Thursday, August 27, 2015

Review: The Surfacing by Cormac James

I have a fascination for snow and ice. I don't particularly want to live in them full time (or even beyond the first driveway shoveling, if truth be told) but there's something very appealing about them in the abstract. Antarctica is on my bucket list. So are those ice hotels in Finland or Sweden. I am captivated by books about polar expeditions and their fates. The frozen North (or South) land calls to me. So I was fully prepared for Cormac James' newest novel, The Surfacing, a tale about a ship and its crew searching for the lost Franklin expedition to enchant me. I wanted to love this book in all its frozen glory. Unfortunately, it made me feel beaten down, like I always felt after a long, grueling winter when spring should be imminent but is still out of sight, hidden by dirty, monotonous banks of snow.

In 1850, a fleet of ships headed for the Arctic in a bid to find and possibly even rescue the lost Franklin expedition. One of the ships searching, the Impetus, needed repairs after a short trip north and had to return to Greenland for a time. While the ship is in harbor, the first officer, Richard Morgan, thinks little of a dalliance with the governor's sister, Kitty. But when the ship's captain decides to go out searching again despite it being late in the season for safe travels, Kitty is discovered as a stowaway. And as the long months of the search drag on, it is clear that she is pregnant with Morgan's child. As Morgan comes to grips with what this means both in practical terms and for him emotionally, the Impetus is slowly and irrevocably encased in the ice pack, moving ever further north away from freedom and open water, frozen solid into a moving sheet of solid white.

The book is written as a series of ship's log or journal entries but from a third person perspective, which is a little disconcerting, and there is no punctuation setting off dialogue from exposition. It is separated into two different sections: before the birth of the baby and after with a gap of almost a year in between the two. Morgan as a main character is coming to grips with fatherhood at a time when the only other thing occupying the crew is the daily slog of survival in such a harsh and unforgiving landscape. He is hard to know but is better fleshed out than the other characters, who took a very long time to show any signs of individuality. Without distinguishing characteristics, it is hard for the reader to care about them. Much of the book is like this, with well-constructed passages that unfortunately leave the reader nothing but numb.  The interactions between the crew members are reduced to a line here or there, keeping them all distant despite the situation.  The lack of plot makes it a struggle to stay engaged with the story and even as a contemplative reflection on fatherhood, the book doesn't quite deliver. The story of Morgan coming to cherish his son might have been more engaging had the year's gap, which allowed the hard work of building this development organically to be avoided, not been present. The story feels minimal and spare and yet still too long what with the unemotional tone and the completely unresolved ending. Perhaps I expected something different from this than the author intended but despite my initial eagerness, rather than a harrowing tale of life in extremis, I found this to be a mostly tedious and disappointing read.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

Cha...cha...cha...changes

We dropped our oldest child W. off at college on Saturday. For weeks leading up to the drop off, people would ask me how I was handling it. I think I shocked them when I said I was fine with it. But I was. I couldn't stop smiling. Not because a child was leaving the nest and our grocery bills would become more reasonable but because I was so excited for him to experience college. Other friends were counting down each "last thing" they'd have with their college bound child. I flat ignored all of that. I mean why be sad before you have to be (not that I had any intention of being sad anyway)?  I didn't cry when he started school and I didn't cry when he graduated so I was pretty sure I wasn't going to cry when we dropped him off on his latest and greatest adventure.

Because of his dorm and floor, he was assigned a 7:30 am move in time. I am not a morning person. W. is not a morning person. D. (hubby and dad) is the only one who is a morning person so he was completely perplexed when I insisted that we needed to get a hotel room for the night before move in. His argument was that the school is a mere hour and a half from us. My argument was that no one wants to wake me up to drive somewhere at 5 am if they value their life. We got a hotel room. The plan was to drive up sometime late afternoon and be well rested for the next morning. But in the time honored tradition of clueless teenagers everywhere, W. not only wasn't ready to leave at a reasonable hour, he didn't help me pack up all of the stuff that had taken up residence on the dining room table or help me pack the car, but he invited those friends who hadn't yet left for college themselves to come over and hang out and play video games for hours. He did pack up the clothes he wanted to take before they arrived though (more on this later), so there's that. After we fed the additional teenagers one last dinner and finally shooed them out the door, I finished packing up the car, we hopped in, and headed out. It was almost 11 pm when we got to the hotel. W. rolled himself out of the car, directly into a bed, and off to sleep. Apparently it's weird that I wanted him to be all jazzed up, chatty, and excited about the next day.

