Tag Archives: nostalgia

Goin’ Back

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

The Stuff That Never Happened, written by Maddie Dawson, is a fascinating story that presents a realistic view of the challenges and trials of love, passion, and loyalty within a long-term, modern-day marriage.

The truth is much more complicated.   The truth is that I’m actually in love with another man.

Annabelle shares the story of her lovely life raising her children in New Hampshire amongst her loyal, dedicated husband Grant, while building lifelong memories with family and friends.   Yet now that the children are grown and gone and Grant is distracted and distant as he dedicates all of his time to writing a novel, she consumes her times dreaming of a man from her past.   Then, by chance, she comes across her former lover and has to  make the decision of whether to stay with the man she married, or take a chance with the one she desires.

Maybe we’re all dreaming of a person from the tantalizing past who sits there, uninvited, watching from the edge of our consciousness, somebody you find packing up and moving out of your head just as you’re waking in the morning, and whose essence clings to you all day as though you have spent the night with him, wandering off together somewhere among the stars…

Joseph’s Reviews recently interviewed the author and after reading her responses, I found her to be down to earth, warm and fun.   Her story is told in a similar light-hearted tone with elements of humor and wit intertwined with enjoyable eclectic characters and flowing dialogue.   I felt the same connectedness reading about Maddie Dawson as I did with her main character, Annabelle.

The deep characterization of this novel highlights the themes of passion, love, dedication and forgiveness that bring the characters to life and challenge the reader to wonder if the grass is truly greener on the other side and whether the consequences are worth the grazing.

I look forward to reading future novels from Maddie Dawson.

Well recommended.

Kelly Monson

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Only the Good Die Young

Good Graces: A Novel by Lesley Kagen (Dutton, $25.95, 337 pages)

“The almighty works in mysterious ways, ma cherie.”

It’s 1960.   You’re a young girl living in a quiet suburb of Milwaukee, in a community whose foundation is the Feelin’ Good Cookie Factory (the closer one lives to the odoriferous factory, the poorer one’s family is), with your cunning sister Troo.   The problem is that the adults in the community seem to be clueless to the problems in their midst, including juvenile delinquency.   Troo’s reporting of the troublemaker known as Greasy Al means that he’s been sent to a juvenile detention facility, which seems like good news until you find out from your police detective step-dad-to-be (he’s engaged to your  mother) that the evil kid has escaped.   Now it’s up to Troo to come up with a perfect plan for dealing with Greasy Al’s imminent return.

As Troo’s sister, you know that she’s no amateur when it comes to this business.   You previously had a problem with a male summer camp counselor, and Troo made him disappear from the face of the earth.   So now you’re hoping that Troo’s plan for Greasy Al is not too efficient…   And just when you’re dealing with this, you learn from other kids in the neighborhood that one of the respected pillars of the community is making young boys “do bad things,” which immediately changes everything.   Now Troo puts Plan A on the back-burner while she develops a new plan to bring law and order to your town.

You and Troo must rely on a couple of other youngsters to help you – one male and one female – and you have to hope that they can keep their lips sealed forever if Troo’s new solution works.   You both think you can count on Artie and Mary Lane, especially the latter since:  “She’s been tortured by the best in the world – nuns.   So detectives asking her a couple of questions wouldn’t bother her at all.”

Good Graces, written in a child’s voice, is simply one of the most enjoyable novels that I’ve read in years (at least three or more).   Kagen’s ability to write in an adolescent’s voice is remarkable, and she has fun toying with the artifacts of the time, such as the TV shows Queen for a Day and Howdy Doody.   Adult readers who grew up in less prosperous homes will identify with the characters, as will Catholics and lapsed Catholics.   The young characters in the tale attend Catholic school and learn that the  nuns can indeed inflict pain when it’s needed and otherwise.

