never lost his positive outlook. Cindy concluded,

The truth is, falling in love doesn’t save us from the big, bad, icky things that can happen in the world. But the thing I’d want for people to know the most about Dan and I is that we had an incredible love story despite a horrible virus. And I don’t believe I’m here because of anything less than his love for me.

And there are bittersweet, uplifting stories. Leroy Morgan remembers his wife, Vivian, and six things they always said to each other to have a happy marriage: You look great, Can I help?, Let’s eat out, I was wrong, I am sorry, and I love you.

It’s impossible to read these stories and not think of someone you’ve loved and lost. But the stories are ultimately optimistic, even when they don’t end perfectly. As Elliot and Hunny Reiken say, “Being unhappy is part of being happy.” Leave it to me to find the dark side of love, but there is plenty here for the more romantically inclined.

Dave Isay and StoryCorps have done an excellent job capturing the stories and voices of real people. I’m very interested in reading more volumes from this project.

Quote of Note:

“Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling into at night. I miss you like hell.“
– Edna St. Vincent Millay, quoted by Granvillette Kestenbaum, whose husband of thirty-one years lost his life in the World Trade Center attacks

Interested? Read it for yourself! Buy All There Is from an independent bookstore or Amazon (Kindle edition).

I receive a very, very small commission when you purchase the book through the above links. Thank you for helping to support my site–and my book addiction!

Don’t just take my word for it. Check out what other reviewers on the tour have been saying:

January 31: Amused By Books
February 1: A Bookish Way of Life
February 2: Amusing Review
February 3: Book Hooked Blog
February 7: Layers of Thought
February 10: Chick Lit Reviews and News
February 15: Suko’s Notebook
February 16: The Book Chick
February 20: Reviews from the Heart
TBD: Teresa’s Reading Corner

“Holy Ghost Girl” by Donna M. Johnson

Title: Holy Ghost Girl
Author: Donna M. Johnson
ISBN: 9781592406302
Pages: 288
Release date: October 13, 2011
Publisher: Gotham
Genre: Memoir
Format: ARC
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: 5 out of 5

Win this book!

I’m giving this book away to one lucky reader in the United States or Canada! Just leave a comment below and you’ll be entered to win. I will be choosing a winner at midnight on October 31.

Donna Johnson had an unusual childhood. Her mother brought Donna and her younger brother, Gary, into the inner circle of David Terrell, a very popular big tent revivalist in the 1960s and 70s. Donna spent her childhood under the wing of the charismatic and megalomaniacal minister; the only home she knew was under the “largest tent in the world.”

At first, the tent families scrape by, dodging creditors, living in dingy homes, and eating not quite enough food. Johnson comments, “I wondered from time to time why miracles performed under the tent were perfect and complete, while in our daily lives God left things half finished.”

Her mother and the other religious leaders instill in the children—both directly and by example—that they are different. And they are; Donna and the other children move around so often, they have very little in common with other children, whom she ironically dubs “outsiders”:

Everything about outsiders—their clothes, speech, habits—seemed to belittle us, and that put us on the defensive. . . . There was only one way to be in the world, one right way anyhow, and that was the way we were.

However, Donna does not stay with the tent all the time. At a young age, Donna and her brother Gary are left, for months and sometimes years, in the care of religiously rigid—and sometimes fanatically cruel—believers, while their mother tours the world with Brother Terrell.

As the years pass and Terrell gains in popularity, he begins amassing cars and property—and secret families. By the time the IRS catches up to him, he has two families—including one with Donna’s mother—in addition to his public life with his other kids.

Johnson has a front-row seat to Terrell’s hypocrisy and delusion, but she maintains an even hand in her account, telling also of his powers of healing and the positive effect he had on his followers’ lives. She captures the cadence of a southern revivalist perfectly–his tone, his openness, his unwavering faith—all of the things that form a powerful charisma:

He was the healer and prophet plucked by the hand of God from the Alabama countryside and given a worldwide ministry of faith and deliverance. He was a son of God, crying out in the wilderness. Oh, hallelujah, he knew who he was, and the devil couldn’t take that away from him.

Is David Terrell a con man? A prophet? A performer? “I had spent a lifetime deciding,” Johnson writes, “and each time I thought I knew, the answer proved too small to encompass my experience.”

