Tag Archives: marriage

Coming Attractions

This is a quick look at recently released books, and soon-to-be-released books that I’m looking forward to reading.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (Simon and Schuster; 10/24/11)

This is already the best-selling book in the country, based on pre-release orders at Amazon.   Isaacson earlier wrote the mega-selling Benjamin Franklin: An American Life and the recent, tragic death of Steve Jobs will only heighten the interest in this almost 700 page biography.   This is an authorized bio, as (according to Reuters) Jobs knew that his death was imminent and wanted his kids to know him through this expected-to-be definitive work.   Jobs had made clear to his friends and co-workers that nothing in his personal or professional life was off-limits.

Steve Jobs will also be available as an audiobook; unfortunately, an abridged one.

Freedom: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen (Picador; 09/27/11)

If you’re like me, one of the two dozen or so individuals who did not read this book when it was originally released, you now have a chance to pick it up as a Picador trade paperback for just $16.00.   USA Today called Franzen’s novel about a troubled marriage, “Smart, witty and ultimately moving.”

Blueprints for Building Better Girls: Fiction by Elissa Schappell (Simon and Schuster; 09/06/11)

This is a hybrid between a short story collection and a novel, as Schappell has penned eight interlinked tales (“Spanning the late 1970s to the current day…”) about the experiences that turn girls into women.   Tom Perrota, author of The Leftovers and Little Children, says of Blueprints for Building Better Girls:  “Elizabeth Schappell’s characters live in that zone where toughness and vulnerability overlap.   In this remarkable, deeply engaging collection of stories, Schappell introduces us to a wide variety of female characters, from reckless teenagers to rueful middle-aged moms, and asks us to ponder how those girls became these women.”

The Marriage Plot: A Novel by Jeffrey Eugenides (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 10/11/11)

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides returns with a story about a not-so-calm year in the lives of three college seniors (one female and two males) attending Brown University in the early 1980s.   It’s about love lost and found, and the mental preparations that young people must make before entering the stolid world of adults.

The Drop: A Harry Bosch Novel by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown and Company; 11/28/11)

From the author of The Lincoln Lawyer and The Reversal, comes the latest thriller involving LAPD Detective Harry Bosch.   A bored Bosch is getting ready for retirement when two huge criminal cases with political and other implications land on his desk.   Both cases need to be solved immediately and, as usual, Bosch must break some major investigative rules in order to do so.

“Connelly may be our most versatile crime writer.”   Booklist

Joseph Arellano

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Paint It, Black

The Grief of Others: A Novel by Leah Hager Cohen (Riverhead Books; $26.95;  388 pages)

While an author can develop some great sentences and paragraphs in a novel, using language that is either stunningly creative or even gorgeous, it doesn’t mean much if the tale being told does not advance.   In The Grief of Others, a promising and potentially engaging story is overwhelmed by obtuse storytelling.   Because of this, I found the novel to be far more frustrating than pleasing.

The story revolves around Ricky Ryrie, wife and mother of two, who loses a third child (a male) 57 hours after his birth.   The child was diagnosed with Anencephaly four months prior to its birth, a fact that Ricky kept from her husband John.   Since Ricky once had an affair with a work colleague, this raises serious trust issues in the marriage; a marriage which may not survive the tragedy.   Ricky would not let John hold or touch the baby while it was alive, and so he goes on to remind her, “This was my child.  Too.”

But it’s not just Ricky’s story that’s covered here…   We also witness John’s, and those of the children – 13-year-old Paul and 11-year-old Biscuit – and of Jess, John’s daughter by another woman.   And then there’s Gordie, a young man who attaches himself to the Ryries in much the same manner as the troubled young man Kiernan does with the Lathams in Anna Quindlen’s novel Every Last One.