At its base, this is a fine and fun morality play in which children save a community and the almost-brainless adults are never the wiser.   It’s the sequel to Whistling in the Dark, and I can hardly wait for the third part of Lesley Kagen’s true justice trilogy.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Moving, funny, and full of unexpected delights…   Kagen crafts a gorgeous page-turner about love, loss, and loyalty, all told in the sparkling voices of two extraordinary sisters.”   Caroline Leavitt, author of Pictures of You.

Good Graces was released on September 1, 2011.

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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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In the City

The Archaeology of Home: An Epic Set in A Thousand Square Feet of the Lower East Side by Katharine Greider (Public Affairs; $26.99; 352 pages)

Freelance writer Katherine Greider works hard at doing right by her subject, a one hundred and fifty-year-old tenement building in New York City’s Lower East Side where she and her husband, David Andrews, spent several years creating their first real home.   The Archaeology of Home is her second book; however, due to the personal nature of the subject matter, it feels like it is the first.

There’s an almost self-conscious and nostalgic tone to the descriptions Ms. Greider provides the reader about her own experiences in the humble abode.   She emphasizes the overwhelming evidence that we are heavily impacted by the place we call home.   Our daily lives are filled with immediate issues and the layers of other lives lived before our occupancy are quite invisible to us.   This layering of past lives seems novel and foreign to someone who currently occupies a 16-year-old development home in California that was brand new when it was purchased.

Ms. Greider begins the book with a painstakingly constructed history of the geography and populations that inhabited the Lower East Side area where Number 239, East Seventh Avenue now sits.   The reader is made painfully aware of the appropriation of land from the Native Americans who had existed in the swampy area for hundreds of years before the arrival of Europeans who imposed their style of cultivation and land division upon the place.   Greider uses a monumental vocabulary that borders on pretentiousness when describing the various waves of inhabitants.   Perhaps it is the source material that’s influenced her voice?   Regardless, the reader may need the assistance of a dictionary or Google to clarify the meaning of some of the oblique words she’s chosen.

The tale warms up as does Greider’s voice when she gets to the relationships that matter most to her.   The two children she and her husband bring into the world during their occupancy of Number 239 are somewhat incidental to the telling.   Rather, it is her marriage and the travails she endures sorting out the meaning of living in a space with others that seems to dominate her personal revelations.

Some years into the author’s occupancy, Number 239 is deemed uninhabitable by building officials as its foundation has crumpled and the damp basement is a harsh reminder of the original swamp where the building was placed a century and a half ago.   Because Greider and her husband are co-op owners, they must deal with the other members of the co-op in order to decide the fate of the structure.   Their struggle is easy to relate to for anyone who has been a dweller in a multi-unit building or planned unit development.   No spoiler alert needed here as a quick search of Zillow will reveal the current status of the location.

The Archaeology of Home is an interesting and admirable, though flawed, effort by a New Yorker who clearly loves the notion of small parts of a city being home in the truest sense.   The reviewer spent the summer of 1968 living at 404 East 66th Street and enjoyed the sense of community found within the enormity of New York City.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Win the Life You’ve Imagined

No, we don’t have magical powers but, thanks to Avon Books/HarperCollins, we do have two (2) copies to give away of The Life You’ve Imagined: A Novel by Kristine Riggle.   This trade paperback book has a value of $13.99.   Here is an official synopsis:

Are you living the life you imagined?   Is there anything you’d have done differently if you could?   Those are the questions asked in Kristina Riggle’s unforgettable novel.

In high school, Cami and Anna were as close as they could be…  now, years later, both have returned to their hometown to face the people they had once left behind.   Anna must confront her mother, still distraught over the abandonment of her husband, and come to terms with choices she had made years before.   While Cami returns home to stay with her alcoholic father, she uncovers a secret he sought to keep which could change her life and salvage her future.   They reconnect with their classmate, Amy, who can’t understand why achieving the thin body and handsome man of her dreams hasn’t given her the happily-ever-after life she desired.