Her account of her unusual life is surreal but convincing, powerful without seeming overwrought. Johnson ably demonstrates the complexity of faith, commenting that “Belief, like love, can go underground. It can become part of our operating system, without our knowledge or approval.”

She is insightful without being judgmental about why people choose to follow charismatic leaders:

In him they saw a more powerful, dazzling image of themselves. He came from the same grim poverty that had shaped them, but it did not cling to him. . . . He was them without the shame. He was them without the hopelessness. And oh how they loved him for it.

As Donna struggles to reconcile the disparities between her different identities—the person she was, the person she has become, and the person she wants to be—I saw my own struggle. I loved this book so intensely because it helped me understand myself—my past, my present, and my hoped-for self.

I was raised in a very religiously strict environment. My father believed—and believes—that he was chosen for the evangelical work of God, and my mother acquiesced to that immovable faith for many years. My eight siblings and I lived in a remote, rundown farmhouse and were homeschooled for much of our lives.

Though the details of my upbringing were drastically different from Johnson’s, the underpinning beliefs, doubts, and struggles are identical. This book hit countless familiar notes for me. The long, hot nights spent fidgeting on hard chairs, the joyfully exuberant music, the passion and eloquence of evangelical ministers instantly transported me back in time.

There were times I laughed out loud at the similarities between the way we were raised; when Donna tells her mother that she is afraid of the dark, Carolyn replies firmly, “If you’ve been good, there’s no reason to be scared.” Instead of monsters under their beds, Christians have demons in the corner.

There were other times, however, when Donna’s insight made me feel as though she were writing my inner monologue and deepest secrets:

For a long time I felt like a cardboard cutout of a person, flat and one-dimensional, propped up with a plastic stand, nothing behind me. I watched the students, teachers, employers, friends, and colleagues around me and picked up cues on how to be in the world: Look them in the eye, firm up the handshake, file down the emotion, read good books, wear good shoes, dark colors, the best haircut you can afford. Fake it till you make it. Gradually, the years between me and the tent stacked up until they had formed a wall of experience that separated me from my former self.

Despite the way she is treated and the hypocrisy she witnesses, Donna finds it impossible to reject the religion that has formed such a large part of her life. It is so ingrained in her, she feels guilty for not accepting it wholeheartedly:

What I knew but could not articulate was that sometimes I felt so awful, so sinful, that I wanted to pull everything down around me, wanted in fact for everything to fall on me like the dead weight of a felled tree and crush me into the ground.

Johnson is a superb writer and storyteller. The honesty and warmth of her story reminded me of one of my favorite memoirs, The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls. Through her tumultuous and unique upbringing, Johnson manages to pick out themes of identity, belief, and desire. She teases out the complexity of a black-and-white world.

Holy Ghost Girl is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, and it is certainly one of my favorites from 2011.

But don’t just take my word for it. Check out what other reviewers on the tour have been saying:

October 4: Joyfully Retired
October 6: Bermuda Onion
October 7: Colloquium
October 10: Chaotic Compendiums
October 12: A Fair Substitute for Heaven
October 13: In the Next Room
October 14: Books, Movies, and Chinese Food
October 17: Raging Bibliomania
October 18: Amused by Books
October 19: Book Addiction
October 20: Books Like Breathing
October 24: BookNAround
October 25: Life in Review
October 26: Sara’s Organized Chaos
October 27: Broken Teepee

Or, of course, leave a comment below to win the book and find out for yourself!

“The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde

Title: The Picture of Dorian Gray
Author: Oscar Wilde
ISBN: 9780199535989
Pages: 229
Release date: June 20, 1890 (the expanded version was published by Ward, Lock, and Company in April 1891)
Publisher: Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine
Genre: Classical fiction
Formats: Audiobook/e-book
Sources: Lit2Go/Project Gutenberg
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Basil Hallward, an artist, is in love with his latest painting–and his subject, Dorian Gray. In fact, Hallward firmly believes that Gray’s indisputable beauty and charm have taken his art to an entirely new level, to the point that all who gaze upon his image are compelled to fall in love.

Hallward’s theory seems to hold up against the first viewing of the painting by his friend, Lord Henry Wotton. But in this case, Wotton’s interest in Dorian Gray is returned by the young man, who delights in the lord’s cynical hedonism.

