Tag Archives: best books

The Book Of My Life

our-short-history

Our Short History: A Novel by Lauren Grodstein (Algonquin, $26.95, 352 pages)

It’s admittedly early in 2017, but I suspect that this may well wind up as one of the best novels of the year.

Grodstein’s novel is about Karen Neulander, a powerful and successful political consultant in New York City.  Karen has fought a tough battle with ovarian cancer.  As we meet her, her cancer is in remission but is likely to return.  Karen’s doctors have been doing all they can to extend her life but can offer her, at best, no more than an additional 48 to 60 months.  (They cannot promise her that she will have the best quality of life in the time that remains.)

Karen relies on her younger sister Allie – a wife and mother and Seattle resident, to take care of both her and her six-year-old son Jake.  Jake represents absolutely everything that matters to Karen.  She will willingly surrender her career, her health, her life if it means that Jake will be alright.

“The truth is that even more than I want to be healthy, I want you to be okay.  Even more than I want to live forever, I want you to live forever…  Thank you, baby boy.  For as long as I’ve known you, you have given me the strength I need to keep on living.  I look at you and I feel strong.  Every day you help me feel strong.”  

Karen comes to realize that Allie can take her place and serve as a replacement mother to Jake once she dies.  But then the best laid plans evaporate as Jake decides that he wants to meet his father, Dave.  Dave never wanted children.  When he and Karen were together, Dave pressured her to abort the child she was carrying.  This led Karen to walk out on the relationship and to sever all contact with Dave.

Karen must now decide whether to connect Jake with the man who literally wished his son had never been born – a man she still loves but detests, or to refuse Jake’s request in order to protect herself.  Either way the outcome is likely to be unpleasant.  As part of her personal care, Karen decides to write a history of her life with Jake; that personal journal – full of good times, but also hard truths, blemishes and defeats, is this novel.  (It’s meant to be read by Jake decades after Karen’s passing.)

This is Grodstein’s sixth novel but it reads like a debut work.  It has the voice of a writer attacking a story while narrating it with a quiet confidence.  In that, it calls to mind Audrey Niffenegger’s brilliant Her Fearful Symmetry.    

Grodstein permits the reader to live, for a period, the life of a terminal cancer patient.  It is hardly a pleasant experience, nor is it meant to be.  She allows us to see that even in human pain and suffering, existence has a purpose.  Karen has found her purpose; in this, she is a lucky person.

In the words of author Celeste Ng, “This novel will leave you appreciating both the messiness of life and the immense depths of love.”  Well said.

The reader who makes it to the final pages of Our Short History will have paid a price – in smiles, laughter, heartbreak, fear and tears.  It’s a price well worth paying as Grodstein’s story is a nearly perfect representation of the notion that everything in life – painful and pleasing, has relevance.  One’s life is lived not in days or weeks, but over years and decades.

This is a literally breathtaking, life affirming work.  It’s not a ghost story like Her Fearful Symmetry, but it’s written from the perspective of a woman who knows that her time on earth is limited.  (After she’s gone, the “short history” – the personal story she’s recorded – will communicate with her son in a ghostly fashion.)  Our Short History is beautifully, finely written and haunting in its own way.  Look for it in March.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

 

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If you loved this book…

Sometimes you read a book and then think, “I wish I could find another book like that!” Well, here’s a visual representation of recommended books for your consideration. Joseph Arellano

If you loved this book…

The Other Wes Moore (nook book)

Read this one…

The Short and Tragic Life (nook book)

If you loved this book…

The Devil in the White City (nook book)

Read this one…

Dead Wake (nook book)

If you loved this book…

steve-jobs-nook-book

Read this one…

Becoming Steve Jobs

If you loved this book…

The Immortal Life

Read these…

The Cancer Chronicles

emperor-of-all

If you loved this book…

one day (nook book)

Read these…

US (nook book)

The Fault in Our Stars (nook book)

If you loved this book…

Hotel on the Corner of (nook book)

Read these…

Blackberry Winter (nook book)

How to Be An American Housewife

If you loved this book…

Everything I Never Told You (trade paper)

Read this one…

The Year She Left Us

If you liked this book…

Into Thin Air

Read these…

Buried in the Sky (nook book)

The Climb (nook book)

If you liked this book…

Born to Run (nook book)

Read these…

What I Talk About (nook book)

Running and Being (nook book)

PRE book

If you loved this book…

Hounded

Read this one…

David Rosenfelt dog

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Coming Up Next…

We release Santa’s list of books that are perfect for gift giving!Santa's reindeer

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The Best Book of 2010-2011

In 2009, this site selected Her Fearful Symmetry: A Novel by Audrey Niffenegger as the book of the year.   Last year, my selection for book of the year was American Music: A Novel by Jane Mendelsohn.   This time I decided to do something different, which is to select the best book I read between January of 2010 and the end of December 2011.   It happens to be a book that I read prior to its release, and it was first published in hardbound form on April 6, 2010; re-released as a trade paper book on April 5, 2011.