The next morning we rallied early in hopes that we wouldn't have to wait in line to unload his stuff. And we didn't. Even better, we had to carry nothing at all up to his fourth floor room. A welcome home team of students, faculty, and staff greeted us at the curb, unloaded the car, and whisked it all up to his room, where his roommate was already unpacking. Seeing the mound of stuff that the roommate brought made me worry that we didn't have enough. But in the weeks prior, whenever I asked him about some article listed on every college necessity list ever, he'd say he didn't need it. And I figured he was in charge. If he came to regret it later, I could always say "I told you so" because that is something I do really, really well. (Well, at least on the rare occasions that my children forget what I've taught them about the fact that I'm always right.) But seriously, the mountain of stuff his roommate had compared to what he had was comical. And they are in the smallest possible room that two people can inhabit together without sharing a bed. (It looks bigger in the picture than it actually is.) But W. still seemed completely unperturbed by his lack of stuff. He unpacked his clothes, jamming them into his drawers, and declared himself done.  Perhaps he's got a future calling writing the minimalist list version of what to take to college.

Meanwhile, anal retentive mom (that would be me, for anyone in doubt), unpacked and organized everything else. (I did refrain from alphabetizing anything but only with the greatest difficulty.) I asked nicely if I could hang up the shirts he'd squashed into the drawer but was summarily told no. I asked why we'd bought hangers then and he said he didn't know. Yes, you've guessed it, there was no way I was going to cry about leaving him when he was being an ornery little twit. He was grumpy. I was grumpy. D. left the room "to stay out of the way," wisely fleeing to check out the rest of the hall and dorm. Instead of continuing to argue (the roommate was arguing with his mom too so either it was contagious or this is one of those unpleasant things they don't warn you about dropping your kid off at college, kind of like no one tells you about the gross body after affects of giving birth), we found D. and went off to get breakfast. Food helped the hangry a lot.

Since W.'s side of the room was mostly handled by then, we made a run to buy the very few things we'd forgotten (or never knew he'd need/want). One extra pillow, an HDMI cord, an over the door hook, an ethernet cable, and a plethora of snacks and soda later and we were back in the room. Realizing that there was nowhere to store the snacks (it really is a tiny room), I made the sneaky suggestion that if he let me hang up his shirts, that would free up one of his three dresser drawers to become a snack drawer. He thought that was a genius idea. I'm not only always right, I pretty much always get my way. ;-) And since he was letting me muck about in the dresser, I opened both other drawers as well and folded his shorts and pants. Remember when I said he packed his own clothes? The child packed three pairs of athletic shorts, one pair of cargo shorts, two pairs of jeans, and two pairs of dress pants. He had a tiny stack of underwear and about 5 pairs of socks. I'm fairly certain my home laundry lessons fell on deaf ears so this could be interesting. He's either going to be filthy, become a nudist, or he's going to learn how to do laundry pretty quickly since this will have to last him at least six weeks until Family Weekend. I've been practicing though and I can confidently say: not my problem.

W. is a bit of an introvert so he wasn't interested in wandering down his hall to meet people.  Instead he plopped his cheesehead on and spun around in his desk chair.  When asked what he was doing, he said that if he wore the cheesehead, it might inspire other people to initiate a conversation with him so he didn't have to.  Bless his dorky little Packer backer heart!  We sat in his room for a while and no one who walked by mentioned the large wedge of cheese he was wearing so I suggested we get out and explore a bit. W. and D. found the pool table in the main lounge area and D. proceeded to school W. in a game. Almost as soon as the game ended, W. looked at me and said, "You know, I think you're the only parents who are finished unpacking their kid who are still here." I took that as a rather unsubtle hint (what a poor loser!) so we hugged him and left after checking to see if he wanted us to come back for dinner (no) or for convocation the next morning (yes).

Convocation was billed as business casual. Pretty much everyone we saw was dressed nicely. I even wore a dress. When W. came downstairs to meet us for breakfast before the ceremony, he was wearing a button down shirt and dress pants so you'd think he got the memo, right?  But remember when he crumpled up all of his things in his drawer and then snapped at me for wanting to hang them? Yeah, he looked like he'd slept in his clothes. Not one other kid we passed looked as schlumpy as my kid. The wrinkles in his shirt had wrinkles. And he didn't have it tucked in. This was apparently to hide the fact that he managed to break his belt while getting dressed. As we walked along, D. noticed that W. was also wearing white athletic socks with his khakis and dress shoes. Seems he forgot to pack dress socks too. And he hadn't shaved. Classy. It's no wonder that when I looked at the photos of convocation later, my kid is not in a single one.

