Friday, August 30, 2013

The Good Guys

When we first meet Benjamin Benjamin in The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison, his wife has left him and he has lost his children.  Because he had been a stay at home dad, he is also unemployed and in need of money.  He takes an adult education class in care giving, and decides to apply for a job as a caregiver for Trevor, a guy who is 19 years old, living with his mother, and suffering from muscular dystrophy. 

Like the mom in Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, Trevor's mom is more concerned about finding someone who her son will get along with than with finding the person most qualified to deliver professional care.  Right away, Trevor and Ben hit it off.  However, soon Ben's personal life gets in the way, and Trevor's mom fires him.  Through a series of clever notes and inevitable disasters, Trevor's dad convinces Trevor to come visit him in another state.  Next thing we know, Trevor and Ben have set off on a road trip. 

On their trip, Trevor and Ben find other lost souls in need of care giving, like Dot, a girl in her late teens who is trying to hitchhike from Tacoma to Denver, and Peaches, an enormously pregnant girl trying to change a flat tire in the rain.  To Ben's surprise, he begins to see that he actually is a mature adult, capable of finding and caring for the people who need him.  The next question is whether he can care for himself.

Although Trevor has muscular dystrophy, all he wants is to be treated like a normal guy.  While Trevor's substantial disability is never forgotten, it is clear that he is so comfortable around Ben, Dot, and Peaches because they see him as a person, not a person with a disease.  This is an especially timely book for the start of the Labor Day Weekend.  I have memories of watching the muscular dystrophy telethon every Labor Day Weekend when I was growing up, and this year I just might need to make a donation in Trevor's honor.

Judging a book by the cover, I expected Fundamentals to remind me of The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon.  I could see the van in the picture, I knew that there was a person in a wheelchair, and I expected a cross country road trip to ensue.  But where Homan and Sam stole away on their trip and figured it out as they went along, Ben and Trevor are organized and full of plans.  There are some similarities with the road trip in Beautiful Girl, especially as Ben and Trevor pick up their assorted mix of traveling companions, but not as many as I expected.  When I read the first chapter, about Ben interviewing for the job of caregiver because he didn't think he could find any other job, I immediately thought of Me Before You.  But where MBY tended toward the sappy love story, Fundamentals is a story of guys growing into themselves by gently encouraging each other out of their comfort zones.

What I did not expect, was to be reminded of one of my favorite books of all time, Ready Player One by Ernest ClineReady Player One is a science fiction story about a teenage boy, Wade Watts, living in the 2040s, and trying to win a potentially life changing video game based on trivia from the 1980s. My son just finished reading it, and also loved it.  When he was done, he asked me what other book is like it.  As far as I was aware, there was none.  So, I was thrilled when Ben's character reminded me so clearly of Wade's, even though their stories are so different.  Let me just say that if Wade Watts was living in 2012, and was in his early 40s at that time, he would be Benjamin Benjamin.  They both have the same dry humor, accidental hipster posture, and self deprecating manner that make them characters to root for.

I listened to Fundamentals on audio book, and it was read by Jeff Woodman.  I would listen to him read anything.  He had perfect voices for Ben, Trevor, and Dot, especially.  There were times when Ben's daughter, Piper, began to sound like Dot, but I think that may have been deliberate.

I first heard of Fundamentals when I read about it at River City Reading.  Thanks, Shannon!  I am sure to talk about it lots more in the months to come, and I plan to pick it for The Typical Book Group when we meet at my house.

So, without further adieu, Go. Get. It. And. Read.  God that feels good!  I haven't gotten to say that since January when I read (and loved) Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I'm adding Fundamentals to my list of Favorites, and giving it 5 stars on GoodReads.