Lord Henry is bursting with delightful aphorisms, like “There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about” and “There are only two kinds of people who are really fascinating–people who know absolutely everything and people who know absolutely nothing.”

Dorian takes to heart Henry’s suggestion that life is only worth living for beauty and sensory satisfaction, and, as he faces the portrait of himself in full bloom of youth and grace, he wishes the portrait would age rather than himself. He even decides he would trade his soul for it–what does a pretty man need a soul for, anyway?

Dorian clearly never heard the phrase “Be careful what you wish for.” As he descends into ever more unmentionable (and mostly unmentioned) sins, his countenance never changes. His portrait, on the other hand, becomes one of a hideously evil man. The more debauched his actions, the more disfigured his painted image becomes.

Dorian, for some reason, decides it’s not ready for primetime and hides the painting in a locked room of his house, only looking at it after his worst acts with a kind of brutal curiosity–like a kid poking a dead cat.

He becomes a man reviled in even the most disgusting and horrifying places, but his enduring good looks and charm keep him from being discovered for years. Sooner or later, though, debauchery catches up with everyone, and Dorian’s very visible secret can’t stay hidden forever.

In his only published novel, Wilde combines two themes seemingly at odds with each other–Victorian morality and magical realism–to great effect. Classical themes abound in the book. GLBTQ, an online encyclopedia of queer literature, observes that

Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1890) pivots on a gothic plot device by which a narcissistic young man makes a Faustian bargain to preserve his youthful beauty.

Moreover, it was refreshing to detect clear homosexual themes in a Victorian novel without enduring endless moralizing. The Picture of Dorian Gray is a seminal work of queer literature.

Wilde’s elaborately wrought prose was difficult to get into as a book; its opulent and flowery opening–as well as passages interspersed with fantastic but sometimes overwrought descriptions–was a bit of a tough sell to my undergraduate self. However, the passion of the one of the audiobook narrators brought the story to life, and I highly recommend the audiobook.

Guest Review! “Russian Winter” by Daphne Kalotay

I’ve mentioned before my preoccupation with the role of fairy tales and folk tales in modern literature. Susan Redington Bobby, an English professor at Wesley College who specializes in just that subject, has graciously agreed to review one of her recent reads, Russian Winter. I’m thrilled to have her as a guest reviewer today!

Title: Russian Winter
Author: Daphne Kalotay
ISBN: 9780061962165
Pages: 480
Release date: September 2010
Publisher: Harper
Genre: Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Source: Susan’s collection
Rating: 4 out of 5

“It wasn’t that she didn’t believe in love; but she no longer believed in it for herself.”

This simple proclamation, uttered by Drew Brooks, a character in Daphne Kalotay’s first novel, reveals an ingrained belief that haunts all three protagonists of Russian Winter. Kalotay, whose short fiction is gathered in Calamity and Other Stories, illustrates how the lives of three seemingly disconnected people become intertwined amidst a jewelry collection that the central protagonist, Nina Revskaya, has put up for auction.

While Nina’s story is the fulcrum around which the narrative spins, her past and present affect the lives of two others: Grigori Solodin, a Russian literature professor, and Drew Brooks, the Associate Director of Fine Jewelry for the auction house that prepares Revskaya’s pieces for presentation.

Polyphonic narration strengthens Kalotay’s work, encouraging the reader’s immersion into the story while the author’s point of view recedes into the background. What remains is a commingling of voices, with Nina’s narration being the most complex as she reminisces and relives her past–from her childhood dancer’s training, through her courtship and marriage to poet Viktor Elsin, to her defection from Soviet Russia on the eve of discovering that her husband may have had an affair.

Scribed in the present tense, these passages are lyrical and filled with striking attention to the smallest details of physical and emotional sensations. They form a sharp contrast to the more succinct and matter-of fact present-day musings of the aging dancer, now in her eighties, as she sits confined to a wheelchair, in near-constant physical, and, as it turns out, emotional pain, emblematic of baggage from her past.

Interestingly, her present is penned in the past tense, which, while initially unexpected, seems appropriate. I suspect that Kalotay uses tense deliberately to reflect how much more metaphorically “alive” Nina feels in her past than her present.