Unfortunately, Cohen’s book does not seem to handle the issue of overwhelming, shattering grief as effectively as Quindlen’s story; nor does it tackle the issues of  marital trust and fidelity quite as well as Commuters, the near brilliant debut novel by Emily Gray Tedrowe.   There may simply be too many characters on the stage here, another one of whom is Will, Gordie’s very sick father.   Cohen seems to have spread herself, and her story, a bit too thin.   Some of the writing is admirable as when John notices that the instant tragedy seems to foster “in everyone around him a sudden, alarming presumption of intimacy.”   (It can be a tad frightening when strangers and coworkers are seemingly a bit too kind and understanding.)

Of all the characters, Ricky’s daughter Biscuit is the one that appears to be the most true-to-life, as if she had been created by Lesley Kagen (Whistling in the Dark, Good Graces); however, the key problem is that the young children Paul and Biscuit are saddled with the thoughts of adults, thoughts that simply don’t seem credible.

Biscuit thinks that, “Her parents seemed like the books you could see (in a bookcase):  they smiled and spoke and dressed and made supper and went off to work and all the other things they were supposed to do, but something, a crucial volume, had slipped down in back and couldn’t be reached.”

Paul, meanwhile, worries that, “(His parents) couldn’t seem to detect anything wrong with each other, never mind that his mother had been silent for most of the past year, or that his father, for all his apparent optimism, was beginning to show fissures.”   How many 13-year-olds would know the meaning of the word fissures, let alone think in such terms?

An intriguing twist – a pregnant Jess lands on the family’s doorstep almost one year after the family’s tragedy of losing the baby – tends to get lost after all this.   This is an almost 400 page novel that feels, in the reading, to be almost twice that long.   At one point, Ricky thinks about her “unbearable helplessness,” and her loneliness in carrying to term a defective child:  “The thought exhausted her.”

This read was something of an exhausting experience.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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If I Fell

After the Fall: A Novel by Kylie Ladd (Doubleday; $25.95; 304 pages)

I had been married three years when I fell in love.

Kylie Ladd presents an intriguing story of infidelity told from all sides of an affair in her novel After the Fall.  

Energetic, spontaneous Kate has a reliable, loving and dedicated husband, Cary, but senses what she is missing when she becomes intimately involved with her close friend Luke.   Denying and risking the security that their spouses and friends provide, Kate and Luke  continue to manipulate their lives to be together.   But nothing so risky and passionate can last forever…   Or can it?

The tale is presented in the first-person.   Ladd creates a realistic portrayal of how people’s lives are affected by other’s actions and choices, especially when dealing with moral dilemmas such as betrayal and infidelity.   Her characters are presented with depth and the prose is intriguing, captivating and believable.   Ladd delves into the psyche and demonstrates the true-to-life feelings and life changes that can occur in sensitive situations such as the ones provided in her story.

Readers should  not be discouraged by this topic, as there is nothing voyeuristic about this story.   Although the elements of the story are somewhat foreseeable, the story line definitely has elements that are unpredictable, which make it an even more entertaining read.   I was captivated by the characters and so interested in the outcome that I was unable to put the book down.

That’s the thing about falling.   It doesn’t go on indefinitely, and it rarely ends well…  plunge, plummet, pain.   Even if you get straight back up, even when you regain your footing, after the fall nothing is ever quite the same.

Recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “…a subtle, moving and perceptive story of love, loss and hope.”   Sydney Morning Herald

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Coming Up Next…

A review of After the Fall: A Novel by Kylie Ladd.

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Shake Me, Wake Me

Pinch Me: A Novel by Adena Halpern (Touchstone, $14.99, 288 pages)

“And you thought your life was cursed!”

“Never marry a man unless he’s short, bald, fat, stupid, and treats you badly.”   Grandma Dolly, 82 and Mother Selma, 55

Imagine meeting the man (or woman) of your dreams:  successful, intelligent, loyal, charming, attractive, and who wants nothing more but to spend the rest of your life taking care of you.   Does this sound too good to be true?   Well, for the  main character in Adena Halpern’s novel, Pinch Me, it is.