At the ceremony, the school gave each freshman (even the ones who looked like they were rag pickers like my kid) an HPU blanket and the president told them that they were not to keep it but to give it to that person who had been the most influential in getting them to college, the person who had always wrapped them up with love and encouragement. I figured I was a shoe-in for the blanket. Brat grinned and told me to give it to the dog. (We all know it's mine now anyway.) I gave him the cheese he had inadvertently left at home (yes, we're a weird family but we love our cheese and he has a thing for smoked gouda with bacon which is ridiculously hard to find around here), we hugged him, and headed home.  We didn't want to be the last parents standing when the school had specifically said that parents should leave as soon as convocation was over.  That was the last we heard from the boy until this morning when he texted me a selfie of himself on his first day of classes. (As sweet as this sounds, know that the university suggested it to the kids. At least he went along with it, unlike the suggestion the president made to all of them to call their mothers every day to tell them that their kid loved them--and to call their fathers once a week to ask for money.) For now I'll assume that no news is good news and D. assures me that W. will most definitely call when he needs money.  I have no doubt.

I found it hard to sleep those first nights with him gone. In the past when he's been out at night, I have had the reassurance of the door chime waking me up to let me know he's home safe and sound. Saturday night and every night since then, that chime has never sounded and I think that's why I've tossed and turned. It's a huge change for him and for me.  Maybe bigger for me.  And I will admit to having clicked through every last picture the school took of each event during welcome weekend looking for my child. But he's either still sporting hopelessly wrinkled clothing (I wouldn't take a picture of that either) or he's decided to taunt me by staying as far as possible from any cameras because he doesn't appear in a single one. Seriously, is it too much to ask for him to just be on the outskirts of even one picture?!

So how am I doing with all if this? Well, I didn't cry at any point but I have to say it is a bit disorienting for me to have such a huge piece of my heart building a life away from me after 18 and a half years of building it with me.  But I think I'm doing okay.  Ask me again next year when another big chunk of my heart goes off to build her life elsewhere too.  For 18 years W. has been my baby.  Now he's his own person.  I hope we've done a good job with him and I hope he's having the time of his life.  I also hope he remembers to call home sometime soon!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Review: White Dresses by Mary Pflum Peterson

So many things can trigger our memories. Clothing in particular seems to hold our memories in the very weave of its fabric. Pull out a school picture and remember how much you used to love that oversized, geometric-print sweater in the photo and be prepared for the memories of seventh grade to come flooding in. Look in your closet at the cream colored sweater with pearl beading that you wore to Homecoming your junior year of high school when the theme was black and white. Slip on (or just try to if pregnancies have made your feet grow) the small, embellished heels that matched the bodice of your wedding dress which you wore for your wedding. Each of these articles of clothing holds not just the memory of the day they were worn but also remembrances of so much of that time in your life, the things you did, the places you went, and the people you loved. In Mary Pflum Peterson's life, it is the white dresses of christening, confirmation, graduation, marriage, and other significant life events that pull the stories from her in White Dresses, a memoir of her mother and herself.

Opening with Mary's desperate need to find the white dresses that embodied her mother's love for her amidst the dirt and hoarded detritus of her childhood home, the dresses are talismans. Each chapter opens with a brief memory of the significant day one of the white dresses was worn but then expands outward to describe so much more. Despite all of the promise of the celebratory dresses, neither Anne Diener Pflum nor Mary Pflum Peterson had the happiest of childhoods. Little Anne was an interloper in her parents’ marriage, merely a tangible sign of her mother’s deep passion for her father. Toward her children, Anne’s mother was cold and un-maternal and Anne spent her entire life striving to earn her mother’s love. Her emotionally barren childhood, followed by several emotionally abusive years as a nun and a hollow, failed marriage to an unhappy and volatile closeted gay man formed her into the mother that Mary Pflum Peterson knew. Mary was a product of this unhappy marriage and she grew up not only with the toxicity of their mistakes, confusion, and anger but with their eventual divorce and her mother’s financial struggle in a home that started off merely cluttered and dirty but became completely buried under mountains of things and filthy without being able to do anything about it. Even as Anne remained trapped with her own demons, she pushed Mary to go to college and find the success that she has today even as Anne worried that by doing so Mary would leave her behind. Their relationship was a complex and complicated one marked by deep love and failure, pride and frustration.