Of course, her reliance on pain pills also points to a literal reason that her memories seem more vivid; at one point, Nina’s nurse Cynthia interrupts her thoughts with, “So, what happened with him?” Nina suddenly feels as if she has woken up and cannot remember whether she was dreaming or speaking aloud, and she asks herself, “Was this old age, then, at last? Not merely advancing years but true old-lady-ness, dementia, the past gradually overtaking present?”

I became transfixed when this incident occurred halfway through the novel. I wondered how much of what I had read thus far was in her mind versus spoken aloud to her nurse. I questioned how reliable a narrator she had been all along. Were her reflections embellished out of nostalgia? Did her off-and-on medication habit affect the veracity of her tale?

However, my questions remained unanswered as this thread is dropped as quickly as it is introduced, and I found myself disappointed that Kalotay missed this opportunity to explore Nina’s narrative reliability.

Despite this trail of breadcrumbs that simply disappears, Kalotay seamlessly floats between her characters’ lives and proves that all are connected, not just through the jewelry, but through similar approaches to love and work.

Nina, Grigori, and Drew, all consummate professionals, have thrown themselves completely into their chosen careers in misguided attempts to insulate themselves from truths they cannot face or the looming specter of loneliness. All three characters’ feelings about romantic love seem deeply affected by their pasts, so much so that they are stuck in patterns from which they cannot escape. Nina is unable to form a lasting relationship with another after she believes that Viktor betrayed her; Grigori cannot move past the tragic death of his beloved wife Christine; and Drew, now divorced, has never experienced that all-encompassing love that the fairy tales promised.

The good side, of course, is that they are all productive people who bring beauty to the world in one form or another. Once known as “the Butterfly,” Nina, a Bolshoi-trained prima ballerina who earned Stalin’s praise, has brought beauty to countless admirers through her stunning performances. Grigori, in searching for clues of his parentage, has developed a professional devotion to Viktor Elsin’s poetry; the clues lead him to believe that he is Nina’s son, and he spends years forming an inner connection to Elsin and Nina, whom he believes holds the answers to his heritage. His work as a translator and professor brings the majesty of language and literature to numerous students and scholars. Drew, having given up the quest to find true love, has poured herself into the auction house for which she researches and writes material for supplemental catalogs; there is beauty in the history of found objects she unearths for intrigued buyers.

What each character lacks, though, is moderation of passions. In running from secrets of the past or fears of their present, all three characters become so immersed in their own esoteric worlds that they close themselves off from meaningful relationships with others.

Nina’s husband may have betrayed her in an affair with her dearest friend, the dancer Vera Borodin. Kalotay leaves this point unresolved, either to allow the reader to form her own conclusion, or to suggest that it no longer matters whether he betrayed Nina or not. What does matter is that fifty years later, Nina has still not forgiven herself for what may have transpired between Viktor and Vera, or for the intricacies of her relationship with both of them.

Therefore, Nina isn’t just confined to the wheelchair, but shackled to her own mind, which obsessively replays events, desperate to solve the puzzles of the past. Yet the past is resurrected when Drew begins to investigate the connections between the amber pendant Grigori donates to the auction to other pieces of amber jewelry from Nina’s collection. Like the spider perfectly preserved in the pendant, Nina’s life is suspended in time, frozen and incapable of breaking from its self-imposed prison.

Grigori and Drew are also suspended in their worlds of intellectual solitude, preferring the company of books and historical labyrinths over engagement with loving partners. Both attempt to forge romantic relationships with close friends, but it never feels quite right, so they retreat into the nebulous comfort of scholarship.

This imbalance between the passions of work and love can only be changed with courage, and Kalotay satisfies the reader by pushing the narratives together to a point where the connections between them encourage a rupture of their patterns. When enough clues are revealed to identify Grigori’s mother, Nina finally overcomes her denial of the past to confront it head-on, by admitting to Grigori that his mother was indeed Vera. Simultaneously, Grigori and Drew push past their solace in separateness to explore their feelings for one another, and the novel ends with their relationship burgeoning. The amber necklace is symbolic in terms of the novel’s denouement, as the spider encased in amber holds an egg sack, teeming with life, hinting that there are always seeds of creation and newness around us, if we only know where to look.