Lily Burns has spent her twenty’s dating the wrong men…  on purpose.   Throughout her life she has been advised to date someone who she would never love so that the family curse, created generations before she was born, would  not do unthinkable things to the men she loved.   Witnessing what her mother, Selma, and grandmother, Dolly had gone through, Lily takes this advice seriously.   Then she meets Gogo, a handsome, successful pediatrician who adores her and asks for her hand in marriage.   For once ignoring her family’s advice, she marries Gogo and in desperation to prove she has beaten the curse, she asks her new husband to pinch her.   And the curse begins.   The story takes us on Lily’s hilarious and somewhat sad journey to get her husband back while undoing the family curse for good!

I have to admit that I initially thought the theme of this story was hokey and I was hard pressed to believe it would live up to the standards set by the novels I have recently reviewed.   However, I was quickly made optimistic by the author’s direct and flowing dialogue, and the enticing storyline that began on page one and continued throughout the novel.   This was a fun and lighthearted tale and I was entertained to the end.

Halpern kept my attention with Lily – her strong-willed main character – and her quirky but loving mother and grandmother.   I read the story in two short sittings, cheering for Lily and Gogo and I began to wonder if perhaps we all hold some family curse brought on by something we or our predecessors may have done in the past.

I found myself laughing out loud while reading Pinch Me, especially throughout the conversation that takes place between Lily’s mother Selma and grandmother Dolly as they try to convince Lilly that she should not get  married (that conversation alone is worth your time!).   It is a quick read and downright fun.   I will definitely be reading more from Adena Halpern.

Well recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Pinch Me was released on July 19, 2011.

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Astral Weeks

The Astral: A Novel by Kate Christensen (Anchor, $15.95, 320 pages)

astral-novel

“We were all crazy, that was a given.”

“I’m nothing but a stranger in this world.”   Van Morrison (“Astral Weeks”)

This is an oddly engaging novel despite a number of very clear flaws in the telling of the story.   For one, it is difficult to stick with a tale stacked with characters that are simply unlikable.   Our male protagonist, Harry Quirk, is a poet married (but not for long) to Luz.   They live in Brooklyn and he writes “strict poems,” meaning formal ones of the type whose time came and went very long ago.

“When I was a wet-eyed boy starting out in the poetry racket, I pledged my lights to metered, rhymed verse.   My models were old-fashioned, and so was I.”

Harry engages in many irritating behavior patterns (What did Luz ever see in him?), the worst of which is the habit of picking at and cutting his own skin until a severe infection results.   Oh, but this is part of the story because it’s the reason that Harry seeks medical treatment and is first seen by Luz the nurse.

Harry’s best friend is a woman that’s he’s known for decades.   This shouldn’t be major but it is to Luz, who is convinced beyond a doubt that her husband is having a mad affair with this woman.   If Harry is not likable, neither is his long-term woman friend and Luz is definitely not.   In Harry’s words, “I was deeply tired of her unpredictable oscillations between abject devotion and irrational psychodrama.”

“She had wrecked everything I loved with her furious, insecure need to control my thoughts, my mind, my body, like a one-woman government.”

Harry doesn’t make any money with his poems – at least he hasn’t in decades.   But when he splits from Luz (“I was a wild animal who’d been trying to live in a cage.”) he’s able to rely on the kindness of his friend James who runs a very improbable business.   The business is called Custom Case, which designs and builds one-of-a-kind guitar cases for ultra-millionaire rock stars.   Yeah, right…

True to form, however, even our good man James is not likable.   “James was pragmatically cold, deep down, for all his seeming generosity and caring towards his wife.”

One of the key and basic issues with this novel is that Harry’s male voice just does not sound authentic coming from a female writer.   This is not to say this can’t work, it just doesn’t work here especially when Harry’s thoughts are often expressed in very dense language.   And some of the writing by author Christensen is close to painful, as in this sample:  “The brown shingled beach houses of the rich and privileged sat humped amid bare woods and dunes like big harmless cartoon bears.”   Cartoon bears?   Really?   (Maybe this is more embarrassing than painful.)

