BOOK REVIEW | The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
Enid, long-time matriarch of the Lambert family, sets her heart on an elusive goal: bringing her family together for one last Christmas at home.
Published to universal acclaim, Jonathan Franzen’s novel about a post-modern family breaking down in late-twentieth-century America is a comic, tragic masterpiece. Richly realistic, darkly hilarious, and deeply human, The Corrections has been a fixture on bestseller lists since its debut and was one of the most talked-about books of the year.

My thoughts:
Finally, after way too long, I have read Franzen. Yes, this was my first. I’m not sure what my expectations were going into this book, but I must say I really liked it. I think I was prepared to hate it purely based on Franzen’s reputation for being, you know, a pretentious asshole. I love confident, bold writers, but cannot stand it if there is no merit behind the big personality. Thankfully, I was able to connect with it and understand his appeal.

This is the story of a family, the Lamberts. Enid and Alfred, the matriarch and patriarch, are living together in a way that many couples live together after a lifetime – as roommates. Enid longs for Alfred’s touch and attention, while Alfred grows increasingly irritable and senile. Alfred has always been moody and distant with his family, while Enid fantasizes about romance and the ideal family. Enid wants, more than anything, to have one more Christmas celebration in their hometown of St. Jude. This means attempting to rally her three children, Gary, Chip, and Denise, together for the event. This sort of sounds like the setup for a fun holiday movie, but I can assure you that is not what this is.

I’m finding this review difficult to write – there’s a lot going on with this book, but there’s also not a lot going on – which I realize makes no sense. There’s action and advancement of the story line, but this is heavily character driven. Franzen shines with his characters. He has created a cast of flawed people with messy lives that many will hate, but I found myself relating to each member of this family for different reasons. Enid’s desire for love and family, Alfred’s internal space and need for privacy, Gary’s depression and the pressures of family life and responsibility, Denise’s search for identity, and Chip’s hunt for success. Some of the moments that hit me the hardest in this book are so quiet and unassuming that they can easily be missed. For example, a family meal that no one is enjoying only to be topped off with a desert of pineapple, igniting Alfred to become angry with Enid. It’s not a loud moment, but it also is. If that makes sense.

There’s a lot of unpack with this book, and a lot more going on than I will touch on here: economic crisis, sexuality, depression and mental illness, elder care, and so much more. Readers who enjoy beefy books that call for analysis will likely be at home with the Corrections.

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BOOK REVIEW | Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is the long-awaited new novel– a book that sold more than a million copies the first week it went on sale in Japan–from the award-winning, internationally best-selling author Haruki Murakami.

Here he gives us the remarkable story of Tsukuru Tazaki, a young man haunted by a great loss; of dreams and nightmares that have unintended consequences for the world around us; and of a journey into the past that is necessary to mend the present. It is a story of love, friendship, and heartbreak for the ages.

My thoughts:
I have no sense of self. I have no personality, no brilliant color. That’s always been my problem. I feel like an empty vessel. I have a shape, I guess, as a container, but there’s nothing inside. 

Haruki Murakami broke my heart with his gorgeous story of Tsukuru Tazaki and his search for what it all means. In his high school days, Tsukuru was a part of a special friendship; a group of five that were truly inseparable. Four of his friends share a unique bond – their last names all represent a color: Aka is red, Ao is blue, Shiro is white, and Kuro is black. Tsukuru, however, feels colorless as his name simply translates as “the builder”.

In his college years, without warning, his four friends reveal that they will no longer speak to him leaving Tsukuru ostracized and alone. Tsukuru has no idea why this occurred, but is convinced that his flaws are what led to this  abandonment. Though painfully suicidal, Tsukuru manages to graduate from college and build a successful career. Tsukuru eventually meets a woman named Sara, and with her encouragement realizes he must face his past and release his pain so that he can move into his future. On the cusp of a great romance, Tsukuru journeys to reconnect with his old friends and put to rest this difficult part of his life. His reunions open old wounds, but also pave the way for new discoveries.

I went into this book knowing little about the plot, and it turned out I was in the perfect mindset for something like this. Murakami examines many complexities of modern life with writing that is clean and straight forward; his insights aren’t muddied by overly colorful prose. The language is clear and direct, and it’s not nessecary to dig into the text for meaning: it’s all laid bare. Many Murakami fans suggest reading this work later, not as your introduction to his writing. I absolutely adored this book, though, and am now excited to dive into the magical realism that he is known for.