My personal and subjective choice as the best book of 2010-2011 is Imperfect Birds: A Novel by Anne Lamott.   Here is my review.

Imperfect Birds: A Novel by Anne Lamott (Riverhead Press, $15.00, 336 pages)

“I try to write the books I would love to come upon…”   Anne Lamott

I love the way Anne Lamott writes.   She writes like Anne Tyler (Noah’s Compass, Breathing Lessons, The Accidental Tourist, Digging to America) with a professor’s seriousness about life, but a child’s smile.   Life scares Lamott but she keeps the bogeyman away by writing about people who are like her, except that  maybe they have just a bit more courage.   Or maybe they don’t.

Imperfect Birds is a novel about a family, about mother Elizabeth Ferguson, her second husband James and her daughter Rosie, a senior in high school in Marin County.   Elizabeth and James worship Rosie as they simultaneously count the days until she’ll leave for college so that they can stop worrying about her.   “…life with most teenagers was like having a low-grade bladder infection.   It hurt but you had to tough it out.”

Rosie’s been a straight-A student until, as a 17-year-old senior, she begins getting Bs in even her best subjects.   That would not be much of a disappointment for other students, but there’s a reason she’s coming undone.   She’s using drugs, of almost every variety, to the point where even her extremely forgiving mother can no longer ignore what’s happening.   “…(Elizabeth) had a conviction now that when she thought something was going on, it was.”   This also means that a mother’s worst fears are coming true:  “I was afraid of how doomed you would be as a parent.”

“Each has to enter the nest made by the other imperfect bird.”   Rumi

The title, of course, refers to imperfect people – people who have lost the ability to fly straight.   Elizabeth is too forgiving of  her daughter’s faults for too long.   James is too judgmental and too quick to prescribe a harsh remedy for his stepdaughter’s problems.   Rosie, who lost her father to cancer years before, is young and wants to enjoy life until…  Until she finds that her drug abuse has left her dreamless and with a heart “like a dead little animal.”

Rosie also wants to be loved by someone other than her mother and step-father, which is why she creates fantasies about one of her male instructors and later becomes involved with someone older.   Eventually a decision has to be made…  Will Rosie’s parents save Rosie from herself or will they step aside and let her self-destruct before her life even really begins?

If this was the work of a less-talented writer, the reader might be tempted to take a guess at the ending and put the book down prematurely.   But Lamott is one of the best writers we have – about this there can be little doubt.   So this story feels like a gift – one to be savored and treasured – and will be appreciated by any reader who does not make a claim to perfection in his or her own life.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A pre-publication review copy was received from the publisher.   “Powerful and painfully honest…  Lamott’s observations are pitch-perfect.”   The New York Times  

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field.   I’ll meet you there.”   Rumi

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Late for the Sky

american music

American Music: A Novel by Jane Mendelsohn (Vintage, $15.00, 256 pages)

“When you’re lost in Juarez/ And it’s Easter time, too/ And your gravity fails/ And negativity don’t pull you through…”   Bob Dylan (“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”)

“The memory was like an explosion and he was inside it, living through it and it surrounded him and slowly he breathed into it…  This was where he was headed.   He was entering someplace.   It seemed to be his life.”   Jane Mendelsohn

This one  is a brilliant and one-of-a-kind experience.   Author Jane Mendelsohn has written a novel about disorientation and jumbled lives, where people are not sure whether they are living now or in the past.   Or in the future.

“…she seemed to enter that new future and for an instant the past disappeared.”

The novel starts out with an Iraq war veteran – circa current times – being treated for his injuries by a 21-year-old physical therapist whose name is Honor.   As Honor works on the wounded soldier, whose name is Milo, she begins to feel and hear stories…  His body “is like a haunted house.”   She feels the stories in his limbs and in his bones, but bit by bit he also begins to tell her the stories that he sees.   He tells the stories and they both listen thinking that somehow these stories may involve people from the past.   Yet, the stories are disjointed and cover very different periods of time:  17th century Turkey (1623 to be exact), 1936 and 1969.   These life stories of five separate individuals are seen in visions and/or heard by our two protagonists.

Music and its simple joys is  one of the themes that unite the distinct stories.   A dancer in Budapest in 1623 inspires a man of chemistry to invent a cymbal, the prototype of today’s premium brand found on many drum kits.   Count Basie’s inaugural performance at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City on Christmas Eve brings lovers together:  “The music had swung them here…  this happy romantic rhythm would kill them both.”

Another theme is the past as prelude.   We cannot fully understand who we are and what we are now without understanding our ancestors and how their choices  during their lives led us to the current moments in our lives.

“Do you ever regret coming east and leaving the theater?”  Anna asked.