Still, what keeps the reader involved is the desire to see Harry find and develop a new life free of the shackles of Luz, who “twists any idea  until it matches her need to be right.”   Harry’s a man who’s been freed by accident – by a simple twist of fate – and we wonder if he’ll make the best of the opportunity.

At its end, this is a novel about a human who must find a way to let go of what was lost (like so much of the past in our own lives).   He must do this in order to move on with grace.

Extremely patient, tolerant and forgiving readers may like this story.   It’s hard to see that being true for most readers.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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My Special Angel

One Summer: A Novel by David Baldacci (Grand Central Publishing, $25.99, 352 pages; Hachette Audio Unabridged version on 7 CDs, $24.99)

Take a break from your own life and get to know the Armstrong family of Ohio.   They are the central figures in David Baldacci’s poignant novel, One Summer.   This reviewer was captivated by the depth of character development, both male and female, that Baldacci brought to his tale of loss and redemption.   The added bonus was listening to the audio version narrated by two highly-skilled readers, Don McLarty and Orlagh Cassidy.   Together they provide a wide range of voices for the characters.   This blend brought the story to life in a way that would be hard to match with a print version of the book.

The story opens as Jack Armstrong, all around good guy and former military man, awaits his slow death from a rare and always-fatal disease while Christmas approaches.   Jack’s lovely wife Lizzie and three children are struggling to cope with the inevitable loss they face.   Each has their own way of doing so and 15-year-old daughter Michelle (Mickie) has alienated herself from everyone by rebelling against the entire matter with anger.   Deep down inside Lizzie knows she will have to go on without Jack very soon; however, she fantasizes about the entire family revisiting her childhood home in South Carolina during the following summer.  

Baldacci takes this premise and injects his own deeply felt take on loss by setting up a twist whereby Lizzie dies in a car crash and Jack miraculously survives.   Rather than playing on the sympathy of the characters he has created, Baldacci brings out the good and the weaknesses of everyone involved.   This is a tale that demands spirited action and dashing drama.   Baldacci delivers all this and more.   It is perfectly fine with this reviewer that the gritty reality of life coexists with a fairytale quality series of plot twists.  

There’s no mystery here, love conquers all.   Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

An audiobook review copy was provided by the publisher.   “In One Summer, (Baldacci) writes as beautifully and insightfully about the pathways of the human heart as he does about the corridors of power.   …(a) hugely emotional and unforgettable novel.”   Lisa Scottoline, author of Save Me.

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The Author’s Perspective

Today we’re conducting the first part of an interview with Maddie Dawson, author of the novel The Stuff That Never Happened.   Kimberly Caldwell (KC) asks the questions in this stage of the interview.

1.  KC:   The Stuff That Never Happened is about a woman who weighs the allure of an old lover against the solid dependability of a marriage she seems to be outgrowing.   Where did the idea for the novel come from?   Is it autobiographical?

MD:  I suppose in some senses, all novels have autobiographical elements in them.   Authors are always using their own experiences as springboards for the torture we put our characters through.   That being said, nothing specifically about Annabelle’s situation is anything like my life.   But I was once in love with a man who, while not precisely married, had little children and a complicated life with the mother of those children…  and we had a crazy, up and down relationship for a long time, with lots of drama and thrills and chills until the day we finally broke up for good.   And then one day, fifteen years later, I got on a train and there he was, in a nearly empty train car, and we had a two-hour ride together.   It seemed almost pre-designed by a kindly universe to give us a chance to look at what had been, to compare our lives – and to reflect about what it had all meant.

Frankly, it didn’t mean very much.   (Real life can be so boring sometimes.)   He was as impossible as I remembered, vague and noncommittal, and just as infuriating to talk to as he ever was.   We parted, both of us grateful, I think, that things hadn’t worked out for us way back when.   Still, it got me doing that thing I’ve been doing my whole life: thinking how much more interesting things might be if life was a novel.   After that, it seemed everywhere I looked everybody had a what-if person tucked away, someone to think about when real life seemed unsatisfying.