Next Up on CD:  The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve

Still Reading:  The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Story of the Son

The Testament of Mary
is Colm Toibin's take on what Mary, mother of Jesus, would have written if she had the opportunity to write her own version of what happened when her son died.  Although Mary is said to be illiterate, Toibin's story is  in her voice, telling the truth as she knows it, as opposed to what Jesus' disciples would have wanted her to say.  In fact, throughout the story, some of Jesus' followers are asking her for her story, and claiming to write down what she says.  Mary doubts that they are really writing her words when they refuse to read her what they have written.  As time goes on, they worry less about offending her, and simply tell her that she is remembering wrong, but that they'll write the story as it "really" happened.

As Jesus is raising Lazarus from the dead and turning water in to wine, Mary doesn't doubt what her son is able to do, but she wishes that he would stop.  Like the worried mother that she is, she doesn't want her son to draw attention to himself. She is convinced that if she could just get him to come home and stay there for a while away from his friends, maybe the authorities would forget about him.  Like a typical son, Jesus is having none of that, even if he knows that his mother is right.

While I don't purport to be a Biblical scholar, even I can recognize that there are significant differences between the story of Jesus's life as we have learned it, and the story that Mary tells.  My major objection to the Bible is that although much of it has remained the same for hundreds of years, there is no denying that it has been edited, and entire books have been omitted or deleted.  There are many current versions, all calling themselves "The Bible", but using different words to say the similar things.  People who believe that the Bible is literally true are putting their faith in these editors, without knowing who they are or what motives they may be pursuing.  In Toibin's story, even the very first written version of Mary's testament has been shaped to fit the disciples' objectives.

At only 81 pages, The Testament of Mary  is testament sized.  It is a very fast read, and very well written.  It is believable that this could have been another book of the Bible.  I'm pretty sure that once again, I will treat historical fiction as fact, and will always remember the story of the crucifixion through the mother's eyes.

The Testament of Mary was a NYT Notable Book for 2012, and is currently on the Man Booker Longlist.  The Shortlist will be announced on September 10, and I would not be surprised to see Testament move up.

Next Up:  The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

Still Listening To:  The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Patrick at 45

In At Last by Edward St. Aubyn, we reunite with Patrick Melrose once again, this time for the occasion of his mother's funeral.  Very few of the characters from the earlier novels are included in this book, as most of Patrick's parents friends, who played important roles, especially in Never Mind and Some Hope, have died.  Patrick is joined by his old friend, Johnny, some of his mother's relatives, his wife, and his kids, among others.

Patrick is shocked by the feelings that Eleanor's death brings to him.  He seems to better remember some of his father's misdeeds and crimes, while oscillating between seeing his mother as a childlike victim, and blaming her for selfishly abandoning her role of mother.  Most of At Last is Patrick's struggle to understand what exactly it is that he feels about Eleanor's death, and whether it has given him the freedom that he thought that it would.

My favorite quote from At Last is when Patrick is explaining something that an old friend of his mother's said to him.  He says "Her experience of Eleanor was so different from mine, it made me realize that I'm not in charge of the meaning of my mother's life . . . "  Patrick meant that it is not up to him to judge Eleanor's worth or define her legacy, through his jaded eyes.  It's interesting, because while Eleanor was very much a vacant, if not absent parent, that same quote could apply now to all of the "helicopter" moms who are working to define their existence through their child's accomplishments.  The pressure that they (we?) are putting on their (our?) children to succeed and vicariously make us great must be overwhelming.  Your child is not in charge of the meaning of your life. 

At Last is probably my favorite Patrick Melrose book, with Some Hope running a close second.  I think that it is St. Aubyn's intention that this book will be the last in the serise.  I'm not sure that he'll be able to stop writing though, and I hope that it is not.  At Last was also a critic's favorite, being included on the NYT Notables list for 2012.

ON THE OTHER HAND. . . I gave up on The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine.  I got about 110 pages in (although I was listening on audio book), and I just couldn't take any more whining.  Apparently, men were going to rescue the two daughters, but I really couldn't have cared less.   What a surprise that I didn't like it! (sarcasm)  I should have never picked it up when (1) it is blurbed by Elizabeth Stout, whose books I never seem to like, and (2) it boasts on the book jacket that it is "a loose jointed homage to Jane Austen's beloved Sense and Sensibility".   We all know how well I get along with Jane Austen. However, it was a NYT Notable for 2010, so I may have given it a chance anyway.

