Thursday, January 17, 2019

Review: A Hard and Heavy Thing by Matthew J. Hefti

We all have books that we are reluctant to read, movies we're reluctant to see, or things we're reluctant to do that we know we should tackle. I find that sometimes this is pure laziness but other times it's because I don't expect the experience to be pleasurable; it's a daunting obligation for whatever reason. It's a little like medicine. You take it not because it tastes good but because it will help you get better. I fully expected Matthew J. Hefti's novel, A Hard and Heavy Thing, to be the book equivalent of medicine. I'd be a better person for having read it but it would be a painful experience in the reading. I mean, it's about war and the devastation it wreaks on the lives of soldiers even once they are back in civilian life. And while it was indeed a painful read, it was pretty magnificent too, far and away better than just taking medicine. It made me face unpleasant truths and it made me think. It made me reflect, it made me feel, and it pushed me, as the best books do. Reading about war is never going to be comfortable but it can be so much more than simply edifying and I need to remember that the next time a book with an uncomfortable topic arrives on my list.

Levi and Nick are in high school, drinking and doing drugs, generally wasting their lives in a small Wisconsin town. They have no direction, besides maybe getting Nick's beautiful girlfriend Eris to the ER after an apparent overdose, so when 9/11 happens and Nick suggests that they enlist, Levi agrees easily. If war can be said to go well, theirs does not.  They experience so much of what war is: boredom and waiting as well as terror and action, camaraderie and annoyance, power and subordination, life and death, and meaning and nothingness. And once the war is over for them, they each have to return home and find a way to move forward in regular civilian life with the people they love in the small town they thought they'd left behind.

The novel is Levi's book, written to Nick to explain their life and how they reached the place they were in. It's a suicide note, an explanation, the love story of their friendship, an apology, an examination, an unburdening, and a meditation. It is mostly in the third person, with Levi writing about himself and Nick from an outsider's perspective until his authorial voice breaks through and he addresses his audience (ostensibly Nick but also the reader) directly, philosophizing about the action and what it all meant in terms of their relationship, making sure that he was not misunderstood because of the goodness of Nick's heart. It is honest and hard. And although fiction, it feels like nothing so much as truth. Broken into three distinct sections, before, during, and after the war, the novel addresses such huge issues as guilt, suffering, PTSD, love, hope, and hopelessness. Nick and Levi are hard to like much in the beginning, just dumb, bored teenagers wasting their lives. But war changes everything and their essential selves solidify in surprising ways, making them more complex and more sympathetic. Hefti starts the novel with the boys taking Eris to the ER, worried she is dying and the narrative tension slowly escalates from there through Iraq and Afghanistan, and all the way back home as well. This is a powerful story that asks if absolution or redemption is ever available. What if the official take on events is undeserved? What is a normal life, especially after a life changing experience or tragedy? What is a human life worth and who is the judge of that? What is a friendship worth and how many betrayals can it survive? Ultimately thoughtful and heartbreaking, this novel shows us that both war and the heart are hard and heavy things. And Matthew Hefti has allowed the reader a glimpse into both.

A National Reading Group Month Great Group Read for 2016.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was 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. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

The Age of Light by Whitney Sharer.

The book is being released by Little Brown and Company on February 5, 2019.

The book's jacket copy says: She went to Paris to start over, to make art instead of being made into it.

A captivating debut novel by Whitney Scharer, The Age of Light tells the story of Vogue model turned renowned photographer Lee Miller, and her search to forge a new identity as an artist after a life spent as a muse. "I'd rather take a photograph than be one," she declares after she arrives in Paris in 1929, where she soon catches the eye of the famous Surrealist Man Ray. Though he wants to use her only as a model, Lee convinces him to take her on as his assistant and teach her everything he knows. But Man Ray turns out to be an egotistical, charismatic force, and as they work together in the darkroom, their personal and professional lives become intimately entwined, changing the course of Lee's life forever. Lee's journey takes us from the cabarets of bohemian Paris to the battlefields of war-torn Europe during WWII, from discovering radical new photography techniques to documenting the liberation of the concentration camps as one of the first female war correspondents. Through it all, Lee must grapple with the question of whether it's possible to reconcile romantic desire with artistic ambition-and what she will have to sacrifice to do so.