“No, I don’t,” Pearl said.   She was looking straight up with  her eyes open.   Anna, already falling asleep, couldn’t see the tears.   “If things hadn’t happened exactly the way they did,” she said, “I wouldn’t have been here with you.”

At the conclusion of American Music we see how the past and present stories are related.   But this is not the key point.   Once the past is fully encountered and understood, Mendelsohn tells us, we can’t hold on to it.   Once it has served its purpose (once our relatives have lived and died for us) it is time to let the past (and them) go.

“She saw the…  figures walk into the desert and she watched them…  and she knew for the first time that she had not been letting them go and then the car drove on and she let them go.”

There’s an angel, a guardian angel of sorts that appears to a character in this book.   He delivers a message and then disappears after doing his work.   Jane Mendelsohn has done her job here so very, very well that it’s remarkable and more.   I can almost see where the wings attach to her shoulders.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   

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Mother and Child Reunion

LEFT neglected: A Novel by Lisa Genova (Gallery Books, a division of Simon and Schuster)

In an interview with Jennifer Northcutt, a buyer for Borders bookstores, neurologist Lisa Genova says an anecdote about left-side neglect in a book she read years ago by neurology and psychiatry professor Oliver Sacks piqued her curiosity.   She knew the clinical manifestations of a right-hemisphere brain injury, but wondered how one could possibly cope with such a condition.

The result of that curiosity is Sarah Nickerson, 37, protagonist of LEFT neglected.   Sarah is the hard-charging, Harvard MBA-toting vice president of a Boston consulting firm who can’t recall the last time she had sex with her husband, Bob, but does keep track of her wins when they play Rocks, Paper, Scissors to see who gets stuck taking their three kids to school/daycare before work on Fridays.   Sarah’s hyper-drive lifestyle downshifts abruptly when an auto accident (she’s looking for a number on her cell phone) leaves her with a traumatic brain injury.

Left-side neglect is an intriguing condition.   Asked to draw a clock, a patient will only draw the noon-through-six side.   Food on the left side of her plate will go unseen.   She knows that she has a left leg, but her brain is unable to find it or control it, making walking impossible.

Genova tells Sarah’s story in the first person, which lets the reader in on her unvarnished thought process as she comes to grip with maddening limitations.   Sarah retains her intellect and her competitiveness, which she and Bob assume will drive her to regain everything she’s lost.   She is blunt and funny, and her pity parties are few and brief.   Oddly enough, however, it is Sarah’s relationship with her long-absent mother that truly humanizes her.   When mother shows up at Sarah’s hospital bedside, Sarah openly hates her.   The reason, which resurfaces slowly, rescues Sarah from superwoman flatness and makes her a compelling and sympathetic character.   The evolution of the mother-daughter relationship colors the novel with poignancy and grace.

Genova’s writing is inventive.   She shows the stress of Sarah’s pre-accident life in the clack-clack-clack cadence of Sarah’s four-inch, Christian Louboutin heels and deftly contrasts it post-accident in Sarah’s cane-step-drag-breathe pattern of learning to walk again.

As a neurologist, Genova is well acquainted with the pathology of brain afflictions.   Her first novel, Still Alice, is about Alzheimer’s.   It was a New York Times bestseller, and odds are good that LEFT neglected will be, too.   Highly recommended.

By Kimberly Caldwell Steffen.   This is a “second look” review.   LEFT neglected was released on January 4, 2011.

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The Book of the Year

Last year, I selected Her Fearful Symmetry: A Novel by Audrey Niffenegger as the book of the year.   This year, I’m selecting a novel that is just as daring, powerful and unique – American Music by Jane Mendelsohn.   A long review of American Music was posted on this site on August 22, 2010.   To find that initial review, enter the terms Other Voices, Other Rooms (a tip of the hat to Truman Capote) in the Search It! box on the right and hit enter.

Here is a shorter review that I wrote for Sacramento Book Review:

“He was entering someplace.   It seemed to be his life.”

Author Jane Mendelsohn has produced a taut, sui generis story that should be a major contender for novel of the year.   The storyline is truly unique:  A severely injured Iraq war veteran is treated by a female physical therapist at a U.S. army hospital.   As she works on him, she sees and hears stories that radiate from his body – these stories involve events in 1623, 1936 and 1969.   What’s the meaning of these past lives, and what is their relationship to each other and to the wounded soldier?   The typical reader will want to race through the pages to find the answers.

A love of music is one common factor, from the creation of the modern drum cymbal to one of jazz’s greatest concerts.   But this is a story that involves more than just mortal humans and their musical creations, there are ghosts and guardian angels in the mix.   Suffice it to say that Mendelsohn brings to life the words of Jackson Browne, “Tracing our steps from the beginning…  Trying to understand how our lives had led us there.”   There are few writers other than Jane Mendelsohn who would tackle something this brilliant, stunning and divinely thought-provoking.

Joseph Arellano

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