 Instead, I picked up The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison.  I am so glad that I made the change, as I am LOVING Fundamentals.  There will be more on this one soon!

Both At Last and The Three Weissmanns of Westport were part of the Off the Shelf Challenge, which brings me to 17 books done.

Next up:  The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Grass Might not be Greener

So, if you had to lose your only child, would it be better if "lose" was a euphemism, or if you actually lost your child?  That question is central to The Lemon Orchard by Luanne Rice.  In The Lemon Orchard, Julia moves to Malibu to house sit for her aunt and uncle who own a lemon orchard.  Julia's life has been in turmoil since her daughter and husband died in a car crash 5 years earlier, and she is ready for a change.  In the orchard, Julia meets Roberto, who was separated from his daughter in the desert when he was trying to illegally cross into the US from Mexico.

Although Julia has to live every day knowing that her daughter has died, she doesn't envy Roberto's uncertainty.  Anything could have happened to his daughter, Rosa.  She could have been abducted by a sex trafficker, she could have been eaten by coyotes, or she could have made it safely to the US, but not known how to find Roberto.  Julia is very sympathetic to the plight of illegal immigrants, and wants to help Roberto find out what happened.

The Lemon Orchard was a page turner, and a great summer book.  I hadn't read anything about Mexican immigrants before, and I enjoyed this introduction.  I would think that anyone who liked Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah would like this book as well. 

I read The Lemon Orchard at the request of Lindsay Prevette of Viking/Penguin books.  No promises were made, no payments were received.  One odd coincidence was that there was a character in this book named "Lion", and a character with the same name in the last book that I reviewed on request, My Education by Susan Choi.  According to the Social Security Baby Name Index, Lion has not made their list of the top 1000 baby names any time in the last 100 years, so it's sort of strange that I've read two books with characters by that name in the last two months.  I'm not sure what book I will read as my "industry requested review" in September, but if there is another Lion, I'll take that as a sign.  Of what, I have no idea.

Next Up:  At Last by Edward St. Aubyn

Still Listening to:  The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schein.  I'm not sure I'm going to make it through this one - hopefully it will improve quickly!

Monday, August 12, 2013

The War Part One

The five main families in Fall of Giants by Ken Follett all approach the World War I from different perspectives.  The Williams family from Wales is forced to confront the reality of war when the son, Billy, is drafted.  Billy's sister, Ethel, finds the war to be an unexpected opportunity to fight for voting rights for women.  The Fitzherberts are a wealthy English family, except that the patriarch is married to a Russian princess.  Earl Fitzherbert is immediately named an officer in the British army, not because of his military expertise, but because of his social rank.  His sister, Maud, also works for the rights of women, and obviously befriends Ethel.  The VonUlrichs are a German family of diplomats, who spend a great deal of time in England prior to the war, but fight for Germany when the war is inevitable.  The Peshkovs are Russian brothers who raised each other after their parents were killed by the Czar's regime, and ultimately find themselves on opposite sides.  Finally, the Dewars are a wealthy American family, with a son working for President Wilson.  In Follett's style, the five families are intertwined in some predictable and in some surprising ways. 

World War I is the backdrop for this story.  As told by these characters, the war was completely avoidable, and seemed to have more to do with rulers being bored and greedy than with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.  The war ultimately showed flaws in the reasoning and strategies of each of the countries involved. 

By the end of the Great War, it is clear that another war is destined to be, due to the sanctions imposed on the losers.  The sanctions, coupled with general civil unrest in Germany and Russia, created a toxic atmosphere, which we all know eventually exploded into World War II.

By the end of the book, it is equally clear that a sequel is destined.  The Williams, Fitzherbert, VonUlrichs, and Peshkovs all have children, who will be just about the right age to fight in World War II.  The Dewar son is a newlywed, and children are surely not far away for that family either.  Although I'm not ready to start it yet, I will add Winter of the World, the second book in the trilogy, to my TBR list.

