Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen

Grief can make you do weird things. In Petula's house, it's made Mom a cat hoarder, it's made Dad a workaholic, and Petula has turned to statistics, probability, and news of the strange in an all-out effort to reduce risk and stave off danger in all its disguises.

When the kids in (lame) art therapy class realize they're actually becoming friends, together they find ways to move past their problems and let go of some of their fear. Petula may even learn to walk the short way home past the construction site. But a big secret changes everything, and they're all forced to reevaluate their hearts: forgiveness may be harder to conquer than fear.

I loved this book, and I read it in a single sitting. They're quirky, fun teenagers with relatable lives and fears. They're each working through some heavy shit, and together they may just make it out alive.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Talking to Girls About Duran Duran: One Young Man's Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut by Rob Sheffield

With each chapter titled by a song, music critic Rob Sheffield uses this memoir to tells stories about his sisters, their influence on his listening (and fashion), and his ongoing affection for 1980s pop music.

His summer as an ice cream truck driver (titled not with Van Halen's "Ice Cream Man" but with Prince's "Purple Rain"), his almost-seduction by a former teacher, his love of cassingles, a season in the discos of Spain, his high school wrestling career - these are all stories told with nostalgia through their links to songs of the 1980s.

You don't have to love the music to understand the book, but it helps (it also helps that I'm roughly the same age as the author with a similar familiarity to John Hughes movies and MTV) But Sheffield is a guy who writes about music and its effect on our emotions in a really accessible way (see also Love is a Mixtape). This is really a series of stories about growing up and figuring things out.

He's a brave man to admit some of his more bubblegum proclivities, to sing the praises of recreational karaoke, and to analyze what it is about Duran Duran that makes them so irresistible (along with their baffling career longevity). Also, it's adorable the way he dotes on his sisters.

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker

After meeting in a college art class, Sharon and Mel(ody) become inseparable, their lives absolutely intertwined as they start their own animation company, drink and smoke, work, and even live together in the studio. Just as they're becoming legitimate stars, an unexpected emergency derails everything.

The book's about creative energy and inspiration, and it's about friendship and how close two people can be and still not really see one another. These women mine their personal lives to make intimate, biographical films, but not everyone is estatic to find themselves part of the movies.

I loved this book - they're self-absorbed, self-destructive artists in the prime of their lives. But they're forced into a delayed adulthood that ultimately expands their perspective and their work. It's sometimes hard to watch them sleepwalk through life with such oblivion - hard to watch because it's easy to recognize yourself in these characters.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

When Tom returns to Australia from the WWI battlefield, he's alive and whole but broken inside. He takes a solitary, regimented job on a remote lighthouse, but didn't count on meeting the headmaster's engaging daughter before he set off.

The trajectory of his life is changed with Isabel - suddenly the tiny island of Janus isn't so lonely with a lovely wife and a happy life. Starting a family becomes an exercise in resilience and heartbreak until the day an infant girl and a dead man drift ashore in a boat and they decide to keep the child as their own. On Janus it's easy to forget the impact this decision has on the rest of the world, but eventually the couple discovers the full implication of their deceit.

This is a gorgeous book, emotional and gripping, yet lyrical and dreamy, too. You're lost in the descriptions of time and place, of the feel of the wind and the wonder of the lighthouse's works. It's also rough on your heart because there are no easy answers - everyone involved is fallible and imperfect. There are no true black-and-white answers to this novel's dilemmas.

We read this one for the library's book discussion group, and it was the spark for some very interesting conversation. It's recently been released as a film, and I'm interested enough to make time for that, too, in the near future.

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Excellent Lombards by Jane Hamilton

As the second generation growing up on a Wisconsin apple orchard, Mary Francis Lombard has a contented life full of farming and extended family. She can't imagine a different life, or even one she'd prefer.

The child narrator of this adult fiction novel offers a unique perspective on the family and business of the orchard - she sees the world through a kid-shaped window and often doesn't necessarily understand what she sees and hears. She's precocious and curious about the grown-ups but often believes her own fictions rather than the truth. The adult relationships around her take on a fuzziness; they're less important than the make-believe war between cousins or the wonder of a new teacher.

This is a quiet novel of rich characters and small dramas. There's a lot of family and almost-family at the orchard - it's practically a commune and various relatives share several houses on the farm. There's also a caring, tough female "hired man" who suffers a great and terrible love story.

I loved this book, and since I have friends who own an orchard I understood more than I otherwise might have about the seasonality of the work to be done. The small dramas of the story make for a quiet novel about family and growing up, and an overall excellent read.