BOOK REVIEW | Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
Anna was a good wife, mostly.

Anna Benz, an American in her late thirties, lives with her Swiss husband, Bruno—a banker—and their three young children in a postcard-perfect suburb of Zürich. Though she leads a comfortable, well-appointed life, Anna is falling apart inside. Adrift and increasingly unable to connect with the emotionally unavailable Bruno or even with her own thoughts and feelings, Anna tries to rouse herself with new experiences: German language classes, Jungian analysis, and a series of sexual affairs she enters with an ease that surprises even her.

But Anna can’t easily extract herself from these affairs. When she wants to end them, she finds it’s difficult. Tensions escalate, and her lies start to spin out of control. Having crossed a moral threshold, Anna will discover where a woman goes when there is no going back.

My thoughts:
The problem wasn’t that her bucket was empty, the problem was that it was full. So full it overbrimmed. So full and so heavy. Anna wasn’t strong enough to carry it.

Hausfrau really blew me away. I went into it knowing the basics: a modern day Anna Karenina or Madam Bovary about a woman who is dissatisfied in her marriage and has affairs to pass the boredom. I thought it would be a quick read without much depth. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Oh the surface, Jill Alexander Essbaum’s debut novel comes off as a typical story about a stay at home mom. Anna Benz has a beautiful life – a husband who provides for her and her 3 children, a nice home, nice clothes, and anything else she needs. Anna, however, is unhappy. She goes to therapy and undergoes much Jungian analysis to get to the root of her apathy, and her therapist often tells her “a bored woman is a dangerous woman”. While I disliked this phrasing, it proved true for Anna.

Anna has many, explicitly detailed, affairs throughout the story. We quickly learn that this is her drug of choice and coping mechanism, and it become clear she has lost control. In a heartbreaking affair scene, Anna internally cries out for her husband, whose attention she wants more than anything. All of this leads to startling revelations and a truly tragic turn of events.

Pain is the proof of life. That’s it’s purpose.

This book will not satisfy everyone’s taste, and I can see many readers being infuriated with Anna’s carelessness. I certainly felt this way for the first third of the book. However, there is a shift, and as I started to realize how far gone Anna was, I was able to find a place of empathy. Anna makes terrible decisions that result in terrible consequences, and I feel incredibly uneasy with how certain elements came to a close. However, this book ignited many strong opinions and gave me a lot to think about, and that is always a win for me.

BOOK REVIEW | LaRose by Louise Erdrich

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
North Dakota, late summer, 1999. Landreaux Iron stalks a deer along the edge of the property bordering his own. He shoots with easy confidence—but when the buck springs away, Landreaux realizes he’s hit something else, a blur he saw as he squeezed the trigger. When he staggers closer, he realizes he has killed his neighbor’s five-year-old son, Dusty Ravich.

The youngest child of his friend and neighbor, Peter Ravich, Dusty was best friends with Landreaux’s five-year-old son, LaRose. The two families have always been close, sharing food, clothing, and rides into town; their children played together despite going to different schools; and Landreaux’s wife, Emmaline, is half sister to Dusty’s mother, Nola. Horrified at what he’s done, the recovered alcoholic turns to an Ojibwe tribe tradition—the sweat lodge—for guidance, and finds a way forward. Following an ancient means of retribution, he and Emmaline will give LaRose to the grieving Peter and Nola. “Our son will be your son now,” they tell them.

LaRose is quickly absorbed into his new family. Plagued by thoughts of suicide, Nola dotes on him, keeping her darkness at bay. His fierce, rebellious new “sister,” Maggie, welcomes him as a co conspirator who can ease her volatile mother’s terrifying moods. Gradually he’s allowed shared visits with his birth family, whose sorrow mirrors the Raviches’ own. As the years pass, LaRose becomes the linchpin linking the Irons and the Raviches, and eventually their mutual pain begins to heal.

But when a vengeful man with a long-standing grudge against Landreaux begins raising trouble, hurling accusations of a cover-up the day Dusty died, he threatens the tenuous peace that has kept these two fragile families whole.