My favorite characters in Fall of Giants were the Williams family.  I started off really liking the Fitzherberts too, but there were plenty of reasons to like them less by the end of the story.  In some of Follett's earlier books, there have been characters who were just pure evil.  In this one, there is a police officer who is a clearly a bad guy, but he didn't quite rise to the level of evil in World Without End or Pillars of the Earth.  I'm sort of thinking that they may get worse with age, and that by Winter of the World they will really be people to avoid.

I listened to Fall of Giants for the first 2/3 of the book, and then listened and read the last 1/3.  I found that I could read an hours worth of story in about 40 minutes.  John Lee was the audiobook reader, and he did a great job.  He had a distinct voice for each character, with a believable accent, which must have been difficult given all of the nationalities involved.  The book was 985 pages, and the audiobook was 24 hours, so this was clearly a BFB.  I will have more to say about this one when The Typical Book Group gets together to discuss it. 

Next up:  The Lemon Orchard by Luanne Rice

Next up on CD:  The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Patrick in his 40s

In Mother's Milk by Edward St. Aubyn, we rejoin Patrick Melrose several years after the party in Some Hope.  Patrick is now married, and has two children.  The story starts as his older son, Robert, narrates the birth of Patrick's younger son, Thomas.  Patrick and his wife, Mary, want to be sure that their children don't have the same damaged childhood that they had.  Mary's dedication to Thomas in particular drives an enormous wedge between her and Patrick, leaving Patrick feeling like a twice deserted child.

I had expected Mother's Milk to be the story of Patrick's reunion with his mother, Eleanor, and in a way, it was.  When we meet up with Eleanor, she is so feeble that even Patrick can't bring himself to unleash his anger at her.  Eleanor has dedicated her intervening years to philanthropy, which in her case meant allowing a charlatan to take her money and her house in the south of France for a questionable foundation.  Once again, she has left Patrick behind, even as she finds herself depending on him.

Patrick's children are incredibly precocious, and I wouldn't even believe that children like he describes could exist if I didn't know one myself.  My niece, Jane, who is about to turn five would fit right in with the Melrose children.  Toward the end of the book, Thomas, who is three at the time, says "Unfortunately . . .Beatrix Potter died a long time ago."  This is exactly the type of thing that my niece knew and would inform adults of when she was three.  He then goes on to tell a story that includes the sentence "And the ground opened up and California fell into the sea, which was not very convenient, as you can imagine."  I can just see Jane telling that story!  Thankfully she is being raised by more balanced parents than Patrick and Mary.

Mother's Milk is the fourth in St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose series, and it completes the collection, The Patrick Melrose Novels.   I have spent my summer reading the earlier novels, Never Mind, Bad News and Some Hope, in between my book group assignments and industry requested reviews.   While I was reading them, I came across this great review by Rachel Cooke. It talks a lot about St. Aubyn, and his relation to the Patrick Melrose character.  One thing that I missed about the earlier novels while reading Mother's Milk was that few of the old characters were revisited.  Patrick's close friend, Johnny is back, but hardly anyone else reappears.  Julia is said to be one of Patrick's former girlfriends, but I don't remember reading about her in the earlier stories, and can't search for her name since I'm reading on paper.

The critics seem to have liked Mother's Milk much more than St. Aubyn's earlier novels.  It was short listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2006, and was a NYT Notable book for 2005.  The collection, The Patrick Melrose Novels is a Big Fat Book, with 680 pages, and is also the last book that I needed to complete The Off the Shelf Challenge.  I think that I under promised for that challenge by a little too much, seeing as it is only August.  I will up my goal to 20 books this year, and hope that I will still be able to over deliver.

Next up:  Next I'm going to read Fall of Giants by Ken Follett.  I have been listening to it on CD for about three weeks now, and will get through it faster if I can also read a few pages at night.
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