It is clear at the novel’s conclusion that all three protagonists have broken their patterns and escaped the confines of their emotional prison cells. Each also discovers that love is not meant for others alone, but they, too, are deserving. Yet love takes all forms, and while sometimes love comes with opening oneself to possibility and walking life’s journey alongside another, it also arises from loving oneself enough to forgive the sins of the past. Therefore, on the other side of pain and betrayal lies wisdom and salvation.

“The Illumination” by Kevin Brockmeier

Title: The Illumination
Author: Kevin Brockmeier
ISBN: 9780375425318
Pages: 272
Release date: February 1, 2011
Publisher: Pantheon
Genre: Fiction
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Carol Ann Page is struggling after a painful divorce, and things only get worse when she accidentally slices off her thumb. When she is hospitalized, she is privy to a phenomenon no one can explain: Everyone’s pain is illuminated. From sore spines to aching joints, from sliced thumbs to ruptured spleens, pain becomes a very visible–and strangely beautiful–thing.

While in the hospital, she meets Patricia, who gives Carol Ann a journal filled with love notes from her husband before she dies. Carol Ann is fascinated by the powerful love she experiences in the pages of the journal, and begins to wonder if she could be loved like that.

Patricia’s husband, Jason Williford, is shattered after the death of his beautiful and beloved wife. His body begins to heal, but he will not allow his mind to move on. He is enthralled by pain, and joins the movement of cutters who make strange and gruesome art with their bodies after Illumination. He also becomes obsessed with recovering the journal that disappeared from the hospital after his wife’s death, but even after he reclaims it he realizes that he will never have his wife back.

Chuck Carter, an autistic boy who lives down the street from Jason, is bullied constantly by his father and other boys at school. They don’t understand that Chuck can feel the pain (and beauty) in everyday objects. When Chuck spies the journal Jason cherishes, he can see the pain beaming out of it like others can see pain in people, and it speaks to him–tells him he should rescue it. He then gives the journal to a nice man who knocks on the door one day.

Ryan Schifrin, a door-to-door evangelist, is taken aback when Chuck hands him the journal and disappears. But not much in his life has made sense, anyway; his passionate, virtuous sister died in her prime, and now he carries on her life’s work–all the while questioning his own faith in God. While he is surprised to find that “evangelism was a job like so many others, where it did not matter what you believed, only what you did,” he finds himself confronted by his disbelief in God more often than he might have in other professions. “He believed there was more light, more pain, in the world than ever before,” and the pain does not slacken simply because it becomes visible. If God has always had his eyes open to this pain, he wonders, what kind of God is he?

Ryan leaves the book in a hotel drawer like a kind of Gideon’s Bible, and it is discovered one day by Nina Poggione, a successful novelist who is plagued by chronic sores in her mouth. Every day is agony, and the pain swallows up the best parts of her life: talking about her book, eating, talking to her son, smiling, enjoying a physical relationship with a man. Nina treasures the journal, filled as it is with sentiments so far from her own life, but one day her son trades the book to a homeless bookseller.

Morse Putnam Strawbridge doesn’t say much, but he hears much and more. Though he usually only communicates the prices of his books in a rote, stiff voice, he can hear the thoughts of those who pass him by. He knows their names and their most secret fears, but he can barely articulate the words that might give him a better life–until he meets a young, streetwise man who takes an interest in Morris.

Brockmeier’s characters are painfully insightful and wonderfully human. He is a skilled storyteller, and he makes each character incredibly endearing in very different ways. Despite coming from all walks of life, they have in common one thing: loneliness. All of them feel stranded, alone, abandoned, confused.

Carol Ann describes the synchronizing effect the Illumination has on her life–finally, the pain she feels inside is evidenced in the world around her:

There was a light in her hand, and a light in her head, and doubtless a light in her memories, too. She had known days of happiness and beauty, rare moments of motionless wonder, but trying to relive them after they had vanished was like looking out the window at night from a partially lit room: no matter how interesting the view, there was always her own reflection, hovering over the landscape like a ghost.

Brockmeier’s description of Chuck’s world is one of the best I’ve ever heard an autistic child’s universe:

Chuck Carter lived in dozens of different places every day. Sometimes he lived in a house with dark green carpets. Sometimes he lived in a school that smelled like milk. He lived in a run-down car with his parents sometimes. . . One time, Chuck rode in an elevator with glass walls. This was the single best place he had ever lived.