My thoughts:
Let me start by saying that Louise Erdrich’s writing is beautiful; she is incredibly skilled and I absolutely love her style. I thought I was going to love LaRose, but it was just OK for me.

This is, more or less, the story of two families grieving the loss of their sons. During a routine hunt, Landreaux tragically kills Dusty, his neighbor’s son, and not the buck he was after. According to an old tradition, Landreaux and his wife Emmaline must give their son, LaRose, to their neighbors as retribution.

Our son will be your son now.

My oldest son turns five tomorrow, and it’s hard for me to imagine how a child this age would comprehend being sent to live with another family. From a mother’s point of view, I was interested in Nola’s struggle – she has lost her son, but in turn gained another. She is confused and suicidal as she walks though such an uncertain path, all the while doting on LaRose.

I enjoyed exploring the history of the LaRose name and the insights into Landreaux’s past, but found the book a bit of a slog to get through. I wanted to know Dusty more – I felt his loss through the character’s pain, but couldn’t process it personally since we never get to know him. This is such a great idea for a story, but I wanted more from LaRose’s point of view, and would have loved to go deeper into everyone’s pain.

BOOK REVIEW | White Noise by Don DeLillo

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
Jack Gladney teaches Hitler Studies at a liberal arts college in Middle America where his colleagues include New York expatriates who want to immerse themselves in “American magic and dread.” Jack and his fourth wife, Babette, bound by their love, fear of death, and four ultramodern offspring, navigate the usual rocky passage of family life to the background babble of brand-name consumerism.

Then a lethal black chemical cloud floats over their lives, an “airborne toxic event” unleashed by an industrial accident. The menacing cloud is a more urgent and visible version of the “white noise” engulfing the Gladney family—radio transmissions, sirens, microwaves, ultrasonic appliances, and TV murmurings—pulsing with life, yet suggesting something ominous.

My thoughts:
I can’t recall the last time that I was deeply affected by a book; shaken to the core, forced to analyze my beliefs, and profoundly changed on the other end of reading it. I just put White Noise down, and am wondering how I’ll be able to read anything else going forward. I haven’t had time to process all of my thoughts coherently, and am not sure I ever will, but I know that I didn’t want this book to end. There are so many layers to this book that I could talk about, but it’s most overt commentary – an incapacitating fear of death – hit me at the right time.

Everything we need that is not food or love is here in the tabloid racks. The tales of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. The miracle vitamins, the cures for cancer, the remedies for obesity. The cults of the famous and the dead.

There is nothing dated about this work from 1985; the underlying themes feel relevant in our modern world, overrun by technology. This story is told from the perspective of Jack Gladney, patriarch to a blended family and teacher of Hitler Studies, but is very much about all of the members of his family. His kids are unique and represent many viewpoints, and his wife, Babette, provides powerful insight into the feeling of nothingness experienced by so many. These characters busy themselves with the white noise of life and are so consumed with the fear of death, that they ultimately fail to live meaningfully while they have the chance.

How strange it is. We have these deep terrible lingering fears about ourselves and the people we love. Yet we walk around, talk to people, eat and drink. We manage to function. The feelings are deep and real. Shouldn’t they paralyze us? How is it we can survive them, at least for a little while?

Yes, this book is nihilistic. It’s over the top and fantastical, yet somehow completely realistic. While I don’t fear death in such an extreme way as these characters, I do fear it for my loved ones. I can barely handle the thought that my kids are mortal beings, and at times it overwhelms me. Yet, I manage to function, because that’s what people do.

Isn’t death the boundary we need? Doesn’t it give precious texture to life, a sense of definition? You have to ask yourself whether anything you do in this life would have beauty and meaning without the knowledge you carry a final line, a border or limit. 

 

BOOK REVIEW | I’m Traveling Alone by Samuel Bjork

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
A six-year-old girl is found in the Norwegian countryside, hanging lifeless from a tree with a jump rope around her neck. She is dressed in strange doll’s clothes. Around her neck is an airline tag that says “I’m traveling alone.”