Told in interweaving timelines, this sensuous, richly detailed novel brings Lee Miller-a brilliant and pioneering artist-out of the shadows of a man's legacy and into the light.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was 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. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

When You Read This by Mary Adkins.

The book is being released by Harper on February 5, 2019.

The book's jacket copy says: A comedy-drama for the digital age: an epistolary debut novel about the ties that bind and break our hearts, for fans of Maria Semple and Rainbow Rowell.

Iris Massey is gone. But she’s left something behind.

For four years, Iris Massey worked side by side with PR maven Smith Simonyi, helping clients perfect their brands. But Iris has died, taken by terminal illness at only thirty-three. Adrift without his friend and colleague, Smith is surprised to discover that in her last six months, Iris created a blog filled with sharp and often funny musings on the end of a life not quite fulfilled. She also made one final request: for Smith to get her posts published as a book. With the help of his charmingly eager, if overbearingly forthright, new intern Carl, Smith tackles the task of fulfilling Iris’s last wish.

Before he can do so, though, he must get the approval of Iris’ big sister Jade, an haute cuisine chef who’s been knocked sideways by her loss. Each carrying their own baggage, Smith and Jade end up on a collision course with their own unresolved pasts and with each other.

Told in a series of e-mails, blog posts, online therapy submissions, text messages, legal correspondence, home-rental bookings, and other snippets of our virtual lives, When You Read This is a deft, captivating romantic comedy—funny, tragic, surprising, and bittersweet—that candidly reveals how we find new beginnings after loss.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Review: The Gown by Jennifer Robson

If I say the word wedding gown, what do you think of? Do you think of a royal wedding gown like Princess Grace's, Princess Diana's, Duchess Catherine's, or Duchess Meghan's? If you are royal obsessed, you probably think of some of those much photographed gowns. What about Queen Elizabeth's wedding gown? Do you think of that one? If you were lucky enough to see the "Fashioning a Reign" exhibit at Buckingham Palace in 2016 like I was, you got to see the intricately embroidered gown in person and it is impressive indeed. It was the wedding gown of the future queen but what of the people who made it? Designer Norman Hartnell was credited with the gown but the numerous people who had a hand in its actual creation remain anonymous. Jennifer Robson's new novel, The Gown, focuses on two women who played a major part in the meticulous hand embroidery and on the granddaughter of one, who never knew about the important part her grandmother played in creating Princess Elizabeth's glamorous wedding gown.

Ann Hughes had worked in the embroidery room at Norman Hartnell's Mayfair studio for eleven years, creating beautiful embroidery that had graced the royals' and other wealthy patrons' clothing when Miriam Dassin, a Frenchwoman new to London, joined the atelier. The year was 1947, a year of continuing austerity after WWII  The winter was brutally cold and food was scarce but at least Ann had a roof over her head, even if her beloved sister in law, her brother's widow, had moved to Canada, leaving her lonely and in search of a roommate. As Ann and Miriam worked together and got to know each other, Ann invited Miriam to move in. These two very different women became good friends as well as co-workers, sharing their secrets and their heartbreaks, the horrors of war and of life afterwards.

In 2016, in Toronto, journalist Heather Mackenzie is mourning the loss of her Nan. When she discovers several beautiful floral embroidery samples left to her by her grandmother, she decides to research her Nan's life before she moved to Canada, a life never discussed with her daughter or granddaughter. And when Heather discovers that the embroideries match those on Queen Elizabeth's wedding dress, she is more determined than ever to uncover the past her grandmother never shared, a past that will lead her to the celebrated artist Miriam Dassin and to the realization that her grandmother had a hand in the celebrated wedding gown.