And so the character of Annabelle was born, a woman who married too young to Grant, a man she barely knew, and who then fell in love with someone else during the first year of her marriage.   After a time apart, Annabelle and Grant manage to reunite and go on to have a happy life together, raising children and creating a stable life and community in his home town in New Hampshire.   They make a pact never to speak about Annabelle’s betrayal again, to pretend it just never happened so that they can go on.

What I was mostly interested in exploring in this novel was what came next for Annabelle and Grant: the stuff that came after the kids leave home, after their family responsibilities are over.   It’s then that the cracks in their marriage really become apparent.   Grant realizes the sacrifice he’d made in his career to stay married to Annabelle and feels compelled to catch up; Annabelle realizes that she’s stifled in a life that no longer seems to need her, and she senses Grant’s long, leftover anger.

But what is one to do?   Are we just supposed to settle for living with past memories, or do we still have a life ahead of us to create?   After twenty-eight years together, is it even possible to start over?   To me, that’s when the story really begins: with Annabelle’s realization that she doesn’t know anymore what she owes herself and what she owes Grant and her children; what she will lose by remaining unhappy  in her marriage, or by venturing out into the unknown, or traveling back to the past.

2.   KC:  How did you decide how to present the story?   When you began did you know what Annabelle’s decision would be?

MD:  Ha!   What an interesting question!   As it happens, I didn’t know what Annabelle’s decision would be.   Sometimes I thought she would stay with her husband, but there were times I was sure that her old lover had been the right one for her.   For a while, when I was writing, I thought maybe she’d end up with neither of them – a woman alone making her way through the world.   I just kept writing, sure that one answer would emerge.   And as happens in novels – unlike real life – things finally seemed to settle themselves clearly in one direction over the other.   I’ve heard from lots of readers who have said they were so relieved at the way it turned out, but I have one dear friend who says she still wishes Annabelle had made the other decision.

As for the presentation of the story, I wrote it in two periods: the past, 1978-80, when Annabelle and Grant first met as students at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) and impulsively married and moved to New York, and then in the present, 2005, when their lives are settled in New Hampshire and their children have left home.   I wanted to tell it this way because both time periods were equally compelling to me.   I didn’t want to simply tell the 1970s stuff in flashback, but to let the events unfold as part of the main story.

3. KC:  What makes novels about other people’s relationships compelling?

MD:  I think we’re all hungry for details of other people’s stories.   And, let’s face it, romantic relationships carry an extra wallop of mystery to them.   How many times do you look at couples you know and think, “What in the world can they possibly see in each other?”   Perhaps we’re trying to answer that mystery at the heart of ourselves: why am I with this particular person?   Will we be able to last?   Do we have it better or worse than other people?

In novels, I think, relationships make sense.   They have reason and nuance, and we can peek in other people’s insides and compare them to our own.   I love riding around in someone else’s head for a while.   It helps me to understand myself much better.

To be continued… (In the concluding section of this interview, we have four additional questions for Maddie to answer.)

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Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood

The Stuff That Never Happened: A Novel by Maddie Dawson (Broadway, $14.00, 336 pages)

If you’ve ever caught a glimpse of a former lover and let your mind travel down the “what if…” path, however briefly, you’ll enjoy The Stuff That Never Happened.   It’s the debut novel by Maddie Dawson, who captures the silent desperation of pinning for the excitement of the “bad boy” who got away when all of your friends think the good guy you married is God’s gift to wives.

Annabelle McKay, at 46, is well aware that she is the envy of the faculty spouses at the New Hampshire college where her husband is a big-wheel professor.   Grant is solid and dependable.   He’s not the type of husband who would leave her for a younger woman just as her upper arms are starting to go flabby and she and Grant are losing their biggest common denominator – their two kids.   Besides, there’s still enough of a spark in their marriage that they schedule sex every week in the morning he doesn’t have an early class to teach.   But Annabelle has never squelched the memories of the passionate affair she had 26 years ago that left wounds too deep to speak about.   It’s that vow of silence between Annabelle and Grant that is the fat finger on Annabelle’s contentment scale.  