This is a novel that digs deep and touches the heart of the issues so many women face – the quest for perfection, the hope of love, the value of family and the importance of always striving for your dream.

Here are a couple of comments about this novel:

“(Riggle) explores what happens when real life diverges sharply from childhood dreams.   Her strong and complicated female characters are interesting and likable, and she ably weaves together multiple story lines.”   Booklist

“Rich, messy and real…  Kristina Riggle is going to be my official go-to for novels about the complications of everyday life.”   The Devourer of Books

In order to enter this giveaway, you should answer the key question, “Are you living the life you imagined?”   You can post your response below, or if you prefer send an e-mail with your reply to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as a first entry.   For a second entry, post your answer to the question, “What is the one thing in your life that you absolutely would not change?”

In order to be eligible to win a book, you must live in the continental U.S. and have a residential mailing address.   Books will not be shipped to a P. O. Box or to a business-related address.   The two winners will be drawn at random by our highly experienced contest administrator, Munchy the cat.   You have until Midnight PST on Tuesday, May 10, 2011 to enter.

This is it for the highly complex contest rules.   Good luck and good reading!

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Two for the Road

Riverhead Books is releasing two books,  a memoir and a nonfiction book about a personal obsession, on April 14, 2011.   You will have to wait until then to buy and read them, but you can try right now to win a galley copy of these books.  Based on the responses received to this giveaway, Munchy the cat may decide to give one galley each to two readers, or both of them to one lucky reader.   (These galleys are pre-publication paperback versions of books that will be released in hardbound form.)

The first of the two books is a memoir, The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke.   Here is the official synopsis:

What does it mean to mourn today, in a culture that has largely set aside rituals that acknowledge grief?   After her mother’s death, Meghan O’Rourke found that nothing had prepared her for the intensity of her sorrow.   In the first anguished days, she began to create a record of her interior life as a mourner, trying to capture the paradox of grief – its monumental agony and microscopic intimacies – an endeavor that ultimately produced this book.   With poignant lyricism and unswerving candor, O’Rourke captures the fleeting moments of joy that make up a life, and the way memory can lead us out of the jagged darkness of loss.  The Long Goodbye is not only an exceptional memoir, but a necessary one.

The Long Goodbye is emotionally acute, strikingly empathetic, thorough and unstintingly intellectual…  and elegantly wrought.  …It’s above all a useful book, for life — the good bits and the sad ones, too.”   Richard Ford

Meghan O’Rourke is the author of the award-winning book of poems, Halflife.   She is a culture critic for Slate.

The second book is The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure, subtitled My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie. Here’s a summary:

Wendy McClure is on a quest to find the world of beloved Little House on the Prairie author Laura Ingalls Wilder – a fantastic realm of fiction, history and places she’s never been yet somehow knows by heart.   She retraces the pioneer journey of the Ingalls family – looking for the Big Woods among the medium trees in Wisconsin, wading in Plum Creek, and enduring a prairie hailstorm in South Dakota – and immerses herself in all things Little House.   This is a loving, irreverent, spirited tribute to a series of books that have inspired generations of American women.   The Wilder Life is also a story about what happens when we reconnect with our childhood touchstones – and find that our old love has only deepened.

Wendy McClure is the author of I’m Not the New Me.

To enter this giveaway, please provide your answer to this question:  Which of these books would you like to win, and why?   You can post your response here (with your name and an e-mail address), or you can choose to send an e-mail with your answer to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as a first entry.   For a second entry, give us the title and author of the very best or very worst book that you’ve read in 2010-2011, and explain why you loved it or hated it.  

In order to be eligible to win a galley in this giveaway, you must live in the continental United States and be able to supply a residential mailing address.   You have until Thursday, April 14, 2011 at midnight PST to submit your entry or entries.   Munchy will use his feline instincts and judgment to pick the winner or winners.   The winner(s) will be contacted via e-mail.  

As always, be careful out there.   Good luck and good reading!

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