Chuck truly lives in the moment, and he is more connected with this world and the objects it contains than most children. Again, Brockmeier’s characterization is impeccable; I was able to lose myself in Chuck, seeing the world from an entirely different perspective. His world seems at once simpler and more profound than those of his peers and even his parents.

Ryan is, perhaps, my favorite character. His struggle to reconcile his outward good deeds and his inward doubts make him seem very human and believable:

What frightened Ryan–horrified him–was not the possibility that God did not love us, but that He did love us and His love was merely decorative. Aesthetic rather than unconditional. That He loved us because we suffered, and our suffering was pleasing to His eyes.

His doubts make him authentic, and his very hypocrisy makes him realistic.

I enjoyed every page of this book. It is one of the most well-written, imaginative, and compelling books I’ve read this year. The journal that passes from person to person makes them greater than they were. In a world where pain is visible, love must also be palpable, and Brockmeier expertly balances the two.

Quote of Note:

“The reality cuts across our minds like a wound whose edges crave to heal, but cannot. Thus, one of the great sins, perhaps the great sin, is to say: It will heal; there is no wound; there is something more important than this wound. There is nothing more important than this wound.”
– Whittaker Chambers

“The Nobodies Album” by Carolyn Parkhurst

Title: The Nobodies Album
Author: Carolyn Parkhurst
ISBN: 9780307714718
Pages: 320
Release date: June 15, 2010
Publisher: Doubleday/Random House Audio
Genre: Fiction
Format: Audiobook
Source: Library
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Can you rewrite the past?

Bestselling novelist Octavia Frost would certainly like to. And though she can’t erase the painful past that haunts her, she can change the only thing it seems she has any power over: her work.

Octavia is determined to re-write the endings of all of her previous books, and publish them as one collection. She is on her way to hand-deliver the manuscript to her New York publisher when the ticker in Times Square catches her eye and stops her dead in her tracks: Milo Frost, the lead singer of a rock band, had been accused of murdering his girlfriend. Milo, her son.

For the past several years, Octavia hasn’t spoken to Milo. Not that she hasn’t tried; he has refused to talk to her. And she can’t blame him. The argument that erupted between them all those years ago exposed the still-raw feelings between them after a tragic accident that shattered the family.

Octavia decides to fly out to California to see him. As the investigation into Bettina’s murder unfolds, the evidence against Milo mounts. The loving son Octavia raised would never have done this to the woman he claimed to love. Then again, Milo’s been gone for a long time, and Octavia barely knows him. As Octavia comments, “The simplest thing that can be said about any person, any relationship, is that it’s not simple at all.”

The Nobodies Album is a murder mystery, but Parkhurst doesn’t rush the reader. The slow suspense is accentuated by the unfolding of the tragedy that devastated Octavia and Milo.

Octavia as an author herself brings a touch of self-consciousness to the narrative. Even as she relays the action in the book, she is aware that she is telling yet another story, and views her life accordingly—almost, at times, as from a distance. When she meets Bettina’s mother for the first time, she wonders somewhat humorously who is writing her vitriolic dialogue.

Parkhurst cleverly weaves into the story the new endings of Octavia’s books that she had planned to publish.

Some of the excerpts are my favorite part of The Nobodies Album; I loved the poetry and power of the alternate ending of “Carpathia.” As a narrative device, I found the alternate endings—which were, in effect, powerful short stories—a fresh and interesting addition to the traditional murder mystery.

The revised endings allow poignant glimpses into Octavia’s and Milo’s past in a way that Octavia may not have been able to express herself. These snippets offer insight into Octavia’s nostalgia and powerlessness over the past, while also displaying Octavia’s optimism for changing one’s narrative.

Should she—could she—have done something different as Milo’s mother that would have prevented Bettina’s death? And is it too late to start over with Milo?

The bonds between a mother and her child, the pain and power of loss, and the healing power of time are all prominent themes, but Parkhurst succeeds in simultaneously telling an intriguing story that had me questioning the motives of each character and wondering how it will all end. The Nobodies Album is the perfect blend of literary artistry and suspenseful storytelling.

I listened to the story on audiobook and through some error—of mine or of the manufacturer’s, I’m not sure—chapter 12/13 and 14/15 were switched. After I figured that out, those parts made much more sense. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and intend to read it again (in order this time!).