Dawson lets Annabelle tell her own story, and she does so in a voice that draws you in like a new friend who’s just starting to open up and confide.   Therein lies the real treat of this novel.   Annabelle tells her life in two parallel story lines, the one that takes place in 2005, the present; and the one that set her on her present course in 1977.   You watch the mature Annabelle wrestle with her emotions and her choices when she unexpectedly meets her old lover at a juncture when life’s possibilities seem to be opening up again.   You see Annabelle at 20 as she is struggling to emerge from a dysfunctional family and chart her own course – with very little perspective and few emotional navigation aids.

Woven together, the stories are compelling in the way that celebrity divorces are:  The central problem is as old as the human race, and the details are riveting as much for what they divulge about a couple’s private life as for the mirror they hold up to one’s own life.   The Stuff That Never Happened will be the book you pass to a friend and say, “Let me know when you’ve read this.   I want to know what you would have done.”

Dawson’s characters are insightfully drawn and convincingly flawed.   Even the characters that only make cameo appearances are fully formed.   Padgett, the grad-student trophy wife of Clark, a colleague of Grant’s, texts through the couple’s getting-to-know-you dinner at a restaurant.   And when Clark announces that he’s taking a sabbatical so he and Padgett can travel the world, Dawson shares his gum-revealing, fool-in-love grin, and says, “He puts his big bald forehead into her unlined one, like a mind meld on Star Trek.”   With just a few sentences, Dawson sketches a guy who’s very much like a guy you know at work and a woman one-third  his age whose lack of apparent charm is a throwback to the very serious, Gloria Steinem wanna-be of the early seventies, only Padgett’s social consciousness is directed at saving the environment, not womankind.

Maybe you can tell:  I thought this was a great read.   It’s an astute people-watcher’s take on a timeless conundrum.   It would make a great beach read.   But if you take it on vacation, load up on sun screen.   You’re not going to want to put it down.

Highly recommended.

Kimberly Caldwell

The Stuff That Never Happened was released in trade paper form on August 2, 2011.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Where Were You When I Needed You

before-ever-after-paper

Before Ever After: A Novel by Samantha Sotto (Broadway Books, $16.00, 304 pages)

There are times when an author takes a perfectly interesting and creative plotline and pushes it just past the boundary of plausibility.   This is what occurs here with debut author Samantha Sotto.   She begins her novel with a great premise.   Shelley Gallus lost her husband Max three years earlier to a terrorist bomb set off in Madrid, Spain.   She’s just about to come to terms with her loss when a young man named Paolo shows up at her door.   He claims to be Max’s grandson, which comes as a shock to Shelley who did not know that Max was previously married nor that he was old enough to have a grandson.

Paolo informs Shelley that Max is still alive, operating a business in the Philippines and Paolo appears to have a photograph that substantiates this claim.   In the photo, Max is wearing jewelry that was given to him by Shelley.   Now, stop at this point and we have a fine story about a decent woman who may have been the victim of a sad hoax; a woman who is ready to go and find Max, alive or dead (If he’s alive, she might kill him).

Here, though, is where the problem arises…  Paolo proceeds to make the case that not only is Max alive, but he’s at least hundreds of years old.   It may be that Max was alive as a young man during the French Revolution, and at this point the story loses its credibility.

A knowledgeable reader might note that a similar plotline was used by Jane Mendelsohn in the novel American Music.   This is true, but Mendelsohn used her years of writing experience to craft a magical novel – one of the best of its type.   Even then, it was not an easy sell; for some, the setting of a tale in four different periods in time was a bit too much to properly absorb.   This reviewer found American Music to be especially brilliant, but then only the best at their craft make it appear to be easy.   (In Before Ever After, the overly complicated plotline comes off as simply tricky.)

Sotto does write in an entertaining and casual style and there are, no doubt, some readers who will find the story engaging enough to satisfy their financial and temporal investment in the book.   However, there are likely to be many who will find that this fictional journey asks a bit too much of the imagination – the literary equivalent of a bridge too far.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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