Peterson tells her mother's story and her own here through these special white dresses. She uncovers secrets and things she couldn't have understood about her mother at the time. She always knew that something was wrong but not the extent of it. Her recounting of history is unvarnished and honest, a loving tribute to a warm and caring mother who was forever haunted by a lack she felt her entire life. The symbolism of the twelve white dresses, their potential and possibilities, their announcement of a new beginning are poignant indeed when contrasted with the disappointments that mar many of the occasions they mark or the aftermath of those occasions. But if Anne Diener Pflum's life was crippled by depression and her later hoarding, if it was so unhappy despite its potential and the potential of all those white dress new beginnings, she gave her daughter a rare gift in her own set of white dresses: that of freedom and, ultimately, of the happiness she herself never found. Peterson writes sensitively about her mother, the past, and growing up as her mother's daughter. She captures the strong bond and love between them even as she is unable to help her mother overcome her own demons. The narrative structure is different and an interesting concept well handled. It is a little slow to start and the pain and lovelessness of Anne's upbringing is hard to witness, as is her ashamed descent into hoarding. But the love that shines through the writing and the well-researched evenhanded balance with which Peterson tells this family tale will draw the reader into this exquisite, painful memoir.

For more information about Mary Pflum Peterson and the book, like her Facebook page. Check out the book's Good Reads page, follow the rest of the blog tour, or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme is hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on.

The Art of Crash Landing by Melissa DeCarlo. The book is being released by Harper Paperbacks on September 8, 2015.

Amazon says this about the book: From a bright new talent comes this debut novel about a young woman who travels for the first time to her mother’s hometown, and gets sucked into the mystery that changed her family forever

Mattie Wallace has really screwed up this time. Broke and knocked up, she’s got all her worldly possessions crammed into six giant trash bags, and nowhere to go. Try as she might, Mattie can no longer deny that she really is turning into her mother, a broken alcoholic who never met a bad choice she didn’t make.

When Mattie gets news of a possible inheritance left by a grandmother she’s never met, she jumps at this one last chance to turn things around. Leaving the Florida Panhandle, she drives eight hundred miles to her mother’s birthplace—the tiny town of Gandy, Oklahoma. There, she soon learns that her mother remains a local mystery—a happy, talented teenager who inexplicably skipped town thirty-five years ago with nothing but the clothes on her back. But the girl they describe bears little resemblance to the damaged woman Mattie knew, and before long it becomes clear that something terrible happened to her mother, and it happened here. The harder Mattie digs for answers, the more obstacles she encounters. Giving up, however, isn’t an option. Uncovering what started her mother’s downward spiral might be the only way to stop her own.

Hilarious, gripping, and unexpectedly wise, The Art of Crash Landing is a poignant novel from an assured new voice.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Review: Baker's Blues by Judith Ryan Hendricks

I must admit that I have a bread machine. It probably doesn't redeem me in any way to say that it is generally dusty with disuse either. I know that it is merely a shortcut for homemade bread and that it cannot come close to the delectable stuff made by hand in artisanal bakeries and the kitchens of home bakers but we all work with our own skills. And much as I'd love to actually learn to bake my own bread from scratch, I just don't see it in the cards for me, at least not on a regular basis, and certainly not as a passion. That doesn't mean that I can't appreciate the skill that goes into making it or a gorgeous description of warm, yeasty bread with steam curling up from the torn bit of crust. Now I'm just making myself hungry! Judith Ryan Hendrick's newest novel, Baker's Blues, about a baker and her ex-husband, is the third in a trilogy that gets both bread making and the complications of love and relationships right.

Wynter Morrison owns a successful bakery in Los Angeles. She's somehow gotten away from making the bread herself, caught up in the logistics of owning the business rather than sinking her hands into the dough. She's been divorced from ex-husband Mac for several years but she is still thrown for a loop when she gets the early morning phone call that he has died unexpectedly. They share a long history and still cared for each other despite their divorce. Jumping back in time from the funeral and Mac's daughter's unreasonable anger at Wyn for her father's death, the novel turns to the past and the story of Wyn and Mac's marriage unraveling. Wyn works hard at her bakery and tries to support Mac, a best-selling author turning his book into a screenplay, as he does PR events and hits the party circuit. She misses the old, uncomplicated Mac she used to know, not certain of this slick and unhappy seeming version of himself. She wants him to open up and talk to her about his feelings, something he cannot do. In fact, he walks out on their marriage rather than face his demons or share his secrets. When Mac goes, Wyn has to find strength and meaning in herself again.