I devoured Lost and Found, her second novel, and with this novel Parkhurst has confirmed her place as one of my favorite authors. Next up: The Dogs of Babel!

“Skipping a Beat” by Sarah Pekkanen

Title: Skipping a Beat
Author: Sarah Pekkanen
ISBN: 9781451609820
Pages: 352
Release date: February 2011
Publisher: Washington Square Press
Genre: Fiction, chick lit
Format: Paperback
Source: Library
Rating: 3 out of 5

Julie and Michael Dunhill have it all: a gorgeous mansion in DC, a multi-million dollar business, co-ownership in the local basketball team. But everything they have fought for in life–money, prestige, popularity–has only driven them further apart.

After Michael suffers a heart attack, his outlook on life changes radically. Something happened in the four-plus minutes when his heart stopped beating, and he knows he doesn’t have much time to right the wrongs he’s perpetrated against others.

Julie has gotten comfortable in her opulent new world, though she constantly worries it will be ripped out from under her. Now that Michael is acting so strangely, she wonders if the time has come to call that divorce lawyer.

But something stays her hand, and as she becomes re-acquainted with her husband, she begins remembering what it was like to truly be loved.

Quick and dirty: This book has EMOTIONS.

I don’t read lot of chick lit, so I thought it would be difficult to review this book. After all, what do I have to compare it to? Fly Away Home by Jennifer Weiner? Sure, Julie struggles with unrealistic expectations of her weight, she has problems with her marriage, she lives in a rung of society that (thankfully!) I will never reach… hey, maybe these are more alike than I thought.

But there was one crucial difference between the books: Skipping a Beat embarrassed me on the metro.

Not because I was reading chick lit when I usually reach for a classic, but because Pekkanen’s book made me cry. Several times! I expected it to be fun and light-hearted, and so I was as surprised as my fellow commuters when the tears began welling up.

And let me tell you, the metro is pretty much the worst place to cry. But I kept reading, in part because of the startling ways in which I was beginning to identify with Julie.

First of all, Julie’s relationship with her father was dysfunctional enough to remind me of my own. Julie watched helplessly as her dad descended into a gambling addiction; he changed from a loving benefactor to a sheepish parasite. And his example led Julie to misplace her trust in money. But there is hope for Julie and her father; he is eagerly waiting for her to begin addressing the years of pain and disappointment, waiting to show her how he has changed—all for her.

It is pretty obvious that Michael, Julie’s childhood sweetheart, is going to die (and stay dead) at some point. Hell, the book opens with: “When my husband, Michael, died for the first time…” Throughout the book, as you discover how Julie and Michael’s paths diverged from one another and watch as they find their way to one another again, there is always a dark cloud barely visible on the horizon. The wonderful times they begin to have is always overshadowed by the fear of the other shoe dropping.

And that is why I cried. I cried because of the lurking pain that I still feel when I think about how hard it is to say goodbye. I cried because of Julie and Michael’s incredible time together when he knew his clock was rapidly running down; my sister never had the chance to reconcile with her husband, Josh, after a fight they’d had. I cried when I realized that Julie would conceive a child during the brief, happy time between Michael’s two deaths; I have four nieces and nephews whom my sister is now raising on her own.

This book wasn’t life-changing. It wasn’t terribly written, but it won’t win any Pulitzers. (Although, after reading Great House by Nicole Krauss, I remember the importance of a strong, powerful plot and simple, unfettered characterization. But that’s a whole ‘nother review.) I’m already forgetting some of the details of the plot, and I wouldn’t recommend it to readers who don’t enjoy chick lit. Or those who don’t believe in the afterlife.

The premise—that love triumphs over all, even death—did not speak to me. The idea of coming back from the dead with a set amount of time change your life and elicit forgiveness from those you’ve wronged is utterly fantastical. In real life, you never know how long you have with the ones you love, and sometimes you can’t say goodbye.

But the book made me think about how happy we were with Josh and all the good times we had. Even when things were at their worst, our little ragtag family only grew closer together. By the end of the book, where the waterworks should have been picking up speed, I felt strangely comforted in the knowledge that we didn’t need a miraculous three weeks to say all the things we needed to say; we’d already said them the whole time we’d known each other.

As corny as it sounds, sometimes a book can be great just for reminding you to value your loved ones before it’s too late.