A special homicide unit in Oslo re-opens with veteran police investigator Holger Munch at the helm. Holger’s first step is to persuade the brilliant but haunted investigator Mia Krüger to come back to the squad–she’s been living on an isolated island, overcome by memories of her past. When Mia views a photograph of the crime scene and spots the number “1” carved into the dead girl’s fingernail, she knows this is only the beginning. She’ll soon discover that six years earlier, an infant girl was abducted from a nearby maternity ward. The baby was never found. Could this new killer have something to do with the missing child, or with the reclusive Christian sect hidden in the nearby woods?

Mia returns to duty to track down a revenge-driven and ruthlessly intelligent killer. But when Munch’s own six-year-old granddaughter goes missing, Mia realizes that the killer’s sinister game is personal, and I’m Traveling Alone races to an explosive–and shocking–conclusion.

My thoughts:
I’m happy to report that my first read of 2017 was a good one – a really good one. Samuel Bjork is a Norweigan author, and his North American debut I’m Traveling Alone pulled me right in.

After a disturbing crime is committed, detective Holger Munch is leading the case on a new homicide unit. It doesn’t take long for him to realize that he needs his old partner, Mia Kruger, to help him piece this together. Mia, extremely depressed and haunted by the tragic death of her twin sister, has isolated herself on an island, intent on suicide. When Holger shows up unannounced, she is less than pleased – she had a plan and he’s messing with it. Known for her brilliant mind, Mia can’t keep herself from hypothesizing about the details of the crime and before long the wheels are in motion and she is heading back to the police force with Holger – for one final case.

This book is intricately plotted with well-drawn characters that the reader can become invested in. I can’t wait to read about Holger and Mia again – they make for an awesome team and I really enjoyed that there was zero romantic involvement between the two. Just two strong, though flawed, characters working together to beat the clock and get the job done. There were no major twists or turns, rather a layered work that slowly unfolded to reveal the each piece of the puzzle. Bjork kept the tension high and I flew through this one pretty quickly!

There was a little to be desired at the end – I wasn’t totally thrilled with how the last two chapters played out. That said, I absolutely loved this book and can’t wait for the follow up! The second installment in the Holger Munch and Mia Kruger series, The Owl Always Hunts at Night,  is set for North American release in June 2017.

BOOK REVIEW | Hollow Heart by Viola Di Grado

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3.5/5 stars

From the publisher:
In this courageous, inventive, and intelligent novel, Viola di Grado tells the story of a suicide and what follows. She has given voice to an astonishing vision of life after life, portraying the awful longing and sense of loss that plague the dead, together with the solitude provoked by the impossibility of communicating. The afterlife itself is seen as a dark, seething place where one is preyed upon by the cruel and unrelenting elements. Hollow Heart will frighten as it provokes, enlighten as it causes concern. If ever there were a novel that follows Kafka’s prescription for a book to be a frozen axe for the sea within us, it is Hollow Heart.

My thoughts:
Di Grado’s imaginative second novel, Hollow Heart, opens with a punch to the gut:

In 2011 the world ended: I killed myself.

It’s immediately evident that this is not going to be your average ghost story. Our narrator, Dorotea, navigates the living world from the perspective of the afterworld. She visits people and places she knew while living, all the while returning daily to her corpse to fascinate in its decomposition. As a side note – this a book not for the faint of heart – graphic depictions of the decomposition of a human body are present throughout. I, of course, reveled in its casual discussion of gore.

For a book about death, this is surprisingly refreshing. It’s creative and introspective, and reads almost autobiographically. Dorotea has experiences and thoughts that will be relatable to many women in their 20’s (such as an obsession with skinny bodies). We learn that Dorotea’s mother suffered from depression, that her father was not present in her life, and that suicide is no stranger to her family; Dorotea works through her struggles from the other side, and does a bit of haunting while she’s at it.

Dorotea discusses the suicide attempt of Sinéad O’Connor, and untimely deaths of other celebrities such as Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse, with a fascination that was both fun to read but occasionally jarring. I’d be wrapped up in some lovely prose or dialogue, when suddenly there would be 2 pages or so on a celebrity’s death.

Sinéad had tried to kill herself but hadn’t succeeded. I had. Between her and me, who had won, and who had lost?

This book was not perfect for me – it felt repetitive at times (and this is a very short book), and dragged a little in the middle. The first and final seconds are beautifully written, however, and I was fascinated with Dorothea’s growth in the afterlife. A unique read that will resonate with those who are living with depression.