Opening the novel with Mac's death and then going back to plumb the depths of their relationship is very effective, allowing the reader to know that despite their divorce, Wyn's reaction to his death proves that neither Wyn nor Mac is a villain in the novel. The slow disintegration of their marriage and the reason behind it is incredibly emotional. Hendricks has drawn both Wyn's hurt frustration and Mac's deep despair and inability to stop sabotaging them very true to life. Wyn's character is hit with a confluence of terrible or life altering events all at once: Mac's desertion, the death of her beloved dog, an earthquake hitting Southern California, and her manager and friend leaving to go to school. It is no wonder that she's completely adrift or that she turns back to the slow art of creating, kneading, and baking bread as she tries to wrap her head around an unimaginable future. The majority of the novel is narrated by Wyn but there are several chapters where the perspective turns to the third person and the focus is on Mac. This gives the reader both Wyn's thoughts and reactions to Mac but also shows the depth of the depression crippling Mac's interpersonal relations and a well rounded explanation into the complexity of their love, which outlasts their marriage.

The novel is the final book in a trilogy but it easily stands on its own. Readers who start at the beginning with Bread Alone and continue with The Baker's Apprentice will already know some of the history that haunts Wyn and Mac and they will have a richer understanding of their relationships with many of the secondary characters but none of this knowledge is necessary to enjoy Baker's Blues. Although it tackles the hard topic of being depressed and living with someone who is depressed, there is still a warm and comfortable feel to the writing and the story. The reader is pulled along through the end of Wyn and Mac's marriage, knowing what is coming but still turning the pages to see how they get there and how Wyn will go on after Mac's death. There are a significant number of secondary plot lines here that compliment the main story arc. Be warned that the luscious descriptions of food and bread will have your stomach rumbling as you read. Sad and lovely, I recommend you read all three of the books but even just this one will do.

For more information about Judith Ryan Hendricks and the book, check out her website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter. Check out the book's Good Reads page, follow the rest of the blog tour, or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Monday, August 24, 2015

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

We moved our oldest son into college this week and before that I was running around trying to get all the last minute things that we seemed to have so much time to accomplish back in June finished in time to launch him in this new phase of his life. I did retreat into reading when it threatened to overwhelm me a bit. And now I need to sign up for a review-a-thon even more than I did before! This meme has been hosted by Sheila at Book Journey and I hope will be again one day.

Books I completed this past week are:

Fishbowl by Bradley Somer
Satisfaction by Andee Reilly
The Woman in the Photograph by Dana Gynther
Beneath the Bonfire by Nickolas Butler

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson
The Baker's Apprentice by Judith Ryan Hendricks

Reviews posted this week:

The Race For Paris by Meg Waite Clayton
Satisfaction by Andee Reilly

Books still needing to have reviews written (as opposed to the ones that are simply awaiting posting):

The Surfacing by Cormac James
The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton
Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League by Jonathan Odell
Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim
Making Nice by Matt Sumell
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews
Spinster by Kate Bolick
Migratory Animals by Mary Helen Specht
Balm by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
Secrets of a Charmed Life by Susan Meissner
Girl in Glass by Deanna Fei
Orphan Number Eight by Kim van Alkemade
Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jennine Capo Crucet
The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories by Wendy J. Fox
Lost Canyon by Nina Revoyr
The Door by Magda Szabo
Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper
Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg
Landfall by Ellen Urbani
This Must Be the Place by Kate Racculia
Henna House by Nomi Eve
Love Maps by Eliza Factor
Ferris Beach by Jill McCorkle
The Coincidence of Coconut Cake by Amy Reichert
Bread Alone by Judith Ryan Hendricks
Fishbowl by Bradley Somer
The Woman in the Photograph by Dana Gynther
Beneath the Bonfire by Nickolas Butler

Monday Mailbox

Sometimes it's good to only have book in the mail, giving me a chance to catch up on those that have preceded it. This past week's mailbox arrival:

The Courtesan by Alexandra Curry came from Dutton.

The idea of courtesans and concubines have always fascinated me with the way that they are often simultaneously given more knowledge and freedoms than other women and yet so dependent and constrained by their very position so this tale of a Chinese concubine whose sympathy for the West, cultivated on diplomatic trips with her husband, puts her in danger in a changing China is very appealing to me.

If you want to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

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