There are three different narratives weaving together in this novel, Ann and Miriam in 1947 and Heather in 2016. Ann and Miriam's stories focus on the life of working class young women in the aftermath of the war, their growing friendship, and their dating lives while Heather's story centers mainly on her search to learn more about her late Nan, to uncover the mystery she left behind. Ann and Miriam's stories are a bit more engaging than Heather's, offering more tension and drama than the modern day narrative does. That the 1947 narratives offer a look into the lives of two women who gave their skill and their quiet, unquestionable loyalty in the making of the princess's wedding dress, women who are otherwise anonymous, makes for fascinating reading. Although the wedding gown is central to the story, and to Heather's discovery of information on her Nan, this is as much the story of the necessity of friendship as anything. It is their friendship that helps Miriam confront the nightmare of her past and it is their friendship that gives Ann the courage to do what she ultimately needs to do. It is also that friendship that opens doors and the future to Heather. Readers or Anglophiles looking for engrossing historical fiction, for a tale of women's friendship, or for well done multiple narratives will find this a quick and rewarding read.

For more information about Jennifer Robson and the book, check out her webpage, like her author page on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter or Instagram. Check out the book's Goodreads page, follow the rest of the blog tour, or look at the reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and William Morrow for sending me a copy of the book for review.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Kathryn at Reading Date.

Books I completed this past week are:

Thanks a Thousand by A.J. Jacobs
A Hard and Heavy Thing by Matthew J. Hefti
She Loves You Yeah, Yeah, Yeah by Ann Hood
The Gown by Jennifer Robson

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

America's First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie
Metis Beach by Claudine Bourbonnais
Smoke by Dan Vyleta
Coco Chanel by Lisa Chaney
The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas
The Bottom of the Sky by Rodrigo Fresan
Surviving Paradise by Peter Rudiak-Gould
A Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabaldon

Reviews posted this week:

On the Same Page by N.D. Galland
Thanks a Thousand by A.J. Jacobs

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

A new year, a new slate! A Hard and Heavy Thing by Matthew J. Hefti
She Loves You Yeah, Yeah, Yeah by Ann Hood
The Gown by Jennifer Robson

Monday Mailbox

This past week's mailbox arrivals:

Villa del Sol by Martha Reynolds came from me for myself.

This won the Independent Publishers of New England Literary Fiction Award for 2018 and I'm very curious about it.

She Loves You Yeah, Yeah, Yeah by Ann Hood came from a friend for a book swap.

A middle grade book about a Beatles-obsessed girl who is navigating middle school in the 60s with all its attendant friend drama and unhappiness, my review is coming soon.

The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory came from a friend for a book swap.

I enjoy romances so this one about a woman who says no to a scoreboard proposal by her relatively new boyfriend and then has to endure the social media fallout should be funny and flirty.

Learning to See by Elise Hooper came from TLC Book Tours and William Morrow for a book tour.

A fictionalized story of Dorothea Lange? Oh, yes please!

Love and Other Words by Christina Lauren came from a friend for a book swap.

A second chance with your one true love? I am looking forward to getting stuck into this one.

The Forgotten Guide to Happiness by Sophie Jenkins came from me for myself.

A reader in her twenties and a writer in her eighties who is showing signs of dementia end up as housemates in this novel. It sounds absolutely perfect for 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.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Sunday Salon: Best of 2018

Unlike every other person and place on the internet, I can't bring myself to make my Best Of list before the year actually ends. Call it optimism (hope springs eternal that one of the last books I read will be positively amazing) or contrariness (the year's not over yet, ya cheaters) or what it probably is, a combination of forgetfulness and laziness, but I don't pull it all together until the previous year is officially in the rear view mirror. I read 192 books in 2018 across categories including literary fiction, narrative non-fiction, graphic novel/memoir, mystery, romance, and true crime(!) to name a few. I had great reads, good reads, mediocre reads, and reads that made me shake my head wondering how they were ever published. Some books surprised me (in both directions) and some fulfilled all my expectations. I am certain I acquired more books than I read, a circumstance that never changes no matter what else is going on in my reading life. Even if my fellow readers can echo pretty much everything I've said here, reading remains intensely personal so everyone will have their own favorites. Here are mine, in no particular order from my 2018 reading life:

1. The Reluctant Cannibals by Ian Flitcroft

2. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

3. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

4. In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills by Jennifer Haupt

5. Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson

6. The Lido by Libby Page

7. Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

8. Dear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce

9. Second Wind by Nathaniel Philbrick

10. The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sunjata Masssey

11. Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

12. Maggie Boylan by Michael Henson

13. All Over the Map by Betsy Mason and Greg Miller

14. The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

15. The Art of Failing by Anthony McGowan

16. What Luck, This Life by Kathryn Schwille

17. The White Darkness by David Grann

18. The Golden Egg by Donna Leon

19. Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton

20. The Mercy Seat by Elizabeth H. Winthrop

What were your favorite reads of 2018?

Friday, January 4, 2019

Review: Thanks a Thousand by A.J. Jacobs

A.J. Jacobs describes himself as "more Larry David than Tom Hanks" and he wanted to find a way to be less annoyed and more grateful, leading to the idea of this participatory memoir.  It's an expanded version of his TED talk which readers might have seen. I too find I am annoyed a lot of the time and once I am annoyed, it's harder and harder to stop being annoyed by even the smallest of things, to just be happy with life. So I thought that following Jacobs on his "Gratitude Journey" to thank all the people who make his morning coffee, a necessity for so many people, possible would make Thanks a Thousand the perfect book to ring in my new year of reading.

It is easy to be annoyed or angry over something. It is much harder to be grateful. And it might be hardest of all to be grateful for things we take for granted. It is this that drives Jacobs' interest in his quest. He wants to thank everyone for their contributions, from the big and obvious to the small and seemingly insignificant as he traces the origin of his coffee and all the things that allow it to journey from the coffee bean farmers to his own mouth. Jacobs manages to connect a whole host of people who we might not otherwise consider here, highlighting the absolute interconnectedness of all the businesses and people on the planet. In fact, he went so far down the rabbit hole looking into all the industries involved in a simple cup of coffee (he makes no mention of adding milk or sugar but that would just expand the scope exponentially I imagine) that he has to consciously restrict himself to thanking only 1000 people (more or less). His investigation into each aspect is by necessity not terribly in depth but it is enough for the layperson to understand the gist and to continue to be fascinated by all the places that Jacobs is taking them. The information made me appreciate all of the moving parts that absolutely anything takes (especially the usually overlooked bits) but the push to recognize people's contributions and the gratitude those contributions inspired were definitely thought provoking. Even as a non-coffee drinker, I found this to be a quick and fascinating read, and one with which I am happy to have started my year.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was 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. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

Good Riddance by Elinor Lipman.

The book is being released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on February 5, 2019.

The book's jacket copy says: The delightful new romantic comedy from Elinor Lipman, in which one woman’s trash becomes another woman’s treasure, with deliriously entertaining results.

Daphne Maritch doesn't quite know what to make of the heavily annotated high school yearbook she inherits from her mother, who held this relic dear. Too dear. The late June Winter Maritch was the teacher to whom the class of '68 had dedicated its yearbook, and in turn she went on to attend every reunion, scribbling notes and observations after each one—not always charitably—and noting who overstepped boundaries of many kinds.

In a fit of decluttering (the yearbook did not, Daphne concluded, "spark joy"), she discards it when she moves to a small New York City apartment. But when it's found in the recycling bin by a busybody neighbor/documentary filmmaker, the yearbook's mysteries—not to mention her own family's—take on a whole new urgency, and Daphne finds herself entangled in a series of events both poignant and absurd.

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